An Open Letter to An Unnamed Chef

20090526-localflavor-4506a00d83451cb0369e200e54fd9f0ba8834-800wi

We – I and eight friends – are at a beach house in southern Florida; half of the group is European, and for a variety of reasons they wanted to come here. I feel like saying “don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts,” even though I’m not.

Mostly we’re cooking – and I’ll write about that – but there was a funky Caribbean restaurant we wanted to check out last night, only it was closed. By the time we discovered this, it was psychologically if not literally too late to cook, so I was assigned the task of figuring out a nearby place to eat. Through the miracle of Chowhound, Yelp, and other you-be-the-judge sites, I picked what appeared to be an eclectic, trendy new place by a known local chef.

Locals will figure out where I went; I’m trying not to damage a perhaps well-deserved reputation on the basis of one visit to an obviously new and still-wrinkly restaurant. But there were some disturbing trends here, and they’re widespread, not only nationally but globally. (Fortunately they’re not nearly universal. But they’re scary.)

What I’d like to see, never again, are things like this:

-       A list of 20 beers, without a single person in the restaurant who knows anything about any of them. Not the server, not the bartender, not the non-existent sommelier. (By contrast, at a decent new NYC restaurant a week ago, when I asked about the differences among three beers, I was instantly brought two ounces of each, no charge.)

-       An insistence by the hostess that the chairs at the communal table were comfortable – before we sat in them – as an obvious ploy to discourage us from immediately complaining that they were not only uncomfortable but unsittable. (We were moved.) I cannot for the life of me figure out the advantage of this.

-       The constant harping of the server that the self-declared unusual menu (it comprised primarily small plates, which I think we’ve all seen before, unless we’re visiting from Labrador) meant that we had to order a great deal, as if somehow we could not judge the relationship between our appetites and the serving sizes. “We encourage you to order freely, as much as you want,” were among her last words before taking our order. Wow. Really?

-       The presence of the chef/owner, who never once took the time to ask any patron how things were going, but instead watched his staff, without actually touching, cooking, or tasting the food.

-       Not very good food at high prices. So it goes, but one’s tolerance for not-very-good food is in inverse proportion to prices. When small plates are nine and twelve dollars, and they’re really small, even the good ones tick you off. (When you buy a double cheeseburger for 99 cents, you’re not expecting much so you’re less likely to get aggravated.)

-       A more-or-less permanent reminder that one isn’t eating “enough,” as in the not-very-subtle “Are you ready to order more?” To continue the McDonald’s analogy, we all know that Mickey D’s makes money on soda (super cheap to produce, and overpriced) and fries (cheap, and perhaps “fairly” priced) than it does on burgers (relatively expensive to produce, despite subsidies, and relatively inexpensive to buy, thanks to subsidies and a loss-leader strategy), but when you order a 99 cent double cheeseburger, you’re only asked once if you’d like fries with that. When your cheeseburger arrives, you’re not reminded that fries remain an option.

-       Tuna tartare in sweet ice cream cones. Pre-cooked and re-heated Brussels sprouts with dried out bacon. Tasteless crab “po’ boys.” Miserly – really miserly, like pathetic – portions of those few things that were actually worth eating. God save us from the nine dollar beet.

-       An intentionally noisy room. Hard surfaces, loud music, an open kitchen … this produces noise. It works for Ssam Bar, I suppose it works for TGIFridays, but guess what – it doesn’t work everywhere, and especially not when the median age of your crowd is like 80. This is South Florida, not South Beach.

-       An overall attitude indicating that we were lucky to be there. Perhaps this is paranoia but I doubt it.

-       Bad art masquerading as hip. But hey – I can’t judge that.

 

Posted in Behind The Scenes

18 Comments

  1. Anonymous said...

    When you come back to NYC Mark, come by Agua Dulce for my Short Rib. You will not be disappointed. Such an experience can only be redeemed (if slightly) by a great tasty melt off the bone Short rib

  2. mcvalada said...

    An intentionally noisy room is why I will never go back to Mozza Osteria in LA. It ruined the meal.

  3. misterrios said...

    The beer thing really irks me. I’ve been to restaurants in the States where they get it all wrong, and I make it a point of correcting them. much to the ire of my tablemates. I’ve even been to breweries where this was the case. The thing is, at least they had a selection. Usually places say "We have everything" which means to say all forms of Bud Coors and Miller.

  4. myraslepoy said...

    I read your perfect letter the morning after an amazing dinner at Union Square Cafe in NYC. Our group was seated on time at a lovely table in a bustling (and slightly loud) room. Our service was attentive, respectful, gave knowledgeable advice on botht he food and drink when needed. The food was SUBLIME, quantities just right. It was worth every expensive penny, and I would gladly spend that amount if I could guarantee the same experience each time. {sigh} It is not always so!

  5. marcmarling said...

    Thank you for calling out the practice of suggesting that because they feature small plates – that we need to order more. There is a restaurant in D.C. (at least one) that does this to the point of being obnoxious, however the food is at least decent.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Recently had such a disappointing meal at a doppelganger of a restaurant in Toronto (they actually consider themselves to be a top spot in the city) that I was moved to write a letter to the chef and all of his partners (and to post here). Noise, design, service, apathetic cooking – all of your comments resonated. Two statements from your open letter that especially rang true:1. Miserly – really miserly, like pathetic – portions of those few things that were actually worth eating.2. An overall attitude indicating that we were lucky to be there. I find it funny that you mention McDonald’s in your article – because that’s where we stopped on our way home AS MY HUSBAND WAS STILL HUNGRY AFTER SPENDING MANY, MANY HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS ON DINNER.So… I can confirm the spread of the disease and sadly, there has been no attempt at a cure from either the creative or the business end of the restaurant in question. The diagnosis: apathetic and entitled to the core.

