Ouest on the Upper West Side - Food & Service (Long)
Last month, my sister, my husband, two friends from San Jose and I had our maiden voyage (only a 5 block trip) to Ouest on Broadway at 84th Street. The big red booth was welcoming and comfortable. The meal was near-perfect--but as for the service...well, they were still in the "learning" stage. 'Tho I fully expect they will have graduated by our next meal.(More about that later.)
First, the imaginative food. All of us being sharers, plates spent much time in space, whirling round and round the table, so everything could be sampled. I loved the delicate oyster pan roast with black trumpet mushrooms in a sort of light lemony butter sauce. Likewise, my share of the super-smooth gravlax, covered lightly in mustard oil and caviar, served on a chickpea pancake. There was so much squealing of pleasure with each mouthful that we must have sounded like an overexcited pigpen!
Entrees included: Two plates of an amazingly tender and generous-sized portion of bacon-crusted pork tenderloin, served with a garlicky whitebean puree in peppercorn sauce. And two portions of meltingly smooth-textured filet mignon, spiced in a delicious peppery smoky mushroom crust. (I prefer more aged "assertive-tasting" cuts of beef--but the two men were clamoring for the filet mignon--which was actually a fantastic rendition, the peppery crust adding more of a bite to the soft, buttery texture of the filet.) Our one order of fish was simple but good. A wonderful roasted halibut with fava bean puree in a mushroom broth.
I normally skip desserts--but was intrigued by the contrasting flavors of the rhubarb crisp in strawberry juice--topped with a buttermilk sorbet. The perfect dessert for someone who prefers some "sour" mixed with "sweet." My friends dismantled a gorgeous, but oh-so-rich chocolate cake that reminded me of eating pure sugared cocoa batter. Great in tiny portions.
Now...about the service. The chef, Thomas Valenti, has put together an enthusiastic, young crew--eager to please, tho not yet not fully confident. (Except for the one fellow who was so annoyingly "over-smooth" with his "I'know it all" attitude that he crossed right over the line, sounding downright condescending towards our questions. You know--that sort of bemused attitude that's normally associated with world-weariness and years of experience--as opposed to an in-his-early-20's waiter.)
On the opposite pole, were the two extremely sweet servers, who both came to the table (one five minutes after the other) to explain tonight's specials--which were still unclear in their heads, having, no doubt, just been given them to memorize minutes earlier. When the second server arrived, we felt too mean-spirited to tell this enthusiastic young woman that we had just HEARD the specials from another fellow. But it was worth hearing it twice--we learned about an appetizer that the other had missed!
But the "fruit fly" incident was the reason why I'm bringing up the difference between a more experienced restaurant and a new one. This was it: Two dead fruit flies were found floating belly-up at the bottom of my friend's martini decanter. Found only after she'd drunk from much of it. The waiter's response was "oh, yes, it's so hard to keep these fruit flies out of the glasses and decanters." "REALLY?" we thought. Not that this is a particularly hair-raising experience (it's no "broken-glass in the salad" kind of story)--but after you point it out to a waiter, you would assume that they will either apologize, replace the drink or tell the manager. At the very least, acknowledge it--since the diner did point it out. But, no. Even after the waiter sent over another fellow--he, too, gave no apology, other than this long explanation of the fruit fly problem in restaurants--and how impossible it was to keep out these little invaders! Then he walked off, too, chuckling. It wasn't until the bill arrived (full-charge for the martini--no charge for the fruit flies,) that my friend said "Look, you served a closed decanter with dead flies in it. Don't you feel you should acknowledge that--or at least apolgize?" (And, believe me, this was NOT an aggressive group of us dining. Just the opposite.)
Our waiter then disappeared and finally returned with the manager, who had been chatting with the chef. The manager immediately said how sorry he was that no one had told him of the problem, and, of course, the drink was free, etc. etc. He was extremely sincere and gracious--and that was all my friend had expected. Fruit-flies are NOT a big deal--but even this tiny incident can reflect how a new restaurant relates to its first customers. Basically, service was okay--mostly quite friendly--but in this instance, perhaps the young waiters should have been trained to take any complaints to someone more experienced, rather than just laugh it off. (Some opinions on this story, Chowhounds??)
Still--having said all that--we left happy and full. And we intend to return soon. And we told both servers and chef what a spectacular place they had opened and how imaginative we thought the food. I would most heartily recommend Ouest--even to those who must make the long treck uptown. :-)
Walter--you'd have to have been there, I guess. It SOUNDS like an oxymoron, but, believe me, our little fruit fly friends WERE floating on their teeny-weeny backs, about a quarter of an inch from the bottom. R.I.P. (I suppose it says something about the strength of the martini, that my pal got half-way thru the decanter before she noticed them!)