's Sites We Love Saveur Magazine has listed The Skinny Gourmet among its "Sites We Love"

I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Restaurant Follies
or How to Find a Good Restaurant in an Unfamiliar Locale

The other night I had the worst food I have ever paid to put in my mouth. This is doubly disappointing because I had this food at the restaurant that is right across the street from my new house in Accra's swanky Osu neighborhood. I hate that my first post about an Accra restaurant is going to be negative, because there are quite a few really fine restaurants here. But I will walk you through what went wrong with the meal, how I boldly blundered past all the warning signs that I shouldn't have eaten there in the first place, and intersperse it all with a few recommendations for travelers looking to find good food in unfamiliar places.

This restaurant was selected for its location. It is just across the street from my new house, and so seemed a convenient location to meet our friend Victor for a late dinner.

Rule #1: Never select a restaurant for location. Rather, be willing to drive well out of your way for good food. A terrible restaurant can survive indefinitely in a great location, because hordes of tourists will continually patronize it, ensuring an unending flow of one-time customers. If you have ever eaten at any of the world's skyscraper revolving restaurants, you surely know what I mean. They hope the view distracts from the food. On the other hand, a terrible restaurant will never survive in the boonies. So if there's a thriving restaurant in a far out place, it is bound to be good. Witness the Inn at Little Washington.

Just approaching the restaurant I had my first misgivings. The wall around the restaurant has the name boldly painted. Seeing it written so largely, I realized for the first time that is wasn't "Banana Leaf" as I had assumed, but "Banana Leafz Restaurant."

Rule #2: Unless it is owned by Biggie or the Ghost of Tu Pac, do not patronize a restaurant that makes things plural by adding a "Z." In fact, just to be safe, don't go anywhere where they cannot spell correctly. No mashed "potatoe" either, okay?

We rounded the wall into the courtyard and there, abomination of abominations, were two ghastly neon plastic palm trees lit with equally ghastly colored flashing lights. If you are prone to seizures, you would have had trouble crossing the courtyard.

Rule #3: Do judge a book by its cover. You can take this one too far, of course, but when in doubt about restaurants or wine, you could do worse than to listen to your internal judge of taste. If they have horrible tacky tacky taste in decor, there's a descent chance they are not great in the kitchen either. Of course, there are great restaurants that are simply but not professionally appointed (Marks on Market in Wilmington NC is a great example) because the owners are so obsessed with their fabulous food that they haven't gone hog-wild on the decor. But when you find flashing plastic palm trees, dear reader, turn heel and head out of there.

We got inside the restaurant and found it nearly empty.

Rule #4: There is something in the snob aesthetic that suggests we shouldn't follow the crowd. It is the idyllic dream of discovering a little known hole in the wall where the King of Thailand's former chef cooks (actually, my husband knew of just such a place in Virginia), but in general, if you are in an unfamiliar location you'd do better to abandon this snob aesthetic. If the locals don't patronize a place, there is a good reason why. So when traveling in unfamiliar places, cultivate your inner Soviet-era queueing mentality, and go where the crowds are. (The longest breadline signaled the bakery with the best bread, so for a long time after that era, Russians would habitually join the longest, not shortest, line). Walking the back streets to find a restaurant with a long line is how I found the best food I had in all of Spain, cooked by four sisters and served soup-Nazi style. I still dream of that food. It was well worth the wait, as all the Spaniards knew.

A bit daunted, we nevertheless sat down. The owner's wife came over and handed us a menu. The restaurant professed to serve Indian and Indonesian food.

Rule #5: In general, prefer a restaurant that professes to be very good at a few things. If they promise the world, it is likely they are only a slightly dressed up version of McDonalds.

I ordered a dish off the Indonesian menu, my husband ordered off the Indian menu. Whenever we dine in "risky" situations, we split the difference so neither of us endures too much. This wound up being a very fortunate decision.

The owner's wife seemed displeased, we had apparently not ordered enough, although each of the four of us had ordered a drink and a meal, plus we had ordered two appetizers. She began trying to pressure sell us a very special new stuffed crab appetizer. Recognizing a scam when I saw on, I demurred, but my friend Victor decided we should try two.

In the end, the stuffed crab appetizers were very expensive and amounted to crab meatloaf crammed into two crab shells. Terry's "butter chicken" was like no butter chicken I have ever seen, and contained only a few sad floating lumps of chicken. My Indonesian dish almost escapes description. Imagine those puffy fried chicken lumps that are often served as Sweet and Sour chicken at fast food Chinese chains, but which really serve to disguise a small amount of poor quality meat. Then imagine those puffy balls floating in a thin soup of ketchup. Add some chopped onion and a fistful of salt, and there you have it. Indeed, everything was so over salted I could scarcely gulp enough water to remain hydrated. And for that we received the largest restaurant bill I have yet had in Ghana.

Rule #6: Do not go somewhere where they believe salt is a substitute for flavor, or where ketchup is a valid base for a sauce. Do not do these things in your own kitchen either actually.

Rule #7: Trust your instincts. If your spidey sense is tingling, don't be afraid to turn around and walk out of a restaurant. Save yourself impending disaster. If someone later tells you it's wonderful, you can always go back.

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