A Random Hospitality Story

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the limits and expectations of hospitality in the restaurant industry today.

When I think of hospitality, this comes to mind.

A couple of years ago, I went to Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain to celebrate a friend’s important birthday. There was a small group of us, and due to, ahem, over-indulgence the prior night, one person in our party had an unsettled stomach. She wasn’t really that hungry, but wanted to join in the birthday dinner anyway.

In case anyone is wondering, the food at Arzak was incredible, although the service was a little odd. The sommelier deferred to the men in the group even though they expressed that they weren’t interested in choosing the wine. The servers had a mittel-European sternness that seemed more stereotypically German than Spanish. The thin-mustachioed, black-haired captain, in particular, was a caricature of the European waiter with his vague, unidentifiable Roman-language accent, and condescending, snooty tone of voice.

So, when my overindulgent friend ordered the vegetarian course instead of fish for the second course, the captain, with his nose firmly pointed upward, sneered, “You came all the way from the United States to eat veggetabulls?” Feeling the weight of the rebuke, my friend acceded to his wish, and ordered the tuna.

Unfortunately, when the tuna came, it was more raw than she felt like she could digest at the moment, and after two bites, she was finished. Meanwhile, the iconic Spanish chef, Juan Mari Arzak, and his daughter, chef Elena Arzak, who are joint head chefs of Arzak, were making the rounds in the dining room. The aging Chef Juan’s reputation precedes him, and next-generation Elena herself has earned her share of international accolades. I was pleased to see them both at the restaurant, and so seemingly engaged with everything. When Chef came to our table and engaged us in pleasantries, I noticed that he briefly glanced down at my friend’s mostly uneaten tuna.

A few minutes later, after Chef Arzak moved on, the maitre d’ came to our table, approached my friend, and said that Chef noticed that she did not enjoy the tuna. “Was there anything wrong with the dish? Chef would like to know, and offer you someone else,” he said. My friend gracefully assured him that the tuna was perfect, but she did not feel well (even gesturing to her stomach), and saying that the problem was hers. He seemed to understand and walked away.

Deep into the next course, Chef Arzak came back. “Madame,” he said, “I feel you are being too nice. If I did not make a dish that you liked, please, allow me to make you anything else.” Again, she assured him that all was well, and he moved on. At the moment, it seemed incredible to me that the great, pioneering Basque chef, Juan Mari Arzak, would think for one moment that it was the fault of his kitchen — and not the inferior palate of the patron — in serving a dish that was less than stellar.

As we wrapped up dinner and moved out of the restaurant, we ran into Juan and Elena again. Elena sweetly approached my friend — the birthday girl — and said that she heard she had an important birthday (it was her 40th). In wishing her a happy birthday, she joked, “Don’t worry. I am 43, it only gets better from here!” Juan walked our party outside, and chatted with us while we waited a few minutes for our car to come around to pick us up. Once again, as he loaded us into the car, he apologized to my friend for his dish. As we drove away, my last recollection of Arzak was the vision of Juan Arzak standing out on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant in his chef whites, waving to us as we drove away, as if we were longtime friends.

Extraordinary.

Next: Chicago Steak — Where’s the Beef?

Sometimes, the concepts behind Next’s incarnations are not apparent from their names. Bocuse referred to the competition, but gave little inkling of the food that would be served; The Hunt was even more ambiguous. If there was one theme to date that should have been conceptually and universally clear, it should be Next: Chicago Steak.

During the course of my dinner there, it became abundantly clear that Next’s conception for Chicago Steak lacked confidence and certainty. Was it an homage to the (Chicago?) steakhouses of the ’40s and ’50s? A modern, Next-ified version of steakhouse food? It seems like the restaurant rode the middle line instead of choosing a side, to the theme’s detriment.

It may come as a surprise that Chicago Steak included only one steak course, a beautiful, 30-day dry-aged ribeye imported from  Flannery Beef in San Francisco. The steak, which appears about 1.5 hours into the meal, was the table’s favorite course of the night, an achievement of sorts given the stated steak theme. The remainder of the menu was either ill-conceived or oddly executed.

There’s quite a bit of seafood at Chicago Steak. Shrimp cocktail, salmon, and lobster are served, and even frog’s legs garnished a salad. For the second course, in a “nod to a la carte ordering” at steakhouses, each person at the table was served either shrimp cocktail, oysters or sweetbreads, two pieces on each plate, which made splitting next to impossible. (Unlike real a la carte ordering, diners weren’t given a choice as to which dishes they’d prefer.) Though the shrimp cocktail was executed just like your Dad’s on New Years’ Eve (although with better-quality shrimp), the oysters were plated with abundant garniture like smokey, roasted broccoli. The latter was one of the best bites of the night, but the aggressive garnishes obliterated the decadent, visceral effect of pristine, glistening oysters. More strange was the explanation given at the table that the different a la carte dishes were linked by smokey, earthy flavors. If sharing is not really an option (who wants 2/3 a shrimp?), how will diners experience that link? A total misfire, conceptually.

The nod to a tableside caesar was another misfire, and was explicitly off-theme, as we were told that this was a nod to Chef Beran’s summers in northern Michigan. The salad was overdressed (though the pine nut vinaigrette was wonderful), and the twig-like pieces of greens were texturally unpleasant. Nobody who had this rather austere salad wouldn’t immediately yearn for a badda-bing of a real tableside caesar.

As crudites go, they were a disappointment. Too many unflavored leaves in the mix, which were too cold, no doubt due to the oversized bowl of ice they were served in. The “sides” that came with the steak were just okay; the “onion paysan” tasted mostly of panko breadcrumbs, and the two-jacket potatoes were odd to eat with little gustatory payoff. The spinach and brussels sprouts salad evoked Food 52 rather than Next or any Chicago steakhouse I’ve been to. The steak sauces were a highlight: a black-pepper sauce capucine edged out the bearnaise-y “Sauce Kokonas,” and even their version of A1 was delicious.

Desserts again were a luck-of-the-draw, as two different types of desserts were randomly doled out to diners. I was lucky with the Baked Alaska, which was good, but mostly forgettable, if only for the unenthusiastic tableside preparation. At one point, I was served two pours of two wonderful chardonnays: 2012 Kistler from Napa, and 2005 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Burgundy. I vastly enjoyed these wines more than many bites of food at Next.

Conceptually, it seemed like Next steered shy of full commitment to the theme of mid-century Chicago Steakhouses. Given the multiple comparisons made to the theater as justification for Next’s novel ticket system, there lacked any real theatrics in the dining room. Sure, the table lamp and low-playing period music mildly evinced the theme, but the food on the plate bore little resemblance to a classic steakhouse meal of any type, be it Chicago, 1940s-era, or off-Jersey turnpike. I would have preferred them to just play it straight but execute the hell out of it — how many people would have licked the potato shell clean of a well-executed twice-baked potato (not to mention introducing this out-of-style, mid-century dish to some diners for the first time?).  I also would have appreciated more beef  to create a build-up to the ribeye course (such as tableside-prepped tartare, or a garnish of short rib on something). As it is, by the time the beef course arrived, the air was out of the balloon.

But there is a bigger issue that precludes full, successful execution. It’s that Next didn’t capture any of the sexiness of a full-blown night at a steakhouse. (Even their promotional video had girls on one side, the men on the other.) Especially given the price, I don’t think many will leave Next feeling like it exceeds Chicago steakhouses circa 2014.