Last week my cousin, who has taken up temporary residence in the Pink Mansion, commented on how much I eat out. The boy probably has a point as I do eat out a fair bit. All the same, it's now something of a joke amongst my friends that going out to eat with me is becoming increasingly like an assault course. First of all because I'm kinda resentful of spending money on food that I can prepare myself - and sometimes even prepare better than the restaurant - but also because I want to be inspired and fulfilled by the food that I eat. It's meant to be an experience, however much I appreciate not having to wash up.
As a consequence: unless we're spending a bit more than our midweek-fun-dinner budget dictates and are eating somewhere really good, we need to find a place that serves something I can't or don't cook for myself. Vietnamese is currently the hot option, but establishments with wood-fired pizza ovens go down well, too. (Yes. I know that I could just eat out less and only go to Le Gavroche, or Fifteen, or the Hawksmoor when I do, but life isn't always like that.)
For those times when you can or you want to spend a bit more, there are plenty of places that serve food that I really do enjoy at prices that are perfectly decent. You can get two, or maybe even three courses for around £25, the ingredients will be good quality, the wine list will be interesting, and the staff will be attentive. You just have to know where to look. And you have to remember one key thing.
Don't order the salmon.
There will almost always be salmon on the menu, just as there will always be a safety-net dish.
You see, salmon is really, really hard to screw up. You'd have to do something monumentally hideous to its meaty pink flesh and not be able to munch it. Salmon valiantly stands up to just about any flavour you care to toss in its direction and it responds to any means of cooking you can name, from acid to steam. Hell, you could probably torch a salmon fillet with a flame-thrower and still come out with something vaguely edible. And that means that the chef hasn't had to work especially hard to produce the meal on your plate. Unless you fail at beans on toast, you'd be able to cook that salmon dish, too. So what's the point in paying for it?
But there is of course a caveat to this. Sometimes, through twists of fate or quirks of geography, perhaps because of bad planning or even owing to a date whose culinary expectations are not equal to yours (I trust that there won't be any future dates with said heathen), you find yourself in an eating establishment that is, less than optimal, shall we say. For example, you're presented with a menu that makes a picnic of value cheese and supermarket pickle sandwiches on floppy white bread, much-too-oily ready salted crisps, and a bruised apple on the banks of a river, in the rain, look appealing. Maybe nine-tenths of the food has been deep-fried, or you're struggling to find something that conceivably didn't arrive in frozen form. It's possible that that menu is so monstrously large that we might even have ventured into boil-in-the-bag territory here.
Now you can order the salmon.
Being so indefatigably hard to make a hash of it means that salmon is the safest option on the menu. It's the one that is least likely to disappoint or be inedible. The potatoes might be like canon-balls and the vegetables an indeterminate mush, but the fish should be fine. Oh, it might not be a gastronomic delight, but you'll get at least some nutritional value from it and it won't be a complete waste of money.
Then you can go home and cook yourself a proper salmon dish.