  7. obleak1 said...

    Spot on. I recently ordered a very expensive eggs benedict in a crowded, trendy semi-fine dining restaurant in the Midwest. Key word EGGS. Plural. My plate arrived with a lone half of an English Muffin. And I said nothing. Maybe that’s why they are all getting away with it…I would be interested in hearing how others have fared when they are vocal in their displeasure with a dining experience.

  8. pantagruel55 said...

    If you remove the references to South Florida, the piece could have been written about a large % of the recent restaurant openings in Seattle, WA, and to a lesser extent Portland, OR and San Francisco, CA. Thanks in part I believe to 15 years or so of Food TV.

  9. flying_tomato said...

    Apparently a version of a proverb, my mother used to say, "better a crust of bread in an attic than a banquet amidst strife." I cannot abide an intentionally loud restaurant–I feel as though I’m being assaulted as I eat.

  10. EmpireVanessa said...

    That place is so unbelievably loud (assuming of course I am a SoFL connoiseur and have used my Sherlock Holmes-esque skill to guess correctly!). Fortunately I was lucky enough to get some pretty tasty food, and knew the beers on the list already; did manage to correct the waiter on the pronunciation of two of them, though… We wont be returning, unless it’s for a seat on the outside patio!

  11. Anonymous said...

    Don’t dismiss all South Florida new restaurants – Try Sakaya Kitchen – no frills just good f’n food

  12. Anonymous said...

    Ah ha ha ha ha….great review. I know where you dined.

  13. elizabethr said...

    It’s exactly these kinds of experiences (any & all of them) that has led me and others I know to hesitate before booking our get-togethers anywhere — and that’s in New York City, land of countless eating possibilities! Many times we’ve opted for dinners or brunches at one of our homes, instead of handing over stupid amounts of money for seriously mediocre food served in assaulting loud rooms by unprepared, often rude servers who obviously have never been trained, don’t know anything about basic service or cuisine, nor are managed. Since I love to cook, serving at home is fine, but eating out is or should be a rewarding experience, or at least enjoyable! Your report that the chef-owner of the place was actually there and not attempting to improve the experience makes you more than generous for giving the place the benefit of a doubt and not naming it!

  14. Anonymous said...

    We didn’t have the same experience. My husband and I enjoyed the food we were served. The portions we had were not miniscule as this articles described, at least not on our visit. The plates were small but duh we ordered from the "small plates" menu purposely. To have expected anything else would have been ridiculous on our part. I have paid plenty more for allegedly "small plates" at fancier restaurants and received smaller portions and horribly underwhelming food. I think many people seem to miss the point of this restaurant. So used to supersizing in our country that people just don’t seem to understand what "small plate" actually means. It was nice to be able to try many different plates and feel full but not uncomfortable without having to haul half of it away to reside in my fridge until I throw it out wastefully. We had a wonderfully relaxed evening on the patio with a wait staff that did describe the items, didn’t push us to order more or rush us off. Anyway, our minds will be influenced by the experience we had not by what others experienced on visit. Perhaps, the author visited at an earlier time in this restaurants life when the kinks were still being ironed out. I definitely wouldn’t advise that you visit a well known and popular restaurant that has opened at a local casino. As we were putting forks of food in our mouths, the wait staff was shoveling additional food on our unfinished plates. Talk about a bad dining experience. A dinner that should have been a leisurely dinner was wrapped up in about 1/2 hour. Talk about indigestion.

  15. smartie said...

    I take exception to the comment on the median age being 80 in Delray Beach – I am in my 50s and my kids go to this restaurant and they are early 20s. I have not been to the place discussed but I know which restaurant the author is discussing so cannot comment on his review of the place. The median age of Palm Beach County is 42! Get your facts straight before you diss our favorite local Avenue. I assume the OP is from NYC – remember I-95 also goes in a Northerly direction.

  16. Anonymous said...

    Excuse any duplicate posts..I’ve been using Firefox and not sure if it submitted my comment..this is My IE attempt and my final attemptUnfortunately the median age in Delray is "like 80" or at least the populace of aging babyboomers look "like 80".I can’t recommend anything in Palm Beach County but if you’re in the area again…Cafe Maxx on Atlantic Bvld in Pompano has decent food with excellent service and a decent wine list and the median age is "80". Johnny Vs Las Olas in Ft Lauderdale has good food, with an excellent wine list and excellent service. The portions are too large and the descriptions of the dishes sound too complex but they do seem to work and are generally well executed. The Hi-Life Cafe in Ft Lauderdale is worth visiting to meet Kyle Miller their bartender/wine expert in residence. Miami you already know but to reiterate…in the Design District…Micheal’s Genuine is excellent and reminds me of restaurants out in my beloved Portland Oregon

  17. Wiliam Massey said...

    Too bad for that dining experience… Ft Lauderdale may be a little too far next visit, unless you want the best meal in Florida north of Michy’s….and that would be Valentino’s–(US1–1145 South Federal) …. don’t be afraid of the exterior, you’ll be shocked at the interior, the professionialism of the staff, and there is not–bar none– better food north of Michy’s in this state.

  18. Peter Confalone said...

    But William haven’t you been to Café Boulud in Palm Beach?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>