GOD-DESS

Sensational Living®

September 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall

IN TOUCH WITH DINING OUT

Originally, I had planned to write this month's column about "listening" … listening to that "little voice" that can keep us out of trouble. However, when I listened to my own little voice, I realized my lifestyle column this month should be about restaurant dining. Since I am known for my extensive cooking background (among other things), my writing a column about restaurant dining may seem counterintuitive, but it is a natural outgrowth of my passion for both food and education.

Of course, the fact that I spent half of August 2004 dining in restaurants, providing me with a plethora of amusing (and not-so-amusing) anecdotes, impacted my decision as well. I have recently had some of the best, worst and most "unusual" meals of my life, and those experiences have coalesced with past experiences to provide the following primer on restaurant dining. This column is essentially organized chronologically, from pre-meal to end of meal.

Reservations:

Generally, if you are dining out, it is a good idea to make reservations. Some places don't accept reservations, so the point is moot in those cases. But, if you arrive at a restaurant without having made a reservation, and you have to wait, please don't complain. You had it in your power to ensure prompt seating, and you didn't take advantage of your power! If you are going to be late, please call the restaurant to let them know; usually, they can shuffle their reservations, and accommodate you when you arrive; as I say so often, communication is the key! If you don't call when you are running later than about 15 minutes, don't be surprised when your reservation is given away; most restaurants will try to accommodate you, but don't expect it.

Ordering:

I have found that most often, when I am seated, the first question is whether I would like a cocktail or glass of wine. Alcohol is one of the greatest profit centers for restaurants, and in this economy, I don't blame them for trying to increase the booze bill. However, for me, dining out is about both relaxing and enjoying the cuisine. I have too much on my plate (no pun intended) to overindulge in alcohol, so I am very conscious about how much I drink when I'm out (cost is another factor, as is maintaining coherence in order to drive home safely). I usually respond to the server with, "I'd like to view the menu first in order to determine which wines will go best with my food. However, I would like some water, please." In my experience, this comment will be met with 1) acknowledgement that I am a serious diner, 2) a question regarding whether I would like bottled water [I don't; I prefer what was called "chilled water" during my recent trip to Las Vegas, which is a euphemism for tap water], and/or 3) rarely contempt that the bar tab will not be as high as they might have hoped. I ignore the last reaction, and will probably not return to a restaurant that tolerates such behavior. Also, while many people enjoy a cocktail (hard liquor) before dinner, or even with dinner, I have found that hard liquor tends to impair my palate more than I like; I encourage you to think about this.

There are so many ways to order food when dining out. One of my personal favorites is to attend special food and wine dinners, where everything is planned out to offer specially designed food to accompany particular wines. I am very fortunate that two of the most talented people in food and wine pairing, Drew and Susan Goss, have a restaurant (West Town Tavern) here in Chicago that offers a "First Monday Wine Dinner" every month, and I am even more fortunate when I am able to make that dinner! It's always a great bargain, too (though this is often the exception when enjoying special food-wine dinners)!

Sometimes you may encounter a prix fixe menu, with or without wines. This can be a fantastic opportunity, as I have experienced at Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA. While specific wines do not accompany the food there, one has many choices by both the bottle and the glass. I recall one time when I had ordered a tempranillo to accompany a beef entrée, and had some wine left to go with the dessert, a simple walnut tart; the wine and the tart created one of those flavor epiphanies that I will never forget! Pure serendipity! Pure heaven!

When ordering a meal ala carte, you have a variety of choices. Perhaps you'll go with the appetizer-entrée-dessert route; there's really no special guidance I can offer here, except to encourage you to think about whether different wines are needed for each course. Perhaps you'll consult with your dining companion(s), and order a variety of dishes to share. I did this recently with my traveling companion throughout western Oregon and northernmost California; sometimes we shared bites, and sometimes we split courses. We experienced the epitome of this type of dining on August 9, 2004, at Peerless Restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, where the server, Angie, suggested that we create our own tasting menu. This has to rank as one of the top three dining experiences of my life. We ordered three appetizers and two entrees, along with a total of four wines, and the restaurant kitchen was able to split each course and each wine for us to enjoy a truly sophisticated dining experience. Angie was exceptional (she CARED about our experience!), the food was exquisitely prepared by the executive chefs and co-owners, Stu Stein and Mary Hinds, and the wines (chosen from the wines-by-the-glass options to pair with the foods by manager and sommelier Michael Biggs) were perfect matches! The entire evening was both stimulating and relaxing … it doesn't get much better than that!

