Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How to Lose Friends and Alienate Customers

Duck Confit Mofongo at The Toucan and the Lion
“Hi.  My name is Brad*, I’ll be your server tonight.  Have you dined with us before?”  Before you get started, no, this conversation is not happening at the Olive Garden but rather a hip new gastropub in the East Village of Manhattan.  “Brad” may not be his real name but let me tell you, I could not have made up Brad and his chain-restaurant personality even if I tried. 

For starters, Brad has an uncanny ability to interrupt really good stories just as the storyteller is building up to the punch line.  It is like a sixth sense. The third time he manages such an intrusion on a recent evening it was almost comical, except for that it wasn’t- time is precious with good friends and having a waiter who cannot read table cues for appropriate timing virtually defeats the purpose of going out to eat. 

Brad is also an educator.  Upon answering that no, we had not eaten at The Toucan and the Lion before, he patronizingly says, “Well, we do things a little different around here.”  Yes, those words actually come from his mouth.  He lets us know that we are going to want to order 3 or 4 starters to share and then an entrée for each of us.  In Brad’s world, no one has ever dined at a shared plates restaurant before nor are any of us capable of gauging our own hunger.

If Brad is your waiter, no matter what, do not ask for a fourth short rib taco (delicious, for the record) to be added to the plate of three.  At The Toucan and the Lion they cannot add an extra taco so that we could each have one, even for an additional charge.  Again, we are reminded, they do things different around here.  If we want enough tacos for each of us, we have to order another plate of three.

If wine is your thing, Toucan and the Lion is not the place for you.  Unless you get indecision fatigue when faced with two wines that is, because two wines make up the entire red wine selection.  In that case, you are in just the right place because Brad will helpfully let you know that you really don’t want the California Cabernet Sauvignon, which leaves you with the Spanish Monastrell.  You might insist on trying the cab anyway to discover that Brad is right (you really wanted him to be wrong) but even then, the Monastrell feels like it has been stored in an oven.  Brad grudgingly brings an ice bucket. 

On occasion Brad can be a helpful chap.  When the group laments that some of the items we had seen on the restaurant’s website and in the reviews are not on that night’s very short menu he lets you know that a. the menu just changed and b. the website has never really been accurate.  (Who really uses this interweb thing anyway?)  What he’s telling you is don’t get too excited about those patatas bravas made with purple sweet potatoes you read about online.  Apparently no one was ordering them.  He should know- according to Brad the staff was fed the unsold leftovers as their nightly meal everyday for months. 

Not that that an up-to-date online menu would help much, even the paper menu plays tricks with expectations.  Corn fritters would more accurately be described as hushpuppies.  Bao buns are basically toast, our night missing the garlic-lime butter with which they were supposed to arrive and along with it, any semblance of flavor. 

In spite of Brad and the restaurant’s best efforts, the food sometimes worked as with the intensely flavored short rib tacos and the simple kale and radish salad.  Beyond that I’m not sure what to recommend as menu items and their execution are inconsistent.  Well there is one thing, if you do go, don’t have Brad as your waiter.

The Toucan and the Lion, 342 E. 6th St. New York, New York

*Names have been changed but trust me, this guy was for real. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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