Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thanksgiving dinner: What a turkey

You know out there, gentle readers, that I’m understandably nervous about my surgery. It’s the first time in my life that I’m going under the knife for something relatively major. I’ve only had one other surgery before, a Septoplasty to correct a deviated septum. And that didn’t work. So in this context, when Thanksgiving dinner plans were being made, I decided NOT to go out to my cousin’s house in Merrick for our usual family soiree. Instead I decided I didn’t want the hassle of traveleing and that spending a quiet evening in the city would be preferable.

After making my apologies to my cousins, I set my mind to thinking what exactly I would do for this uniquely American evening. My mind drew a big fat blank. All of my friends had plans with family (duh). Those that didn’t that might invite me into their homes had plans out of the city, which kind of defeats the purpose of my plan. So I resigned myself to a quiet evening at P.J. Clarkes, alone, with a plate of turkey and stuffing and a good book. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, although some may find it sad. The truth of the matter, for myself, is that I never minded eating alone. Or seeing movies alone. I entertain myself very well and I’m my own best friend, when it comes right down to it. I just need to fight the urge to talk to myself and all will be well.

Then my sister-in-law got sick and everything changed.

My brother Darren, and his wife Karen, were scheduled to take a week long trip to Costa Rica during the Thanksgiving Week. Everything was set to go and about 4 days before they left, Karen had an attack of Colitis. Or is it Crohn’s? I forget which, but suffice it to say that traveling was out of the question. So my brother, the dutiful husband, canceled the entirety of the trip. Since they were going to be away, they didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving either. So naturally, Darren rang me up and suggested we go together to a nice dinner out. Now, it should be noted, that when Darren and Karen say ‘nice’, what they mean is ‘expensive’. I agreed, in principle, that this would be a good idea and they scurried off to do research into good (expensive) restaurants serving Thanksgiving meals.

A few days later, they had settled on Arabelle in the Hotel Plaza Athenee at Madison and 64th street. The menu was Prix Fixe for $110. Initially, I was shocked. $110 for turkey and stuffing?!?! Are you kidding me? But Darren soothed me over by pointing out that the atmosphere was world class and the kitchen has a 25 food rating from Zagat. I imagined fanciful versions of the standard Thanksgiving day staples. Who knows what the chefs might come up with? Truffled turkey legs? Cranberry reduction sauces? Quail eggs on a pillow of stuffing, dotted with shitaki mushrooms and drizzled in an elegant lime dressing? The possibilities seemed endless. But still I hesitated. With wine and drinks, the tabe was going to approach $150 without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile, dinner at P.J. Clarkes, with a good book, would be $34.95. Darren, sensing my hesitation, brought out the ultimate trump card. “But you’ll be with family”. Damned guilt trips. So I hopped on board of the idea with an open, yet slightly skeptical, mind.

The night of Thanksgiving came, and I dressed up quite nattily in a suit and tie, intending to look quite sharp when I saw my brother. He had asked me kindly to dress up, like I needed the suggestion, and I obliged in great fashion. It kind of bothers me sometimes to go to a fancy shmancy five start restaurant, dress up accordingly, and then find that other patrons have come in jeans. Which is exactly the case here. Most of the diners were dressed appropriately, including my family and their friend Alex who joined us, but there was a conspicuous group seated in the middle of the restaurant dressed like they were at T.G.I Friday’s. Please, people. This isn’t about being snobbish, mind you. This is about getting my money’s worth, dammit! I’m paying for an experience! Of course, this happens to be somewhat contradictory to my policy of ‘dress how you feel at the Opera’, but I attribute the difference in attitude to the fact that Opera is cultural enhancement that shouldn’t be kept from the masses while this is dinner where I’m stuffing my face. So there, I win.

