Monday, August 20, 2012

Peru comes to Roseville

I really like Peruvian food, and was surprised to see an elegant new Peruvian restaurant opening in Roseville. Normally this is a cuisine that I have to enjoy in Los Angeles, but now I hoped I'd have a new favorite local destination.

This is where I need to say that being in a restaurant management program is definitely not the route to take if you want to enjoy dining out. You see glaring errors by the service, lack of training, bad hostessing, bad management, missed opportunities, dashed expectations, plating errors... all stacking up with a single purpose: to destroy your chances of enjoying all but a very few restaurants. These things can be overlooked at inexpensive dives; plating a burrito or torta ahogada really isn't that critical. But in fine dining, plating a lamb shank with half its meat gone swimming in the sauce in the kitchen becomes a reason never to return. Likewise serving oxidized wine for tasting, opened who knows when. Blowing a dessert by masking the star ingredient in favor of flour and strawberries... not so fine.

This was one of those times where I think of the Turing test when dealing with a wait person. This is the test where you plunk down a human at a terminal and give him or her a few minutes to converse with someone or something at the other end of the line. If the person can't tell if he or she is talking to a machine, it passes the test. Both the waiter and the hostess might have struggled to pass, sometimes giving what seemed like incoherent answers.

The "free wine tasting" poured from a bottle containing perhaps an inch of wine at the bottom. Against my hopes, it was indeed oxidized. Transformed from fragrant wine into something less good, not indicative of its true character. What else can you expect, when the bottle contains 90% air and 10% wine? So, naturally I said something too complicated when asked if I liked the wine: "I don't know, since it was opened too long ago, oxidized and no longer tastes of itself."

What would a good waiter do? He'd say, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize that this had been open so long. I'll open another bottle so you can have a fair taste.". This didn't happen. He just walked away, mumbling something that lowered his Turing score, or just proved that he didn't know spoiled wine from Gatorade - or maybe didn't want to waste house money by opening a bottle that I might not order. So, bad management (not authorizing the wait staff to open new bottles when necessary), or badly trained wait staff? I don't know. Maybe both. One demerit.

Carnitas by another name does indeed taste as porky. It's apparently called "chicharrón" in Peru, but it's made the same as carnitas, from pork butt or pork shoulder - not pork belly. It's simmered then fried, just like carnitas. The sauce and finish are different, but basically it's four or five (I wasn't counting, so let's say five) one inch cubes of pork. Lined up on a plate, each glued down with a dab of pureed sweet potato and topped with a squidge of aioli. Sweetish pork, sweet puree, sweetish onion, a bit of garlic. No acid to kick things into a higher gear, but a price worthy of Campagnolo (expensive bike parts... never mind). That's something that probably runs, what, four bucks a pound or less. Five cubes, lots of negative, aesthetic and empty space around it. Good deal for the house, but it seems the Mexican restaurants can make a profit on carnitas plates that are much more generously endowed and come with rice, beans, salsa and chips to boot. Hmm. Not trying for repeat, non-special occasion business here, are we?

Every time I've eaten a lamb shank, it's had meat going all around the bone, just like it was on the animal. Muscle groups come in opposing sets so the beastie can bend its hoof this way and that. Since muscles only pull - they don't push. This lamb was apparently a mutant, since it only had meat on one side of the bone. Where did the other half go? Presumably it's still in the pot, where it came off the bone during the long braising process. The problem is, from a management point of view, that nobody verified this. It just got plated and served. Nobody cared. Maybe I'm wrong, and they used that piece of meat for something else (I couldn't find lamb anywhere else on the menu, but this proves nothing). So, here I am, surprised to discover as I turn over my shank, that lunch is over. The waiter's attitude was not exactly of service - he didn't care that the wine was long past its prime. There was nobody else in the place who interacted with customers, save the hostess, and she wasn't into smiling herself.

In culinary arts, we learn that if something is based on a principal ingredient, it should actually taste like said ingredient. Our "Passionfruit piece of heaven with forest fruit didn't. With a name like Pedazo de cielo de maracuya con frutas del bosque (if I remember correctly), the passion fruit should jump up and shout, like that paleta I ate in Mexico. Instead, it tasted primarily of strawberries and mint. This was another instance of taking what should probably have been one medium-sized flan-like thing and plating it with some garnishes, maybe even fruit that actually comes from Peruvian woods. It was instead divided into three slider-like mini-things. Pretty, but not a lot of dessert mass for the money.

I wonder what Peruvian forest fruits could be. Peru runs from the Pacific Ocean, over the Andes and into the Amazon rain forest. Lots of opportunities for fruits, so how did Peruvian forest fruits become field-grown strawberries? Perhaps they were grown in Peru, but still... I was expecting something more exotic. A quick search yielded interesting things. Camu camu, cherimoya, maracuya, dragonfruit (Pitajaya)... but not strawberries. Some are available as frozen puree, so presumably they could have made a coulis out of a couple of them and gone wildly Peruvian.

