I grew up around food; I grew up around amazing food, actually. My dad is an Italian-born chef and I’m now a trained chef. My expectations are usually high when it comes to food, and they’re even higher when it comes to white tablecloth restaurants. However high my expectations, I’ve come to realize that living in Westchester has made me understand that some restaurants are just average. Still, I believe in the conviction that if you charge $35 for entrees and serve your guests on white tablecloths, then it is your obligation to bring it!
Recently, my girlfriend Melissa and I went to a local Italian restaurant (for reasons soon to become clear, I’m opting against naming it). We’d been there a few times previously and enjoyed the food. The owner is a nice guy who’s really into wine. Naturally, he and I get along.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a nicely dressed hostess and a suited gentleman. We were seated right away, and our jackets were removed by the host and manager. We were presented menus by the server, and the manager followed with a wine list. The list was 100% Italian, a big plus for me because there’s nothing that bothers me more than going to an Italian restaurant that offers more Californian than Italian wines. The owner and I decided on a 1997 Giacomo Borgogno Barbaresco, an absolute steal at $50 a bottle. I was happy. Everything seemed to be going so well.
When dining at restaurants of this caliber, I usually don’t like to order; I generally leave it in the hands of the manager or server. This time was no different for me, and I told the manager, whose judgment is usually spot on, to order for my girlfriend and me.
The first course was Mozzarella di buffalo with roasted peppers and an eighty-year-old balsamic vinegar. This was fantastic—simple but fresh. The mozzarella was actually buffalo and the peppers actually roasted in house; the eighty-year-old balsamic was a nice touch. Nothing makes me angrier than going to a restaurant, ordering Mozzaralla di buffalo, and discovering that they’re calling Polly-O string cheese Mozzarella di buffalo! I was pleased to see the genuine article.
The second course was also wonderful: Prosciutto di San Daniele with baby eggplant salad. The Prosciutto was sliced thin and fresh. The eggplant was perfectly cooked with a little crunch to it. I love eggplant, though if it’s mushy, we have a problem. This eggplant was delightful in every respect.
I’m happy so far. The Barbaresco is starting to open up. The nose is beautiful. Bright rose petals and fall leaves start to blossom in the glass. The wine is perfectly balanced with a slightly sweet note of balsamic. Melissa and I are smiling; it’s a wonderful food and wine synergy so far.
The third course was risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle oil. And that was when the bombshell dropped.
As the waiter crossed the room with the risotto in his hand, I could see that the dish didn’t look right. Closer, closer he walked, and my apprehension grew. The waiter approached the table. I looked around in anticipation for the manager, hoping he would intercept the dishes and send them back to the kitchen. He was not to be found. Melissa loves risotto and looked at me with dismay. Disappointment showed on her face.
The “risotto” was not risotto. It wasn’t that gloriously relaxed ooze of Carnaroli, wafting truffle and glowing with a sheen of butter. Instead it looked like nothing as much as Uncle Ben’s cooked in a risotto style. I almost fell off my seat! I felt embarrassed, conflicted and anguished. Should I say something? Should I send it back? I didn’t want to make the owner feel bad or make a scene in this small restaurant. Everything had been going so well. And now… this plate of faux risotto. I was gobsmacked.
Melissa convinced me to eat it, and it actually tasted good for commercial boxed rice, though eating the dish did nothing to convince me that what was on the plate before me had any connection to risotto other than its name. The rest of the meal was a blur to me. I couldn’t get over the risotto catastrophe. I found myself looking around the restaurant seeing if anyone else ordered the faux risotto dish. There was a part of me that wanted to walk over to the table in the corner and tell them they were eating a box of Uncle Ben’s. Did they know too? I kept trying to make eye contact with them. The entire meal had become a punch-line to a really bad foodie joke.
The problem was that I liked the restaurant. I liked the manager. In fact, I still like both. I keep on wondering, should I have told him of this kitchen disaster? Is it possible he wasn’t aware? Or is it possible that even he thought that what the chef had sent out that night was actually risotto? Part of me cannot fathom the idea that a chef worthy of a salt grain of integrity could send a dish out like that, and another part of me can’t fathom the idea that a chef in an Italian restaurant would call that dish “risotto.” And then one last part of me still can’t get over the fact that they charged me $25 for the boxed rice disaster—and that I paid it.
Still conflicted, I wonder, what would you do? Would you go back? What do you do when you have a seriously mixed restaurant experience at a place you genuinely, and generally, like?