My Top-10 Peeves about Dining out!

Food & Wine Magazine recently re-posted a caustic essay from www.purewow.com that laid out The 13 ways we’re all driving waiters crazy. From tipping in pennies to hogging a table all night – there’s little doubt that most are true, but I feel it’s only fair to retaliate with a point of view from the opposite corner.

Slowly but surely, reservationists, busboys, waiters and maître d’s have started a litany of fishy behaviors that are now considered as normal and acceptable as an overcooked sole. And the really sad part is that we (the bill-paying public) have come to tolerate and forgive them. I’m not just talking about being served a Côte du Rhone in a Riesling glass, or having your sparkling water topped up with flat, or never being provided with real fish silverware. It’s the big things that have bludgeoned the romance out of dining out.

Here’s my list of worst offenders:

  1. Still not being able to get an 8:00pm table – even when calling 30 days out at 9:59:59:59:59 am.
  2. Having to wait 45+ minutes for your table – even though the restaurant will only wait 15 minutes for you.
  3. Not being seated until your entire party has arrived (or being asked if you are all there!)
  4. Ordering drinks first – but only receiving them after the appetizers.
  5. When a waiter can neither pronounce any of the items on the menu, nor understand them when you can.
  6. Being asked how everything tastes – before anything has arrived.
  7. Realizing (that when the couple at the table next to you who arrived after you and are now paying the check before you’ve even eaten) that the waiter forgot to put your order in.
  8. When the waiter pretends that #7 wasn’t the case, and refocuses the blame on the “backup” in the kitchen (or that the chef was arrested or some such calamity.)
  9. When the busboy clears your appetizer plates, but resets your crumb-speckled knife and fork on the table to be used a second time around. (What’s next: being expected to drink coffee from your wine glass?)
  10. When everyone’s food arrives, but one of your guests is still missing a fork, and neither a blast from a fog-horn nor a targeted anti-aircraft artillery missile strike can summon the waiter’s attention.
  11. When the kitchen reinvents the distinction between a steak that’s well done, and one that looks like a good veterinarian could still save it.

I know. I know. Real-world problems.

http://www.foodandwine.com/fwx/style/13-ways-were-all-driving-waiters-crazy?

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Salumeria Roscioli, Rome – review

Rome is a city of many mysteries, but the biggest one has to be why it’s almost impossible to find a truly great meal here. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Roman food. Quite the contrary. But it’s easier to find a noodle in a quarry, than a lazy trattoria that doesn’t just throw some dry Barilla into a pot and stir it up with a few pieces of burnt garlic and cheap olive oil, and convince the tourists that it’s the best Aglio Olio in town. But I digress. Regardless of all those other suggestions on your list from colleagues, in-laws or tennis partners, no trip to Rome would be complete without at least one meal at the utterly sublime and completely unforgettable Salumeria Roscioli, which is like being invited to the wedding of simplicity and quality.

The establishment is principally a high-end purveyor of meats, cheeses and wines, but they also have 2 sittings of reservation-only tables for diners who promise (repeatedly) to arrive and leave on time. Once you get over the fact that you are sort of in the way of a bustling retail business that slices, weighs and sells hundreds of kilograms of antipasti and alimentari to Roman shoppers carrying babies, dogs and duffle bags, you realize two things: you are in very good company, and no-one gives a damn about anything except the food.

The menu rambles on for page after page of infinite preparations and combinations of many of the most famous local heroes: sardines, buffalo mozzarella, semi-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, carpaccio, crudo, artichokes, olives etc. By page 5, I became slightly concerned that all this time spent reading was going to cut into my strictly allotted 1 ½ hour time slot for eating. So I relinquished control to our curly-edged-moustache sporting waiter Salvatore. Sal personified your typical Roman, best represented by an Arancino – a hard, crusty, deep-fried shell with a soft, warm and creamy risotto center within. Our first confrontation involved his refusal to serve me the bottle of Amarone Valpolicella I had selected. (In my opinion a solid, fruit-forward wine with hints of raisins-in-the-sun that goes well with just about anything Italian.) “No. Not this one,” he snapped in his priceless accent. “Not good one. But this one…” he declared with a wry smile, pointing to a reasonably priced 2012 Barolo, “…this much better one. You trust me.” And that was that. He slammed the wine list shut and snatched it out of my mortified hands, disappearing behind a clutter of clients.

Salvatore

Salvatore

And so it turned into that kind of an evening, where our waiter clucked and scoffed at most of our suggestions – only to utterly charm, disarm and delight us like a magician with an endless litany of wondrous tricks that kept us ooh-ing and aah-ing in an Italian accent all night long.

Bruschetta with Cantabrian Sardines - Roscioli

Bruschetta with Cantabrian Sardines

We started off with a very traditional Bruschetta topped with the most deliciously briny Cantabrian Sea sardines and olives on toast, with a thick layer of vanilla flavored sweet butter from San Maló.

