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Sep 1, 2008 10:40 PM

Abacus ** out of *****

I went to Abacus last year during restaurant week and was blown away. So, this year, I booked 2 reservations for restaurant week. I ended up cancelling my 2nd reservation. Here is the scoop....

The food was unacceptable in quality for a restaurant that charges as much as they do. The potatoes were raw. The bread was store-bought and not made fresh in their kitchen. The braised short ribs were overcooked. Worst of all, I inquired about this with their chef and he simply stated that the restaurant week meals were of lower profit margin, hence the lower quality. Hmmm... isn't it the idea to do this as an advertisement or promotion of your restaurant? In other words, this is the showcase to attract new customers. This is not a loss to the restaurant but an advertising expense. The chef/owner needs to take Business 101. He might be on top of the world now after winning the Iron Chef award, but the restaurant business is a tough business with 50% of new restaurants going out of business in the first 2 years and with the economy being squeezed by high oil prices, his situation could reverse real quick.... Losing loyal repeat customers like me in today's economy is not smart....

On the good side, the lobster shooters are just as enjoyable as always. Yummy!

Just chairs and tables in a room. Not good, nor bad. Kinda reminds me of a street food stall in old Hong Kong (a dai pai dong). I mean that in a good way. It is loud, lively, and you get to see the chefs in action.

Good service. The waiter forgot one of my dishes, but he apologized and gave us a free dessert so all is forgiven.

I think that the chef's TV appearance got to his head. The atmosphere and service are still good as before but the food is not acceptable for a restaurant of this price range and supposed caliber. I was a loyal diner in and out of restaurant week all last year, but this year, I will steer clear of Abacus. I give Abacus of Dallas 2 out of 5 stars.

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  1. Are you serious? There has to be a qualification that you can't judge a restaurant's overall quality based on restaurant week....period. I'm not saying that it is acceptable to serve undercooked potatoes, etc, but please keep in mind that you were eating at a time when the restaurant is doing more than twice the normal business at less than half the price of what they normally serve.

    The idea of restaurant week is not to do it as a promotion fro business, it's to benefit a charitable foundation, and yes, maybe get some good buzz and word of mouth in the process.

    You are going to tell the owner (who owns like what, 4 successful restaurants now) to take business 101?

    I think you need to get over yourself....If you somehow expect the 5 star experience for restaurant week, then you are sorely mistaken. I understand that places like Bijoux (for example) might pull it off, but they weren't doing 300 covers a night for 2-3 weeks.

    You basing your 35 dollar meal as if you were paying full price is misguided and, IMO, snobbish to the point that it goes against the very point of RW which is to help a charitable cause.

    6 Replies
    1. re: TheMaestro

      Very good points Maestro!

      I only went to one Restaurant Week dinner. The Mansion and while very good I wasn't blow away by the whole meal. I understood the complexities of being crowded and working on less dough. I was very generous to the waiter (who was exceptional) and my wife and I stuck around for drinks to increase our spending.

      Would we go there on a normal basis probably not but it gives us a chance to go to a very well know restaurant in Dallas at an affordable rate. Did we only spend $35 for Restaurant Week and call it a night, not really.

      We did find that the English Pea soup with pea sprouts amongst other items was very good for the starter course, fresh ravioli with a Paula Lambert cheese and fresh ragu, not so much. Could have I done

      The Pan Crisped Artic Char over shaved fennel and orange was awesome, the ancho chile rubbed pork tenderloin over cheese grits was very good but not a wow.

      The deserts were both very good, strawberry shortcake was excellent and my wife's chocolate dessert was what she likes.

      Mixed drinks were some of the most creative and best I have had...and I am normally a gin and tonic person.

      I wouldn't go so far as putting The Mansion down even if they did serve something bad I commend them for at least donating to the cause. The sous chef deserves all the credit as John Tesar was in France/Spain during our dinner.

      To the original poster: I don't think Kent Rathburn isn't focused on his restaurant he has to be after losing two of his top chefs (Casey Thompson and Tre Wilcox). Every place is going to have an off night and maybe your night was extremely tough for the crew. I wouldn't dog them solely on two restaurant week experiences. You might try going back at a normal relaxed day and then report back to us.

      I noticed that you had posted 5 or so reviews in a row on restaurant week experiences. I never posted my restaurant week experience until now b/c it is not fair for me to say anything bad about the Mansion. It was my first time there and I have not yet had a repeat therefore I don't feel comfortable giving any stars or what have you.

