On a Scale from 1 to 10…

I love the kitchen.
I love the safety of its boundaries.
I love the pace, the flow, the certainty of the actions.
I love the quiet bedlam that is fully evident during peak service. I love the food… that is my bottom line in any restaurant, whether it is mine or anywhere in the world.

So if those opening words are my philosophy, why am I offering the following statement?

 I strongly believe that service is more important than food in a dining experience.

I read a lot and found this quote that speaks of what, for me as a true food lover, might seem like a blasphemous departure from my life’s work. In an article from the Chicago Tribune on May 15, 2008, food critic Phil Vettel addressed my topic for today: “An attentive and friendly front-room staff can cover a multitude of culinary sins, or as New York restaurateur Danny Meyer says in his book, Setting the Table, ‘The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.'”

Did you ever think you would hear me say that service is more important than food?

As a kitchen person I have my passions and never-ending commitment to great food; however, my dining experiences in the past few years, and especially this past summer, have tipped the scale.

Keep in mind, I will never not love food. I love to grow it, love to cook and, yes, my stomach may finally be proving it, I love to eat it. All styles, most cuisines – just do it well.

Cooking is funny. The cooks and chefs may have their quirks and personality traits that we deal with every day, but basically food is a simple commodity, that when nurtured during growth, when the “mise en place” is precise, the cooking skills are exact, and the plating is done with care, the food from the farm, the sea or the garden will show well. Yes, a lot of care in planning and executing make the process better for all.

Yet unlike the world today where our Supreme Court has intimated that corporations are people, a plate of food is still just plate of food. And for that we can all be grateful.

A good team in the kitchen can get the work done and the plate will never suffer from the personality aberrations of one cook or another. A great leader and task-master in the kitchen can help that greatly.

However, the service aspect of the dining experience is so very different. The following is a litany of issues/questions that I think/worry about when I dine:

  • Did I select the right restaurant?
  • Did I get the time I wanted?
  • Did I get the table I wanted?
  • Did I get a server on his or her game?
  • Did I get the server with the great personality and attitude or simply the order taker?
  • Does my server know the menu, the wines, the specialty drinks so well there is never a hint of hesitation?
  • Do I sense that I am special and that tonight will be a great treat for all involved?
  • Was I greeted well at the front door?
  • Was I quickly spoken to at the table?
  • Did I sense that all was right?

As I have matured, many of these issues have become less important. I’ve become significantly less worried about the right time and right table. I’d happily take knowledge and attitude over place and time.

There was time that I thought only about the food quality. I’m not sure, nor does it really matter to me, why my dining personality has changed. In my dining experiences over the past yeas and especially this summer: I’ve had great food. But, more importantly, such superlative service or even simply properly paid attention that it is impossible to dissect the details, and moreover not even that important. What I know is that Wynne and I, and our family on occasion, had a great time and that is what counts. Dining needs to be fun. Dining is personal and that is where we take the next step.

Dining out should be fun and include great service, food and a prominent beverage list. Dining out is filled with expectations and my goal this year is to raise our entire staffs awareness of that very complex word — expectations. We’ve been meeting since October 3rd 2014 and will continue to meet every week for the foreseeable future. The good news is that we have technically well-trained staff. And in many cases, a staff that fully appreciates the nuances of providing exceptional service.

My list of issues, referenced above, is the basis for my expectations. The bottom line is that our goal is to make our guests feel even more special by increasing the attention our staff offers. We all recognize that if you treated very well, every other element is perceived in a better light. This attitude is pervasive from me, Sukie, David and George and will make its way to EVERY staff member, whether they have direct customer contact or not.

So what changes are being made in the kitchen. The Ridgway Bar & Grill dinner menu has only a few substantive changes. I made 18 tweaks to individual items. Some will be noticeable; all are to make the dish slightly better. The big changes are on our Courtyard menu, available from 4pm – close. I made some really superb additions to it and hope you check it out next time you visit us.

I am also hard at work in the bakery, as well. I hired two very excellent bakers to augment our already very capable staff.

Enough for now, time to get back to work and meet with our service staff to talk about how to make everyone that walks in our doors feel special.

Your Friend,
Tony

Sukie Recommends

Wine: Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Country: Australia
Region: Margaret River

When you mention Australian Cabernet, most wine consumers immediately think of the expensive, full-blown, high alcohol Cabs from Barossa Valley. But cooler growing regions, like Margaret River, Coonawara and Padthaway are also producing quality wines at a comfortable price level. A few years back I had an Aussie wine manager, James Alexander, who extolled the virtues of Margaret River wines. He, like me, prefers elegance and finesse to power and muscle when it comes to red wines. He talked me into carrying Ringbolt Cabernet, and it is now a staple in my shop. Customers ask, how can a $16.50 Cabernet be as good as you say it is? I have a stock reply – buy it and that will answer your question.