A final ala carte ordering option, especially if you want a variety of flavors, is to order a variety of "small dishes" (usually appetizers, soups and salads, but some restaurants are now specializing in "small plates" in the style of tapas). I did this three times during my mid-August 2004 visit to Las Vegas. I had a spectacular meal at Bradley Ogden, where the wonderful flavors of each course were paired with eye-popping dishes (and I was lucky that the single wine I chose, a ZD Reserve Chardonnay, paired really well with three of the four courses!). I also did this at Nobhill, where the food was much more average and the wines less satisfying, but still pleasant. Finally, I had a truly bizarre experience at Bouchon, where I ordered 5 appetizers, indicating I wanted a variety of tastes; the server assumed I was short on time (why?), and instructed the kitchen to serve the 5 dishes in 3 courses, which I must say were served in a stupid order and paired without regard for flavor profiles … but more on that below.

Service:

I want to take some time to talk about restaurant service. I know some people don't like the habit of servers introducing themselves, but I think it's terrific (in fact, I think that those who do NOT want to know their servers' names are at least subconsciously classist)! I want to develop a relationship, even friendship, with my server, and often this has some very positive ramifications. For instance, because of the positive relationship I have had with servers, I have sometimes received an "extra pour" of wine! That's always welcome! If you frequent the same restaurant, you'd better have a good relationship with the servers or they may treat you as a pariah (that's extreme, as most servers I know are consummate professionals).

Of course, my motivating principles are respect and communication. Because I respect the servers as the professionals (and human beings) they are (and don't treat them as "servants"), I often engage them in conversation. I try to dine only at excellent restaurants where servers often enjoy sharing their knowledge of the food and the wines (or other beverages) that they believe will accompany the food well. That said, sometimes exceptional communication is needed when there is a breakdown in understanding. At restaurants, I often inquire about the availability of a tasting menu. At Peerless Restaurant, Angie immediately suggested we create our own tasting menu from the regular menu, and she helped us graciously. At another restaurant, the server asked how many courses I wanted. I was taken aback, and explained all I cared about was flavor, and that the number of courses didn't matter; she explained that she needed to know the number of courses so that she could talk to the chefs and come back with a cost; when I said this was too much work, and I would create my own tasting menu, she seemed confused, so I just stopped the conversation, and said that, without a printed tasting menu, I would simply order several appetizers, and go from there. She then explained that the restaurant NEVER had a printed tasting menu, treating all such requests in an impromptu manner; this can be exciting, but it was not what I wanted that night, so I had to adopt a slightly more forceful stance and insist I was going to order multiple appetizers. She was trying to provide excellent service, and once we stopped talking past one another, she was a fabulous server!

Remember the bizarre lumping of courses I mentioned above at Bouchon? I could have stopped that, but I wanted an anecdote for this column (how I suffer for you, my readers!). The cream of corn soup was served first, and it was delightful, though it didn't pair particularly with the delicious Biale Spenker Zinfandel I ordered to drink (my fault, and no one else's). Then, duck confit arrived, paired with my endive and bleu cheese salad; not only didn't these dishes work with each other, but they were perhaps the heaviest of the remaining four, and certainly the confit should have been served last … at least both went well with the wine. After those dishes were cleared, despite the server's concern for my time, I had to wait between 20 and 25 minutes for the next two dishes … one was a cod brandade, and the other was a country pate … the chef hadn't liked how the first brandade had come out, and prepared it again, and to placate me, the server did offer another generous (very generous!) pour of the zinfandel, for which I was grateful, though I was not grateful for the pate being served last. I finally asked the server why he had assumed I was in a hurry, and he explained that "Single gentlemen generally want to get out as quickly as possible" (of course, that's why I ordered five appetizers instead of a single entrée) and when I asked why he hadn't just asked me if I had time constraints, he apologized profusely (cynical note: I actually believe he was more interested in "turning" the table for another party). Incidentally, earlier I had pointed out a chip in my water glass, and asked the server to retire the glass AFTER I was done with it; he removed the glass immediately, leaving me without water or wine for 5 minutes until he returned with a fresh glass. You can be sure I will not be returning to Bouchon in Las Vegas.

