"I read the review you got in New Times," my husband said to the owner of Oasis Cafe a few months ago as he placed a take-out order. "You must be pretty happy."
"Yeah, we are. Surprised, though," said the proprietor, who obviously had no clue he was talking to my spouse. "That critic's a real ball-buster."
He's right. I am tough to please, and I don't offer any apologies for it. Though I enjoy nothing more than giving credit where credit is due, leave your cojones waving in the wind by serving bad food or providing awful service and you're bound to get whacked by any honest critic.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that upscale eateries are doing more wrongs than rights these days, and leaving their family jewels pretty vulnerable to attack. Worse, I think some restaurants don't want to change. No matter how many ostensibly well-meaning questions the staff or management asks about your comfort and experience, what they really want to hear is validation for what they've done. Watch a waiter's body language sometime: When he's half-turned to your table, that means he's not really listening, he's just on his way to the bar to pick up someone's drink order. See how startled he is when you reply frankly -- as I'm about to do -- that everything is far from fine.
"Any questions about the menu?"
I've raised the issue of incorrect grammar and punctuation before, but no one seems to be listening. As with any printed text, a menu should be spell-checked, proofread, and corrected. When I'm paying twenty bucks for an entree at Two Chefs, for instance, I expect to order risotto, not rissotto; gnocchi, not gnocci; Vidalia onions, not vadalia onions; caramelized shallots, not carmelized shalotts; and grilled shiitakes, not grilled shitakes.
True, most people don't notice. But a carefully prepared menu speaks to the level of dedication the chef and proprietors are putting into the dishes; one reflects the other. If a restaurateur hasn't got the time -- or the literacy -- to research his own menu, he should hire someone else to do it. That's what consultants are for.
While I'm on the subject, let's clear up another point. Crossing a chef's name off the menu with a magic marker is not the epitome of class. The Oval Room at the National Hotel on South Beach couldn't even keep this mistake consistent: A month after Marvin Woods (formerly of the short-lived Southern-food restaurant Savannah) was recruited to take over for executive chef Scott Swiderski -- a well-publicized move -- some menus still credited Swiderski at the bottom, while others featured an indelible black line. How dare they collect up to $17 for appetizers and $36 for main courses without shouldering the nominal burden of reprinting? Cost-cutting should start with charging less.
The Oval Room, however, might want to consider retooling the entire menu before rushing off to Kinko's. Expecting to dine on lip-smacking Southern cuisine a la Woods, I was surprised to find there wasn't a fritter in sight. The waitress confirmed that Woods is cooking Swiderski's menu. I can't understand the reasoning: Why bring in a name chef with a signature brand of cuisine and not utilize his talents?
"Who gets the fish?"
We've all shared the frustration of ordering dinner and then watching it get bungled, with the server placing dishes in front of the wrong recipients. Last week I wrote about the wonderful experience I had at Cafe Marquesa. I didn't have room to elaborate on the fine service, but it's probably worth sharing the management's method for remembering who gets what.
Every seat at a table is assigned a number, starting from the server's left and proceeding clockwise. That way a patron isn't ordering dinner, a seat number is. It's even entered into the computer that way: 1 gets the tuna, 2 the mango shrimp, and so on. If a dish is to be shared, all the seat numbers at the table are entered -- that means bring extra plates. No matter who delivers the food, no questions need to be asked.
Contrast that with the dinner I had the next night at Atlantic's Edge, the dining room at the posh Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada. Chef Dawn Seiber's fare was stunning, particularly her appetizer of pan-seared sea scallops with farm-raised hearts of palm and her main course of mojo-marinated veal chop over a yuca croquette with cilantro butter. The service was exceedingly polite and knowledgeable -- until the entrees arrived accompanied by the dreaded question: "Who gets what?"
Numbering seats, incidentally, isn't exclusive to fine-dining establishments. I learned the system when I waited tables in a touristy, family-style fish joint, and I found it invaluable in terms of earning tips. Of course, it didn't improve my short-term memory enough for me to find my car keys and drive home, but with all the extra cash I was making I could afford to take a cab.
"Ya still workin' on that?"
You never hear a server yelling, "Gimme some 'shrooms with that, Al baby!" when relaying an order at Chef Allen's, so how did "Still working on that?" enter the lexicon of acceptable eating-out interrogatories?