Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Essays in Restauarant Debauchery, number two

The Perfect Storm

Looking back I’m completely amazed that I lived through the period of my life spent residing in Chicago. My early twenties were a complete blur, and I’m glad they’re over, but they made for some pretty ridiculous stories. That’s actually about all they made for, because I certainly don’t have much else to show for them..
This particular experience occurred at a restaurant that, for the sake of the story, I’ll refer to as “Steaks & Drugs.” It was a sprawling and wildly expensive steakhouse, a favorite haunt for celebrities and Chicago’s “beautiful people.” A massive circular “caviar bar” dominated the middle of the dining room, and the ceiling would cycle through different colored lights throughout the evening. There was a main bar and lounge, plus a nightclub upstairs. We would have thirteen servers working on a busy Friday, each equipped with a personal bus-person. There was a separate service bar in the kitchen, a full staff of food-runners, and even a group of “polishers.”
What does all this mean? It means that we made ridiculous amounts of money without doing shit. I even trained my bus-person to use the computers, so I could just have him wait on people who pissed me off. It was the world’s easiest and most profitable job, which of course meant I would abuse my privileges and fuck it all up.
I was on a double when three men came in for a late lunch, and I volunteered to stay and wait on them because I recognized them as brokers from the Stock Exchange. These people are right up there with strippers as my favorite types to wait on, as they live fast and spend money recklessly. The three guys proceed to drink a bottle of Krug Champagne to start and eventually racked up a $900 lunch tab. They pour me a few drinks and tell me that they’re coming back in with 6 of their friends that night, and ask if I’d like to wait on them. They tipped me $300 on their lunch and headed out.
They came back that evening and, as expected, completely threw down. They hammered through three magnums of Cristal at $700 each, and then moved on to ridiculous and over-priced California Cabernet (Caymus S.S., Bryant Family, Araujo, and Dalle Valle). They went straight for the caviar, then lobster, and then the big steaks – pretty stereotypical “guys out showing off” kind of shit. Their bill came to something like $5000, and they left me $1500 on that. With the enormous support staff comes an enormous tip-out, so I leave there with about $1100 cash for the day. I also failed to mention that when I opened the check presenter after they had paid (all cash, no less), I found a little baggy of coke neatly tucked in with my tip.
I head out for drinks with four girls that I work with in tow. We end up at a ridiculous club that I’m sure I enjoyed then but I would fucking hate now. I’m already pretty drunk and eventually one of my friends gives me the heads up that the black lights in the club are making the white powder all over my face really stand out. We end up meeting this guy, we’ll call him Dave, who is a friend of a friend and claims to be a “film producer.” I’m sure he was drawn to the group of girls I was with, and figured that if he got me on board to hang out then they would come right along.
This, of course, worked. The five of us end up back at his place, which I remember being pretty nice, and start pillaging his bar. I motion him into the kitchen, where I take out my bag of blow and offer him some. He gives me a funny look, and then opens up one his drawers and pulls out what is, to this day, the largest brick of coke I’ve ever seen. It’s the size of a small shoebox and packed in what looks like bubble wrap.
“I think I’ve got it covered” he says as he reaches his hand in and grabs a fistful that he plops down on a mirror. I follow him like a puppy back into the living room and proceed to blow rails like a madman, ignoring everyone else for the next five hours. I think I tried to get the group’s attention at one point because I had cut up a bunch of twelve inch lines and was trying to get people to “race.” Finally, one of my friends realizes that It might be a good idea to get me out of there on my feet rather than an ambulance. I’m told we said goodbye, and were on our way..
I don’t remember what neighborhood we were in, or why the fuck we didn’t take a cab, but I definitely remember what happened next. The crew had now been reduced to three, and as we started walking we passed a fire station. I’m not exactly sure who had this idea, but someone suggested that if you asked for a tour, they had to oblige you. Turns out that if you have two really hot girls with you, this is actually true. So here I am, my nose running un-controllably, holding their fucking purses for them while they go down the fire pole, sit in the fire trucks, and flirt with the firemen. I come to the realization of how utterly ridiculous we must look, dressed in all black (work clothes), and reeking of booze at this random fucking fire station in some random neighborhood.
By the time I get home it’s around two in the afternoon, and I’m still pretty high, so I decide to go to the liquor store for more wine. The only problem is that I was scheduled to work at 4, and now I was committed to staying up and going in really fucked up with no sleep. I make it there, and immediately have someone deliver me another bag of coke so I could at least maintain and hopefully get my second wind. Miraculously I recover ok, and I proceed to wait on a large private party by myself. They were actually really cool, and were sharing their wine with me the whole time, but my downfall came shortly before they left. They were doing shots called “statues of liberty,” where you dip your hand in Sambuca, light your hand on fire, hold it up, do the shot, and then blow out the fire. The sugar coats your hand so it doesn’t hurt, but when they convinced me to do one it was the shot itself that was the final nail in my coffin.
My next memory was waking up in my bed, still in my waiter uniform, with pens and check presenter still in it. I have very little recollection of anything, and I frantically call work. Turns out it was 5:19 a.m., so nobody answered. I passed back out, and found out what happened the next day: apparently I did my check out, and then started throwing crumpled up twenty dollar bills at my busser.
“Yeah, you probably threw about three hundred bucks at him. Then you disappeared, and we wondered if we’d ever see you again.” My manager actually seemed to think the whole thing was pretty funny, which is yet another reason that I love the restaurant business. He did add a "don't do it again," though.
I had a big breakfast and drank myself back to sleep to take the edge off. Later I assess the financial damage, which isn’t too bad all things considered. The situation improves two weeks later when I find a rolled up hundred dollar bill in the corner of my room..