The fact that I could have changed my dining experience at Bouchon by explicit communication is a valuable lesson. If you desire a particular type of dining experience (whether it involves extensive sharing of info by the server, a discussion of wine with the sommelier, a significant personal celebration or a non-obtrusive romantic dinner), you MUST communicate this to the restaurant, either when you make a reservation, when you arrive (speak to the host), or when your server arrives at the table. These people are not mind readers. Be realistic in your expectations!

Tipping:

If you can't afford to tip, don't dine out! In the restaurants where I dine, servers work hard to make the entire experience pleasant, exciting, and even joyous. They deserve appropriate tips. If I get mediocre service, I will tip 15%. But, if the service is good, I leave a minimum of 20%. If the service is exceptional, I leave up to 30%, and sometimes, even more. And please, please, PLEASE do not punish the servers for faults of the kitchen. The servers are there to make the dining AMBIENCE pleasant; there is nothing they can do about what the kitchen produces (and it may not even be a problem! See my discussion of "Problems" below.).

Problems:

1. Given the amount of dining out I have done over the years, there has been a high probability of problems. It's merely a statistical reality. Here are some entertaining examples. Recently, in Crescent City, CA, a friend and I dined at a restaurant offering simply prepared local fish; this is what we wanted! The price was right, but the fish was dry, insipid, and prepared in a manner that neither of us (both experienced cooks) could identify! That was scary!

2. At the Chicago location of Napa Valley Grille, I once dined with friends and ordered several of their "Perfect Pairs," appetizer-sized portions of food specially prepared to pair with particular wines. First, the initial food offering was delivered without the wine; when I asked my server about this, he said that he had not brought the wine because I was still enjoying my aperitif wine (excuse me; I ordered a "perfect pair"!); when he did bring the wine, it paired less well with the food than my aperitif wine did. I asked the server about this, and he explained that the restaurant was new, the "perfect pairing" idea was new, and no one had tasted the wines with the food. Imperfect pairings are NOT a reason to complain, but promoting "perfect pairings" that have not been tested is a MAJOR reason to complain, and I did. The management informed me that our server was incorrect (only in words; none of the pairings "worked," at least to my palate), that all of the pairings had been tested. Well, this was just one problem with the restaurant management, and I can now report that it has closed its doors. Interestingly, this restaurant did inspire me to a more noble act, described below under "Praise."

3. In Orlando, I dined at a restaurant that I did not realize was a chain. The server was entirely without knowledge of the food, which was a problem. The mussels were delicious, though, but when the prosciutto-wrapped monkfish arrived, it was too salty to eat (prosciutto is salty; the salting of the monkfish should have been much more moderate). I complained to the manager, who removed the cost from my bill. But, my palate was ruined for the night, and the wine tasted like crap afterwards. I won't mention the restaurant's name publicly because the manager satisfied me (and almost always, I give management a chance to rectify a problem; if they don't, they're fair game), but if you want to know, email me.

4. At another Orlando restaurant, called Zinfandels (not to be confused with the former Chicago restaurant, Zinfandel, which has provided me with dozens of exceptional dining experiences prior to its closing), I had high hopes for a wonderful food and wine experience. First, I was seated at the table next to the kitchen (as a frequent solo diner, this often happens to me; sometimes I complain, but usually I go with the flow). Next, when I started to speak with my server about which wines would go with which foods, he explained that he didn't know because nobody ever orders wine, and no one else could help me. Hmmm. Red flag time! I ordered a mesclun salad, and that's what I got: simple dressed greens, with no other accoutrements; this is indicative of a chef/kitchen with no talent. I also ordered a version of steak frites; poorly executed, and sloppily presented. I tried to speak with management when I left, but not a single person was available. Subsequently, I wrote an email to the director of food services, and received an entirely ambivalent response. I won't return to this restaurant!

5. In St. Petersburg Beach (Florida), I visited the revolving restaurant at the top of the Holiday Inn. OK, it was a Holiday Inn, and I should have been suspicious, but I was in a tourist area, and the potential of watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico from this high restaurant was too enticing. Service was horrific; I waited 25 minutes for my server to appear with my salad (or even bread and butter) after she deposited my wine; the salad arrived simultaneously with the entrée. The entrée was removed, and despite claims to the contrary, was redelivered after I finished the salad. The food was so scary I couldn't eat it, and my immediate complaints to on-site management and subsequent emails to top management were met with mealy-mouthed responses and lies. I will always avoid the Holiday Inn at St. Petersburg Beach.

