Sunday, January 08, 2006

Am I Being Too Cru-el? I'll Have to Go Again To Decide.

Let me set the scene. I arrived 15 minutes early and ahead of the rest of my party on a Tuesday night, but the room was already bustling with pretty people laughing and drinking, and our reserved table was already to go. I had really been looking forward to this dinner, having heard many great things ahead of time, and had been meaning to try it out for a while, but unfortunately, I didn't feel welcomed right away since I sat down at the table indicated but was not offered a menu or a glass of water or asked if I wanted to order a drink. Really, just the menu would have made me happy. He had helped me get settled with hanging up my coat, so I hadn't been completely ignored, and he knew I was there. I made the eye contact with my waiter patiently assuming that he would see that I was sitting alone and unoccupied at my table with nothing offered, and in mid-range/fine dining, usually that's all it takes for a server to think, "hey, something's up, better go check," but that didn't work. Yes, I was waiting for the rest of my party, and it was a few minutes before the reservation, but I think it's just a matter of hospitality to see if I want anything while I'm waiting. I started getting irked, and finally gave up on the eye contact signal, because he just blankly looked at me looking at him, and then went back to checking on all the other tables. I finally started flagging him down, and managed to get his attention. The "frantic waving" of my hand probably clued him in that I was overlooked and he apologized, and I worked on not letting the lapse ruin the rest of my evening. I did however watch his behaviour when another partial party arrived afterwards, and there he was seating them with menus in hand, very welcoming. He presented me the wine list as if I would have never heard of such a thing before. Now, I think I "clean-up" pretty well, and I had, as usual, thoroughly researched the place out before arrival, but I got the distinct impression that he threw me automatically into the category of very unimportant person. So started my meal at Cru (1459 W. Broadway, just east of Granville St.). Surprised? I certainly was. I had heard only raves about this place, knew it was run by a husband (front) and wife (chef) team, and the husband had actually extended a kind welcome to me in an online forum. Yes, it's always a dangerous thing to go into something with high expectations. While it may seem a minor slip, I believe the arrival is key to setting the tone for the entire evening, and if it's a service procedure there to not pay any attention to a table until they have all arrived, then it needs to be changed immediately. When I asked for a menu and then a glass of water, he laid out the menus and water for my whole table so I'm suspecting that it either threw him off his procedure that I was there first, or he was just trying to minimize coming back to our table in the future by setting down all the waters, or both. I tried asking his opinion on a pairing, and he interrupted me halfway into my sentence and said "Wouldn't you like to wait until your party arrives before you order?" I wasn't trying to order. I was just trying to get some information to help me make my decisions. His introduction of the wine list needs to be tweaked a little too so it doesn't sound condescending (The "This here's called a wine list. You might not get these where you're from..." tone needs to be banished no matter who you are talking to). Granted, Cru's wine list is something pretty unique - it's colour-coded in categories, and each item on their small plates and prix fixe menu has one or two category pairing suggestions, so it does demand explaining. And there's no way to tell whether a diner knows about the format or not, which is why one shouldn't assume either way. Not to harp on the breakfast waitress thing, but this is a classic example of what I was ranting about in a previous post. I dare you to walk into any breakfast joint - I'm talking even a Denny's - tell the hostess that you're waiting for more people to come, and yet not get offered a menu or glass of water or a drink while you're waiting within the first 5 minutes...eye contact or not, Denny's regular or not, big breakfast spender or not. This always astounds me that I can get worse service for a meal that I am literally paying ten times the money, and therefore ten times the tip. One last service slip to note. We decided to share all of our dishes, and do one prix fixe set, and other small plates. When we ordered our set, we knew we wanted to get the brown butter almond cake, and ordered it. He disregarded it, and said "we can do that later." Later in the evening when we were ordering dessert, we hadn't realized how much he had disregarded it, because we added on a lemon tart, thinking he already knew we wanted the almond cake too. My dining companion said "we'll add on the lemon tart" to indicate this, but I guess we should have said in addition to the almond cake we already ordered. It was just another little indication that he didn't care to really pay attention to us, unless it was part of his plan. Adaptability is key. A server who is really in tune with us would have clarified at that point, and checked to see if we didn't want the almond cake anymore if that was what he was thinking. I will note that I have the greatest respect for servers, and I know that the job requires a lot more skill than people generally give them credit for, and it's a lovely thing to watch when the pros have everything under control. I would love to go back and see the entire service at Cru gel together smoothly. And believe it or not, I'm pretty forgiving when human error and accidents happen, especially when it's busy. What I don't care for is snobby attitude, coldness, or assumptions about the type of diner you are. In this case, it was hard to tell which it was. He did apologize for his obvious lapses, so it may be inexperience, just being swamped, or a somewhat inflexible nature, and not snobbiness that was affecting the service. At any rate, With the service out of the way, we can now talk about the food and the room, which were both very nice.

