Destinations Magazine

Dining in France: When and How to Send a Plate Back?

By Johntalbott

A loyal reader wrote me as follows “Your pigeon [at a recent restaurant] seems to be an arguing point:  was it wrong enough to return? …. We are very reluctant to send anything back.  

It upsets the rhythm of the table as well as the kitchen.  The kitchen has a natural bias to believe that it was correct the first time, ergo erring in the opposite direction on the return.   I remember sending back beautiful thick slabs of liver that had been cooked to an internal gray.   The replacements were bleu mais froid, equally inedible.  

Plus, the decision must be made immediately!, not 5 minutes into the plate.   No adjustment should be expected for uneaten plates that were not reported.

At the same time, one shouldn't have to eat incorrect food, or go hungry or pay for what is simply wrong.”

This is a wonderful dilemma.

Recently I was served a bad dish and the rest of the meal and Colette’s was great and ample enough for two.  When the head waiter (and owner I think) started to clear our plates he asked if something was wrong and I told him; he quickly offered to have the same or another dish prepared; I indicated that was most kind but unnecessary.  He said how sorry he was (it was a rather new place) and walked over with a smart-card that had a refund embedded in it; thus obviating the need to take it off the bill, prepare another course or reprepare mine.  I thought that was pretty classy since I had indicated I was satisfied.  Will we go back?  I dunno.

Another time, four of us were eating over in the 12th and the amuse bouches and first courses were terrific as were three of the four mains – just my brains were bad product, probably thawed out and cooked after too long a storage time.  Did I complain?  No, as my correspondent said, it would have “upset the rhythm,” and besides everyone was happy and I was busily poaching off their plates.

Regarding the pigeon my letter-writer referenced, again, if it was to be replaced and was made from scratch, it would have arrived long after my dining partner had finished her main, dessert and coffee – not worth the trouble and besides, I was convinced everything that emanated from that kitchen was frozen-thawed-poorly cooked Metro crap.

And then there’s my oft-told story of eating at Helene Darroze’s downstairs’ “brasserie” was it called?  Four of us had the worst 8 courses of our lives and collectively decided there was no way that kitchen and chef could repair anything, so after a total of eight bites we dumped all the food in a plastic bag and left it under the table so the message would be clear.  I think we then went to that ice cream/gelato shop over near the Luxembourg to celebrate our freedom.

Finally and a bit off the point of sending plates back, there are times when I, getting older and less needful of enormous servings, will happily have half of a very good piece of beef or mini-pizza/flammekueche and apport the rest home for dinner.  Thank the inventor of ziplock bags.
It’s not always clear what went wrong with some dishes:

1. Sometimes the preparation and ingredients just don’t play well together, as happened with a chicken Normande I had in Providence that just didn’t work even though made with top-notch products by a top-notch chef,
2. Sometimes there’s a miscommunication between the customer, waitperson and chef such as what happened yesterday occurs where Madame’s lamb was raw and my liver well done, the opposite of what we requested;
3. Sometimes one gets the one rotten langoustine among the 16 good ones,
4. Sometimes one’s expectations of a preparation is not what the chef’s Grandmother’s version was like,
5. Sometimes it needed to be kept under the salamander as my dishes at Louloucam were not but Francois Simon’s at Chez La Mere Catherine were for too long, and
6. Sometimes dishes aren’t as people expect, which I’ve heard from the hordes of Americans I’ve sent to Ze who cannot fathom why I so love the place.

And then there’s sending back wine.  Of course if it’s corked or vinegarized, do it.  (My local wine guy on the Rue du Poteau maintains that the French wine industry expects 10% spoilage and it’s no skin off his nose because the vintner eats or drinks as the case might be, the loss.  He takes one sniff of my returned bottles and no questions are asked). 

One new old trend I’ve noticed that more and more places, especially in New York, seem to taste the wine before letting you at it, thus obviating any argument about its being musty or sweet or maderized when that’s how it’s supposed to be.

But in the end, as my friend Ptipois says, it’s just food after all, so don’t sweat the small stuff.

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