Fooya Focaccia

by Brian on August 17, 2007

in Only in Israel

This column is a kvetch. A rant against bad service that turned a fondly anticipated evening into one of stress and disappointment.

Fifteen-year-old Amir had just come back from camp and we promised to take the family out to dinner so we could hear about some of his adventures at the Kayitz b’Kibbutz program at Kibbutz Shluchot. We chose a highly recommended Italian café located near downtown called Al Dente.

The restaurant itself is small but functional. It hasn’t received the gentrification treatment that typifies restaurants in the heart of the city or the Emek Refaim area. That was OK, we came for the food not necessarily the ambiance.

We had reserved a table for five at 7:00 PM. We arrived on time but our table wasn’t set up yet. That was probably the first warning sign but we decided to ignore it; restaurants get busy; these sort of things happen.

After we were seated, our next task was to catch our waitress’ eye. A more personable waitress would have come over to our table, asked how we were doing, introduced herself. Ours seemed to have more important things to do. In her defense, she was working alone and had a full house to contend with. But we didn’t appreciate having to go through that awkward dance where you strive to appear calm while at the same time craning in convoluted positions to call over the wait staff.

When we finally got our waitress’ attention, she actually said, “Oh, do you want to order?” Yes, dear, that’s why we came to your wonderful establishment, in order to eat, you know.

She took our orders in as perfunctory a manner as possible. She didn’t tell us about the specials or offer to show us the wine list. We emphasized that as soon as nine-year-old Aviv’s order was ready, could she please bring it out because he gets hungry and restless.

In the meantime, we caught up with Amir who told us about color wars and the camp’s three day hike and visit to Rosh Hanikra. I tried to remain focused and calm.

From where I sat I had a direct view into the kitchen so I could see the orders when they were being put out. I noticed that our focaccia was ready and in the serving area a good 7 minutes before the waitress did. Well, actually, she never did. The cook realizing his creation was getting cold came out from the kitchen and brought it to us himself, the plate no longer piping hot but at least still mildly warm. The focaccia was baked perfectly, seasoned with rosemary, garlic and salt. If we knew what was coming, we might have enjoyed it more leisurely but instead we scarfed it down in just a few minutes.

20 minutes later, our waitress brought us out two of our five orders. No explanation like “the other orders are right on their way.” Just plonk, here’s your food, be happy you even got it.

But I was willing to be forgiving. I had been told that “real” Italian cafes in Italy notoriously serve food when it’s ready, not waiting to group the orders all together to serve everyone at once. And our food was really good. Thirteen-year-old Merav and I had both ordered a cannelloni stuffed with ricotta cheese, sweet potatoes and ginger. It was a unique dish, unlike any of eaten elsewhere. Merav and I had no choice but to dig in while the rest of the table envied our gluttony (we plied them with frequent small “tastes”).

It was another 15 minutes before Amir got his dish and another 10 before poor impatient Aviv finally received his pizza margharita (which we had asked to be brought out first). My patience was starting to wear thin and it was getting harder to maintain pleasant conversation, the frustration of the evening growing ever stronger like a growling belly after Yom Kippur.

My wife Jody sat there smiling as the rest of the family ate. But her food was nowhere to be seen. At an outrageous hour and five minutes after we ordered, with no apology or information from our overwhelmed but now clearly incompetent waitress, and with everyone else in the family finished eating, we finally lost it.

Jody went into the kitchen to forcefully “inquire” when her salmon might be arriving. “It’s almost ready,” the cook duly informed her. “Just another few minutes.” Aviv was now resting his head on the table, ready for bed. “Please wrap it up to go,” Jody told the cook. “We have to leave.” The cook looked disappointed but did as he was told. No longer content to wait, Jody remained at the kitchen window until our waitress returned to demand we receive our check immediately.

Now, one of the only recourses one has in a frustrating situation like this is to demonstrate protestation through a less than generous tip. So imagine our surprise when we saw that the tip had already been “graciously” included in our bill. Maybe the restaurant knew that this kind of service was par for the course and was covering its corporate tush in advance.

Jody got her salmon wrapped up to go as requested, we paid and headed for the car. Al Dente surely lost a customer that night. Which is a real shame because the food was uniformly excellent (including Jody’s salmon and risotto which she finally ate upon arriving home).

If you don’t mind a leisurely meal, you can certainly consider Al Dente. But if you’re going out for a family dinner with the kids, we’d recommend you look elsewhere.


UPDATE: After I wrote this post, Jody was still upset by the whole experience and decided to call Al Dente. She explained what had happened and the manager was aghast. He promptly sent out a 15% discount for our next meal there. Other than the fact I would have expected an entire free meal (or two) given our suffering, the question is: do we have the time to give Al Dente another chance?

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