Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why Fine Dining Both Sucks and Blows

I was out last night for a university-related "business" dinner at one of this city's finer dining establishments. I had eaten there once before, and so I knew there was one thing on the menu I could order: the Pad Thai (yes, I checked to see if it had fish sauce in it). The original dish comes with chicken and pork and shrimp, but they were able to make it for me with tofu. No such luck this time. With that option out of the way there was literally nothing else on the menu I could order. I told the waitress to have the chef make me something without any animal products in it. Sometimes this strategy has worked for me. Once, at a sports bar and grill no less, it resulted in a grilled and thinly sliced portabello mushroom fanned out over roasted potatoes with a side of asparagus and carrots. Last night it resulted in one of the most uninspired and awful dishes I have eaten in a while. The chef threw together artichokes, asparagus, red and yellow pepper, broccoli, and zucchini with rice noodles and what appeared to be 1/2 cup of oil. That's right. No seasonings, no sauce, no garnishes, no real taste. Just an incoherent mess of greasy and slowly congealing food. It was awful. I hate to think what they charged for that "dish." The experience actually highlights a larger problem, namely, the fact that many chefs have no idea what to do if a large chunk of animal flesh is not the centerpiece of a dish. In fact, the meat dishes served last night were pretty much to exact inverse of the food guide with vegetables playing a very minor role. And yet this is considered normal eating.

UPDATE: After writing this rather whiny post, I decided that I would actually do something about the situation. I wrote an email to the restaurant asking them to add a vegan entree to the menu, and that such an entree would have broad appeal to those interested in a low-fat diet. I gave a few links to recipes from my blog to show that vegan food is easy, tasty, and photographs well. We will see what comes of it.

18 comments:

angelacf said...

I had called ahead to a dinner theatre I was attending a number of years ago, alerting them to my dietary needs, but when the main course came, I was served a bag of cooked spaghetti topped with a steamed whole cauliflower. As my co-diner said, "Prince George's idea of a vegetarian meal is grain fed beef."

Natjenn said...

I hope you complained. I don't think improvement can happen if we don't speak up. I've had my share of these meals as well. It is most disappointing when it happens at a "fine dining" establishment! You'd think their high-class chefs would know better.

John Plummer said...

It seems a reasonable expectation that a chef at any restaurant (at least any restaurant that has someone with the title "chef") would be aware and able to appropriately accomodate vegans, vegetarians, and people with other eating choices and food allergies. It's not that hard!!

Nonetheless, I have had experiences almost identical to what you describe. Grrr....

Anna Banana said...

My friend cannot eat wheat. She asked ahead for wheat alternatives at the retreat we just went to. When all they offered was salad, she had to go back to the kitchen to beg for something to eat, where they were not friendly. The vegans weren't happy with the naked meat alternatives they got either. Wish they would turn things upside down sometimes. Make a sumptuous vegan meal and put a few unseasoned chicken slices on the side for the carnivores.

Maggie said...

I'm with you. I have to attend a lot of events at restaurants for my job, which can be a nightmare. One time I called ahead and spoke to the chef at a fancy-schmancy place. He said he was really excited about my meal and had been brainstorming with a couple people about what to serve, so I had very high hopes going in. I ended up with a lump of defrosted and heated frozen spinach, two tomatoes, about a pound of steamed asparagus and two enormous heads of steamed broccoli. No seasoning, no flavor and certainly not worth the $150 price tag. Plus it looked like a farmers market on my plate.

Katie said...

Yeah, what's with the un-seasoned vegan meals? Do they completely forget how to be a chef for a few minutes? I can understand when a omni friend might not know what I can eat, and come up with a strange concoction - but a chef! Its embarrassing and such a bad experience for you! Sounds like you'll be packing your own meal next time, and teaching the chef a little something.

Alexis said...

Yuck. Now I feel lucky with the meal I got recently at a Monterey restaurant. They did have one thing that was vegan, but two people were already ordering it and it had olives, which I don't like. I asked for a special plate that had been offered (they knew that a few of us were veg/vegan), and got really a pretty nice meal, though not worth the price tag. Mixed fresh veggies in a kind of basily sauce, with a seasoned potato patty on top. Too oily but otherwise good. They also had had a nice vegetarian black bean soup.

I like anna's idea about theh reversals -- make the vegetarian meal first and add the meat later. We get catered lunches at work on Thursdays, and it has been absurdly difficult to get them to provide us with mostly vegetarian stuff and less meat. We have three total (lacto-ovo) vegetarians in our office and three semi-vegetarians (out of about 20 people), and almost no one who insists on meat, and their reluctance to understand this and provide us with a decent chunk of the food that's vegetarian is incredibly frustrating.

Cravin' Veggies said...

