Archive for December, 2006

Top 5 Restaurant Service Screw-ups: Killjoys to charm the pants back on you

December 14, 2006

1) Shameless steering towards expensive items or add-ons. I’m willing to pay a lot, but I’m not willing to feel screwed.

2) Race-pouring glasses of wine to push extra bottles. I like to drink, but not to relive college hazing rituals with good wine.

3) Failing to address and correct pacing problems. Hurry up and wait is a nauseating and enervating way to get through a meal. I can’t go back and talk to the line cooks and runners, nor should I have to.

4) Not listening: Failing to bring coffee after dessert or salad after mains, when it’s been ordered that way. Overshooting a stated price range for wine. Serving the whole table according to one person’s dietary restrictions. Any and all of these result from closed ears and open mouths. A little listening speaks volumes about competence and respect.

5) Waiter wanting to be elsewhere, and showing it: If a server wants to be somewhere else, so should you. If he isn’t a knowing and enthusiastic fan of the food, setting and style of the place, why should you be?

Restaurant Complaints: Why We Complain and Why We Should

December 14, 2006

In bed and at table, communicating what you want is the key to total satisfaction.  In a great restaurant, you’ll rarely have to ask, because they’ll already know–Think of Judi Dench’s speech in “Gosford Park–and you’ll never have to beg, because they’ll always say yes. Nonetheless, if you do speak up, chances are your experience will be even more satisfying. In short, in a great dining room, you’ll get as much and more than you paid for.

That said, most of us don’t eat in great restaurants that often. So let’s move on to merely good restaurants. Here service and food problems will arise from time to time. When they do, you should always try to resolve them during the meal. It’s much easier for a restaurant to overcome a slight dip in an evening’s experience than redeem itself with apologies or favors after the fact; it’s also better for you. Early intervention makes for a far happier meal and a bileless, bitterness-free morning after. If you’re concerned about making a scene, you can always excuse yourself and speak with the manager discreetly, saving your guests an unsavory experience and maybe saving the night.

If your attempts at correction are rebuffed or insufficiently addressed, a letter to the restaurant’s director of service is definitely in order. I firmly believe that letters are better than phone calls, as you’re more likely to articulate your concerns clearly and concretely on paper. If you do write, your letter should be as precise as possible, and refrain from name-calling, profanity and lazy adjectives. It should also be framed in terms of how things could have been better. Think of it as a suggestion letter, not as a rant. Chances are, you’ll get results.

CAVEAT AND REALITY CHECK:

In New York, restaurant service directors are among the few people that will listen to you and strive to do a better job next time. Can you ask that of an awkward hookup, a taxi driver, an airline reservationist? Restaurants can make the world feel perfect and you feel taken care of for a few hours. Nonetheless, the world isn’t perfect and ultimately, you need to take care of yourself. Don’t abuse the restaurant’s trust. This is not a chance to weasel a free meal out of a place. Complaints are about correcting a problem, not playing the ambulance-chaser lottery. Yes, better restaurants are more likely to respond. They’re also less likely to have had a legitimate problem in the first place, so be honest with yourself and the place to which, ultimately, you want to return.

Top 5 Reasons to Send a Letter to a Restaurant: When to Write a Wrong

December 14, 2006

1) Broccoli in the supermodel’s teeth: If a place is beautiful and perfect, except…, let them know. Maybe the stairs leading to the bathroom are dangerously dark, or the organic toilet paper could sand Masa’s bar, or the servers are mispronouncing all the dish names, or they spelled “pintxos” as “pinxtos” on the menu.

Most problems are fixable, and a place would rather know sooner than never see you again.  Put another way, this is like telling a friend that his fly’s unzipped or that her underwear is tucked into her dress. Initial embarrassment will quickly turn to gratitude at a problem identified and solved.

2) Bad food preparation or bad ingredients: Failure to correct doneness problems or repeated problems over several courses. Accidents happen, so do patterns.  Same goes for off tastes and textures, including aging oysters and gritty greens.

3) Ill-willed or Incompetent Service: See other posts on topic. In short, two questions. I) Was the server advocating for you in the front and back of house? II) Did your server display the professionalism, i.e., hard skills, consonant with the level of dining offered by the restaurant?

