Feedback on the Feedback

2009.Jul.11 Saturday · 8 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Life, Popular Posts

“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

Ready to cook....

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.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick Powell July 11, 2009 at 21:23

Europeans would actually bitch about a unique 28 euro meal including wine? Hmmm. What’s wrong with them?

Dunno if you intended it, but this post, despite a tiny bit of mild snark, or maybe because of it, but mostly because of the honesty and transparency, makes me, even more, want to save up and try Casa SS myself. I’ll bring along Juan, our resident cook-in-the-making.

Thanks for the consistently interesting blogging.

François July 11, 2009 at 23:11

Very well put Dan. Every once in a while the cards need to be layed out, things need to be revised, explained, calculated. This was a very enlightening post, though ÉI understand all too well where you are coming from. People forget about food costs, time that goes into preparing a different menu weekly, responding to emails, cooking and being a host at the same time. All the while juggling your home and personal life, and exposing it to strangers.
Hat’s off to you Dan, you are a true gentleman.

dan July 12, 2009 at 00:57

I can’t avoid a tiny bit of snark – 23 years in NYC will do that to you. 😉

Jerry King July 12, 2009 at 13:05

Well said. Too many people would prefer to bitch rather than to think about why something happened. The answer would seem to be simple. Set everything up like a restaurant and hire all the staff you need to run it like one. Next, raise your prices to pay for the food/wine and the new amenities so that few could afford to eat there. Then, go broke. I guess that would satisfy the bitchers. Let them eat cake, and elsewhere! And thanks for making the obvious points about Henry, though they should not need to be made. You’ve explained Henry’s English problems at every meal I’ve been to. There have been diners from several ethnic origins but I’ve never heard Asians complain about Henry’s lack of Japanese, or Mandarin, or Tagalog. Hmmm. Funnny, that.

Allan Kelin July 12, 2009 at 17:08

I’ve had the opportunity to dine at Casa Saltshaker a half-dozen times. I eat out a lot in this city (my kitchen’s too small to dance in) but I’ve found I need to get to CS at least once a month to refresh my palate and enjoy flavors not found elsewhere in BA.

I appreciate how the evening’s menu is composed — each dish standing on its own, exhibiting its own flavors, while never overpowering the prior or subsequent dishes. The wines selected to accompany the dishes have been, without fail, suitable and quite yummy.

About the communal dining, I’d have to say that it has always made the dinners much more fun and interesting than a typical dining out experience. The life stories, adventures, tips on traveling, shopping, and restaurants, etc., are usually wonderful but always, at least, amusing and good natured.

As far as the music, it’s played softly enough so that most of us don’t even hear it when we’re chatting and laughing at the table. Our hosts, you and Henry, have always been most welcoming and attentive (not so usual in BA), and, also, I’ve grown found of dessert time when Dan is quizzed as chef and local resident.
Keep up the good work!

Bonnie July 12, 2009 at 19:55

I just assumed Henry was shy. I hadn’t realized it was a language issue.

I think the cost comment is interesting. It is without a doubt a unique dining experience. An experience that I felt was worth the cost. Both times I’ve had wonderful food and interesting conversation with fellow diners and the host. It is of intimacy rarely offered at a regular restaurant.

A hint of snark perhaps but those are the breaks. And I know I’ll be going back.

Ken Sternberg July 14, 2009 at 16:37

You unfriendly cad, Dan! How dare you hang out in the kitchen cooking the terrific food your guests enjoy. Can’t you multitask or just have it cook itself?

Frank Almeida July 14, 2009 at 17:45

Hi Dan,

Funny, my company has been on the receiving end of something similar and from the same public forum as well.

I might have to clarify some things like you did since I am not allowed to respond to people attacking me on that site.

You are right, some of those comments were pure fabrication. The ones that were constructive are valuable and I know you get that, but those people that make things up should realize that many of us can see the fabrication in their comments.

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