Ack! I'm sorry you had to deal with that! I agree with the others... a "chef" should know how to make at least one (or a few) dishes without meat. I feel your pain though. I think I have mentioned before that the only veg friendly dishes served around here are pasta w/ marinara sauce and salad. Sad.

Janet said...

Good for you for writing to the restaurant and giving some suggestions. Hopefully some good will come of it for the next vegan who dines there.

Jeda21 said...

See, I never leave my dishes up to the imagination of the chef, they're usually too busy or ticked off about the special request to do a good job. I usually just ask for a few side dishes and white rice or plain pasta if there's nothing else available.

But seriously, they should have thought about vegans and vegetarians and celiac people before one of us shows up, I can't believe they're so unprepared. This isn't brain surgery after all!

Veg-a-Nut said...

Gross! I am sorry, but if in my mind I picture even close to what you described as your dinner, the chef should be fired! How hard is it? I am so glad you wrote to them and linked your awesome dishes. I sure hope something comes of it. WAY TO GO!!!

Binx said...

I've had some bad experiences, too, but I think I'll share an awesome one to change it up: At a wedding rehearsal dinner, the bride had warned the chef that there was a vegan coming. I got my own appetizers, salad, entree and dessert, and everything tasted and looked so good that the other diners were jealous. I'm normally really uncomfortable asking for "special food" so that was a great treat. So let's not lose too much faith!

(It was Roy's in Baltimore, btw, which is a Hawain fusion restaurant and completely *not* vegetarian normally).

Asmith said...

i have a severe dairy allergy and i have a hard time consuming anyone's flesh... that being said the hypocrite that me and my body are... i still eat grilled chicken... no fried or greasy foods for me... and no other animal products at all... it works for me and i've tried other forms of protein and they do not work for me... so with that out of the way for my sister's wedding i was the maid of honor... and we had gone to various caterers explaining our various difficulties... one non-dairy celiac a couple vegetarians and me... this one was like oh yes yes and explained the sumptous italian-based meal he had planned for me... he had it made and then mixed cheese into every single thing before serving it... i awaiting my sumptous meal in my haste to get ready had not eaten anything that day... so he gives me half a grilled chicken breast and mini-baked potato... no seasonings and no ketchup even... after that i was like do you have any other food i can eat? the answer was no there was nothing they could do for me and how dare i ask... catering for a wedding you would think people would get creative and make healthful delicious options that leave everyone feeling great... but no such luck... this has happened to me myriad places... so i feel your pain...

Tracy said...

That sucks, I hope they add a tasty dish!

Jan Scholl said...

I love the places that tell you its vegetarian and when you ask for assurance, they say yes-we used chicken broth. Chicken-the newest vegetable.

I now eat salad bars cause at least I know what I am eating.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to tell you this a while ago, but kept forgetting. A friend of mine (also vegan) and I organized vegetarian/vegan potlucks in our town of 5000, with the idea of getting like-minded people together. I ran a story in the local paper, hung posters around town and waited anxiously for the night of the potluck. Amazingly, in our dinky little town, the first night we had 40 people show up and most of them were not vegetarians or vegans. They all had such a great time they bugged us to have another one. We had 2 others, and they too were well attended. My point is that we are showing regular people that what vegans eat is awesome and also to remind them that they also eat probably vegan at times and just don't realize it. Maybe since you're affiliated with the college you could try something similar and introduce great food choices to the non veg population. Good luck and sorry this is such a long comment.

wingraclaire said...

Over winter break my aunt took me to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was a fabulous break from the Wisconsin winter, well below zero F, but I had a rather difficult time in restaurants. One night she wanted to go to a restaurant she had read about in the guidebook. It was very fancy and expensive. Always mindful of my diet, she cased the joint earlier in the day, and asked what they could make for me. The chef responded that there was nothing vegan on the menu and that they didn't adjust their recipes because "this is a VERY important restaurant!" We had a good laugh and ate at the bistro next door.

Nisi said...

I had a similar experience when I went out for a Union dinner... we went to one of those non-descript, boring road-house type chain restaurants. There was nothing on the menu, not a single thing, that didn't have dairy or meat in it, including the salad. I think I got some kind of curry without the chicken so it was sauce and potatoes (from a can I'm pretty sure - they didn't even add a few more veggies). I wrote to them afterward to suggest that maybe they put a veggie burger on the menu. The reply I got was that anything on the menu could be made without meat. I wrote back that it would be nice to have a meal, just one option, on the menu for those who want a *meal* and not just the condiments of a meal. I never got a reply. I just checked the place's site for the menu - it's not really any better, though I suppose you could have the veggie fajitas and get them to skip the sour cream & cheese. Would it kill these places to offer just one option?