Nobody likes a sad, skinny baby...nobody!
Whether I’m ordering a meal at a restaurant or cooking up something at home, enjoying what I eat brings me immense satisfaction. On the other hand, being disappointed in a meal sends me into tantrum mode.
I expect certain things out of a dining experience. I’m realistic about the standards I hold for each place, from the local taco bar to the five star steak house. What I've decided is that it's about a perfect balance between service, food quality, ambiance and price. That may seem like a lot to juggle, but Houston is a big city with a plethora of restaurants to choose from. There’s no reason to expect anything less than the best.
If you strip my needs down to the bare essentials, you'll find I'm very much like a baby; I love tasty food and I love to be happy. If an experience doesn't generate a sense of fulfillment for those two basic needs...you're gonna hear me cry.
Nobody likes a sad, skinny baby...nobody!
Reef - Made Me Cry
The Skinny: Have we been so inundated with "fine dining" restaurants that we now equate exquisite fare with complimentary valet, a swanky building, a high price tag and little else?
The Fat: I'd heard mixed reviews about Reef for months. I'd heard that it was sleek and that the seafood was good. I also heard it was noisy, the service was spotty and that the food quality didn't fit the price. I simply had to try for myself.
My friend was coming into town for the weekend, so I figured it was a perfect opportunity to show off my city's culinary flare and check out a new place at the same time. I made a reservation for a Friday night.
When we arrived we were greeted by a great valet service and two lovely hostesses. We were led into the open floor plan dining room. Clean colors of white, gray and muted shades of blue perpetuated Reef's ocean theme. Asian lamps, seemingly made of seashells rather than paper, peppered the space. The room was nearly full so we were seated closest to the exposed kitchen.
In a traditional restaurant, sitting close to the kitchen can mean having to hear the kitchen door swing open every 14 seconds or having to listen to the expediters yell for the waiters to take their food.
In a modern, open restaurant like this it can be far more appealing to sit near the kitchen. You get to see the chef throwing fresh ingredients into a saute pan, witness team work between men and women on the line and even catch a glimpse of other diners' steaming food as it hits the window. The action becomes a vibrant backdrop to the whole experience, so I was pleased with our table.
Our waitress comes over. The first thing she says is "Can I get you something to drink?" Not "Hello", not "How are you both doing tonight"... nothing. If I was at a diner, I'd expect piece of gum and a hairnet to say, "Can I get ya'll something to drink?", but I guess my expectations were a tad higher for the waitstaff at Reef.
I attempt to acknowledge our server, ask her how she’s doing. Then she says "fine". That's it. Then I ask her her name...and then...she, in a stark and retaliatory way, asks me my name. Just mine, not my my guest's as well. She’s being curt and that’s undeniable.
Oh, I could see where this was going. "I'm a waitress, but I'm not your slave, I'm doing you a favor, I'm SO better than this...blah, blah, blah."
Listen, I waited tables for several years in college. It's not beneath you to be polite. It's, sort of, part of the job.
So, I’m already not impressed with the flippant tart we have been assigned as a waitress, however, I play it cool. My goal is to get through the meal. Plus, I wanna have fun with my guest and really see what Reef has to offer from start to finish.
So I engage in some very limited small talk to get this girl off the ledge and then I politely ask for a drink menu. We wanted to start with a couple of cocktails while we browsed over the dinner and wine menus.
My friend ordered a basic martini and I went for the blueberry mojito. While the preparation was classic, fresh berries had been muddled in with the mint to release a glorious purple color and give the Latin libation an earthy twist.
We decided to order one cold and one hot appetizer. The Snapper Carpaccio with Grapefruit Agra Dolce and Garlic Bruscetta was the cold dish; it was a perfect example of fresh fish served in its most clean and delicate form. The nearly translucent cut of snapper was gracefully drizzled with the sweet and acidic Grapefruit Agra Dolce. It was amazing.
For our hot appetizer, we pounced on the Steamed Mussels. Who doesn't love a hot bowl of these luscious sea gems?
While the ingredients used in flavoring mussels is important, I find that the only thing that can really ruin them is when they are overcooked. Happily, the serving was wonderfully seasoned, but more importantly, each mussel was hot, plump and perfectly prepared.
At this point I was loving the food, the drinks, the atmosphere and the company of a great old friend. I'd almost forgotten about the unenthusiastic girl that seemed put out by the very fact that she was a waitress.