Sukie Recommends

Wine: Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2011
Country: Spain
Region: Campo de Borja

A quick geography lesson: Spain has 17 autonomous regions, all of which are now producing wine. 20 years ago Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Andalusia were the only regions exporting wine to the US. Now we are seeing wines from Galicia, Priorat, and Jumilla and on and on. This wine comes from a very small region, Campo de Borja, east of Rioja and south of Navarra. Deep and sweet, this Garnacha (aka Grenache) has ripe red fruit flavors, with great mouth feel and a long, silky finish. Due to its subdued tannins, it can be enjoyed without food, or matched with grilled fish or a big, juicy burger.

Sukie Recommends

Wine: Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Country: New Zealand
Region: Marlborough

The Antinori brothers, who produced Italy’s illustrious Ornellaia, purchased the Mount Nelson property, located in the Wairau Valley of New Zealand’s Marlborough region, in 2003. This wine mirrors some of the traditional traits one expects from NZ Sauvignon Blancs – crisp acidity, natural exuberance and what I refer to as “raciness” – while displaying restraint and elegance. It is the perfect wine to sip by the pool or at a barbecue, but also matches well with shellfish and sautéed fish.

Dinner at L’Arpege

Friends,

With my story about L’Arpege I’d like to start near the end of the meal. L’ Arpege was our only three star restaurant I selected. Sukie and I had dined there years ago and loved it (it was two stars then) and I wanted see where Chef Alain Passard had taken his restaurant over the decades.
As the final main plate was being presented, Wynne and I noticed that the chef was making a tour of the dining room. He stopped and spoke with what looked like old friends and new. We were at the end of his circle. I must admit that I had a bit of awe in my soul – tempered with a huge amount of respect for Chef Passard.
He came to the table, quickly looked at our plates and ran to the kitchen to bring back more natural juices for the guinea fowl. I rose out of respect and we spoke for several minutes. His last statement was that he loved his work more each day than ever before.

…And that my friends is a tale of two graying chefs who both feel so lucky to be doing what they do every day!
I love the photo of the two of us. He placed a clean, long apron over his working apron to visit the guests. A simple blue shirt and yes seersucker pants … perhaps a new style for me. No toque, no stiff jacket, no pretense, just a man who loves his garden and his restaurant and shows that love in his food and his gracious nature.
Why the reference to the garden? Some years ago he took his three star restaurant to vegetables only. He has subsequently returned fish and fowl to the mix.
The vegetable only menu is still available; we chose the basic twelve course lunch menu. Not the classic cuisine lunch menu. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. We were satiated as it was.
Wynne and I have learned to ask the sommelier to guide us with the wines. We can’t manage bottles any more so suggestions of wines by the glass are necessary. His suggestions were like the entire experience: superb. An Alsatian took top honors.
Remember, all of the vegetables are grown in his own gardens – just like Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
Starting with fantastic butter. I truly love this specialty of France. Gorgeous color and texture and some times with coarse salt within. Baby radishes no larger than the tip of my little finger; gentle of texture and taste. Moving quickly onto three miniature tartelettes with the thinnest, most crisp pastry shell. Each filled with a different vegetable purée. Rich bursts of flavor of beet, turnip and celery.
Next was baby ravioli filled with lightly minced veggies; all in a Chrysanthemum (thank you auto spell) broth. One bite each – scallions, courgette-zucchini, spring onion all mixed with some cheese and who knows what else. I’m trying to simply enjoy and not overly delve into technique.
A gratin of red onions in a layer so thin. A creamy garlic soup with a poached quail egg – fresh garden potatoes. The procession of small courses flowing to the table.
A surprise of a beet tartare with fresh french fries. An egg yolk resting in a bed of creme fraiche to look like a whole fried egg. Taste and texture were perfect. Wynne now loves beets and baby Chantrelles.
During the service, the staff toured the room with both the Turbot and the guinea fowl as they came from the oven.
The guinea hen was roasted in a salt crust and had the most beautiful crusty skin I’ve ever seen. My portion had a good section of skin still attached and had some wonderful globules of yellow fat adhering to the skin and adding even more flavor. These two were the main plates, and are two of my favorite foods. I love the texture of the turbot and the taste is, well in general, I find the taste of fresh fish hard to describe with the most important point being that it must be fresh. Seafood with a strong taste generally is not fresh.
Quickly moving on to the desserts. A puff pastry with layers of young rhubarb and garnished with raw almonds and then the much anticipated plate of pastries. I’d eat macaroons if they tasted like this; all of the pastries one bite or two. A beautiful fresh apple tart with thinly sliced apples made into a rose.
The flavors of the meals were gentle and fresh; as if one had just come from the garden with a basket of produce and in fact they had. There was not any taste combination that stood out. Simply a marriage of the best ingredients with a chefs touch, allowing the products natural taste to be the star.
Chef Alain Passard is a consummate chef and host and someone for whom I have so much respect…. He loves his work and it shows…