4) Food Poisoning (Call!): You awaken with symptoms of food poisoning traceable to your meal. Hop off the pot. Drink some ginger ale. Let the restaurant know by phone as soon as possible. This is not the time to hone your mastery of the epistolary arts. Help others to be spared your experience, and consider this service sufficient reward. That said, chances are good that you’ll be more than adequately compensated by a grateful restaurant.

5) Acknowledge a Wonderful Experience: Slamming a place is dangerously easy. It’s also okay to share the joy. If you can articulate what you liked, you may just get it again, whether it be warm gougères, a Spanish newspaper at the bar, or the greatest waitress to ever come out of Kansas.

Sobremesa: A few more thoughts

Ultimately, you should leave a restaurant feeling happy and restored, thus the word “restaurant.” If you entered unhappy, perhaps you shouldn’t expect a miracle to take place in two hours. If your mood falls during and due to the dining experience, something is probably wrong. After making sure it’s not just you, articulate what was wrong and what could have been done better. If the concerns are concrete and can be turned into suggestions, why not communicate them to the only people capable of offering redress? You can improve your future experience and that of others.

Top 5 Tiger Bites: Princeton Food Finds

December 13, 2006

1) Bacon cheese steak from Hoagie Haven: See separate post. This place is a food slut’s paradise. All the sandwiches are great, but the bacon cheese steak is the brightest star in the Havenly firmament.

2) Coffee ice cream shake at Halo Pub: Skip the fancy candy shops. This is all the sweet treat you’ll need during a day in Tigertown. Wood-panelled and tranquil, this makes for a great respite from hectic shopping, or summer heat. It’s also the organic dairy equivalent of Ritalin, if the little tiger cubs are acting up.

3) Green Enchiladas at Mexican Village II:
A bit off the map. A better Mexican generalist restaurant than one would expect in Princeton. Great enchiladas in green sauce. Genuine blissed-out warmth towards students in a town that does little to embrace the undergrads. Perhaps a hint of resin in the mole? Would fit in well in Madison or Boulder. Nearby liquor store has world-class collection of malt beverages.

4) Fish and chips at Triumph: Fried fun in a cone. Served in sophisticated rig that keeps hands clean and food hot and crisp, this is the perfect pairing to a flight of micro-brews.
N.B. Bartenders can’t conceive that people might actually be from Midwest. Have seen several valid driver’s licenses get nixed here.

5) Salt bagel with cream cheese from Abel Bagel: Owner’s fortunes have been up and down, but his bagels never bite. Just the right size for a morning meal. Perfect with coffee, grapefruit juice, Times and mild hangover.

A few more for the road: Favorite combinations.

1) Wawa: Wa dog with everything on it. Pint of Chubby Hubby.

2) Lahiere’s:
Beef tournedoes at Lahiere’s Wine selected and paid for by friend’s franco/oeno-phile parents.

3) Alchemist & Barrister: Pupu platter.  Promise of second-round interview from tipsy McKinsey rep.

4) PJ’s Pancakes: Tall stack. Short line.

5) Tap Room at the Nassau Inn:
Cigar. Any whiskey not sold by the flask.

6) Small World: Large iced coffee. Barista with good enough short-term memory to remember your blueberry muffin as well.

Top 5 Tastes at the Hoagie Haven: Magic in the Mid-Atlantic

December 13, 2006

Jersey food snobs may bicker over which exit claims the greatest temple of haute cuisine–the Ryland Inn and the Frog and the Peach each have their partisans–but any right-minded eater knows that Princeton’s Hoagie Haven is the tri-state’s greatest all-American eatery. For the uninitiated, here’s an all-day dining adventure to acquaint you with the menu.

1) 8 AM: You’ve just driven in from the last cheap Route 1 motel in shooting distance. You’re hungry and half-asleep. Turn the day around with a bell pepper and cheese omelette on a toasted hoagie. So much better than the Wa’s bagel sandwiches or even an Egg McMuffin. Consider adding a side of morning fries. Fat-crisped potatoes know no night or day! Tropicana OJ to drink.

