Monday, May 20, 2013

C Restaurant Overwhelmed?

C Restaurant on Urbanspoon
It's the third year that C Restaurant has offered a tasting menu through Groupon. I'd been there in 2011 and 2012, and

This year, the advertised menu was...
  • Compressed watermelon and pickled rind with side strip shrimp eschabeche
  • North Arm Farms beets with balsamic gel and crisp goat cheese
  • Leek-and-potato soup and a mini baked potato with sour cream, green onions, and pancetta
  • Seared albicore tuna with fingerling potatoes, sunny-side quail egg, and lobster cream
  • Pan-seared scallop with braised red cabbage, caramelized apples, and Calvados froth
  • Pan-seared Louis Lake steelhead-mussel coconut broth and green-papaya salsa
  • Cucumber sorbet with feta cheese and black-olive powder and tomato chips
  • Farm House cheddar with poached pear and saffron gel
  • Chocolate cake with mint ganache and toasted marshmallow
  • Peanut butter-and-jelly macaroons
I forgot to snag the menu this time, but the advertised menu isn't exactly what you get. There are minor substitutions here and there, such as with the cucumber sorbet. On the night we went there, it featured a crisp basil leaf and what seemed to be a candied slice of tomato. There were also the usual substitutions available for a few items, such as an extra $12 to have lobster bisque instead of the soup.

Overall, at $55 per person through the Groupon, it's interesting eats, well-prepared food, beautiful plates, and good value. At $110 I think it would have been rather overpriced in a competitive foodie town like Vancouver, especially when the first course is like an amuse bouche and the last course is a small macaron. It's really more like 8 or 9 courses. Maybe there's a lot of special work involved, but in the end it comes down to what goes in your mouth and  Service from the waiters was professional and there's nothing to complain about there.

Sadly, what stood out most this year was how overwhelmed the restaurant seemed to be, and its effects on service.

In previous years, I'd made reservations over a week in advance using Opentable, and I'd always clearly stated that I would be using a Groupon. This year I did the same. On the day of our dinner (a party of four), at 11.30 AM, I got a call from the restaurant saying that they cancelled my reservation. A reservation that had been made about two weeks ago, with a note saying I would be using my Groupons.
The explanation from the somewhat angry and panicky person I spoke with was that I hadn't called in my reservation. He cited the stipulation on the Groupon that I had to call instead of making an online reservation. My reservation was for a Saturday night, and he went on to say that they were booked solid that weekend and the following weekend, and it was "impossible" to give me a reservation. Unfortunately, the busy professionals I was dining with didn't have the luxury of adjusting their schedule on the fly. One person was over an hour's drive and had already booked a hotel room -- non-refundable at over $300 for the night.

So I didn't call in my reservation. Fine. But could the restaurant not have given me a bit more warning than 11.30 am on the day of the reservation? I ended up taking my friend who had booked the hotel room to a captivating dinner at Diva at the Met. I also booked a reservation with C Restaurant for two weeks hence, this time by phone. They asked to nudge my reservation from 7 pm to 7.30 pm. No problem.

This time, the reservation did not get cancelled. I even called the day before to confirm and remind them that I was using my Groupons. I arrived early, as I usually do when I am hosting. At 7 pm on a bright Saturday evening, the restaurant wasn't even half full, but the patio was quite busy. Staff were buzzing around. The maître d at the reception table looked stressed out and losing his cool. He asked one of the servers passing by if she could handle another table and she said no.
That was my first suspicion that they were understaffed for the evening. Presumably she had declined so as not to compromise service quality to the patrons who were already there. Quality control is a good sign, but that didn't really help the maître d that evening.
I don't think he meant it, but he just about snapped at me saying my reservation was for 7.30 pm and it was only 7pm. No problem. Since I was early, and he didn't say that any of my party had arrived, I told him I'd come back later. Maybe someone else might have made a stink about expectations of service in a high-end restaurant, but my feeling is that when someone seems that stressed out, asking for anything really doesn't help things at all. I decided to give them breathing room instead.

When I came back about fifteen minutes later with one of my guests, the maître d basically avoided eye contact with us initially. We were shown to a table upstairs, and he said he would bring us more menus "when they became available".
Avoiding eye contact is a way to not get flagged down for service by customers. I'd seen it before at Gurkha Himalayan Kitchen when two waitresses were overwhelmed with a full dining room. They were just running around so madly they couldn't handle one more thing. That was the impression I got at reception at C Restaurant that night. They were overwhelmed and that was the best they could do at the time without basically telling us we had to wait.

After our food and drink orders, they brought the usual basket of bread and softened butter topped with their signature volcanic salt. The bread was cold, despite being wrapped in soft cloth. It seemed another sign that the staff weren't able to keep up.

Our party talked about it a bit later that evening. One person was in sales and she was appalled at the treatment. Avoiding eye contact and projecting an attitude of "I don't have time for you" was bad. She suggested that they could have seated us anyway and explained their limitations at the moment. In that way, they might have maybe sold us a beverage from the bar while we waited for the rest of our party.
I suppose different people have different expectations and it's all 20/20 in hindsight. Someone else might have been upset to be seated and receive limited service. Who knows?

Overall, however, my experience of the restaurant this time was very different from the previous two times. Maybe their tasting menus have simply become too popular and they can't keep up. Half-empty room or not, they just didn't have the staffing to handle the dinner rush that night.
Or maybe the economics just don't bear it out. A long tasting menu could mean maybe just the one seating each night, and at the price point offered, maybe it's not working out.
Whatever the reasons, I think I'd be hard-pressed to drag my friends back there after what happened.

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