From the Kitchen – Ranting on the fly (I have a plane to catch)

While enjoying some Florida heat recently, we were out with friends to celebrate: life in general, sunny days, and always great food and beverage. Stoli dolis and martinis with bleu cheese-stuffed olives got the party started. We toasted good fortune before those drinks were followed by an excellent Alexander Valley blended red; Dennis has the knack for choosing great wine, so I gladly relinquished the burden. We sipped and snacked on fresh bread and a giant lavash cracker-thing, our butter sprinkled with sea salt crystals. And as always at Capital Grille, the server worked our table with reassurance (“Great choice of wine, sir.”), clarity (“Thank you, miss. Medium, a warm red center.”) and deftness (as he eased the bill higher by suggesting: “Sides to share?”). We were easy marks, giddily agreeing to each extra $10 with shouts of “YES! Lobster mac and cheese.” … “NO! Make it two orders.” … “Asparagus!” … “Brussels sprouts!” Honestly, in what normal situation does anyone shout “Brussels sprouts”? It was on.

And, as expected at Capital Grille, seamless service and perfectly prepared steaks were ultimately followed by a bill that bore Range Rover-like clout. What was not expected, however, was a $100 discrepancy when the waiter returned with our mixture of credit cards, cash, gratuities and a gift certificate — all of us uncertain who was to blame for the mistake: the waiter or the wine. But here’s the beauty of the thing. To this day, we still don’t know. At the time, the waiter’s human nature to be defensive switched in a split second to perfect form, and with military-like precision he apologized for any misunderstanding and promised to return immediately with a manager. Almost that fast, the manager appeared and proceeded to own the mistake, apologizing with grace and sincerity, while “eating” the full value of the error. No questions asked. Each lady in our party received a red rose upon departure, and for days to follow we discussed how any Capital Grille is always exceptional, start to finish, and the great value in taking full responsibility for a mistake, no matter the cost.

I know there are other restaurant peeps who read this column, so if you are sore at me for promoting Capital Grille, I understand. Their excellence irks me, as well. That said, I will continue to expense future visits to “training,” and “suffer” while noting how they deliver such a standard of consistent excellence. We should all be worthy of $100 per person for dinner. Just sayin’.

The very best steak I ever had was a rib-eye at Strip House in downtown Manhattan. It’s all about the “thousand degree” salt and pepper char-encrusted whatnot … though the red walls adorned with vintage nudes didn’t hurt the vibe. The sexiest steak house ever.

Speaking of rib-eye. … Back in the day, and I do mean way back, prime rib — that being a whole, slowly-roasted primal rib cut — achieved its name universally, without actually being graded by USDA inspectors as “prime.” That’s the rule, and we all live by it. That said, menu ethics dictate that we cannot cut an individual steak off a USDA choice-graded rib roast, grill it, and call it a “prime” rib-eye steak on the menu. That’s a trick, and you know who you are! We know, too, when it chews like choice-grade and not like a cut-it-with-a-butter-knife actual prime-graded steak. Cut the bull. Lie to guests, lose business. Just sayin’.

Note to grandma: If it’s overcooked, send it back. It’s our job to get it right. You are not being difficult.

Note to the guest who says, “I don’t mean to be difficult.” … Yes you do. That’s OK, though. Own it. It is our job to make you happy, and we all exist somewhere along the “difficult spectrum.”

As much as I’m wowed by a great steak, is not great bread worth mentioning? Best ever? As much as it pains me to say it — at the risk of sounding “BOO-zhee” (bourgeois) — I vote for the baguettes in France. Whoa. (In the interest of full disclosure, there was a lot of wine in France. And nudes. Sorry grandma.) Honorable mention goes to D.C.’s Zaytinya and their hot pita, served as a still-puffed-up steamy orb. The eventual “poof” and unanticipated facial is a blast, the bread delicious.

By contrast, don’t dismiss the Wonder-like white bread served with the bad-ass BBQ at Boston’s Sweet Cheeks — a cuisine that, sadly, doesn’t comfort New Englanders like the rest of the country. A damn shame. The world needs more BBQ. I would do one myself if only …

That’s something to consider after I return from my long-anticipated trip to Thailand. Of course, by then I will be over today’s food fixation and on to curries and coconuts! Hmmm … Thai BBQ?

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Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, own Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford.

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