Amateur Night

21 Jan

My wife and I and another two couples recently visited a local restaurant for a pre-holiday meal.  Restaurant cognoscenti refer to holiday and pre-holiday meals (Valentine’s Day, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve) as “amateur nights,” where folks who do not typically dine out come out in mass, or even frequent restaurant diners step up a level or two for the special occasion.

The restaurant had offered an enticing three-course pre-fixe menu (appetizer, main, and dessert) with choices to please carnivores, pescivores, and vegetarians alike.  The menu included high ticket items such as foie gras, Maine lobster,  and Wagyu beef among the choices.  At $45 per person, we thought it was too good to pass up, even on amateur night.

We had chosen the earliest of three seatings at the restaurant, as we had plans for later in the evening and did not want to arrive for New Year’s Eve festivities on an empty stomach.  We also figured that the early seating would be the least hectic for the restaurant and that we would see the restaurant at its peak while they were fresh.

We were shown to our table and we settled in.  Several tables were already seated and were in various stages of dining.  After several minutes our waiter appeared and welcomed us, and said he would get us some menus.  We asked him for some Champagne flutes, as we had brought our own.  He came back a few minutes later with two menus, handed them to one couple, and wandered off.   He reappeared a few minutes later with another two menus, and announced that he was having trouble assembling menus for the table.  Given that this was the first seating on a pre-fixe menu, we found this quite odd that there were not enough menus available.  When we all had menus, he asked if we wanted to place our orders.  We stated that we were still waiting on the Champagne flutes, and that some water would be nice as well.  After another few minutes, he reappeared with Champagne flutes; we were somewhat mystified by the amount of time that it was taking, as the restaurant advertised that the meal would come with a complimentary glass of Champagne, so they should have had the stemware staged.  When the water was brought to the table, it had an odd, and decidedly fishy, aroma.  Curiously, future refills on the water did not have this aroma.

We finally placed our orders, with the majority of us ordering a foie gras crème brulee, which sounded intriguing.  The brulees arrived, accompanied by a savory sage biscotti, preserved fig, and dressed microgreens.  The crème brulee was subtly flavored with the foie, although we thought that there should have been a bit more evident in the mix.  The crisp sage biscotti added a nice texture and flavor counterpoint to the smooth and creamy brulee, and the fig was simply amazing.  We paired this dish with a bottle of 1997 La Tour Blanche Sauternes, always a smart and easy pairing with something rich like a crème brulee, and especially with the addition of foie gras.

With this as the opening salvo, we anticipated great things for the evening.  For the entrée, the majority of the table ordered the Wagyu ribeye, with one ordering the lobster.  While waiting for the mains to arrive we sampled a couple of red wines that we brought for the occasion, including a 1997 Dominus and a 2001 Silverado Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

The entrees were quite slow coming out of the kitchen, and the waiter stopped by the table at least twice to explain to us that another table was in front of us.  When the entrees arrived, we were all surprised by the presentation.  The steak was a relatively large piece of meat, but was only ½ inch thick.   Not what we expected.  Upon cutting into the steak, we found that all of them were cooked beyond the requested doneness.  Not all that astonishing given the thin cut.  I decided that my steak was close enough to not send back, but other steaks were sent back to the kitchen.    The dish had additional issues… the steaks, as well as the vegetables that accompanied… were all overly salted.  The vegetables that accompanied the lobster dish were also heavily salted.

When the desserts arrived, the problems continued.  My wife had ordered the “Bananas Foster” which did appear in quotes on the menu and was described as “house made vanilla bean ice cream, seasonal fruit.”  What was placed on the table was a bowl of white, room temperature liquid.  Upon examination, there were pieces of banana submerged in it, but they gave no indication of being sauted.

My dessert choice was “Dark chocolate & Grand Marnier molton cake, with a house made mint crème frâiche.”  Crème fraiche seemed an odd topping for a chocolate lava cake, but I was game.   It turns out that I was not a fan of the crème fraiche, but it was more the flavoring that I had a problem with.  The crème fraiche was not mint, but a combination of dill and tarragon; again, not things that I would match with chocolate.

All in all, we were disappointed in the performance of a restaurant where we had previously had fabulous meals, and that had been lauded near and far by critics and foodies alike.  I am hoping that our meal was an anomaly for the evening, and that other diners fared better.   I am actually eager to go back to see if, in fact, it was a momentary glitch, but several of our dining partners have indicated that they have no desire to return.

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