Food: Seven things you’re paying too much for in a restaurant

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 30, 2017.

Capon tells you to splurge, but just know what to avoid if you don’t want to be slogged with a huge markup or inferior produce

Restaurants don’t always specify the cut of meat.

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Most people don’t go out to a fancy meal expecting a bargain. However, that doesn’t mean they want to be ripped off.

Splurge by all means, Bowery Meat Company and Lure Fish Bar chef and co-owner Josh Capon says, but just know what to avoid if you don’t want to be slogged with a huge markup or inferior produce. Here’s a list of things he would never order from a restaurant menu.


Oysters not freshly shucked

Oysters should be shucked when you order them and displayed on ice — cold and juicy. They should also taste like you’re eating the sea. If you get a half-dozen oysters at US$3 (RM12.27) or US$4 a pop and they look a little dry and not exactly plump and sexy, I wouldn’t eat them.

Cheaper oysters aren’t necessarily bad oysters, though. Many raw bars offer a dollar oyster during happy hour to get people in the door, and they’re usually local to the region. Often, the restaurant breaks even when it sells them, but that’s for your benefit. Just make sure they are shucked after you’ve ordered them, and that they look good.


Truffles you can’t see

High quantities of truffle oils and butters aren’t made from the real stuff. Some are even made using chemicals to simulate their distinctive flavours. I won’t reveal names, but I’ve worked in places where they use portobello gills — the bottom of a portobello mushroom — that look like truffle shavings after a drying process.

Truffles are expensive because they’re not easily available. A dish spiked with four to five grammes of white truffle can cost between US$44 and US$175, depending on the restaurant, market supply and the time of the year. I’m not saying they’re not worth it, but if I’m going to pay for them, I want to see them shaved tableside. You should see, smell the truffles — basically, you want to enjoy the show. You don’t want to be told, “Trust me, they’re in there.”


Mediocre steak frites

You get what you pay for when buying a good piece of meat. On something like steak frites, or what’s called the “bar steak”, restaurants don’t always specify the cut of meat. I’ve seen some chain outlets selling steak dinners for US$11.99 with a skewer of shrimp and I don’t know how they do it. It’s not the same meat that I’m serving at the Bowery Meat Company, I’ll tell you that much.

There are different meat tenderisers that cooks use, and certain tools that will pull at the muscles and tendons to make something a lot more tender than it is. To me, a steak isn’t something you eat daily. So if I’m going out for a steak, I’ll go for a prime cut, possibly dry-aged steak that I know I will really enjoy and not a questionable cut.


A US$76 Dover sole

A fish like Dover sole — often sold as Sole Meunière — is a high-ticket item. Since real Dover sole is flown in from Europe, it’s an expensive piece of fish, which means it will be expensive on the menu. For instance, New York’s 21 Club sells it, accompanied by a lemon beurre blanc, for US$76.

It’s a rich, buttery fish. I’m not saying it shouldn’t cost that much. However, I can get you a beautiful locally caught lemon sole for a lot less. If I served a Dover sole and a lemon sole, and covered them in a brown butter sauce, you probably could not even tell the difference.

Dishes ‘for the table’

Let’s say you’re a group of six people out for dinner, and the captain comes over and says, “The scampi is so good. Why don’t we order this for the table?” There’s nothing wrong with saying to him, “You know what? That’s great, but can we do those scampi for five people?” This strategy of ordering less than the size of your group also applies for other things including breads, side dishes, raw bar dishes and steaks, because there’s always someone in the group who won’t eat as much as the others. You’ll save a few bucks, and I promise you there will still be plenty of food to go round.


Mystery maki rolls

At my restaurant Lure, all of the chopped fish in our spicy tuna and yellowtail scallion rolls come from fresh fish delivered to us daily. When cutting a piece of tuna and saving the best parts for sushi and sashimi dishes, there’s a lot of trimmings you can use in maki rolls, so nothing goes to waste.

However, I’ve seen frozen products out there — bags of chopped tuna that you don’t know where it came from, and when it was chopped or frozen. That’s what you don’t want in your spicy tuna maki. Sometimes, the use of spice hides the fish’s questionable flavour. If I have any questions about the freshness of the fish at a place, there’s no way I’m ordering a sushi roll there.


Guilt-ordered wine

When having an expensive dinner at a restaurant, you would probably feel like you need to have an equally pricey wine. It’s perfectly fine not wanting to spend big bucks, say, more than US$75 on a bottle. Tell the sommelier about the sort of wine you’re looking for and your price point. He or she should appreciate your honesty, and treat you with the same respect as somebody buying a US$500 bottle of red. If they don’t, then you’d just learnt something about that restaurant. — Bloomberg