Thursday, July 24, 2008

why words sometimes have to paint a thousand pictures

I was eating a meal somewhere recently, the dim lighting struck me as not so much a mood statement but one to deter pesky bloggers from snapping the food. Really, that was the first thought to enter my head.

The place was Seamstress. Despite it being lunchtime, being a converted warehouse windows were scarce, hence the aforementioned subtle lighting. Though my camera sat in my bag and I was eating with someone who had a greater handle on using the manual settings than I, silently I had a little internal dialogue that went along the lines of this:

AOF – What a great place, I wonder if I can take a good photo of the lovely fabric swathed on the ceiling?

Me – Are you here for a romantic special meal with your partner or would you rather be an observer annotating the experience?

At that point I made my decision. Camera stayed in bag and full attention spent on the experience of being in the moment.

Nor do I think it is entirely fair to ‘review’ a restaurant on one sitting, so hence forth unless it is a multi-visit affair I consider any mention of these experiences merely a snippet of my experiences, like the précis of my Tasmanian trip.

But back to Seamstress – what struck me most was not just the elegant flavours of the Asian inspired food on offer but also the art of waiting.

At lunchtime the place was rather quiet. None the less the waiter first established his credentials offering us a seat on an unpopulated side of the room rather than the comfy banquet. Why? Because, there was a large group of ladies who lunch with a booking and he didn’t know about us but if it were him, he’d like a little space from them to enjoy our meal.


Now the SE is a hard-pressed student, doing lunch (or dinner) anywhere flash is a rare treat. This makes it something to be treasured and enjoyed, rather than just another place to tick off the list. Feeling like we were in good hands and with a dry sherry in front of us, we shared our food preferences with our accomplished waiter and let him create an impromptu degustation with paired wines. What arrived were wines that I would never have picked but were of course perfect with the flavours in front of us. My appetiser cup of broth was mushroom rather than the standard carnivorous variety. While the SE chowed down on the oxtail dumpling of the day (I seem to remember he groaned on tasting them, a good groan that is), I had a lovely dish of stuffed shitake mushrooms. While he had quails (boned, exquisite offering that they were) I opted for a small crab dish. Next we shared a treasure chest beancurd with many different mushrooms and another seafood delight (featuring smoked prawn meat on skewers wrapped in rice noodles and fried– ah smoky fish, my favourite!) with rice.

With each course our trusty server bought us separate wines to match our palates and choices, even with the shared dishes.

By now I was one sherry and 3 wines down and you can see why the food details may have become a little sketchy (and their website features a different menu to the one we sampled last week). This is not my usual weekday lunching habit I can assure you.

In this state we were coaxed into dessert with a promise to customise it to be dairy free and the next thing we knew a sticky, ambrosial wine was placed before us and another deep fried offering, a kind of banana spring roll paired with a pineapple (rather than blue cheese) sorbet and an aniseed infused sauce.

With our lovely waiter about to go on a break (we’d been there over 3 hours at this point) he farewelled up with a sweet sherry with his compliments to bookend our meal.

So what I am left with is a memory of a thoroughly enjoyable dinning experience, one of the best conversations I have had with the SE for months and an appreciation of the waiting profession. Because outside of the industry this is a skill that is under appreciated. We are quick to get grumpy when waiters don’t do their job well. From the staff who have mastered the art of not making eye contact, to the over eager ones who can wreck everything with their neediness to be assured that everything is going ok, every five minutes.

But the ones who do their job well are not only the masters of timing (not too slow, not too fast – paced at the patron’s own rhythm) but are given the opportunity when invited, to share their knowledge of the menu and wine list and create a holistic dinning experience. These are the people who effortlessly earn their tips and take pride in their profession rather than see it as something to do while they wait for their big break. They make you feel like you’ve been the most enjoyable customers they have ever had the privilege of serving and not in a sucky kind of way. These are artisans, not amateurs.

So I raise my glass (one of many) to the professionals who make or break a great breakfast, lunch or dinner. And out of a mark of respect, you won’t see me taking furtive snaps of the food, jotting notes in my moleskin or making pointed comments about the décor to my companion. I’ll be the one lapping it all up and having a fine old time.

Thank you.

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Blogger Lucy said...

Waiting, for me, often makes the experience. I worked in retail, 'service', for a long, long time and I have seen some exceptional individuals at work and some real shockers. Understated and elegant service simply makes people come back.

Right. Am booking us in for an upcoming celebration.

(P.S. It's precisely why I never post a review, though we do, of course, eat out, and well, from time to time. Beautiful, AOF, just beautiful.)

11:13 am  
Blogger Johanna said...

lovely post - I do like to do reviews sometimes but i don't have the patience to take many photos - and there are times my camera stays in the bag (or at home) so I can just enjoy.

I often feel that unfortunately bad service is so much more noticeable than good service - a good waiter is such a joy because they are unobtrusive but know when to appear

1:31 pm  
Blogger Dani said...

What a divine lunch! You have me drooling. And yes, perfect service is such a wonderful luxury and often not appreciated as much as it should be. Whilst I often blog my opinions of my dining experiences (reviews if you will), I never think to a/ take a camera or b/ pull one out. It would make me too uncomfortable and detract from my experience. Plus I worry that it would make those around me uncomfortable. Interesting how we all have our personal thresholds on such matters.

7:41 pm  
Blogger stickyfingers said...

Words are powerful, as are sounds. Put together they can have more impact than pictures thanks to the power of the imagination.

We had a quiet, intimate little lunch recently. I was feeling down, lacking my usual optimism and faith in others. So Mr Sticky took me to eat a wonderful meal at a venue at the end of our street and then on to the fantastic Art Deco exhibition at the NGV. It was a lovely and thoughtful gesture.

I didn't take photos of the meal and didn't feel the urge to write about it because although it was exceptional and the venue could do with the publicity, it was an outing too precious to share.

Some things just need to be held to the heart I suppose.

12:14 am  
Blogger Thermomixer said...

I agree that waiting is a very important part of the whole dining experience. The person I most admired for their abilities in this area was the late Mietta O'Donnell. She was able to survey the dining room and effortlessly direct her wait staff to provide excellent service at all times. I can remember going to the kitchen of more than one restaurant to thank them and leave a tip for their great food & tell them that I didn't believe their wait staff were supporting their efforts.

Unfortunately, I am one of those pesky photographers in restaurants. I have been doing it for 15 or so years now & try to be discrete & not annoy others. I don't do it to review, just for the memories. My spouse gets embarassed and I may need to reconsider my behaviour.

Did you see that Rita has a section on her blog to acknowledge good service? The waiter at Seamstress needs a gold star.

12:36 pm  

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