Why do some restaurants serve pasta with mushrooms and cream and call it carbonara? Enough of the cheap imitations. Photo: Shutterstock
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

Call that carbonara? The restaurants that can’t be bothered to get dishes right

  • Have you ever ordered a classic or favourite dish, only to be disappointed at what arrives on your plate?
  • When restaurants play fast and loose with recipes, they do themselves, the diners and the dishes a disservice

It surprises me that some restaurants really don’t know what they’re serving. Last week, I went to a porcine-themed diner where the menu listed pork schnitzel. It had been a while since I had a good one, so I took a chance by ordering it. What arrived looked appealing enough – but it wasn’t a schnitzel.

Forget the fact that schnitzel usually is veal, according to Viennese tradition, but the dish fell short on several other key characteristics. The meat wasn’t pounded to a thin cutlet the way it’s supposed to be. Instead, it was a thick slab, probably about 4cm high. There was also a bone still attached. In short, they gave me a breaded pork chop.

“Is this something I should complain about?”, I pondered. In the end, I decided against making a scene, even though the dish wasn’t what I had in mind and it was mediocre at best. The chop didn’t have proper seasoning. It also had too much fat cap left on, not enough meat, and at the bone it was way too pink – making me worry it was undercooked.

Still, I was most disappointed it wasn’t a thin, tender schnitzel.

When is a schnitzel not a schnitzel? Photo: Shutterstock

Some folks might say, “It’s more or less the same thing, don’t be so picky”. But to me, that’s akin to ordering a hamburger and getting a meatball sandwich. They’re kind of similar too, aren’t they?

For most casual customers, whether it’s a schnitzel or a pork chop probably doesn’t matter that much. However, for a chef or restaurant owner to not know the difference, that tells me I probably shouldn’t go back any time soon. If they don’t know or don’t care enough to be more precise on their menu, what else are they careless about?

The meal chef ate as a boy that was so good he recalls every detail

For dessert, they did offer us a complimentary apple crumble – even though it wasn’t an apple crumble. It was more like the Macanese dessert serradura with bits of apple and whipped cream swirled in.

I know that a lot of dishes are bastardised by restaurants. Numerous local favourites are mutilated Frankensteins of Western cuisine. Many cha chaan teng bake their spaghetti Bolognese. French toast is deep-fried with peanut butter in the middle. Local borscht is closer to minestrone than the beetroot and sour cream classic that Russians enjoy.

Often, these variations are due to the unavailability or higher cost of the original ingredients, and surely some chefs just assume guests won’t know and won’t mind. I’ve eaten plenty of Caesar salads that use a nondescript, mayo-like dressing that contains no anchovies or garlic.

Portuguese serradura is nothing like apple crumble. Photo: Shutterstock

Also, rarely in mass market restaurants do tiramisu desserts include marsala wine, which any Italian would tell you is necessary. The other dish Italians get really mad about is carbonara pasta made with cream and butter instead of eggs and cheese. Sure, it still tastes good but it’s not carbonara. This dish is actually more like an alfredo sauce that faux Italian franchises like Olive Garden make, and which Italians say isn’t a real Italian dish.

Personally, I’m fussy about Greek/Turkish cuisine. At a new Greek restaurant I ordered souvlaki, but what they served me was shavings of gyros instead. I have not returned since.

I believe food is a vehicle to introduce new cuisines and cultures across the world. Serving misleading food is possibly worse and more offensive than bad food.

Greek souvlaki with feta and pita bread. Photo: Shutterstock

Sometimes evolution is natural and inevitable. Nobody who travels to India should expect to find beef curry anywhere since they consider cattle, well, sacred cows. But that complex blend of spices has travelled from India to other parts of the world, where it’s been adapted to suit the palates of the people in that country.

In Hong Kong, we mastered mixing a turmeric and powdered curry sauce for tender brisket and potatoes. It’s a cheap and hearty meal beloved across the city. Thankfully nobody tries to call it tikka masala beef.