A Tale of Two Meals

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wine and foodAmy and I have recently had two very different experiences when going out for dinner and, of course, wine. Since both of these dinners involved friends in some way, and since we’re not usually interested in negatively reviewing anything, neither establishment involved will be mentioned.

The first meal involved going to dinner at one of our favorite wine bars. The second was a recent epic wine and food pairing dinner at a local restaurant. The latter was organized by a friend, the former is owned by one. Both meals had negatives and positives, but one ensured that we will visit the establishment many more times, while the other blew what would have been a fantastic review, not to mention two new loyal customers. Here is what happened at each.

Going for the Hat Trick

Meal number one began with us arriving early for our reservation, since we were supposed to meet friends and were also concerned about parking. As it turned out, our friends had a family emergency and could not make it and parking wasn’t an issue, but it did give us a chance to sit at the bar, have a glass, and talk to the wonderful staff that makes the place a favorite for us. The owner told us to wait as long as we’d like for our friends, and she would hold our table.

After it became apparent that we were dining alone, we were seated and instead of the open bottle from the bar that we had assumed would follow us, a brand new bottle was opened for us. This place is like that. It seems the initial glass was merely a sample to see if we’d like it with the fish we were going to order. So far, so good.

We placed our orders, and were served quickly. I think that is where the problems began. The service, ambiance, and wine all remained superb, but it seemed that the kitchen was sacrificing quality for speed. Nothing was exactly bad, but everything was under-seasoned, lacked flavor, and was reminiscent of banquet food held in steam trays until service. While the menu was very well conceived, the execution was lacking. To be honest, it made me want to go back in the kitchen and cook each course properly so that the chef and the proprietor could taste the difference. I can’t help it, I have a Gordon Ramsey complex. “Have you $@#%ing TASTED it???”

To be honest, it made me want to go back in the kitchen and cook each course properly so that the chef and the proprietor could taste the difference. I can't help it, I have a Gordon Ramsey complex. "Have you $@#%ing TASTED it???"
Then, like the culinary version of Dominik Hasek, our hostess made a miraculous save. As the puck of dissatisfaction appeared destined to find net, she made an incredible stick save to clinch a Game 7 victory. The crowd went wild! Okay, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but here is what she did: After we had paid our very reasonable bill she stopped to chat for a couple of minutes, finishing with, “May I buy you a glass of port?” After much soul-searching and debate, maybe a nanosecond went by before we agreed that she might. Two glasses and a decanter full of port appeared. Both glasses were filled by our host, who left the decanter on the table. A few minutes later she stopped by to see if we were enjoying our drinks, and then encouraged us to help ourselves to as much as we liked.

SAVE! Now we like free drinks as much as anyone, but that wasn’t what did the trick. We were being treated like family visiting her home. Not only that, we saw her treating everyone like they were special guests. We left feeling very good about the place, and will visit often and bring friends. Sure, the food could use a little improvement, but everything else about the place is so perfect that it can be forgiven.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

On to dinner number two. This one was organized by one of our favorite people, who was in no way whatsoever responsible for any of the negative parts of the evening. Amy and I will continue to attend any event she organizes without a single qualm. The restaurant did not fare quite so well in the aftermath. In fact, the only reason I am not naming them is because the mistake made could have been an honest one, so they are getting the benefit of the doubt.

The evening began extremely well. The staff was attentive and escorted us to a beautiful private dining area where some of our friends and fellow attendees were already waiting. The room had two fabulous glass walls that showed off their wine selections. Everyone chatted, introductions were made as more people arrived, and we discussed the various courses listed on our menus. Dinner began, wine was poured, and the conversation became even more lively.

Course after delicious course arrived at the table, each one expertly paired with excellent wine. It was a great evening in the making. Everyone was having a wonderful time and was raving about the food and wine. Then came the first misstep. The dessert pairing was perhaps a harbinger of how the evening would end. It was a fairly well executed apple fritter with clotted cream paired with a very good, but very dry, Gewurtztraminer. It seemed an odd pairing, but the spice in the wine matched up well with the cinnamon in the fritter. For about a second. Then it went into full fail mode. While we were all scratching our heads over how bad this pairing was, it didn’t wipe away all the warm fuzzies we had for the evening, the meal, or the restaurant. That came next.

The two couples to our left asked for their checks first, settled their bill, then left. Something seemed very odd about their demeanor once they received their checks. As they left I was wondering if someone had offended them in some way, and I was really hoping it hadn’t been anything that I said. It turned out to be their bill, as we all were to soon find out when our checks arrived. The dinner, with wine, was supposed to be $80 per person. Each couple was presented with a bill for well over $300. The head waiter explained the bill to each couple who inquired about the higher price, which was all of us, by showing how it was all itemized. Explanations about our expectations were met with a look I would expect from a religious fundamentalist listening to a lecture by Charles Darwin.

Eventually, the manager appeared and said that he would take care of it, but his demeanor showed that he was annoyed. Whether he was annoyed at customers who did not want to pay their bills, or at his staff for screwing up was not apparent. The head waiter returned with corrected bills for all, and muttered something about management not communicating properly. I looked around the table and asked, “Does anyone remember what a great meal we just had?” My answer was in the form of long faces and slowly shaking heads. It can be a very embarrassing and intimidating feeling to have to deal with this type of situation. There had been a lot of joy in the room previously, now there was dejection.

In a twist that bind these two stories together, while also helping to convey a stark contrast between them, the manager reappeared with glasses of port for everyone, and also left the bottle. While his annoyance was completely gone, the quick, smiling apology offered along with the port didn’t seem to match the situation. Some of the people in the room were pretty upset, and it seemed like a somewhat dismissive gesture. Maybe he meant to convey that it was just a mix-up, and hoped we felt more at ease by dismissing our concerns. If so, it was the wrong approach. I know that if I had been in his shoes I would have been apologizing effusively until I was completely sure that my guests knew it had been an honest mistake.

The problem for him was that the dinner was originally supposed to be for a larger crowd. There were a lot of fairly late cancellations, and many of us were suspicious that the restaurant was trying to make up for that by charging more for those who did attend. I am not saying that they did that, but I can’t say that they did not. What I can say is that all of the photos, notes and intentions we had to write a glowing review of the place will go unused. We are not likely to visit again, despite the fact that it was some of the most inventive cuisine we have experienced in Houston. That is really unfortunate.

They say that all is well that ends well, and the while the first story does lend credence to that theory, the last story would suggest that the opposite is just as powerful of a theory.