A couple of weeks ago, in a restaurant (see my previous blog post of 12/31/23 - Dinner at Buttermilk Channel https://www.dazzlingdinners.com/post/dinner-at-buttermilk-channel), I ordered the special, which happened to be sea bass. After I placed the order, I wondered, “Was that a good idea?”
The late chef Anthony Bourdain in his book, Kitchen Confidential said: “…never order the seafood special on a Monday.” That’s because most fish markets don’t deliver on weekends. Any seafood dishes offered on Monday won’t be fresh. Well, I was eating out on a Thursday, so does that mean it was okay?
To find out, I did an Internet search and here is a summary of the results:
The main argument against ordering specials is that dishes on the specials menu can often be made of food that chefs need to get rid of fast because those ingredients are getting close to their expiration date. Using ingredients in a special is better than throwing them away. Not only does repurposing reduce food waste, but it saves the restaurants money. If restaurants over-order items that they have trouble selling, specials are a perfect way to use them up.
Often, pasta, stews, and soups are good vehicles for masking not-so-fresh ingredients: For example, when you add a fish like salmon to a pasta dish, you’re not focusing on the tender butteriness of the fish on its own. Instead, the kitchen might be distracting the diner from week-old fish with other ingredients. It might taste okay, but would you knowingly order week-old fish?
Similarly, watch out when expensive cuts of meat are cooked in a way that might not optimize their flavor. Take braised tenderloin or any tender cut of meat that’s braised instead of seared. Braising is a technique used on tougher and sometimes cheaper cuts of meat. With a nice cut of meat like a tenderloin, you’ll want to see it listed as the main act on the plate. That’s why lamb chops that are cut into small pieces and cooked in a stew are suspect.
Sauces and gravy are often used as cover-ups for ingredients that are not fresh, so think twice about dishes that are heavily saturated with either. For example, the extra hollandaise sauce from the eggs Benedict becomes the béarnaise sauce for tomorrow’s steak dinner.
That is not necessarily bad if the chef is skilled, but the tricks used to minimize less-than-fresh flavors probably aren’t what you think about when you see the specials of the day.
Another reason not to order specials is that restaurateurs know that many diners will order the special, and, consequently, they price the specials higher than similar dishes on the regular menu. House specials are utilized to maximize profits.
Also beware when the restaurant menu lists more than one or two specials. As celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay said: “When they list ten specials? That’s not special.”
On the other hand, there are advantages to ordering the special:
Chefs do place legitimate items on the specials menu that they want to test as a trial dish ahead of a menu change or expansion.
Offering specials and tracking sales and customer feedback is a great way to build a new menu.
The special of the day is often more elaborate and something that is rarely offered.
Chefs use specials to showcase their flair and creativity and can take pride in demonstrating their skills.
Sometimes chefs get a great price on an ingredient and use the opportunity to use the excess product while it is still fresh.
Ingredients may have been sourced from a supplier as a trial or one-off purchase, or some suppliers may gift a restaurant some samples with a view to further business.
Specials sometimes showcase highly seasonal ingredients that practically can’t be on the regular menu year round.
The specials menu offers patrons something different, so they don’t become bored with the regular menu.
So, if your preference is to experience something unique with fresh seasonal products or unusual combinations and you like to try new things to eat when you go to a restaurant, then go ahead, be adventurous. If you do decide to order the special, the chances are you will be pleasantly surprised. You may discover a new favorite, or you may be inclined to send your compliments to the chef.
And that sea bass special that I ordered? It turned out to be an excellent choice.