“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
– Pericles, ancient Greek statesman
Buenos Aires – It amazes me sometimes how close of attention people pay to details here and on our Casa S site. I made a couple of minor changes to both the main page and the faq page, and within 24 hours had eight e-mails, seven of which were asking if I was aware that these changes “had happened” on the page. Mmmm, yup. I do my own website programming, so no one else is making the changes.
On to the topic for today, as those of you who’ve come to dinner here know, we ask for feedback after the dinners – at least for those from whom we have an e-mail address. Over time, that’s brought in a lot of great suggestions – we added the little welcome cocktail at the beginning of the evening, we changed some glassware and placemats at various points, we upped the quality of the wines we were serving (with a change in price as well, but most of the feedback was that people would rather pay a few pesos more for better quality), we changed from a four course to a five course tasting, and a few other things which I’m probably forgetting at the moment. Other things we’ve chosen not to (only play jazz, wear a chef’s uniform, change your lighting fixtures, professional flower arrangements, only let hot, single, young women make reservations when I do, be more gay, be less gay, alphabetize your books…) – it’s not personal, we just have to make decisions that make sense to us.
More recently, some things have come up that I wanted to address – some of it has come as constructive feedback, some of it as complaints in public fora, and although the latter, especially if they’re vitriolic, aren’t overly constructive, they at least give us an idea of what some folks are thinking, or at least claiming to be thinking – some of it, bluntly, is so out of touch with reality that it’s clear they’re making things up and sometimes have never even been here, but so be it, it’s out there. And, away we go:
By far the biggest constructive criticism has been about our two tables, and that’s been for a long time – quite often, the folks at the small table feel like they’ve ended up at the “kids’ table”. I understand, and although we’ve resisted changing it, mostly for financial reasons, it’s become clear that it’s necessary. We do have people who like the small table and request it, and it’s still around and available on request if you’re among them. What we’ve done is cut to ten people a night instead of twelve, and just fit in two extra seats at the big table. At the same time, we’re going to aim for opening three nights a week instead of two – probably alternating Thursdays and Sundays, at least until we see how it goes.
Second, and comes up both in feedback and some of the nasty stuff – that I don’t hang out in the dining room chatting and being friendly with everyone for the evening. This is one there’s not much I can do about it – I have the feeling that some of the people who come don’t quite get that I’m not hiding out in the kitchen ignoring them, I’m actually cooking the dinner, course by course – no assistant, just me. Some nights I can spend more time, simply depending on what needs to be done, some nights I can’t. I realize that this is our home and people have a different expectation than they’d have in a “regular” restaurant, but from my end, it’s like you showed up in a restaurant and complained because the chef isn’t hanging out at your table chatting with you. Once the dessert is served, I spend the rest of the time in the dining room, and always have, since day one – the people who claim that I don’t are either oblivious, or just full of… whatever. It does, of course, leave me at a disadvantage – the guests have had the evening to get to know each other and chat, and I don’t generally know what they’ve chatted about or not – but I’m there and happy to participate in the conversation. And, I got it, you want more participation – I’ll do my best.
Third, Henry doesn’t participate in the conversation and isn’t always in the room. True. Less true if there are people in attendance who speak Spanish – he doesn’t speak English, or at least very little, so he does get uncomfortable standing around listening to what to him is a sea of babble. And many people seem to forget that although I end up getting the majority of the “public face” of the place, he’s a partner in it, not just a waiter who I hired – he knows the ins and outs of what we do, and he knows BA and is happy to share his thoughts on clubs, dance/tango venues, etc. – stuff that he knows far better than I do. But, yeah, when feeling left out he hangs out in the kitchen while people are eating, chatting with the dishwasher, or pops upstairs and checks his e-mail. It’s not ideal, but I understand it. Oh, and talking louder and slower in English or French or another language really doesn’t automatically translate to Spanish – though many people still seem to think it does – give a shot at stumbling through some Spanish, he’ll give a shot at stumbling through some English – as he’s learned more English he’s been spending more time staying at tableside.
Fourth – quality and quantity of food and wine. As I’ve said many times, what I cook isn’t for everyone, nor is the whole experience at Casa SaltShaker. However, it only takes a few minutes of looking through our past menus with commentary on the website to see that on the same night, one guest will complain that things are too spicy and another that they’re not spicy enough. One will adore the presentation, another will not. One person is stuffed, another thinks portions were skimpy (you can always ask for more, if we have it, it’s not a problem). One person thinks the wine choices are brilliant, another thinks they’re lousy. And they either match with the food perfectly, or they don’t. It’s not a situation I can “win”. People have their own tastes, and that’s the way it is. I stand by the food that I prepare – claims that “Dan clearly knows he’s serving lousy food” are nonsense – I don’t send anything out of the kitchen that I don’t stand behind, period. If something doesn’t work out, we don’t serve it and if we don’t have a substitution, we lower the price for the evening – thankfully it’s only happened twice since we’ve been open. In terms of the wines, all I can say is that they range in price from 20 pesos to around 50 pesos a bottle, overall averaging somewhere around 30 pesos a bottle – and that’s wholesale price, which we don’t always get, sometimes we have to pay retail. They’re always wines I’ve tried, often with other friends in the wine biz. In terms of quantity, yes we initially serve a tasting portion, roughly 2-3 ounces, however, for a dozen people, we go through between 7 and 9 bottles of wine each evening (for 12 people), and unless we run out of one, we never say no to a refill – no charge. You do the math.
Finally, price. Yes, AR$150 is an expensive meal. It’s not outrageous, there are plenty of restaurants in BA that charge more. All I can do is remind anyone who’s thinking about it, especially visitors, is that translates to US$40/€28 – and it covers the welcome cocktail, five courses of food, bottled water, five wines, and coffee or tea afterwards; and, a chance to have dinner with a group of potential new friends. We don’t ask for or expect a tip on top of that, even if we’re happy to get extra when someone does leave more, we’ve never “demanded” a tip from anyone, we don’t tack on the near ubiqutous BA cubierto charge. For the people who want to compare our price to other puertas cerradas or other types of restaurants, take a look at what you’re getting for “at a lower price” – we’re in line with the other better quality spots. Still, it comes down to whether or not it works for you, and whether you enjoy yourself. Some people do, some don’t, and that will likely always be the case – and not just here at our place, but anywhere they go.