Let’s apply this framework to two restaurants we recently visited. First, we’ll start with NYC’s Per Se, Thomas Keller’s east coast flavah of a west coast vibe. We were welcomed a bit stiffly, although not as formally as I would have expected from a 3-star. Service throughout the evening was attentive if a bit cool. Some staffers were obviously meant to interact with the guests; while it seemed that others were charged with delivering the dish, describing it, and then hightailing it back to the mothership. At some point in the meal, we were assumed to be celebrating our anniversary, which was odd considering we were still more than 2 months out from that date.
I really, *really* wanted to like the food here. But only two dishes stood out as culinary epiphanies- oysters & pearls and the foie gras. Both were fairly simple, with the foie more so. I found the food more interesting than satisfying and rarely did I finish a dish thinking “just one more bite”. When I asked for some details on a particular saucing, the server had to think for a bit and didn’t sound very sure in his answer- not a good sign. The kitchen seemed to have played with my plates before I got to.
Given the above, where do I find value? I sincerely felt that the price was tied more to the name on the cookbook and food pedigrees than to the execution of the 9 or so dishes set before me. I wasn’t sure if I were paying for the privilege of being in the same space where Thomas himself may at any moment burst forth from a darkened kitchen and squeeze a new creation from a secret gland; or if this was NYC’s way of saying “welcome back you bastard, betcha forgot how pretentious this city can be!”
We did have an excellent view and enjoyed how much space and privacy the tables were given. Aesthetically, the dining area was a combination of dark woods, soft lighting and cool metals that looked modern but in a comforting combination. Oddly enough, the whole she-bang is housed in the retail section of the Time Warner building adjacent to a number of other upscale spots, giving me a feel of mall food court. I regret not visiting the loo.
In contrast, the Nook over on 9th Ave is pretty much summed up by its name. The owner/waiter/bouncer was a Polish man of squishy features and weary frame. He looked like he didn’t really want your business, which is probably because with approx 2-dozen seats, he couldn’t always take it. His demeanor may have been the result of a 6-month bender, or perhaps he still hadn’t gotten over the annexation of the Sudetenland and all those Truly Tasteless Jokes from the mid80s. I asked whether he recommended the burger or the ham & cheese for lunch. His response of “oh I don’t know….the burger?” wouldn’t have felt any different if he offered a side of shut-the-hell-up to accompany. On the night before, we had some of his apple pie that was less than primo. Our party let him know and he replied, “I know, I know! It sucks!” This is a man who doesn’t put on airs and expects the same from you.
The pie not withstanding, the food was hummin’. The review below has the details, but the net was a bevy of good choices all around. And I didn’t mind paying the prices our Polish friend asked because he delivered exactly what his environment promised, and then some. Small hole in the wall staffed by a no-nonsense immigrant owner who can afford to cuss at his customers because his food knocks their socks off. Not everyone would like it, but enough do, and we’re among them.
Our job, as patrons, is to seek out those places that cut the mustard and do right by them. Recommend them to your chums and mates, befriend the waitstaff and ask after the cooks, try the dishes that come from the owner’s personal recipe book. If you happen upon a place that’s not firing on all cylinders, you also have choices- don’t recommend them, don’t go back, and don’t buy their blasted cookbooks. Life’s too short to waste in mediocre restaurants.
Wind’s dying down, back to the galley.