There were two examples of a red wine varietal available by the glass. The waiter did not ask which one I wanted - he merely poured the most expensive, saying that it was the bottle we'd tasted. Our fault? No - it's his job to ask whenever there is more than one price point for the same varietal. Sneaky, sneaky - but we should have paid more attention. Why? We're hoping that the house wants us to come back and won't sneak around. It was a $4.00 difference, not really enough to matter in the monetary sense, but enough to create a strong perception of profit maximization at our expense. Badly done!

Managing expectations is a key term here. You want to exceed expectations, make the customer feel special, cared for, honored. Avoid at all costs making your guests feel like marks in a carny show. 

It's all about perception, not necessarily reality. This creates happy customers who will likely return later and spend more money - part of other key terms like frequency. The basic goals are to get people to come more often and spend more money. Either or both works. Neither is not great, since it leads to bankruptcy after the novelty of the place wears off. These guys set expectations high, then failed to meet them. Tasty food but expensive with small portions. Spoiled wine and perceived indifference by the wait staff. Going for profit over satisfaction and hospitality by pouring the expensive wine while ignoring the more reasonably priced glass of the same varietal, with a perception of house greediness. Perceived missing food in the case of the lamb shank. Leaving the customer to wonder where the main dessert ingredient went, after suggesting the dessert as better than another (more expensive, too - so perception of upselling). Perception of lack of hospitality when the hostess seemed annoyed or worried that I would abscond or otherwise ruin a culinary book set out for display (if you don't want the books touched, but them in a glass case!).

So, here was the result: we felt somewhat swindled from the combination of high prices, small portion sizes, the wine switch and the missing lamb. This was compounded by the waiter's lack of action over the spoiled wine offered for tasting and his failure to ask which Malbec we wanted to order. We didn't feel cared for, since every time we mentioned something wrong, we were met with a mumble, an excuse, and no action whatsoever. Problems arise. Failing to deal with them can be fatal. Fixing them can turn them into assets and create avid, faithful fans who will return.

The final clavo en el ataúd was the hostess as we were leaving, who looked ready to defend a pristine cookbook at the entrance with tooth and nail - but not find out if the house desserts came from its pages. She asked if I had a question. I did. She had no answer. Instead of smiling, finding someone, creating an interaction, a link to the person preparing the food, maybe a reason to return, she ended the conversation, question unanswered. In an empty reception area, she was too busy. Missed opportunity.

I posted the following review elsewhere on the web, where the restaurant might see it and possibly improve things - or start ranting and send nasty PMs... hopefully the former.

La Huaca Restaurant

This could become a really great restaurant - or vanish, but only time will tell. The food is generally quite good, but everything else... read on!

My star-losing complaints are that I feel like there's a fair amount of portion size sleight of hand going on here relative to the price points. Compounding this, the wait staff seemed more intent on maxing out the check. It seemed like there was no chef in charge, nobody to care for each plate to come out of the kitchen.

The portion size thing would be fine if the prices were lower - I'm all in favor of small plates, but only if they have small prices so I can sample more things. La Huaca likes  to put tiny morsels on one elegant, spacious dish with a lot of air in between. That's some expensive air!

They have a ceviche "bar". Although, it isn't really. See, at a real bar, people sit at bars, interact with the bar chef. Here you order from the menu; the bar maestro does his thing across the room. No interaction. The ceviche is nonetheless fresh,  like pieces of sushi grade fish tossed in a citrus-flavor mix and served, so that it doesn't really "cook" in the marinade so much as soak up the flavor.

Our pork appetizer was like Peruvian carnitas. One inch cubes of tender pork sitting on an orange sweet potato purée, topped with some onion and aioli. The flavors lacked contrast; everything had a bit of a sweet note that would have profited from some acidity to compliment the other flavors. At half the price, this might be worth getting.

The lamb shank sat buried in sauce, with a dab of beans at its side. The meat was indeed falling off the bone, for when I turned the shank over, there was no meat there, just a bare bone. Huh? Where's the rest of my food? A mistake? Or not? Half the meat? That's not fair! I paid for that meat. Didn't I?

When you name something "passion fruit piece of heaven with forest fruit" (my translation from the Spanish), you expect it to taste like passion fruit first and everything else second. Sorry. The star - maracuya - was almost a no show, drowned by strawberry and mint. Another plate of mostly air:  three small, cakey things arranged on a plate.

Free wine tasting is supposed to be an amenity, but my first taste came from a bottle that sat open too long: feh!. When I pointed this out to the waiter, he just walked off. He didn't return with a freshly opened bottle so I could taste the wine as its maker intended, but instead offered a taste of another varietal. Things didn't get better, either.

One varietal appears twice on the wine list: two glasses with a four dollar price difference. When I ordered that varietal, he brought the most expensive glass without even asking which I wanted. His excuse? "I poured out of the expensive bottle, so you should have known." Fail!

Oh, one more thing. Those beautiful cook books at the entrance? LEAVE THEM ALONE! I tried looking up the passion fruit dessert (not there) and the hostess came over to hover around and ask if I had questions. I did - but she couldn't answer them. She was there to Protect the Book. I noticed from outside that she carefully checked the book for damage (none) and carefully put in in its place on the table.

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