Chef Paul: My dining out disasterTuesday, October 2
Since I started doing this column I have avoided doing any sort of a review of our local restaurants.
I know how difficult and stressful they can be on chefs and a restaurant as a whole. Having said that, this week I can’t help but share my recent dining experience at a prominent Whyte avenue business. Now I tell you this not to scathe the restaurant, in fact, I won’t even name the place.
I’m telling you this to share with you a valuable lesson when it comes to dining. That lesson is to avoid dining when the C team is playing.
What do I mean by that? Well, the truth of the matter is this is a problem that many restaurants face. I would compare the thinking to that of picking your lines for a big hockey game. If your team is down a goal with one minute left in the game, you’re going to put your best performers on the ice to give yourself the best chance of getting back in the game. Well, the same thinking far too often applies in the restaurant industry. Your most talented team of chefs and service staff is on the floor for the Friday night and Saturday night shifts, but they are probably given the softer nights away from the restaurant.
Most chefs, for example, would take a Sunday and Monday off, leaving their sous chef in command of the brigade. The same usually applies to the general manager. So, when you make your way into a restaurant on those nights you’re often being taken care of by the “back up” team, for lack of a better word. When the team is trained well, and there is strong leadership, this shouldn’t have much impact at all on the overall experience. Unfortunately that’s not always the case.
My experience two Sundays ago was a prime example of the perfect storm of C players working. My wife and I arrived at the restaurant shortly after 5 , with our young baby in tow, and were greeted by an empty hostess stand at the door. Finally a young man arrived and greeted us with what could pass for a smile.
He struggled to find our reservation and then wrap his head around the high chair situation. To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable bringing our little girl at first because the restaurant would be what I consider a fairly formal dining room, white linen and wine glass tables, etc, but I was immediately put at ease when we entered the room to see that the only other tables in the dining room were both occupied by families. The young man sat us at tiny two top with the high chair placed right in the way of everyone, rather than comfortably seating us at a larger four-top table, where the high chair wouldn’t be so intrusive.
We perused the menu while we waited for our server to arrive. When she did the fun really began. My wife asked what the soup of the day and the feature was and we got our first clue of what we were in for. The server told us she thought the soup was carrot and ginger, but the kitchen hadn’t figured out the feature yet. My wife asked our server to find out what the feature was and she did. At this point there were only three tables in the room and four servers on the floor, but it still took another 10 minutes for our server to return. When she did, she told us the feature was salmon chunks, tomato sauce and spaghetti. I couldn’t believe that it took the kitchen an extra 30 minutes to come up with that.
We ordered a tuna appetizer and a few fresh shucked oysters to start, only to have the server return yet again, 10 minutes later, to say that they were out of both dishes. So we settled on some prawn tempura, picked our entrees by this time and ordered our wine. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. With 10 customers in the room, three of which who were already eating, it would be a safe assumption that even an average kitchen could prepare our single appetizer in under 20 minutes. Boy, were we wrong! At least we had some entertainment while we were waiting. Nope, not live music, no theatrical performance. We had the sheer joy of the listening to the only table in the restaurant complain to the server, then the manager, that the meal she was fed was far and away the worst thing she had ever been served.
Finally, after nearly 40 minutes, our appetizers arrived. Our excitement quickly turned to disappointment when we took our first few bites. The spice was overwhelming, but could only be outdone by the overkill of baking soda in the batter itself. In my starved state, I powered through it, strictly for the sake of nourishment.
Hopefully dinner would be better, and quick.
Unfortunately it wasn’t, By this time there were five tables in the room, but it still wasn’t all that busy. As we waited, it was becoming abundantly clear that our patience was wearing thin. It was at this time that the manager arrived at our table to tell us how the kitchen was two cooks short and that the sous chef and his two cooks were doing the best they could. He then attempted to “win us back” by topping up our nearly full glasses of wine. Clearly his training on handling sticky situations entailed throwing the kitchen under the bus, and getting us drunk. Then the table to the right of us complained about their carrot soup, and the server replied by saying that she didn’t really like it either and they shouldn’t be selling it. Ha! That’s the spirit!
A few more minutes went by and our food arrived. I wish it hadn’t . My wife’s fish was dry and overcooked, although she enjoyed the accompaniments. My osso bucco looked more like a can of wet dog food shot out of a cannon and onto the plate, rather than the succulent braised veal shank it should be. We ate our food in utter disappointment, paid the bill, tipped generously and fled the crime scene as quickly as we could, $125 poorer.
It was clear to me that the team that was working that night didn’t share the passion and commitment to quality that this restaurant and its chef have built their reputation on. Let this be a lesson for you when it comes to choosing your Sunday night dining destinations. Be wary of the C team and look for the brands where a strong culture is alive and well, whether the chef is at the helm, or enjoying his time away.
Here is my take on preparing classic Osso Bucco. This Sunday, stay home and make it yourself. I can almost assure you it will look better than my dining experience was.
Veal Osso Bucco
4 2-inch thick cut veal shanks
*I recommend finding these at Acme Meat Market, 9531-76 Ave., they are one of the few places that will actually grab some veal shanks and cut them up to your liking. Try to ensure the bone is nice and centre, a little further up the shank.*
1/4 cup canola oil
6 Tbsp. flour
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, peeled, large dice
1 large carrot, peeled, large dice
2 celery stalks, leaves removed, large dice
4 cloves garlic
cup tomato paste
1 cup red wine
2-3 lt. veal stock (beef stck can be substituted)
1-1.5 cups demiglace (try to use a good quality fresh, rather than powder)
4-5 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. peppercorns
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 300F
Place a pan on high heat
Season the flour, then lightly dredge the veal shanks in flour and shake off excess
Drizzle oil in hot pan, then sear the shanks until golden brown on all sides, set aside
In a 6 lt. pot, saute the onions, carrots celery & garlic, until you can smell the aroma, 1-2 min
Add tomato paste and brown slightly
Deglaze the pan with the red wine, and reduce
Once reduced, place the mixture in the bottom of a roasting pan big enough to fit the shanks, then top the mxture with the shanks
Using the same pot, heat enough veal stock and demiglace to easily cover the shanks, bring to a simmer, flavour with remaining spices, then pour over the shanks to cover completely
Cover with aluminum foil and place in the place
Braise the shanks until they are fork tender, about 2-3 hours depending on thickness etc.
Once braised, remove shanks, and strain sauce, skim the fat from the surface
Place the sauce on the stove and slowly simmer to reduce by 25%, adjust the seasoning
When ready to serve, return the shanks to the sauce and heat through
Serve with risotto Milanese, creamy polenta, or even a great mashed potatoes and top with extra sauce
Enjoy this hearty and rich braised dish as the weather turns colder and don’t forget to dig into the marrow in the centre of the bone. Sooooo good!