Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I like to be surprised.
Especially when I visit a small business without great expectations.
Just over a year ago, I wandered into Stubborn Seed, a new restaurant created by Jeremy Ford. You may remember him. You'll more likely remember his face. He won Top Chef Season 13 and came across with a slight excess of bro-ishness.
I expected, then, an imperfect experience. Instead, it was so deeply uplifting that I had to write about it. Sample:
This was superb food being dished up with the minimum of ceremony and the maximum of care.
During a recent business trip to Miami, I thought I'd go back to what has now become an esteemed South Beach haunt. Would it be as good? Would it be even better? I didn't really contemplate a potential let-down. That's how much I'd liked it previously.
Every restaurant owner will tell you how tough business is these days. In an era of relatively full employment, it's hard to find and keep staff. It's hard to create an atmosphere that keeps customers coming back when there are intrepid -- or foolhardy -- people opening restaurants all the time.
Worse, as a restaurateur told me only last week, millennials are increasingly expecting their food to be delivered, rather than endure the sheer distress of a lovely ambience, warm service and meticulously crafted food.
At Stubborn Seed, I was led to a table in the main part of the restaurant, rather than in the bar. The menu had changed a little, but that's to be expected. Yet another of a restaurant's difficulties is keeping the menu fresh enough to interest cooks, as well as keeping some core dishes that regulars can't live without.
Last year, I'd chosen a five-course tasting menu. This time, conscious of my advancing years and retreating belt-level, I chose four dishes á la carte.
With some speed, the first fish dish arrived. I'd not had too many bites of it when the second dish did too.
Which seemed a touch awkward, but I want to be forgiving. One of these two dishes was a salad -- bathed in a rather acidic dressing, I should add -- so I felt able to at least contemplate pairing it with another dish.
In a very short time, an octopus appeared. A komby charred octopus, to be precise.
A chef brought it over -- Ford wasn't in the kitchen that night -- and, when I reacted with an attempt at simultaneous surprise and disappointment, the chef smiled and walked away without a word. My communication skills clearly need work.
The restaurant wasn't full, yet my server didn't wander back to my table to see if everything was alright. I had to look up and adjust my eyes to the "please can you see the furrowing of my brows?" setting before he came over.
I explained that my table was rather full and it seemed a touch much to eat all of these dishes simultaneously.
The server cheerily removed the octopus. I finished my first two dishes and the octopus instantly returned. By now it was a lukewarm, rubbery giant vulture digit.
After quite some time, the server came over and asked:
How are you finding your octopus?
To which I replied:
I'm finding it's the same octopus as before that's been kept under a heat lamp for 15 minutes.
He looked at me and, I fear, momentarily debated with himself. Then he offered:
I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't.
By now, I'd communed with three-quarters of this digit, so I declined his belated attempt to have another one prepared. More importantly, however, this wasn't exactly Michelin three-star service. And I only mention those three stars because Eater rates Stubborn Seed as as a three Michelin-star restaurant -- if only Miami had Michelin stars.
Most of the dishes were still enjoyable, but not quite the standard of the previous year.
An Alternative. Service Brings A Smile.
This isn't to say don't eat at Stubborn Seed. Next time I'm in Miami, I'll go again. This experience, however, underlined how hard it is to maintain excellence in a restaurant. Even some of the best have very bad nights.
I can hear you mutter, however, that the server had at least taken the octopus off my check. Ah, no he didn't. There were no compensatory gestures at all.
I walked away musing on the ephemral nature of so many small businesses.
My disappointment was compounded because, two nights previously, I'd gone to a Miami restaurant that Eater deems worthy of only two Michelin stars.
It's called Alter and it embraces several tasting menu options in a very casual atmosphere.
I'd never been there before and asked the server for guidance. She suggested I have seven courses and then add in the restaurant's signature dish. It's a so-called soft egg that enjoys sea scallop espuma, truffle pearls and Siberian caviar.
Honestly, this didn't sound like my thing. The server insisted I'd love it. I suggested I was a touch too large for such excesses. She insisted. I demurred. She was charming. I resisted.
Please, I barely ever go to places with tasting menus. The mere idea of seven courses -- however small -- was already daunting. She smiled and retreated, but not before we'd discussed what the Portuguese had allegedly done to her native Brazil.
All the food was so beautifully prepared, so elegantly plated and so entertainingly tasty without being even slightly pretentious. And how often do you get to experience an Australian Montepulciano called The Bullet Dodger?
After three small, but perfectly formed courses, the server placed another dish in front of me.
"What's this?" I asked.
"It's the soft egg," she said. "I just thought you should try it, so I had one made for you."
Her cheeky countenance was so winning that all I could do was thank her. Oddly, the egg was quite enjoyable, if just a little rich.
I confess, though, that this evening at Alter had been a truly exemplary experience, made memorable by the attitude of the servers and the chefs. I was seated opposite the kitchen, alone with a José Mourinho biography. The chefs wanted to talk about my shoes. (Oh, I was in Miami so, you know..)
The restaurant was very busy. I paid the check and quietly meandered out. After walking twenty paces I heard someone shout: "Sir, sir."
I turned around. It was the manager, leaning out of the restaurant door. "Thank you for coming in tonight," he continued. I thanked him and waved. Then I walked on with a smile of utter contentment invading my face.
Alter was opened in 2015. I think the management may have learned how to stay in business.