Which ingredient most signals a quality dish?

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?


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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

I call bull.

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

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.

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.


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.

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

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


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.

whole spices, particularly in indian dishes.

Goat cheese.

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.

Really good mushrooms.

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

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.

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

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?

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.

Kampot Pepper and real Truffles!

Pumpkin seeds.

Fresh white truffles

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.

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

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