13 June, 2010

Our Encounter with the Seattle Food Nazi



I'd never walked out of a dining establishment during a meal before. Maybe my expectations should have been lower, or perhaps I'm simply an overly sensitive culinary wuss, but I just couldn't stomach the unsavory vibe there and was secretly glad that my dining partner decided she'd had a enough.

From the beginning, this place did not seem to have the customer's best interest in mind. From the street, there was not a visible sign. After driving around the block a couple of times, we finally parked the car and decided to walk in the direction of where it should be. Eventually, after almost missing it, we found a tiny sign with an abbreviation of the name. I was about to keep walking when my friend spelled out the abbreviation for the whole name of the restaurant. Ah yes, this must be it. How weird, though, not to have a more visible sign.

The door was already open, and upon walking in, we were greeted by the proprietor in a cold and very matter-of-fact way--we were told to hang up our jackets and select a table. When we set down, he immediately brought a carafe of cucumber water and two double-shot glasses of a clear liquid. 

"Ah, thank you," I said. "What's this?"

"Just something to wash the dust off your day." Amusing, but not really the answer I was looking for. I always like to know what I'm putting in my body, especially when it comes to alcohol. And my dining partner doesn't drink much alcohol at all. She just simply prefers to drink water. Not even coffee or juice or tea. Just flat water. She loves the stuff, it's her favorite drink, and she is known for always having some with her.

We both tasted our complimentary drinks and we couldn't quite put our finger on what it was. It could have been a very, very light dessert wine (it had a fig flavor, reminiscent of a very light port, but it was just not that sweet) or it could have been a flavored grappa, although not so strong. Perhaps it was something else altogether. I'm usually fairly good at guessing what something is, but I was baffled.

We sat and sipped our complimentary drink, and took in the place. It was sparcely decorated with nary an art piece adorning the stark white walls. A few candles burned, but for that, it seemed like a cold, Ikea-Pottery Barn collaboration. There were 6 or 7 tables total and two other ones were occupied. Strange, I'd heard this place was always packed.

He returned to our table, retrieved our empty shot glasses, and asked if we would like a cocktail. 

"I'm not really a cocktail person," I said, "but do you have any signature drinks?"

He stared at me blankly, shrugged, and then said "Whatever you'd like to drink". Um, that's not a signature drink. But hokay.

"Well, I don't really have a favorite cocktail. Any recommendations?"

He didn't answer and immediately looks at my friend and asks "What about you?"

"Um, I think I need a couple of minutes. I don't usually drink. Let me think about it." So he walks away, and I had the distinct feeling he was going to just make us drinks. She says to me, "I think I just prefer the water he brought to the table". 

He returns and indeed plops down two cocktails in front of us, both very different from each other, and walks away. No explanation. No "If you don't like them, we'll take them back" disclaimer. No nothing. And even though I suspected he might just do this, we really didn't want to pay for drinks we didn't order. My friend had even decided she didn't want to order any at all. We both sighed and decided to take a sip of our respective cocktails.

"I don't like it. I'm sending it back," she said.

I'm not one to send things back to the kitchen--as a matter of fact, as straightforward as I usually am, this is one thing that I absolutely loathe--so I offered to trade her drinks. She slid her drink over to me, and we both sipped each other's drinks. 

"Nope," she says. "I don't like this one, either. I'm sending mine back. I didn't order one and really just don't want to drink." It was indeed presumptuous for him to serve us alcohol anyway, and try to presume what we might like.

"Well, maybe I'll drink it," I offered. "It's not that bad." (It actually tasted like 7-Up, vodka, and lime juice. Not good.)


"Jackie, I didn't order this. I'm totally sending it back. I have no problems with that," she said ardently.

I continue to sip on my drink. It's okay. Nothing earth-shattering. I have absolutely no idea what is in the drink. It looks exactly like caramel, and I imagined something buttery-sweet with a sprinkle of sea salt on top. No such luck. It tastes of something bitter and sour combined. It doesn't taste like it looks. I continue to sip anyway, because that's how I am. I'd rather drink a substandard drink, or eat an unappetizing meal, and spare myself the perceived humiliation of explaining why I don't like someone's culinary masterpiece. I most definitely need more strength and honesty in this area. I've been lucky, in that it's been a long time since I've been really dissatisfied with something.

He returned to our table and brought a bowl of popcorn, and immediately turned on his heels and left again. I thought this was a strange appetizer for an upscale establishment. I'd expect it in a bar alongside beer coasters and pretzels, but not in this sterile, upscale, barely candle-lit restaurant.

"I'd like to return this drink. I didn't order it, and it's just not working for me," she said, and he turned back around. "I just want to stick with water." He looked at her blankly, grabbed the drink, and took it back to the kitchen. He returned will a glass full of sparkling water.

"Oh my God. Now he's giving me sparkling water! He's making me feel really uncomfortable," she said. "I didn't order sparkling water. I'm happy with the flat water at the table which he already brought."

"I know," I whispered. "And he's completely unfriendly."

I sighed and took a piece of popcorn and put it into my mouth. It was oily and salty, but lightly so, and with very interesting flavors underneath.

"Hey, try this popcorn," I told her. "It's really unique."

She ate some. "Mmmm. I taste garlic," she said.

"Yes... Hmmm... And truffles. I think I taste truffles."

There were also black specks in it. It was lightly seasoned with great flavors, and was perhaps some of the best popcorn I've had.

As he was passing by our table, I lifted a finger to him, stopped him, and said "This popcorn is really good. What's on it?"

