With more than 30 years of writing and reviewing restaurants, I’ve learned the importance of reading between the lines of a menu when ordering at a restaurant.

It seems simple but reading a menu is definitely not as easy as it seems.
Sometimes, menus are so bare that you have no idea what you could be in for. Dishes could simply be described in one word — Beef for example — that could leave you clueless.

Thankfully, most of these menus appear in fine-dining establishments and chefs are usually incredibly skilled and confident so you pretty much never have to worry. These menus also often show up on omakase menus so you don’t really have to choose anyway.

On the other hand, there are some menus with such convoluted descriptions, you practically have no idea how the dishes would turn out. And don’t think that the more ingredients listed, the more substantial the dish is. It’s quite often the opposite.

To avoid making any mistakes, here are some things to look out for:

1. Market Prices

Market Prices Decoding Menus
Asking for the market price could actually save you from spending more than you need to.

Don’t panic when you see these two words and be sure to ask for the price too. It’s good to check for the actual price of the dish rather than just the price per 100g.
When it comes to seafood especially, weight is important.

The star garoupa you are ordering can weigh more than 1kg and cost more than $100, and the Alaskan king crab that weighs more than 3kg can be priced at a few hundred dollars.

2. Don’t Believe What The Menu Says

Squeezed Juices Decoding Menus
Freshly squeezed fruit juices might not actually be as fresh as you thought.

A lot of the time, freshly squeezed juices are not exactly fresh. Restaurants or cafes may have poured out the juice from a carton that reads “freshly squeezed” or prepared hours ahead.

Another term to look out for is hand-chopped. Not many restaurants could actually afford to hire a kitchen hand to chop meat so ‘hand-chopped’ could actually mean that the meat is coarsely grounded to resemble the texture you get from hand-chopping.

3. Vegetables 

SitrFried Vegetables Decoding Menus
Eat your veggies at home instead of ordering them at a restaurant.

I usually do not order vegetable dishes, especially in a Chinese restaurant. If you do your own marketing, you would know too that the $18 plate of stir-fried vegetables with minced garlic
would cost less than $2 if you cook it at home. And how hard is it to stir-fry vegetables?

So I’d rather spend my money on the other dishes and eat my vegetables at home. Western restaurants often profiteer less because the imported vegetables they use are generally more expensive in the market.

4. Locally Sourced Ingredients

Eat Local Decoding Menus
Be sure you’re eating locally sourced items for the right reasons.

These words conjure up images of fresh food delivered to the table with little carbon footprint – images to make you feel good thinking you are saving the earth while eating wholesome, freshly harvested food. The problem is, the food grown and farmed here really do not taste that good. The vegetables often have little flavour and the farmed fish and frogs turn out tough or stringy after being cooked.

There are exceptions of course, such as locally farmed barramundi that is pretty decent.
So eat local for the right reason – to support local industries and to encourage restaurants to cultivate their own backyard gardens. And not because you expect the food to taste better.

5. Wagyu Beef

Wagyu Beef Decoding Menus
Knowing the different between wagyu varieties could save you from a disappointing meal.

There is wagyu and then there is Japanese wagyu. It may be a Japanese word but not all wagyu
comes from Japan.

The word has been appropriated by farms in countries such as the United States and Australia that rear Japanese cattle breeds that are selected for their well-marbled meat. But the flavour and marbling can differ vastly from farm to farm and country to country. Also, wagyu beef is graded differently in each country. In Japan, the highest grade is A5, whereas in the United States, the top grade is labelled USDA Prime. And in Australia, the grades go up to 9.

So a grade 5 for Australian wagyu is not the same as a grade 5 for the Japanese beef. In fact, even a grade 9 Australian wagyu is nowhere near the quality of Japanese A5 wagyu.

6. Still or Sparkling Water? 

Glass of Water Decoding Menus
Don’t feel pressured to pay for water if you’re against the idea.

This is not in a menu, but do not be browbeaten by the server taking down your order when he
asks you: “Would you like still or sparkling water?” Unless you really like bottled water and do not mind paying an inflated price for it, just say tap or ice water. Do not mistake still water for tap, like some people do. You will help to cut down the use of bottles and do your bit for the environment.

Also, don’t be bullied into paying for tap water if you are against the idea. Some restaurants charge for tap water to nudge customers to pay for bottled water or a soft drink instead. They may try to justify it by saying that the charge is to pay for the effort by the server to bring you the water and to wash the glass afterwards. I don’t buy that.

It is a basic service restaurants should provide – like laying the table and clearing the plates. And you are paying a 10 per cent service charge, right?

Text: Singapore Press Holdings / Straits Times/ Wong Ah Yoke / Additional Reporting: Atika Lim
Photos: ST File/Pixabay