I rarely review restaurants in India any longer. This is because I am never sure that I will get the same experience as the average guest. Many people in the restaurant business recognise me and so, from the moment I sit down to order, I know that I am a marked man.
Does it make a difference to the experience? Yes, it does. You will never get a good meal at a bad restaurant. But you do sometimes get bad meals at good restaurants. That’s what restaurants try to avoid when they see food writers.
The chef himself will cook everything; each dish will be tasted before it leaves the kitchen and only the best ingredients will be used. The manager will keep an eye on your table. You will never have to wait for service. You only need to gesture and somebody will be there by your side.
This is why I enjoy going to restaurants abroad where I am anonymous and discovering new places is an adventure.
In Bangkok, I once stopped on impulse at a restaurant I had never heard of, only to discover that I was eating the food of the world’s greatest Indian chef. (This was before Gaggan Anand became famous.) Another time I sought shelter from a storm and ended up at 100 Mahaseth, discovering a restaurant that has now become one of my favourites.
In Hong Kong, I went with my TV crew to the little known Tim Ho Wan, and had the best dim sum of my life. A year later, it got a Michelin star and became the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. Now, it has branches all over.
But, for every Gaggan that I wander into by accident, there is at least one rip-off place where they treat the punters as easy marks to make a quick buck.
I have made two trips to Dubai in the last few weeks and though I was recognised at the Indian places, I was anonymous at the others. It was a liberating feeling and I discovered that service standards in Dubai are high. At Tasca, at the Mandarin Oriental, there was an easy Portuguese vibe to the service. At the hip Hutong, service was surprisingly good and personalised.
Often staff went the extra mile. I had a very nice lunch at Basta, the Italian restaurant at the St. Regis Downtown hotel. When it was time to collect the plates, my waiter asked why I had left wedges of fatty steak uneaten. I explained that Bistecca Fiorentina, as the dish was called, is a specialty of Florence where the meat (from the Chianina breed) is so lean that you need to pour olive oil on the steak when it is served. This steak was a little too fatty for a dish that claimed to be in a Florentine style. It was probably a silly and pedantic point to make but she had asked and I decided to be honest.
She was back a few minutes later. The chef had taken note of my point, she said, and yes, the steak was fatty. By way of apology, the chef had sent out free desserts. It was my turn to be apologetic. There was nothing wrong with the flavour of the steak, I said, I had enjoyed it thoroughly. But no, they insisted on making it up to me.
Having eaten at around a dozen places, I have come to the conclusion that the quality of service (certainly in Dubai but probably everywhere) is less a function of individuals and more of the way a restaurant is run. Take the example of the Marina Social, an outpost of the upmarket Social chain run by Jason Atherton, one of the UK’s best-known chefs. Atherton’s food is always good and sometimes it can be excellent, so I chose the Dubai branch to celebrate my wife’s birthday.
When I called to book, I told them that it was a special occasion so could they please serve a cake at the end. I would pay but did not want to order it in front of her. Of course, they said, we understand completely, leave it to us.
The restaurant was packed when we arrived, mostly with Brits. They were having a good time and nobody seemed focussed on the food though it was fine.
The problem began after I ordered a bottle of wine. The waiter tried opening it in front of us, had difficulty, then turned his back on us while he struggled with the cork and then finally disappeared with the bottle still in his hands. The first course was served and finished with no sign of the wine or the waiter.
Eventually, another waiter came up to us and said they had broken the cork. As anyone who drinks wine (let alone serves it) knows corks can shrink, dry up and break. This means the wine may be spoiled. Or they can break if the guy opening the bottle gets it wrong.
At most restaurants there is an SOP for these things. If there has been a problem with the cork, you offer to open another bottle. (If they had, I would have tasted the wine and said there was no need to replace it; they just didn’t know how to open a bottle.) You don’t disappear for 20 minutes without explanation.
Several minutes later, after it had been strained (through a tea towel? We never found out), the wine returned in a decanter just in time for the main course.
At the end of dinner, the manager approached our table to ask if we had enjoyed the meal. I referred to the wine accident which she had no idea about; at any well-managed restaurant, staff are trained to keep managers informed of such incidents. But she apologised and we left. Nobody even wished my wife, let alone gave her the cake I had ordered.
There is a happy postscript. When I put the story on Instagram, the restaurant wrote to apologise and asked me to come back. But my wife refused point blank.
Social was just badly managed; there was no malice. But I wondered about Gaia. This is a popular Dubai restaurant run by a chef who is a local celebrity. It claims to be Greek-Mediterranean but, as we discovered, it is really a seafood restaurant. The waiters have the smarmy, self-satisfied air of London waiters at dodgy Soho establishments in the 1980s, when the city’s food scene had not yet boomed. They pushed guests towards the seafood display perhaps because they had to get rid of the fish before it went off. After encouraging us not to order from the extensive menu, they urged us again and again to go and choose from the fish on display.
Hardly had I got to this display when a waiter was by my side, telling me which fish I should select. When I hesitated, he grew more insistent. “I make spicy! Indians like spicy!”
Seeing that I was not convinced, he added, “We are finished with lamb and beef. Nothing! Only this fish”. My wife, who was back at the table, had a similar experience. She tried to order a vegetarian starter, only to be told, “we have no courgettes left. “
Really? At one thirty in the afternoon at the beginning of lunch service?
The food (we ordered fish because we had no real option) was rubbish, of course. But that was hardly the point. It was the attitude and the cheerful contempt with which guests were treated that stood out.
The Dubai experience has convinced me of what I always suspected. Bad service is not a function of individual servers. It is a function of how a restaurant is run. Treat your customers with respect and your servers will too.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, November 21, 2021
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