Your Friend,

Tony

Dinner at Verjus

Dear Friends,

Verjus, Paris………
I often speak of expectations when discussing my own diningexperiences and recognize that our guests do as well. If my expectations arelow and my experience is well beyond the meager hopes, then what atriumph. On the contrary, when expectationsfail to meet the wished for outcome, then disappointment rages.

I’m not certain why I had placed Verjus on such a pedestal. Wasit reading that two Yanks were making a big splash on the food scene in Paris? Was I simply hopeful that my American peerswould have truly set themselves apart?

Bottom line: The food was terrific. Creative, well thoughtout and generally excellent.

I opted to go with the wine pairing option. Yet, I was notaware until the next evening that a significant percent of Verjus’ wines areNatural or Organic.

Should be no big deal, but these had flavor profiles that Isimply did not enjoy. Our next evening At Spring, we discussed the naturalwines and those served at Verjus and had our opinions confirmed that they are goingin a very different direction with their wine profiles.

Two of the wines were quite nice, two were okay and two werein my personal opinion undrinkable. My questions about the wines were met withcondescension at best. And not from apurely French server, but a very frenchifiedAmerican- like my new word! I gasped at the thought that we may treat someof our customers comments in this manner.

Back to the food…

Sea Bass Seviche with buttermilk pureed potatoes, lemon,chives and shaved asparagus. Nice tastes and texture. Loved the potatoes. Thebeetroot cured trout had no discernable taste from the beetroot, a very mildcure with no specific cure taste or affect. Nice piece of raw fish. We had lotsof that.

Chanterelles must be in huge supply at the farmers markets.They are all over Paris menus and are fabulous. Perfect barley and a broth withnettles, lots of fresh herbs and a slightly warmed egg yolk. Stirred togetherit made for wonderful tastes and textures. The texture of the barley, the richnessof the egg ,and all the flavors working very well together.

Loved the skillet seared duck breast on the next course.Would love to have had a little more smoke on the smoked celery root. Thegrilled flank steak came cut and grilled very thick and was full of flavor;more tender than one would imagine.

A palette cleanser: A small portion of fresh rhubarb granitaand a pine scented panna cotta. Flavors, texture of the granita with the pannacotta were much fun.

I love the art of making ice cream. The mascarpone ice creamserved with some very ripe and flavorful strawberries in a cherry consommé wastart, sweet and terrific. I’m finding there are very few pastry chefs in thesesmall boutique restaurants. They rely on the chef to use product and culinary skillto create flavors. It’s very well done.

A server who truly cared whether we liked the wines or notcould have rescued the evening and made it more special. Food was spot-onthroughout the meal. For my tastes, the wines were generally of a style I wouldnot choose to drink.

So, loved the sea bass ceviche, the chanterelle mushroomwith the barley, liked the duck and the flank steak, loved the granita andpanna cotta and the strawberries.

We left with lots of questions about how we serve guests.Some times the best learning comes from others mistakes, not their successes.

Your Friend,

Tony

Dinner at Yves Camdeborde’s Le Comptoir

Friends,

Yves Camdeborde’s Le Comptoir gets a 27 rating for food and 17 rating for decor on Zagat. Reservations are hard to get and one must plan ahead. I read reviews and heard people whom I respect talk glowingly about the food.