2) 11:25 AM: Return for a first lunch of grilled cheese. Bite through the salty crust and let oozing provelone spill forth in its purest form. Well adapted to ambulatory eating. Admit that your shirt is now grease-stained. Accept that you are powerless over provelone and enjoy your sandwich while you look for a good picnic setting, or while waiting for your cold hoagie (see below).

3) 11:30: Cold Italian hoagie for second lunch. You’ll want a cold sandwich for picnicking purposes. It’ll holdup better and be more refreshing in the sunshine than a hot cheese steak. Make sure to add vinegar and oil, as well as spices. Perfect for a walk to Lake Carnegie or even Cannon Green or huddle in the shadows of what was once Olden Street’s greatest temple of burn-out Tiger life.

4) 3:30 PM: Take advantage of this off hour for a rice pudding snack. A light, relatively nutritious and stomach-settling treat. Baby food, but good baby food. Staff at the Haven will recognize you by now and appreciate your commitment to all-day dining.

4.5) 3:35-12:59: Enjoy beverage options on campus or in-town. In-town there’s the Ivy Inn for the truly lost day time drinker. The Annex and Triumph are better bets, as are the Nassau Inn and the Alchemist&Barrister.

5) 1AM: End a long night and begin a new day with a bacon cheese steak. Ask for extra cheese, extra bacon, extra hot peppers, extra ketchup and extra spices. This is the Mid-Atlantic’s greatest sandwich and should be ordered with all the aforementioned “extra”s. Sit outside the Haven on a bench and savor the masterpiece bite by bite. Rehydrate with large bottle of (root) beer and watch the hungry masses huddle up for their piece of the dream.

Top St. Louis Food Finds: 5 Cardinal Virtues

December 11, 2006

1) Pueblo Nuevo (N. Lindbergh): Greatest Guadalajaran restaurant in the Midwest. Don’t worry about the gunshops, liquor stores and check cashing operations in the area. People mind their own business, at least in the early, happy part of Friday night.

The genius green burrito is flatter and less obese than the California version and far tastier. As with burgers, burrito components need to be in harmonious proportion; here they are. A great balance of rich white cheese, shredded pork, homemade beans and a biting, tart green sauce. Speaking of sauce, hot kitchen-fried tortilla chips with the house red salsa are fantastic and free. This squeeze bottle sauce is dark, smoky, hot and addictive. You’ll quickly find yourself scoring a take-home extra bottle at the front counter. I used to have it shipped to college.

The tapatío style quesadillas are, though not free, also a bargain and a great way to wrap up the savory section of dinner. These are not the lazy Tex-Mex broiler creations that populate most bar menus, but rather lovingly deep fried dough pockets filled with loads of cheese and strips of hot jalapeño. Drizzle some of the smoky hot sauce on top to bring the meal together.

Settle in for another beer or two and then finish with a sopapilla and ice-cream. The PN version is a world away from the Hacienda chain Mexican monstrosity that plagues most of St. Louis. At these prices, tables do turn quickly, so tip well and don’t linger.
2) Kreis’ (S. Lindbergh Rd.): For rubicund men of a certain age, prosperity and girth, this is paradise on earth and a second home. For the rest of us, this is a place to visit on occasion and savor. No need to do penance with the sad scrawny food prudes afterwards, but it’s an Olympian endeavor for me to eat here more than once a week.

Tables are well spaced to accomodate those who need to wedge an avoirdupois between table and chair. Drinks are stiff enough to keep the rose on the cheeks of the roseate. Above all, standing rib roast is carved in juicy, plate-bending portions at prices that remind you you’re not in Kansas (City) anymore. This is a better deal than KC’s steakhouses and a wonderful way to spend a long cold evening. Hunting lodge feel and temperature are great around Christmas.

2) Carl’s (Manchester Road): Best burger and root-beer float combination in town. This is what Steak n Shake purports to offer. Root beer is mixed in house and burgers are made before your eyes. You’ll wait a bit for a counter seat, so come prepared to salivate and cast daggers at those who linger over a burger, or, heaven forbid, reload with a second round. Of course, you’ll want to do the same when your turn arrives.