I love their cushioned benches with pillows. The small room is elegant, and comfortable. It's like sitting on mini cushy couches, but with just the right height and enough back support to eat at a table. They made me wish I had some table-couches for my dining table at home. The food itself is also elegant, as is the colour coded pairing system of the menus. There are no rules though, just helpful suggestions, so feel free to veer away from the system. Maybe my bristles were up due to the service, but I found the dishes overall to be nice (with some definite highlights), but sometimes unspectacular. I had read online what a wonderful dish the smoked tuna below, and I liked it, but I enjoyed the beef tenderloin carpaccio with caperberries much more. Wine pairing can change the experience of a dish dramatically, so perhaps the surprising chianti pairing that they had it with was a factor, or I'm just plain missing something, and would appreciate it more with a more sophisticated palate. I had mine with the chardonnay that the server picked for me. My dining companions also preferred the beef carpaccio. And now I'm wondering where one can buy caperberries. The three course prix fixe menu is quite a good deal at $36, with lots of options for each course. The three of us shared one of those, and a few dishes off the tapas menu. When the appetizer dishes started coming out, we looked at them, and thought that we would still be hungry (particularly seeing the oysters) and would need to order quite a bit more, but the meal was surprisingly filling by the end of it all.



Smoked Albacore Tuna, with beets, truffle vinaigrette and crispy shallots $12
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Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio
with caperberries, truffle aioli and shaved parmesan (on the prix fixe menu)



Half-dozen local Oysters, cornmeal-crusted and fried, with tartar sauce $12



Herb-crusted New Zealand Lamb Loin
provencal-style tart and haricots vert $24

This lamb was perfectly cooked. It's a nice solid dish.



Syrah braised Beef Short Rib with macaroni and cheese $15

The short rib was wonderfully rich, tender, and flavourful, and the cute little mac and cheese was tasty and just a perfect little partner for the beef. It was probably my favourite of the night, along with the beef carpaccio. I ordered a zinfandel without asking for the wine pairing list again, and regretted not checking the list.


Brown Butter Almond Cake

I liked this almond cake quite a bit. It's served with a nice honey buttermilk ice sorbet that tastes a bit like creme fraiche. Somehow my photo of the lemon tart disappeared, but it was really tart, as lemon tart fans seem to prefer, with quite a substantial crust, which seemed to balance the sourness a bit. I'm not really a lemon tart person, so it was a bit too tart for me, and I was recently spoiled by a lemon tart that really grabbed me. I haven't let go of my memory of the Nu lemon tart that had a beautifully thin crust, and a wonderful delicateness to it. Our capuccinos were quite good.

In the end, I wouldn't hesitate to come back to this restaurant a second time if the opportunity comes up, and I'm interested in splurging on a night of both food and drink. If I get a bit of a cold shoulder a second time, I'll know better for a third. Perhaps it didn't live up to my admittedly too high expectations going in, and it hasn't quite won me over entirely yet, but I definitely enjoyed and appreciated what they are doing there, and love their menu concept.

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