Wednesday, May 2, 2007

CP Steak -- DC

Over the weekend, the Main Squeeze and I had dinner at CP Steak, DC, Charlie Palmer's outpost in our nation's capital, along with a few friends. Gorgeous room, lovely view of the Capital Building.

The food and wine and of course the company was great, but you know, when I pay over $700 (tax, tip, and wine included) for a meal for five, well, I expect top-notch service. This . . . wasn't. Not that his restaurant is understaffed -- in fact, the floor was crawling with people. Nor was the place busy -- there were empty tables. But they seemed to prefer to stand around and chit-chat rather than, you know, doing their jobs. I think it's more fun to stand around and chit-chat too, and if Charlie wants to run his business that way, I can see the appeal. But it's not the best way to make customers happy.

We went and we're led past the really cool glass-walled wine room (which, alas, is not equipped with Wine Angels in catsuits). We took our seats, and the menus soon followed -- CP Steak has rigid one-page metal-rimmed menus which stick in little weighted stands. One reviewer said they made him feel like he was playing battleship with his date. Well, there were five of us, so it would have to be a more complicated game -- something involving dice and rulebook the size of the Internal Revenue Code. But you get the idea -- the menus look cool in the stands, and I suppose it's good to have your hands free. You can do a bit of knitting while waiting for the waiter to come and take your order.

Speaking of waiting . . . .

We sat down, got our menus, and then waited for somebody to come. You know, a waiter or waitress to introduce him or herself, talk about any specials, maybe give us a drop or two of water. Let's just say we had plenty of time to read the menu . . . memorize it . . . put it to song. Finally a very nattily-attired woman, whom I assumed was the Boss Waiter for our table stopped by and deigned to inform us of the specials and ask about our water preference. She also asked if we wanted wine -- and I told her I wanted to consult with their sommelier before deciding on a purchase. So she said she would send the sommelier by, and she left us to continue our contemplation of the menu.

In fairness, she did come back in a timely way to take our order, and she did a pretty good job of answering questions. Generally, she was pretty good, in terms of the information she provided, with one glaring exception. Too bad we didn't see more of her. So we gave our order, but still, no somelier. The little pre-appetizers come, and hey, they're good! Raw fish -- I got two servings, because one of my friends won't eat raw fish. But no sommelier.

At some point this bald fellow wanders by and asks about our wine order. I never quite figured out whether baldy was a waiter or assistant sommelier or general manager or what, but I did tell him we had been waiting for a sommelier. He said he'd sender her by. Unlike our waiter, he actually seemed to communicate something to somebody, because our sommelier did manage to stop by. She and I talked about what we like in a wine, and she offered several suggestions, all of them quite reasonably priced. Well, reasonably priced for restaurant wines, that is. I made my pick and she wandered off.

I expected her to, you know, bring our wine and pour it. But we wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. Appetizers arrive, and we start to eat. More raw fish for me! It's really good raw fish, I have to say. Tuna tartare, with a bit of zip Finally, midway through the appetizers, we got our wine. The sommelier shows it to me and then wanders off to open it She gives it sniff, and then takes a small taste. She decants it. I'm starting to get worried about whether something is wrong, but finally she brings it and pours. She tells us to give it a few minutes, so it will open up.

She was right! It did open up When I first tasted it, I thought it was OK -- not spoiled or anything, but no better than a $10.00 Lindeman's. Twenty minutes later, it was pretty darn good. The . . . leisurely pace of the service worked to our advantage here, because in the inevitable delay between appetizers and main course, the wine improved dramatically. So by the time the main courses arrived, we had gotten a pretty good start on the wine. Hey, there were five of us, after all. With my friends, that's two bottles of wine, easy.

We killed the bottle as we were eating the main courses, and we could have easily consumed another bottle. If, that is, somebody had bothered to, you know, ask us if we wanted one. Somebody finally did -- but by the time they did, we were almost done eating, and, based on past performance, I was pretty sure they wouldn't get it to us before we had finished, so I declined. Not only did nobody ever ask us if we needed more wine, the sommelier never even stopped by to ask if we were enjoying our selection. Like the waitress who was supposedly in charge of our table, she was AWOL after making a first appearance.

The food, by the way, was quite good. I got the Wagyu beef sampler -- three three once portions of Wagyu beef. American, Australian, and (allegedly) authentic Japanese Kobe beef. The meat was perfectly prepared and really good. I mean really good. I loved getting to contrast the three styles of Wagyu beef. My serving was nine ounces of meat -- and that was it. Oh, a bit of garnish, but basically just the meat. That's fine -- side dishes were ordered and served separately. But I needed a side dish or two to round out the meal. Hey, I'm an American -- don't expect me to eat light.

We ordered three side dishes, because the waitress told us they were "large, family-style portions." Maybe for a family of anorexics. Don't get me wrong -- they were pretty darn good, just like everything else. We ate every morsel and then licked the plates clean. No, not literally, but it looked as if we had. The goat cheese orzo gratin, which had to have about a million calories per bite, was particularly delicious. If somebody had asked, we might well have requested another order of it -- but nobody bothered to ask if we wanted more. (Our other side dishes were asparagus, which was good, and creamed spinach -- yuck! -- which I didn't bother to taste. But my friends said it was good, and they ate it all.) For that matter, our waitress never bothered to ask if the food was to our liking. In fact, we never saw her again after she first took our order.

There were other substandard aspects of the service. Water glasses that stayed empty too long; really good bread that we never got more of. Suffice it to say that the service was uniformly substandard for a restaurant of that price range. I don't want to give the impression that I want to be rushed through a good meal -- I like the whole slow food thing. I didn't particularly mind having a few moments to digest between each course. But there are times when alacrity matters.

More to the point, at a good restaurant, the customer should have the sense that the mob of people runnng around are part of a team that's working together in a coordinated way. Our waitress -- or "table captain," if you want to be old-fashioned -- should have noticed that the sommelier hadn't come, that our glasses weren't being filled, that we ran out of side dishes halfway through our main courses, and that we needed more wine. But I didn't have the sense that she, or anybody else for that matter, was paying attention to the details of the service.

So did I have a good time? Yes! Good friends, good food, good wine. I really did enjoy myself, despite the problems with the service. Nor do I want people constantly hovering. But I really do think it's a shame that a restaurant which consistently delivers such great food also delivers such lousy service. You know, at Red Lobster the waitress usually stops by and asks if the food is good and refills our bread and gives us more water. My entree cost $85, and while somebody on a budget could get roast chicken for a little over twenty bucks, most of the items aren't cheap. A restaurant of that caliber, with that many people "working" there ought to have better service than the average Red Lobster.

Our reservations were lateish -- not terribly late, but 8:30 or so. By the time we finished, the service had definitely started to wind down. There were a couple tables still filled, but we were the place was definitely emptying out. We had done the valet parking thing (and yes, we had a designated driver), and a helpful fellow in a white jacket took my ticket and made sure the valets were still around to retrieve my vehicle.

It was a very nice gesture. Finally, we saw the kind of attention to hospitality and service that a restaurant like this ought to feature start-to-finish. Somebody cared about doing a good job. As I walked past, I caught a glimpse of the words sewn into the breast of his white jacket. It said "Executive Chef."

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