I recently needed to have a new headlight installed in my Prius, since it seemed unwise to drive around New Orleans on only one beam. While waiting to find out how long the repair would take, I crossed the street to La Boulangerie, a French bakery and cafe owned by chef Donald Link’s restaurant group.
As I let the refreshing AC flow over me, I scanned the long bakery case. It was filled with desserts, pastries, and a flavorful array of other breakfast items. With so much to choose from, I decided to apply The Test.
The Test is a measurement I use in bakeries, cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, and any other spots that serve food. I choose a basic item, rather than something whose underpinnings can be camouflaged by trimmings like whipped cream, flavored syrup, or a lot of melted cheese. Based on my past experiences dining elsewhere, I have a list of criteria in my head against which the item is measured.
If the establishment in question can get its everyday items right, the theory goes, then it most likely can do more elaborate things well, too. Conversely, if it can’t get the basics right, that’s a sign that other more ambitious dishes on the menu might ultimately be a waste of money.
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Now, my tests will differ from your tests, because everyone has their own tastes and preferences. For Ria Alicehec Turnbull, the owner of Piccolo Gelateria here in New Orleans, her primary focus is quality.
“I go by presentation, taste, texture, and freshness of the ingredients,” Turnbull says. “Too many times, there are so many ingredients mixed together that food loses its identity and is confusing. Classic, simple, fresh is always the winner, in my book.”
I asked some friends which dishes they use for The Test, and got a variety of answers. For Pete Bigelow, deputy editor at Automotive News, the best test of a bakery is its cannoli, something he ate a lot of growing up in New Jersey. Barry Sorkin, owner of Smoque BBQ in Chicago, chooses an old-fashioned glazed doughnut. Susan Vavrick, who lives in Washington, DC, orders a Reuben to judge a deli.
Here’s a short list of the foods I use for The Test. Feel free to share yours—and your criteria for deciding whether they pass.
I’ve been eating croissants since I visited France in high school. Even though they can be purchased everywhere from fast food chains to gas stations, a butter croissant is still one of the most difficult pastries to get right. For me, the exterior needs to be crispy, and it should fall apart into flakes when I tear it. The inside needs to be elastic and easily pulled away from the crispy exterior. It should hold up at least momentarily when dunked into cafe au lait or tea.
That’s why I ordered a butter croissant at La Boulangerie while I was killing time waiting for my car. I’m delighted to say that it passed with flying colors, so much that I went back a week later and took two more home.
Margherita or plain cheese pizza
Pizza has become a platform for almost any ingredient that can be torn, sliced, or dabbed onto a surface. However, my test of a well-made pizza is the plainest possible variety, either a Margherita, which has fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil, or else a simple cheese pizza. Just like its limitless ingredients, pizza also comes in several different formats, whether New York or Detroit style, Chicago deep dish or Neapolitan.
For me, Pizzeria Bianco, based in Phoenix is the pizza by which I measure other pizzas. It truly lives up to any hype you’ve heard about it and has been dubbed the best pizza in the country by many critics. This is a wood-fired pizza, with a slightly charred and chewy crust. The tomato sauce is flavorful (owner Chris Bianco now sells tomatoes and sauce) and you get plenty of cheese, but nothing is too heavy. You can easily eat an entire pizza, although I usually save a piece for a snack later on. One of my dream dinners occurred when Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me came to Phoenix. The cast and crew went to Pizzeria Bianco and ordered all the pizzas. I’d still put the Margherita one first.
Wedge salads are now as ubiquitous in steakhouses as Caesar salads used to be. On the surface, they seem like something that would be easy to ace: a hunk of lettuce, crispy bacon, perhaps a few cherry tomatoes, and blue cheese dressing, with onions optional. But I’ve had enough dreadful wedges to be able to spot the best kind.
The lettuce needs to be fresh and crisp, and easy to slice—wimpy lettuce just doesn’t cut it. The bacon can’t be limp; the lettuce can often make it soggy, so it must be placed on the salad at the right moment to maintain crispness. The dressing ideally contains visible chunks of blue cheese. I know some places serve ranch as an alternative, but ranch does not belong on a wedge. If tomatoes are in the mix, they must be as spot-on as the lettuce, otherwise they’ll drag down the experience. The wedge salad at Knight’s Steakhouse in Ann Arbor comes close to perfection. It is not always on the menu, but you can ask for one.
Black and white cookie
If a bakery is brave enough to offer a black and white cookie, I am happy to try it, but the business needs to know that fans of the black and white are very discerning. A true black and white is not actually a cookie underneath, but more like sponge cake. You’re eating something like a hybrid of cake and cookie. This is not a dunking cookie. It is a decision-inducing cookie. Will you eat the chocolate side first, or the vanilla side? Will you try to get both flavors in a single bite?
Sadly, my favorite source of black and whites closed several years ago. Glaser’s in New York City is credited with at least popularizing the cookie (other bakeries claim to be the source, akin to the battle over who invented Fettuccine Alfredo). Glaser’s chocolate icing was deeply chocolatey, and the vanilla icing had a strong vanilla flavor. There are other contenders, like gourmet NYC grocer Zabar’s, and even Trader Joe’s makes a respectable black and white. If you spot one, try one.
In America, gazpacho has almost become more like a drinkable salad. It often arrives in a big glass mug, with visible chunks of tomato, onion, cucumber, and various forms of garnishes. This isn’t the gazpacho that I first sampled in Europe. That was a pureed soup, very much like French vegetable soups, with a smoothness that blended all the ingredients together in every spoonful.
I recently found my ideal gazpacho at The Larder in Metairie, Louisiana, and felt jubilant to sip it again. It was nicely seasoned but not overly garlicky as some gazpachos tend to be. You shouldn’t be tasting gazpacho hours after you’ve finished eating it.
Some of my other tests include fried chicken, vegetable dumplings, an omelet with fine herbs, pasta with butter and parmesan, buttermilk pancakes, chicken noodle soup, and hummus. No matter your preferences, The Test will help you save time while ordering, spare you the grief of a disastrous meal, and help you figure out which spots are worth returning to.