Spiraling around the Dinner Table

2014.Mar.03 Monday · 6 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes, Life

A series of private parties and a week of dinners, and most of it went quite well. But there was that last night of last week. One of the questions I often get asked is something like, “what do you do when a night doesn’t go well?” or “do you ever have nights where the guests don’t get along?” or “how do you fix it when the conversation goes off the rails?” The short answer is, it has so rarely happened that I don’t have a good answer for that. There have been hiccups along the way, no question, but over eight years I could only point back to two dinners that stood out as “problems”.

The first was a pre-wedding dinner hosted by the engaged couple with their immediate families in attendance. It was the first time for the two families to meet, and while one might think that there was the tinder for an evening gone wrong, it turned out that the tinder and spark were the happy couple themselves, who had bizarrely planned the evening as a place to make it clear to their families that they were not, after all, getting married, and proceeded to have a screaming fight at the table and then storm out, leaving the bewildered relatives behind. To their credit, both families smiled politely and decided to stick it out in hopes that the couple might return and that all would be well with the world. They didn’t, and it turned out that the whole thing was staged on their part so that their families would “get it”. A WTF moment when I found out, no doubt.

The second was a relatively recent evening where due to a set of circumstances beyond our control we ended up with four people at the table, in two pairs, without a common language for conversation.

And then there was the last night of last week. If a more unpleasant night, at least from our end, could have been had, I shudder to think of it, and it’s already resulted in several negative reviews on TripAdvisor (from the same people, just using different email addresses, which unfortunately TA allows). It could have actually been worse. Roughly half the people at the table were delightful folk who on any other night probably would have been great dinner guests, but they were subject to the other half (and one party of whom told me on the way out they were sorry I’d been treated so rudely in my own home, while the other has responded with a positive critique of the food and wine). And of course, my perception comes from bits and bites as I pop in and out of the kitchen, I’m not there the whole time, but the conversation seemed dominated by one person with a particularly conservative political viewpoint who wanted to get his points across, virtually from the moment they all sat down at the table. I made one foray into participating in the conversation only to be slammed down with a “you’ve abandoned your country, you have no right to an opinion and no place in this conversation”, which when I tried to continue the conversation I got hit back with “I don’t care”. Add to that a group of younger Europeans who seemed to want to goad him on to more and one of whom got a bit pushy about things like the music we were playing and examining some of our personal stuff, and it just went downhill. For the others who tried to get in some ideas to the conversation (which never seemed to veer off the political) to little avail – to you, I’m truly sorry about how the evening went, or at least seemed to be going from my perspective. To be honest, our critic on TripAdvisor was right about one thing, I wanted to get the group out of here, and that’s something that I can’t remember ever having happened before. I suppose eventually, given the number of dinners we offer, it had to happen.

[Update: Not surprisingly since I responded to both of these TA posts with my viewpoint (and later to a series of posts from the wife of one of them that were so blatantly offensive, personal and false that TA took them down), and also followed up with both parties by email with a combination apology and explanation, I’ve gotten more of the same from both. On the one couple’s part he says he doesn’t remember having said the things but either way doesn’t feel that I had the right to treat him less than professionally regardless of the conversation – sorry, human being here, this isn’t some random restaurant, it’s my home – and over the course of several emails finished off with accusing of us staging our positive reviews, while his wife accused me of attacking them personally here on the blog – except of course, no one but me knows who they are, and of course, their critiques were “factual” and completely “objective”, “not opinions”, give me a break (and to be clear, as I’ve said to him in email, I wasn’t objecting to the political content, just to the dominance of it and mostly, his rudeness to me personally); while the other party accuses of of guest bashing and mudslinging – from our side, of course, we didn’t reveal anything personal about these people, nor do I think what I said above is overly negative about them – the public revealing of who they are was totally from their side. Overall, I admit I got pissed off at both of them, the former for simply what he said (otherwise I’d have had no reason to be pissed off at them – it’s odd that he remembers, and exaggerates, my side of the conversations but doesn’t recall saying anything himself, somehow my comments to him apparently came out of the blue), and the latter for their behavior (likewise).]

Aji de Gallina manicotti

As is usual with private parties, we tend to pick from dishes that we already like and are time tested successful with our public nights. I realize that makes the public nights sound like they may be guinea pigs for experiments. Yes and no. The dishes have all been tried out by us and we like them, it’s just that we haven’t necessarily tried them out on anyone else, and sometimes we find that things need to be tweaked or scrapped, simply because of diner response. That’s part of any restaurant’s model. So over the course of a series of four private dinners the only thing “new” was the presentation of our ají de gallina, which we’ve presented in various forms, from potato baskets to lasagna – I decided to give it a shot as a large crepe wrapped version accompanied by a salsa of chopped sweet chilies, black olives and parsley, and a side of caramelized brussels sprouts. I definitely like this version, though I admit, the lasagna has been the prettiest presentation.

