Monday, April 4, 2011
Adventures in Bad Bartending
With the economy spiralling down the toilet lately, you'd think people in the food and drink biz would redouble their efforts to please their customers and to train their help as sternly and strenuously as R. Lee Ermey. But I look around me and I see that it isn't so.
So once again, I'm here to drop some science for restauranteurs lacking in the social sciences.
This may seem overly harsh, but here's my position: any upscale bar that claims to be a true "full bar" and doesn't have a specialty cocktail list is immediately suspect, and to be avoided.
I stopped into an expensive snooty upscale place here in Louisville recently, and spotted several bottles my beloved Del Maguey on the shelf. This is my lucky day, I thought. I sat at a stool and when I finally got the bartender's attention, I pointed to the Mezcal and inquired about what varieties of Del Maguey they had. (Del Maguey offers many variations, and I could tell by the different labels on the bottles that they had an assortment of them.) The guy was like, "um... what? The what? Huh?"
"The Del Maguey Mezcal. You have five bottles of them there on your shelf."
"Oh. Whut? Where? You know, I don't think we use that much. I didn't even know we had it."
So, you're a bartender and you don't even know what you've got on your shelves at the bar you're tending? Really? Am I some sort of jerk for wanting people to know what the hell is going on at their job, and to be awake at their post? Not only did this guy not know they had five bottles of Mezcal on his shelf, he clearly didn't even know what Mezcal was. And I don't trust a man who doesn't know what Mezcal is to make me a decent drink out of the stuff.
I asked to see the drink list. He handed me a wine/beer list. No cocktails. No martinis. No house-specialty mixed drinks. And yet a honkin' huge wall of exotic booze behind him.
Seeing that there was another person also working the bar, I asked "do either of you have a specialty drink using Mezcal that you recommend? You know, something that you would consider your specialty?" By that time our table was ready for dinner, and he said "I'll ask her," meaning the other, older bartender, "and we'll come to your table and let you know." Splendid.
'Cept it wasn't. The dude finally came over to our table and said, "yeah, man, she said we can make you anything."
Sigh. Now that wasn't what I asked at all, was it?
I've never met a bartender yet who says "we can make you anything" who really could. And that's where the specialty-cocktail drink list comes in - even if I don't order anything off it, I want to see it be there. Because it proves to me that these people are really bartenders and not just randomly-assigned pourers of liquid. Having house-specialty mixed drinks shows me that, at least, someone was enough of an artisan to come up with these ideas. It also shows me that there are drinks that even a novice bartender there might have fixed often enough to be familiar with. Feel me? If you don't make mojitos very often, I don't want you fixing my mojito, capish?
Against my better judgment, I ordered a mojito.
"Okay," said the dude, "like, a straight up rum mojito, right?" Uh, yes, lad. Mojito is a rum drink, that is correct. I saw the older female bartender was the one making it, so I assumed that all would be well. Nope. I was presented a crystal-clear, overpoweringly sweet, totally weak mojito that didn't even taste like lime or rum. It tasted like hyper-sweetened tonic water with maybe a hint of some undetermined weak alcohol, too insufficient in ppm to identify as rum. I tasted zero mint.
Astonishingly, there was no lime slice on the rim, nor were there any in the drink itself. A teensy-tiny single leaf of mint resting on the ice (of which there was too much) was the only visual indicator that this might be a mojito-like object.
I know, I know, if you do a Google image search, you can find lots of crystal-clear mojitos, but I'm here to tell ya, those drinks in those pictures, whoever made them and wherever they were, they sucked. A good mojito, as with a good caipirinha, is CLOUDY by default. If it's totally clear, then you didn't put enough lime juice in and you didn't put real limes in and you sure as hell didn't muddle the lime or muddle the mint. And the lack of sugar crystals on the bottom, combined with the sickeningly intense sweetness, made me suspect some artificial sweetener could be at work here. (Which, as you must know by now, I regard as poison.)
I sent the drink back - and I swear I was absolutely meek and polite about it - and got guff from the female bartender who rudely snapped, "what's wrong with it?" and from the manager who said "I don't know what that word means" when I said it was too cloyingly sweet.
I switched to a Hendrick's gin and tonic, which I must say was so tasty I had another. It's pretty hard to screw up a G&T, especially when the gin is Hendrick's. (However, it didn't occur to them to put the customary cucumber slice on the rim.) And also for the record, the food we had was superb. But because of the stupidity and the attitude, will I be back? I seriously doubt it. There's just too many other cool places to go, and I would have rather spent that 50 bucks on someplace that acts like it gives a damn.
And lastly, it should be noted that this place - who shall go unnamed here as a sign of goodwill - has a patio (where we ate) directly adjacent to the doors-open indoor part and also has a second floor upstairs. Dixieland jazz could be heard coming from upstairs, the TV sets were blaring some annoying sports nonsense downstairs, and on the patio we were being blasted with some of the most god-awful modern "alternative" poop I've ever heard. Someone once told me there's a auditory test for schizophrenia, where the subject is played several different things at the same time. Supposedly, as I was told, if it doesn't immediately make you uncomfortable, there might be something wrong with you. Being bombarded with three different loud audio sources doesn't make for a pleasant meal.
I do so miss The Patron, which went out of business last winter. They had the most wonderful ambience. The music there was quiet chill-channel type stuff, which, even if that's not your thing, it's still unobtrusive and not as disruptive to digestion as Lady Gaga and Black-Eyed Peas being blasted in your face. The bartenders there - especially the great Lee Look, were true experts in their craft, who had cocktail preparation down to a true art. And if he didn't know something, or if he'd never made a certain drink before, he'd tell you.
- - JSH