      1. re: LewisvilleHounder

        I've seen restaurant week done well and bad. Being a five star restaurant is unfortunately not a guarantee of a good restaurant week experience. The ones that don't do it well certainly risk losing customers who will not be willing to come back for that special occasion and risk a lousy $200.00 plus or more meal. $70.00 plus tip for two for dinner is not exactly a cheap meal.

        I have never been to Abacus for restaurant week and probably would not based on numerous reviews I read. We went once and had the tasting menu several years back and it was phenomenal. Went back again for an anniversary dinner and had a lackluster meal. Based on my experience, the quality did fall between my first and second visit.

      2. re: TheMaestro

        Did you miss the part where lilymao said they went last year for RW and loved it? Comparing RW to RW is fair. Also, to Lewisvillehounder below, Casey was not involved with Abacus, only Tre. Obviously Kent Rathburn knows what he is doing and lilymao was venting a little, but this isn't the only post about Abacus not quite being where it once was lately, so I don't think you need to be so harsh. Also, calling someone snobbish for judging a restaurant based on a special low price meal seems exactly backwards.

        For my money, I preferred Jasper's to Abacus.

        1. re: babar

          The OP made it a point to state that the food was "unacceptable for a restaurant that charges as much as they do" which is, as I stated, snobbish. Believing that he/she should be entitled to a great meal based on what the restaurant would normally charge for a plate vs. what he/she is actually paying during unusually busy and stressful times is out of whack, IMO. The OP poster only initially made reference to a previous RW meal last year, the rest of the post stated clearly how Abacus should have been better based on the normal menu prices.

          That is not to say that the OP is not entitled to an opinion, or not invited to share the opinion here, I just think it needs to be tempered with a reality check.

          I understand the points that the OP made, and don't disagree, I just think that RW week meals should be judged as such and leave the normal menu meals judged seperately.

          And the bread's very hard (and expensive) for a restaurant to bake it's own high caliber bread. I can't think of ANY high end restaurant in Dallas that bakes it's own bread. I doubt very much that Abacus has the mixing equipment, space, time, and not to mention the steam-injected deck ovens necessary to bake artisan level bread on site. Buying in bread is a completely normal activity even for a high end restaurant. I don't know what or who the restaurant uses for bread, but I wouldn't doubt that the bread was subpar. Let me remind you, they are essentially giving away bread for over 300 people a day, and bread has greatly increased in price in the last year. Buying high quality bread for a normal dinner service, where the cost can be built in the menu price, is probably something they can do. Buying the same, high quality bread for a 35 dollar meal for 300 people a night is probably REALLY expensive...and the reason I would think that the bread was not very good.

          Seriously, a little perspective would be nice.

          1. re: TheMaestro

            foodie06, babar, thank you for backing me up. Yes, I did dine there during non-restaurant week for meals. I, like foodie06, did notice that the food quality did decline a little. However, that wasn't the sin that caused me to "vent". The sin was not saying the three magic words, "I am sorry." and offering to make it right. For example, the waiter forgot to give me one of my dishes. However, he said, "I am sorry," and gave me a free dessert to make it right. I ended up giving him a $25 tip for a $70 meal. Everyone is human and makes mistakes. That is O.K. but not saying, "I am sorry," and making it right is inexcusable. Mr. Rathbun simply said that he had fixed the raw potato problem and that the bread quality is down because he bought bread for restaurant week this year instead of making it because food prices have gone up, causing his profit margin to shrink. Profit margins are not the customer's concern.

            I understand your sympathy for them TheMaestro, but like I said, the restaurant business is a tough business. If someone else can do it during restaurant week, then why can't Abacus, especially because they did it last year? Lots of places bake their own bread. ALL Chinese restaurants that serve bread/buns bake their own bread and these are BUDGET restaurants, too. Fearing's pulled it off. They even make their own butter with butter and sea salt. Mercury Grill make their own pate to give with bread instead of butter.

            The restaurant business is a TOUGH business. What if you had a reservation for your romantic anniversary dinner, but you walked in right after a big church group? Will they mess up your anniversary? You see what I mean? Any night of the week could suddenly turn into RW. How they perform under adversity is how you separate the wheat from the chaff. That's why I purposely write restaurant week reviews even though I also dine there regularly outside of restaurant week. I am single and do not cook. Last year, I spent over $15,000 on restaurant meals. I dine at top restaurants like Abacus, Mercury Grill, and Fearings (my new favorite! They've replaced Abacus in my weekly rotation) at least twice a week and budget restaurants like First Chinese Barbecue and Steak and Ale (oh no, they've gone kaput!) 5 times times a week. Losing a regular like me is very bad business.

