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Sending back food when you just don't like an ingredient. Is it good restaurant etiquette?

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I recently went to an Indian restaurant with a friend. The friend ordered chicken chettinad. When it arrived, the friend smelled coconut in it. The waiter confirmed that, indeed, it had coconut in it (as apparently do many southern Indian dishes). The friend decided to send it back because he reviles coconut.

The friend explained that the menu had not mentioned coconut and argued that it is a "key ingredient" that should have been included in the description. I felt it was wrong to send it back. I argued that if there is a particular ingredient that he simply can't eat, he should always ask whether the dish contains that ingredient, much as one with a peanut allergy would ask, for instance, about the presence of peanuts.

Please, we need your help to resolve this. Was he right in sending it back?

  1. It is always wrong to send a dish back because you just don't like it.

    5 Replies
    1. re: pikawicca

      My favorite dish is fried oysters. I live on the east coast, and wenever I see fried oysters on the menu, I order them. I like them because they are bigger and sweeter than fried clams. A couple of years ago I was in Seattle, I was in a seafood restaurant. I ordered fried oysters. A plate come out with what appeared to be burnt lima beans with some sauce on them. I stared at it until the waiter came over and asked what the problem was. I asked him what dish he had served me. He said they were supposed to be fried oysters but he would be happy to take them back and bring me something else in their place. Pikawicca, there is a saying that the Jews invented guilt but that Catholics perfected it. My Catholic heritage could not prevent me from sending those little nuggets to hell back where they came from!

      1. re: junescook

        Whoa, an Irish Catholic myself, I am all for the scorched-earth policy of disapproval. I love fried oysters. I love Pacific Northwest oysters. I would never fry the little guys from the PNW. They are meant to be eaten raw, IMO.

          1. re: pikawicca

            But I didn't know that then, nor really until you've explained it now. To me a fried oyster is a fried oyster, and these did not meet the criteria.

            1. re: pikawicca

              I agree with you, but shouldn't the kitchen/wait staff point that out to the patron to ensure patron satisfaction before wasting good PNW oysters? Or possibly suggest a different preparation? Or adjust the frying time? But then, hindsight is usually 20/20.

        1. Yes and no. It's one thing to be allergic to a specific item like peanuts....it's another simply not to care for a specific item.....to me they are two different issues , not the same. To assume most Southern Indian food includes coconut in the dishes is stretching it a bit and unrealistic....in fact, if you are not familiar with Southern Indian cooking....what would you know to even ask with regards to ingredients? Are you supposed to announce everything you do not like from a cue card.?

          If the restaurant menu describes the ingredients in each dish, if they left out coconut in the description, then the onus is on the restaurant to make good.....If the menu items are sans description......then your friend should have asked questions as to what the dishes were made of to be safe or made a declaration he did not like certain things.....even if were vague, e.g.. like he did not like sweet, spicy or sour.

          My position is this for your dilemma specifically.....since you thought it was wrong to send back....you should have accepted the dish and your friend could have ordered something else without coconut.....problem solved.

          1 Reply
          1. re: fourunder

            Thanks for the well-reasoned opinion. By the way, my friend wants everyone to know that it wasn't just coconut, but coconut "milk" which is apparently a more serious omission.
            PS: I did eat his dish and gave him mine to avoid sending it back. I'd still love more opinions.

          2. I once learned the "cloth tablecloth rule" - if there are cloth tableclothes on the table you can send back the food for any reason - it may be uncomfortable, but it's completely allowed and appropriate (if necessary).

            5 Replies
            1. re: brooklynkoshereater

              I don't know where you learned that "rule" but in my 62 years I've never heard of such a thing.. And I TOTALLY disagree.

              To the OP, I would suggest that if you're friend detests a/any food THAT much, that it always be stated before ordering. My opinion is that it's not alright to send it back because friend didn't ask.

              1. re: brooklynkoshereater

                Why are there these types of rules in New York (for New Yorkers) and nowhere else in the world???

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  As a lifelong NYer, I can happily say I have never heard of such a ridiculous rule. I would never ever ever send back a dish in any restaurant simply because I didn't like it, or an ingredient in it.

                2. re: brooklynkoshereater

                  "it may be uncomfortable..."

                  If one feels uncomfortable, it's because one is probably committing a breach of etiquette or common decency.

                  1. re: brooklynkoshereater

                    That is so far over the line it is ridiculous.

                    To bring you up to speed...

                    You do NOT have the right to send back anything at anytime just because it has a tablecloth under the dish.

                  2. I would definitely not call me an etiquette specialist, but I would not send back the dish. I can be somewhat picky and often find ingredients to be off putting/overwhelming in dishes (ie green peppers!), but I either ask if the dish includes them before ordering or try the dish and if I can't get through it, I might stop for a burger on the way home. If everything is cooked properly, I don't complain. If the flavors are bad, I don't return.

                    1. This case doesnt seem so difficult to me:

                      if an ingredient is listed explicitly and it is NOT there, you have valid reason to complain.
                      i.e. if the "chicken chettinad" didnt have chicken. there may be some "hard cases" where
                      a description is used notionally, like a "risotto" which doesnt have rice, but that doesnt
                      apply here.

                      the resto does NOT have an obligation to list everything: they can list nothing, they can list some things.

                      if you ask an "agent" of the resto an explicit and non-vague question -- "does this have coconut/parsley/nuts' -- that does create an obligation on their part and rights on your part [i am not speaking legally, but "at equity" according to me]. again, there may be some weird cases where you ask the india waiter about okra or eggplant and they oly understand ladyfingers/aubergine/brinjal ... i'm inclined to go with the patron if in the US ... but these
                      issues do not apply here.

                      so your friend loses. the options clearly are:
                      1. suck it up and pass it around the table and figure there is probability P they will
                      take it off the bill
                      2. say "please take it away" and bring me X and *gamble* on probability Q, Q >= P
                      they will take it off the bill.

                      "hard cases" may or may not make bad law, but the norms in cases like this cant accommodate the fussiest. particularly at a south indian resto, it's not reasonable to
                      explicitly warn about a dish with coconut. it would be like a vegetarian south indian
                      being upset at a french/chinese place which didnt explicitly mention meat stock in a
                      soup. an advisory might be reasonable for raw meat, extremely spicy, eye of newt, but not coconut. especially not at a south indian resto.