Sunday, April 19, 2015

Feeling ripped off by Wildebeest

Wildebeest on Urbanspoon It's been years since I was at Wildebeest. Finally came back when a "meatatarian" friend of mine resurfaced suddenly and wanted to go to a meat place. She a more posh sort of girl, so I didn't want to suggest something low-brow like Hog Shack. So how about Wildebeest?

Huge mistake. But I almost guarantee it will not be the reasons you are thinking of. Anyway, let's first look at what our party of three ate tonight that cost a whopping $43.33 per person BEFORE tax and tip.

Fried freshwater smelt ($9) blistered shisito peppers, toasted pine nut and lemon aioli
  • Bitter peppers are not hot. Felt like a waste of time, honestly, since they were palatable only when their flavour was masked by a huge gob of aioli. I guess there might be a small demographic that actually likes straight-bitter food?
  • The small pile of smelt is actually smaller than you think because of the empty space between the smelt. You could probably collapse the amount into less than a deck of cards. Way overpriced for $9.
  • Smelt felt rather on the oily side. Thankfully this is covered up by the tasty aioli.
Hand-cut poutine ($10) chicken and mushroom gravy, cheese curds
  • "Chicken and mushroom gravy" can be read in various ways:
    • If you assume that all reasonably conscientious persons of course use the Oxford comma, then the gravy is made from chicken and mushroom; instead of there being chicken, as well as mushroom gravy.
    • But since there is no comma, there is ambiguity, and therefore someone might actually think there is chicken.
    • Whether the gravy is made of mushroom or both chicken and mushroom, there is also the possible expectation that there will actually be visible chunks of chicken and/or mushroom. This is not the case.
  • Cheese curds melted at the bottom.
  • Gravy is pre-smeared all over each french fry.
    • Each fry is pretty evenly and generously coated.
    • This is good: Saves you from having to dip in gravy.
    • This is bad: The fries are soggy by the time the dish hits your table.
  • For $10 the portion is maybe half or less of what you can get at Mean Poutine, except that Mean Poutine also gives you some sort of topping like meat.
  • Sorry, tastiness just isn't enough to justify $10 here. Maybe I'm not enough of a gravy connoisseur, but I don't think there's anything particularly special with the poutine.
Slow-poached farm egg ($4) onion purée & barley, cheese, garlic scapes, toasted buckwheat
  • Kinda like a soft boiled egg with stuff on it.
  • Interesting textures but I'm not so big on the taste -- it just didn't taste tasty to me. However the other persons in our trio seemed to like it. Certainly an interesting way to have egg.
  • Dark orange yolk -- organic?
The ribeye ($93) foie gras & bone marrow jus
  • We were told this was 32 oz. Which is like 4 x 8 oz steaks.
    • Four steaks for three persons? We were worried it would be too much food, but turned out it was gone really fast.
    • I'm suspicious that it was not a full 32 oz since eating a single 8 to 12 oz steak should honestly have taken long enough that you need a side to alleviate meat fatigue halfway through. But since we didn't weigh it, I'm going to assume it was a whole 32 oz.
      • Honestly, it looked like maybe 12 oz tops. Maybe it was 32 oz BEFORE cooking?
  • After we ordered, the server came back to check on us, maybe 5-10 minutes (?) after and the ETA at that point was another 50 minutes. Fifty.
    • Really? It was going to be pre-sliced for sharing, and I think any steakhouse can pump out 4 x 8 oz steaks ordered at the same time faster than 1 hour.
    • When I first inquired about the ribeye over e-mail, the estimate was 35-45 minutes prep time. The paper menu in the restaurant said to allow 45 minutes. Then our server ups it to 50 minutes some time after we order? Luckily we had a later reservation with apparently no line at the door waiting for our table.
  • "Foie gras & bone marrow jus" reads like "there will be foie gras, as well as bone marrow jus". See above for why people should expect the Oxford comma, or else rewrite or differently punctuate their sentences to avoid ambiguity.
    • Yeah, we thought there'd be a piece of foie gras.
      • We separately ordered it. If we hadn't stopped eating our steak, the foie gras would have come long, long, after the steak was gone.
      • We were told a couple of times that it was imminently ready. Each time was about 5-10 minutes apart.
      • The portion that came was about the size of two books of matchsticks.
    • Despite this special jus, the ribeye didn't come across as being particularly special. Nicely done medium rare, yes. More special than something you can get at a steakhouse that didn't screw up medium rare? No.
After the ribeye, we ordered the other stuff, but honestly I gave up. I was still not full after sharing all the items we ordered so we went to the $4.95 menu place down the same block and ordered a couple of their tapas plates.
I think all three of us felt ripped off. But that isn't good enough for me: I wanted to dissect that feeling and find out why.

