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A Sliding Scale

January 13, 2010

There are a few bright spots about a down economy.  Happy hours come back into vogue and restaurants start running all kinds of fabulous specials.  Sadly I’m not participating in too many happy hours these days.  But at least I can take advantage of a few of the restaurant specials.

I recently heard about one such special over at Table Hopping.  The deal seemed almost too good to be true: $20 for a take-out family-style dinner for four on Tuesdays.  It’s a fixed meal that changes every week but consists of a half platter of salad, a half platter of an entrée, and a warm loaf of bread.

The restaurant is Bellini’s.  I had never been, but I have a friend who says it’s her favorite restaurant. To put the price in context, one dinner portion of their Bolognese would set you back $14.95.  Our dish (of what I can only assume is that same pasta) came in a 9” x 11½” x 2½” pan with a matching pan full of salad greens, shaved parmesan, cherry tomatoes, dried cranberries and diced cucumber.

Is it a good deal? You bet.
How’s the food? Well, that’s a harder question.

The simple answer is that the food is just fine.  But I say that having paid a pittance for an enormously filling and satisfying combination of salt, fat and sugar.

Had I paid retail, my judgment would not have been so kind.  In fact, my evaluation might have been a bit brutalizing.

To be fair and balanced, Mrs. Fussy didn’t have a problem with the salad greens.  She thought they were on the whole better than what you would find in a bagged salad blend at the grocery store.  I don’t generally buy bagged salad at the grocery store, so I can’t say for sure.  But salad greens that are browning on the edges and cut surfaces are completely unacceptable to me, especially at a restaurant.

The Bolognese was tasty, and appropriately made from beef, veal and pork.  However the pork was distinctly sausage, and not the delicate porky goodness I would expect from a proper version of the dish.  It’s a small detail to be sure, but if I were in a nice restaurant and opted to throw coronary health to the wind for the sake of a delicious meat sauce, this would have been a major disappointment.

But I didn’t pay retail.

What the experience really brings out into the light is my sliding scale for evaluating food, because for a cheap bastard like myself, I cannot divorce the price of a meal from my assessment of its quality. This is not to say that I am opposed to paying a lot of money for food.  I’m not.  I’m just opposed to paying a lot of money for merely adequate food.

And it’s not just food either.  When prices go up, expectations go up across the board.  If a restaurant is going to put on airs about being a fine dining establishment, it had best deliver a fine dining experience across the board.  That includes service and décor.  Which for starters means no:
–       “Hi, I’m Justin and I’ll be your server tonight.”
–       Moving used utensils from the plate back to the table.
–       Stubby, thick-rimmed wine glasses with small bowls.

On the flip side, I am not going to hold a humbler restaurant accountable to the same standards of food quality.  The affordable sushi bar will not raise my ire for its inclusion of farmed Atlantic salmon on its menu.

But getting back to Bellini’s, it is almost unheard of to find a nice restaurant that offers value on this scale.  Dinner, for $5 a person.  And honestly I cannot fairly evaluate the restaurant’s dining room, as I have yet to eat there.  It is very possible that there is greater quality control when the kitchen is focused on single plates, although I am skeptical.

While I enjoyed the meal for the price, I question if this promotion is a wise decision for the restaurant. If they are indeed lowering their standards for the sake of offering value, people might wonder about their standards for in-house dining.  And if the standards are indeed the same for take-out and dine-in, how do you get people to pay $20 for a dinner that recently cost them $5?

What I want is that middle ground.  A nice restaurant with good food at reasonable prices.  But I am having a really hard time finding places like that around Albany.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. kerosena permalink
    January 13, 2010 10:50 am

    I don’t think Bellini’s is where you’ll find your middle ground. Their food is just not that great, though they don’t hurt for business.

  2. January 13, 2010 11:21 am

    What any restaurateur longs for (aside from happy guests that is) is honest feedback that helps us better understand what we’re doing right and where we can improve. First – thank you for joining us for Dinner Table Tuesdays – I loved your thoughtful response, assessment and evaluation of the meal. Whether we’re preparing a dish a la carte or in a 1/2 or full platter we have a commitment to quality food and service and especially in the measures we have in place to assure each meal that leaves one of our kitchens is one we would put on our own personal dinner tables. I’m concerned that your experience with our Classic Bolognese did not live up to the standards we set for ourselves.

    As an independent we immense pride in being able to share our love of Italian food, culture and heritage with each guest whether they are in-house or they get our food to-go. We’ve only been running Dinner Table Tuesdays for a few weeks now and the response has been overwhelming in terms of orders, which is what we hoped for when we began. These days especially families don’t necessarily have the expendable income or even the time to go out with the frequency with which they used to so we wanted to come up with a promotion that helped busy families save a little money, give them time to gather around the dinner table and still have a great and memorable meal.

    I’d love for you to come in and experience Bellini’s as an in-house guest, to experience the decor, the atmosphere, the service – a great meal is not just food alone in our opinion. It is a balance of food, service, atmosphere and the people with whom you share your meal.

    Thank you again Daniel for this post. You can contact me at my email I attached to this response if you’d like. I’ll pass your thoughts along to our managers at all our locations as well. Compliments are easy to take, constructive criticism on the other hand is how we’ll get better at what we do.

  3. AddiesDad permalink
    January 13, 2010 2:52 pm

    Daniel-

    Beekman Street Bistro in Saratoga Springs is the closest I’ve found to that happy middle-ground of well priced, good service, and affordable wine list. Yes, they have pricey entrees, but their array of smaller plates means you can have a nice meal without breaking the bank. A big plus? They make every attempt to purchase local food from local farmers. They have a terrific Tuesday night prix-fixe, as well.

  4. January 13, 2010 2:56 pm

    That is funny, I read that article and meant to try out the offer as soon as I get off these infernal night shifts. I have been to Bellini’s a couple times and have enjoyed it. I believe the quality of the food to be commensurate with the prices charged, and for that neck of the woods, I would label their food to be down right progressive (I have happily found Bethlehemians to be almost as stodgy as Guilderlandians, which is good). Most in the neighborhood would happilymunch away on bright read marinara with baby-head sized meatballs. I think I had some gnocchi with veal ragu last time I was there (a while ago) and remembering thinking it was very decent. It is one of the few places my wife openly admits that she likes (Pickiest. Eater. Ever.) which gives it a few points in my book as well.

    I also would have been put off by sausage in the Bolognese, I’m just saying.

  5. phairhead permalink
    January 13, 2010 7:58 pm

    Where is Bellini’s?

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