Hello, is this thing still on?

19 December 2010

While dining in a well regarded Manhattan eatery last week, I was stunned by the multitude of avoidable errors that this place made. Sure the food was good, maybe even very good, but there were so many decorative and service missteps that I had a difficult time focusing on my meal and the potential employers sitting across from me (yes, there is a chance that I may be moving to NYC; and no, I cannot discuss it here though I wish I could.)

As much as I hate giving away advice that I would normally be compensated to provide, the experience at that place prompted me to share:

Ten Common and Avoidable Misteaks Restauranteurs Make

  1. Cheap toilet tissue in expensive restaurants is incongruous but surprisingly common; it personifies the phrase “penny wise, pound foolish.”
  2. No one looks good under harsh lighting, please stop using it.
  3. If your restaurant lacks a mission statement, you’re doing it wrong.
  4. Seriously? You’ve heard about this for about a decade; how can you still not have hooks under the bar?
  5. Coco Chanel once said “that in order to be irreplaceable, one must be different.” The same thing applies to restaurants.
  6. The irreplaceable Ms. Chanel also suggested that a lady should always get dressed and then remove one thing before leaving the house. With the proliferation of overly constructed cuisine, the same should be said of every dish before it leaves the kitchen.
  7. Superlative service costs the exact same as mediocre service, why must so many places countenance the latter rather than seeking the former?
  8. Brag through your food, not on the printed menu. When menus are written boastfully, they make everyone more inclined to seek flaws in equal measure to flavor.
  9. Call your own restaurants frequently and from outside lines, you would be surprised by the dearth of telephone civility.
  10. No music on the website, use a minimal amount of flash, ensure that the hours, address & phone number are on every page, and answer your email.

p.s. Yes, I really did think that “misteaks” part was funny.


Recent Restaurant Recaps

14 October 2010

Just in case you were wondering if the inverse relationship between the quality of a restaurant’s view and the quality of their food still holds true, a recent (and forced visit) to the Charthouse in Old Town confirmed it. Over cooked and generally flavorless fish next to an over-priced and uninspired wine list was paired with indifferent service to leave me with the feeling that they are content to being in the league of vapid restaurants so long as the proximity to water and tourists keeps their coffers filled.

And because sometimes piling-on is entirely appropriate… their website commits two cardinal sins: music, and failing to have the address on the homepage. When will restauranteurs learn?

*******

Screwtop Wine Bar – I may be in the minority, but I’m not wowed by this place. The truffled popcorn they serve, gratis, at the bar is addictive, the ambiance is spare but charming, and the cheeses are very carefully sourced. However, if you’re a wine bar, what else should be the primary metric for evaluation? On this note, three recent visits have left me underwhelmed with both the wine list and the knowledge of the staff. Screwtop is a lovely place to spend the early part of an evening if you’re in that area, and you already know your way around a winelist, but I don’t expect to make a special trip in the near future. Not to pile on, but when a bartender flirts with my date when I go to the lieu, as the twitter kids would say #youredoingitwrong.

*******

Grand Cru Wine Bar – I adore their pricing model (retail wine shop with negligible corkage fees for wines purchased) and this is one of the more comfortable urban(ish) patios. However, their menu is in desperate need of an editor as it is fairly well stocked with items they do not execute well. This remains a lovely place to wile away an evening (especially when the weather cooperates) with a bottle of wine. When you get hungry, however, stick with the items they don’t cook (cheese and charcuterie) or the things they cook the least (salads and smoked salmon.)

*******

The three month old Chesapeake Room is a very well appointed space and an attractive addition to Barracks Row. The menu and cooking are, unfortunately, consistent with the general one-notch-above-mediocrity of the bustling lower 8th street area. Two brunches and dinner there were all culinarily flawed in some manner – over-salted or under-salted, sloppily plated, dull flavor combinations, and the like. As they’re still getting their kitchen legs beneath them, I am happy to give them additional chances… but mostly for drinking.

