Friday, January 6, 2012

Whiskey Tango

I don’t know why I decided to walk into this place. I’m not a big fan of sports or sports bars. I feel out of place somewhere surrounded by beer advertisements. I don’t drink whiskey and know nothing about tango. (You’ll be pleased to know that your visit will require neither of these things, by the way).

Maybe I just liked the name of the place. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
The time was about 5pm on a Thursday. The dining room was nearly empty, with maybe one group of people and a jukebox filling up the space. I was seated at one of the tall tables in the middle of the room, and when I asked for a booth or lower table, I was told that all of them were reserved for a party later in the evening. Fine with me.

Again, I waited a rather long time for a server to even show up. There’s a pattern here. I’m not sure if it’s the time of day, if perhaps the servers aren’t yet in a frame of mind to show a sense of urgency, or the fact that I’m alone makes them apathetic. When the waiter arrived at my table, this exchange occurred:

“So… anything to drink?”

“Coke, please.”

“And… are you ready to order?”

“Not yet.”

“Okay then.”

There was no greeting or anything. It seems that I’ve become accustomed to a certain script that a lot of servers more or less follow: “Hi, I’m ___ and I’ll be your server. Can I get you something to drink?” Even if it’s fake, I like to feel that the server is at least making the attempt to be courteous instead of an exasperated “I finally showed up, now let me get your drink and leave.”

Again, I had to wait. I looked around and saw almost no staff in the room. Nobody was behind the bar, despite a couple of people sitting there. While waiting, I looked at the flip-through menu (the actual name for that thing escapes me, but you find them on the tables in a lot of casual restaurants) and saw something for an In The Biz club for people in restaurants, bars, or law enforcement. I’d have to fill out something, show them a pay stub, and get discounts on drinks. It sounded like a nice idea, but I eventually decided to pass, deciding that I likely wouldn’t be back often enough to take advantage of it.

Thankfully, the service did get better. My server returned with an apology for the speed and an explanation that they were understaffed for the moment. It didn’t seem too busy for two people to manage, but I let it go and ordered my food.

A camera phone and low lighting are not a good combination, but I ordered the chicken breast with a side of macaroni and cheese. Compared to the lunch menu, the dinner menu seemed surprisingly limited. This time the food came out reasonably quickly, though I immediately saw the reason why.

It was a very simple and bland-looking dish. Despite my expectations, the chicken breast turned out to be great – very juicy and tasty, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. If only the macaroni and cheese were as good. Mac and cheese happens to be my favorite food, so I jumped at the chance to order it as a side. What I got was a dish of pasta in a grainy cream sauce topped with crushed goldfish crackers. The sauce was clearly undercooked, as I could still feel the flour used to thicken it, and I didn’t taste any cheese in it. I was disappointed and did not finish.

I finished my meal with a rum and coke. It turned out to be happy hour, and I could get 2 for 1. Fine with me. The drinks were great, though it is pretty hard to screw up rum and coke. Again, I had to wait forever for an absent bartender to come back and make the damn things. When the chance came, I took my check in a hurry, lest I be stuck there until midnight.
The good news was that I wasn’t charged for the rum and cokes. I’m not sure if that intentional on the ghost bartender’s part or an oversight, but I didn’t say a word. I left the server a 10% tip as he was friendly enough, and he seemed to have his act together after one early speed bump. Unfortunately, the initial exchange followed by the slowness of the rest of the staff bumped the tip percentage down.

Almost as soon as I was ready to leave, it seemed that staff started to pour in. Perhaps this was the start of the late shift. The party that reserved all of the booths had yet to show up.

I’d go back for drinks only, provided I was with friends. I’d get a seat at the bar and get something to eat elsewhere. I would also come by later in the night, when more staff is on board and motivated to move faster.

Whiskey Tango on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cakes are Serious Business.

I didn't expect to be writing an opinion piece on here. I also didn't expect to be combing through Entertainment and Sports sections of the newspapers for information about a story. However, this popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook, and because it takes place in my field and in my region, my interest was sparked. After finding out all I could about this story, I have one thing to say:

Everyone involved is in the wrong.

Here is a summary: A bakery owner in Boca is asked to create a birthday cake for LeBron James at the last minute, to be compensated with publicity instead of actual money. Bakery owner jumps at the chance, hires extra people to make the cake over a busy holiday weekend... only to find that her cake was replaced by a Miami baker given the same request. Now, Boca Baker is pissed and wants compensation.

I'm actually going to leave LeBron James out of this, because I have a strong feeling that he didn't even see his birthday cake until the party. I can certainly believe that the big decision to switch the cakes happened in a closed-door meeting, while Mr. James was busying himself with whatever it is that professional athletes do.

And even if he did have a say in what cake he wanted at the party (which I can also believe, as one quote by "party handler" Jared Galbut keeps popping up: "I can't tell LeBron James what birthday cake to eat. It's LeBron James, for Christ's sake.", I honestly wouldn't blame him for passing on this particular cake. Why? Take a look at the two competing cakes in question:

(Image from Yahoo Sports)

Which one of these cakes would you want as a centerpiece at your birthday party? Now, which one of these cakes do you think Mr. James' "people" picked out?

The cake on the left came from Passion for Pastry, the shop of the aforementioned Boca Baker. The one on the right comes from Divine Delicacies in Miami, and was actually featured at the party.

As much as I hesitate to say something like this, because I know it will ruffle some already sore feathers, but Passion for Pastry's cake does not look to be worth $3,000. I realize that the ingredients and labor involved get expensive, and having the order at the last minute puts serious time constraints on your work, but for a budget like that and having a whole weekend to work on a cake, I know for a fact that people can put more into a cake. Especially if you're planning on associating yourself with a public figure.

