Sunday, March 05, 2006

Restaurant Blues

I normally don't like dissing restos, mostly because I know what it feels like to run one, with all the mental, physical and emotional strain involved. I've kept all of the articles written about, and to, Lokal (especially Doreen F's life-changing one, and a high-on-praise placemat left by a dear customer). On low days, when customer complaints were what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and my normally unflappable self felt like breaking down, I would go home, flip open my Lokal scrapbook, and be filled with warmth and "kilig" when I saw those words of approval from satiated patrons. Lokal was a seminal experience; I used to be Ms. Complain because I felt everyone in the foodservice and hospitality industry had an obligation to give excellent, perfect service. Three years in UPHRA can teach one to be very exacting. When I managed Lokal, and subsequently Oliver's main kitchens and my own catering biz, I became less stringent; consciously looking for the positive in many a restaurant and even writing letters to the manager whenever I felt an employee was unexpectedly warm and efficient. I am very forgiving, and will always give a less-than-sublime repast, made worse by mediocre surroundings, lackadaisical staff and astronomical prices, another chance.

But some sins are unforgivable.

Like charging HK20 for warm TAP water. Like dealing with surly waitresses who act as if they own the place and can't be bothered with customers because they're busy cleaning and throwing a tantrum. Like paying HK35 for a can of Diet Coke when the food prices are not reasonable to begin with. Like having to use a stinky, filthy toilet and sit on chairs that have seen better days and walk on sticky floors when it's so very obvious the place is raking it in, caters to mostly EXPATS and can afford to upgrade even just a little bit. Ambience is one thing, but ambience as a direct result of neglect is another. Like having to wait 45 minutes for a forgettable meal at an upscale, 5-star rated resto in a chi-chi mall, without any apology from the manager, or free dessert or even a token discount.

I'm not "the" expert on food. I love to cook and eat and try new things and all I want is value for my money. Translated, this means that if I have to pay top dollar, then the food must be terrific. If the place lacks atmosphere and the staff don't know the meaning of customer service, but the food is glorious, that's perfectly fine. If the food is average but the prices are reasonable and the staff makes you feel like a VIP, that's value as well. It's a rare place, after all, that can give first-rate food matched by superior service and charge fair prices. I think all of us who enjoy eating out, and eating well, can commiserate with me.

Ms. Complain came to the fore last week, and here's why.

The diamond-studded tap water I read about. I will never patronize that place.

The waitress was a Pinay at Al's Diner. From what I could see and hear, she was pissed off at her co-workers for not cleaning up the night before. We entered the place, which was reeking of bleach, and found her up to her elbows scrubbing the bar. No greeting, no smile. Fine. We sat on one of their rusty metal chairs (we really hate the slashed upholstery) while gingerly trying to find semi-clean inches of floor space for our shoes. We ordered Derrick's fave, the beef nachos. It wasn't the best, but yummy enough, and priced very well. I ordered the supposedly fantastic fried chicken (not) with the smelly (malansa, I swear) gravy and KFC style (overboiled mess) corn on the cob. Sweet corn should retain a bit of crunch! I know burgers are their specialty, and I did enjoy the burger I ate my very first time there, so much so I didn't notice how dirty the place was (I can eat at dirty Chinese noodle shops anytime, simply because the food is exceptional!). However, Archie B's can make decent burger for half the price. I'm not saying they taste the same, but Al's burger isn't sensational enough to merit a HKD120 price tag. Their chili was anything but hot. I could live with some of the unjustifiably overpriced items, but the can of Coke for HKD35 was way too much! Especially since Derrick had to pick it up from the bar himself after an interminable wait.

The regrettable meal we had to wait 45 minutes for was at Harlan's. We ordered several appetizers, and at first I thought mine was the only bland-tasting one, but I tried all the others and let me say they all tasted alike. I ordered the roasted scallops (overdone). After they had cleared the starter plates we had to literally wait almost an hour for our main course. Luckily the conversation, and constant refills of wine, carried us through those excruitiating minutes when our stomachs grumbled like crazy. Our food finally arrived and they didn't even look appetizing. Someone in the kitchen was in a big hurry to plate the food, so presentation was compromised. None of the plates resembled a "to be revered and not to be eaten" work of art. My seabass was fresh and flaky but the sauce was dull. The only dish I allowed myself to be excited about was the lemon pudding. Tart and smooth, not too sweet, accompanied by a light and creamy lemon sorbet and an interesting almond tuille. Eaten together they tingled the taste buds, and the sensation was very pleasant indeed. Good thing too, that sensation, because afterwards I stuffed Ms. Complain back in the closet. I really would rather write about a superb meal than an inferior one, but there's no denying some places take their fame for granted.

Now that Ms. Complain is gone, let me just add a postscript: Cafe Siam is one place that gives value for money. I can't get enough of the catfish salad with green mango julienne and lime dressing.

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