            I am not badmouthing Mr. Rathbun. I did say that his lobster shooters were wonderful. I did mention that I liked the atmosphere and the wait staff was great. What kind of unfair review writer would use the word "Yummy!" in a review? You might be surprised to find that my review of Abacus is extremely accurate.

            1. re: lillymao

              Whether he should have brought profit margin up with you is debatable, but buying in bread might be the difference between being able to participate in RW and not being able to. And I would seriously doubt that any fine dining restaurant in dallas bakes their own bread...Fearings, Abacus, Charlies, Craft, Lola, etc.

              What is the difference from last year? Cost of food. Flour alone (the primary ingredient in bread, as I'm sure you know) has, IIRC, has almost tripled in price from a year ago. That means a 50 lb sack that used to cost a baker or restaurant 12 dollars now costs 40 dollars. That is a huge jump. It is almost reaching crisis levels.

              So yeah, Rathbun bought in less expensive bread. Big deal. He made the right call. You said he needs to take business 101? Sounds to me like he did and made the right financial decision for his restaurant.

              Steaming a Chinese bun is a lot different than making artisan bread. And I'm quite certain that a big percentage of those places get in frozen buns or bread ready to bake. It's like boasting that Subway or Quiznos bakes their own bread.

              What's changed since last year? The economy. Gas prices. Food prices. Abacus underwent an extensive (and I'm guessing) expensive makeover, which will cut into his already slim (and continually slimming) profit margin. So maybe now they offer cheaper bread and short ribs instead of filet (during RW). Makes sense to me.

              I'm not excusing bad execution of food. There is no excuse for it. What I am asking for is a bit of perspective on RW meals versus regular meals. It may be consensus that Abacus has slipped in quality recently, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't compare apples to apples (RW = oranges). It would have been fine to report that the RW meal you had there was subpar, but to then introduce the idea that it should be better based on what you would pay normally isn't correct IMO. This is the part I specifically had a huge problem with:

              I think that the chef's TV appearance got to his head. The atmosphere and service are still good as before but the food is not acceptable for a restaurant of this price range and supposed caliber. I was a loyal diner in and out of restaurant week all last year, but this year, I will steer clear of Abacus. I give Abacus of Dallas 2 out of 5 stars."

              You gave it a review based on normal prices for a discount meal. It's fine that you didn't like it, and of course it is OK to write about it. Just please don't compare it with the normal experience. You sound like a person who eats out a lot but really has no clue as to how much work and effort go into running a restaurant on a daily basis.

              But whatever. I'm beating a dead horse here, and I'm done with this thread. Just trying to add a little perspective to the situation.

      3. No one is putting a gun to these restaurant owners’ heads to participate in RW. Further, when they choose to participate, they can control their own destiny (quality of food and service) by limiting the number of RW reservations they accept. If an owner opts for quantity over quality, he/she should be prepared for the ensuing flack that will surely come their way. That said, at $35.00, I don’t think anyone expects to receive the same caliber of menu selections, but I do think service and food quality should be on par with non-RW visits. It seems that Abacus exercised bad judgement by overbooking and didn't leave time for proper food prep.

        Casey Thompson was chef at Shinsei which was co-owned by Lynae Fearing, wife of Dean.

        1. Please note - Abacus is the ONLY participant in RW that devotes every seat in the house for the entire three weeks. My hat's off to them.

          1 Reply
          1. re: thebeanfield

            Hmmm... I didn't realize that some restaurants didn't have all seats available for restaurant week. And RW is a charity, too. My hat's off to them, too.

          2. @thebeanfield

            Where did you get that information?? There are several restaurants who don't limit seatings during RW. (I know this because I have friends who work at several restaurants that participated.)

            6 Replies
            1. re: FoodieDiva

              My sources are people in the industry, too. Restaurants supporting RW can choose their level of participation. Some restaurants do a few seats for one week, others embrace it more fully. In some cities lunch is an option. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

              1. re: thebeanfield

                well you got bad information which you shouldn't have perpetuated. I personally know of no fewer than a half dozen restaurants which didn't restrict RW seating. I work in two of those. Let's not give credit where credit wasn't due by claiming exclusivity on something. ALL the participating restaurants deserve to be recognized for choosing to take part in this charity effort.

                1. re: kersplat

                  Are the restaurants you're referring to available all three weeks of RW?

                  1. re: thebeanfield

                    All 3 weeks plus the rum-sponsored "preview weekend" AND the Central Market "4 course" . Stop pointlessly trying to defend a point on which you received bad info. ***ALL*** the restaurants deserve kudos for choosing to participate in this important fund raiser. It was a grind for many.

                    1. re: kersplat

                      Mea culpa. Thanks for the correction.