Monday night at 8:30 was to be our chance to drop into this matchbox sized restaurant and see if the hype met reality. There is seating per night and then only Monday through Friday. Wynne and I arrived a few minutes late – Paris traffic will do that – more on that on our culinary adventure at L’Arpege.
We were the last table to be seated and given one that, by many standards, might not be considered the best. However, Wynne and I loved it. Once again, very crowded seating – Ridgway could get twenty tables on the front porch with this style of seating.
A small menu awaits on the table. The first course is set, the next two offer choices, and the cheese and dessert are set. Beautiful crystal and silver and enough fun decor pieces to make my decor rating go up. Nothing bland in any way about this exciting dining venue.
Once again Champagne as an aperitif and a bottle of Sancerre Les Romains Vacheron for the meal. A beautiful loaf of bread was placed on the table that had an intriguing aroma. I picked, pulled, sniffed and tasted it before asking… “A touch of curry and Esplette peppers,” I was told. It was so good with the champagne. We ate more bread here than at any other place so far.
Because we were the last to be seated, we saw tons of food coming out of the kitchen. My menu “French” was good enough to guide Wynne away from the Pouple. Ordering and discussion to this point had all been in French.
I watched the room as the first courses were delivered to others and from the menu. The visuals were amazing. Saw a martini glass with three layers: foam on top, darker mixture in the middle, and rich green on the bottom. Pretty sure there were mushroom in it and guided Wynne appropriately.
First course delivered – A crisp piece of bacon rising as the garnish. Foam with some flavor, both sure what and then the surprises began. Tiny mushrooms sautéed with crisp bits of lard. Dug to the bottom to find fabulous spring pea purée and while digging found a beautifully poached egg.
Wynne finished hers first – so much for the mushroom issue. Fabulous way to begin. Flavors and texture and surprises to please all the senses.
I ordered the grilled Octopus. Wynne ordered the grilled Langoustine. Both were perfectly and simply cooked. Grilled with fresh herbs on top and very little sauce needed to make the dishes wonderful. The Octopus was so much more tender than many I have had.
The next course brought a perfectly rare roasted filet for Wynne and sweetbreads for me. Poached whole and then sliced across to yield a very thick portion for sautéing. Salt, pepper and a beautiful brown butter was all that was needed. The texture of the sweetbreads was perfect. Each plate garnished with fresh pea purée and fresh peas and limas from the garden.
Cheese tray is placed on your table and your neighbors as well so that you can eat all you want. All were ripe to perfection, generous of flavor short on that acidic sharp taste that turns me away from many cheeses. Tried several that I suspected might be beyond my taste palate and found them my favorites. Quince paste, honey and cherries to garnish.
Dessert, like the first course, looked as if it might be fun. Only thing we saw was a simple chocolate dome being presented and then chocolate poured over. The idea is frightfully simple yet wonderful. The chocolate dome covers some caramelized bananas and some crisp bits. The very warm chocolate sauce is poured over the dome and then it melts. Visually fun and tasted great.
About a third of the way through dinner we discovered that the entire staff was totally bi-lingual.
Le Comptoir is great fun and the food -mostly bistro style- is as good as it gets. The restaurant is located on a very busy corner and is constantly turning away guests; including an American princess who tried to buy her way in several times. I saw what looked to be good customers given the no and simply shrugged and walked out.
We had so much fun and the food was even more than what I expected.

Tuesday lunch at L’Arpege, Giverny road trip during the day and then Verjus for dinner in a short while.

Your Friend,

Tony

 

Dinner at Les Ombres

Dear Friends,

Last night’s experience was just about as I had expected. Took a taxi to Les Ombres. The restaurant sits atop the musee branley and looks southwest directly at the Eiffel Tower. Another beautiful and cool paris evening. We arrived and were promptly seated at the best table for two in the restaurant. No cynicism here, it was spectacular.
The restaurant is all glass and steel, walls and roof. The decor is the view.
Service was slow to bad, food was ordinary and expensive, i.e., no value. But the view… C’est magnifique!
That’s all you’ll get out of me about last night.
Tonight, a restaurant I am very excited about, le Comptoir du Relais.
Very small, very casual setting, it’s only about the food. Will be excited if the chef, Yves Camdeborde is in the house. Hoping for a very special culinary evening.

Your Friend,

Tony

Dinner at L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon

Friends,

Our first serious dinner last night. L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon. In the food world his name is right at the top. Like many French chefs he has opened more casual facilities to bring his cuisine to a broader audience.

