Taking a Rest From Resto
Not that long ago, a new restaurant opening in New York City meant that investors had funded a seven figure installation as well as huge overhead for staffing the kitchen and the front of the house. But over the last few years, many young chefs and entrepreneurs have shunned large capital investments and instead have been opening smaller restaurants featuring cuisines that are based on top quality market ingredients combined with highly competent cooking. Restaurants like Prune, Tia Pol, Spotted Pig and Degustation are a few that come to mind, where the chef is talented enough to be running a kitchen that turns out 200 or more dinners a night, but who have chosen to work in a setting that is not much more than a bar or pub serving between 50-100 covers a night.
One of the best restaurants to open in the genre was Resto, which is sort of half bar/half restaurant, and which resides in the middle of E. 29th St, equi-distant from Park Avenue South and Curry Hill. Resto's chef is Ryan Skeen, who for some reason that has never been properly explained, decided to showcase his talent through the prism of Belgian cuisine. But for many of us who are familiar with the restaurant, the Belgian theme is almost an affect and the real draw at Resto is the superb ingredients that Skeen sources from various producers in the Northeast. For example, I have no hesitation to say that his 28-day aged Cote de Boeuf from Four Story Hill Farms is among the five best steaks one can get in New York City. That he serves it with a nice, bitter greeens, and some very good double cooked fries with mayonaisse (otherwise known as Belgian style,) only adds to the gustatory pleasure.
One of the benefits of eating at restaurants in this category is that they all allow diners to bring their own wine though I am not sure about The Spotted Pig as I never tried. It makes sense, if any restaurant had the grounds to object to people bringing their own wine (not that any really have any grounds but that is a different discussion,) it would be a restaurant with a large capital investment in wine. But since these restaurants are little more than bars or cafes, their wine lists, to the serious wine collector, are usually no better than adequate. And when you do find a restaurant that has taken a bit of effort to put together a nice little list (Boqueria is a good example,) it is highly unlikely that you will find any mature wines on their list. So for those of us who have cellars full of wines that are ready to drink, these restaurants offer a unique combination of eating well in a casual environment (read wear jeans) combined with drinking terrific wines, at an overall reasonable cost. In fact in regards to Resto, the combination was so appealing that I must have dined there a half dozen times or more since they opened.
This all changed a few months back. Mrs P and I our sons had planned an evening out of a late afternoon movie and then dinner at Resto. We were a party of six people so we were a large enough party to make a reservation. Fortunately the movie we wanted to see was playing at Kips Bay, and I drove down to 29th Street and while I was waiting for the attendant in the garage, Mrs P and the boys walked over to Resto to drop off the wine I had brought for dinner. A few minutes later my cell phone rings and it's Mrs P telling me they won't take the wine as they don't allow BYO. In fact she was saying the person behind the bar told her they never allowed BYO. I was a bit befuddled by this as I had brought my own wine there on numerous occasions.
Two hours later the mystery was solved when we sat down at the table and I asked about the BYO policy and why it had changed. The truth is, Mrs P and the P boys were dreading this moment and they had asked me politely to simply not mention it at dinner. And I might have acceded to their wishes had it not been for the claim that they never allowed BYO which was patently untrue. But I was not to be deterred, and as I asked for the sommelier, Jason, to come to the table, I could see the three of them cringing. LOL
Soon enough, Jason was at our table. I had recognized him from the last time I was there when we had a long conversation about bringing wine to a restaurant, as well as his coming down from Boston to be the beverage manager at the restaurant. On that occasion I had brought wine, and he was telling me how in Massachusetts, BYO was non-existent and that the policy was new to him, and that the prior restaurant he worked at (it was something like Harvest or the Blue Room in Cambridge,) wouldn't allow people to BYO. Of course that was wrong, it wasn't this the former restaurant he worked at wouldn't allow BYO, but it happens to be against the law in Massachusetts unless you do not have a liquor license. He began arguing with me that it wasn't true, that it was a matter of policy. And while I assured him it was not, he refused to believe me.
With that conversation between us under my belt, I asked Jason why the policy changed. His response was rather outrageous:
Jason - "I don't know what you are talking about. We never allowed BYO."
S.P - "That's crazy. I have BYO'd here consistently since the beginning, and in fact, the last time I was here, you opened a bottle that I brought and you poured it. You told me all about how you were from Boston, blah, blah, blah."
Jason knew he had been caught in a mistruth and I could see he was trying to come up with a response. After about 5 seconds he says;
Jason - "Oh that's because the last time you told me you were from out of town so I did you a favor and opened your bottle."
Let me tell you I hate liars. And I hate people who are jive. What's even worse is that he thought it was funny. Our conversation then descended into the typical one that wine lovers have with restaurateurs and sommeliers about BYO. In fact Jason trotted out all of the usual lines, my favorite one being, if I allow you to being your own wine, what's the purpose of my job?
Unfortunately, that wasn't the only issue that occurred at the restaurant that night. When we ordered our appetizers, the P boys ordered green salads and asked for olive oil on the side (let's not get into the weird dining habits of the P boys okay.) After placing the order, our server returned from the kitchen and told us;
Server - "The chef says that we use very expensive olive oil so we need to charge you $1 extra for each salad."
I wish I had my camera with me because the look on everyone's face was priceless. Of course I couldn't help but joust with our server about this craziness and I asked her;
SP - "But don't you use the same olive oil when you dress the salad? It doesn't cost extra then.
Server - "Look I'm just telling you what the chef told me."
We ate our meal and I have not been back to the restaurant since. My protest has gone on for about 4 months at this point, and after reading this post, I hope that it encourages other people to stay away from the restaurant as well. I also hope Chef Skeen and owner Christian Pappanicholas do something about that Jason guy. In fact I don't mind saying that they could do themselves well to get a beverage director who doesn't lie to customers, and who doesn't think it's funny when he does. After all, restaurants are a service business and lying to your customers isn't exactly good service. Nor is charging them $1 extra for the same oil they were going to use in the salad dressing anyway.
At least the way my sons responded to these incidents made for some personal gratification. For after Jason left our table, they both apologized to me for not trusting me to handle it correctly, and they both commented on how they couldn't believe that Jason was lying (in fact one of them had been to the restaurant in the past when we BYO'd.) Not only that, they both correctly recognized that Jason's reasons for not allowing it didn't make any sense since it resulted in our table not ordering a bottle of wine. I mean even 20 year olds understand that a $25 corkage fee is $25 more than what the restaurant earned from wine sales to our table. So I guess that on balance, having your kids learn an important life-lesson can turn our to be more important than a good steak and a bottle of wine.