6. On that same trip, I dined at a hip restaurant in Gulfport, Backfin Blue. Imagine my surprise when, despite rave reviews, I was served an entrée with asparagus that had clearly begun to decay! I pointed this out to the server, who shrugged. I was feeling non-confrontational (don't ask me why!), and just avoided the offending asparagus; I won't be so passive again (though I also won't visit Backfin Blue again, given the potential for danger).

7. One example of a non-problem is "flavor." Personally, I recall only a few times when the flavor of dish was offensive to me, and those were either at buffets or at inexpensive ethnic restaurants where I just didn't have the palate for the particular dishes; this is not a reason to complain, as the problem is with me. A related issue is chefs who seem to have limited talent in flavoring their foods; dining with a friend at a Lincoln Square (Chicago) hot spot, I was struck that three of the four pseudo-Asian dishes we shared had exactly the same flavor profiles (soy, ginger, garlic … no one with the slightest knowledge of Asian cuisines … of which there are many … would make this error). Similarly, another friend and I recently visited one of the top-ranked restaurants in Portland, Oregon; I was amused while doing research to read one on-line criticism that the chef put fennel into every one of his dishes; I was less-than-amused when I found that three of the four dishes my friend and I ordered had fennel in them! I'm sorry, but this is just indicative of a serious lack of talent and creativity (and we both enjoy fennel!). On the other side, I have heard of one restaurant chef who, when criticized for preparing food with "too much flavor," comments to herself that she is doing the right thing (have eaten her food, she IS doing the right thing). "Non-flavor" is another issue, but as much as I would like to, complaining about non-flavor is also not allowed, as in most cases the restaurant is merely catering to the flavor-challenged American public. Expand your taste horizons. Please!

Miscellaneous:

Cell phones: Don't even think about using a cell phone while you are dining in a fine restaurant. This activity apparently even has its own jargon term, "yellular." The "yell" derives from "our" tendency to speak louder when on the phone. Thank you for your kindness.

Volume of speech: Before leaving the subject of "yelling," please realize how voices travel, and try to modulate your voice. When I'm at another table, I have absolutely NO DESIRE to hear your conversation. Thank you for your kindness.

Bragging: When diners at a neighboring table choose to speak loudly enough for me to hear, I am often amused by their attempts to impress one another with their knowledge, and their server with their culinary intellect. OK, this is just a pet peeve of mine, and it's even a behavior I've "maybe" indulged in on occasion. But it's silly. We should all stop it. Thank you for your kindness.

Smoking: Even though very few "good" restaurants allow smoking in the dining room, sometimes it is allowed. Just because something is allowed doesn't mean it has to be indulged in. This is not a rant against smoking; I believe everyone has a right to indulge in whatever vices they wish to indulge in, as long as it doesn't impact others. Be considerate when smoking, as it does impact the dining experience of others. Thank you for your kindness.

Perfume: Not only should smokers be considerate of others, but also perfume/cologne-wearers should learn to be considerate. Such intrusive aromas have no place in fine-dining establishments. And wearers of such scents must, must, MUST learn to wear them with a light touch. Sometimes I have been so overwhelmed by perfume pigs that I have actually gagged (usually on public transportation, not in restaurants, but you know what I mean, don't you?). Thank you for your kindness.

Dress code: Different restaurants have different dress codes, though they are rarely enforced. I believe comfort is one of the most important aspects of dining out. However, that doesn't mean you have to be "sloppy." Some have accused me of overdressing, but I think that is a better error than "under dressing" (and you'd be surprised at the number of perks I've received over the years for dressing well in restaurants). I was recently in Las Vegas, with extremely lax dress codes. I was surprised to see t-shirts, Bermuda shorts and sandals at a table near mine at the venue voted "Best Restaurant in Las Vegas." Be thoughtful of others' sight lines. Thank you for your kindness.

Cleanliness: I have been accused of having an overly sensitive nose (see my perfume comments above), but I have been shocked by the hygiene habits of some of my fellow diners. These are not people who have no access to running water (an assumption based on the cost of dining in these particular restaurants); they are people who are either too lazy or are too unaware of their own aroma to practice appropriate cleanliness. Be aware of your own scent! Thank you for your kindness.

