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How is Everything Over Here?

March 15, 2010

It’s fine.

There are some people I know who habitually send things back at restaurants.  It may surprise you to learn that I am not one of those people.

Despite my fussiness I am willing to suffer through some degree of botched preparations rather than disrupt the flow of a meal and risk subjecting my dining companions to any level of increased anxiety.

When I’m dining by myself, well, that’s another story.

I know all about this anxiety because I’ve been on the other side of it.  When someone’s meal gets sent back to the kitchen, regardless of how well the news has been received by the service staff, there is an awkwardness at the table.  Everyone is eating, except for one person.

Granted, those with food can offer some of their bounty to the diner who is going without.  And the other people in the party can try to eat at a more leisurely pace, so that when the waiter returns with the properly cooked dish, there is at least the hope of everyone finishing around the same time.

But it generally doesn’t work out that way.

And perish the thought should the second attempt come out wrong as well.  The worst-case scenario is alerting a waiter about an incorrect preparation and not receiving an immediate promise of satisfaction.

The best example of this unfortunate situation would be when a steak ordered medium rare comes to the table cooked medium.  It’s pink all the way through, but it’s all pink without a hint of red.  Clearly it’s cooked medium but someone could possibly, and incorrectly, argue the point.

Mrs. Fussy and I had another difficult situation many years ago with a braised beef short rib.  It was tough.  It was very tough.  And the clear implication was that it was undercooked.  Not that it was red or even pink inside, but rather that it could have done with another hour or so in the braising pot.  That is a challenging problem to try to explain to a waitress in a crowded, busy, and loud restaurant.

The truth is that when I go out, I don’t want to tell someone how to make the food.  I want to see how the chef does it.  If I like how they cook I’ll come back.  If I don’t, I’ll stay away.  Good restaurants have quality controls before the food goes out to the customer.  They shouldn’t be sending out bad food, period.

This is where integrity comes into play.

And I’ve seen great examples of this kind of integrity in unexpected places.  There was the dirty diner where the guy on the griddle accidentally broke the yolk of an egg… so he made a third egg for the plate and delivered it with his apologies.  A suburban barista picked up the cup that held a dry cappuccino and just before handing it over to the customer, declared that she was going to remake the drink because it didn’t feel right.

Given that I don’t like to send things back, I have a few strategies I employ for making sure my food is prepared the way I want to eat it.

When it comes to meat, I order it one degree of doneness cooler than my ideal.  Most steaks I prefer medium rare, so I order them rare.  First, nobody undercooks a steak ordered rare.  Most of the time they come out closer to medium rare.  But with the exception of a ribeye I’d rather have a rare steak than a steak cooked to medium.  And if my rare steak should be overcooked to the point of medium, there can be no doubt when looking at the meat that it is overdone and needs to be remade.

When it comes to my beloved poached eggs, I order them poached soft.  In my opinion there is little sadder at the breakfast table than poking into the center of an egg and to not see a bubbling fountain of warm and running yolk.

Recently at a breakfast in Providence, Rhode Island I was the only person at breakfast to specify this preparation, and I was also the only person to receive runny yolks.  Believe it or not, there are restaurants where solid yolks are now the norm for poached eggs.  But if the yolk does not run, there can be no doubt that the egg was not poached soft.

I suppose ultimately my rule can be summed up by the maxim, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

It may sound a bit harsh, but if a restaurant sends me a bad dish, instead of sending it back I will likely choose to avoid that restaurant in the future.  Granted, if everything else at the place is stellar, I may simply avoid that one dish in the future.

But the bottom line is that quality control and integrity are crucial ingredients of a successful restaurant.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2010 10:14 pm

    I do the same thing with meat – I prefer medium rare, but just about every place that cooks red meat will cook it to medium-rare at best. I’ll eat medium, but medium-well just makes me think they don’t know what they’re doing and a note not to return. Like you said, maybe harsh, but I don’t want to spend time in a place that sends out something over medium when ordered rare.
    I also generally don’t order seafood. It’s usually overcooked to my tastes.

    Quality control makes me think of Kitchen Nightmares, where most of the house chefs in the “before” part of the episode send out crap food and are adamant it’s diamonds. *shudder*
    Dirty Dan’s though – a rare bird, indeed.

