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Terry Theise on Fine Dining ...


DonRocks
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As for the pouring of the wine, if a restaurant cannot absolutely guarantee that no glass will empty before the bottle itself is empty, it could just as well leave the damn bottle on the table, in my opinion. Once, having not been served half my white wine--not just before my fish got cold, but not at all as the bottle was discovered half full by the other sommelier as we were finishing our red--I asked our server to leave the red on the table and was told he was not allowed.

Ugh, what kind of a place was this? Sounds like pretty bad service to me.

I've never been yet to a 2-star or 3-star or even 0-star place where the wine waiter isn't likely to tell me: "Shall we keep the white on the table if you're not finished with it? Meanwhile do you want to taste the red now?" And if I want several glasses to remain on the table with wines of all colors in them, that's fine too. I thought that the formality you describe had totally disappeared. I'm curious to know where you had that experience.

However, I've often smiled at the waiters' cavalcade instantly provoked by my mere touching of the bottle with fingertips. Never fails. On the other hand, the constant refilling of my glass even when there's a good amount of wine left in it has a way of getting on my nerves.

The most dreadful situation of the sort happened to me at the hôtel Lancaster in Paris a long time ago. It was not about wine. I was dining in the patio, on a very heavy cast-iron garden table, sitting on an even heavier cast-iron armchair. I had ordered turbot with béarnaise sauce and the béarnaise arrived in a small sauceboat. It was poured onto my plate in a minute quantity, then the sauceboat was placed several yards away, on a service table. It was horrifying: I couldn't reach it, the waiters were very far away in the restaurant hall taking care of other business, and if I wanted to get it back I had to pull back my heavy iron chair that made a racket scraping the brick floor. When I finally managed to get my sauceboat back, the sauce was cold. To me, this remained the perfect example of stiff, schizophrenic chic French service.

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Ugh, what kind of a place was this? Sounds like pretty bad service to me.

I've never been yet to a 2-star or 3-star or even 0-star place where the wine waiter isn't likely to tell me: "Shall we keep the white on the table if you're not finished with it? Meanwhile do you want to taste the red now?" And if I want several glasses to remain on the table with wines of all colors in them, that's fine too. I thought that the formality you describe had totally disappeared. I'm curious to know where you had that experience.

However, I've often smiled at the waiters' cavalcade instantly provoked by my mere touching of the bottle with fingertips. Never fails. On the other hand, the constant refilling of my glass even when there's a good amount of wine left in it has a way of getting on my nerves.

The most dreadful situation of the sort happened to me at the hôtel Lancaster in Paris a long time ago. It was not about wine. I was dining in the patio, on a very heavy cast-iron garden table, sitting on an even heavier cast-iron armchair.  I had ordered turbot with béarnaise sauce and the béarnaise arrived in a small sauceboat. It was poured onto my plate in a minute quantity, then the sauceboat was placed several yards away, on a service table. It was horrifying: I couldn't reach it, the waiters were very far away in the restaurant hall taking care of other business, and if I wanted to get it back I had to pull back my heavy iron chair that made a racket scraping the brick floor. When I finally managed to get my sauceboat back, the sauce was cold. To me, this remained the perfect example of stiff, schizophrenic chic French service.

Stiff and schizophrenic, but I've seen as much of that in the states as I have in France. It's not particularly French in my mind. My wines have sat yards away from my table in in coolers or on sideboards in restaurants in France and the US. It's rare to see a wine bottle on the diner's table in a three star restaurant in France or a top restaurant in NY. The problem only arises when the establishment thinks it's fancy enough to do that, but isn't fancy enough to hire sufficient help to pull it off. It's really just the restaurant's attempt to cloak itself in a style whose substance it doesn't really understand.

