The Secret to Ordering the Best Thing on the Menu

Knowing how to order off a restaurant menu is a form of literacy, and few people in my life are better at it than my friend Ella Quittner. With her husband, Nate, she has dinner at the Manhattan restaurant I Sodi at least once a month and, in a chaotic move, always orders fries — for dessert. At the end of a long meal — “when I feel I cannot go on,” Ella says — following salad, pasta and whatever meat Nate wants to get, the tall mound of patate fritte floats over to their table like a cloud. The potatoes are hand-cut and shallow-fried with fresh sage leaves and unpeeled garlic cloves, their skins broken just enough to infuse the oil, a “seraphic” conclusion to one of her favorite meals in the city.

Recipe: Citrus-Glazed Turnips

This I Sodi order is an example of how I like to approach restaurants: Live life on the edge of the menu. Take a flier on the oatmeal cream pie at a crab shack, the vegan risotto at a steakhouse, the quesadillas at an underground Champagne bar. Just because a restaurant is known for one thing doesn’t mean you can’t order something else. If it looks good to you, get it. Often you’ll be rewarded for your transgression.

Restaurant meals have always been celebration meals for me, but a celebration doesn’t have to mean a birthday. When I was a graduate student, before big exam days, I would hole up in my apartment subsisting on Frosted Flakes and Cheez-Its, then emerge from the shadows to treat myself to what I called Brain Dinner at my local brick-oven pizzeria, Buca, which has since closed. But I wouldn’t go for a pepperoni pie or even a Hawaiian. My order would be a salmon dish: a gently salted center-cut fillet, roasted until crisp at the edges but pink and tender on the inside. It came with a relish of red onion, olives and capers and a trio of summer vegetables: eggplant, zucchini and squash. The blazing heat of a brick oven, it turned out, meant great pizza but even better salmon and vegetables. You can’t really recreate that kind of flavor at home, what the Koreans might call bulmat, or fire taste.

If there were ever a recipe to make turnips sexy, it would be this citrus-lacquered version.

Sometimes the oddity on a menu might be the chef’s passion project, which is reason enough to order it. Newcomers to the New Orleans favorite Pêche Seafood Grill might not know that the restaurant goes heavy on the vegetables, but you have to know to order them. When I visited the city for a friend’s wedding in January, my eyes gravitated toward the citrus-glazed turnips. They seemed so unassuming, maybe even out of place, on the otherwise flashy menu of raw-bar staples like oysters varying in plumpness and brininess; a nutty, almost creamy royal red Gulf shrimp dish that stains your fingers with a crab roe sauce; and the beloved steak tartare with smoked-oyster aioli on toast, which landed on nearly every table in the dining room. Who knew that the star of my seafood lunch would be a side dish of turnips?

Nicole Cabrera Mills, Pêche’s chef de cuisine and the creator of the dish, told me that she had been trying to make turnips happen for a while — turnip purée, turnip cakes, turnip gratin. All delicious, but people still turned away from them. The “lowly turnip” is hardly anyone’s favorite vegetable, she says. “You’re not talking about mushrooms.” But if there were ever a recipe to make turnips sexy, it would be this citrus-lacquered version, which surprised even Mills and became a sleeper hit for the restaurant.

Cooking seasonally and with local ingredients, Mills was just doing what she always does: buying up the crop from her favorite turnip farmer, Timmy Perilloux, who lives and farms in Montz, La. Because space was limited in her kitchen, she had to process the turnips quickly. It helped, too, that turnip season coincided with citrus season, when satsumas were abundant in New Orleans. Together, they were the perfect combination of tangy-sweet and bitter-mellow. This glaze, a simple reduction of satsuma juice, gochugaru and butter, tempers quick-roasted turnips and gives them a lovely mother-of-pearl sheen, almost an iridescence.

Another reason I’m glad I ordered the turnips: Pêche ran out soon after I left New Orleans. Turnip season in Louisiana usually lasts until April or May, Mills told me, but because of this year’s frost, many farmers lost their crop. Sometimes living life on the edge of the menu means taking chances when they show themselves.

Recipe: Citrus-Glazed Turnips

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