(1) Ambiguity
I've already indicated places where the menu could be read differently. You can argue that the diner read it "wrong", but regardless of whose "fault" it is, the menu could be rewritten to eliminate ambiguity. The bottom line is if the diner feels led to expect something else, the server can explain till his face turns blue but it's already too late.

Another example of ambiguity:
When I first asked about the ribeye, this was the response I got:

Me: "Could you please let me know how much advance notice is required for the Ribeye, and for how many persons it is meant to be shared."

Wildebeest: "The ribeye doesn't require pre-ordering and can be prepared with about 35-45 minutes doneness while you enjoy your earlier courses. It's certainly large enough to be enjoyed by quite a few guests - just how many depending on the quantity of other dishes being enjoyed."

In retrospect this was a totally vague response. Since our party had dropped from 6 to 3 (no thanks to flaky people dropping out at the last moment) I thought we'd be fine and hopefully have a reasonable meal by ordering it for three. We didn't know it was 32 oz until we asked our server, and even at that point we thought we'd have a filling meal.
Fortunately we weren't a party of six waiting almost an hour for a portion of steak that would be gone in less than 3 minutes.
Our expectations had been incorrectly set and that contributed to disappointment. Price is a big factor as well, but I'll get into that later.

For my part, I could have pressed harder over e-mail to get more concrete responses, but terms like "quite a few guests" suggested more than 1-3. Yet I think any one of our party could have finished that 32 oz all on their own, especially as it came with no sides. You didn't need to be a steak challenge champ to do it.
Looking back at the e-mail from the restaurant, I now noticed that they hedged their response by adding "just how many depending on the quantity of other dishes being enjoyed". So they've got their rear covered: If each of three persons had ordered three poutines each (for example), they'd have been sated after the ribeye?
But who the thinks of doing that? We all thought we had a dish sized big enough to give each of us a full entree. Why would we buy multiple appetizers per person or even another entree? (Nevermind that some appetizers are smaller than others).

(2) Price
Wildebeest isn't really geographically positioned for it, and more importantly doesn't look it, but if the cost of the ribeye is the benchmark, it is pricing itself as a Black + Blue or Gotham.
Big problem: It's not Gotham or Black+Blue. It doesn't have the amenities, ambiance, or service; nor does it convey the same prestige for dining there -- all of which are factors that allow posh places to charge extra for the supposed privilege for dining at their expensively decorated and maintained establishments.
I honestly don't think diners are expecting Gotham prices when they walk into Wildebeest, and you can see just how many furious complaints about price versus portion there are on Urbanspoon.

(3) Portion
When a restaurant insists things are "family style" and "for sharing", then it really needs to do one of the following:
  • (A) Give a fair portion for price, enough that what they order can actually be shared instead of being a single-person portion.
  • (B) Charge a small price if they are giving small portions, to set the price-to-portion expectation correctly.
These reasons are why Chinese restaurants are "family style" for dinner (reason A) or dim sum brunch (reason B) and no one complains. They are doing "family style" "for sharing" properly.
Again, here I am proceeding on the assumption that most of the people who walk into Wildebeest aren't aware they've actually walked into Gotham Steakhouse. If diners have their price expectation properly set, they won't go bug-eyed at barely a bowlful of poutine that costs $10 (they wouldn't try to share it, either, probably).

$93 for a 32 oz ribeye is the price for three mains to be shared between three persons, and with a portion quoted that suggests it would be meals for three persons before dessert. That's not what we got.

*

I think the best moves to avoid future diner disappointment is for Wildebeest to do the following:
  • Edit the menu to remove ambiguities
  • Drop all this talk about "family style" and "for sharing". People will share if they want to.
In the meantime, as diners, you can do this:
  • Ignore everything they say about "family style" and "for sharing".
    • Order stuff FOR YOURSELF. Then share if you want to.
  • Look at the small plates as appetizers and larger plates as mains. Then look at the prices and decide if you want to eat here.

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