Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Spanish-American War: Columbia Restaurant

Okay, I think I’m ready to talk about it. It’s been stewing in my mind for a few months now, while I thought of the right words to describe what happened. I’m not sure why it seems like a big deal, or why I felt so much trepidation in exploring my inner-most feelings about the experience, but nonetheless, it has been a journey. I have had to come to terms with myself, the horror and the pain, over the fact that I had a bad meal.

It sounds silly, perhaps, that I’ve battled with myself so much over this one dinner at a mediocre restaurant in a beautiful place serving bad food. I went to St. Augustine, Florida, on a long-weekend with my best friend and dining partner, Veronica. After asking locals where they liked for dinner and getting tepid responses, we chose a place called Columbia in the heart of the historical district on St. George Street, a bustling pied-a-terre full of tourists wearing fanny packs and buying faux antiques. Excited about the prospect of Spanish food, we made reservations at peak hours.

I like to eat at the busiest time of the night, especially when I plan on reviewing a restaurant. In Europe, peak restaurant hours fall between 8 and 10pm. In America, it’s between 5:30 and 7pm. At these times, the restaurant shows its true colors, and you can judge the place easily on three main symptoms of peak hours: attendance, service time, and food quality.

Walking into a restaurant at 6pm and seeing it packed with people eliminates the possibility of the restaurant being bad. I use “BAD” as a general term describing the décor, atmosphere, service, and food, the four things reviewers generally use to rate eating establishments. The logic is simple, there are many people, thus something about the restaurant is attractive – usually one or more of the four categories. Columbia was jammin’. Glancing at the reservation books as I made my way to the maitre’d station, they would be full all night. We were led to a table on the third floor of the restaurant, overlooking a balcony and a courtyard. The ambiance and atmosphere of Columbia is breathtaking. The walls are textured yellow and orange on beige, the woodwork is left exposed with high ships-beams on the third floor ceiling. The building is old-Spanish style with the dining rooms like a hollow cube, all looking over a flowering Spanish courtyard. It was clear that the beauty of the restaurant was a major draw for clientele, mostly in their 30s and 40s, donning sport coats and light wraps. I hoped that the food would be as exhilarating.

After a visit from our blonde, pigtailed server, we took a look at the expansive menu. Very few restaurants I have been to that have menus spanning more than three pages have actually had good food. I have learned early, short menus generally mean more-carefully prepared food. Even the oldest restaurants in Paris, La Tour d’Argent and Le Grand Vefour, both temples of haute cuisine, have two-page menus displaying two or three entrees, appetizers, salads, and then desserts. I was completely overwhelmed and unable to make a decision. I did the unthinkable.

I have rules for when I go out to eat (but that’s another blog entry), and I broke an important one. After telling our server twice to “come back in 5 minutes” and still being unable to shy away from Veronica’s impatient glances and my seemingly chronic indecision, I asked our server what she liked. I never do this for two reasons. First, I don’t care. Second, I’m a classically trained chef*. I know what I like. I should trust myself when making decisions about food. I’m not sure what possessed me to ask our server this question, perhaps I felt so nihilistic as to think that I might be eating my last meal. Maybe I needed affirmation. Whatever it was, I will never do it again.

Generally, I don’t order shrimp at restaurants. I never feel full when I eat them (unless I happen to be in the Chesapeake Bay, and 3 pounds of steamed, spiced, seasoned shrimp are laid before me on nothing but a cafeteria tray), and so when the crab-stuffed shrimp with rice and vegetables was suggested to me, I was hesitant, but decided to risk it. Hey, I’d already ordered a four-dollar bottle of imported Spanish water, I might as well live. Veronica (wisely, it turned out) ordered a meat version of paella with chicken and chorizo and pork instead of the traditional seafood. I knew I should have ordered the paella.

After 45 minutes (we were warned that that’s how long the paella took to make), our plates were placed before us. All the anticipation in the known universe couldn’t have made my food taste good. My shrimp were overcooked and rubbery (I had a chef instructor in culinary school tell me that there was nothing worse than an overcooked shrimp. There is – an overcooked mussel.) and the crab stuffing tasted like cornmeal. I searched the stuffing for a red pepper or a shred of onion with no luck. Trying the “saffron rice”, I found no rich smoky flavor associated with both saffron rice and the deepest of Chardonnays. There was about a cup of it on my plate, so I forked around in it for a saffron thread. If they had really used saffron, there would at least be one scarlet thread. Nope. No thread. I had to conclude that they used the spice Turmeric instead of real saffron. Turmeric is a yellow powder used in some Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. It’s often called “poor man’s saffron” because it’s much less expensive than real saffron threads (an ounce of saffron is about $8, an ounce of turmeric is probably $0.0001) but still gives the yellow color associated with the spice. Paying $34 for an entrée that advertises saffron rice but uses turmeric is appalling to me. I bit into a broccoli floret. It was cold and tasted like the Sysco box it had just come from. At this point, I’m mad.

Maybe I’m a pretentious snob (I am, no question about it) but bad food ruins my day. I also hate to send food back to the kitchen. But I did. The dining room manager came to our table to see if he could do anything. I told him it was just all wrong and I would help Veronica eat her paella.

The paella was fine. In paella, one uses short-grain Arborio rice, which takes longer to cook than regular long-grain rices like jasmine or basmati. It was slightly undercooked, but at least it was hot and not straight off the delivery truck.

I feel bad about rejecting food that’s placed in front of me. It’s an inner struggle between the critic (my chosen profession) and the chef (my other chosen profession). The critic in me relishes the ability to have people scurry about trying to appease me. It is the voice that tempts me to answer the question “how would you like that cooked?” with the smartass answer, “expertly.” But the chef in me knows the turmoil of the kitchen, the stress that comes with food being sent back, and empathizes with the sous chef that has to deal with it.

Regardless, pass up Columbia. Unless you get the paella. Or if you’re really acquainted with your inner demons.

*accredited to Veronica Curran

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review Holly, I will be sure to avoid that restaurant. I loved the comment at the end. I too would like all of my food expertly prepared. I can't wait to use that line. I will give you full credit of course! Keep up the great work.

Chef Tom Beckman