Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I Hate/Love New York

I'm not going to sugar-coat it for you, folks. I grew up here and I understand its appeal, but New York City makes me crazy sometimes. Maybe my biggest pet peeve is the prevalent attitude in so many high-end restaurants: you're lucky just to be here, so throw those "service" expectations out the window and be grateful that you are present. There are other people waiting, you know - you can leave if you don't like it. Places like that make me so cranky.

The other night my old pal Deetrane and I had a night out together. We decided to check out The Ten Bells, a natural wine bar on the Lower East Side. I called them at about 2 o'clock to make sure they'd be open and was told yes, 5pm. When we arrived at 7pm the place was closed for a private party. Hmmm, they might have mentioned that when I called.

If it's my wine bar I tell these people "I'm sorry about this but I cannot seat you now. If you come back later tonight or another time I'd like to buy your first glass for you and your friend," or something like that. There are businesses that would handle the situation in this way, but less so these days in NYC, it seems to me. This guy behind the bar - "No, we're closed," and that's it. No apologies, basically gave me the finger attitudinally, if you know what I mean.

So we left. I was annoyed - how do these places get away with having so little regard for their clients? Deetrane, as he does with most things, took it in stride. "We'll go to that restaurant you were talking about," he said. By this he meant Little Giant, the place on the corner that I'd also heard good things about.

They could seat us but only if we were willing to squeeze in between two other tightly packed tables - the roomier open tables (that remained open until we left) were for some reason not available. We decided on the dishes we would order and Deetrane very wisely selected the 1989 López de Heredia Rioja Reserva Viña Tondonia, the regal white wine from probably the last traditional producer in Rioja. At $78 (more like $40 retail), this was a bit of splurge, but we were celebrating being out together and my recent birthday and it seemed like the perfect pairing for our food.

10 minutes went by, our appetizers arrived - chicken liver mousse with a fig and onion compote, grilled bread, toasted hazelnuts, and sunflower sprouts, and the house pickle plate - baby carrots, jicama, golden beet cubes, red onion slices, and other savories. (Two Jewish guys eating dinner on the Lower East Side - did you think we would order the warm spinach and mayo dip?) Where was our wine? The waitress appeared with the wine list and told us that they had the wine, but not chilled. Would we like something else? No, our hearts were set on the Viña Tondonia, so would you please chill it for us? Another 10 minutes went by before she returned with the chilled wine. Shouldn't a three minute spin in an ice water bath have been sufficient?

If that's my restaurant, these customers are sent a couple glasses of Prosecco or something while they wait for their wine to chill. This is not the Greek diner on the corner. This is one of those hip joints on the Lower East Side where dinner runs at least $100 for two people. Are my expectations out of whack? Am I too cranky for NYC?

But here's the thing - when the wine arrived and when we drank it with that richly flavored and silky light chicken liver mousse on grilled bread, maybe a toasted hazelnut or a bit of fig was good. I mean really good. A great dish and a great wine pairing. The combination of saline-fresh and rich tropical aromas in this fantastic wine worked perfectly with the chicken liver mousse. Deetrane was so excited - "Dude, put some of this fig on top, take a bite, and then have a sip of the wine!" And so I did, and I was glad for it. So glad that it didn't bother me when the Swine of the Week (braised pork butt) came out cold. Whatever - this is a restaurant, they can re-heat it. And so they did. And it was also good. The scallops were even better, perfectly cooked and generously portioned. And the wine worked perfectly with these dishes too.

Still though, if this is my restaurant these people are sent dessert. Not "would you like to see a dessert menu," not "how about some more wine." After the wine-wait and then the cold pork just send them the sticky toffee pudding and see if they'd like some coffee. Then again, maybe this is why I don't run a restaurant.

The food and wine were good enough to make us (me, really) forgive and forget, so we actually went to The Ten Bells again for an after dinner glass. It was loud and thumping, dark and inviting, quintessential Lower East Side energy. They offered essentially the entire Dressner portfolio, a lot of it by the glass. Other goodies too, like Gonon St Joseph, Brick House Gamay, Binner Pinot Noir...what fun! And it happened to be Beaujolais Week, all wines $9 by the glass or $45 for the bottle. I'm talking about Lapierre, Descombes, Desvignes, Tete, and various other superstars of Beaujolais. We stared with two half-glasses of the excellent 2006 René Mosse Anjou, an oxidatively delicious Chenin Blanc. We moved on to a bottle (some friends had joined us by now) of the 2007 Descombes Régnié. Snappy and vibrant, especially the last glass. This was quite good, although nowhere near as good as the bottle I had at home the previous week.