We were seated amidst a beautiful table setting. Instead of traditional centerpieces, the restaurant had strewn leaves of fall colors, fresh cranberries and walnuts and small gourds along with votive candles. It was very pretty and just what I’d hoped for. It was with great anticipation that I received the menu. I had seen it online already and been slightly disappointed, but I was hoping the elegant setting would color my perspective. It didn’t. No matter how much I tried to convince myself, the menu consisted of 3 choices of appetizers, 3 choices of entrée and 3 choices of dessert. That was it. No garnishes, no special touches and no quail eggs. In fact, the menu was downright pedestrian. Well, I thought, perhaps the ingredients will be top notch. The waiter came to take our order and I had the Butternut Squash soup with Duck Confit, the Turkey w/traditional accompaniments for my entrée and the pecan tart for dessert. Simple and hopefully tasty. The waiter left and a man came with a tray of rolls for our selection. I had the cranberry walnut. He placed it on my plate and I gingerly picked it up. It wasn’t warm. Strike one. Rule #37 of fancy restaurants: Bread should be served warm, especially dinner rolls. Another tip, although not strictly necessary, is that hotel butter should be made with fruit or some sort of herb rather than served plain. It’s just better that way. I ordered Pellegrino water for the table (I find mineral water better than tap when eating heavy meals) and the waiter came to serve it with flair. That guy with the water bottle was the best thing about the whole meal. My glass was always full without my even noticing. Too bad the regular waitress wasn’t quite as attentive. It too a little while for her to come and take our order and once the food came, she didn’t come by ONCE to see how things were going.

The soup came. First Course. Okay then. This was going to set the tone of the meal for the rest of the night. The wide soup bowl was presented in front of me and I bent my head down to smell it. The heat of the bowl rose up to my nose and I inhaled deeply. It smelled like…nothing really. There wasn’t the fragrant aroma of squash, cinnamon or even smoked duck. It just smelled like some sort of hot liquid. The first taste of the soup confirmed why this was. The soup had been overcooked. Badly. I blew on it to cool it down and took my first real taste. As expected with overcooked soup, the flavor was dead. My spoon went down to take the next batch to taste and the bottom of the spoon hit the bottom of the bowl with a clank. Are you kidding me? The bowl was shallow as hell and the kitchen had put maybe two ladles of soup in. At $110, I expect to get more soup than I could comfortably eat, dammit. But considering how badly they’d botched it, I didn’t even bother asking for a second bowl. The duck in the soup was an odd touch but not entirely unwelcome. The smokiness of the duck, which was cooked perfectly, would have complemented the squash very well, if I could only taste the squash.

The soup bowls were cleared and the four of us were having a very nice conversation. We had sat down at the dinner table at 6:00 PM and the restaurant was relatively empty when we arrived. Most of the dinner reservations were for 7:30 or later and the place was just starting to fill up. So we were somewhat annoyed when it took more than 15 minutes after the soup was gone for us to get our entrée. We didn’t mind too much as we wanted the pace of the night to be relaxed, but we were hungry regardless. The roll guy came again and we had some more room temperature bread. Like clockwork, the water guy came to fill our glass, like a water gnome that only shows up when you’re asleep. Finally our meal arrived. The buildup was enormous in my mind. I imagined the best Thanksgiving meals of years past. Shredded turkey meat carved right off the breast, heaps of freshly made mushroom stuffing, mounds of fresh cranberry sauce (or even the yummy canned variety) and gravy pulled right from the pan. The plate was set before me and I nearly cried. The two slices of turkey, while sizeable, were sliced so cleanly that they looked like processed turkey you get in a package at the deli. The gravy was a thick paste that I swear came from a can. The stuffing was a disc shaped patty of some baked thing that had a hard crust. A crust?! On Stuffing?!?! WTF?! And the capper was the cranberry sauce. The entirety of the tart cranberry sauce, which seemed to be homemade (good), was served inside an upside down mushroom cap (Bad. Very bad.). Literally a mushroom cap. Not even a shitake mushroom or some other large variety. But your average 1” mushroom cap. I imagined the chef in the kitchen ladling out the cranberry sauce onto each cap with the Thimble game-piece from Monopoly. “Not too much, Luigi!”. I was hungry, true, but supremely disappointed. I tucked into the food with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, but each bite just confirmed what my eyes and nose told me. THIS. FOOD. SUCKS.

