What a challenging question to begin this first full week of October with. Usually my answer is the always vague “follow your gut feeling.” Well, if you’re gut isn’t feeling so good, you probably want to send the dish back.
I’ve noticed I almost never have to send back food. Cocktails get returned at a far higher rate. Then at a seemingly innocent, low key lunch at the highly respectable Los Angeles restaurant/cafe LAMILL (also a terrific coffee roaster, located in the city’s Silver Lake area), I was forced to do something about this joke of a sandwich delivered to me. Something had to happen. Sandwiches don’t look like this for $7, let alone double the price from a kitchen owned by one of the city’s top toques. Just look at the sandwich “filling” to the left in the picture below. Nothing has been edited. Seriously.
One of the ten or so sandwiches on LAMILL’s all day menu (there are 2 types of burgers, an Asian BLT with pork belly, and a Fiscalini cheddar grilled cheese among others), this is the “Sofia.” How can you go wrong with Judy Schad’s goat cheese, Niçoise olive tapenade, red onions, tomato compote, and basil? That’s as reliable as getting a BLT. You know it will be at least decent no matter what.
Unless, there are none of the promised ingredients. Or, a vague ghost of the ingredients that requires a microscope to be found amidst the scorched bread turf.
So many things went terribly awry with this simple sandwich. We’d rolls our eyes and curse under our breath most likely if served this at Subway or Quizno’s. This was a $15 sandwich. At $15, you better be in the sandwich big leagues. The famous house cured pastrami with cole slaw and Russian style dressing served at Langer’s is $14.35. Not cheap, but also a sandwich masterpiece. It’s as good as it gets between sliced bread. The cost of making their own pastrami far outweighs buying the goat cheese.
This was a sandwich that wasn’t out of Single A. This was a sandwich that never should’ve left the kitchen, regardless of price. It’s an embarrassment for the restaurant and an insult for the diner to be served this and expected to actually pay for something not remotely close to what they ordered for lunch.
What did I do? As my dining partner said, this could maybe pass for a bad $4 breakfast pastry at the airport, but certainly not as an actual sandwich for a meal. I flagged down the waiter and asked “what is this? A joke?” He didn’t know what to do. I had to have it taken back, no questions asked. Should I risk even getting another sandwich from this kitchen (the other sandwich we ordered was fine, though far from spectacular)? He said the manager will come speak with us. Clearly there was no manager on duty since service had been touch and go the entire time we were there and no material ever materialized. After over five minutes, the chef came out wondering what happened. He quickly realized the problem, though was far from distraught.
Just look at the first sandwich. One tiny speck of goat cheese. Bread with all burned out of it. 2 flecks of basil. Tapenade? Tomato compote? Red onions? Not here.
After asking for a new sandwich, you see the difference. The “Sofia” definitely won’t be joining Langer’s in the Sandwich Hall of Fame. It was a good sandwich, what I hoped for.
Which brings us to the question of, did I do the right thing? When is it o.k. to send something back?
LAMILL is run by Michael Cimarusti, also the chef-owner of arguably Los Angeles’ premier restaurant, Providence. I also dined there last week, in fact almost 24 hours before LAMILL. Was every spectacular? No. I actually was very disappointed. However, nothing was remotely bad. Nothing was done poorly. Service mirrored the food, sometimes on the mark, other times distant. It was a decent high-end restaurant that had ambitions of being much more.
There was no LAMILL sandwich situation. There were no rips in the mis- matched leather chairs like at LAMILL.
When the kitchen clearly screwed up (and at LAMILL this was WAY more than clear), you have every right to do so. If you asked for a dish to be rare and it’s medium, send it back. If it’s rare and you wanted a medium steak, send it back.
In other words, there are basic laws a kitchen follows and understands if you request for a re-do. It’s more than fine. YOU are the paying customer after all.
I’ve dined with picky eaters many times who ask for something like ahi tuna well done. I cringe with the waiter, but if they’re not going to eat the fish anywhere less than well done, then dry out the fish. That’s what they asked for.
Now, I’ve been fortunate to usually dine where kitchens are run by very knowledgeable chefs and the servers know when something is wrong. It’s just not a big deal. This is the hospitality industry. You the paying diner should be happy and the front and back of the house staff want you to be happy. Nobody wants angry diners. Recently I’ve been served bland soups and dry steaks where the waiters realize I haven’t touched it more than two bites. They immediately ask what else they can bring me.
Yes, there is cost involved for the restaurants. Absolutely. That’s goat cheese that went uneaten. An uneaten steak replaced by ahi tuna is even worse cost-wise. But you have to accept food being sent back.
For restaurants where the menu clearly states that “modifications and requests are politely declined,” there is no sending anything back unless you specifically stated beforehand about allergies or preferences (like meat temperature) that go un- fulfilled.
A rule of thumb as the diner should be: if you want a dish replaced or changed, don’t eat more than a bite or two! Also, be clear what the problem is. Don’t be ticky- tack. The restaurant should remedy the problem, but it’s your responsibility at ordering time to accumulate as much knowledge beforehand for your decision making. Execution problems like at LAMILL speak for themselves.
Why do we never send espresso back even though at least 50 % of espresso seems to be an afterthought from baristas? Meister explained recently over at Serious Eats. Frankly, it seems like a price and priority thing, wouldn’t you agree?
How about cocktails? At some of the high end cocktail boîtes where ingredients are more complex and drinks often aren’t straightforward, it’s o.k. to ask for something else after two sips. If you learn that falernum isn’t your thing, that’s fine. Be helpful. Be proactive, don’t just be angry. And come on, after sending back two drinks, take the third no matter what or ask for a glass of wine. Or say forget it, pay, and leave.
In terms of well drinks at a dive bar…does anybody care about the drink anyways?
Back to LAMILL, not all is sluggish service, chipped furniture, and laughable sandwiches. The coffee is exceptional. In fact, I’d say that the espresso recently pulled for me at their sister establishment across the country in Baltimore was the best I’ve had this year possibly. You’ll drink extremely well, whether it’s the café con leche or Ethiopian Dara Kebado beans brewed tableside by Japanese hand drip. The Asian BLT (when made correctly) is terrific. I can’t stop eating the chocolate chip- sea salt cookies or the brioche doughnuts with dipping conserves.
However, that sandwich was a joke. It had to be sent back. LAMILL proved they could do better. This sandwich should never have been served.
Before we bid adieu on this Monday to root on the Red Sox in the baseball playoffs, here is John Mariani’s annual best new restaurants list, released today via Esquire. Congratulations to all the winners, especially to the very deserving Coqueta and its maestro Michael Chiarello. A proud day for SF! Now I wish I could celebrate with a boquerones pintxo.