We walked from the hotel, and when we arrived on the Champs Élysées, we headed due west into the setting sun, it was nine pm, towards l’arch de Triomphe. We had the address and were told it was inside the Publicis drugstore!,,, not a place one would expect to find great cuisine. We cautiously walked through, following signs and came to a stair case that led us to our destination.
Black and red and some what modern. Pretty much everyone sits at a three sided counter where you watch the kitchen perform. We were seated immediately.
A glass of champagne to begin. I had never seen the oversized champagne glasses they used. Love them!
Our server Maree, accent aigu on the first e, spoke english well. You are sitting with in inches of your neighbors so it is easy to spy on their plates. The Amuse – wow a stubby shot glass of a Parmesan mousse – three layers of extraordinary flavor. I gotten better at enjoying and not always wondering how it was made, as I ave absolutely no idea!
Lots of small plates – so over consumption can be controlled. We shared four plates. A wonderful Dorade, white fish, sliced carpaccio style with only the best olive oil, fresh lemon some salt and flecks of a mildly hot pepper. Quite a generous portion.
Langoustine en Ravioli- paper thin with a mostly classic french lobster sauce. A small taste of very good caviar garnished.
Next a ravioli made with veal feet, and served with the smallest Girolle, Chanterelle in USA.  I love wild mushrooms and they were exceptional. A fillet of Rouget sautéed with a little eggplant underneath.
Dinners are accompanied by chef Robuchon’s famous butter enriched potatoes. I had forgotten about that recipe…OMG!  Yes that good. (Might try it for Allison).
They brought a complimentary dessert, a laying of coconut cream, mango and passion fruit.
Wynne had the soufflé in honor of her dad. I had the tarte Tatin, curious about how he would handle, les pommes…Both were excellent.
Fresh from the oven Madeleines arrived in their cooking tin. Full sized, not the minis, are available at Cafe Boulud in NYC.
Wynne was presented a bag of goodies to take home. Madeleines for breakfast, longue du chat and house made candies.
A fabulous experience, and wonderfully attentive and helpful service!
I loved observing the kitchen. We could watch a chef who was responsible for lots of last minute preparation, selecting the largest Porcini mushrooms I have ever seen. Peeling and preparing fresh small artichokes. And so much more.  A wonderful dining experience, made even better by the attentive staff!
Your Friend,
Tony

Dinner at L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon

Friends,

Our first serious dinner last night. L’Atelier Etoile de Joel Robuchon. In the food world his name is right at the top. Like many French chefs he has opened more casual facilities to bring his cuisine to a broader audience.
We walked from the hotel, and when we arrived on the Champs Élysées, we headed due west into the setting sun, it was nine pm, towards l’arch de Triomphe. We had the address and were told it was inside the Publicis drugstore!,,, not a place one would expect to find great cuisine. We cautiously walked through, following signs and came to a stair case that led us to our destination.
Black and red and some what modern. Pretty much everyone sits at a three sided counter where you watch the kitchen perform. We were seated immediately.
A glass of champagne to begin. I had never seen the oversized champagne glasses they used. Love them!
Our server Maree, accent aigu on the first e, spoke english well. You are sitting with in inches of your neighbors so it is easy to spy on their plates. The Amuse – wow a stubby shot glass of a Parmesan mousse – three layers of extraordinary flavor. I gotten better at enjoying and not always wondering how it was made, as I ave absolutely no idea!
Lots of small plates – so over consumption can be controlled. We shared four plates. A wonderful Dorade, white fish, sliced carpaccio style with only the best olive oil, fresh lemon some salt and flecks of a mildly hot pepper. Quite a generous portion.
Langoustine en Ravioli- paper thin with a mostly classic french lobster sauce. A small taste of very good caviar garnished.
Next a ravioli made with veal feet, and served with the smallest Girolle, Chanterelle in USA. I love wild mushrooms and they were exceptional. A fillet of Rouget sautéed with a little eggplant underneath.
Dinners are accompanied by chef Robuchon’s famous butter enriched potatoes. I had forgotten about that recipe…OMG! Yes that good. (Might try it for Allison).
They brought a complimentary dessert, a laying of coconut cream, mango and passion fruit.
Wynne had the soufflé in honor of her dad. I had the tarte Tatin, curious about how he would handle, les pommes…Both were excellent.
Fresh from the oven Madeleines arrived in their cooking tin. Full sized, not the minis, are available at Cafe Boulud in NYC.
Wynne was presented a bag of goodies to take home. Madeleines for breakfast, longue du chat and house made candies.
A fabulous experience, and wonderfully attentive and helpful service!
I loved observing the kitchen. We could watch a chef who was responsible for lots of last minute preparation, selecting the largest Porcini mushrooms I have ever seen. Peeling and preparing fresh small artichokes. And so much more. A wonderful dining experience, made even better by the attentive staff!

Your Friend,

Tony