Sunday, March 2, 2008

Is It Too Much To Want To Chat About The Wine?

I'm always interested in hearing about other people's restaurant experiences. There was a different slant to this in an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal about tasting menus. The gist of it was that if you order the wine pairing with the tasting menu in high-end restaurants, sometimes the result is exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. While you might think this would inspire conversation with the restaurant's wine personnel, it actually can cut off discussion before it's even begun.

Instead of it marking you as a wine connoisseur, who loves to try the unexpected, apparently it tells the restaurant staff that you know nothing about wine and need the choices spoon-fed to you. The WSJ’s wine writers, Dorothy Gaiter and Jon Brecher describe four elite New York restaurants and what happened when they ordered the wine option with the tasting menu.

I remember more than 10 years ago, H and I had a transcendent tasting menu with wine pairings at Lucas-Carton. It was amazing. (I’ve written before about how, unfortunately, Lucas-Carton became the nowhere-near-as-good Senderens.)

Anyway, these WSJ folks had a particularly poor experience at Le Bernadin, which is somewhat surprising since the restaurant is universally highly rated. During their visit, they did mention that they were wine lovers, although, of course, they didn’t say they were reviewers.

Gaiter and Brecher felt that because all the wines were preselected, they were ignored by the sommelier. Even though they were told by the waiter that the sommelier would return to answer their questions, he never did. Another thing that troubled them was that each wine was served in the same standard wine glass.

I remember my first visit to the Striped Bass restaurant in Philadelphia, when the table next to us apparently ordered some extraordinary wine and they were brought the biggest, thinnest, roundest glasses I’ve ever seen. (OUR glasses were standard restaurant issue.)

The other restaurants were not as bad, but had their problems. Jean Georges served no wine with the amuse-bouche. Actually, the others didn’t either. (Mon Dieu! How can one be expected to bite into a little taste of loveliness with nothing to swirl around after?!) The waiter didn’t pick up on their hints that they loved discussing wines and the sommelier didn’t visit. Daniel went well, but the tastes were tiny, although “extra splashes” were offered.

Only at the astronomically expensive Per Se did they get what they bargained (wrong choice of word HERE) for. But there was no preselecting of wines at Per Se. They left it up to the sommelier, so, of course, they were treated royally. Although the wine was more expensive here ($175 per person, on top of a $275 nine course tasting menu), they at least had the amazing experience that they were after.

What’s the lesson here? There are a couple.

For the restaurants, pay attention to your customers, no matter how they choose to select their wines.

To the customers - Only order the tasting menu and the wine pairing if you want to. Don’t do it just because you think the restaurant wants you to.

Demand (I mean it) to speak with the sommelier, if you wish to. Of course, Gaiter and Brecher couldn't do that. The cardinal rules of incognito restaurant reviewing are that you don’t make a fuss; you NEVER send anything back; and you try to blend into the woodwork. But, as long as you’re not working for the WSJ that day, be as firm as you like in asking to speak to the wine, or any, staff.


Tempered Woman said...

My name is TW and I'm a wineaholic. (hello, hello)
What I don't get is that the whole point of going to a restaurant and asking for a tasting menu (in my wee mind anyways) is that I am saying I'd like to enjoy your training and expert opinion because I don't have the pleasure of doing this full-time. Nothing is more irksome than snubby dining in my mind.

Sue said...

YES, I agree, Tempered Woman, that's exactly true. You're putting yourselves in their hands, because you value their expertise. That should get you appreciation from the restaurateurs, not disdain. I might be overstating the treatment the reviewers got, but never the less, at those prices I wouldn't mind a little knee-scraping and bowing.

Emiline said...

I agree!

Catherine Wilkinson said...

Great post. I've been known to hurtle myself at the snobby stewards and threaten them in a hissy, high-pitched voice. The BEST sommelier experience I've had was at French Laundry...where the very young and very accomplished cute guy answered my questions for a good 20 minutes AND came back and gave me names of suppliers, dealers, and websites. He obviously loved wine and he was passionate about his responsiblity to educate, entertain, and enlighten - now THAT'S world class.
God, what an experience.

Sue said...

Hey Em,
You better!

Hi CW,
I've tried several times to get a reservation at The French Laundry, but I never hit the intricate booking schedule right. One day...