  2. March 16, 2010 11:09 am

    I do restaurant reviews and when I just stop in I don’t expect a lot. I have found that the better restaurants with a chef on staff to do quality control and you get better food and service. For example I did a review of Portobello at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida not only did the chef and manager know all about the food our waitress knew every detail of how it was prepared and where the food was from. When I plan a special dinner at a restaurant if I have not been there before I will get recommendations. If people really like a restaurant they are always willing to tell you how good it is. If they do not like something they certainly want to tell you that. I agree with you if you get bad service or food don’t go back they don’t deserve your business.

  3. Ellen Whitby permalink
    March 17, 2010 12:54 am

    How about this…I was recently at the Albany Pump Station for dinner. I’m sure it was clear to the waitress that I was interested in vegetarian only food, after quizzing her about the ingredients in my son’s tomato sauce and in my other son’s cheese sauce. Those often contain non-vegetarian flavorings. And I was pretty diligent in asking about the ingredients in the butternut squash ravioli with goat cheese and pine nuts. She assured me confidently that the dish was vegetarian, indeed, and I ordered it. It was pretty tasty and I was enjoying my meal. At a certain point I encountered what looked like a roasted chunk of red pepper, with a shiny skin and a bit of brownness on the outside…from the roasting. I didn’t remember that being listed on the menu as part of the dish but my short-term memory is less than spectacular. When I bit into it, I discovered how un-peppery it was, and though I haven’t ever eaten sausage before, when I spit it out, my fellow diners confirmed for me that that’s what it was.

    Oh boy did that waitress take back my meal. Not only was her apology profuse, the chef came out and apologized to me, also, seemingly traumatized (probably more than I was) that a piece of meat must have fallen from another plate onto mine.

    I don’t usually send food back. If it’s not so good, I just don’t order it again. In this case, they brought a new one and didn’t charge me for either. It seemed to have made a strong impression on them that a vegetarian dish should be COMPLETELY vegetarian and that mistakes like that are BIG mistakes.

    I was disappointed by the mistake, which was unfortunate, but impressed with the response. And the ravioli was pretty tasty.

  4. March 25, 2010 12:50 am

    Sending food back means you’re a clueless dick. Clarifying: it’s not that you seem like one, you are one. You misunderstand the contract or you’re full of yourself and putting on a show, or whatever. You’re a clueless dick with no place in society. Well, not in mine.

    Now, then. Since you don’t want to be a dick but also don’t want to be annoyed , you inoculate, server-side.

    Smile, and mean it. Enlist the server as an ally when ordering. “I really want medium-rare. You know, very red in the center, just not blue. Should I order rare, or do you think medium-rare is safe?” Smile more, cuz you’re not a dick and this isn’t a test. I almost always get a nuanced answer. Servers have been down this road and they don’t want problems any more than you do. Thank them. Touch the elbow.

    Poached eggs are easier, in a binary way. “I’m thinking Eggs Benedict. Do they put them out with the yolks runny, or are they afraid to do that? I like runny, so I’ll just get something else if not.”

    Going to some new restaurant is like having a new friend from a new job and accepting their dinner-party invitation. Hafta keep a route open by which you can retreat to being work-friends if it turns out you speak different languages socially. Nobody’s wrong, you’ll just choose not to hang out that way going forward, or to go slow on that front.

    The analog with restaurants is not going back. If you need to cast blame in a hospitality transaction, you’re a dick.

    LQ

  5. March 25, 2010 6:19 am

    Count me as one clueless dick! In fact I’ve just changed my Yelp handle accordingly.

    Two things I disagree with in Lou’s perspective. First, the server is neither your mother nor a brain surgeon. In 90% of establishments they are as clueless as you are. This is a job and possibly an irritation, not their life’s work. They don’t take an abiding interest in making your meal fabulous.

    Second, one of the elements of the “contract” is that there is a history of foods being prepared a certain way. Interview a thousand people on the street and very few will tell you that a medium rare steak should never have pink in the center. You are paying the restaurant a pretty penny… typically 1 dollar in 3 goes for food cost, and the rest for preparing and serving it to you… so you have the right to expect something in the way of expertise and predictability.

    If you ask a contractor to retile your bathroom, and the tiles are all crooked and pooching out from the wall (this actually happened to me), you ask them to redo it. Same with the server of a medium rare steak who brings out shoe leather. Otherwise, you are not getting what you paid for and the server remains as clueless as you.

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