*******

Maddy’s is a Bar & Grille that has no illusions about being something other than that. Their food, however, is a lot better than it needs to be. With meaty and well seasoned wings, a good selection of sandwiches (all will leave some jus running down your fingers in a very satisfying and homey way,) an outstanding beer program, and a staff of pros who make you feel like a regular from your very first visit, I happily place Maddy’s on my list of favorite bars in the city.

*******

And on a final note… Dear Restaurant Owners & Managers, please teach your staff that an “I don’t know, let me check” is always preferable to weaving some nonsense from whole-cloth and unicorn tears.



Quick Restaurant Hits from Your Friendly Neighborhood Refugee

27 May 2010

Before we get into some bite sized restaurant nuggets, I would like to remind you all that I am celebrating the 2nd blogiversary tomorrow with an open question session and the window is still open to ask whatever.  Thank you to all of you who have sent email questions and left them in the comments already.  Feel free to ask more than one, the list is getting long but this is a joint celebration.

___________

Ardeo may not be on my list for anything else (inconsistency being the only constant will do that to a place in the same neighborhood as Palena) but their $25 (mimosas included) brunch might be one of the better values in the city.

Blacksalt is the reigning champion of seafood places in this area – at least in my mind – however, a recent lunch and dinner at Kinkead’s seem to indicate that they want to make an “everyone thought they were done” run at the title à la George Foreman.

The Palm (downtown location) feels about as dated as the first season of West Wing.  Their Prime Bites happy hour (really tasty noshes for $3.50 from 4:30 – 6:30 and after 9pm) however, lightens the mood but not so much the wallet.  The crowd is more interesting during the later portion of the evening… but that shocks no one.

Hudson has always had the feel of a place that is too hip by half for my tastes but they do make a damn fine Manhattan and I am still thinking about their bbq chicken pizza three days later.

I should have seen the problems coming when a recent first date countered with Brasserie Beck after my initial suggestion of Granville Moore’s. Both places have lost a step (more important for the former which is more expensive and doesn’t have the character of the latter) but she wanted Moules & Frites.  I’ve seen flashes of brilliance at Beck, but more commonly they yo-yo between visits and often on the same night.  My date was a bit pretentious, precious, and thought I should be way too grateful for the privilege, the woman was the same way… ba-dum-bum.

Mendocino Grille is still my favorite place to eat in the bastion of culinary mediocrity that is Georgetown, but am I the only one who really misses Barry Koslow’s hand at the stove?

Calling Matisse Café the best restaurant in Tenleytown may be similar to saying that they are the best team in the worst league in the city.  Saying that my last meal there makes me wish that I lived just a bit closer or they were in a more interesting part of the city, that’s a better compliment.

Note to Restaurateurs: I took a poll… even my deaf friends find your website music annoying.


Reader Question: What to Think When a Night Goes Sideways

25 May 2010

I recently received an email from a reader who wondered if I had seen a New York Times blog post about a sticky situation at a restaurant.

Short version of the story: Chef/Owner of an upscale Italian place in NYC’s TriBeCa neighborhood twice dressed-down an employee.  In full view of an awkward dining room, the chef’s volume was so high and tirade so vituperative and long that one guest, the author of the blog post, eventually went into the open kitchen to tell the chef that the yelling was ruining his experience.  Shortly thereafter, the chef went to guest’s table to apologize and explain that the yelling was in service of “maintaining quality.”  The guest dismissed this excuse because it was still “ruining [his] dinner.”  The party of four is asked/told to leave the restaurant.

The author of the blog post, Ron Lieber, went on to discuss the way he wished that he had handled the situation, the chef’s response when contacted for comment – no further apology was forthcoming – and asked about who was right, and how the readers would have behaved in either party’s shoes.

