December 12, 2013

Where is my Riedel Sommelier?!

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Another month has gone by pretty fast, and time for another dinner with Mo' Unni.  It seems we are taking turns picking the venues, and she's decided to check out 121BC.  To be honest, I vaguely remember hearing about it (among the dozens of restaurants that had opened recently) and had no idea what the place was about - as I'm a total ignoramus and don't keep track of restaurants beyond the Not-So-Fragrant-Harbor.  But hey, Mo' Unni wants, Mo' Unni gets.

Upon arrival, I was led to our seats in the middle of the lone, long communal table.  I'd done a little research beforehand, so I knew this place was extremely casual.  Even so, I didn't expect it to be essentially a bar... which is what it really is, more than a restaurant.

We scanned the chalkboard on the wall for the dishes they have available today.  This is a night out with No Fish, so the sardines and mullet are off the table... and we picked non-fishy items instead.

Octopus, potato, olive - pretty good.  The octopus tentacles were very tender, and tons of smoky and charred flavors here.

Roast peppers, white beans, anchovy, breadcrumbs - this was pretty good, too... Interesting that this was like a crumble thanks to the breadcrumbs.  The roast peppers were nice, but biting into a piece of anchovy was a little wake-up call...

Rotolo braised beef cheeks, roast pumpkin, sage - gotta say... this was pretty damn good for my first rotolo.  The braised beef cheeks were very tender, the pumpkin was very sweet, and the deep-fried sage added a little something extra.  The only issue is that the pasta was getting a little soggy sitting in the bowl.

Balsamic pork ribs, radicchio, cannellini beans - the portion was pretty big, with three reasonably big ribs.  Flavor-wise coating the ribs in balsamic was a good call, but the execution fell slightly short.  The exterior was a little too burnt and dry, while there was so much fat inside that it was impossible to be anything but tender.  I couldn't believe myself when I started to cut out some of the fat... What has my diet done to my head?!

All-in-all, I thought the food was pretty good, and the prices were very reasonable.  It's not hard to see why this place was packed.

So why have I decided never to go back?

I went to the restaurant tonight carrying my own bottle of wine, as I normally would.  It is a rare occasion that I would buy wine off a restaurant's list, given that my collection can easily last me another 20 years and I would want every opportunity to try to run down my inventory.  It's a given that I always bring wine to dinner (and sometimes lunch).  One fine dining restaurant that is glaringly missing from this here blog is L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong, for the simple reason that they don't allow guests to BYO.  The last time I had dinner there was back in 2007.

As a former investor in a restaurant, I fully understand that the margins and profits are on the B side of the business rather than the F side.  I do want restaurants to make money, so unlike some of my friends who balk, I am always happy to pay corkage.  I appreciate it when restaurants give me a break on this and waive some or all of the corkage, but when push came to shove... I'll always pay for the privilege to bring my own wines.

So I waved one of the staff over and inquired about the corkage, but I wasn't at all prepared to be told that it would be HKD 500.  Huh?!  WHAT-THE-FUCK?!

Yes, I have on numerous occasions paid HKD 500 per bottle for corkage.  I'm used to doing it at restaurants like Caprice, Amber, and other fine dining restaurants in 5-star hotels.  There have been occasions when I've forked out HKD 4,000 or more for corkage in a single evening.  That's absolutely fine, because at restaurants like Caprice, what I'm getting are the use of Riedel Sommerlier hand-blown crystal glasses, Riedel or other crystal decanters, and the service of properly trained sommeliers like Sebastien who knows how to handle just about any wine I bring in.

But here I was, sitting at a communal table rubbing shoulders with strangers, in a totally cramped environment while half the joint was sitting on bar stools, where the place was so loud that I couldn't even hear myself, never mind my dining companion sitting across from me.  I was certainly not gonna get to use hand-blown crystal glasses, and I couldn't even tell if the wine glasses others were using were crystal or potash.  Maybe there was one on staff, but I didn't see anyone who looked like a sommelier on the premises.  So why does this place have the gall to think that they deserve to charge the same level of corkage as Caprice or Amber?!

My blood was boiling now.  To keep it in perspective, the most expensive dish on the food menu cost HKD 220.  So they were gonna charge me more than twice that, and for what?!  What, pray tell, would be the value-add that they could possibly provide for that price?!

Years ago I almost walked out of Duke's Burger when they wanted to charge me twice the cost of a premium burger for corkage, and I wasn't the least bit sad to see the place close down.  If I had been the one choosing the venue tonight, I would certainly have walked out in search of another place with a friendlier corkage policy.  But this was Mo' Unni's choice, so I stayed and bit my tongue.

I tucked my bottle of wine away, and sternly told the staff - more than once - that we weren't having any wine.  I would have happily paid HKD 250 or 300 for corkage and let them make some money off me on the B side, but now I was determined that they would make ZERO off me.  And they will never make another dime off me in the future.

Judging by the buzzing crowd and the fact that every other party was having wine, I'm sure they'll do well financially.  I'm sure they couldn't care less about losing me as a customer, as plenty of others are only too happy to fight for a seat.  The restaurant owner has the right to charge whatever they want, but I, as a customer, also have the right to choose where I spend my hard-earned money.  And I choose to do it somewhere else.


Unknown said...

a) You brought a bottle to a burger joint? SERIOUSLY? You don't drink beer?

b) At the very least you've acknowledged your opinion is highly biased and unfair. You, as an individual and as a blogger, are no friend to restaurants.

c) You seem to be encumbered by the sheer fact that you cannot dine out without your own personal wine cellar. Does this extra baggage make it an weary exercise?

d) You must also acknowledge Hong Kong has a very privileged BYO policy industry wide. Getting away with that in Australia, New York, Paris and London would be much more difficult.

f) I still don't understand that if your bottle is so amazing, you're not willing to pay $500HKD to open it in a casual bar. Sure, Caprice and MO has a lesser corkage, but their food is 10x the price. Are you SURE they love you over there?

I could go on but it's 5am here.


Honch said...

To be fair, you need to be a wine lover to understand this. But perhaps watching Sideways will help. I think Growing Boy has every right to say what he likes on his own blog. You don't have to read it if you don't like it. I sometime bring my Igloo to keep the wine chilled as most HK restaurants have inadequate accessories such as ice buckets. I have even in an occasion bought wine glasses for a restaurant. The owner was very grateful and we are more than happy to give his staff a generous tip every time we visit. HK is foodie heaven because most restaurants are flexible with their wine policies. Ideally, I like the buy a bottle of champagne and then the rest of the BYOs are free from any corkage. This is what I ask my wife's restaurant to do. Your last point is a matter of principle and a personal judgement. By the Growing Boy. I for one agree with him. Wine is a very personal passion. If you are not a wine geek, you will not understand. For this, I cannot blame you. Sante!


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