Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Art of Dining Fine

You can tell a lot about a restaurant without taking a bite. These days that can start without leaving your computer screen. Does the eatery in question have a web site? Is is professionally done with great photos and enough information to make an informed dining decision? Great looking interactive websites are important since this is increasingly that 'first impression' every business owner wishes to make. If reservations are recommended, is the phone answered promptly and courteously? When your preferred time and/or day isn't available, do they have an alternate suggestion? It may seem counter-productive to suggest a competitor to a caller, but I certainly remember and appreciate that effort. And I reward it by making sure they get first chance the next time I'm looking for a dining spot.

Discounting multi-nationals that crank out dyspepsia by the bucketful or palatable but entirely predictable chow chains, let's focus on local establishments with maybe six or fewer locations (wherever you are) and how to ferret out the good from all the others. After all, it's your hard-earned money, and now, more than ever getting value for the bucks is important.

Some things are obvious: Well cleaned, pleasant appointments, prompt attention upon arrival and adequate lighting both inside and out are essentials. I can't tell you how annoying it is when I find myself trying to peruse a menu by the light of a single guttering candle. I'm all for ambiance, but unless the Maitre d' or waiter offers a flashlight, forgo cave-like interiors. Who knows what else the dim lighting may be hiding?

So now we're in the door and in our seats. That seating should be comfortable and appropriate to the price point. A high end restaurant should extend guests a leisurely pace. Done perfectly, the dining experience will seems to flow seamlessly, taking exactly as long as it should. Not rushed; well attended but without having staff hovering like bees pollinating a flower. In a casual dining setting expect things to move a bit quicker, but if it ever feels like you're getting the bums rush, cross them off the futures list.

A well designed space will try to avoid having tables next to swinging doors from the kitchen and work space for waiters. The higher up the $$$ list you ascend the more important this becomes. Casual dining is sometimes done in small spaces and accommodations should be allowed. But in the bleak midwinter they should simply take down tables within leaf-blowing or Arctic blast range of the entry door.

I should admit to a pet peeve. When my spouse and I dine out we don't appreciate being referred to as 'You Guys'. I've earned my gray hair and my lovely wife is certainly not one of the guys. Well trained wait staff should NEVER say that phrase unless confronted by a bunch of college frat boys at a pizza joint. Please don't misunderstand, I don't mind an informal greeting, or even a little kibitzing if I open that door, but 'you guys' is just plain laziness in training and reflects poorly on management. It's just one of those things that starts a dining experience for me with a clunk.

By now you should be ensconced in a comfortable seat, with adequate lighting, out of the flow of work space with a menu and beverage list in your hands. If the menu is decoupage on a plank two feet square, this is not a good sign. Neither is it encouraging if it is laminated plastic with fading photos of food and in a corner somewhere tiny letters with something like: 'rev 2/3/91'. The words 'No Substitutions' suggests a less than accommodating kitchen and now, before any commitment has been made, would be the time to reassess your choice and flee.

Menus should be clean and in good repair. Menus should be limited. If the selections available are a laundry list that looks like it is trying to be all things to all diners, chances are excellent that it will present a mish-mash of frozen, dehydrated, concentrated, reconstituted box-o-food.  It will, for the most part, miss the mark entirely. Local restaurants should focus on doing a few things very well. Two cases in point here in Bellingham are Flats Wine and Tapas Bar and Tivoli. Both places focus on great food and warm service, yet are miles apart in ambiance and offerings.

At Tapas in Fairhaven cozy seating and tasty treats are styled on that most casual, yet culturally important aspect of Spain, the tapas bar. In Spanish cities there might be dozens, even hundreds of little places, each specializing in one particular item. Patrons can make a quick lunch (mostly standing up) or make a leisurely evening tasting tour.

In Fairhaven that tour is taken from your chair. The menu evolves continuously, taking full advantage of what is best both locally and from afar and in my experience always produces a superior result. Fine dining should be a fully rounded sensory experience engaging your eyes and olfactory first and paying dividends on the palate. The El Greco, bright red Spanish piquillo peppers stuffed with seasoned lamb and rice arrived on a plate with a roasted yellow pepper sauce and was topped with feta and fresh mint then bracketed by garlic yogurt and a balsamic reduction. It stole the show for me, but my partner was equally smitten by the pan-seared divers scallops served on pureed cannellini beans with caramelized onions, allioli and hazelnut pesto. There was more, including a nice wine list of both bottles and by-the-glass selections, but you get the picture. It was a great meal at what is becoming an institution on the South Side.

Tivoli in downtown, on the other hand, has a decidedly more Continental flair. It is a casually formal bistro (about as dressy as Bellingham ever really gets is a jacket and slacks, but an REI inspired outfit would fit in just as well). Service is superb. the wine list subtle yet accessible, the menu limited and the execution of the dishes spot on. On my last visit I began with a silky duck & chicken liver pate' (something not seen nearly enough in my opinion) then placed myself in the hands of the Chef d'cuisine.  I was rewarded with a succulent duck breast cooked to medium-rare perfection and sauced perfectly. Haricots vert and a fascinating cauliflower mash rounded out the plate. My partner, opting for the classic Coq au vin, found it a treat for the eyes and sensation on the tongue. I finished my evening with a dessert of pear, poached in zinfandel wine.

What both of these fine places have in common is a well trained staff, a few selections done to perfection and an ongoing effort to re-invent and improve themselves periodically. Any eatery standing on its laurels is losing ground.

Lest you imagine everything is up to the beanery for your dining experience, let me suggest a few ground rules for the customer to follow.

1. When you make a reservation--keep it. Don't double book, and if for some reason you can't make it, have the courtesy to call. They had the courtesy to save a spot for you, return the favor.

2. Don't take out your personal problems on the staff. If you are in a cranky mood or mad at the world save everybody the heartburn. Drive thru Burger Bomb then go home and sulk watching reruns of Seinfeld.

3. Choose your dining options with some common sense. A steak house is not the place to expect to find great local seafood. Do a little homework, see what's on the menu. If you have the time, call and ask what's fresh.

4.  Try something new.  I cannot stress this enough.  Expand your horizons, try something of which you've never heard paired with a wine you haven't tried.  Read recipes once in a while.  You cannot know what you don't know.  If you never swing you won't hit a home run.  (Insert additional cliche's here, if needed, as a prod.)

5. Don't get drunk and loud. Don't get drunk and loud. Don't get dru...sometimes this needs repeating.

6. Don't be a cheapskate. Dining dollars are dear these days for many of us, but workers in the hospitality industry generally make minimum wage and often cobble together two or three jobs to make a living. Most have families and don't get health care. Ante up a decent tip.

7. Remember to have a good time. Turn off the cell phone, engage in conversation with your partner, resist the urge to watch ESPN on the tube in the bar (okay, I still have trouble with this one). Relax for an hour or so and forget about your worries, they'll still be there waiting for you after dessert.