Due to an interesting twist of circumstances I am writing this post from a hotel room in Portland, Maine. We drove in last night and picked up a room at the Hilton Garden Inn . The last time we were in Portland this place was still under construction. Fortunately the two places tucked in it's shadow remain, Fore Street and the Standard Baking Company. Both are old favorites and we will be picking up breakfast at the later in just a few minutes.
We had dinner at Fore Street last night. It was, as always, an enjoyable meal. Sam Hayward's food is simple, rustic and flavorful. He uses a variety of offal on his menu, local ingredients, strong flavors and a warm and cozy atmosphere dominated by the wood burning oven in the center of the room to create great experiences for his diners. The service is sometimes harried but always friendly and the food is consistently very good. Last night was no exception although there were a couple of missteps.
Over the few months (mostly) on the East Coast, there have been a few times when we have had to send something back to the kitchen. Sadly overcooked pasta that had never been exposed to salt of any kind, crunchy undercooked pasta that was saltier than the ocean, raw lamb sausages and and incredibly large and expensive steak that was sadly overcooked. The standard response was "Let me check with the kitchen." as a dish was whisked away. This was usually followed by a triumphant return by the the server exclaiming "The kitchen agrees with you! We're getting you a new dish."
My response to this is usually somewhat dour. It's nice to validated I suppose, but what if the kitchen didn't agree with me? I still wasn't going to eat the dish and I would probably be even more unhappy to have to make my case to the management. Mind you as a Chef I am never happy to see a dish come back to the kitchen, but I do realize that everyone's taste is not my own. Sometimes there has been a mistake and a dish is definitely flawed, sometimes someone just doesn't like it. A good eighty percent of the world orders their meat medium when they really mean medium well to well done. Some people can't tolerate salt, some can't stand even a hint of bitterness and some people need a good dousing of hot sauce before anything on their plate is deemed edible. Some nights it seems as though everything comes back for no apparent reason and sometimes everything comes back because a kitchen or a cook is off their game and things that should never make it through the swinging doors end up in the dining room.
Perhaps letting the guest know that the restaurant agrees with the problem is a way of taking control of the situation. Maybe they think that it allows a wait person or manager a to gracefully handle a customer complaint. Frankly to me it smacks of superiority. I don't need someone to validate the fact that I was served an unappetizing plate of food, I just need someone to fix it.
Anyway, this rant should not necessarily reflect on the dinner we had last night. It is one among a sea of places where we heard some variation of the magic phrase. In one New York restaurant we were told that the kitchen probably intended the dish to be undercooked, this in response to raw sausages, but that the server would bring it back to find out. FYI, the kitchen did not intend to serve raw ground meat and proceeded to take an additional 15 minutes to char the sausages into blackened lumps in some misguided retribution for us having the audacity to point out their error. Such are the dangers of sending something back.
We had some very good food at Fore Street. Most notable were a dish of sauteed chicken livers that were delicately crisp on the outside, pink and creamy on the inside with port deglazed pan juices and wilted spinach and sliced scorzonera (a type of salsify...sort of) and a dish of wood grilled calamari paired with marinated red onions and a thyme vinaigrette whose delicacy and petite size was the counterpoint to the heartiness and generous portions of the liver. And now we're off to the bakery. Although it may be overcast and gray outside, I know some warm bread and good coffee will brighten things right up as we prepare to explore the Maine coast once again.