Anyone who eats out a lot knows there are good orderers, and there are bad orderers. My father, for example: notorious bad orderer. So cavalier is he to the constraints of a traditional menu, he will disregard the document entirely and go off-script.
"Now listen, this is what I want," he'll say to the hapless waiter. "Have you got any fresh tomato in the kitchen? I want sliced tomato, on a plate, with some torn basil, maybe a drizzle of olive oil – can you do that?"
Illustration by Greedy Hen.Credit:The Jacky Winter Group
"Sir, this is a Chinese restaurant…"
A friend of mine, let's call her Jen, is almost masochistically attracted to the weirdest item on the menu. When you eat with Jen, you're faced with inevitable disappointment. Who knew not to order Patagonian toothfish ceviche at a landlocked country Victorian pub?
"But I guess your parma was pretty good," Jen will say to the waiter.
I like to think I'm a good orderer, mostly because I do a lot of it. From travelling across town for the perfect stone bowl of Korean bibimbap, to hunting the most authentic Williamsburg-style slice, my quest for a good meal is an obsession, a hobby, a sport.
On any given week, I might get half a dozen text messages from friends and randoms asking where to eat. The more specific the request, the more accurate my recommendation. "We need somewhere to go after netball at 9.30pm in Lower Templestowe on Tuesday with Nanny and Poppy and the dogs." Bingo, I'll tell you about that Assam laksa joint that was written up in Munchies six years ago with the best curry puffs. Don't order the Singapore noodles. My brain is like a Rain Man Rolodex of special dishes and peculiar opening hours, revolving chefs and recent renovations.
I might be a great person to ask where to eat, but I'm beginning to suspect I might not be the best person to eat with. The other night I arrived with a party of five at a dumpling house humourlessly slinging baskets of soupy xiao long bao. I was appalled to be ushered towards a wonky table in the front window overlooking a neon-lit arcade. "Can we please get a booth downstairs?" I asked with a dead-eyed stare. "Don't hold out on me, I know there's a better table down there."
We moved downstairs.
With so many delicious dining options available, why suffer through an ordinary feed? On a business lunch at an upmarket Malaysian-Indonesian-Australian fusion hotspot, I saw my dining companions glaze over at the lengthy document. It was one of those places where the staff explain the menu is designed to share, as if this is a bold and complicated new concept. Yet the share plate has become so ubiquitous, it's probably more daring to tell your table they can't share.
"Does anyone mind if I order?" I asked.
It would have been folly to disagree, as like my father before me, I veered off the map and ordered the secret off-menu Vegemite-spiked roti bread. Next, spherical buns filled with slow-cooked wagyu beef rendang with fermented sambal sauce, and glossy Manjimup marron shells with belacan butter and Vietnamese mint and finally, a tangle of al dente egg noodles with fiery shards of chicken crackling and pops of pepperberry.
As the dishes hit the table, I scanned the room like a sniper, looking at what was emerging from the open kitchen, monitoring how the eccentrically delicious dishes were being received by my party. It was as if I had made those bloody rendang buns myself.
The problem with being a restaurant control freak is that there's a very real sense of responsibility as a result. What if your mates don't like that $52 plate of Spanish mackerel with wasabi broth you so vehemently recommended? What if your aunt hates the ambient Motorhead soundtrack at that pét-nat-concept wine bar? Not to mention we're living in an age of the food allergy: vegan, gluten-free FODMAP fiends complicating things for everyone.
A few weeks ago, I was introducing my father to my new partner over a supposedly casual dinner. I stressed over the location, scouring Google Maps, scrolling through food blogs, clicking through menus, until I found just the right place. It was a chic but not pretentious pasta bar overlooking Melbourne's Supreme Court.
"Are you ready to order?" the waiter asked. I looked at Dad and motioned to the menu.
"Now look," he said. "Do you have any fresh tomato?"
"Yes sir, we certainly do."
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