Monday, March 08, 2010

The problem with Richmond restaurants...

This weekend, we had a couple of experiences that perfectly explain my issues with so much of the Richmond restaurant scene. On Friday, my mother came into town, and L and I took advantage of the chance to have an adult meal with her while the kid was over at her mom's.

We batted around ideas like Rustica, Can Can and Coast. A few other favorites like Edo's, Balliceaux, and a few others were dropped because of expected crowds. Rustica was dropped for the same reason. The food and service at Rustica are worth a wait, but we didn't want to take the risk of a long wait. When given the choice between Can Can and Coast, my mother chose the latter for a smaller, more intimate experience. We gave a call and were told tables should be clear soon.

When we arrived, there was a party ahead of us at the bar. This wouldn't have been a problem except that Coast is very small, and two parties decided to take their sweet time after they'd paid their checks. We lingered at the bar and had the she-crab soup, which we all declared excellent, and a basket of the fresh bread. My mother and L had glasses of a nice Gruet from New Mexico. I had a Starr Hill IPA. The owner Gary came over and chatted for a bit from behind the bar. The brief wait got longer as the parties continued to linger. When we were finally seated, the owner sent over a plate of calamari to make up for the long wait. He also pulled a nice bottle of Valipolicella Ripasso for us — it wasn't on the wine list, and the price was a very reasonable $32.

When it came to our entrées, the only stumble was that they'd run out of crab cakes. Nonetheless, my mother chose the sea bass and housemade tagliatelle, and L chose the sauteed flounder with tagliatelle instead of potatoes. Both fish were perfectly done and light without being bland. I broke my usual code of not ordering things that I prepare myself and ordered the lamb chops which came a perfect medium rare, with a nice reduction drizzled over the top. For dessert, we opted for a chocolate torta with berries, and it too was right on target.

The overall tab without tip came in at $172. Not cheap, by any means, but it was an "occasion" dinner. The thing is we could easily have spent the same or more at one of Richmond's more central and popular restaurants — and come away far less satisfied. What Coast has going for it includes the quality of ingredients, the simplicity of preparation, and the professionalism of the service. What it loses is location, a problem that the owner's other restaurant solved until it was controversially shut down in November by the new building owner.

This was the high point.

The next day, we decided to do lunch out and dinner at home. After batting around a couple of options, L and I decided we'd try to make our peace with Mezzanine. Unfortunately, Mezzanine apparently changed their hours without changing their website. We decided to try Water Grill — the Richmond Restaurant Group's latest offering. The brunch menu seemed extensive and worth checking out. Once inside, we were seated in the windowed front room — so far, so good. L and I ordered an Allagash White and a Dale's Pale. The server delivered them, declaring confidently that the Dale's was the White and the White was the Pale. When I switched them, she giggled and admitted that she didn't really know the difference between the beers.

We ordered around, the kid getting french toast with sausage on the side, mom getting the crab bisque and an arugula salad, L getting a crab cake Benedict with fruit instead of home fries and an arugula salad to share with me, and a croque madame for me. The soup arrived before anything else, and while it was clear that my mother was being nice about it, the consistency was so thick as to look gelatinous. She didn't finish the bowl. The salads arrived next and were the best part of the meal. The kid's french toast arrived, as did the sausage. She was tired, though, and ate about half of the toast and a couple bites of sausage before declaring herself full. L's crab cake benedict arrived with home fries; thankfully, it tasted good so she ran with it. My croque madame was made with Texas toast that tasted as though it had been in the kitchen a couple days past its freshness date, and the white of the egg was runny when I got to the middle. The kid's sausages were also a little undercooked, which is a pity because they seemed a nice, thick maple sausage. Somewhere in the middle of the meal, the server asked me if I wanted another beer. I told her I might, and to check back with me. About ten minutes later, and as I had decided I wouldn't be getting another beer, a pint arrived.

The tab for this meal: $72. For brunch. This would seem high, even if the meal hadn't been a prime example of Richmond's restaurant mediocrity. As I've experienced with several of the RRG restaurants, not to mention other restaurants around town, the combination of preparation errors and server inexperience made the tab seem like even more of a crime.

The final restaurant experience of the weekend came at Legend Brewery. Now, Legend has struggled for years to balance quality of food and service with the quality of their beer. On the bright side, they've had the advantage of one of the few good outdoor locations in Richmond, and the deck was busy that afternoon. A busy afternoon doesn't excuse bad service, however. I ordered a Hopfest, one of their seasonals, and L asked about a sampler. The server was fidgety and said that she thought they were out of sampler glasses. Again, it was busy, but not that busy. We decided to get my beer, and L would try it to see if she liked it. The kid ordered a quesadilla and a Sprite. This is important because the kid rarely orders without prompting, but the server didn't seem to care about listening to her; she looked at us for the order.

About five minutes later, the hostess arrived with two pints of Hopfest. She looked a little sheepish when we clarified what the order was. Thankfully, L liked the Hopfest, and we were set. The server followed a few minutes later and dropped — literally dropped — the quesadilla between L and me. By this point, we were already saying how much we always wanted to like Legend. The thing is the place was messing up the simplest of things — the beer order was botched, the service was rushed and bad, and the quesadilla came without chips. When we got the server's attention and asked about the chips, she told us that chips didn't come with the quesadilla. L pointed out that the menu said kid's items came with chips, and the server said, "Well I can bring you some, but the quesadilla doesn't come with them." And she turned on her heel. In the end, we left after one beer and a light snack. The server got a $2 tip, and even that seemed too generous.

There is a difference between quick and professional and rude and unwelcoming, and this server crossed that line. Unfortunately, unprofessional and/or uneducated servers are too much the norm around Richmond restaurants. It takes so little to know how to do a job well and how to give people good service that I get more than a little frustrated when someone says a busy day is a good excuse for bad service. There is no reason a server at a restaurant where brunch can run upwards of a hundred dollars should not know which beer she's serving. Likewise, there is no reason a kitchen in such a restaurant should use stale bread and turn out undercooked items. When it comes to Legend, our poor harried server lost out on a decent tip and a higher bill by simply not caring how well she took care of her table. Whether she disliked kids or looked at us and decided we weren't worth the time, I don't know; I just know there's no excuse for such service.

Unfortunately, too often, the norm at Richmond restaurants is weak service and food that doesn't live up to the price. I've complained in the past about the lack of good, moderately-priced neighborhood restaurants where you feel welcomed and can walk away satisfied without breaking the bank. Ultimately, if I could wish one thing for the Richmond restaurant scene, it would be more restaurants like Coast and Rustica rather than more restaurants owned by the same three or four owners or more places that seem to feel like it's okay to be just good enough.