3) Steak ‘n Shake (various locations). Perfect late night hangout for teenagers and those behaving like teenagers. Fifties feel isn’t forced, though pseudo-Native American Takhomasak takeout brand is absurd.

Highlights include selection of luxury shakes, hot pepper sauce–which is good for tests of manhood on a Saturday night and atop city-best skinny frie– and a bizare excellent chili topped spaghetti dish with many colorful condiments (best when Widespread or Moe is in town).

4) Ted Drewes (Chippewa): A former local tennis great found his true calling in world-class frozen custard. Head to South St. Louis. Wait in line for an hour. Run into everyone you know. Watch a team of Disney quality smiling teenagers mix frozen custard concretes thick enough to turn upside down. Combinations are endless, but I enjoy blueberry chocolate chip.

5) Farotto’s: Fried ravioli are a St. Louis original. Breaded and deep-fried with marinara sauce, they’re a perfect starter to a meal or bar snack.

Warnings:

1) Avoid Imo’s. Imo’s is an overrated chain serving square slices of Silly putty string cheese-soggy crust pizza. I’m not a cubist nor am I a masochist. This chain doesn’t cut it.

2) St. Louis Ribs aren’t a St. Louis thing: People aren’t that fastidious about their rib cut. KC, Memphis, TX and the Carolinas can fight their blood feuds over great barbecue. Other than local pride in Maull’s barbecue sauce, the St. Louis natives aren’t impassioned fans.

Hall of Fame:

Fio’s La Fourchette: Now gone, this was the greatest fine-dining value in the U.S.  The six course prix-fixe menu was merely the start of a negotiation, not the finish. Fio’s allowed substitution of five or six options for each course with no supplementary charge and no requirement that the whole table do the same thing. I have no idea how the kitchen could pull off the timing, but they always did.

On top of flexibility of ordering options, diners could also request seconds or thirds on as many courses as they liked. I often did so during softshell crab season. Great sauces, great bread service, even grand souffles that turned a cliché into a deal-clincher. I hope someone takes up the torch.

Longboat Key to Good Food: Five finds for flip-flop days

December 9, 2006

This tiny island is a genteel place from gentler times–Everything that’s best about the unpretentious Gulf side of the state.

1) Harry’s Continental Kitchen (Longboat): Order the rare sirloin sandwich on a baguette with béarnaise. Add a half pint of gazpacho and max out with a split of champagne and a slice of Key Lime pie. Perfect for poolside picnic.

2) Star Fish (Cortez): Head a few miles off the island for a low-key sunset snack.  A rustic seafood shack attached to a barebones seafood store, this is the place to order a fried softshell crab sandwich and a beer or two. Watch the fishermen (Cortez is still an active fishing/smuggling village) come in and the pelicans dine on scraps. Views of the mangroves are an added bonus. Even the oysters, not a regional specialty, are good.

3) Euphemia Haye: French country on Longboat Key. Oddly enough, best at pepper-crusted beef and Caesar salad. Not a hint of local in this anti-Norman Van Aiken crowd pleaser. Watch out for leering raccoons by the dumpster. My first great meal here was fettucine alfredo with escargots, a raisin nut bread with European butter, caesar salad and homemade blueberry cheesecake, circa 1985. If you call ahead, you can still make it happen.

The Haye Loft upstairs is a great capper for a night out here or at another restaurant on the island. Much more casual than downstairs, it nonetheless has a serious selection of the kind of cakes and pies that used to be displayed on dessert trolleys in Continental restaurants. Some decent if unspectacular digestifs as well.

Chef did Beard House Thanksgiving recently.

4) The Buccaneer: Pirate’s plunder of free plastic toys for kids. Straightforward seafood menu with loads of tacky terroir. Foil-wrapped potatoes, broiled grouper and a stiff rum drink make for the perfect early dinner. Walk the planks afterwards and check out the modern-day pirates’ yachts.

5) Tail of the Pup (St. Armand’s Circle): Chargrilled bacon wrapped cheddar cheese dog and a root beer float were the perfect antidote to a rainy day until this place closed.  Now that it’s gone, stop by Publix when clouds circle, pick up ingredients and put together at home.