So in the end, we had a blast, we drank great wine, and ate very tasty food. You have to love New York - this is a place where on this one block in one neighborhood, and on so many blocks in so many neighborhoods, you can enjoy eclectic wine and imaginative food in two different and equally vibrant settings. Maybe the moral of this story is this is New York - expect some attitude. Try to get past that and enjoy it anyway. Sometimes I can and sometimes I can't. Like I said, restaurants make me cranky.


Anonymous said...

Either the owners have these servers on a short leash or they should learn to think for themselves a bit perhaps. It seems they should reflect the owners attitudes. Assuming the white wine isn't hot, bring the bottle, we'll try abit while it CHILLS ON THE TABLE in an ice bucket, and WE can decide when the temperature is right. This isn't complicated, is it?

Anonymous said...

I think Michele's comment is correct as to the divide between what the owners would do versus how staff handles customers. My suspicion is that the bartender at Ten Bells didn't give a damn because he is not an owner and thus lacks the same incentive as an owner would have to keep you happy.

With regard to Little Giant, that's a different situation because there were various levels of personnel who should have been aware of the slip-ups and who should have offered something to keep you happy, not just the clueless waitron.

Deb and I were at Little Giant last month and loved it. I brought an '00 Mascarello Barolo Monprivato, which the waitress decanted, and wouldn't you know it, it was corked. So we ordered a bottle off the list. We were still charged the corkage fee, which I thought was odd since the wine was corked; but then I thought about how she decanted it, and maybe the corkage fee was warranted after all. But then again, we did order a bottle from the list. Whatever. Not the point of your blog post. But often servers/waitstaff/employees don't have the vision of customer retention that the owners and higher-ups need to have.

David McDuff said...

Great post, yet it hardly describes a phenomenon that's isolated to NY. I had very similar experiences, mostly with uncaring, off putting service -- especially on the part of a trio of attitudinal hostesses -- during a recent meal at a Philly hotspot.

Asher and Michele make great points as well. But at the end of the day, isn't it the responsibility of the owners/uppers to train their staff to share and reflect their own visions of the business?

Anonymous said...

London is the same, or maybe we are all just getting old...

peter said...

Restaurants make me cranky, too. This is why you SHOULD open one.

Amy Atwood said...

I try to calmly and politely tell restaurant staff when service could be improved. They can take it or leave it but that gives them the opportunity to learn should they care.
I will check out Ten Bells. Love it that so many natural wine bars are opening up across the country.

Anonymous said...

Coming from the Midwest, I too find most NYC restaurants a bit stuffy (mind you I'm into wine and used to the typical $200 checks) and it's not the attitude as much as the lack of service skills.

Sometimes, as with all places, they get it right and others well, they don't.

But, you simply cannot beat the diversity and it's all worth it when you find a gem in the rough!

Do Bianchi said...

Two Jewish guys walk into a fancy schmancy winebar on the Lower Eastside... Sounds like the setup for a good joke!

Great post... so true about NYC...

Brooklynguy said...

i agree with the idea that owners should ensure that staff can recognize service problems and are empowered to take the initiative and do something to correct the situation. Even when they are empowered, they don't always do anything. Why should this business be any different from, say, the phone company?

Michele - chill on the table - such a simple and good idea. Asher - i cannot believe you were zen enough to say nothing about the corkage. sure, they decanted it, but c'mon, you bought off the list. David - and I thought you lived in the city of brotherly love. Alastair - that's it, age. i basically have gray hair now and I'm 37. Peter - no can do, too risky. Hi Amy - i like your style, let them know calmly and that's it. Fermented Thoughts - it's true, service is a lost art. Jeremy - it is a joke, if you saw us. Everyone else looks great and we both have 2 year old's spit up on our patagonia pullovers.

Joe said...

It's a monopoly, Neil - they're all so darn full, no time for customers! Surprised this would get to you after so many years - are you getting old? :)

Anonymous said...

I had a similar unpleasant experience at Ten Bells. In my case, I made a two hour trip (one-way) specifically to visit Ten Bells and endured horrible, bizarre treatment by the staff. To me, it is hard to imagine that a worse place in the world exists in which wine is served than Ten Bells. This is a joint to be avoided, in spite of any hype which you may have seen about the place.