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SD26: Terrible wine service and food that won't make up for it

  • m
  • MAH May 15, 2011 10:16 AM
  • 3

I regret to write about a truly disappointing dinner experience at SD26. We were seated for our late reservation time at a table off the main dining area where the space between tables was adequate and the noise level was moderate to low. We had no trouble talking. We were celebrating a delayed birthday dinner for my husband, and opted for the 5 course tasting menu ($90) with wine pairings ($65).

Tuna “carapacio” w/ favas, pecorino, black salt, min – to be paired with a Brut Rose NV. Was served with a French (still) rose, disappointing in every respect. First, the tuna was sliced quite thickly, and didn’t taste like anything. It was barely seasoned, if at all. The accent of pecorino cheese was an odd choice, and not pleasing with the thickly cut raw slabs of tasteless yet still fishy tuna. The random addition of some torn mint leaves on the plate also was a disastrous choice. The mint wasn’t julienned to impart a bit of flavor, rather the leaves were torn in approximately half. Upon trying one, the flavor of the mint deadened my palette such that I couldn’t taste anything else. Sadly, not even the deadening mint effect could mask the wholly unremarkable glass of warm rose that was served with the dish. I noticed immediately that the wrong wine was served with the first course, but it took nearly the entire course to get the attention of our waitress to point out the error. When I noted that our wine was not the correct pairing, referencing the menu, she told me that some changes had been recently made to the tasting menu and it had been switched because they were out of the wine listed as the one to be paired with the dish (a sparkling brut rose). I asked if there were any other changes or substitutions to the menu and expressed dissatisfaction with the unannounced substitution and the terrible pairing that was presented. She said that there were no other changes to the tasting menu or pairings and apologized, but clearly had no knowledge of wine whatsoever – any server at a decent restaurant that serves a tasting menu would know the difference between a sparkling Brut Rose and a glass of still rose. Following our complaints, but after the course was cleared, another server came over with glasses of the wine that we should have received with our first course – the brut rose that was apparently still very much in stock.

The next course was a branzino raviolini with green cauliflower and chili flakes in a mussel broth with a few mussels out of their shells. This dish was not terrible. The broth had some flavor, if not a lot of depth, and the texture of the raviolini was good. The failure of this dish, however, was the wine pairing. It was served with an unctuously oaky chardonnay (served far too cold) that totally overwhelmed any subtlety of the dish. The flavors and components of the dish didn’t lend themselves to a rich buttery white at all. Something unoaked with some acidity would have been much more appropriate.

The next course was supposed to be red snapper served in a saffron scented jus with some small slivers of zucchini, tomato and some other vegetable. When the course arrived the runner presented it as “the sea bass.” This substitution was notable, as we’d already been told that there were no other substitutions to the tasting menu as written, and I don’t particularly care for sea bass. Moreover, the unattractive blood line was prominently featured in the pieces of fish we received and the fish was totally underseasoned. We barely touched this course, which incidentally was paired with the wholly unremarkable Rose that we were incorrectly given with our first course. Our waitress didn’t come to check on us during the course until I made eye contact and asked her to come over. She asked if we weren’t enjoying our fish, finally noticing that it had barely been touched. I asked her if it was sea bass or snapper, as the runner who delivered it announced it as sea bass, and it certainly looked and tasted like sea bass, although we thought this was a snapper course. She insisted that it was in fact snapper, but said she’d check with the kitchen. I saw her discuss the matter with the kitchen and could tell that there was some confusion. The kitchen clearly knew that it was sea bass, but she returned to our table after her several minute discussions with the kitchen (in full view of our table) and insisted that it was, in fact, snapper.

Moments later, as our uneaten sea bass was being cleared, my husband left the table to answer a call from work. Notwithstanding his absence, our next course, duck breast, arrived. No one asked if we wished to delay the course until he returned, and no one offered even to cover his dish until he returned to the table. Rather, his plate sat getting colder and colder while he was away. I went ahead and started nibbling at the duck, which was totally overcooked and tasted livery. Our inept waitress saw that the courses had been delivered though one diner was missing and didn’t really know what to do. Her solution was to delay serving the wine pairing until he returned. So the few livery bites I took were unaccompanied by the red wine I had hoped would mask the flavor of the dish. When the wine was served, it was quite obviously not the Gamay listed as the pairing, but a very heavy red that tasted like an American Merlot. Again, we were served a wine other than that listed, and again, it was an inept pairing in and of itself.

At this point, I’d had enough, of the couple at the next table having a full on makeout session on the banquette next to me (which continued through multiple courses), totally abysmal wine service and the lackluster to inedible food. We approached the waitress about the unannounced substitution of the Gamay for some other red, the cold plate of food my husband returned to after his few minute call and the over the top PDA at the next table. She offered to move us to a different table, but we were so turned off by each of the other issues that we just asked for a bill and wanted to leave. The manager came over and wanted to understand why we were unhappy. To his credit, he apologized and offered to comp the meal, and asked us to give them another chance – to return to the restaurant with the hopes that we’d have a better experience. I told him that we’d never had worse wine service at what was supposed to be a higher end restaurant and one that touts its wine program. I’ve never had wine pairings poured away from the table and delivered without at least a general description of the wine. This was a total joke. We left during the middle of the meal before several courses had even come out.

I’ve never in my life walked out of a restaurant mid-meal, and never complained to a manager at a restaurant. I was horrified to have to say anything at all. That being said, I consider wine “sleight of hand” at nicer restaurants shadiness of the highest order. Either the restaurant is sloppy, trying to pull one over on diners by substituting whatever they feel like and assume that their diners won’t know any better, or just dishonest. Whatever the explanation, I find it unforgivable in a restaurant of that alleged caliber. Despite the manager’s pleas I seriously doubt I will go back to SD26. There are too many other restaurants in the city that don’t cut corners or insult the intelligence of their customers, and with far far better food.

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SD26
19 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010

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  1. My question is this, if you saw what the wine pairings were to be ahead of time (as you mention) and you are knowledgeable on wine (as you presume to be), why partake in wine pairings in the first place?
    I'm not at all justifying their pairing choices, in fact with what you listed I would suggest any of those options to my guests, however I also wouldn't opt for wine pairings in the first place.

    Of another note; Red Snapper and Black Bass are so similar in fact that as a species they don't differ until the biological classification of "family", in fact many restaurants often interchange the two fish because they are so much alike in taste and appearance. Obviously no fish should be served with a bloodline, but the fact that you "don't care" for sea bass but like snapper seems to be a reaching a bit.

    The point of this response is this: If you want complete control of your meal, don't put yourself in restaurants hands (with a tasting menu and wine parings). The problem with the 'yelp age' is that many are more eager to right a scathing review than a complimentary one. What ever happened to just disliking a place and not returning?

    J

    2 Replies
    1. re: jabowkE

      With all due respect, you are wrong.

      I have fished my entire life and a red snapper is as different to a bass as a christmas tree is to a houseplant. They look completely different on the end of a hook and they taste different on the plate. I would know right away if someone was trying to pull a switch on me and I would be offended if they used the old tired and worn biological classification excuse.

      1. re: Robinez

        the texture of the fish, and density of the meat is extremely similar ... when filleted the fish is nearly identical as is the taste. Notice I didn't suggest they should switch the fish on a customer, just that it is common (reread my post, with all due respect).