Adventures in Dining

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What Separates the Good from the Bad, Part III (Final) June 10, 2007

Filed under: Philosophy,What makes a good Restaurant — hpandaw @ 12:14 am

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.

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What Separates the Good from the Bad, Part II June 9, 2007

Filed under: Philosophy,What makes a good Restaurant — hpandaw @ 11:02 pm

Last post, I introduced 4 determinants of a Restaurant’s performance. In this post, I’ll detail them further and give some context.

I’ll start with the service, since this, for me, is the most important aspect of a restaurant, and the one to which I give the most weight. Naturally, there is the basic contract entered into between every patron and server- prompt attention, glasses full, dirties removed, order accuracy, don’t sneeze on the food/tip like they need it because they do. But there’s so much more that can move an experience from ”pleasant” to “I’m coming back here”. If you can steer me away from menu mistakes and make recommendations based upon what I say I like and not just what’s 6 hours from hitting the Dumpster™ or what’s got the lowest food cost, I’m happy. If you are discrete should my table be in deep conversation, and not use the Royal We every time you check in, I’m delighted. If the staff greets me by name (pull it from my reservation) and/or remembers me from the last time I visited, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to try when we return. You don’t have to chair my hinder or napkin my lap, but I really appreciate when the service is smart about their product and takes the time to learn a little about their guests.

 

Food, glorious food, there’s really not much in the world more emotion-laced or quick to get people talking. Except perhaps literature… or maybe movies. And there was that one art exhibit- you know the one, had those pictures like the ones you always wanted to take with your significant other, but were too afraid of what the developer at Wal-Mart would think of you .

WalMart Greeter

So maybe other things are equally evocative, but food can be both pedestrian and this-is-too-good-to-swallow. Good restaurants do the latter even when using ingredients that are the former. Not every item has to have a pedigree that makes me feel ashamed to eat it. Nor is the kitchen an alchemist’s playground where chefs with stars in their eyes feign at conjuring gold from lead. Great food comes from great cooking AND great ingredients, but too many restaurants substitute one for the other.

 

I am reminded of an experience at a Vegas-meets-Miami seafood restaurant where the dishes showed too much effort. The effort of always pairing something with sauce; the effort of mashing together flavors that were not just contrasting, but incongruous; with being so bent on piling on more ingredients that you forgot what the dish was based around. If your kitchen is churning out plates that the waitstaff can’t identify (gee, I’m not sure if that’s passion fruit chutney or chipotle-infused remoulade), they’ve gone too far and need a refresher on the *big picture*. Food should nourish, should comfort, should arouse, but food should not confuse.

 

It seems to me, and I’m sure there are others who agree, that there is a direct, positive correlation between the number of adjective phrases of a menu item and its cost. Haven’t run the actual stats on it, but napkin math looks something like this:

1.5X<Preparation Method or Cut, preferably in French> +2X<Location/Farm> + 1X<Actual Item>, 1.1X<passive voice verb> + with/by/on/over + 1.7X<an ingredient you’ve never heard of OR pretentious and esoteric form of a common ingredient> = Your Bill

As an example, you could have: Beef stew & potatoes = $16

Or you could have: Slow-cooked daube of Happy Calf Farm’s Belgian Blue shank, accompanied by roasted garlic & Filipino chervil white chuño puree = $42

And if your menu is in a fancy font that is hard to read by candlelight, you can probably add another 2% onto the price.

I’m not afraid to put down my duckets for quality and unrecognized hard work that goes on behind the pass-through, but if the restaurant has to hide behind a slough of adjectives and fonts to gussy up your menu, then the joint is overpriced. Conversely, if the descriptions are straightforward and instead enhanced by the waitstaff’s description, then I’m in a better position to judge value and feel like I’ve got my money’s worth.

 

Still with me? I hope so because you paid your nickel and I aims to please.

 

Last piece of the good restaurant puzzle is the environment, which I think is often too emphasized, when instead it could be subjugated. Perhaps restaurateurs believe a sizzling space can fool the taste buds, but that’s hornswoggle. Consider a trusted source for good dining recommendations; has s/he ever said, “the food is so-so but you simply must experience the zinc bar top and subway tile bathrooms!”? And if you ever got such a tip, would you ever follow through?

 

So the true role of the ambiance is to support, not distract. Our favorite restaurants run the gamut from an oyster bar that looks like it was carved out of an old municipal swimming pool; to a formal hotel-based establishment with service à la russe. We like these places because their environment complements the service, the pricing, and the food simultaneously. Switch the décors around, and they would cease to be our canteens of choice. This is why strip-mall locations have a hard time charging more than $10 a dish, even if they had a celebrity chef in the back shrieking “Bam!” every two minutes and their own foie gras farm in the Hudson Valley.

Emeril Shill's

 

Common sense, right? Unfortunately, execution must be a great deal harder than it seems.

Next post, we’ll apply this framework to some actual restaurants. Hold onto your hats!

 

What Separates the Good from the Bad, Part I

Filed under: Philosophy,What makes a good Restaurant — hpandaw @ 10:50 pm

 

Sometimes when the seas are calm and the winds stiff enough where we can set down our oars for a spell, the Argonauts and I strike up a lively banter on a topic du jour. Usually we end up discussing the meaning the Golden Fleece, will we ever find it, could it ever become a cryptic logo for an anachronistic clothier, etc. The second most popular topic is food and restaurants, which is what leads me to the long-winded diatribe below.

 

I believe a successful sit-down-keep-elbows-off-the-table-does-this-shirt-look-OK restaurant has to hit the mark in four distinct, yet interconnected, areas. Kind of like the human heart with its 4 ventricles, or the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Or The Beatles, although we all know that Richard “Ringo Starr” Starkey actually carried the others. Here’s a drawing of the four key areas:

 

the restaurant performance house

 

The androgynous figure in the upper left represents service- how am I greeted, how am I served, how are questions and problems handled.

The place setting stands for the food- a restaurant without it would really just be lots of confused hungry people sitting in a room until they got bored enough to leave. Not unlike the Republican National Convention.

The dollar sign is the cost- how much am I going to pay, how much time is going to be spent, how far in advance will I have to book.

And, although it goes without saying, the Pinaceae Pseudotsuga menziesii in the southwest square represent the restaurant environment- the neighborhood, the décor, the ambiance, the restrooms, and so on.

The smoke from the chimney means nothing, it’s just an aesthetic effect, in the same way that some restaurants put “from our wood burning oven” in front of a menu entry. I do think it makes the house come together, though.

 

Consider the establishment and your dining experience in light of these four areas, and you get a good picture “good” or “bad”, to use the relevant terms. One isn’t more important than any other, but they can balance each other out. Like women who will forgive a man his past dalliances if he keeps his nails clean and doesn’t forget to use a hamper.

 

Incidentally, MBA-types call this a balanced scorecard, and Harvard’s Kaplan & Norton would charge you an ugly penny for just the previous paragraph alone. You get it free from me, but I don’t have the credentials or the winning smiles of those gentlemen.

 

Kaplan and Norton

Next post will flesh out these 4 areas…