I have a friend who says life is filled with too many choices. Any time you can leave a decision to an expert, you should. So, when out dining, she always asks the waiter to surprise her. I've been doing the same for years.
Most servers say it's refreshing. They get so many special requests from people on diets ("I'd like a sandwich without the bread, please") or with allergies and restrictions that they love it when a diner says, "Just bring me whatever the kitchen does best."
My dining companions end up with order envy. And even though I worried about this when I first began using the "surprise me" tactic, I am not left holding a hefty bill at the end of the meal. The server doesn't bring me the most expensive thing; he or she brings me the most delicious thing. (At a holiday dinner at Carpe Diem with friends last year, our server actually brought me the least expensive thing on the menu — a vegetarian pasta dish.)
When I asked Cody Liu, my server at AZN in the SouthPark area, to order for me, he didn't hesitate. My entrée was a familiar, but welcome, sight: Wanchi Walnut Shrimp ($12.95 at lunch). It's my favorite dish on an impressive and extensive menu. It's not surprising it would be a waiter's go-to dish, too. A generous, but not ridiculous, portion of lightly fried shrimp is tossed in honey lemon aioli. It's sweet, crispy and rich — and creamy in a way you don't expect Asian food to be. It's nutty, too. The cherry on top, as it were, comes in the form of candied walnuts.
I played the game recently at Cabo Fish Taco in NoDa.
"I'll have anything," I said. "I want you to surprise me."
Not taken aback in the least, Marcie Howell asked, "Meat or no meat? Spicy or not spicy?"
"Does not matter," I said.
"I know exactly what to get you," she said and headed off. I was in capable hands.
Howell, who has worked at Cabo for six years, knows the menu by heart. She brought me the resto's most popular fish tacos. Both are listed under "specialty tacos," and both are seriously special. (It's not immediately clear from Cabo's menu that you can mix and match tacos. So, here's another instance where it pays to ask your server for suggestions.)
The grilled mango barbecue mahi-mahi tacos, featured in 2010 on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, are stuffed with Cabo's version of creamy cole slaw, tomato, avocado, cheese and a cool cilantro sour cream sauce. But the yummiest of the pair is the less-famous Tavarua tuna taco. Blackened lemon tuna is paired with kiwi-pineapple sauce, lettuce, tomato, cheese and (OMG!) honey wasabi sauce.
I thanked Marcie for ordering so well for me — and silently congratulated myself for being a culinary adventurer.
When playing the game at fine dining restaurants, it's important to let the server know if there are financial restrictions. I asked a server at Fig Tree, one of the city's finest and consistently outstanding restaurants, to order the perfect (imaginary) meal for me. The food is worthy of the special locale in an historic Craftsman-style house in Elizabeth. It's not cheap, but it is a good value.
His first question was, "And wine pairings, as well?" Wow. Sure.
Jacob Horner, who's been a server there for a year and a half, said he'd start me off with pan-seared foie gras over fried plantain with blueberry salted caramel and bacon praline. As I jot down notes, I am salivating. I don't want to know that the starter will set me back $19. He'll pair it with a 2008 Chateau Levant Sauterne.
Next, he'd bring a Caesar salad with housemade dressing ($8) and, because I've given him pretend free reign, he'll top the salad with fried calamari.
The entrée of my dreams is a grilled New Zealand elk chop served over horseradish spaetzle with smoked bacon-braised purple cabbage and Boursin-Dijon sauce. It sounds so dreamy that I'll intentionally forget to ask about the price. (It's $42.) An Hourglass Blue Line Estate Merlot is Horner's recommended pairing.
Beignets ($8, but who's adding it up at this point?) are Horner's dessert of choice. They're served warm with cinnamon crème Anglaise and coffee gelato. He has a wine in mind for this course, too, but I've already had too much during the course of this make-believe meal.
The element of surprise is fun at dives as well as high-end places. On a recent trip to Comet Grill in Dilworth, I asked the waiter what I should eat.
"I don't know," Robert said. "What do you want to eat?"
"I want what you want me to have," I said. "Just go along with me. This is a thing I do."
Robert (who said he didn't want to give his last name to a Creative Loafing reporter) said he's been at Comet for 10 years and has eaten something off the menu nearly every one of those days he's worked.
He suggested the buffalo chicken wrap. (He didn't understand the rules. The waiter isn't supposed to tell me what he's bringing; it's supposed to be a surprise.) But since he told me, I asked him to hold the bleu cheese — this culinary adventurer has her limits.
No can do, he said. The bleu cheese is essential. I respected his refusal; I like a principled waiter. So, no buffalo chicken wrap for me — at least not on this visit.
At this point, I was hoping he'd zero in on my brainwaves, which were signaling "pimento cheeseburger with bacon." Apparently not strongly enough.
"Do you like fish?" he asked.
"I do," I said.
"Then that's what you're getting."
The fish was grilled tilapia with a heavy dose of what Robert called "Big Mike's Charlottean Shake," a proprietary blend of herbs and spices. Robert wouldn't tell me a single ingredient, although salt, pepper and paprika are among them. A real man of mystery, that Robert.
The fish was light, lemony and just spicy enough. Comet's fries, locally and justifiably famous, were the perfect side. I didn't get the burger I thought I wanted. But I never would have tried the fish if I hadn't asked Robert to order for me ... and also because this particular grilled fish isn't even on the menu.
In playing the "surprise me" game, sometimes you get what you want (fries) and what you need (anything other than a bacon burger).
You know how sometimes you leave a restaurant thinking, "I ordered the wrong thing"? I haven't felt that since I implemented my "You decide for me" policy.
I can't help you with most of life's decisions. Straight or curly? Rent or buy? Have kids or stay childless? You're on your own. But what to have for lunch or dinner is an easy call. Let the waiter pick for you.