Saturday, July 07, 2007

“That’s one...”

NOTHING MORE INTERESTING than the intersection of ethical quandary with practical quandary. Case in point:

Eating in a restaurant (whose name I will not here divulge) the other night with another couple we find our enjoyment of an excellent wine list and mostly quite good food utterly set to naught by unprofessional service. It all began with our first wine: an unfamiliar white wine from Monferrato (for this Italian restaurant boasts a number of Piemontese wines and dishes).

The waiter brought it, did not really display the label, pulled the cork, poured a small amount into a glass, and offered it to our friend—a man who worked a few years for a well-known wine importer, then waited tables very professionally for many years at one of my favorite restaurants.

Half-jokingly I suggested Lindsey test the wine, as she’s excellent at detecting corked wines. On lifting it to her nose a troubled expression clouded her face, one I’ve seen before. Corked, she said; David, I think you should check this. He lifted the glass to his nose: Corked, he said, No doubt about it. Here, Charles, see what you think.

Why should I try it, I asked; you’ve both already settled it; if you think it’s corked, why wouldn’t I? Still, I held it to my nose. Corked, corked, and corked, no question about it.

The waiter was worried. Are you saying you don’t want this wine, he asked. Yes, David said, we don’t want this wine; it’s corked.

Do you want some other wine, the waiter asked.

Yes, David said, bring another bottle, but of this same wine.

I don’t think I want to do that, the waiter said; You don’t like this wine. But he went disconsolately, carrying the corked wine with him.

After a considerable wait he reappeared with another bottle, displayed its label quickly, and began to uncork it.

Wait a moment, David said, May I see this wine, please? The waiter handed it to him and David held it out in front of him, carefully reading the entire front label, then methodically turning the bottle round to read the entire back label. Very interesting, he said, Thank you; but this is not the wine we ordered; we want another bottle of the wine we first ordered.

I know you do, the waiter said, But I don’t want to bring it; you won’t like it. I tasted that first bottle, it wasn’t corked, you simply don’t like that wine.

David was quite marvelous. I think I’d like to speak to your sommelier, he said slowly and pleasantly; do you have someone here who’s in charge of the wines? The poor waiter trudged away with this new bottle. In time he reappeared, not with a sommelier, but with a second bottle of the wine we’d ordered in the first place. It was fine: not corked at all.

From here on, though, everything related to service went wrong. The first courses took forever to arrive, and when they did arrive one was a wrong dish. The second courses were mispronouncedf—“tajarin,” for example, was pronounced as if it were a Spanish word, not Piemontese—and took even longer, absurdly long. The desserts were served well enough, but for the first time the dishes themselves were not very good.

What was meant to be a rather special evening, our first dinner out with a couple we’ve known and liked for years, was spoiled.

BUT WHERE, you ask, is the ethical/practical problem here? Well, what should I do about this? I feel of course I should address this complaint to the restaurant’s management. Do I do this without specifying date or table, lest the poor service was unusual and should be overlooked? I remember a dinner in Italy, years ago, when our service was even worse than this, and a friend roundly berated the waitress, reducing her to tears; and we found out a week later that the poor woman had just lost a child to some lingering illness.

I’m associated with a restaurant myself, a well-known one: do I complain anonymously, lest the management think I’m simply spiteful? If I reveal myself, will he think I’m concerned about the profession—which I am—or will he think I’m spiteful, or simply looking for some kind of compensation?

How to deal with complaints? I think of the old story about the farmer bringing home a bride on a warm romantic evening. His horse stumbles: That’s one, the farmer says. A couple of silent miles later the horse stumbles again: That’s two, warns the farmer.

The third time the horse stumbles the farmer climbs down from the buggy, gets a rifle out of the trunk behind, steps in front of the buggy and shoots the poor beast.

Zeke, the bride screams, What have you done? He looks at her as he puts the rifle back. That’s one, he says.

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