Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The best dining experience?

What is the best dining experience?

I was thinking back to my birthday in 2009.  My mum and I went to a pseudo-Italian restaurant, an "Italian Grill", as they called it, though it wasn't Carraba's.  I was underwhelmed by the huge open space with a ring of tables.  The ceiling was held up by columns with fake plastic columns around them.  I liked the menu choices and ordered gnocchi (potato pasta) with Alfredo sauce.  How do you mess up Alfredo sauce?  Hmmm, you leave out the cream, the cheese, and the black pepper to really mess it up.  What remained?  The oil and the butter.  Tasty, wouldn't you say?

It made me think of an episode of the tv series Still Standing where Bill (the husband/father) and his friends go to this Hooters-like restaurant regularly and just can't get over the food.  Bill's wife Judy thinks that it's a scam.  In the end, she tells how the busty waitress has children and feet problems, which really ruins Bill's naughty image of her.  Then, Judy serves him some of his favorite food from the restaurant and he practically chokes on it, it's so bad.

So, what makes a good experience?  Friends, cleavage, or even good food?

There were times when I was out with friends and we'd just agree to go to a place and we enjoyed it.  It wasn't always great food, like from a fast food restaurant, but it was better because we were together.  Of course, going to a place and they ask "Is it just you?" really doesn't start the experience on a positive note.

I'm still impressed that Hooters and Wing House can stay in business.  I don't believe that the food is better than other places and they can't be drawing a lot of couples into their places, right?  I remember Hooters' radio advertising talking about how it was a family restaurant.  So, where were the male waiters and the flat-chested female waitresses?  Family place, sure, and men read Playboy magazine for the articles.

What is good food?  Is it more expensive, less expensive than everything else?  Does it have better ingredients?  Does it remind you of your grandmother's Sunday dinners?  For me, it's often the lack of things: the lack of trouble, the lack of brown lettuce in the salad, the lack of a fake environment.  When I walk through the door, I want a good experience.  You don't have to be sticky sweet but don't act as though I'm an interruption to your day.  Help me with the menu choices, including the daily specials.  Even if I saw the board at the freezing cold entrance, I may not remember every item.  If you have to repeat them, you're earning your tip.  If you're letting me know that you're exasperated at me, you're losing your tip.  Don't bring me yesterday's lettuce and, if the soup was just thrown out, tell me something else, if you want me to stay.  "Oh, I'm sorry, but that soup won't be ready for another hour.  It was, ummm, very popular."  Bring my food and drink prepared as I wanted.  If you ask me many times how things are or if I'd like dessert, I'll get the impression you want me to vacate my seat.  I don't need that.  I want to enjoy my meal, especially if I'm with a group.

I had an experience in 1985.  I was staying in the city of Kobe, in Japan.  My friend's brother's friend took several of us in his car to Kyoto and then, to Himeji Castle.  At the end of the sightseeing, I was not well.  My friend told me that we were going to a restaurant and there was no choice.  That's my Japan--obligation, even as the guest.

We arrived at a French restaurant.  Now, what I know about French food is to avoid it.  It's not well cooked and it usually has some element of surprise.  I don't really care for surprises in my food.  As the five of us enter the building, we're greeted by the owner and his staff, as well as my friend's parents.  There are no other people in the restaurant.  My friend's father has hired the restaurant for us--for me!  I'm feeling tremendous pressure for this to be a positive experience, no matter what, no matter what I feel.

A generous salad arrives and we eat with knife and fork.  There are no chopsticks for the first time in 2 weeks.  I do my best to be graceful and not toss salad around the restaurant.  Then, they replace the empty salad bowls with a plate containing half a large lobster with some potato salad-like substance adorning the open section.  It's fine so far, but as I'm tallying the price in my head, it's not phenomenal.

As we finish with the lobster, we're treated to the largest steak I've ever seen, and it's Kobe Beef--the most expensive beef in the world at US$75 per pound in 1985.  My mental calculator has just come up with $400 per person for this dinner.  The thing to note here is that I mentioned that I wanted to try Kobe Beef.  I thought about going somewhere and getting a couple of small, grilled cubes on a skewer.  Yummy, sufficient.  I was thinking that I should be more careful in what I say.  So, all eyes are on me.  I cut into the steak, and blood comes out.  Being a French restaurant, they've apparently waved the steak over an open flame to heat it delicately.  How elegant!  I apologize for possibly 10 minutes, begging for the steak to be cooked.  I don't want to shame me, my friend's family, or the owner of the restaurant, but I cannot find a way to eat it.  The staff took it back and waved it over the fire a few more times.  It was warmer.  I ate as much as possible and exclaimed profusely how wonderful it was.  That night, I had been paralyzed temporarily, though I don't know that the food had anything to do with it.

On the way out of town, my friend and I picked up lunch boxes at the train station.  They had 3 slivers of Kobe Beef, cooked well.  I enjoyed them immensely.

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