Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hair in my salad and other $20 lunch stories

I have been sampling some of Manhattan's finest spots during Restaurant Week for at least a decade, starting when a three-course lunch was priced according to the year: $19.96, $19.97 and so forth. A couple of years ago, with little fanfare and no notice in the media, the meal jumped from twenty dollars and change to $24.07. Sometimes, I still call it the $20 lunch.

Today, I drove into the city by myself for a fine meal at Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro on East 32nd Street, and the waitress was nice enough to substitute a cheese plate for the high-calorie desserts listed on the price-fixed menu. As it turned out, it was the least she could do.

I started with the mesclun salad, served in a deep bowl, and just as I was remarking to myself how nicely dressed it was, I noticed a hair on the side of the bowl that came into view as I ate down the red- and green-leaf lettuce. When I pointed it out to the woman who seated a couple next to me, she whisked it away. I got another salad and apologies from three staff members.

My entree was a superb skate wing, breaded and served over a bed of miniature croutons, baby cauliflower and capers in a sweet blood-orange sauce, one of the chef's specialities. I finished with two cheeses, quince and bread.

The hair wasn't the only problem. I saw two flies, a tiny one that came out from who knows where when I was eating my salad and a larger one that seemed to be heading for my face and zigzagged at the last moment. I have seen flies in fine-dining places before, including Nobu and Tribeca Grill in Manhattan, and do not understand how the staff tolerates them. They are among the filthiest insects.

The $20 .... uh .... $24 lunch is sort of a game with me. I have been drinking only tap water since restaurants started charging for refills of iced tea, seltzer and so forth. I tip exactly 18%, up from 15% last year, but exclude the tax. Today, the check read $24.07 for food and $2.02 for tax. I added a $4.33 tip for a total of $30.42. Summer Restaurant Week is scheduled to end this coming Friday, when I'm planning to join a friend for the $24.07 lunch at Del Posto, the enormously expensive Italian place opened by Chef Mario Batali and others.

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