Blog of an aspiring foodie

So how many chances does a restaurant get?

Posted by beer_chris on 25-October-2008

In general, I’ve been wondering for some time how many ‘chances’ a restaurant should get before it can reliably be written off. As a study in contrasts, I’ve been thinking about my recent experience at Catalan against a previous visit to The Grove.

I’ll return to Catalan – I’ll bookend this negative report with that comment – but my first meal there is one that at any other restaurant would likely have me never return. I ordered a seafood special – loaded with fresh gulf seafood: amberjack, shrimp, lump crab meat and a super tasty andouille sausage. The sausage, though, was chopped and mixed into a jambalaya which was the base for the rest of the food. I have described the dish to others as a celebration of a return of local seafood to Houston after hurricane Ike – the fish and shrimp were delicious – but ultimately it didn’t really come together as a coherent course. The cooked to-order jambalaya was too spicy and overwhelmed the amberjack’s flavor, and the arborio-like rice was downright crunchy.

In fairness to Catalan, I ate every ounce of the seafood and the andouille before I even said anything to the server, so I certainly didn’t expect a replacement dish. The server said he would let the chef know it had happened, and then – nothing. I honestly expected something small – a tasting portion of the jambalaya cooked correctly, a little cheese plate before dessert, even a visit from the floor manager to offer some type of simple apology.

That nothing happened was not a big deal. The evening was still very enjoyable, and as I said before we’ll definitely be back to try more of the fantastic menu. However, I couldn’t help but think about experiences like this I have had at other restaurants – places I’ve never returned to – and why I feel differently about Catalan.

Take The Grove for instance. I took my team there for a celebration luncheon. It was roundly disappointing. I had a shrimp burger, expecting something a little spicy, and got a flavorless patty made with overcooked shrimp pieces. No one else at the table was especially happy either, and I’ve never been back. However, when I consider the situation, Grove had just opened, as it was just weeks after the Discovery Green grand opening – and the menu had just changed completely prior to our visit. Since that visit The Grove has been lauded as one of the best restaurants in Houston, and yet I’ve not even considered going back.

Why? Why am I so certain to return to Catalan and so doubtful on Grove? Part of the reason is Chris Shepherd, whose personality I came to enjoy at a chef’s table dinner at Brennan’s. I don’t know the man, but for whatever reason I’m simply confident he can do better, and I’m willing to give him the chance. I suppose I’ve always been cool on the Cordua restaurants in general, and so that poisons my opinion of the Grove (I’ll save that for another post :-). Catalan was starting from a position of strength in my mind, and The Grove had some apologizing to do, all before I walked in the door the first time.

So, what does this tell me on my question, just how many chances should a restaurant get? I think all of this context plays a role. I’m probably just now ready to go back to the Grove, and I’ll also likely return to Cullen’s even after a series of mixed results with my visits there. I think it comes down to choices. If I’ve had a negative experience at a restaurant, am I likely to choose to return there or go somewhere ‘new’ or ‘better’ – whatever that might mean. Obviously the negative experience poisons the liklihood of a future visit, but it doesn’t completely co-opt it.

I do certainly think it is important not to judge a place on a single experience – even if that experience is profoundly negative – but that may not even be a hard and fast rule.

This would be an interesting research topic for a gastro-economist or some other type of made up profession – analyzing decision making in restaurant likes and dislikes, and the factors and choices involved.


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