The first thing I noticed was that the lampshades on the light fixtures were askew, and this filled me with trepidation. Granted, lampshades have nothing to do with the quality of the food, but they have everything to do with detail. If Carson from Downton Abbey was working the floor, the lampshades would be level. I told myself to lighten up as Steve and I walked into Chicago’s David Burke’s Steakhouse, a place that one of his colleagues raved about. The decor was modern with chocolate brown leathers, touches of ivory and bursts of red. It was tasteful, but the feeling of “eh” couldn’t be shaked. Everything on the surface looked good, but I was haunted by the little details and sense of complacency that lurks around restaurants that have been popular for awhile. Everyone who works there knows that the place is good, and instead of striving to make it better, they rest upon their laurels and begin to be negligent in the small details that transform good into amazing.
For example, our waiter did everything he should do, but it felt like he was on auto-pilot telling us the specials– being a waiter was almost like his affectation. The staff brought out complimentary popovers, which were good, as were our goat cheese puffs served with honey and beet relish. We both ordered salads, and our waiter noted that Steve’s Caesar salad would be prepared table-side. This, we thought, would be pretty cool. In a few minutes the Caesar salad preparer wheeled his salad cart to our table and silently began mixing the egg, vinegar, oil, anchovies, and what-all into a big bowl that we couldn’t even see the inside of. He did not greet us, nor tell us about any of the ingredients. Were the eggs free range? Did the vinegar come from Modena? Were the anchovies packed in oil from off the coast of Greece? Was the lettuce locally grown? Any funny anecdotes about the restaurant? We’ll never know. It also seems to me that having your salad prepared table-side is a special treat and should be treated as such. The other waiters did not seem to think so, since they interrupted him twice, and he had to wheel his cart to the left and then to the right to accommodate them refilling our water and bringing out my salad. All had forgotten that the salad making was a mini-performance, and I wondered why they just didn’t make it in the kitchen.
The rest of the meal was like our Caesar salad performance: unremarkable. My tomato and mozzarella salad, which was good, and to be honest, it’s really hard to screw up that salad, but it looked like they scooped it from a vat and plopped it on my plate. There was zero thought put into the presentation. The roast chicken with the burnt smashed carrots looked really good to me (I love burned bits), so I ordered it anticipating carrots smashed like potatoes with swirls of burned bit goodness. My plate arrived. My roast chicken covered with some indistinct brown sauce (never a good sign– what are they covering up?) rested upon a pile of small roasted onions, sugar snap peas, and small-diced carrots, that were in fact, burned. Nothing on my plate looked smashed. The vegetables derived their flavor from having been burned, and my chicken tried to derive any of it’s flavor from the sauce. My annoyance grew with every bite; I could make this meal– including the salad, better at home for less than what the chicken dinner cost me. Steve ordered the 55-day aged steak– which should, based on the quality of the meat, the length of the aging process, and the cost (!), blow his socks off. His verdict: it was good, but the steak he had at a local restaurant back home was better (and half the cost). We also ordered a couple of sides: potatoes with bacon jam and green beans. I didn’t try the potatoes, but the green beans were the equivalent of the kind that you steam in a bag at home. They were limp and had that same rubbery texture. Yum. I can honestly say that absolutely no thought went into the green beans.
The coup de grace of this meal was my dessert. It was a carrot cake described as “Ginger rooibos cake with candied pineapple and black walnut ice cream”. It’s true. It was. A note about a weird quirk I have: I do not like to mix up my food. If it is served separated, then I will eat it separated. No mixed-mixey for me. My carrot cake was served deconstructed. There was a slice of the ginger cake, which was dry and did not taste like ginger; a round of cream cheese frosting (which was good), a mound of black walnut ice cream which did not taste like walnuts unless you ate one of the walnuts on top, three small pieces of candied pineapple, topped with long strings of fried carrot. It looked very pretty. However, if everything is going to stand on it’s own, it all needs to be good on it’s own. There should be no reliance on the clientele who do mixey-mixey to to mask the inferiority of the food.
Why am I so critical? This meal cost a lot of money. If someone, especially in today’s economy, is going to spend a lot on a meal, it needs to be an experience. It needs to be worth it. Restaurants are like movies, books, and performances; they ask someone to give up their time to see what they have to offer. It requires investment from the client, and their investment should be rewarded. Clients should not leave thinking, “I can do this better myself.” Nor should clients leave thinking of other restaurants where they had similar meals that were much better and half the cost. Take the lowly green bean, for example. I know I run the risk of sounding like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice who wondered which sister he should commend for the exemplary boiled potatoes, but I’ve had some exemplary green beans in the past, and I left thinking about those meals and how good they were. And that, for David Burke’s, is a fail.
Part Two is about the next night’s meal– the antithesis of this one.