Monday, February 15, 2010

Essays in Restaurant Debauchery, number one

Last Day Antics

In a way, there’s nothing more fun than working in a dying restaurant. Everyone ceases to care, the stench of hopelessness is everywhere, and you can get away with pretty much anything you want. The only real drawback is that you aren’t making any money, but who cares because you can get all the free drinks you want from the bartender because hey, the place is going to be gone soon anyway!

Such was the case at this one spot – we’ll call it the Old Mill for the sake of the story. Within three months a restaurant that had an all-star staff and was supposed to be “Portland's new destination for upscale American dining” was scrambling to change it’s menu concept to “tapas.” In the business we call this the “death-rattle,” a desparate last attempt to breathe life into something that is almost dead. This occurs commonly when a place is foolishly opened before it has focus on what it is supposed to be.

Both the front and back of the house had descended into a full-blown pirate ship mentality at this point, and idle time was forcing us to get a little creative to keep ourselves occupied. One example of this was the day we loaded one of the servers into a mop bucket, wearing a cape and a bird mask, and pushed him downhill on the sidewalk outside while he used a broom to navigate. This happened in plain view of the entire dining room, including people the mop-bucket pilot was currently waiting on. We continued the fun that evening, when we sent the newly proclaimed “fire falcon” into Longfellow books to terrorize children at a Harry Potter book release.

The cooks would all get hammered on bitters during the day, causing them to have these rings around their mouths that made them look like bloodthirsty clowns. The few customers we had would be routinely ignored in lieu of the fun happening in the kitchen. The dishwasher, whom we had lovingly nicknamed “Chud,” would be running around with a sauce pot on his head while Mudvayne blasted on the radio. I felt especially bad for this kid the time he came in and discovered a tick on himself, and we convinced him that only way to deal with it was for us light matches and snub them out on his skin.

I already had two other restaurant gigs lined up when I started what I wasn’t quite sure would be my last shift there. I was on a double, and lunch was such a fucking joke that the minute I saw that there was someone else on the floor, I left. I told the other server that I would be at the bar up the street and to call me on my cell phone if I had any tables in my “section.”

I proceeded to drink for several hours, in my uniform, with no call from the restaurant. Only 2 tables had come in all day and soon, one by one, the kitchen staff began to join me at the bar. The other server followed shortly and at 3:00, we had pretty much the whole gang there. At this point I decided that it would be a great idea to start calling fake reservations into the restaurant for dinner. We take turns: An eight top, a four top, another eight, a “tour bus” of twelve, and we even have the cocktail server at the bar call in a ten top (of which 7 people had peanut allergies).

We roll back over to start dinner and the manager and hostess are frantically setting tables. “Where have you guys BEEN? We’re crazy busy tonight!” I actually feel a little guilty at this point, as I inform him that we don’t, in fact, have 48 on the books tonight – we actually have 6. Rather than get upset with me, he just looked defeated. He didn’t say much and left shortly after.

With the last shred of “real” management safely gone from the building, we begin drinking savagely. I grab a few bottles of wine and leave them in the walk-in, but this soon gives way to indulging right out in the open. We occasionally take breaks from getting recklessly drunk to deal with the 5 dinner customers, who may or may not have received good service. Their experience was entirely based on which of my 5 moods they were exposed too, those being: happy because I liked them, happy because I was drunk, indifferent because the customer was so forgettable, angry because the customer was such a piece of shit, and culminating with blind rage.