He gave me an honest-to-goodness look of snobbish disdain. "Um, salt and pepper?" He said it like a question. It was really a shortened version of "Um, salt and pepper. Are you stupid?" I know there was more on there than salt and pepper, but he wasn't giving it away. I didn't want his secret, but I like to know, once again, what I'm eating.

And he walked away, we both felt increasingly uncomfortable. We had not yet seen a menu, and yet several things had been delivered to our table, which had not been ordered. We're imagining the bill at the end of the meal.


I sipped my drink which was almost gone now. Only 15 minutes into the evening and I'm already tipsy.

A few minutes go by and I see him delivering bowls of soup to the other two tables. Eventually, he comes over and puts soup, and soup spoons, down in front of us.

"What's this?" I asked.

He started to walk away and gave a cursory glance over this shoulder and said, "The first course".

As he walked back to the kitchen, my friend took her napkin from her lap and put in on the table. "That's it. I don't care what you decide to do, but I'm leaving."

I took a bite of soup. It was nothing special. Again, I had no idea what's in it--couldn't fathom a guess. I took a second bite. I was no more knowledgeable than I was with the first bite.

Sigh.

"Really? You really want to leave?"

"Yes. I do. He's making me so uncomfortable, I'm actually feeling kind of emotional right now. I've never felt this vibe in a restaurant before. Ever."

I felt angry, too. For not being acknowledged, outside of a couple of over-the-shoulder, flippant remarks. But I'm still loathe to leave. For some weird reason.

"I hate having to make a split-second decision like this," I tell her.

"I know, and I'm sorry, but I have to go," she says.

"Okay. But you ask him for the bill then." I wasn't thinking straight. In hindsight, we shouldn't have even had a bill, since technically, we didn't order anything.

She gets his attention and he walks over and she says "Um, I think we would like the bill now. We need to cut out."

"Okay," he said and turned to walk away. He stopped halfway to the kitchen, turned around, and said "Is there something wrong?"

I felt that all eyes in the restaurant were on us. I'm dying a little inside.

"Yes, something is wrong. We've asked you several questions, and you have either ignored us or haven't answered our questions. It just feels very rude and we feel uncomfortable."

"Okay then. How about $10 for the bill?" I hand him a twenty and he leaves to go to the till.

"I'm going to just give him the whole $20," I said to her. "Let's just go."

"Oh no, you're not! You're not going to tip him." Luckily, he showed up with my change immediately, plopped it on the table and walked away. I'd almost expected him to yank the soup from my place setting and yell "No soup for you!" Instead, even worse, he showed absolute disinterest in the fact that we were leaving.

No apology. No remorse. No customer appreciation. No respect.

I walked out of there deflated and confused. Why were we treated like that? Why didn't he answer the simplest of questions? Why didn't he even offer up a half-hearted apology for ruining our dinner? And why didn't I have the cajones to stand up for myself, like she did?

I've honestly never come across that before. I've heard since then, that it's a place where you sit down, do not look at a menu, and you are just served dinner. It could be five courses or 12. Whatever the day holds. I like the concept. A lot. But the execution is horrible. There was nothing on their web site that indicated this. Also, no one asked if this was our first time there, and explained the protocol and how it worked. We had no idea what we were eating, how much we would be eating, and what the prices would be. No information whatsoever.

I'm just not that kind of consumer. I know people love this place (Yelp has given this place rave reviews) but I am honestly thankful to my friend, who forced me to have the courage to walk out with my dignity and pocketbook intact.

I have also heard, after the fact, that this proprietor is legendary for being difficult and pompous. So it wasn't just us. Good to know. And yet sad that others have had similar experiences. The few folks on Yelp who gave this place a negative review did so because of him. Their experiences were identical. Even some of the good reviews said "It's not for everyone; don't expect to know what you're going to get." No thanks. That's not how I want to dine.

And, except for the popcorn, there was nothing at all remarkable about the place, the drinks, or the soup that I tried. And I can make popcorn at home, thankyouverymuch. I think the reputation is probably overrated.

After leaving, we dined at a nearby Mexican dive. The Chicken Mole and Pork Carnitas were delicious, and the waitstaff was unbelievably helpful and nice.

As they should be.

8 comments:

  1. Oh, don't leave me hanging! What's the place?

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  2. Oh, never mind. I figured it out.

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  3. For personal reasons, I'd rather not say. Many folks will figure it out, I think. It's a unique Seattle establishment.

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  4. Perhaps Yelp is not the best resoource for restaruant reviews! I prefer Urbanspoon because any search will also turn up linked blog posts and media reviews.
    Also, I have to say, I think not naming the establishment is no different than Phred refusing to name the drinks, but your blog - your decision!

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  5. It is an age-old tradition (and should remain that way) that restaurant reviewers (of which I am an amateur, granted) do not post negative reviews until they've visited a locale at least three times, as they might have hit a restaurant on a "bad night". Since I am unlikely ever to set foot in this place, I won't ever get to the third try (or even the second) to do the restaurant any justice.

    Even though I feel his attitude is worth a negative review, other people do not agree with me (many people love the guy). He's very liberal with drinks, and most folks take a fancy to that (at least the ones on Yelp).

    Have just started using Urbanspoon. Great suggestion to use THAT more in the future.

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  6. We actually like that restaurant and the format, but I can see where if you're not expecting it you would be put off! Once you get to know him, he's quite nice and his wife is a sweetheart.

    sorry to hear you had a bad experience!
    Marc

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  7. That is absolutely preposterous. What if you had some serious food allergy?

    Sorry you had such a terrible experience. I'm going to have to scroll through the Yelp reviews and try to figure out what this place is!

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  8. Aha. Thanks to eM, figured it out.

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