By “going out” I mean a real restaurant, not some Olive Garden or Applebees. Not that I have anything against Applebees, but when I picture myself going through their back door from the dining room to the kitchen, the image that comes to me is a bit like Sam’s Club with a cement floor, florescent lights, and a bank of glass-doored freezers behind a waist-high conveyer belt. As waiters or waitresses come in with their orders, a microwave-chef reaches into the correct freezer for the correct breaded cordon bleu or pasta with alfredo sauce, inserts it first into a microwave, then into a convection oven for crisping before plating it and placing it on the conveyer belt. A few feet up the line it is joined by the little glazed carrots or sautéed spinach in garlic sauce, which, of course appeared out of their own appropriate freezer.
Then there are the salads! The one thing they don’t really have to cook at all comes out (in my imagination) of bags removed from glass-doored refrigerators, and gets deposited into large chilled neoprene bowls—this is family style, after all—and then journeys a few feet up the belt past the squeeze-chef who dispenses the requisite copious amount of Italian dressing, which has been perfectly and uniformly emulsified (stirred, not shaken) by an ingenious infusion of xanthum gum. Or whatever.
I’m not entirely against uniformity in salads, but whose idea was it to make them uniformly bad? Really, a salad shouldn’t be so difficult. My guess is I could teach my dog, Sophie, to make a better salad than the Olive Garden. Just take her to Stop and Shop and let her pick out what to put in it. The end result might turn out a bit heavy on the carrots and cucumbers—but for sure she’d pick out a nice cheese to throw in. (Sophie has great taste in cheese. In fact, left on her own, with no direction, a selection of nice cheeses is about all she’d want in a salad. Though, come to think of it, that doesn’t sound half bad. Why not an entirely cheese salad anyway?) We could even rig up her kong with a seal and pour a little oil and vinegar in there and she’d come up with a dressing that could knock the socks off that xanthum gum stuff.
Hmm. I was planning a helpful hint rather than a rampage.
As I was saying, when you go out to eat, order something you can make at home. That way, if it’s really good, you can start making it at home.
Case in point: for our anniversary last year, my wife and I went out to Al Forno (which can feel a little closer to going broke than going out, especially when there is genuine real food down the street at Apsara’s or the Libery Elm Diner—but, hey, you only live once, right?) As I recall, Kathy ordered some chicken thing, which I’m sure was fine even if I tend to think it’s an error in judgment to order chicken when you go out. I, on the other hand, ordered braised oxtail ravioli—an entirely different order of magnitude as far as judgment errors are concerned. Sure, I enjoyed it. But even if I had adored it, I assure you, I will never make oxtail ravioli myself. I wouldn’t recognize an oxtail in the grocery store if one were staring me in the face.
The real error was I’d forgotten tip #3. The evening, however, was a success thanks to the beet and fennel salad we shared as a starter. I never would have put beet and fennel together, but it was amazing. Roasted beets, thin sliced fennel. Olive oil. A hint of citrus. We ate it all summer and started up again this spring when the beets came in. So here we are a year later and, thanks to our unintentional adherence to tip #3, we’re still eating at Al Forno. Not bad for an $11 salad.