In the 1996 movie Big Night, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), recent immigrants from Italy, struggle to make their restaurant ‘Paradise’ work on the Jersey shore. The movie is set in the 1950s, when Italian food has caught on in the US, but in a distinctly Americanised avatar.
On the Jersey shore, however, Pascal’s, another Italian restaurant, is a huge hit despite—or, probably, because of—very mediocre food, which leaves the brothers desperate, especially because they create superlative cuisine. It’s a poignant story with a bittersweet ending.
You’re probably wondering why I’m starting my piece with a film summary you can find on IMDb.com. It’s because I find the story a very relevant parallel to the Indian restaurant scene today. Going out for a meal has ceased to be a luxury in many Indian cities. If the mushrooming of eateries and restaurants of all shapes and sizes isn’t evidence enough, one just needs to look towards the equally fast-sprouting hotel management institutes, producing an army of drone grads to feed the food business.
However, while our intentions and aspirations to discover new and exciting foods and restaurants are bona fide, quite often our approach is skewed. Discovery, by its very definition, denotes stumbling upon something unexpected in the course of a search. In food and beverage too, it’s the process of finding and enjoying foods and drinks that should surprise and delight, ideally cushioned by service to ease the passage of discovery.
Unfortunately, some people nowadays seem to get their thrills from showing up an establishment through their vast and seemingly informed views.
A dining-out experience involves fulfilling a need for either the very familiar (safe bet) or for novelty (adventure). Neither of these involves home kitchens, where terms can be dictated by momentary whims and personal preferences. A restaurant is certainly not the place to go and dictate recipes and ways of cooking that either undermines the skills showcased, or completely negates what’s on offer.
Raising your voice is not the way to get good service; it may have the waiter grovelling by your table but the cheap intimidation tactic
will make him hate your guts. Try being nice and you’ll probably win the guy over. Good service (depending largely on training standards) is guaranteed to people who treat their servers like professionals in a service industry.
With those ground rules established, engage the server with intelligent questions. Or, admit straight up that you don’t understand the menu and seek help: You’ll probably get it. If your intelligent questions are met with unintelligent or downright ridiculous answers, by all means throw a tantrum! But please refrain from asking one of the waitstaff whether the lettuce is certified organic, the chicken is free range or if the snapper contains mercury: He was trained to give you good service, not to satisfy intellectual pursuits. There are chefs and managers who answer such questions, pass them a note with the question if the place is busy.
On to the ordering: Stating upfront that your budget for wine is Rs 2,000 is not embarrassing, it’s a statement of the fact. Chances are something decent would be available in that range. If it’s a restaurant with a bar, ask for the bartender and see what cocktail he can whip up for you; you’d probably be pleasantly surprised.
With food too, similar rules apply: Ask questions to find a good match for your palate. Creating your own combinations and then whining about them later is quite silly; just because pesto and tomato sauce tastes good in isolation, they don’t equal ‘tasty together’! Cooks are creatures of habit. Take them away from their comfort zone and, nine times out of ten, you’re asking for trouble. A head chef may be able to surprise the diner, but he’s not the one cooking all the time. However, when a tried-and-tested dish falls short, by all means go ahead and raise hell.