I had a dilemma yesterday, friends; I had a terrible dining experience that really needed a
rant mention, but I really do like to keep this blog constructive and as positive as possible, and also I’m not a food critic so I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to complain about one bad experience.
But then today I had a great meal served by helpful people, which just gave me the perfect excuse to compare the two.
See, I like eating in mainstream eateries. Obviously I like supporting animal-free establishments and having a full range of delicious choices, but I also think it’s important to show the wider world that there is a market for plant-based food. On the whole, I have probably had more outstanding vegan meals in mainstream restaurants than I have in vegan restaurants (don’t get me started on vegetarian restaurants who can’t conceive of a vegetarian dish not laden with cheese and eggs).
But it made me laugh when the waitress at Two Fat Blokes in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, asked me if I had “this much trouble” getting food wherever I go. After said giggle to myself, I flatly replied, “No”.
Let’s just go over the vegan side of the experience, ignoring the fact that they advertise “with a glass of wine” options on their (barely decipherable) menu but aren’t actually licensed, that when my dad got confused about the above he was quite rudely met with an exasperated “I tried to explain it to you,” that they assumed we were sharing our meals which weren’t ordered from the sharing part of the menu, that service was clumsy and very slow to bring out desserts, and that we were asked “Shall I bring you the bill, then?” before my dad had finished his dessert.
Despite there not being any vegetarian options on offer, I saw that their dishes came with plenty of different vegetables and that they had a couple of tasty-sounding sides (roasted beetroot, green beans – yum!), so I had no doubt I would end up with something tasty. Looking around their deli counter, they sell plenty of beautiful marinated grilled aubergine, red pepper, mushrooms, and so on. I could have had a field day making myself a platter from those alone!
I waited until everyone had ordered then explained that I would like a vegetarian dish without any dairy (egg didn’t look like a huge concern). I was offered the beetroot side dish – a good start, without the feta, but I hardly wanted a big bowl of beetroot so I suggested turning some of those into a salad. “Shall I get you a garden salad, then?” asked the hapless waitress – “Well, I’d like something a little more substantial” were pretty much my exact words. “How about a big salad with some of the grilled vegetable antipasti?” I suggested. The waitress suggested the antipasti platter without the meat or cheese – again, I didn’t want a plate of sad vegetable slices. I reiterated that I would enjoy a salad with some antipasti and some beetroot – “The chef can play around,” I added.
The mains came out and when a side salad was brought out I actually didn’t claim it as I thought it couldn’t possible have been mine. It was. I didn’t have the heart to take a photo of it – it was a small side salad with some tomatoes, red pepper, and olives – I had eaten a bigger and more opulent salad as a side dish the day before. I will admit I was heartbroken, but luckily I wasn’t particularly hungry or I’d have possibly cried.
Thankfully, the waitress came back moments later and asked if I wanted bread. Sure, why not. To her credit, our waitress stopped herself midway through asking if I wanted butter, remembering I couldn’t eat it. Still, it would have been nice if she had thought of offering me olive oil before I’d had to ask for it.
As it turns out, the salad was tasty – but really?! I’d understand in a steakhouse or seafood restaurant, but not somewhere filled with gorgeous vegetable antipasti, interesting vegetable side dishes, and a variety of breads, oils, and dips.
And to add insult to injury, that insinuation that I was a picky eater impossible to cook for.
The highlight of the experience was my iced tea. Ben’s homemade lemonade was great too. And they had the good sense not to charge me for the bread and oil (I don’t like making a scene in a restaurant, or at a group gathering, but that possibly would have set me off). Perhaps they should stick to making drinks and selling delicatessen – while they are still trying to be a gourmet restaurant, I will be steering well clear.
Now perhaps our Two Fat friends can learn a lesson or two from the humble Doubletake Café in Toronto.
For one, they have a vegetarian option; tomato, mushrooms, roast pumpkin, marinated capsicum (bell pepper), hash brown, wilted spinach, feta with sourdough toast and chutney. That already gives me something to work with. I took my usual tack of asking for that with avocado instead of feta – not a bat of an eyelid. I explained the no-dairy-no-egg thing and the waitress changed completely, double-checking everything with me and with the kitchen.
I asked about the smoothies as I was intrigued by their “Banana-Espresso” smoothie – in the UK, smoothies are just whole blended fruit but over here they always include some sort of yoghurt or ice cream. Again, the waitress took it all in her stride and said they’d do it with soy milk and no ice cream – when it was brought to me, they explained they had put extra ice in to make it thicker and icy. I also asked about the Mango-Coconut smoothie but was told it was made with coconut powder and they didn’t know if that contained milk. Very helpful!
Shortly after placing my order, a different waitress came up to say the sautéed mushrooms were already cooked in butter, and agreed to omit them and double up on something else. Again, I was impressed that they had paid attention to that.
And then when my dish was brought out, the waitress I had placed the order with asked how allergic I was (“I’m not, I just don’t eat them,” I reassured her) as hash browns had been placed on the plate before she spotted that they contained egg, and had them removed. She was worried about cross-contamination. Very helpful, again!
To cap it all off, everything was delicious. The star of the dish was the chutney – perfect layered on the toast with avocado (which I salted and peppered generously) – but everything was impeccably cooked and seasoned.
Just like Two Fat Blokes had a tiny mark in their “pro” column, Doubletake has a tiny mark in the “con” column; I found it a touch expensive ($53 for two cooked breakfasts and two smoothies), but I would go back simply because it was delicious and I had a great dining experience.
The lesson we learn here, whether you are a new vegan or a non-vegan restauranteur? Something marinated, a little avocado, and a bit of outside-the-menu thinking go a long way towards prising money out of my greedy fist.