I’d really like to be unequivocally on Mr. Lieber’s side, but neither man has any claim to moral high ground.   The author stood up to a bully but only because that bully’s behavior had an impact on the author’s ability to enjoy a meal.  Yes, Mr. Lieber does belatedly acknowledge that the affair “conjured up the particular type of nausea that results from watching people yank their misbehaving kids around on the subway” but he does so almost as an aside to the repeated references to the fact that he “was paying to eat there” and that the abusive behavior was “ruining [his] dinner.”  Chef Forgione, for his part, was primarily angry because he felt disrespected in the presence of his employees.

When the essence of the debate pits “Please stop being emotionally abusive to your staff, it’s fucking with the taste of my fois gras” against “How dare you challenge my ability to emotionally abuse someone who depends upon me for his livelihood?” both parties share blame in the erosion of moral framework of restaurants in particular and society in general.

If we, as a society, cannot agree that this is emotional abuse and therefore categorically wrong* then my faith in our world is fundamentally misplaced.  When will we cease giving a pass to certain people because of their talent in culinary arts, or coaching football, or producing prodigious amounts of money?

Emotional terrorism is a poor excuse for leadership, ignoring it is to condone it, and celebrating it is nothing short of profane.  Abusive chefs aren’t charming, their tirades and assaults are not reasonable prices to be paid for their “genius,” and applauding or rewarding that behavior with more fame, more restaurants simply makes us all complicit in the whole sordid mess.

* potentially a reasonable case might be made for the intellectual and emotional manipulation in the armed services but I do not believe that it consistently rises to the point of abusive.


Missing My Mentor, Drinking to My Mentor

7 March 2010
I’ve never done any research on this, but I suspect that anyone who bothers to keep a journal could lose an entire afternoon reading through a randomly found old one.
X
Earlier today I was perusing an old OpenTable database looking for the aliases a prominent food critic to pass them to a friend who is about to open a restaurant.  All of the notes that we recorded about our guests read like the well worn pages of a journal chronicling a particularly lovely, enthralling, and more than occasionally difficult part of my life.
X
My jaw landed on the table when I reached the note about one of my wine mentors who happened to be a regular.  The grief I felt the day I learned of his death two years ago came rushing back.  Then I began to think of his incredible generosity  – with his time, knowledge, experience, and, yes, his wine too.
X
TJ would call me the mornings of his reservations and in an almost conspiratorial tone, he would tell me about some spectacular bottle with an impossible to find combination of vintage and winery.  He would drop it off before the opera and give me precise instructions on its opening – “OK, Refugee, crack it about 3; at 5, give it a taste and decant it if you think it’s ready; you’re gonna wanna taste it again ’round 8 and maybe double-decant it then but probably no later than 9:30 or so.”
X
He would arrive about 10:30 adorned with a smile as big as a Pagliacci grin… but real.  “Did ya like that wine, Refugee” he would ask despite knowing that it was nothing short of sublime; and we would talk wine in the bar for a few minutes before taking him to a table.  I always learned more during his 90 minute meal than I did in any 90 minutes of my sommelier courses and that was only from the random two minute bursts of conversation peppered with wine talk.
X
One night he walked into the restaurant – solo and without reservation as he often did during the week – and placed a winicorn* bottle on the bar.
X
“Refugee, it’s been a really shitty day, you know what we do on really great or really crappy days right” he asked with his usual ebullience  – it was classic MT; he loved life so much that even bad days were reason to be happy.
X
I replied with the philosophy learned from him, “Exceptional wines are for days that are exceptionally good or exceptionally shitty.”
X
“Damn right! Get a coupla glasses and have a drink with an old man.”
X
We were about halfway through our glasses when TJ rhetorically asked “Do you know why I come here, why we do this?”
X
Knowing him well enough to know that he would answer his own question, I just took another sip to fill the beat before he continued.
X
“There’s enough crappy sommeliers ‘round here with enough hoity-toity pretentious bullshit to fill every Tastevin** in the world.  You’re not like that, your staff’s isn’t like that, and I figure if I can help a young somm be better, and have some fun in the process, well… well, that just makes the wine world a better place.”
X
With that, he drained the rest of his glass and said “I gotta run, a few more bartenders*** to say hello to tonight; share the rest with your guys at the end of the night.”
X
The night TJ died I went to one of my favorite restaurants with one of the best bottles in my cellar.  I had a glass with my friend, the manager; I told him about MT.  I asked him to share the rest of the bottle with his staff.
X
I am pretty sure that someone bartender will be hearing a few TJ stories this evening… and drinking really well later.
X
X
X
* refers to some impossible to find bottle, usually very small production and about as much cash as a mortgage payment.
X
** refers to the ceremonial cup awarded to people who have been admitted to the International Court of Sommeliers
X
*** in TJ vernacular, “every time a great bartender becomes a manager a little piece of [his] soul dies.”  There is no higher compliment that he gave to managers than to call him/her a bartender.

