When dining out or ordering in, I rarely order the same dish every time. There’s a whole menu to enjoy, and I consider myself a flavour explorer. But, when trying a new establishment, I’ll often get something I’ve had many times, at other, similar establishments. I call these “benchmark dishes,” and they’re very important.
My benchmark dishes are usually iconic dishes that represent their genre, and can give me a bit of insight into the restaurant or bar’s philosophy and style. For example, there are a lot of fancy doughnut places here in Portland and — even if they’re famous for their maple bacon bar or hibiscus glazed — my first order will always be a plain raised glazed.
A plain raised glazed doughnut reveals all. You can’t hide a stale doughnut or poor technique with a simple glazed doughnut. With one bite, I can tell if I’m going to vibe with this particular purveyor of doughnuts. This is why I don’t care for a certain expensive doughnut spot that everyone who visits seems to adore — they add cinnamon to their plain glazed, which isn’t needed, and which communicates (to me) that they don’t think their combination of yeasted dough and sugar is “enough.”
Similarly, it’s how I know I love Pinolo Gelateria. Their fior di latte (flower of milk) is even plainer than vanilla — it’s just sweetened dairy — and it absolutely rules. There’s nothing to hide behind with fior di latte, so your technique and recipe have to be perfect.
Other benchmark dishes of mine include Italian sandwiches (no matter what they call them), fried catfish, and martinis. If those come out great, I know I can probably branch out and not be disappointed.
Is it a perfect system? No. One has to be on alert for the odd restaurant/food cart/bar that harbours secret gems. The cocktail bar that makes terrible drinks but has great wings, the pizza place that has great fries, etc. But in most instances, a benchmark dish will tell you what you need to know, allowing you to explore the rest of the menu with confidence.