roflcopter, young Padwan,
I'm not beating you up or even arguing with you. Only trying to point things out from a different perspective.
What you said was: "...if you order lasagna, it's going to taste like good lasagna..."
The pasta example is a good one, because Olive Garden is a little easier to analyze than Appleby's. One thing you can count on, the pasta at Olive Garden is overcooked.
Why? Because Olive Garden plays it safe. Americans are used to overcooked pasta. OG know they'll offend fewer people by slightly overcooking rather than undercooking. So, they establish the standard as slightly overcooked, and set the timers accordingly. That way, in thousands of restaurants across the country, it's almost never undercooked. Every night, hundreds of thousands of people eat pasta that sticks to their teeth. Even though those people are happy, doesn't make the pasta good, right or well cooked.
Some of the confusion comes from the fact that in much of America, OG is the special restaurant. It's where people go for engagements, graduations, life events. It's a favorite restaurant. People want their recipes so they can make their loved ones' favorite dishes. The social phenomenon doesn't make the food good or bad. It's entirely irrelevant. We're not talking about diners, we're not talking about successful business, and we're not talking about mass appeal. We're not even talking about taste. We're talking about food and your aesthetic.
Currently, the roftlcopter who wants great sushi seems to be at war with the roftlcopter who likes OG lasagna.
Okay, so you like OG lasagna. That doesn't make you a criminal or a bad person or a hopeless prospect as a chef. It means you like something that's oversauced, oversweetened, over-gooey, and somewhat gluey. It is what it is, let's not make too big a dea out of it. I'm sure Escoffier would have liked Little Debbies. I know I do. On the other hand, that doesn't make the Swiss Rolls or the lasagna good, at least not in the sense that it's well prepared. It means we like something we know is bad.
The aesthetic of what makes food "good" can be difficult to elucidate because there are so many points of view, and none of them cover the topic completely. My aesthetic is a modern one, I learned from Alice Waters more than anyone else.
"Well prepared," and "I like it," are too different things. Good food, as I mean it, is well prepared.
Preparation requires thought. Food tells a story about itself. A good story has a relatively simple theme. The story is enhanced by the good quality ingredients, strong technique, and supportive food and beverage pairings. A good dish is always about something. A good meal builds to its strongest point, then finishes happily.
Sometimes the theme is a single thing -- steak is about meaty goodness. Doesn't matter what sauce you use, the sauce is merely an enhancement meant to develop the meat's taste and to keep the diner from growing bored. Still, steak is always about the meat.
A proper Caesar salad is about lemon. All of the components: egg, Worcestershire, tons of cheese, best olive oil, anchovies, garlic, croutons, romaine lettuce, etc., all those ingredients and textures are there to give the lemon balance and perspective so it can be lemony, but not too lemony. There are a lot of bad Caesar salads in this world -- most of them are a mess of creamy-parmesan-crouton-mildly garlicky diffuseness that's not about anything and has had anything with the slightest bit of integrity removed. Wouldn't want to offend.
Sometimes it's a combination of things. For instance, there are a number of Thai soups that are built around the combination of coconut and lemongrass. Take a Mexican mole which is built around a mix of dozens of spices -- it is what it is, that particular distinctive blend that makes mole amarillo or mole negro. They're not the same, they're not diffuse. On the contrary, they are each distinct and pointed.
Depends on the waffle house. IMO Taco Bell, OG and Appleby's have a lot in common. Indifferent food cooked to the lowest common denominator -- but lots of people like it. I happen to like Taco Bell's beans, and their plain bean burritos. Yet, where live, I have convenient access to some of the best Mexican street food, cuisine, and everything that falls between. It doesn't mean the beans are good, they're not. They're bland, creamy, underseasoned and go well with raw chopped onions. But then, it's about the onion.
You can like Mrs. Paul's fish sticks and great sushi, just bear in mind they're different things.