Fat and Happy in the Hudson Valley: 5 Favorites

December 8, 2006

1) Crabtree Kittle House (Chappaqua): Food is easy to like; faults are easy to forgive. Not quite a rural retreat, but at least the golf course views are haute suburban.

Inn is lovely on the outside and up front, a bit run down in the dining rooms, which range from quaint tavern style to banquet hall bland. Still, tables are all pleasantly spaced. No bad spot to sit. Many good ones.GRILLED HUDSON VALLEY FOIE GRAS

Cuisine is new American with some Old World touches.  Grilled foie gras with quail eggs in brioche with black truffle sounds like too much and is, but gloriously so: A melting masterpiece, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia on a plate meets Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.  This is a chef finding joy in great ingredients and passing it on.

For a little levity at the end of the savories, the Hudson Valley greens salad is superb. No sense of suffering or penitence here, just flavorful vegetables well combined and dressed. Even the raw hamachi is good.

With all the fun, there are a few flaws, especially in the front of house.  Table service can be amateur–some waiters’ English is weaker than it should be for a restaurant with these ambitions–but at least it’s warm. Wine service is also erratic, especially given the importance of wine to this restaurant’s reputation and bottom line.  Kittle House has some very knowledgeable wine stewards and a few trying to fake it; I’ve had both.  Either way, the selection is extraordinary. Go with a strategy (country, grape, etc.), read the wine tome ahead of time, or trust the stewards. The thousands of options are overwhelming.

Also make sure to stay on top of when your wine is served. I’ve had the half-bottle of white arrive well after the first course was served and I’ve had lovely, attentive service with different bottles for my spouse’s and my respective selections. You’ll need to be your own advocate.  Finally, stick firmly to your price range.  I’ve had three different stewards pick something right above my stated upper limit, 80 to a 75 ceiling, 100 to a 90 ceiling, etc. 

Wrap-up:

Great place to eat well, drink better and sleep or snuggle it off afterwards.  Helps to be rich enough to brush off the wine rip-off tricks.   This is not democratic dining.
 

N.B.: Two further warnings. Rooms are fine in the main building, but the annex is Newark Airport motel quality. Morning meal is airport (coach-class) food, so pay your bill and fly off to a better place to break the fast.

2) Flying Pig (Mount Kisco Metro-North Train Station): Best meal I’ve had in an American train station, yes, better than Grand Central. Perfect for breakfast after the Kittle House, or for dinner fresh off the train. This is a joy of a depot restaurant that restores travelers on their way into the Valley, while also rewarding destination diners. 

Great produce in the salads, amazing breakfast hash with, again, a fantastically flavorful egg on top (eggs, both quail and chicken, may be Hudson Valley’s best product these days). Reasonable and well-crafted espresso drinks are just one more way the Flying Pig confounds and exceeds expectations.

3) Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills): Inspired space, inspiring food. Not the Republic of Berkeley but rather a repurposed old Rockefeller redoubt. Alice Waters East with way better dining and none of the dippy puritanism.  If only it had an inn.

Intention to work in daily slaughter/harvest of products makes for a perpetual Iron Chef challenge. Skilled staff turns the obstacle into an asset, tying together progressions of dishes with ingredient themes (you can also order a la carte).

While much of the food is grown or raised on-site, the Barbers are not afraid to Fedex forage, especially in the winter months. The Barbers also grant fish and citrus a dispensation from the local-only approach, just as they do in Washington Square Park.

After maxing out the menu, take a post-prandial stroll around the grounds, or come back for a morning walk. It’s much more fun than the Purina Farm tour, though I do miss the square eggs.

4) American Bounty at the CIA (Hyde Park): First of all, the best case of swords into plowshares, or crucifixes into cutlery, in the Hudson Valley. Thank God the monastery didn’t last and the CIA bought the place.

The setting is gorgeous, the restaurants are an exceptional value (especially the wine) and the tours are fun. Your nervous server may drop a dish, but he’ll be doubly sure to find a way to make it up to you.

I’ve dined mainly in the American Room, not the most ambitious space, but great for getting a feel of the place. 