I should note, just because, that three of the private dinners were arranged by a cruise ship company for their guests. It’s a company that specializes in cruises for the gay and lesbian community. I don’t know that our community is necessarily pickier or more demanding than others, but the range of special requests and dietary restrictions was truly impressive, and I had to quickly sort through and pick and choose to make it all work out. I would also note that no one was rude about it, they were all delightfully polite requests, and the guests who filled the tables for the three nights were a pleasure to be around for the evenings. The company had sent out an email to the guests on its BA to Rio cruise and within about twenty minutes of it going out we’d filled up all three nights, and over the next couple of days roughly a third of the 650 people on the venture had requested spots at the table for one of the three nights. But this is what I was looking at:

No red meat
No offal
No poultry
No fish or shellfish
No dairy
No gluten
Must be paleo
Can’t be paleo
A list of about 20 different fruits and vegetables that one or another wouldn’t eat
No sausages of any sort no matter what they were filled with
No white food
No green food
No wine (why are you coming to a wine dinner?), but iced green tea flavored with a bit of tropical fruit would be lovely

I tossed out the vegans, vegetarians, paleos, glutens, dairy, and poultry, plus the two colorful ones. Giving them three courses vegetarian, including dairy, one poultry course, one dessert. It was the best way I could make it work and serve the same menu all three nights. The other courses they had were our smoked tomato cheesecake, roasted watermelon gazpacho, heart of palm and manchego cheese tart, and finished with a flourless chocolate and ginger cake with cardamom gelato.

The one public night that week had different dietary restrictions but I decided to stick with things that had already been in past dinners: the smoked tomato cheesecake again, our hummus soup with charred cauliflower, raviolones loretanos, adobo de chancho, and bakhlava pie with cardamom ice cream (a change from black pepper gelato, and without the basil syrup). All talked about in detail in past posts.

This past week one private party: starting out with sauteed asparagus in pancetta crumbs with deviled egg dressing, a caldillo de congrio, semolina gnocchi with sauteed chickpeas, chilies and herbs, sudado (with little sauteed Andean potatoes instead of boiled large potatoes), and the bakhlava pie. I’ll leave you all to look those dishes up should they hold interest.

On to the public nights of this last week:

Eggplant tonnato

A replating of our eggplant tonnato, using broiled and spiced eggplant slices instead of sauteing cubes of them in oil – lightens up the dish, and I think it looks nicer than the sundae cup presentation we’ve done in the past.

Roasted Vegetable Gazpacho

Roasted vegetable gazpacho (tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, garlic, chilies all roasted together and then pureed with cucumber, basil, olive oil and wine vinegar), with roasted cauliflower, broccoli, and mussels.

Mushroom canneloni

Mushroom canneloni – homemade semolina pasta rolled around a filling of sauteed button mushrooms, portobellos and pine mushrooms with a touch of peperoncino and orange. Topped with a salsa of chopped walnuts, sweet chilies, onion and garlic finished with a touch of cheese. A drizzle of reduced, smoked balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

Abadejo al ajo

Abadejo al ajo – pollack in garlic sauce. I mentioned the garlic sauce in the previous post on our dining adventure in La Plata, and this is where I used it. Fish, quickly cooked in the oven after brushed with a garlic and bay leaf infused olive oil, topped with the garlic sauce and served over a bed of peppers and onions and accompanied by a wedge of potato rosti.

Chocolate and Sweet Potato Pie

I read somewhere about a chef who makes a sweet potato tart dish infused with curry and have been playing with the idea. Here, a cocoa crust topped with curry infused sweet potato pie mixture, then a dark chocolate topping infused with star anise and fennel seed, and finally a scoop of strawberries and cherries that were roasted in the oven with molasses, vanilla and pink peppercorns.

These last five dishes, by the way, are the ones that our critics over on TA referred to as ordinary hobby cooking. Then again, they also thought all the wines were mediocre: Cruzat Extra Brut, Pulenta Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Lurton Pinot Gris Rose, LaMadrid Bonarda Reserva, Zuccardi “Malamado” Viognier – none of which I’d, or anyone remotely knowledgeable about wine, would consider mediocre.

I’m glad we have a four day weekend, I’m slowly winding down. This week a return to fighting form!


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea Schwartz March 3, 2014 at 13:19

You guys are saints… Which you have to be, in order to do what you do. Me? They would have been out the door in less time than it takes to type this… Thankfully, you are the ones running your awesome restaurant, and I’m here studying psychology… LOL

dan March 3, 2014 at 17:05

You know, when the guy told me I had no right to an opinion or say in American politics I was so taken aback that I didn’t really know what to say. Truthfully, I should have asked he and his wife to leave, along with the foursome and had a quiet dinner with the other four people – maybe even joined them at the table. But, we’ve never actually thrown someone out, tempting as it may have been once or twice and I’m not sure I’m ready to start now.

One of the reasons I left studying psychology was that it involved being around too many crazy people. Sometimes on the wrong side of the locked door.

Kevin March 4, 2014 at 01:51

Those plates… remind me of Recoleta

Frances March 4, 2014 at 09:29

Unfortunately you can’t do anything about someone else’s bad manners, but it is not nice when they choose to show them off in your home. It is difficult to know how to react in the presence of someone who doesn’t know how to behave in different social situations. Take heart, Dan, they don’t often come as bad as your recent guests!

dan March 4, 2014 at 10:36

Oh, I know. It’s just something of a shock when it comes out of the blue like that. And I probably didn’t help things on my end by just getting pissed off at the way the evening was going, because it meant I spent less time at the table than normal and when I did probably wasn’t particularly cheerful. And, at least based on the two TripAdvisor post from the two dissatisfied parties, and a whole lot of emails, they had a very different view of the evening than I do.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: