But more classy eateries doesn't mean more better service. In Manhattan, for instance, good waiters don't multiply, they just trade places. According to a recent New York Times article, "New York is in the throes of what people in the business describe as an escalating skilled-labor crisis. The dearth has led not only to headhunting but also to outright poaching. Luring waiters to work in new luxury eating places, managers are resorting to sweeteners ranging from fully paid health benefits and paid vacations to 401(k) retirement plans and free vouchers for meals in other top restaurants."
In Miami the pickings are slimmer. Even at the finest establishments, service can be spotty. The only solution I can think of (and I think of it often) would be to set up a school for would-be waitstaff. A place where naifs could be turned into savvy servers. Perhaps if there were a standard by which all were judged, the profession would gain more respect and would attract more qualified people.
I digress, for any amount of training would have helped on a recent Saturday night at Satchmo Blues Bar & Grill, a new restaurant in the Gables named after Louis Armstrong (whose nickname, Satchmo, was short for satchel mouth).
After finding parking in an illegal spot across the street from the hopping scene on Merrick Way, my husband and I approached the sleek, rounded building where we ran into some acquaintances sipping drinks at one of Satchmo's outside tables. They warned us that the wait to get inside, where Joey Gilmore, a ripping blues bard was playing, would be long. We glanced inside and saw that throngs of patrons stood vulturelike over the packed tables waiting to swoop in for a seat. We weren't up for the competition; we were hungry. So we decided to join our friends at the quiet and comfortable (if a bit warm) table alfresco.
After ten minutes or so the waitress came by to take our drink orders (we found out later, when we tried to track her down to get our bill, that her name was Maria). The conversation went something like this.
Maria: "Hello. Would you like to drink something?"
Me: "What kinds of wine do you have by the glass?"
Maria: "Wines? Uuhmm. Red or white?"
Maria: "Okay," and, turning to my husband, "for you, sir?" After explaining that I wanted to choose a type of red and asked for the wine list, she scurried away and returned a few minutes later with a one-page photocopied sheet featuring five generic reds by the glass. My husband was as successful.
My husband: "Do you have any nonalcoholic beer?"
Maria: "Oh, yes," and she pointed to the appetizer section of the menu. "The calamari is really good."
My husband: "No, no. I want beer. Without alcohol?"
Maria: "Oh, no, we don't have that."
Me: "Actually I think you do. I ordered it the last time I was here."
Maria: "We do? Really? I don't think so."
I'll spare the details of ordering food.
One entrée came out before the appetizers and then, when the starters had arrived, the second entrée showed up, with no space left on the table. I sent it back to the kitchen, unsure if I would ever see it again. It did come back but the rest of the night was just as frustrating despite the decent food and great music inside. So I won't go into how, after the meal, we were brusquely stopped at the door with a grunt that sounded something like "five dollars," (apparently even diners have to pay the weekend cover charge); how my husband was left waiting outside for our dinner check for more than fifteen minutes, and then barked at by two people when he came to join me inside to hear the music; how our coffee was burnt and how our dessert arrived with no fork.
The truth is, despite the rude treatment we received on a busy Saturday night, we would go back again to catch a band, maybe even to eat.
The casual menu offers a good lineup of salads and the requisite finger food such as chicken wings, fried calamari, and conch fritters. Salads were especially good. The Koko's Oriental chicken salad was crisp and refreshing, perfect for the steamy evening. Served in a large bowl, the mixed baby greens and herbs were layered with thin, crunchy noodles and large chunks of tender, grilled chicken breast. The beautifully composed dish was dressed delicately with a subtle mixture of ginger, sesame, and lemon grass. On the less healthy side of the menu were Cajun chicken wings, which were meaty and peppery. We ordered six but received (and were charged for) twelve. Aargh! The moist and crunchy wings and legs were tasty, and though they were large, we managed to finish most of them, dunked into the standard blue cheese dressing.
Black Voodoo, or Cajun-style dolphin, was a simple but worthwhile option, too. The fillet was large enough for two and served atop a heap of electric-yellow rice with a few steamed veggies on the side. The fish was dusted with a mild seasoning, which didn't do much for its mellow flavor one way or the other. Not inspired but not bad, either.
During another, calmer visit at lunchtime, I tried the Satchmo burger. The plate was heavy with crisp thick fries and generous toppings (sautéed button mushrooms, melted cheddar cheese, and strips of rough-cut bacon) that spilled off the top of the sandwich. The ingredients, including a fresh kaiser roll with onions, were high quality and well handled.
Other down-home offerings include smoked pork chops, jambalaya, and gumbo. Daily lunch specials feature meat loaf on Mondays and stuffed cabbage on Thursdays. Surprisingly there are a fair number of vegetarian menu items as well, including a hearty pasta salad made with mushrooms, peppers, olives, garlic, and herbs; a veggie burger; and penne topped with stewed tomatoes, mozzarella, and garlic. The eclectic offerings are no doubt inspired by the owner, Harold Neuweg, who also owns the Mozart Stube café and is the force behind the yearly Oktoberfest in the Gables.
Another import from his popular Austrian-German eatery is the outrageous apple strudel. On this menu it's titled "The Jazz Session." Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and real whipped cream, the warm pocket of flaky crust envelops a tartly sweet stash of dense apples dripping in a glossy syrup.
At lunch the blond oak tables are populated mostly with lawyers, bankers, and secretaries who sit beneath the glossy black-and-white jazz portraits. On weekends the same well-groomed professionals dress down and happily hand over the reasonable cover charge (usually five dollars) to hear live music starting at 9:00 p.m. The varied schedule of musicians includes Iko Iko, Midnight Johnny, Roomful of Blues, and Grady Champion.
But, especially on Friday nights, during happy hour (from 5:00 until 8:00) the place is a virtual mob scene. Dining then is unpleasant if not impossible. I recommend eating elsewhere and coming later for music and reasonably priced drinks. In the jazz world, they say playing with a bunch of guys who aren't in sync is like dancing with a refrigerator. As good as I think Satchmo can be at times, at others you better watch your toes.