The CIA’s collection of restaurants, like NECI’s, are and are not all about the food. It’s the food story that won me over, and the excitement about how much better these kids will be in a few years, and their joy in being here.  The personal interaction with the human side of fine dining outweighs what’s on the plate.   A lot of fun, easy on the wallet and plenty tasty.

5) Belvedere Mansion (Rhinebeck): A great slice of Hudson life. Favored for lodging more than dining.  Cozies are cheap, main inn is beautiful.

For the eater,  dinner is the meal, as breakfast is a prix-fixe after-thought.  The dinner menu is European, well-prepared, decently curated and worthy of at least one meal, if you’re staying overnight.  For guests, it’s a great way to roam a wine list without transportation anxiety. It’s a particularly great start or finish to a long weekend.

The little bar is also beautiful and worth stopping by for a drink, whether you’ve eaten in or out of house.

Honorable Mention 

Café Tamayo (Saugerties): An intimate space in a town centered on the rust and antique belts. The dish that blew my mind was an assortment of sautéed mushrooms. Never liked them as a kid, couldn’t get enough here. Warm light, warm service, with good and reasonable wines, made for a great excursion.  Don’t know much about the B&B part.

Top 5 Stroller Meals: Yorkville and Beyond

December 7, 2006

1) Café Sabarsky at Neue Galerie: Baby-friendly service upstairs and down. Down is easier for restless little ones and bathroom is close by. Either way, you can eat quickly and well, or savor. Quark cheese-cake, all-Austrian wine list and amazing winter soups (chestnut, for example) are expensive but exceptional pleasures for museum dining (The Modern is in its own league).

2) Shake Shack in Madison Park+nearby Starbucks. Good ’til the dead of winter. Hot chocolate is unbelievable, and fluff enrobed. Burgers and Usinger sausage are perfect this time of year, so don’t be put off by a few snowflakes. Remember, if you can walk in the cold, you can eat warming food in the cold, especially the best burger in town. Steak ‘n Shake and Ted Drewes were never this good. Starbucks is helpful for diaper changes, or head down to Babies ‘R Us.

N.B.: Send someone up the drink line to get hot chocolate; your wait will be much more pleasant.

3) Upstairs at the Vinegar Factory in Yorkville: Big open space. Balloons for the kids. Great bread basket, satisfactory food. Low stress.

4) Bryant Park ‘wichcraft at Christmastime. Watch the ice skaters or skate yourself. Take a moveable feast from ‘wichcraft sandwich to soup to desserts and coffee. Three stations for a full winter meal.

5) The West Side and Brooklyn: They’re just a lot easier. In fact, so is Queens.

Expensive Attitude: 5 Worst in Yorkville and Environs:

December 7, 2006

The motto of Yorkville, we’re boring, but we’re nice, not we’re boring, boorish and snotty.

1) Elaine’s: Maybe once a haven for starving artists. Now a crusty club for B-listers with Disco attitude. It’s Le Cirque-lite. Mediocre food, brushoff at the door and elastic pricing are holy trinity of kissoffs. Rarely felt worse walking in or out of a restaurant.

2) Elio’s: A WASPy Elaine’s with better food and almost as much attitude. Greenwich on 2nd Avenue. Dismay at the door if you’re unknown. Prices too high, service from another century, but there’s some pleasure on the plate.

3) Café Boulud: Tweedy, but really nice tweed. Experiences vary; mine was horrendous. Had absolute worst high-end meal of my life here. Not rich nor masochistic enough to put up with long wait in lobby, cramped table next to host station and incredibly erratic pacing provided by impossibly arrogant servers. Only time I’ve ever written a restaurant without receiving a response, twice. Manager wouldn’t even give mailing address over the phone: Now that’s attitude.

4) Sfoglia: Spigolo’s without the love. Why go when consistent food and kinder cooks are so close by? Try Uva if Spigolo and Etats-Unis are too crowded.

5) La Tour: Wine poured to the rim with speed and dedication of a fraternity hell week challenge. Reds served inexcusably warm (all wine is virtually mulled). Occasional success on the plate (tarte tatin was good every fourth visit) marred by upselling, beverage service lapses and stew-meat steaks.