We grabbed a chunk of bread, sopped up a bit of the sauce from the steamed mussels, ordered a bottle of wine and set the dinner menu aside for a few moments to allow our appetites to resurface.
When our bottle arrived, a great Sauvignon Blanc, we sat for a moment to enjoy a glass. Just then, my sights turned to the kitchen.
I noticed a chef leading a large tray packed with, what appeared to be, seared scallops into a tray rack trolley. If you're unfamiliar with a tray rack, it's a totally exposed metal shelving unit. When I worked at a fine dining restaurant, we used these tray racks in the kitchen to cool roasted garlic and other prep items.
There must have been 50 brown scallops on the exposed tray and it was sitting on top of a couple of other similarly filled trays. I pointed this out to my friend. As she turned around to look we saw about 10 fully cooked entrees, exactly the same entrees, sitting on the line, waiting to be served.
I thought for a second...why would 10 people be ordering that same dish at the exact same time?
Soon I noticed that a server would grab a plate from the counter every few minutes. By the time the last plate was gone from the unheated line, a good 15 minutes had passed.
It's funny how your brain absorbs information but doesn't necessarily compute it until it affects you personally.
Half a glass into our bottle we asked our waitress to bring a bucket or chiller to keep our wine cool. The fact that we had to ask wasn't really an issue at this point. When your server starts off being horrible, you learn to settle.
After perusing the menu, I was bubbling with anticipation, believing I had discovered the most fantastic item! Who wouldn't want Grilled Scallops with Truffle Polenta and a Mushroom Ragout? My companion decided on the Redfish with fried Mac and Cheese. They both sounded fantastic and so we ordered our entrees.
We still wanted to relax and enjoy our wine, but since it was such a busy night we thought it best to order, figuring it would take at least 15 minutes.
Not more than three minutes later our entrees arrived via expediter. We were shocked. Jack in the Box takes longer to add grilled chicken to a pre-made salad!
Just then, the lines of plates and the trays of scallops flashed into my head. Had my friend's dish been plucked from the line of 10 identical entrees sitting in the window? Was my dish easily constructed from the pre-seared scallops out on the tray rack?
We both went in for a taste.
My scallops were tough and the truffle polenta (truffles being one of the most adorably pungent ingredients I've ever known) had not even an essence of truffle.
I may have politely eaten these things, had the scallops not been completely cold!
As soon as I revealed my disappointment, my friend said nothing, but offered me a bite of hers. I thought she was trying to share the better of our two meals. To my continued shock and embarrassment for having brought her to Reef, her fish was wildly overcooked and totally cold as well! The fish, stiff and dry like something that had been sitting in a chafing dish at a 1994 wedding.
The fried Mac and Cheese had clearly been fried long before it ever hit her plate. A cardinal rule of frying food is serve it immediately or don't serve it at all.
As we sat there, forking our food and struggling with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other we drank our wine.
I suggested that TWO cold entrees is not a fluke and we should enjoy our wine while we waited for our fair waitress to make an appearance...but this did not happen for quite some time.
Finally, I flagged down a bus boy and asked him to please take our food away. Had we waited for our waitress, our food would have been cold when she arrived... no matter what temperature it was when it was served, rendering the whole point moot.
When our server finally appeared, we explained to her that both our meals were served cold. She begrudgingly offered us replacements.
Before we accepted, I glanced at the kitchen; the line of chilling entrees on the counter and the trays of brown scallops sitting on the racks...we politely declined and asked for the bill.
And the bill... she brought it, without an apology, without a visit from the manager, without anything.
I never dine out expecting special treatment and certainly not expecting free food, but for entrees that creep near $30 a piece, I don't think it's asking too much for them to be fantastic.
I pay for all the meals I write about and wouldn't have it any other way. In a situation like this, however, a sincere apology from the waiter and the manager would have been appreciated.
I don't like a fuss, but I do like to know that a manager is aware of what kind of experience the guests are having. I like to hear that what we were served was the exception, not the rule. I do like to hear some regret from the staff that we weren't pleased. Reef offered none of those things.
We were pretty insulted and so there was nothing more to do but leave and get dinner elsewhere...and so we did.
I'd like to blame the whole thing on our shoddy waitress, but I've worked in one too many restaurants to know that impeccable service flows from the top down.
So we paid our bill and stood up from our table, leaving half a bottle of wine behind. I guess that's when I really knew I wouldn't be going back to Reef. I would NEVER leave half a bottle of wine anywhere without a damn good reason.