Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some very good wine writing!

There's a very interesting article from the UK-magazine The World of Fine Wine that's circulating on Twitter. It's the first insightful article I've read in a glossy magazine that takes on the current relevance of pioneering wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr that is not from a position of "is he under attack?" or "is he still influential?" but rather "he is under attack" and "he is influential but his influence is decreasing rapidly every year."

This is something I've been writing about a lot recently, so I won't bore you with rehashes of my arguments. It was simply refreshing to hear this from not only a Legitimate Wine Critic but a writer who has written one of the definitive Parker biographies.

Ms. McCoy writes about the self-evidence of Parker's decline in influence as inevitable and then outlines why: the proliferation of other critics using the 100-point scale, the rise of a younger wine consumer not concerned with the "imprimatur [of] an aging guru," the dilution of his own brand through score inflation and hiring additional tasters, and the expansion of the global wine market beyond something that is comprehensible by even the most thorough reviewer.

I also appreciated the reference to perennial wine douche bag W. Blake Gray acknowledging that he "admitted in an interview that he uses it (the 100 point scale) instead of awarding stars as a way of marketing himself." That's like buying a first-class ticket for the Titanic while it's sinking, isn't it?

Most telling is her analysis of Parker's "circling the wagons," first by deleting critical comments from his forums, then by putting all of his message boards behind a pay wall. It would appear that Parker recognizes the viability of the assault on his role as critical monolith and is shielding those who still drink his Kool-Aid (Flavor Aid, actually) by walling in his garden. He doesn't want those lawyers and ibankers who've been going to him for their holiday gifts every year to start questioning the value of his ratings.

So cheers to Ms. McCoy for a thoughtful and informative piece of writing. It's not just about Parker, it's a very astute and succinct analysis of the current power relationship in the world of wine media.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Umami Burger Redux

So I went to Umami Burger again recently. That burger is still really damn good. It's so good, that I don't even object to it winning "Burger of the Year" accolades from GQ--even if such an assertion is dubious on premise.

I also think Umami Burger is unfairly maligned. Typically there are two inevitable responses by a gourmet burger-hater. Either: 1. it's just a burger or; 2. In-N-Out is better.

First, to the "It's just a burger" assertion--you're right. It is just a burger. It's ground meat on a bun with toppings. And lobster's just a bug on the bottom of the sea and caviar is just cured sturgeon eggs. To assign the burger any higher or lower state in the culinary world because of its nature is absurd. You can make a bad burger, you can make a good burger. Is it perhaps a bit easier to make a serviceable-to-good burger than it is a steak? Probably. But it's just as hard to make a great burger as a great steak, and the burger as to be less expensive and made at higher volume (typically).

Second: No, In-N-Out is not better. Not even for the price. In-N-Out makes a good burger, for the price it's a great burger. But Umami Burger is better. It's 3-4 times better. It's 10x better. The meat is better quality. Every patty is handmade on site, the meat is hand ground and hand seasoned. The flavor combinations are thoughtful and interesting. It is, in my estimation, a step better than all other premium ($8+) burgers on the market that I've had.

Why is the burger lesser privileged? There's no inherent reason why we happily pay $20+ for an 8oz steak but balk at paying more than $6 for a burger other than that we are used to burgers being cheap. And a frozen, grey patty that's made from random cuts of meat and is 20% oatmeal should be cheap. But good meat is good meat and should, theoretically, command the same price.

I like Umami Burger a lot. It's one of my go-to's if I need a good, filling lunch for less than $20. And by always coming up with new combinations and patty variations, they give customers a reason to come back. Get Umami Burger and leave your presumptions aside, at least until you take a bite.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Crappy Service

I recently dined at a local favorite of mine here in Los Angeles. I won't name names because I do like the restaurant and plan to return. It's a restaurant, in fact, whose service I've defended to others in the past. It's a restaurant that has been lauded for its food and maligned for the quality of its waitstaff, which I'd never found wanting. Until, well....

Unfortunately, I had very shitty service there last night.

I'm lenient when it comes to service. As long as I feel modestly taken care of, I let a lot of things slide. Casualness. Harriedness. I don't really care as long as I feel that I'm being maintained--I'm being checked on, well recommended and not hurried.

Our server made zero appearances at our table except to 1. take our order and 2. refill our wine. That's it. Only things that could directly earn him revenue.

Sure, food can be dropped by a runner. I don't mind. I've worked at restaurants where that was the case. I did, however, always go by the table shortly after they'd taken a few bites and checked on everything. Not the case. And he wasn't particularly busy. We had a late reservation and, although still full when we arrived, by the time our food arrived there were only a half dozen tables and at least two waiters still working.

The problems went deeper than an inattentive waiter, too. The bussers--who admittedly did a good job keeping our water glasses filled--were very eager to clear our plates. On one occasion we were practically forced to take food off of the platter and move it to our share plates so that they could, inexplicably, clear the platter for no end other than to clear the plate or slightly accelerate our departure.

For dessert, we also had a very bad creme brulee. I blame this on the service because it was bad due it obviously lacking brulee-ness. This was plainly visible as soon as it was dropped. We would've said something but, again, the server was gone. The top was barely cooked and the dessert, although full of excellent flavor, was annoyingly bad because of it. The custard was cold in parts and, again, the bruleed top was barely browned. That's the type of thing that a server or food runner needs to notice and rectify before it's served. I've done it numerous times as a waiter and, sure I've been yelled at by chefs and cooks, but in the end I've never served an inferior product to a customer. I get it. It was late. Maybe they'd put the blowtorch away. But that's never an excuse to offer a poorly-executed dish. If you can't adequately serve the creme brulee, then 86 it after 9PM.

The last egregious error on the restaurant's part was that, despite there being 3 or 4 tables still left in the restaurant, the back waiter staff began rolling out the brooms and dustpans and sweeping up. That's completely unacceptable--it hurries your paying customers and makes them feel uncomfortable. It's not worth it. In another 30 minutes everybody would've been out of there. Every restaurant I've worked at have contracted with an overnight cleaning crew who takes care of the heavy-duty cleaning well after closing.

(Yes, we had a late reservation but it was for 9:15 and the restaurant closed at 10PM. The place was packed when we arrived and we were not the last table to leave. If you want to have everyone out the door at 10PM, you need to close at 9PM.)

Will I be back? Probably. But if this happens again I might not be.