Recent Recaps from Your Friendly Restaurant Refugee

3 March 2010

Congratulations to all of the local nominees for the James Beard Awards.  There is no greater honor than to be recognized in this august group. It is my hope that each of the finalists enjoys this time.

******

Café Soleil isn’t on the radar of most members of the DC epicurean scene.  I am not about to suggest that anyone needs to rush to get there, but it is a place that is worthy of some attention.

The menu itself reads just like that of any French bistro… well anywhere.  Roast Chicken, Steak Frites, Onion Soup, Short Ribs, standard salads, and a burger would not be confused with cutting edge anywhere.  However, the food is solid… if unremarkable.  The gracious service and generous happy hour are worth noting.  Five dollar glasses of pleasant wine, house cocktails, and three dollar beers make this smallish, comfortably elegant bar a rather pleasant place to wait out a Metro delay, have a quick not-overly-committal first date,  or just spend a couple of hours boozing with friends after work.  If you get hungry while you’re there, the food may not inspire, but it surely won’t disappoint.

******

Eatonville* was not my idea for a low-key birthday dinner with a group of five friends.  However, when invited for a celebratory repast, one accepts or declines and does so graciously.  The menu at Eatonville is very reasonably priced and reads like the offerings of a really good diner.  When our food arrived, it was solid, perhaps even good when measured against their wallet friendly pricing.  Unfortunately the service was comically bad.  From the time we were seated to encountering our server and ordering our drinks, felt like ten minutes.  I hadn’t checked my watch so I cannot be sure, but it was long enough for me to note the time of our order – two beers and a bottle of wine.  Drinks took 16 minutes.  At this point it became a bit of a game to me.  40 minutes before ordering our food. Over an hour from the time we sat at the table to the appetizers emerging.  Of the ten total plates, only three arrived at their correct location.  15 minutes after everyone completed their first course before plates where cleared.

At one point during the evening, I excused my self – ostensibly to use the wash closet, but really to find a manager to explain my dissatisfaction with our perpetually empty glasses, delayed and not quite hot food, and general unhappiness.  The host couldn’t be bothered to find a manager for me.  By the time we were ready for our check – because we were late for a show for which we should have been incredibly early – we just paid and left.

The part of this that galls me most is that I swore off Eatonville after a similar experience many months earlier. I sent an email to the owner, general manager, and a couple other people.  It went unanswered.  So, fool me twice, and I feel like the worst kind of fool.

******

In some ways the people who opened Cedar Crossing Café** and Wine Bar no more than ten yards from the end of the Takoma Metro station, had a pathetically low bar to hurdle on their path to success.  In an area that has plenty of cash (in that zip code, median home value is well north of $500K and well north of the city average,) there is a conspicuous absence of actual restaurants.  The ones that do exist are largely a place for sustenance rather than cuisine, and the bars… well that’s a wholly pathetic subject unto itself.

A wine bar and café really just had to not trip over their own prep list and they would be moved to the top of the heap.

