Neapolitana, puttanesca or amatriciana. If you’re an Italian restaurant and I haven’t eaten at your place, this is what I’m going to order. Firstly to check out your pasta (bought in/home made?) and secondly because these simple kind of sauces leave nowhere to hide. If you’re using poor quality ingredients or mucking around with traditional recipes, I’m gonna know.
For the same reason, in pizza places I’ll order the Margherita. I would love to order a Marinara but outside of Italy you’ll only ever get some abomination with rubbery calamari and prawns on it. A real Marinara (which is a pizza ‘of the fishermen’- the one they would have when they returned from sea and as you can imagine last thing they’d want to eat is seafood) is tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, but they are as rare as hen’s teeth.
When I order Thai, my litmus test dish is Pad Thai. Again a very simple, street-food dish, but one dependent on good ingredients and a sure hand with seasoning.
Chinese it has to be Ma Po tofu. Is the tofu good quality, does it have enough heat?
French; steak frites and Bernaise sauce. There’s such an art to a good Bernaise.
Spanish-croquettas. When they’re bad they’re like some kind of fast food nugget, when they’re good they transport you.
Vietnamese: Pho there’s deeply complex, layered pho and there’s ‘meat and veg soup’.
So what about you dear blog readers? Do you have litmus test dishes?