Which ingredient most signals a quality dish?

by on October 15, 2010 at 9:40 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Phil Maymin asks:

What one ingredient most signals a quality dish to you? For me it is scallions. If it's got scallions in it, it's gotta be good. Scallions have never steered me wrong. I think it's because no one really starts with scallions. They get added later to take a proven dish from good to great.

His answer is excellent.  "Fish sauce" came first to my mind, perhaps because it doesn't taste so good.  Yet it is correlated with high-quality Thai, Vietnamese, and other creations.  Real saffron (expensive, signals quality) and lime (sour, scares off the timid) also could be mentioned.  Chicken gizzards.  Sichuan peppercorns.  What else?

1 IVV October 15, 2010 at 5:43 am

Chocolate, but not in a sweet dish. We're so used to chocolate being sweet that it gets thrown into everything, but when the other flavors of cocoa are considered (bitter flavonoids), it becomes something you add specifically for the complexity.

2 GW October 15, 2010 at 5:50 am

Sweetbreads, signals something that must be handled very carefully. Likewise for zucchini blossoms, white asparagus, and truffles, although truffles are so often faked that I might reserve judgment on them.

As for spices, when I see saffron, cardamom, grains of paradise used, or when a menu distinguishes cinnamon from cassia, these are good signals.

3 londenio October 15, 2010 at 5:51 am

1) Fleur de Sel, especially when added to finish a dish.
2) Not exactly answering your question, but the quality of tomato used (rather than tomato per se) explains most of the variance in the quality of a dish.
3) Quince (hard to deal with), only use if you believe you need it.
4) Fresh figs (highly perishable and seasonal).

4 Marked to Market October 15, 2010 at 6:09 am

I actually find the related question of which expensive ingredients are often prepared poorly to be more interesting because it seems to signal some flaw in the market for food.

I submit that foie gras is expensive and rare enough to be considered a delicacy by most, but it is rarely prepared particularly well. For similar reasons, I am often under whelmed by lobster served in restaurants and deeply suspicious of anything with "truffle oil".

Actual slices of truffle are expensive enough I find they tend to be good predictors of high dish quality (i.e. very well executed preparation), though are often used in unoriginal ways. I have rarely had badly done sea urchin or abalone. I would add sweat breads are often good predictors of a quality dish, but the relationship seems weaker within the US than it is in the world at large.

Do you have opinions, Tyler? Long time reader of the blog.

5 Our Bold Hero October 15, 2010 at 6:20 am

I was going to agree with londenio above re: tomatoes but then again I'm not sure what 'heirloom tomatoes' is supposed to signal on a restaurant menu. It's the variety of flavors and colors beyond what you'd normally expect that makes heirloom tomatoes interesting, but it seems like they just buy whatever types they can get and mix them all together. Here in Minnesota at least I've never seen a menu that bothered to differentiate a Green Zebra from a Black Krim.

6 liberty October 15, 2010 at 6:26 am

I call bull.

There is fish sauce in Ramen Noodles, and there are scallions in the worst Chinese food.

7 DC October 15, 2010 at 6:33 am

I like the idea about what a restaurant's use of an ingredient or dish says about its overall quality. A fine dining restaurant that offers simple roast chicken is usually high quality. Having pork belly, octopus, sweetbreads, etc. on the menu is a good sign. Panna cotta can signal either conservative and boring or very confident.

8 Benito October 15, 2010 at 6:39 am

Time also plays a role–30 years ago anyone using chipotle would be making a bold, high quality choice in seasoning. Now it shows up at McDonald's and in highly processed snack foods. See also: pink peppercorns, arugula, sea salt, microgreens, blue corn, etc.

9 David Pinto October 15, 2010 at 6:46 am


10 jimi October 15, 2010 at 6:47 am


11 Jason October 15, 2010 at 6:49 am

I have a rule of thumb I call "the bunny theory." If you see rabbit on the menu in a U.S. restaurant, you should always order it. The underlying premise of the bunny theory is that because rabbit is relatively unpopular in the U.S., a chef wouldn't put it on the menu unless he/she really believed in the dish. So far, this theory has never steered me wrong.

12 Master of None October 15, 2010 at 6:50 am

Also! The use of a blow-torch for non-creme brulee items – when I see that, I know I'm in for a treat

13 Jim October 15, 2010 at 7:15 am

Close, David Pinto and jimi. The correct answer is Bacon Bits.

14 dearieme October 15, 2010 at 7:26 am


15 DCBob October 15, 2010 at 8:50 am


16 Chris R October 15, 2010 at 9:15 am

Good: Fatty pork, when ordered in the US. The country's a nation of fat-o-phobes.

Bad: Anything fried in canola oil. The chef cares about food fads rather than good taste and nutrition.

17 Ryan Vann October 15, 2010 at 9:37 am

Kobe Beef

18 A.S. October 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

Cream cheese.

19 paul October 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

whole spices, particularly in indian dishes.

20 Lindsay October 15, 2010 at 10:43 am

Goat cheese.

21 Fazal Majid October 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Shallots, morels, girolles, truffles (whole or shavings, not oil), ramps, hazelnuts, fiddlehead ferns, Maldon, Guérande or Noirmoutier salt, raw oysters, full-size scallops, caviar, Valrhona, El Rey, Callebaut or Guittard chocolate.

22 Mario Rizzo October 15, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Really good mushrooms.

23 thehova October 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm

It's tough to find a restaurant in the midwest that serves great tomatoes. So I'm always impressed when one does.

24 rluser October 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I have to agree with Yancey Ward on the beer. At least when the beer list includes numerous beers which I know to be of quality and numerous of which I know not. Unfortunately this does not necessarily work well at brewpubs.

25 thehova October 15, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I think it's also worth noting that Taco Bell is good.

26 mike October 15, 2010 at 6:59 pm

had "mongolian beef" a staple of ACF–American Chinese Food. That stuff is always loaded with scallions. I'm not sure Tyler would call it a quality dish.

Pine nuts are always welcome.

Is there a particular variety of cheese that signals quality?

27 gjchong October 15, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I am not sure about a general rule, but I do know that the quality of rice used in Chinese cuisine is a good signal of the quality of the dish.

28 Ed October 16, 2010 at 3:47 am

Kampot Pepper and real Truffles!

29 Michael October 16, 2010 at 8:36 am

Pumpkin seeds.

30 Steve Bainbridge October 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Fresh white truffles

31 Nc October 18, 2010 at 2:26 am


32 John Murphy October 20, 2010 at 9:21 am

Ditto "shallots" — to me, they're the mark that the chef cares about having the right ingredient. Onions are often a reasonable substitute, and "lesser" chefs will just stock more of those. But as mentioned above, they're often not even mentioned on the menu.

So I'm going to go with beets. They're tasty, but so un-sexy that it sometimes takes a bit of courage to put them on the menu. A chef wouldn't do that unless the dish is really worth eating.

33 Ginny October 28, 2010 at 10:53 am

I agree with chives and scallions… how about white pepper, chives, hazelnuts and avocado…

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