January 2006 Edition
Clean With a Side of Fresh

A great restaurant is sum of its parts


After a year of changing diapers, washing bottles and learning more about Old MacDonald's farm than I ever thought possible, I'm back to my job as the Star's restaurant critic.

Of course, I couldn't just walk away from restaurants while on maternity leave. I still ate out, a new mother starved for calories and a chance to get out of the house.

What I witnessed in various dining rooms around the city both cheered and depressed me. I loved it when a team of chefs, owners and servers got it right, transmuting a weekday restaurant meal into a thing of grace and pleasure. Yet I hated to see restaurants keep making the same dumb mistakes.

Hospitality is made up of considerations large and small. Sure, everyone thinks about the big stuff, like making sure to throw out that three-week-old potato salad or not hiring your alcoholic nephew to tend the bar. But a restaurateur who neglects the little things undermines his or her own efforts and the public's desire to return.

So, to the industry, consider the following list a gentle reminder of what not to do. If you don't recognize in yourself any of these common faults, well then, I'll be paying you a visit very soon to see this miracle for myself.


I can't blame restaurants for the fact that out of 30,000 species of fish in the sea, the three most popular types in this city are salmon, salmon and salmon. The fault in this lies in our unadventurous tastes. That said, the fish that Toronto kitchens send forth is invariably overcooked and less than fresh. No self-respecting chef would serve meat that smelled off, so why cook fish that's been sitting around in the cooler for a week? A fishy smell is a dicey prospect, indeed.


Any cook can plop food into hot fat and call it deep-frying. Only a good cook imparts crispness but not greasiness to fried foods, with no off flavours. A kitchen thermometer helps determine the optimum temperature of hot fat — butter, oil, lard — as does throwing in a stale bread cube. Please try it. And change the oil more frequently.


A green salad should be green. Not black and slimy, thanks to rotten lettuce. At a trendy seafood restaurant recently, I ordered what turned out to be a particularly nasty mesclun salad. When I complained, it was quickly replaced with a bowl of pristine greens that should have been the first and only thing sent through the kitchen door.


While on the subject of freshness, I must wag a finger at the stale walnuts, hazelnuts and peanuts used everywhere from the humblest Thai takeaway joint to the Sunday brunch of a fancy Yorkville hotel. Even if just for garnish, nuts shouldn't be rancid.


Moving away from the kitchen to the service, there's no reason why pouring water has to be so complicated. First, customers are subjected to a three-point questionnaire: Tap or bottled? Sparkling or still? Lemon or lime? I understand that ordering bottled water at $7 a pop guarantees the server a larger tip, but conceal your disappointment should I opt for the tap. Either way, keep water glasses filled without prompting.


Not everyone is a good speller. That's why every computer has a spell-check feature. Use it when creating menus. That way, I won't have to wonder at your competence when you list among your specialties "crapes with raison sauce" or point and laugh at the "london boil." And it's just plain wrong when a Chinese (or any other) restaurant offers "human beef."


When you're hungry, the only thing worse than waiting for your food is waiting when everyone else at the table has theirs. It's not that hard to serve a party of four simultaneously, presuming the kitchen has its act together. Round up a manager or a busboy to help.


Someone comes in, say hello. Someone leaves, say goodbye. It's that simple. Don't deflate the goodwill generated by an hour or two of attentive service by letting customers walk out unacknowledged.


A dirty bathroom makes me question a lot of things about a restaurant. Clean the bathrooms daily, and check on them during service, as well. Just don't do it like one downtown Japanese restaurant, where I witnessed the kimono-clad waitress empty the garbage piece by piece with her bare hands, and then walk out without washing them.

Give me a place with a readable menu, a conscientious server, a clean bathroom, a friendly maitre d', fresh ingredients and a bottomless glass of tap water — with or without the lime — and I'm halfway to heaven. Add great food and I'm there.



Reprinted with permission - Torstar Syndication Services