I didn’t want to spoil the mood by complaining and I didn’t. Perhaps the whole experience could be salvaged by a sublime dessert? It’s possible. I mean it would have to be kick ass dessert. I was expecting nothing less than Heidi Klum herself stripping down naked and lying down on the table while we ate chocolate sauce covered cake off of her flawless body. But I was sure at this point that they would screw that up too. “Sorry we couldn’t get Heidi Klum. Instead, we got Heidi Fleiss”. Dessert came and I looked down at my pecan tart. It was a 4 inch round disc of standard pie pastry shell and a hard pecan filling inside. It looked EXACTLY like the tarts served at Financier, the local high-end Patisserie downtown. I like Financier, don’t get me wrong, but they charge $4.50 for this tart and this place is charging about $22 (I’m weighting the meal as (20/60/20 Appetizer/Entrée/Dessert) not including tax and tip. We had gotten coffee with the dessert as well, which was not too bad and we made the best of our rather awful dessert. At one point, I was gutting off a chunk of the tart with the edge of my spoon and the damn thing slid off the plate and nearly knocked over my water glass (Full. Thanks Juan!). Desert is not supposed to slide. EVER. Even the plate was poorly garnished, with nothing but a small dusting of powdered sugar to keep our mind off of the fact that we’d gotten royally ripped off. But, trust me, the biggest rip-off was yet to come.

You’ve heard about this awful meal, whose cheap ingredients and shoddy preparation were only made bearable by the good company of family and friends. Yes, it was $110 prix fixe. Yes, I could have gotten the same or better meal for much less in about 10,000 other places. But I kind of knew going in what the cost was going to be, even if I’d hoped the food would compensate. So when the bill came, my brother, who’d chosen the restaurant, stared in open mouthed disbelief.

“What’s wrong?,” I asked.
“They charged us for the water and coffee,” he exclaimed.
“Well, that’s normal.”, I said. Even if I think charging for coffee in a prix fixe situation is a bit much. But his voice was expressing more shock than just standard sticker shock. I’ve known my brother all my life and the attitude in the inflection of his voice was a bit of bewildered resignation than anything else. I got worried.
“What else did they charge us for? What are you looking at?”, I asked a bit worried myself.
“The water was $12 a bottle,” he informed me.

Ah, that Juan. The clever gnome was refilling our glasses without asking us and charging $12 a liter for something that can be purchased around the corner for $1.99. We had had 3 bottles it turns out.

“Is that it?”, I asked.
“No,” my brother replied, oddly calm. “They dinged us for, are you ready, $9 for each cup of coffee.”

And that, gentle readers, is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Outside I was calm and of a single purpose. Inside, I was a puddle of melted organs and bottled frustrations. Coffee, if you recall, is an ancient drink in which berries of a certain plant are roasted until they’re hard and black and then crushed into a powder. Then, boiling hot water is strained through this powder and served with cream and sugar. That’s it. Nothing more. No gold leafed sugar cubes melted in this mixture. No meticulous preparation by Swedish ‘coffee chefs’ flown in by private jet. The coffee wasn’t even served on fine china. Just a cup of coffee. $9.00. Starbucks, which is the biggest ripoff ever perpetrated on mankind (I’m a Dunkin Donuts guy), doesn’t even have the nerve to charge $9.00 a cup for even their biggest size of coffee made with beans flown in from Sumatra!

Somewhere in this god-forsaken world is a man with no conscience. This man’s job, at some point, was to determine the amount of money to charge for a cup of coffee at Arabelle. Someone was making up the prices and they asked this man, who was standing up, what they should charge for water filtered through crushed roasted beans. This man, who was standing at the time, said $9.00. No more, no less. The other man looked up at this man, who was standing, and asked if he had heard correctly. $9.00? Isn’t that a bit excessive? Oh, I get it, he said aloud. $9.00 is for unlimited cups. The standing man looked down his nose at the other man and said “No. That’s per cup”. Somewhere in this world, this man is still standing up. He hasn’t sat down once since this decision and his legs ache every day. Why, you ask? Why hasn’t this man sat down to rest his body. Because that man has THE BIGGEST BALLS IN THE WORLD!
Final tally per person for Thanksgiving ‘dinner’: $170.

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