The extreme disfunctional service occured in an otherwise fine two star restaurant I might have awarded three stars for food and none for service even though the chef himself arrived at our table to present the roast lamb cooked in a bread crust. I'm reluctant to mention it again because, as I've already noted, the food was good enough for us to make the return trip. The inn, as I've mentioned, was the Clos des Cimes, and as I've also mentioned, the wine service was exemplery on the second visit. I should note that even on the first visit every aspect of our stay from the welcome, through the attention to detail by the chambermaid to the grace of personal attention at breakfast was in sharp contrast to our table's falling off our sommelier's map. Still, the only reason I even considered not returning was the lack of any recognition let alone apology. I left a scathing note about my wine service while praising all other aspects of our stay and dinner, at checkout and rather espected a personal answer. I didn't get it, but for all that, I was willing to play the odds of it not happening again and was not about to cut off my nose to spite my face. To deny Régis Marcon my future patronage would have meant denying myself his food and it's clearly worth the price he charges or he'd be out of business instead of expanding. Terry agrees on this--Regis Marcon is a thrilling chef in St Bonnet-le-Froid at his place the Clos de Cimes--or I doubt he would have made that comment. All I have to say is that sometimes the worst things happen at the best places in many countries and sometimes even in spite of the best intentions.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I'm very grateful to all who weighed in here. The posts were thoughtful, the tone refreshingly civil and respectful, and for the many kind words said about me, all I can do is blush. Much as I'd like to be a regular on this site, the melancholy fact is it's TOO enticing, and the clear and present danger is I'd become a board-a-holic, something my schedule won't tolerate. That said, I'm apparently doing a wine "stage" later this month, and I'm sure to dip in from time to time as opportunity presents itself. If for no other reason than to give myself a balm to ease the frayed nerves which result from listening to the shrieking and yammering which passes for discourse in American life these days....

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It's so good to see you here, Terry! We hope you'll spend as much time in the France forum as you do in the Wine forum! Don't worry about being a board a-holic, you won't acknowedge it as a problem once you get started. :raz:

Your refreshing writing style and ideas are welcome here!

Kind regards.

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I'll second Lucy's sentiments. Please drop by any of the Boards as often as you can or care too. You are always welcome.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Last, I was a guest in the hotel-restaurant whose wine-list I asked to take to my room to study before dinner, and where they wouldn't let me. If a list is serious it warrants at least 10 minutes of perusal, during which time your luckless dining companion is being ignored. So when possible I like to arrive at table with a mental short-list which lets me order my wines in seconds rather than minutes. Anyway, when they told me the somm didn't like lists removed from the dining room I offered to SIT in the empty dining room and read the list. Sometimes people need to ask themselves "What is the EFFECT of the policy?" I mean in the actual world. I'm not insisting people smash centuries of service tradition just because I'm some redneck iconoclast Yank who wants to show them up. I am claiming that in the real world some of these traditions accomplish the opposite of their intent: to provide competent and caring service to the guest.

I have had similiar experiences with wine lists in France and find them very frustrating. A year ago I stopped in a restaurant at the end of lunch service and asked to see the wine list as we were having dinner there that evening. I told the sommelier that I had heard how terrific the wine selection was and I wished to peruse the list at leisure and possibly pre-select some wines that needed longer decanting. He was astounded and was extremely short with me (I am relatively fluent in french) and seemed insulted by my request. I never had understood why as I viewed it as a compliment on the quality of the wine list and how much I was anticipating the evening.

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I have had similiar experiences with wine lists in France and find them very frustrating.  A year ago I stopped in a restaurant at the end of lunch service and asked to see the wine list as we were having dinner there that evening.  I told the sommelier that I had heard how terrific the wine selection was and I wished to peruse the list at leisure and possibly pre-select some wines that needed longer decanting.  He was astounded and was extremely short with me (I am relatively fluent in french) and seemed insulted by my request.  I never had understood why as I viewed it as a compliment on the quality of the wine list and how much I was anticipating the evening.

Hi dlc, the sommelier might have thought you were, by suggesting that some wines might need longer decanting, suggesting that certain of the wines on his list weren't ready to drink yet. Just a thought.

Could it be possible that he wasn't sure himself and felt like you might put him on the spot with a question he couldn't answer, thus abruptly ending the conversation?

It really is a bummer when you try to get some exchange on some part of your dining experience, and you either meet on deaf ears and a blank look, or a suprising negative reaction. I have on some occaisions expressed a particular interest in certain cheeses and asked questions, only to be looked at like I was some kind of freak for asking. I admit, I am a cheese freak. Oh well. :biggrin:

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Or could it be that the sommeliers think that "these foreigners" are questioning their capabilities and ultimately their role? Of course, this is a prejudice of their part, but on a subjective level, there are no prejudices.

