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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Cilantro Free Does Not a Good Meal Make

It's said that bad service makes good food taste bad and bad food taste worse. It's also said that a restaurant review that dedicates any of its precious few words to notes on service is an implicit indictment of the restaurant's food: bad service makes bad food more conspicuous, less than sublime food calls attention to other arena's of dining, service being the most obvious of these arenas and handicap bathroom accessibility now too entering the mix.

While one could have held a wheelchair orgy in either of my brunch venue du jour's restrooms (if one were into that sort of thing) one would have had to lose his/her sensory skills altogether to miss the terrible service and uncharacteristically bad food featured, today. It is not lightly that I report this experience (blogging about hating cilantro is serious work) as I eat at this Underhill Ave. Prospect Heights Restaurant nearly every Saturday or Sunday, but the service has always been atrocious and today it has come to a head -- it has made the food bad, and that takes the bad service from the realm of idiosyncratic to inexcusable.

When our obviously new, but not necessarily in a bad way, server spilled a decent portion of my orange juice on the table, then took an extra napkin (we were 3 at a 4 top) to clean it up saying "Didn't ever happen," I found it cute, sort of like something I might say if I were him*, except, and this is a big difference, I would have actually gotten rid of the evidence of the thing that didn't ever happen -- he did not. Cheeky/feisty became sloppy/bad. But that's ok. Service is quirky here. I took my own napkin (knowing I'd have to ask for one right away if I wanted one for my meal by the time it got there) and finished the job, laughing and sharing my thoughts with my poor roommates/friends who constantly put up with not only my service and food criticism, but also my deep and relentless loathing of cilantro, something that inevitably comes up at every meal.

My toast was burnt. That's an interesting bad service/bad food overlap, because 1) it's entirely possible the server did the toasting of the toast and either way 2) the server should do some quality control and not bring obviously, objectively, deeply burnt toast to any table ever. I come in every week, I wear the same hat, almost every week, I chat with the managers and chef. Everyone deserves unburnt toast, but you treat your regulars the best, that's just how it's done. He quickly threw some not burnt wheat toast on my table without a word or skipping a beat, also fine, the guy was obviously busy, no doubt in the weeds of his own making.

Then there's the main dish. I had a Nova Salmon soft scramble, a special of the day. The eggs were neither soft nor really scrambled, and there were globules of uncooked uncombined white throughout. The salmon was overcooked -- I was hoping for a lox situation, but I didn't ask, so that's my fault. Then there was green stuff mixed in, looked like scallions and chives, but didn't do much to enhance the dish, other than add some color and scare me for a moment that the dish might get worse once I got a big bite of unexpected cilantro. I didn't, but I don't think that it would have even mattered: I know, that's how bad the whole experience was becoming.

The usually great salad wasn't any good (too much frisee and it was that really thick too green stuff) and I'd probably only convinced myself that the coffee wasn't as delicious as normal. When the usually affable manager lady came over and said nonchalantly, more by us than to us, more at us than with us, "We really need that table ladies," I was nonplussed . I urged my fellow diners not to hurry, that we could finish our coffees and cocktails, even though we really wanted to leave immediately after her order, even though we'd waited twenty minutes for our table, even though we'd only been sitting for 35 minutes. "There's a nice way to do that," I said, "and that wasn't it." I thought about saying something to the manager lady, a move I would have made in a more confrontational mood, but something about November rain says to me "blog it, don't say it."

Brunch is all about turnover, turn and burn, in and out, make your money then get them out. Restaurants are also about pleasing customers. Sometimes you have to balance the two, sacrifice a bit of one for the benefit of the other. But don't sacrifice both, for the benefit of nothing. When we were so rudely asked to leave it was after 2 o'clock. The brunch rush, everywhere in New York, has passed by this time, it might stay steady until 3 or 4, but the peak has passed. We would have stayed another minute or two, left happy and been on with our days. The folks waiting for our table would have had it in just a couple more minutes. Everyone would have been happy, except for the bad food, worse service and new 35-minute meal policy, of course.

Indeed, they often say bad service makes bad food worse. (Which came first, the bad food or the bad service, I do not know, but they certainly have an aggrandizing effect on one another.) What they don't often say is that bad service can be so bad as to make you wish, if given the choice, one of those green specs in the soft scrambled eggs HAD been cilantro, had the service been a little more gracious, the eggs a little more scrambled, a little softer, a little more mixed. A good meal to me might be one where cilantro is the worst thing about it. I'm comfortable in that environment. I know myself there. When I'm asked to abruptly leave a meal I wasn't enjoying anyway, it leaves a worse taste in my mouth than stupid skunk of the earth herb I'm sure I will encounter soon.

*I worked as a server for years, part-time in college and then full-time after, so, like many servers I suspect, I feel a paradoxical sympathy for people in the position and an expectation of what I consider reasonable standards, ie the ones I cared about when I did the job.

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