Since they opened a couple of months ago, and I have been in a few times, I have been impressed by the fact that they actually take their wine program seriously AND still manage to keep their price per glass under $10 on average.  In a city filled with wine bars where a c-note is the usual price of a first date, a well sourced and reasonably priced winelist is a significant accomplishment in itself.

Despite the positives about the wine list, I wish that I had more than tepid feelings about this place.  The very solid winelist, more than respectable stemware, and mostly impressive beer program, do not entirely mitigate the concerns.  As soon as you enter, you will be stung by the impact of their poor ventilation – upon leaving, place all of your clothes in the dry cleaning pile.  The menus and wine lists are printed on crappy paper that isn’t as sturdy as the carry-out next door uses – it just feels cheap.  While the food is also reasonably priced, it is inconsistently prepared at best.  A well seasoned sandwich might be teamed with a green salad drowning in oil but absent salt.  The same soup might be lovely one night and barely recognizable the next.

They’re still new and Cedar Crossing is staying on my list and I remain optimistic about their success.  Rough around the edges in an area where people are starved for anything better than places with barbed wire for edges is still a tactical advantage.  Besides that, the winelist is pretty damn good… so’s the beer… and the Manhattan too.  Maybe I can live with the dry cleaning bill and eat beforehand?

******

* I will not link out of pure spite and for the collective awfulness endured

** No link available… which concerns me on their behalf


How High the Moon

1 March 2010

It’s Friday night and I had a familiar perch for such an evening, a bar stool.  This barstool however, was in Chicago where I was summoned for an urgent meeting with a new client.  Two stacks of paper and my shiny new netbook, whose name is Ava, are open in front of me.  I tucked into this Lincoln Park bar mostly because there seemed to be plenty of space to lay out my work, and the bartender had an easy smile about her.

Just about the time that I finished my Manhattan a couple of women, who would have gotten noticed even if they were not two of only a few people in the place and a gust of cold air had followed them in the door, entered the bar and took residence a few feet from me.  Their interaction with the bartender suggested that they were regulars if not friends with her.  Without ordering, two glasses of wine appeared on the bar.

I’m mostly ignoring my beer while scribbling notes, clicking keys, and reading reports when one of the women looks in my direction and said “It’s Friday night, why are you still working?”

I took a pausing breath before responding, “Well, I’m in town for work, and there’s still work to be done… being here is better than the service bar in my hotel.”

“Didn’t think you were from here – Chicago guys don’t work on a Friday night.”

A few more random lines were bandied to and fro but they went back to their wine, and I went back to my work after a minute or so.

Just after 8pm my Crackberry buzzed.  I was dumbstruck by the message.  I must have read it four or five times before I exclaimed “Wow” far louder than intended.

“Care to share?” the woman sitting closest to me asked.

This was one of those moments when you have to tell somebody so I just told these two women I was certain I would never see again*.  “So, I write this anonymous blog… well mostly anonymous as I have met a few people through it, but that’s not really germane.  Through the blog, I invented a holiday last week, International Crush Day, dedicated to declaring crushes.  I wrote a blog post declaring a few of my crushes.  I wrote that I crush on Katty Kay because ‘smart with a British accent just sounds better.’”

“You mean Katty Kay from NPR?” one of the women asked.

“From NPR, and the BBC and newspapers, and the Meet the Press, and bunch of other stuff too” I replied.

“Yeah, she is pretty hot” the ladies concurred.

“Well she, Katty Kay for the love of bacon, just left a comment on my blog, and frankly, I’m a little school-girl giddy about it.”

Andi and Monica spent the next hour or so peppering me with questions about the blog.  We spent the next four hours drinking, eating, letting the place fill around us, and talking about whatever, but I was still floating on the notion that one of my famous crushes bothered to send me a message.

* I’ve seen them both again… and just might see them a bit more, but I’ll tell that story tomorrow.


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