I have some knowledge about wines, but in the presence of a French sommelier in a French restaurant, reading the wine list seemed always a bit like one of "these" formalities to me. I use to entrust his recommendations and I'm using the list rather as a price guide and as a an aide to discuss two or three of his proposals.

Just my $ 0.02

Edited by Boris_A (log)

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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I have some knowledge about wines, but in the presence of a French sommelier in a French restaurant, reading the wine list seemed always a bit like one of "these" formalities to me. I use to entrust his recommendations and I'm using the list rather as a price guide and as a an aide to discuss two or three of his proposals.

Just my $ 0.02

Boris_A, I agree with you about asking for and discussing the sommelier's recommendations but in an establishment known for an unusual wine list I have found that having an idea of the range of selections in advance helps. One of the most enjoyable wine related evenings I have had was also in a restaurant in France. I gave the sommelier a figure that I wanted to spend for wines for the evening and asked him to choose what he felt was the best wines to match our dinner. His choices were not only killer matches with the food, they were eclectic and unusual wines. They were also 10% less than the amount I wanted to spend. That 10% became his tip that evening.

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Fine topic. While most of the discussion has been on FD service, I really appreciate what Terry has said about the quality of 'normal' restaurants in France vs US. I was just discussing this with a frenchwoman who I eat with regularly (every night in fact!). The average bistro in France seems to beat the average restaurant here in DC hands down. Specifically, the quality of the wines and the quality of the entire menu. In the US, local resaurants may do one or two things well, but rarely does the entire menu entice. And the service in a French JPE seems to not suffer from the often serious service gaffes that occur in the US (main course arriving with the appetizer, wine at the wrong temp, etc.)

Also, in the US there seems to be a complete lack of good JPEs in non-urban areas.

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I have had similiar experiences with wine lists in France and find them very frustrating.  A year ago I stopped in a restaurant at the end of lunch service and asked to see the wine list as we were having dinner there that evening.  I told the sommelier that I had heard how terrific the wine selection was and I wished to peruse the list at leisure and possibly pre-select some wines that needed longer decanting.  He was astounded and was extremely short with me (I am relatively fluent in french) and seemed insulted by my request.  I never had understood why as I viewed it as a compliment on the quality of the wine list and how much I was anticipating the evening.

I think he felt that you don't need his services and was insulted.Had you complemented the list and told him that you wanted to become familiar so that with his help you could choose the right wines for the evening,he may have been more receptive.Its also possible that he was in a bad mood.

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I had dinner at Valentino in Las Vegas a couple years ago. I had been to original Valentino several times over the years and had generally enjoyed it. The sommelier was a piece of work. I asked him if he could suggest a wine in the $100 range, explaining what we were having. He replied very seriously that it would be very difficult within that range, but he would try. I told him that if he couldn't come up with anything good in that range, we would pick one ourselves. The food was actually very good, and the very competent waiter, slightly embarrassed by what had transpired, saved the night, but I'd never go back there. I think some sommeliers have forgotten why they are there.

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I think he felt that you don't need his services and was insulted.

Just to underline this a bit with an admitteldy somewhat grotesque exageration:

Let's think of a lawyer, where you enter the office and ask for a law book and a collection of precedence cases. Or a physician, where you ask for a handbook of anatomy and a book of example cases about knee surgery. What do we expect what their reactions would be?

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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Don

iwould just like to say that that was the most captivating piece that i have read in a very long time,i think i now "get" what my ignorance would,nt let through between the differences between fd France and Fd America,mind you im from blue-collar,working class blood(and proud of it)and i dont have the education of a lot od folks here but Goddammit i know when im moved by a great story-im up on that plateau right now in the clouds,waiting for my table lol

Great work Terry

Dave s

"Food is our common ground,a universal experience"

James Beard

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I have no doubt that the sommelier in question may have been insulted, but that doesn't make him right. The wine list reflects which wines the restaurant is selling customers and at what price, much like the menu shows want the food selections are. As tempermental as some chefs are, I don't think many are insulted when a diner wants to see the menu in advance. In my opinion, the sommelier should be there to assist the diner to whatever extent the diner wishes, not to try to show up the diner or be the center of attention.

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