Service finally ends and we all pile into a booth to continue drinking. The new bar manager, who had been hired to “reel things in and save the restaurant,” came over and advised us to finish our sidework. I wasn’t very impressed with this, so I took a few of the candles that had been burning all night on the tables and whipped the hot wax all over the windows. We promptly left to go back to the bar, with a quick stop at other side of the windows to flip-off the bar manager as he frantically tried to scrape the wax off.

Later at the bar, at last call, the server asks if I’d like anything else. It goes something like this:

Server: Ok, it’s last call. Would you like another drink?
Me: I’ll have two.
Server: Ok, so two more glasses of wine?
Me: No, two bottles.
Server: (laughs)
Me: (straight face)
Server: We can’t do that.
Me: Fine, I guess Cecchi Chianti from the Mobil Station it is then!

And, like some sort of Gas Station Baachus, I cleaned the Mobil Station out of Cecchi Chianti (which we referred to as “The Cheech”). I have no idea what happened next....

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Press Herald Strikes Again - Jewel of India

Jewel of India treats the palate, from subtle to spicy
Translation: Jewel of India treats the palate, from subtle to spicy to fucked if I know....

SOUTH PORTLAND — The dazzle that fills the Jewel of India Restaurant begins with the light from 13 small chandeliers and one enormous chandelier in the center of a large room. But even as your eyes adjust to the glitter, your attention is drawn to the even more distracting Bollywood dancers, gyrating relentlessly across landscapes in India and the world, on a large TV screen on the far wall.

Unfortunately, not one of the fourteen chandeliers fell on my head. I’ve never seen a TV before….

The action is so mesmerizing, you may need to beg a dinner companion's pardon for your distraction. But watching the dancers is energizing. Even dancing in the rain, they are blissful and synchronized, creating the impression that all is right in the world.

I’ve decide to take a break from my job – reviewing food – to tell you about shit that no one cares about.

And everything really was right, one night during dinner at chef/owner Prem Sharma's Jewel of India, a beloved Biddeford restaurant that opened this South Portland branch last fall. The sweet coconut soup, aromatic mulligatawny soup, elegantly spiced tikkas, vindaloos and curries and tender bread held flavors as happy and lively as the dancers.

Oh – I’ll be referencing the Bollywood film throughout this review, so I hope you paid attention during the first two paragraphs. I have a word count that I need to meet, which is why I often go on idiotic tangents about nothing.

Buried Cane Riesling 2006 ($24) from Washington was full of honey and some ripe stone fruit, perfect with the complex spices of the dishes the Jewel of India does so well. The small wine list with mostly inexpensive wines and a few beers does the job, but a longer wine list would certainly be welcome.

Why do you bother talking about wine when you know nothing about it? Welcome for whom?

Lovely Tikki ($3.50) are crisp spiced potato cakes with peas that the menu calls a specialty of Punjab, Land of Five Rivers, a wheat-growing state of northwest India, or possibly a larger region that includes the Punjab state of Pakistan. A dab of fresh onion chutney, from the chutney sauces that accompany meals, makes it even better.

The menu calls it a speciality of Punjab, but when I Wikipedia-ed it, I found out otherwise. Once again I’ve utilized information that is completely useless to the reader to meet my word count.

Lashaydar Paratha ($2.95) is a thin bread with tender, buttery layers, hot from its rapid cooking on a tava, a flat or concave griddle. It is hard to believe the flour used to make this paratha is whole wheat, but the restaurant manager Raj Hyder assured me that it is.

It’s hard to believe that someone pays me to write about food, but the Press Herald Manager, Fucky McFucktard, assured me that they do.

Since all breads are made to order, their freshness is beyond reproach. Other breads on the list, including the various nans, are cooked in a minute or so in the broiling-hot interior of a tandoor oven, a cylinder of ceramic. The bread is slapped against the inner wall and sticks there till it's done.

Since all breads on the menu are made to order, all of the other breads are irrelevant compared to these breads. They are slapped against the inner wall in the same manner that you would enjoy slapping me.

Coconut soup ($2.50) was like dessert, with a subtle sweetness and a light, watery texture, small bits of coconut and a sprinkle of cardamom on top. Mulligatawny Soup ($2.50) gave off the fragrance of ginger and proved thick with lentils. Yellow lentils are cooked with water, salt, ginger, garlic and turmeric, according to Hyder, to make this classic British-Indian soup.