Don't believe me? Take another look at those cakes above. Guess which one put more effort into that cake. And Passion for Pastry had to hire extra people for this cake alone? Considering the end result, I don't believe it. Don't get me wrong, it's still a lovely cake. I, personally, would be thrilled to see something like that at my own birthday party. But would I pay $3000 for it? Probably not. While the detail in the crown is impressive, the rest of the cake seems a bit lacking. There's minimal detail on the rest of the tiers. While on DD's cake, I can see the hand-piped scrollwork on some of the tiers (which is tedious and hell on the hands, but the end result is well worth it), and honestly looks like someone put a weekend into making it.

I took a look at Passion For Pastry's website and flipped through their gallery. I saw more detail and craftsmanship in those cakes, which were various commissions for "us commoners," than I do in the cake that was given to LeBron James. Oddly enough, that particular cake is noticeably absent from the gallery.

So while I appreciate that PFP put a lot of effort into their pro bono cake, it's obvious that it wasn't their best work. They really shouldn't be surprised that Mr. James' people passed on it.

Speaking of those people, they're not completely blameless. One was quoted (Likely Galbut again) as saying "That cake couldn't be worth more than $600. It's flour, eggs and water." It's amazing just how many people don't know what kind of work goes into a bakery. There are also (according to PFP) labor costs and lost business to take into account. That means that PFP had to pass on PAYING clients in order to finish this cake on time, AND pay the extra people who were hired to help with the cake. While I honestly believe that the end result doesn't quite reflect the expense that was put into it, as I said above, it's just a bit insulting to the trade to dismiss all of that work as simply "flour, eggs, and water."

They had to know that they were taking a lot from PFP when they made that last minute order. Not only did they offer PFP publicity instead of monetary compensation for that cake, at the end of the day they refused even to give them that much. The cake went missing and was replaced by DD's cake with no notification on the organizers' parts. PFP would have put in all of that work for absolutely nothing in return. It's glorified theft.

Part of us likes reading stories about Big Bad Celebrities or Corporations kicking the modest small businesses to the curb. It gives us a common enemy and a target for some frustrations. This story isn't one of them. One person made a risky business decision, and a group of people decided that she didn't try hard enough. The fact that the group of people happen to be associated with a celebrity is the only reason why you're hearing about it at all.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rock Bar

This actually wasn’t my first choice for lunch today. The plan was to grab a bite to eat at Sonic Beach a block or so away, but it was so crowded and the servers seemed to be doing little to help the flow of traffic run smoothly. I wound up leaving, and then found myself getting a small table outside here.

My first impression was that there was little to no separation between the two establishments. They looked different, sure. Sangrias has a bar surrounded by plastic wicker tables and chairs, while the Rock Bar is more of a lounge. The staff is the same, there is one hostess station between the two, and both places have the same menu.
I got a table at the Sangrias side. It was a Monday midafternoon, and the place had plenty of people. The hostess was friendly enough, handed me a menu, and promised me that a waiter would be with me shortly. Several minutes pass, with me boredly flipping through the menu, with not a server in sight. The hostess had to come back and ask if anyone had helped me, and when I told her no, she jokingly said “I’ll kill him,” and walked off.
Finally, someone showed up. The waiter apologized, although half-heartedly, and offered some quick explanation that boils down to an employee miscommunication. Totally avoidable, but I at least was able to order.

I ordered a strawberry mojito and a turkey club sandwich. Everything either came out surprisingly quick, of my expectations were lowered while I was still waiting for a server to show up. The menu boasted that this place had the best mojitos in town, and while I haven’t tried every mojito at every place that offered one, I did like this drink enough to consider getting a second. (the cost is somewhat prohibitive, but more on that later.) I did notice that there was plenty of undissolved sugar settling at the bottom, which is why many bars go for simple syrup instead. This wouldn’t bother me as much, as I don’t like a lot of sweetness in my drinks, but surely others might not feel the same way.

The rest of my food was not wholly impressive, but I didn’t come here for an extravagant lunch anyway. The sandwich was made up of thick slices of turkey and cheese with a sizeable pile of bacon, with three slices of bread and mayonnaise.

I definitely can’t complain about the music, either. A Beatles song played when I was sat, and a varied mix played throughout.

Halfway through my meal, I noticed that I was not given any napkins. The tables are all completely empty except for a small flip-through menu for advertising drinks and hookah. Twice I tried in vain to flag down my absent-minded waiter, but after he took my order I was promptly ignored. Another server seemed to be much more attentive to her section, which started just behind me. Perhaps I was just unlucky enough to pick the wrong part of the dining area.
I finally got his attention after having to yell. And no, the music wasn’t to blame as he was no more than three feet from my table at the time. It seemed more that he just wasn’t paying any attention. Once I could get a hold of him, he brought my napkins and check quickly enough.
The menu also warned that an automatic 15% gratuity would be added, and to “feel free to raise or lower this at your own discretion.” Most places add this to large parties, but I as a party of one still had this added to my check. Perhaps this was why my waiter didn’t pay me any attention: he would get paid either way!

I had three dollars added to my check. I know that in a lot of places, the employees pool their tips, and it seems that the waiter was the only one here who dropped the ball today. The hostess was friendly and made sure that I was served, and the bar and kitchen staff gave prompt service. So, I decided to leave the gratuity alone. I still had to resist the urge to laugh when my receipt was given back to sign and the option to tip was presented.

Would I ever come back? Certainly not for food. The mojito was good enough that I would consider getting a seat at the bar and grabbing a quick drink, though only on a special occasion. As you can see above, the drink cost me more than my sandwich. I would also consider coming back with a friend, though also not for food. Go there if you want a good drink, go there to try out the giant margaritas (something I have yet to do), but don’t go there for food.

Rock Bar on Urbanspoon