As a non-anonymous food writer, I occasionally get hosted by restaurants that are new and seeking publicity, or are old and, well, seeking publicity. I always explain that hosting doesn’t ensure a positive review, and I like to think that my write-ups are as objective as possible. (Challenging given the small community, as I know some of the workers and see them regularly.) Some will argue that a fair review is impossible, as the kitchen will send out better/extra food, and the front of the house will be extra attentive. Others say that at a quality restaurant, there’s only so much that the staff can do to make anyone’s experience better than that of the average customer. (Besides, everyone should be treated as a special customer.)
This is a issue worthy of its own posting. The truth, I believe, is somewhere in the middle. That said, I think there’s extra pressure on chefs and servers to get it right when they know a reviewer is in the restaurant.
Which is why I was surprised by my experience at a media dinner at Ventana. A small group of food writers was about the only party that evening, and yet both the service and food were inconsistent. The servers were warm and friendly, but stiff and sometimes forgetful with their delivery, and on a few occasions lacking in information about the food they were serving. (One can argue that new restaurants have kinks to work out; on the other hand, perhaps restaurants shouldn’t open until they’ve worked out the kinks – or at least not host media before then.)
A duck and a fish tell the tale of the restaurant on this particular night. Lacquered duck breast was delightful, with just the right amount of fat on each slice. I especially liked that it was served with duck jus – this in contrast to the New York strip with foie jus. If I want foie, just give me a lobe of foie gras. The same for truffles. I’m tired of chefs hiding great ingredients in sauces, oils, etc. where they get lost and sometimes make me question, “Is it really in there?” And on the topic of trendy, I liked this duck so much better than the duck confit that’s all the rage these days. My new saying: Pardon me, but enough with the confit.
As much as I liked the duck, I really disliked the halibut. It’s no secret that I think halibut is boring and over-served in Seattle. Therefore, I always roll my eyes when I see it on a menu, but what’s worse is when it’s overcooked and dry. This was a media dinner, and there was no reason to not get the halibut right. (To be sure, I sampled the fish from two other plates, and both were also dry.) Overcooking made a bland dish even more unbearable – one that couldn’t be rescued by the nicoise salt from the much-heralded Secret Stash Sea Salts routinely used at this restaurant, as Chef Joseph Conrad is a co-owner of the company.
The rest of the dishes were okay. Not bad, but nothing special. Hence the challenge. It takes a lot of guts to open a new restaurant in this economy. Ventana has a lot of seats to fill. The windows are wonderful, but diners will eventually be looking toward the service and the food for their fulfillment, and Ventana will have to step up to meet that challenge.