This soup proved all the naysayers wrong being thick with lentils. Yellow lentils are cooked this way, according to Hyder. Who knew that you were going to learn so much about lentils today?

Listed on the menu as a chef's specialty, Paneer Tikka ($15.95) arrived sizzling, its mild, toothsome rectangles of cheese swathed in an intense red sauce and draped with tender sauted onions and sliced green pepper. We'd consulted with the waiter about the spice levels of the dishes, and he'd offered to take a dish back and heat it up when it seemed too mild for us. Fortunately for one friend, she had eaten some of the Paneer Tikka first – when the spiciness was indeed light and easy to swallow.

What the hell are you talking about?!!? You should have consulted the waiter about your poor grasp of Indian food. I’ve got something light and easy to swallow for you…

When we took the waiter up on his offer, and he brought back the geared-up dish, its heat brought tears. Only one of us couldn't resist enduring each searing mouthful till it was done.

Like assholes, we took the waiter up on his order. The cook, who wished we were dead, made the food spicy.

A side dish of raita ($2.95) cooled down the palate – but it had been the last of that day's batch, a serving so small that the waiter had added plain yogurt. He told us he wouldn't charge for it.

They probably substituted cum for "the yogurt."

Tomato curry with fish ($14.95) held a creamy, mild red sauce and a few small pieces of white-fleshed fish, one dry, some chunks of salmon and one more pungent and dark-fleshed, the last a surprise since so many Maine restaurants feature only haddock or other white-fleshed fish. But the more flavorful, pungent fish was perfect in that spicy sauce, which would be incredible with fresh swordfish, for example.

I’m going to be giving my useless advice for the rest of this review.

Tender lamb rogan josh ($14.95), its creamy sauce infused with almonds and cashews, is slightly sweetened with raisins. "It doesn't have any coconut milk in it, so it isn't sweet," Hyder said. "We never use any sugar in our food." But both shredded coconut – used only in the meat and seafood kormas – and coconut cream do make some dishes sweet, he said.

Once again, I’m not sure why you would need any of this information. It’s sweetened with raisins – but it’s not sweet.

A dish of rice with a little vegetable oil and mixed with peas makes the right foil for all these sauces, with individual grains perfectly cooked.

Why?! Why? Why!

One of us gorged on the delightful house mango ice cream ($3), made with mango puree. It came in a large bowl, drizzled with rose petal syrup. Another one of us, put off by the super-sweet, vividly red syrup fragrant with rosewater, indulged in the kulfee ($3), made with evaporated milk, pistachios, and cashews. Kulfee came in a small caramel-colored dome cut into fat little segments, and each bite filled the mouth with savory sweet, sensuous flavor.

The mango ice cream was inexplicably made with mango. It came in a large bowl – so it was perfect for people who like dessert in large bowls. Another one of us, put off by the fact that I’ve mentioned the syrup so many times, went for something in a more-manageable caramel colored dome.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What's Wrong with Wine Today:

Really people?

2008 Chateau Lavergne Bordeaux 187ml (3.99 retail)
Pairs with: A hospital visit after you are savagely beaten and maimed.

Hooray! Disgusting Bordeaux in a mini plastic beer glass (perfect for on-the-go) has arrived! I don’t know, there’s something about the sight of someone enjoying one of these that would make me want to push them down a flight of stairs.

I can’t think of any reason, especially with so many great wines available in a screw-cap, anyone would ever fall for this marketing strategy.

Maybe you:

1. Have no self-respect.
2. Work for a large distributor and have been forced to sell your soul to “move units”
3. Think it’s really cute (god I hate you)
4. Like wine that tastes like wet cardboard.
5. Enjoy cracking into your wine in the same manner as you would a snack-pack of Mott's Apple Sauce.
5. Also enjoy this product:

Pairs with: The worst day of your life.

“The taste of Dutch chocolate and fine red wine” gives way to a delightful mélange of an inebriated homeless person who pounded a YooHoo chocolate drink and then threw up.

Don’t be fooled by the tranquil windmill scene on the label, it’s going to be a rugged journey. This wine conjures up images of reindeer sweater-wearing shitheads drinking out of reindeer mugs, urging each other to “just try it – you can’t even taste the booze!”

My pal Drew said he would rather shotgun a 24oz. Budweiser Chelada.

No. Just Say No.

Monday, February 1, 2010

If I Were to Start a Cult.....

From restraint, lead me to excess;
From water, lead me to wine;
From vegetarianism, lead me to the fucking meat.
No Doctor McGillicuddys, just Rumpleminz (the good shit).

I think we're on to something here...

thanks Gemma.