Sometimes it's the minor details that make a wining and dining experience satisfying or not. Two dinners this past weekend at a couple of wine-savvy restaurants in New York underline how easily a good-hearted sommelier can tip the balance toward the positive end of the scale, while relatively minor problems with service can take the gloss off a good meal.
Names are omitted to keep this civil. Although I did not identify myself, I was recognized in both places from my connection to Wine Spectator. So the playing field was even.
Upon arriving in New York on Friday, I met friends at a casual Italian enoteca. Even before we sat down, the host asked if we would like to start with something to drink. I was thinking Prosecco, but said nothing. The bottle of De Faveri Prosecco, which tasted like dry, sparkling pear juice, made a perfect opener.
The sommelier recalled that the last time I had dined there, we went through four cork-tainted bottles before we found two that were OK. He had handled it well, but he joked that he was ready to empty the cellar this time if need be. As we all had ordered fish, vegetables and non-meat pasta dishes, I asked him to suggest a Northern Italian white, perhaps from Friuli.
He emerged from the cellar a few minutes later with a bottle of Zuani Collio 2006, a blend of Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Friulano. I was unfamiliar with the wine, and he explained that the winery made two bottlings, one aged in oak, and this one, called Vigne, matured only in stainless steel ($45 on the list). I liked it on first sip, as it was refreshing, with almond and melon undertones to the grapefruit flavors. (I later looked it up in our database and my colleague James Suckling wrote nice things but only gave it 83 points.)
The straightforward approach and the sommelier's selection of a modestly priced but personality-filled wine delivered just what we wanted.
The next night we had an early pre-theater dinner with some other friends at a casual restaurant owned by one of New York's star chefs. The evening started out with a reservation problem, but when we were finally seated, I thumbed through the wine list. I would have ordered Black Chook Shiraz-Viognier 2006, at $40 one of the few wines on the list under $60, but instead I chose the Betts & Scholl Grenache Barossa Valley The O.G. 2006, at $72. Everyone at the table loved it.
While we were waiting for the wine, the sommelier came over to say hello. He was unaware that we had already ordered. Uh oh, I thought, communication isn't what it should be.
During the 50-minute hiatus before our main dishes arrived (only half the table had ordered appetizers), the server (not the somm) topped up the glasses. The bottle ran out before he got to mine, down to about 1/2 ounce. "Don't I get any more?" I smiled congenially. He got defensive, huffing, "I was just trying to make sure everyone got the same amount."
He did return to the table a few minutes later with a bottle (apparently the wine was on the by-the-glass list) and silently topped up my glass. But the balance had subtly shifted to an adversarial relationship.
Things got worse on the service front. Unbeknownst to me, my wife and daughter were told that the restaurant was out of the filet mignons on the prix-fixe menu they had ordered. Mind you, this was at 6 p.m. on a Saturday. They asked, reasonably enough, if the restaurant could substitute one of the steaks on the à la carte side of the menu, and serve it with the green beans and potatoes on the prix-fixe plate. Oh, no, they couldn't do that. They had to order à la carte.
Time was running out for us when the steaks finally arrived, overcooked of course. So the delay before the main course cascaded into several problems. It took the edge off our enjoyment of the meal, which otherwise was well executed, and made it impossible to fix the steaks. Most restaurants would have done something to make up for the problems. But we got charged for everything except the green beans. They did bring some Jaboulet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise to sip after dinner, which we barely had time to slug before it was off to the theater.
Individually, these were not huge problems. But with a $100 per person tab and a big-name chef's name up on the marquee, the cumulative effect of these and other small-ish annoyances meant that none of us could really relax and enjoy dinner. And all the problems could have been salved by the server being gracious instead of adversarial.
On the wine front, the Aussie Grenache was clearly better than the Prosecco or the Collio white. But we enjoyed the Italian wines in the context of their experience much better. That's the difference service can make.