Praising:

I always like to end on a positive note. There are so many ways that you can move a mere dining experience into a spiritual growth activity, and most of those involve being mindful of praise and gratitude. Did your server provide excellent service? Tell him/her (in addition to leaving an appropriate tip!). Was the food really fantastic? Ask that your praise be delivered to the kitchen; you may even get to meet the chef! Were the presentations extraordinary? Don't be shy about mentioning this to the server, the host, or anyone who can convey the information to decision makers. And please SMILE. You would be surprised by the number of people who don't smile while dining; I don't get it, as dining on good food is a joyous experience for me.

If you really want to make someone's day, send a follow-up letter of praise (just as it is appropriate to complain when there has been a problem, it's even better to praise, but statistics show that while each complaint represents about 10 other people, each praise represents about 20, which indicates our natural inclination to gripe rather than praise!).

Although I was going to include this next restaurant in the "problems" section, that would have been unfair. I want to make sure you visit Everglades at the Rosen Center whenever you are in Orlando. I dined there twice, and had two wonderful meals (perhaps made better by my exceptional server, James!). Both meals were well prepared and presented. The only downside was that the kitchen overcooked one of the entrees; when I pointed this out to James, he agreed immediately and offered to have the kitchen replace it. As I hate to waste food, I ate the medium (rather than rare) bison tenderloin, silently hoping there would be "some" adjustment to the final bill. Imagine my surprise when James removed the entire entrée price from the bill! Upon returning home, I immediately sent an email lavishly praising both James and the restaurant; the Rosen Center's Director of Food and Beverage expressed her appreciation for my effort. It was a win-win-win situation. I also wrote to the Orlando Sentinel's food critic to make sure he knew that Everglades (and James) provided wonderful food, service and ambience; he appreciated my effort.

Another time, after attending a truly mediocre wine dinner at the above-described Napa Valley Grille (cold food was served at room temperature, and hot food was cold, among MANY other problems), I was inspired to send an email to the owners of Zinfandel (the one in Chicago, not Orlando) outlining why THEIR wine dinners were always so spectacular. Titled, "Catching someone doing something right" (borrowed from The One-Minute Manager; I was a management executive, afterall), my missive used my background as an event planner to outline how every detail of every wine dinner offered by Drew and Susan Goss and their team was exemplary; they later informed me that they had shared my email with their team. I was honored.

Praising the "team" is very important, and reminds me of a letter of praise I once sent to Alice Waters (a major culinary hero of mine) of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, about one of her servers, Lee. The action that earned this letter (beyond the fabulous food I have always had on my visits to Chez Panisse, truly worthy of all of the praise that Ms. Waters receives) is that the server, Lee, in addition to providing delightful service, had actually remembered me from my first visit to Chez Panisse, which had to be 18 months earlier! That is personal service at its best, and she was a true gem! I look forward to my next visit to this Berkeley institution.

I don't know of anyone who doesn't enjoy being praised. When you find ANYTHING worthy of praise, DO IT! In the grand scheme of things, taking the time to write a letter or email of praise after experiencing sensational service, fabulous food, wonderful wine and/or amazing ambience will make all parties involved, including yourself, feel fantastic. Think of it as a special type of "thank you" note.

Even more important, if you find a restaurant whose philosophy you respect (such as serving organic, or local, or cruelty-free [ie, no veal or foie gras] or generally sustainable foods), let them know by both letter and by frequenting that restaurant to the best of your ability. By doing this, the restaurant can continue its practices, and you can truly impact the entire planet, one person at a time!

On that rather heady note, I'm going to close. I hope this essay has offered a perspective that will allow you to enhance and better appreciate your next experience dining out. Guess what? It all boils down to being mindful about your restaurant experience! I know you've encountered that concept before if you've read other columns here at GOD-DESS, and I hope I'm continuing to make a case for living with intention and mindfulness. Let me know what you think at 773.508.9208 or email me. You can also contact me if you want some restaurant recommendations; I've dined extensively in every major city of America, and a number of other countries (especially Canada). Bon appetit (I offer this as homage to the late Julia Child, one of my culinary heroes)!

 

 

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