Matt Preston: Demystifies restaurant specials
Baffled by the so-called specials recited tableside at restaurants? Are they one-off wonders or cobbled-together mishaps from the menu? Read on.
RESTAURANT specials are a thing of great debate, and no little derision. Over the years, the concept has been undermined by places selling things that aren’t all that special as ‘specials’.
So how do we know whether to order a restaurant’s specials when we eat out? I’ve got 10 top tips for picking specials that are truly, er, special. It’s by no means a definitive or foolproof list, but it should help.
1. IF THERE’S JUST ONE SPECIAL ON OFFER
A special should be special. It should be the best thing on the menu.The very word ‘special’ implies that it’s better than the rest of the dishes on offer.That’s why I don’t mind it if a restaurant has no specials or only offers them occasionally. This implies that when a special is offered it might actually be special.
2. IF IT’S SEASONAL – AND EVEN BETTER IF IT’S LOCAL TOO
Ideally, at this time of year I want the waiter to tell me that today’s special features the first of the new season’s chestnuts, rhubarb, olive oil or Jerusalem artichokes – although maybe not together in the same dish. Even better if the special features “the last of the persimmons from chef’s tree”, the fresh salsicce from their recent salami day or a mushroom risotto using “wild fungi we foraged from the local forest and paddocks”. Order away.
3. IF IT’S UNIQUE
Definitely contemplate the special if it has a unique ingredient as the hero or it’s a dish you wouldn’t normally get to try anywhere else. I remember once watching a chef buy the only two boxes of fresh pistachios to ensure no one else could put them on their menu, even though he only needed a quarter of that amount. Sure, he found a use for them but it showed a genuine desire to make that night’s special truly special.
4. IF IT’S LIMITED
When waiters recite a special followed by the words “but we’ve only got one serving left” (and with the price being revealed obviously) I usually grab it immediately because I’m not only a sheep, but a sheep with an abiding fear of suffering dish envy. I would just die if the table next door snagged it and it came out looking and smelling amazing.
5. IF IT’S TOTALLY CAMP IN ITS TIMELINESS
The chicken shop selling that ‘Christmas in a bun’ with a turkey burger, cranberry sauce, roast potato bits and gravy. Less so if it’s a Christmas pudding and brandy butter McFlurry but I’d be tempted if it came in a commemorative cup with a cartoon DJ-ing Disney reindeer on it. Maybe.
6. IF IT SEEMS TOTALLY RANDOM
You’re in a country pub with the most conservative meat-n-three-veg menu but there’s a rogan josh on as the special. It’s odds on that chef in the kitchen is from Kashmir, and if he is Indian,then order that special.The pride and care he will have taken in this dish will usually make it truly special. The same goes for those empanadas or the pastel de choclo in that instant-coffee, pie and cheesetoastie café with the cheap tubular metal furniture deep in the suburbs, but only when the chef or owner is wearing a Chilean soccer top and has pictures of La Roja, Alexis Sanchez and Carlos Caszely behind the bar.
7. IF IT’S A POLITICAL STATEMENT YOU AGREE WITH
Hate the French and their secret service shenanigans? Then order those special freedom fries. Upset by the vicious attacks on burger chains by the likes of Morgan ‘Super Size Me’ Spurlock Eric ‘Fast Food Nation’ Schlosser and a whole pitchfork-wielding posse of food bloggers in stretchy gym gear (or ethically sourced Mongolian yak-herder pants)? Then buy those uber-decadent quad-stacked burger specials – even if they’re irresponsibly fattening and contain enough calories to feed a medium-sized refugee camp.
8. WHEN IT’S A COLLAB
Every hype-beast knows that there is
nothing cooler than a collab ATM (here ATM stands for ‘at the moment’ and not ‘automatic teller machine’ even if these collabs are a licence to print money) whether it’s Adidas with Yohji Yamamoto or A Bathing Ape, or Louis Vuitton with Supreme. So if today’s special is a collaboration of a dish between the restaurant and a top guest chef then that truly is a special to take seriously.
9. WHEN IT’S A FRESH SPECIAL
Specials that you see being written freshly on a blackboard should always be contemplated.The words “we just got in a box of…” or “Mrs Jenkins from the bank let us pick her mulberry tree today” also help to get me over the line. Extreme locality and limited availability make these even more attractive.
10. IF YOU TRUST THE WAITER OR THE CHEF
One of the great benefits of being a regular is knowing when you can trust the chef or your favourite waiter. So if she tells you that you need to try the special, do it! Step away from the ‘specials’ printed on laminated cards – head to delicious.com.au for Matt’s eight red flags for specials you should never order.