Mozzarella

Mozzarella “Hamburger”

This was followed with the incredible Mozzarella “Hamburger” – an all-time favorite with three thick slices of fresh and fluffy mozz separated by seared, sweet ham, tomato and a yummy sweet-and-sour balsamic glaze.

Pasta Cacia e Pepe - Roscioli

Pasta Cacia e Pepe

We knew we had to try the magnificently flavored and prolifically marketed Pasta Cacia e Pepe, which was as dreamy as any three-ingredient dish could ever hope to be.

Nebraska Beef Carpaccio - Roscioli

Nebraska Beef Carpaccio

The curiously labeled “Nebraska” Beef Carpaccio was another rare intersection where heaven meets earth in the form of a semi-transparent, chianti colored slither of citrusy smoke-cured meat, littered with dark orange curls of 24-month aged Mimolette cheese. The worst part of this dish was that it eventually came to an end.

We couldn’t help noticing a pair of hands (and from where we were sitting, we couldn’t see who they were attached to) repeatedly slicing a small slit into the top of a ping-pong ball sized boconcino, and then jamming it full with semi-dried Pachino tomatoes before finishing it off with a curled slither of anchovy. Before I could ask Sal why we didn’t order one, he surprised us with a couple of samples. Each bite burst with a sharp, salty jab, followed by a milky cream and finally a sweet, caramelized tang.

Parmesan with 20-year aged Balsamic vinegar - Roscioli

Parmesan with 20-year aged Balsamic vinegar

Our next course began with what looked like a virtually empty perfume bottle. “Don’t touch!” Sal commanded, before returning with a plate of cave-aged Parmesan chunks. He (ever so cautiously) splashed them with a few precious drops from the bottle – which turned out to be 20-year aged Balsamic. The utterly incredible combination of the salty, sharp cheese with the rich and tart vinegar left us breathless with wonder as to how something so simple could taste so incredible.

Tiramisu with Biscuits and Chocolate dip - Roscioli

Tiramisu with Biscuits and Chocolate dip

According to Sal, our first dessert was going to be the “…best Tiramisu in all over Rome,” and he might very well be right. The shorter than normal slice almost completely sacrificed the biscuit layer for an espresso flavored, twice as thick (and decadent) mascarpone cream topping, which felt like a five year vacation on a private island where an ocean breeze gently wakes you at around noon.

And just before we surrendered, a small dish of home made ring biscuits showed up with a warm, thick, sweet and lusciously creamy chocolate dip. We’re talking about an instance of bliss where the noise of the world suddenly goes quiet. The traffic, the tourists, the music, the stock-market, even old Italian grandmothers rolling fresh pasta in small apartments upstairs have to pause to appreciate this incredible, edible moment.

www.salumeriaroscioli.com

http://www.salumeriaroscioli.com/booking/

Dinner on the tarmac with Qatar Airways

I would rather sit through 9 solid days of a junior Karate tournament than voluntarily wade through rush-hour airport traffic on a messy Thursday afternoon, but I happened to be a guest of Qatar Airways who were wining and dining a few guests on-board a Boeing 777 parked near JFK’s Terminal 8.

Having swallowed my fair share of bumpy inflight meals at a variety of altitudes, I can confidently declare that the airlines have pretty much thrown everything they can at the challenge of pre-made, flash-frozen and reheated food that gets plated and served in an artificially dry environment, where passengers’ senses of smell and taste are quickly replaced by escalating boredom. Some airlines have requisitioned the talents of celebrity chefs and master sommeliers to improve their menus. Others have permitted passengers to pre-select their meals a week prior to departure. Some have introduced themed dishes or on-demand food service via the in-seat touch-screen. But regardless of whether the menu was signed by Daniel Boulud or Joel Rubichon, when you find yourself dining while strapped to a chair, the real battle between you and what’s on the end of your fork is at the hands of a caterer 30,000 feet below you.

Qatar is very proud to have commissioned master chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Vineet Bhatia, who put together some of their inflight meals a couple of times a year. Does this mean you can always expect Michelin star-worthy sushi and Indian food on board? The short answer according to the airline’s head of Food & Beverage, Colin Binmore, is “not exactly”. The long answer involves customer profiles and cultural preferences based on global routes and regions, and the availability of fresh ingredients from foreign airport caterers. So let’s crack that egg open. Once the celebrity chef has had his menu preparations thoroughly photographed, documented, sniffed and scratched, the caterers are painstakingly trained with regular check-ins to make sure that no corners are cut, and that the seasonal fruits are in fact in season and chewable, or that there is consistency with vinegar and chili use (apparently two very popular travails), and that the taste to the passenger closely matches the chef’s original intent.

