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Dec 23, 2013 10:00 AM

Tasting menu complaining advice needed

My wife and I were up in New York City this past weekend and had a few meals at the usual destination restaurants. Unfortunately, one of the meals was less than satisfactory, and as my wife and I drank ourselves back into a good mood during the post-mortem at a different location, we discussed how one goes about complaining about a tasting menu. Generally when I get bad food at restaurant I'll either send it back for a do-over or have it taken off of the check, depending on exactly what's wrong, but the circumstances of a tasting menu made my options a bit less clear. I'll try to pose my questions without revealing the restaurant in question:

1. What do you do if you can’t tell if the food is prepared properly or just not to your liking? I was expecting one course to come with a rich sauce, but when it arrived, I thought it was overwhelmingly buttery. Given the reputation of the place and that I’d never had the dish before I chalked this up to my own preferences. If this happened and I was ordering a la carte, I’d just order something else and expect to pay for both. If I’d told the waiter exactly why I didn’t like the dish, would they have likely brought me something else or a redone version of the same or just shrugged it off?

2. Is it worth complaining if you eat most of the food? I get a dish put in front of me and the first bite is underwhelming--perhaps I’m just not paying attention. A second bite is also underwhelming but as expensive as this dinner is, surely I’m missing something. Third bite, nope, something’s off. Fourth and fifth bites, problem found: the protein is tasteless, slightly overcooked, and not much more than a vehicle for the sauce. Unfortunately, five bites into a tasting menu portion means that there’s not much food left and it seems a ridiculous to complain at that point.

3. What are your options when you complain during a tasting menu? I don’t complain unless I have a clear idea of what I want and with a long tasting menu I don’t want more food or booze. Will restaurants comp part of a tasting or prix fixe menu?

4. How do you complain about service when the issue is that it’s generally clumsy? The meal was full of the sorts of things that shouldn't happen at that level of dining: I asked if they had a particular bourbon and was told “No, we don’t have that” without an offer to show me a spirits menu or even ask if there was something else I wanted instead; cocktail glasses were cleared without being asked if we wanted a refill; when our plates were cleared, one waiter would stand by my wife until he could wave over another waiter to clear my plate; at the table next to us, the waiter tried to clear the plate of a diner who had food in their hand (then did it again two courses later).

Has anyone ever bailed out of a tasting menu? We thought about calling it quits after four courses but the sunk cost of the meal kept us in our place.

Response to “You should have said something”: Besides not being sure how to complain effectively (or even if I should have) I’d heard that the service at this place was more formal than most. I thought that a more accurate description would be “aloof” and even the greeters were downright unfriendly. I didn’t think that the manager on duty would be receptive to anything I had to say and in all fairness, if I managed a highly-rated restaurant and got a complaint from a first-time diner who wasn’t a big spender, I’m not sure I’d pay him much attention. Also, as much as dinner costs here in both time and money, we’re not likely to revisit and gamble that things will be different on a return visit.

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  1. If it's poorly executed it's one thing but if it's not to your liking (dietary references aside) then, from my perspective, it's not a complaint issue. For example, every tasting menu I've tried has always asked me up front about dietary restrictions (and in the case of a higher-end Thai restaurant - heat levels). If after all the prefatory stuff they still get it wrong then I'll definitely complain. On the other hand, my wife and I returned to Alinea after a several-year gap and I felt they had about a 70%-ish average; maybe 6 of the 21 courses just didn't do it for me. A few were just not to my liking and the rest left me scratching my head and didn't impress me in any way. I didn't really see any point in complaining because I was truly wow-ed by a lot of dishes, so some misses were either subjectively so or were just slightly sub-par. In either case I didn't feel cheated.

    2 Replies
    1. re: ferret

      Your reaction to the off-dishes at Alinea is exactly what I was experiencing (unfortunately for the whole meal) and, I agree that an issue of personal preferences isn't a complaint issue. It was just puzzling to get course after course of mostly well executed but otherwise unimpressive food in a restaurant for which we both had very high expectations.

      1. re: agozoic

        Expectations are subjective. I know if I ate at Alinea any more than I already have I'd get to a point where it's "just okay". And I did get that way with Charlie Trotter's - I had a mind-blowing inaugural visit followed by a nearly-as-good second visit followed by a couple of "ho-hum" dinners.

    2. Multi-course tasting menus are always a bit of a gamble.
      Of course, there's an expectation that the food will be cooked "properly" but there's always going to be courses that you don't like too much. We've usually been asked about allergies and other food constraints, so downsides are limited,

      By way of explanation, we had a meal at the Fat Duck, then rated #2 or 3 in the world. Even at a place of that quality, there were a couple of dishes that we didnt enjoy but, Googling later, we found they are dishes many folk rave over.

      There are restaurants where a no-choice tasting menu is all they offer. We're happy to eat them from time to time as an interresting, possibly exciting, experience of top level cooking. There are other restaurants which offer a tasting, alongside their main a la carte menu. In these places, we've stopped ordering the tasting. It's for the very reason that there's always something that we would have preferred not to eat.

      As for the service issue, then I would deal with it as I would deal with it anywhere. Have to say, I can't really recall service issues at any high end restaurant we've eaten at - they can usually attract staff at the top of their profession and to ensdure they are properly trained in the restaurant's requirements. Sounds like the OP may have got an employee who had slipped through the net.

      1. I think I would "chalk it up to experience" and move on. Life's too short to agonize over a bad few dishes at a restaurant.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Gail

          Agree. I'm not much for complaining unless it obvious (wrong dish, rare instead of medium, fish is rank). Just don't like how they cook, not much you can do except don't go back.

          1. re: Gail

            Agree. It sounds like this restaurant was off on too many things, and whether it was the restaurant's fault or just that your expectations were not met is hard to say. I'd just chalk it up to being an unfortunate experience and probably not return. I think in general, I'm less likely to complain when I'm having a tasting menu...for 2 reasons. First, tasting menus are by their very nature often slightly more edgy or experimental than regular a la carte items, and second, if you ask to have something redone, it really can mess up the kitchen's pacing. If your meal did not meet your expectations, don't return.

          2. The moment for speaking up would have been either during or immediately after the meal, without any agregious catastrophies i'm afraid you are now past the point of no return.
            Formal service can be off-putting, although it does sound like they were less than polished during your visit.
            At this point you could share your experience on the nyc board to forwarn any other chowhounders, and be wary of future tasting menus....

            1. There is usually a point where the waiter says, "how was that?" either to a single dish or the whole meal. If I really think something was off, that would be my cue to politely tell him/her how I thought it was. "I thought the beef needed salt." or "the fish was greasy." I would think that a smart kitchen staff would want customer feedback.

              If If I enjoyed most of it and there was just one thing a bit off, I probably wouldn't mention it.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chicgail

                One of my favourite Michelin starred places has a novel attitude to this sort of thing. As you'd expect at that sort of level, there's none of the "check back" midway while you're eating the course - they know there's no need. Nor do they do the "how was that" when clearing away each course. However, at the end of the meal, they ask which was your favourite course and there's then a bit of conversation about what you liked about it. I think it's an excellent way of developing a pattern of feedback for the kitchen.

                Even more direct was a recent meal where the chef came out to ask, specifically and in some detail, how I'd found his "special".