I walked into Smith and Wollensky tonight a touch on the casual side. It’s the norm for gentlemen to be in a suit and tie, and I was wearing a polo shirt and slacks (not jeans). After a friendly welcome (and a quick glance), I said I was just going to the bar for a drink, and an older gentleman – perhaps the Maître d’ – “mentioned” that the bar in back was also open. I took the hint (without offense), headed left, and took a seat at a completely empty bar.
It quickly dawned on me that, although this bar was up-and-running, with, I will add, two flatscreen TVs (ahem), this was being used mainly as a service bar – the one where restaurant customers would get their drinks filled. As a result, despite me being the only customer sitting here, the lone bartender was pretty busy. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good reason he was working the service bar: not much in the way of interpersonal skills, especially considering I was about to be his biggest (and only) tip of the night.
“I’ll be with you in a few minutes,” he said, and when he finally got around to me, I ordered a draft Goose Island IPA ($7.00 for about a 10-ounce pour), then waited for a menu.
For an appetizer, I decided on something fairly novel for such a stodgy restaurant: Tuna Crudo on a Himalayan Salt Block ($17). This was a nice dish, with high-grade tuna, about six good-sized pieces (the menu says it’s sliced thin, but it isn’t), half of them medium-fatty, the other half quite lean. Accompanied by a salad of what I think was watercress and enoki mushrooms, drenched in olive oil, the whole thing came served on an ingot of Himalayan salt, the size of an Englehard Silver Bar and weighing about 3-4 pounds. Indeed, it was a pure block of salt, but was so hard that it was difficult to scrape any off. Ironically, the salad was undersalted, making me feel like the exact opposite of a man dying of thirst on a raft in the ocean. As Coleridge wrote:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
To put the service in perspective, when I had finished my appetizer – which I recommend trying if you don’t mind spending the money – I walked upstairs to visit the restroom. Before I left, I said that I’d love a glass of Bulleit 95 Rye ($14) with my entree which I ordered at that time. “Neat or on the rocks?” my bartender asked. “Neat, with one ice cube on the side,” I said. When I came back down, several minutes later, the bartender was behind the bar, not working on any service drinks, and both my empty plate and empty beer glass remained right where they were, my napkin was on the chair where I left it, and there was no glass of rye to be found.
I took a seat, my bartender replaced my silverware, and I said, “I’d love that glass of Bulleitt when you get a moment.” He put the glass down on the rubber matrix thing behind the bar, alongside a second glass with two ice cubes, and tilted the bottle to pour my drink. As he was pouring, I said to myself, “Your tip’s on the line. Your tip’s on the line. Your tip’s on the line.” After an unbelievably miserly pour, he stopped, and my heart sank. Then, he pulled the oldest bartending trick in the book: he “decided” to top it off with a second pour, and just as my heart began to rise again, he stopped, the second pour amounting to only a dribble. It was a cheap, crummy pour, and I was his only customer of the night. Yeah, you know, I hate to sound petty, but that pissed me off. He was hoping the pour was small enough where I’d order a second one, but I wasn’t going to. Also, for the first time in memory, a bartender finished pouring a drink, then walked away and started doing something else, leaving it on the rubber matrix, and not offering it to me. I honestly didn’t know what to do: should I reach across and take it, or would that be rude? Well, after about fifteen seconds, I reached across and took it.
My appetizer was good enough where I decided to make it a tuna evening. Wasabi Crusted Tuna ($32) was a plate of three *huge* pieces of tuna – each the size of a petit filet mignon – cooked slightly above the rare doneness that I’d requested, and served with bok choy and carrots on top of a pomegranate black garlic sauce, with a little tub of needless wasabi (which seemed powdered) on the side. Although I had a strong preference for my crudo, this was a good dish, and despite the price, was a good value for the money – it was a humongous portion of tuna. The runner who served me my entree asked me if I’d like a glass of ice water. I said yes, with genuine appreciation, and wondered why I hadn’t gotten one thirty minutes before.
My bill, before tax and tip, was $69 for two drinks, an appetizer, and an entree. My bartender got a $13 tip, as opposed to the $14 I’d normally leave. It was a subtle swipe, but a swipe nonetheless. He could have, and certainly should have, been more attentive to his only customer of the evening. The food at Smith and Wollensky on this evening was pretty good; the service left much to be desired. Let me make myself clear here: my bartender seemed like a decent fellow; he just wasn’t a very good bartender.