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10 Foods That Rarely Achieve Greatness

By Kelly Dobkin
December 16, 2013

Are some dishes fundamentally flawed? Or is it that some of them are getting senselessly bastardized at most American restaurants, resulting in a slew of mediocre interpretations of something that was once truly great? As 2013 draws to a close, we asked you to tell us which dishes rarely achieve greatness, and below are 10 of your top picks. We've also included suggestions on where to get the best possible version of said dish - if you must. 

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Paella

    When Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, he might as well have been talking about paella. Everyone wants this Spanish specialty to be great when they place that hopeful order, but it so rarely is. Ask anyone the last time they had a great paella and they’ll probably say, “Well, a friend of mine said she had a great one last year in Spain.” Fine, but let’s talk local: U.S. restaurants are not often making mind-blowing paellas. In its purest form - in Spain, in an outdoor socarrat cooked by someone’s abuela - paella is a great dish. But in most American restaurants, what you get is a plate full of mushy, fishy rice and a big hit of saffron.

    So why is it so often disappointing? It’s a difficult dish to execute in the restaurant setting due to the nature of its preparation. It requires a rich, expertly made seafood stock, a special socarrat pan (thin, wide and shallow), and it's dangerously easy to overcook the seafood. Can you find a passably good paella in a restaurant? Sure. But great? Good luck with that.

    If you must: Try it at NYC’s Tertulia or Socarrat. Jaleo in DC.

  • Falafel

    Alright, so before you start sending death threats, consider this: when is the last time a falafel blew your mind? (Maybe it was on your last visit to Israel?) Falafel in the U.S. often gets butchered in translation. Instead of being delicately fried to a light golden brown, they’re usually overcooked (resulting in dark-brown hockey pucks) or lacking in aromatics (garlic and herbs). Also, the chickpea (the primary ingredient) is not the most flavor-laden legume on the planet. So while it’s cheap, filling and vegetarian-friendly, in most cases, the average falafel stand is nothing to write bubbe about.

    If you must: NYC’s Taim does a pretty solid take on the Israeli standard. Falafill in Chicago. L'as Du Falafell in Paris. The Church Key in LA.

  • Photo by: Cherie Cincilla

    Crab Cakes

    Everyone loves crab cakes, right? Everyone loves to talk about how they love crab cakes. But could you tell six different restaurant crab cakes apart in a blindfold taste test? Doubtful. Point being: if you’ve had one, you’ve had them all. That's because crab cakes are all basically the same - crab with some breadcrumbs or crackers and the same basic mix of aromatics (red pepper, onion, celery) and seasoning (often Old Bay). Smushed into a patty and fried, the result is relative blandness. Also, when people rave about a great version of a crab cake, it’s usually because the mayo-based dipping sauce (remoulade traditionally) saves the dish from its insipid destiny. This is what's known as a condiment crutch. A truly great crab cake probably exists, but it still just tastes like a crab cake.

    If you must: Scoma's in SF. Faidley in Baltimore, MD.

  • Photo by: Ben Fink

    Corn Bread

    Here’s another one people love to love - it’s a hallmark side dish of the American South, but so few corn breads transcend the greatness line. Why? Most of them suffer from dryness issues. Made from a base of cornmeal, eggs and milk, corn bread veers directly into the blandness danger zone from the get-go. A truly thoughtful chef will take the time to plump the recipe full of butter and salt (adding flavors like jalapeño, etc.) and cook it in a cast-iron skillet. But even at its best... is it truly ever great?

    If you must: 1300 on Fillmore in SF. Swine in Miami, FL. Session Kitchen in Denver, CO.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Scones

    Scones, as we know them in America anyway, are fundamentally flawed. In England, scones are supposedly much better, but American scones have three major problems. 1) Scones are usually really dry and crumbly in a very unappealing way. 2) Scones are generally the most confused pastries on the planet - they don’t know whether to be savory or sweet. 3) The overly Americanized ones are too sweet (see: Starbucks) and are either glazed in a super-sweet frosting or crusted with sugar. The best scone you will ever have in America just tastes like a really good biscuit. At the end of the day, there are just better pastries out there.

    If you must: The scones at Talula's Daily in Philadelphia may get the closest to achieving greatness. Brasil in Houston, TX. Fortnum & Mason in London.

  • Edamame

    When asked “Should we start with some edamame?” in a Japanese restaurant, our first response is usually: “Hell no.” The sushi craze of the '80s and '90s turned edamame into the must-have pre-sushi appetizer (especially for calorie counters). But seriously, why does anyone actually love edamame? It’s salty warmed-up soybeans served in a bowl. And we’re sorry, but a bowl of salty soybeans will just never achieve greatness.

    If you must: You’ll find these, with little variation, at just about any sushi restaurant.

  • Schnitzel

    We’ve had very good schnitzels, but a great schnitzel? Not so sure. If you’ve never had it, the Germanic dish is a breaded and fried veal or pork cutlet, and relies heavily on accoutrements to provide a saving grace (lemons, yogurt-y slaw). In most cases, like falafel, it’s over-fried or soggy. Again, in restaurants, you have the problem of execution - the meat isn’t always pounded thin enough or sufficiently tenderized, and then when fried, it dries out to the point where it’s no longer buttery and fatty. For all the effort it takes to make, the results should be much more mind-blowing.

    If you must: Edi & the Wolf, NYC.

  • Currywurst

    When Germans get drunk and hungry, they eat this underwhelming dish, which has to be the worst national dish on the entire globe. In fact, we're pretty sure whoever invented this flavor combo was drunk at the time too. Never heard of it? It’s fried German sausage with a curry ketchup, served with fries. While it's become a trendy dish for German-influenced restaurants to serve of late, it's always skippable. Why? The sauce is just too sweet, and the sausage isn't savory or salty enough to counter it in most cases. The result is a sugary, gloopy mess that, even intoxicated, is just not that satisfying.

    If you must: Bronwyn in Boston, Wechsler's in NYC, Banger's in Austin, TX

  • Ratatouille

    Ratatouille is where vegetables go to die. Sorry Pixar fans, but this old-school French vegetable dish is rarely as great as it’s portrayed in the animated film. This is a dish only a fictional cartoon rat could love (and a fictional cartoon critic). That’s probably why you hardly see it on restaurant menus anymore. It’s made up of eggplant, squashes and peppers and often topped with a banal tomato sauce.

    The problem here is a lack of fat and acid to impart a real flavor. (It should have been topped with cheese like a French version of eggplant parm.) At best, you’ll see it topped with a fatty element like goat cheese, a poached egg or crème fraîche to make it slightly more appetizing, but it will never achieve the soaring heights of, say, garlicky roasted vegetables glazed in butter and spritzed with lemon juice. Oh my, we just got hungry.

    If you must: Little Prince in NYC

  • Turkey Burgers

    There has never been nor will there ever be a mind-blowing turkey burger. Go ahead, try and name one. Maybe one out of 1,000 turkey burgers could be considered "very good," but nobody would choose a turkey burger over a regular hamburger based on flavor alone. Turkey meatballs? Great. Turkey meatloaf? Fine. But a turkey burger is nearly impossible to cook through without drying out. We’ve seen recipes that add all kinds of fillings to retain moistness, but a burger at its essence should never be more than just high-quality, well-seasoned meat - it shouldn’t be a meatball. If we’re trying to be healthy, we’ll take a veggie burger over a turkey burger anytime.

    If you must: Burger & Barrel in NYC

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