Yesterday we had lunch at Five Ninth with Alex's sister and her boyfriend. It was the first time that we were meeting him and so we picked a place that was casual and funky, where we thought we could get a good bite to eat. As it turns out, the food was pretty good but the service was some of the most entertaining ever. Thankfully, as a group we were all pretty mellow and so we spent most of the meal laughing, although I can see how with the wrong group it could easily have gone the other way.
Alex and I made incredible time driving into the city and parking magically appeared around the corner from the restaurant. It was about a half an hour before our reservation so we considered a coffee at Pastis but it was a madhouse inside and outside it was bitter cold, so we decided to have our coffee at Five Ninth. We were pleased to discover that the restaurant actually has a sign outside now--you practically used to have to be psychic to find the place. The hostess at the door was incredibly gracious, an attribute that has been lacking here in NYC. We offered to have our coffee at the bar, but after checking to make sure that it was set up, she led us upstairs to a table for four. She left us with menus and advised us that our server would be with us shortly. That's where the adventure began.
Since it was so cold, I decided to have some tea while we waited. There were two oolongs on the list and when our slightly disheveled server arrived, let's call him Bill (I never did catch his actual name), I asked him what the difference was.
"Well, one, the --- is a bit more floral and the other is slightly more bitter. Or is it --- that's more floral? Anyway, um, I think we only have one of them, hang on and I'll go check." He disappears for a a few seconds. "Actually, we don't have either of them. What we do have is one which is really tannic and kind of bitter, a mint and a chammomile."
After briefly considereing my options of bitter and tannic or no caffeine, I responded "Okay, in that case I'll have a latte." Alex quickly ordered one as well.
Bill gave us a theatrical shrug. "Well, actually, it'll be at least twenty minutes for that. The cappucino machine wasn't working this morning so we had to bring in another one." Quick smile. "So, it'll take a while for this one to warm up." Okay then, we'll just have some coffee.
As he brought the coffee, Bill shook his head. "How do you people get up so early?" he asked wonderingly.
"Um, I think we probably went to bed way earlier than you did."
He nodded. "Probably, I woke up an hour after I was supposed to be here today. I called them to tell them I was in the car and on my way." Sigh, "But they still weren't very happy with me." Go figure.
As he went to take care of another table, we scanned the wine list and chatted. We were both starving and decided to order some doughnut holes while we waited. As Bill had disappeared, we ordered them from the back waiter. When Bill returned to the floor (literally, Five ninth is in a townhouse and we were on the second floor) he asked us if we needed anything. Alex explained that we had ordered doughnut holes from the lady who had been on the floor.
"No you didn't.", with a big smile.
"Well, yes we did, It was about five minutes ago."
"No, you didn't." Very firmly and with a shake of his head. "She doesn't speak a word of English. You may think so, but you didn't order a thing. I'll go put them in now."
Meredith and Brian arrived promptly and after a flurry of hellos, we settled down and the doughnut holes arrived. They were four cakey balls, rolled in coarse sugar and served with a bowl of hot chocolate. They were good, but nothing close to the churros with hot chocolate at Five Points. As Bill came by to take our order, his parting words were "Okay guys, I'm kind of out of it today, so if I seem a bit spacey and you need something," flashing smile, "just throw a fork at me."
I had the trout salad to start, which I enjoyed. Small bites of deep fried smoked trout tossed with baby mustard greens, trout roe, radishes, caramelized onions and a cold, slow cooked egg. The egg would have been much better served warm as the whites were barely set and disappeared into the salad and cold, runny egg yolks are not my favorite thing, but all in all the salad worked well. Meredith enjoyed her congee, Brian really enjoyed his egg with panzanella and prosciutto and Alex's cubano disappeared so fast that I didn't even get a bite.
Bill came by as we were eating. "Are we all happy campers here?" We were.
For the second course I ordered the shanghai noodles. It was supposed to be fat noodles swimming in broth with chinese broccoli, berkshire pork and a slow cooked egg. As the bowl was set before me, it smelled delicious. I slid my chopsticks through the broth and saw everything I needed, everything except...noodles. I searched the bowl again. Alex who was waching the process flagged down Bill.
"There are no noodles in her bowl."
"Really?" He peered over my shoulder, scrutinizing the bowl. "You're right, there ARE no noodles in there." A food runner tugged at his shirt and Bill turned, "HERE they are. The kitchen just sent them up." The noodles were naked in a small ceramic bowl. "Do you want to be formal about this or can I just dump them in there?" I indicated that he could, so he did, conscientously turning the bowl away from me so it would splash toward the table as opposed to my lap. "Tableside noodle service." He chirped merrily, "I used to do this kind of thing all the time when I worked at Jean Georges. Practically everything is done tableside there. But I only lasted for like six months. They take everything so seriously there. A manager caught me humping a busboy in the coffee station because I wanted to get my cappucinos and flipped out. Like, it's only food people."
As we were eating, a woman in a chef's coat came up and quietly conferred with Bill in the corner. The next time he came to the table he let us know that she had been the chef. "She was really upset about the noodles. But I told her it was okay. Tableside noodle service! We should do this all the time."
Brian and Meredith belatedly decided to order a second course. They shared a ham, egg and cheese sandwich on a baguette and Alex suggested the lardo on toast as a side. He gave them a description of lardo, the part of the pig, the process, the flavor. Bill chimed in with his agreement. "Everyone knows that meat gets it's flavor from fat. In this case there is no meat, only fat, so imagine how much flavor there is in the lardo. It's all flavor. You should definitely try it "
As they were finishing, he came over solicitously. "How was your lardo experience?" Alex cracked up again, uproariously recapping some of Bill's one liners. Bill smiled and shrugged "I know, sometimes I hear these things coming out of my mouth and I think, that wasn't the most professional thing that I've ever said. But oh well, it's already out there. I think it's because I'm in the restaurant business. Strange things happen to people in this business. I think it's because we're open to different things and we see the world differently. There was this one time when my friend and I were walking down the street and this guy asked for directions. So I gave them to him and when I finished he reached out and honked my nose." He gave us and incredulous look and demonstrated the twist and honk, setting us off into gales of laughter. "I looked at my friend and said was that me? Did I do anything to invite that? Strange things always happen to me."
Finally we asked for the check. "Are you in a hurry?" Well, no, we're just heading over to Chelsea market to do some shopping. "Well, the kitchen is sending you some desserts. Can you wait for them?" As it was presented as a fait accompli, it seemed rude not to. We waited for quite some time and finally we saw Bill approaching the table, sheepishly brandishing a plate of "Doughnuts Holes!" He placed them on the table with a flourish and shrugged, "Well, you can never have enough doughnuts right?"
The restaurant was not very busy, a stark contast the meal we had there last year. I wonder if it was because it was a Saturday or because Fatty Crab has landed so close by. We both thought that food was better than last year, with some hits and misses, but overall the meal was pretty good and we had a lot of fun. So thank you Bill, whoever you are in real life, although we might never hire you, we certainly enjoyed your company yesterday.