Originally published: October 30, 2000
The size and quantity of the people at the reception desk should have been a tip-off. There was not a man among them who had a neck circumference under 20”. The women had necklines that plunged down to skirt slits that ricocheted up. There must have been six or seven “hosts” present, all smiling with straight, white teeth, seen-it-all eyes, and freeze-framed hair, savagely tamed with unguents and lacquer. At least four manicured hands reached to take our coats.
Through the beveled glass double doors the four of us followed our hostess, her cleaved hem zigging and zagging smartly across her black nylons. Her heels would have clicked importantly, had there not been wall-to-wall carpeting. It was dimly lit, and a comfortable, fishy smell enveloped the dining room. As we sat down, we all remarked that it reminded us of old San Francisco. Except, when we were handed the menus, old San Francisco might have blushed.
There was not an entree under $27 dollars ( which was, predictably, the lone chicken dish ), unless one wanted to count the fresh Maine lobster listed at $19 per pound. However, our waiter informed us that the lobsters that evening were weighing in at about 4 1/2 pounds, bringing the price up to about $85. Vegetables were extra. Salads sold separately. The leather wine volume had several bottles offered in the three and four digit category. There was not an empty table in sight.
Adolfo and I had been given a $100 gift certificate to Sam & Harry’s from Manuela and Denis. It was recently rated 7th best steakhouse in the country. The certificate had been donated to our school’s silent auction fund raiser by the restaurant. The auction fell on March 11th, coincidentally Adolfo’s birthday, and it was a wonderful surprise when Manuela and Denis handed us the certificate. We had no doubt we would invite them to share the meal with us.
We ordered from what, at a less elegant eatery, would be called a Surf ‘n’ Turf menu. The variety and specifics of the steaks were mind boggling. I chose jumbo prawns with lump crab meat and Basmati rice with a tangerine vinaigrette. Denis chose lamb, and Manuela and Adolfo were able to make sense of the steak selection. Adolfo ordered a seafood salad, I tried the red pepper soup, and Manuela and Denis had the lobster bisque. Urged by our waiter to supplement the main course with another chargeable item, Manuela asked for potatoes, Denis requested asparagus, and Adolfo opted for sautéed mushrooms. The Stag’s Leap ‘97 Cabernet Sauvignon was spicy and woody and nosy and leggy and all those other wine adjectives that sound vaguely racy but make for a nice beverage.
The conversation was animated, as it always is when the four of us get together. I tore off a piece of nice, crusty, flour-dusted country bread and ate it as I laughed over something Denis was saying, probably something about boot-lickers in the scientific research community. Then I was completely distracted by what was in my mouth. Along with the nice, chewy texture of the bread, was a strong taste of... mold. There was no denying it. My mouth knows mold. But here? I must have been mistaken. I surreptitiously inspected the remaining pieces in the basket. Flour can hide a multitude of sins, I thought darkly. But, here? Where they use those little straight-razor sweeper things to remove crumbs from the table? Must be imagining it.
“There is something not right with this bread.”, said Manuela decisively. “Right!” I cried. “Like, mold?” “Exactly! Mold!” she said. Wow. Mold. When the waiter came over, I mentioned quietly to him that there was a small problem with the bread, that they might check their supply for ... freshness. He tried to tell me that the white powder on top was simply flour, you see. Yes, I said, but perhaps moldy flour?
He went off to the kitchen to “show the chef”. As we heard nothing more about it, I assume the chef was not overly impressed. A few minutes later a fresh basket of bread, the same kind of bread with its dusting of white flour, was placed on the table by our waiter, who gave me the kind of cautious, sideways glance you’d give a lunatic.
The appetizers were excellent. No mold at all that I could ascertain. The entrees were brought and placed dramatically before us, each in front of the wrong person. After some shifting about on our parts, the separately charged vegetables arrived and were squeezed in where ever they might fit, again, each next to someone who had not ordered it. More lifting, maneuvering and cramming into position, and we all finally had the correct meals. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I would wish that a restaurant that serves food at these prices, might find the funds with which to purchase larger tables. By the way, our waiter neglected to tell us that one order of vegetables would have easily served all four of us. Denis alone got a full pound of asparagus, most of which went uneaten.
My prawns with lump crab meat looked beautiful. I quickly calculated the mound of Basmati rice in the center as containing about $0.13 worth of grain, and as quickly, banished the thought from my mind. The prawns and the crab, I reminded myself, were where the rest of the $29 had gone. These would be perfection.
A metallic, and at once past-prime flavor hit my palate. Oh no... it couldn’t be. I gamely finished the prawn. My shoulders slumped. Not only a tad mature, but over cooked! I know an over-cooked shellfish when I meet one, because I myself am a master at over-cooking them. That is why I order them when I go out - to taste them as they should be enjoyed. These! These were tough, fishy, and tasted like freezer burn. I could do that myself perfectly well at home.
With my scarlet “L” for lunatic already blazing on my forehead, I decided to rely on the good service and over attentiveness inherent in all fine dining establishments to get my complaint across. I decided to wait until our waiter asked me if everything was to my satisfaction. That way, I could give him my honest opinion, because, after all, he asked.
I dutifully waited, my fork parked stubbornly on the rim of my plate, until my companions had eaten their fill, and our dishes were being removed. Finally, our waiter asked me if I wanted him to pack the rest of my dinner up so I could take it home. I looked at him meaningfully and said, “No thanks. I don’t want to take that home.” Then I waited for him to show surprise and ask the inevitable, “Didn’t you like it? Oh, but let me get you something else, or at least let me strike this off the bill! I am so very sorry!” But the man just shrugged and whisked the plate away with the others and did not return until he thought it was time to show us the dessert tray.
Adolfo was the only taker, and ordered a mountainous, volcanic creation that contained cream, caramel, nuts, chocolate, and more cream, and included a one-time complimentary use of the restaurant’s crash cart to get one’s heart going again. (One shock only. If you require more, it’s $50 a pop. All this is in the fine print of the dessert menu) He managed about a third of the thing , then leaned back, defeated. Those remains, we did take home.
The bill was staggering, as expected, even after subtracting the $100 gift certificate. We paid, tipped, and walked out past the still mostly full tables. There was a receiving line of thick-necked men in dark suits, slouched against the wall and who thanked us in an oddly threatening manner as we passed. Their suits all looked a little tight across the chest and shoulders.
At the door, I thought, someone will surely ask me if I enjoyed my dinner. While we waited for them to bring our coats, I even hovered near the desk, hoping for a polite inquiry from someone. A huge bronze wall, deeply engraved with the story of Sam and Harry gave me the sudden impression that I was in a pharaoh’s tomb, a monument built by his slaves to glorify his memory and herald him into the afterlife. I didn’t have time to decipher its hieroglyphics, as two thick necks and a slit skirt showed up with our coats.
The complimentary valet parking was hopping. Navigator, Mercedes, Lexus... Suits and slits and cell phones, older men and younger women. Important people who slipped in front of us and got to the valet first, pressing bills into his hand. Finally, a Toyota van that needed a wash. None of the other cars got near it. We drove away into the Virginia night, having learned, yet again, that you don’t always get what you pay for.