Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Restaurant Website Issues

  1. Why must basic information like days and hours of operation be so difficult to find? A simple home page showing address, phone number, and hours may be pedestrian but also practical and helpful.
  2. Why must there be so many graphics such that the site takes forever to load, particularly on mobile devices?
  3. Can I please see a sample wine list, along with the sample menu, so that I can be prepared when I show up that the majority of the wine selections are priced above $100/bottle? Or worse, include only domestic wines?
  4. I doubt that Thomas Keller, Michael Mina, or Wolfgang Puck will be expediting my dinner. Would it be so disillusioning to post an easily accessible bio of the person who might actually be doing that at a particular kitchen?
  5. The cheesy music whose graphic I cannot immediately locate in order to turn the sound off is not only irritating, but makes it more likely that I will turn to alternative sites, like Yelp, to get restaurant information during the work day so that I am not announcing my potential dinner plans to the entire office.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

More Reasons To Admire Those Who Toil in Restaurants

Alternate title for post:
Why I would drink [even more] excessively if I worked in a restaurant.

I recently had the opportunity to shadow a sommelier at a high-end restaurant during dinner service. Apart from confirming my belief that I would so be fired before the end of the shift if some restaurant were actually crazy or desperate enough to hire me, one thing that stands out starkly in my memory from that experience is how insignificant, dismissed, and non-human I felt around the diners. I have heard servers talk about feeling invisible, but that was not quite it. I was definitely visible, since people clearly saw me and asked me for things, but it was more of a benign lack of acknowledgement of my existence, coupled with an attitude of entitlement.

To illustrate, I was floored to read about diners complaining about servers and bussers trying to clear their plates when they are not finished eating. On the flip side, I have also heard complaints about plates not being cleared fast enough once people are done eating. Yet these are the same crazies who begrudge servers the measly 15% gratuity they deign to leave, after expecting their every desire to be fulfilled immediately, getting irritated if servers do not tell them enough about the food, if servers tell them too much about the food, if servers hover, if servers fail to apparate at their side the moment they want ___________. Do not even get me started on diners who decide to pop into a restaurant two minutes before closing and then get grouchy at being "rushed." How happy do you get when your boss gives you a project at 5pm on a Friday. Are lack of manners de rigueur for dining out these days?

Those would be front of the house issues. The kitchen has a whole other set of issues with which to contend. A recent episode of Top Chef Masters had the chef contestants preparing a meal for a vegetarian who does not eat dairy and has a gluten allergy. The following are some examples of actual conversations I have had with people at work trying to decide where or what to eat:

"I don't like poultry."
"What about turkey at Thanksgiving?"
"Fine, I like turkey and chicken, but nothing else."
"Rabbit tastes like chicken."
"No."

"I won't eat organs."
"You loved foie gras."
"That was before I found out it was liver."

"Indian sounds good, as long as I don't have to eat lamb."

"I don't like ground meat, except hamburgers."

"I can't eat cheese because I'm lactose intolerant." (Cheese does not contain lactose.)

"Sausages gross me out."
"What about hot dogs?"
"Hot dogs are okay."

"I want my steak well-done."

"I don't like raw fish."

"I don't like seafood."

"I eat everything. Except sweetbreads."

"I don't like spicy food."

"I put Tabasco on everything."

Feel like ripping your hair out yet? After training for years, accepting all kinds of abuse, and being paid pittance for most of your career, why would you subject your culinary creations to this type of audience. I am frankly surprised that chefs do not hack off one of their ears in frustration.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Flour + Water Missing Something

Flour + Water
2401 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 826-7000
Chef Thomas McNaughton
Dinner nightly

Flour + Water on Urbanspoon

As Anton Ego noted in Ratatouille, it takes someone or something else to provide perspective. After finally trying the much-lauded Vetri in January 2012, I now understand why people love Flour + Water so much. Comparatively speaking, it is better executed and better priced. Why is Italian so difficult?

Last tried: December 2011

This is a perfectly nice neighborhood joint, with hearty, homey dishes that are almost as appealing as SPQR or Cotogna and a well-priced wine list. But I still do not understand the reason for the national hype.

Tried: August 2009

Scoring high with the critics early in the game is both impressive and certainly good for business. During an economic climate when many restaurants would kill to get even a half-full dining room on a weekend evening, there was already a long line of people spilling onto the street corner in front of Flour + Water at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday night, all vying for one of the cramped tables in the deliberately shabby-chic interior.

I have to admit I was definitely curious after it had garnered three stars from Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle. While I am not a huge fan of his dismissive and somewhat antiseptic writing style, the man does have a palate. In this instance, however, he raised my expectations way too high, and perhaps any new restaurant, no matter how talented the kitchen, was bound to fail to meet them under the circumstances.

Flour + Water does quite a decent margherita pizza, with the appropriate blistery crust, aromatic basil, and sweet tomatoes, without any of the underlying blandness that can mar this type of pizza if the pizzaiolo does not calibrate the balance exactly right. Plus, the fior di latte mozzarella was so delectable that I did not even miss mozzarella di buffala.

The rest of the menu, unfortunately, reminded me of a pretty girl who does not know how to use makeup or dress to complement her looks. The meaty Monterey Bay sardines, although nicely charred, were dry and underseasoned, not helped by the overpowering mint puree smeared on the plate as though it were an afterthought. The yellow cherry tomatoes and clump of undressed watercress on the side, while both beautiful and fresh ingredients in and of themselves, were similarly out of place, leaving the entire dish to taste minty, fishy, and undersalted.

The oxtail "terrine" was actually not a terrine at all but deep-fried croquettes filled with oxtail confit. The meat was exactly as tender as it should be, and the crispy fried exterior was satisfying to the point that I did not mind that it was a little burnt, but the odd sweet sauce with its slightly Asian flavor drizzled around the plate clashed with the seasoning of the oxtail "terrine," as well as with the shards of parmeggiano artfully placed around the arugula on which the croquettes were presented. The most frustrating part of the dish was the generous scattering of chanterelle mushrooms, one of my favorite ingredients, which were gritty. I still ate them, suffering through the unpleasant crunch of the grit against my teeth echoing through my head, in the same way that I refuse to stop eating oysters when less-expert shuckers leave pieces of shell in them.

I had heard so much about the hand-made pasta that I had to try one notwithstanding the slight disappointments of the other dishes. Each component of the thick spaghetti with butter beans and pancetta in a tomato sauce was prepared exactly right. The pancetta was rendered down to the point where the pieces were crispy yet retained their bacony-meatiness, the butter beans were soft and creamy, and the thick spaghetti were cooked to exactly the al dente texture I like, with that chewy tug reminiscent of good soba. Nonetheless, as a whole the dish looked and tasted like a slightly better rendition of something I might have at home on leftover night.

Sadly, if Bauer had given Flour + Water his standard two and half stars, I might have loved it.

Ambivalent About Momofuku

First, am I the only person who thinks "Momofuku" does not mean Lucky Peach or refer to the name of some obscure ramen person from...