* From THE MONTHLY MAGAZINE OF FOOD & WINE: Article by George Lang *
YOU KNOW YOU'RE IN TROUBLE IF...
When you're dining out and you suspect something's wrong, you're probably right.
I remember listening to the late Mary Margaret McBride's radio show in the fifties when a big-game hunter recounted one of his African exploits: "This huge elephant was fighting with a man-eating tiger. Suddenly they noticed me and turned against me. I pulled the trigger; the barrel was empty; the tree was giving way under me; I heard a poison arrow whizzing by … and …"
McBride interrupted sweetly: "By then you must have realized
you were in trouble!"
During my restaurant-going experience, I have often remembered
her words when something made me realize that I was indeed in trouble. Here is a list of some observations that may amuse you and, perhaps, help you to avoid a fate worse than yesterday's champagne.
YOU KNOW YOU ARE IN TROUBLE IF:
- You see, proudly posted outside the restaurant, a 1959
review from a defunct newspaper and an award from an organization you've never heard of. That's a clue to what awaits beyond the door. Don't go in.
- The menu includes a tricky table d'hote format that lists
only soup and a stew with a fancy name or a casserole names after one of the less fortunate queens, while all the most tempting appetizers, main courses, and desserts cost extra. Try your luck elsewhere.
- You find yourself in a room surrounded by red plush
banquettes and reproductions of famous paintings in Bronx-Byzantine gold frames. According to one contemporary theory, if the restaurant is elaborately decorated the food will be an afterthought. This may be an exaggeration, but a phony approach to decor can have a direct relation to the food served. A mentality that would use scores of fake Tiffany lamps, gas-jet fireplaces, imitation electric candles, and a nightmare of jumbled styles is also likely to offer "Filet Mignon a la Napoleon Topped with Handpicked, Imported Crabmeat, Fois Grass [sic] with Costly Truffles Glazed with Whipped Hollandaise and Candied Fruits, Surrounded by Parmesan-Dipped Potato Skins."
- The man who appears to be the manager or maitre d' is sitting
at a table, acting like a guest and clearly letting nothing disturb his felicities. Beware – he is as useful as a singing dog who has lost his voice. A good professional "covers" the room and makes you feel that while he is there everything will be just fine.
- A female server approaches the table wearing a flimsy top
with a daring decolletage and studiously bends down to take your cocktail order. My guess is that it would be a mistake to expect more than an anatomyu lesson from this dining experience. The same holds for waiters and busboys dressed like road-company Shubert operetta characters. A slovenly way of dressing usually goes hand in hand with an unpleasant service manner. An unshaven, gum-chewing waiter, with a menu folded in his pocket and a pencil behind his ear, will invariably give you a hard time.
- After much suspense, a menu is ceremoniously presented and
you're faced with a flat monster of a Japanese screen, listing as many items as the classified section of the Sunday New York Times. With growing uneasiness, you notice that the simplest dish is crayfish brains poached in myrtle vinegar, stuffed with puree of cola nuts and decorated with kiwi fruit. The awful truth should hit you then: to survive the meal you'll need the ingenuity of a used-car salesman.
- The captain's description of the "Pate' du Mer Alphonse XII"
is "someting like a meat load but with fish in it." You should get the feeling you are in a pickle. My advice is to stick to simple, basic dishes. After all, what can they do to broiled sole besides overcook it, put paprika on it, add too much salt, and serve it cold?
- You're offered a wine list that is so recherche' that the
Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the state of Nevada and the sparkling wine was produced in the southern Philippines. This is the time to order a carafe of the house wine, or, if suitable for your selection of dishes, switch to beer. And when the sommelier offers you the Chateau Margaux 1955 in such a manner that you can't get out of it gracefully even though the price approaches that of a famous painting, you'll know that you are in deep water. If you ever manage to extricate yourself from this spot, my advice is to order the SECOND least expensive wine from the list, adjusting to the match-the-color game (Green Hungarian with spinach souffle'?)
A FEW PEARLS OF RESTAURANT WISDOM:
- Restaurants are popular because they supposedly combine the
maximum of comfort with a minimum of effort on the customer's part. When this maxim no longer works, it's time to learn cooking.
- The three biggest dining lies: "I don't really care about
the food," "My secretary didn't mention the reservation was for me, that's why we're seated next to the kitchen," "I usually go to Lutece for lunch, but …"
- Friends come and go, but bad waiters stay.
- When you need a waiter, the distance between you and him
will be limited only by the dimensions of the restaurant.
- An optimist is a person who goes to a "landmark" restaurant
expecting good food.
- The perfect meal is the one that you had five years ago in
the same restaurant.
ACCORDING TO LANG'S LAW, BEWARE IF:
- The pepper mill is huge and the wine glasses are tiny.
- A seafood restaurant lists thirty-eight kinds of fish on the
menu and the waiter tells you they have them all and they are all fresh.
- A restaurant boasts of anything "Wellington" or "Oscar".
- In a steak house the menu lists a bunch of fancy Continental
- In a Chinese restaurant the first things they put on the
table are packaged duck sauce, mustard, and soup noodles, or if the menu lists five different Chinese regional cuisines.
- A tour-group bus is waiting in front of the
seventeent-century Mexican hacienda-turned-restaurant.
Finally, when it's too late to escape the charging elephant, the man-eating tiger, the poison arrow, or the captain who is handing you the bill artfully hidden in a sixteenth-century jewel-encrusted codex, you should prepare yourself. When you open the clasp and look at the bottom line of the bill, you will positively, unquestionably realize, in the words of the late First Lady of Radio, that you are truly in trouble.
Reprinted from The Monthly Magazine of Food & Wine. (C) 1981 George Lang.