Onboard plating instructions - Qatar Airways

Onboard plating instructions

Quality control and consistency keep Binmore’s team up all night all over the world, given how broadly things can vary from airport to airport. Why is FCO still over-salting? What’s making the panna cotta from JHB so rubbery? If mangoes are out of season in IAD, then why the hell are they still on the plate? Etc.

Pre-plated Heritage Tomato salad - Qatar Airways

Pre-plated Heritage Tomato salad

It’s a little easier for the wines to be consistent, even though they too suffer at the fickle hands of lazy taste buds at altitude. James Cluer, who heads up the airline’s wine program, does an annual blind tasting of more than 1,000 bottles. The airline’s staunch policy of selecting wines purely based on taste rather than labels, scores or price, make for a very varied and unusual onboard selection. Wines are rotated for inbound and outbound flights to keep things fresh for frequent fliers, and the lists are replaced quarterly (except for a few permanent mainstays like the Kopke Colheita 1974 Tawny Port – arguably the only vintage Port offered inflight anywhere in the world). To better understand the affects of taste at 30,000 feet, Cluer and a few of his colleagues recently performed a very rare challenge by sampling wines at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Talk about going the extra mile!

So, on to Qatar’s award-winning Business class dinner meal (prepared by a kitchen somewhere in Jamaica, Queens.)

With the amount of trips the multilingual and beautifully manicured flight attendants in dark green and burgundy uniforms clocked from seat to galley and back, they deserve their own frequent flier miles program. First on the tray table was an amuse bouche of a rather bland disc of Lamb Tikka sitting on a too soft Risotto cake, which was rescued by a mint chutney with a latent spice kick to resuscitate those airborne taste buds.

Pea Mint Soup - Qatar Airways

Pea Mint Soup

The few times I have eaten soups on board, they have usually been of the overly salty and peppery variety, and so I was somewhat surprised to see a Pea Mint on the menu. Gorgeous presentation with a dollop of basil oil and micro greens, but the abundance of heavy cream and mysterious absence of mint was disappointing. The crouton didn’t help matters either, as it appeared to have done more mileage than the crew. Not sure where (or when) it was toasted, but it had to be abandoned after two fruitless chewing attempts.

The highlight was the spectacular Classic Arabic Mezze platter. A triumphant triptych of creamy hummus, wonderfully citrusy and tangy tabouleh and a surprisingly sweet moutabel (aka babaganush) served with fresh brown and white pita wedges.

Heritage Tomato, feta and Kalamata Olive Salad - Qatar Airways

Heritage Tomato, feta and Kalamata Olive Salad

Having seen the pre-plated Heritage tomato, feta and Kalamata olive salad in the galley earlier, I was enormously impressed at how delicately and affectionately the various additions, garnishes and dressings were layered, stacked and tucked into position to yield an incredibly beautiful and flavorful dish.

Broccoli, Potato and Cheese tart - Qatar Airways

Broccoli, Potato and Cheese tart

I fully understood the dilemma of catering to diverse palettes and ethnic cultures by how well the main course options covered ground: a vegetarian, a lamb and a shrimp. Vegetarians seldom get much in-flight love, and so it was encouraging to see such a solid option with the delightfully fluffy and moist Broccoli, potato and blue-cheese tart. It was hard to fault the super-tender, ultra-slow Braised lamb shank perched on a mound of mash with a tangy chickpea and saffron sauce, but the ultimate re-heating challenge had to be the Arabic spiced shrimp. The window for shrimp crunchiness is shorter than Sarah Palin’s temper, so even if these handsome specimens were butter-poached on the ground, by the time they left the galley oven, they had transmuted into coils of mushy paste. Most certainly a very courageous attempt, but all the “machboos” sauce, fried onions and nuts couldn’t put humpty-dumpty together again.

Braised Lamb Shank - Qatar Airways

Braised Lamb Shank

I skipped the ice-cream, fruits and cheeses and indulged on the incredibly tasty Cardamom panna cotta. The perfect consistency with a subtle, yet undeniably middle-eastern flavor was accented by a tart accompaniment of rhubarb and apple compote.

Cardamom Panna Cotta - Qatar Airways

Cardamom Panna Cotta

Our meal was well paired with about half of the on-board wine options. A refreshingly crisp and tart apple flavored 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Esk Valley, New Zealand. An amazingly rich tobacco, berry, spicy and caramely 2007 Bordeaux from Chateau Monbousquet. The juicy, fruity and honey forward flavored Fritz Haag 2012 Spätlese, and the epitome of in-flight extravagances – a (slightly-too-small) sample of the nutty, marvelously smooth and deliciously dried fruit flavored ’74 Kopke Tawny port.

Bon voyage! Bon appetite!

http://www.qatarairways.com/global/en/homepage.page

http://www.qatarairways.com/us/en/cuisine-master-chefs.page