“The guest’s perception of the dish is strongly affected by how it’s presented to them.” (A Day at elBulli)
I had been planning to write about my weekend with the Momofuku family. Excited about it, really. Then I read that line from Phaidon’s A Day at El Bulli and decided it was time to share my experience at Minetta Tavern.
I had been trying to get a table at Minetta Tavern for ages. Granted, I wasn’t calling on a weekly basis, but whenever I did, I always struck out. This particular Tuesday I happened upon it by accident. And on this Tuesday at 6:30PM, it was slammed. Keith McNally (mastermind behind Balthazar, Balthazar Bakery, Morandi, Schiller’s, Pastis, Pulino’s, Pravda, Lucky Strike and, yes, Minetta Tavern) has a gold star front-of-house behind him. I didn’t have a second to consider leaving before the hostess had walked off with my coat and shopping bag. I made my way over to the bar and asked what wines were available by the glass. Red or white? Red. Light, medium or full-bodied? Full. Stone-ground fruit or earthy. Stone-ground fruit, please. The bartender handed me a glass to taste. Gold star for you, sir! This Crozes Hermitage is stunning!
But okay, one point of contention. What is with the rinky dink by-the-glass glasses? Just because I don’t order the whole bottle means I have to drink out of a kid-sized cup? I’ll take my wine in a Bordeaux glass, please and thank you.
I studied the menu for a while. After all the hassle to get a seat at this place, I had to choose carefully – who knows when I’ll be back again? After much discussion with the martini-sipper beside me, I decided on the ravioli special to start and, yes, the Black Label burger.
When another bartender emerged from the pass with my plate of ravioli in hand, I perked up. For the time being, I was the only solo diner at the bar, so it had to be mine. And if it wasn’t? Well, I was too famished to start that thought process. This bartender walked the plate to my original bartender (who was busy preparing cocktails) and the following conversation ensued:
“The ticket says it’s for 5, but that can’t be right.”
“It’s for 3”
“…but the ticket was put in for 5.”
“Yes, but it’s for 3.”
“So then it was put in wrong. You have to stop doing that!”
With that, the plate was put in front of me and the bartenders resumed their conversation.
Now. I have always thought it was a bit silly for a server to announce a dish as it’s being presented. You don’t need to tell me the plate has chicken on it – I’m the one who ordered it 10 minutes ago. But after this plate was delivered to me so unceremoniously, I stared at my raviolis as if they were battered puppies. I can’t eat this, I thought, anxiously looking around. The bartenders were still too preoccupied with their bickering to notice I hadn’t touched my silverware. It felt like I had been served an appetizer of anger and spite. I couldn’t have any part in that. I ate the ravioli special guiltily, like a child watching her parents argue. It’s a shame that such an absolutely delicious dish was spoiled by its presentation.
From its debut, the Black Label burger has been a dish of infamy and culinary wonder. Minetta Tavern challenged New York when it announced, We have a burger that is so spectacular we think it’s worth $26 – and we think you’ll agree. The creation of this burger has been discussed countless times, but here are the basics. The Black Label burger is just over 8 oz of prime, dry-aged Pat LaFreida beef cuts, topped with caramelized onions and served on a toasted day-old sesame seed bun that retains elements of a brioche and challah. (For a more in-depth look at the Black Label, check out what the guys at Serious Eater had to say here.) I added a thin layer of mustard to my bun, an act which Black Label purists would decry as sacrilegious. Screw the purists, this is my $26 burger, and I will have my way with it.
Big bite kids, this is the moment of truth. The texture was unbelievable. The beef melted in my mouth like butter on a hot roll. That was one juicy burger. Juicy and bland. Smart move, me, adding mustard because that was a patty devoid of any flavor. The pommes frites were perfection, thin and soft and, in my opinion, far more enjoyable than the supposed star of the dish.
In my family, we have a rule about cooking – you either do it with love, or you don’t do it at all. The same can be said for service. My perception of a dish was greatly affected by how it was presented to me. Yes, the food is the most important aspect of a meal. But respect the food, respect the guest and save the fighting for the walk-in. Would I go back to Minetta Tavern? Sure, but I certainly wouldn’t pursue a reservation with the same intensity.
Minetta Tavern is located at 113 MacDougal St between Bleecker and West 3rd. Reservations can be made by calling 212-475-3850