In a book crammed with information on how to get the tastiest, best meals at Asian restaurants, New York City lawyer-turned-food-critic Steven Shaw tells the what-not-to-do story of dining with a group of Canadians at one of his favourite Chinese places. “This bunch was driving the staff crazy with hesitation and questions,” writes Shaw, who’d taken the group to New Green Bo, where the servers are notoriously impatient and expect guests to decide quickly and order everything at once. “Finally, the manager met my eyes and gave me a look of desperation . . . I took charge, placed the order and averted disaster,” he writes in Asian Dining Rules: Essential Strategies for Eating Out at Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean and Indian restaurants. “The last thing [staff at a Chinese restaurant] want is to engage in a lot of customer service. It’s not about that,” Shaw elaborated in a phone call.
First tip, if you’re eating Chinese, aim to go with about 12 people. “The fewer people you go with, the worse your meal is going to be. You can’t get things like Peking duck or a whole steamed fish for less than a certain number of people.” Appoint a spokesperson to order for the table and don’t dither. “However you’ve been brought up to behave in a mainstream Western restaurant, it’s the exact opposite in an Asian restaurant.” If you want recommendations or need assistance, identify the top-ranking person in the room. “Usually, it’s the guy in the nicest suit,” says Shaw. “If there are lists of specials on the wall written only in Chinese, ask for a translation.”
If you’re at a big dim sum place—Shaw mentions Sun Sui Wah in Vancouver—“be pushy,” he says. Try to sit near the kitchen and watch what’s rolling past on the carts. “Canadians are really polite, and that’s the exact opposite of what you need to be. You’re competing in an ecosystem where there are a billion people, and they’re fighting for the best stuff. If you’re reserved and restrained, you’re not going to get the best stuff. The true test of whether you’re doing it right is that everybody at your table is completely horrified by your behaviour. People are like, ‘I can’t believe he’s chasing down the woman with the dim sum cart and physically blocking her from moving and inspecting everything on her cart,’ but at the end of the meal, people say it’s the best meal they’ve had because that’s the system that works.” Don’t fill up on whatever “junk” rolls past and don’t eat the “limpid remainders” servers bring around on hand-carried trays. However, if you see something great on a cart, take it. “Quickly,” he urges. “You may very well never see it again.”
When out for sushi, sit at the bar. Talk to the sushi chef. “Make eye contact, smile, start a conversation. Try to say with your eyes, ‘Very serious customer coming your way, chef.’ ” Don’t try to bow unless you’ve got proper bowing training, he says, and without being rude, “you need to dismiss the wait staff almost completely.” Refuse a menu. “Say you’re ordering sushi by the piece.” Next, announce you’ll be starting with sashimi. “Say it as though you know it’s obvious that anybody with a clue would start with sashimi.”
To test the waters at a new sushi place, order two pieces of sashimi, one piece of regular tuna and one piece of toro. Don’t place the rest of the order yet. Just get those two pieces. When they’re placed in front of you, “eye them very carefully,” advises Shaw. “Pick it up with chopsticks; check it out from all angles. Then eat it, without any soy sauce or wasabi. If you like it, smile at the chef. If you don’t, it’s time to cut your losses, pay and leave.”
“Now you have your own personal sushi chef,” he writes, “and there’s no reason to ever go to another sushi restaurant.”