I've never forgotten hearing a radio interview with Patrick O'Connell, chef/owner of the Inn at Little Washington, one of the world's great restaurants. He didn't say much about his cooking. He wanted to talk about his philosophy of service. When a customer walks into his restaurant, he said, the staff sizes up the situation. Is the guy impatient, out of sorts? Is the couple having an argument? Is the mood expansive and chatty or peaceful and private? The server's job, O'Connell said, is to leave a customer feeling better than when he or she walked in.
O'Connell equated running a great restaurant with throwing a gigantic house party: "A successful party," he said, "like a great film or work of art, elevates the spirit, makes people feel life is worth living, and enhances a guest's self-esteem."
We've been over this ground before. This year, South Florida Zagat survey respondents sent restaurateurs a resounding message: They mostly hate the service they get at local restaurants. Restaurateurs complain that professional staff is hard to find in such a transient state and that retaining good servers, who can pick and choose jobs that often earn upward of $500 a night, is tough. But I know from my own years as a waitress decades spent on and off at places ranging from coffee shops to upscale neighborhood cafés that beyond the obligatory night of trailing another server, waitrons rarely get any systematic schooling in their art.
Mark's City Place
Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 6 till 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight, and Sunday till 10:30 p.m. Call 561-514-0770.
Being a waiter is rough work you have to be part psychologist, part clown, part long-suffering wife. Between the fanny pinching and the verbal abuse, to say nothing of the menu tours, the tip stiffing, the dietary restrictions my heart goes out to South Florida servers. But they still need proper training. That responsibility lies with restaurant owners.
We had big-city friends in from out of town recently, and we wanted to take them somewhere really nice special, even. So we booked a table at Mark's City Place. Mark Militello, the chef/brains behind this operation, owns four restaurants in South Florida in South Beach, on Las Olas Boulevard, in Boca Raton, and at CityPlace. I had dinner with my family at the South Beach location last summer, and the experience was perfect from preparation to plating to service. I also attended a chef demo at Sublime last fall where Militello whipped up a blissful four-course vegetarian meal. Militello's cooking has great subtlety and wit. I concur with the chorus of food lovers who've crowned him king of South Florida cuisine.
So I met my friends at CityPlace with great expectations and a full wallet. I knew Militello himself wasn't doing the cooking the day-to-day is left to Executive Chef James Grzybek. My mood was running high. Peter and François, the out-of-towners, giddy with new suntans and a week's vacation, were practically flying.
So what happened? It's hard to put a finger on exactly when our euphoria started to drain away, but it was clear within the course of a few minutes that there was something wrong with our waiter. When I asked if there were any specials that evening, he responded brusquely, "No verbal specials. It's all on the menu."
"And does the menu change every day?" I queried.
"It changes somewhat."
I looked down at my menu. There was indeed a date at the bottom. But no explanation of what might be new and different on this night's spread was forthcoming from Mr. Sunshine. Evidently, we weren't getting a menu tour. If we wanted one, we could just go back and reread Lee Klein's old New Times review the food has hardly changed in five years.
The place was nearly empty at 7:30 on a Friday night. It wasn't like this guy was busy. He just couldn't be bothered to manage any expression more welcoming than a sneer. The needle on my satisfaction index wavered. I was coming down, and Pete and François had plunged precipitously to unhappiness, in spite of the arrival of mojitos and gimlets. Somehow, our server had managed to make us feel that we were annoying him. When he reappeared to take our order, his mood hadn't improved. "Are you ready?" he snapped. "Go ahead."
We placed our order a hefty one. We'd all selected appetizers and entrées. For Peter: pan-seared citrus crab cake with jicama mango slaw and key lime avocado butter ($14), followed by the twin duck breasts with duck confit brie risotto ($26). For François: the tomato and mozzarella salad with grilled wild mushrooms and lemon truffle oil ($11), plus prime rib eye with truffled potatoes and onion rings ($42). I wanted baby spinach and roasted beet salad ($9) and tri-peppercorn-crusted yellowfin tuna with celeriac purée ($30). For my spouse, the margarita clams with tasso ($12) and a jumbo, lump, crab-crusted local grouper with wild mushroom salsify ragout ($34). Let's do the math: With three cocktails, our bill stood at $207. We added a bottle of Malbec ($32) for good luck, but we were obliged to order it by number (610), like on a Chinese menu did we expect our waiter to be a sommelier too?
But money can't buy happiness at Mark's City Place. We could spend and spend and nobody would deign to be any nicer to us. Out of desperation, François had decided to just get drunk. He finished his wine and ordered another mojito.
I'm not going to take a lot of space describing our food here. The point is that no matter what the fare exquisite or middling service can make or break a dining experience. What came from the kitchen that night was uneven. Some of it was very good, some mediocre, some hideous. The high points were the flaky, moist slab of grouper with fresh crab and wild mushrooms; a beautifully seared duck breast with creamy brie risotto; and a pair of crab cakes touched with tropical mango, citrus, and avocado. For dessert, some of the most delicious ice cream vanilla bean and banana I've ever tasted. The uneven dishes included my ruby-hued rare tuna, with a beautiful texture like soft butter, that was encrusted with such an overdose of pepper that it ruined the palate for any other flavor, including the delicate celeriac and potato purée it was served with. The mozzarella in our salad was ancient and had absorbed all the smells of the refrigerator. Crispy vegetable spring rolls ($10, ordered to replace the spoiled mozzarella) were as good as you'd find in any Asian restaurant but given zing with a terrific kimchee slaw. Margarita clams with tasso, tomatoes, cilantro, and sweet corn were overseasoned and didn't compare well to the much more subtle flavorings of the same Southwestern dish we'd sampled at KM at the Grapevine in Lauderdale. "Roasted" (?) lemon pound cake ($8): dry and crumbly. And for the truly disgusting a deconstructed "cheesecake" ($8) of sweet cheese filling funneled into pastry straws tasted as if they'd been made with every artificial ingredient at the kitchen's disposal.
Our bill had reached $318. As our waiter stacked dessert plates on his arm, I asked him to remind me what the flavors of the ice cream had been. "I need to go get rid of these dishes," he said. "Then I'll let you know."
Bless you! Our bill arrived, and it was wrong, low by a whopping $51. My spouse, ever the virtuous Girl Scout, pointed this out to our waiter. "Oh," he said. "That was the manager's mistake."
As he scurried off to re-tabulate our total, we wondered if maybe "I'm sorry thanks for pointing that out" might have been a more effective rejoinder. Our emotional ebb had reached low tide. François was waxing nostalgic over the wonderful meal they'd had at A&B Lobster House in Key West two nights before. Woe was us.
At home, I Googled "Mark's City Place." It hadn't been just an off night not even a problem with our individual server. Every customer review was a heartbreaking lament:
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Went to Mark's at City Place in August with some friends. It was all around the worst experience for all of us. The waiter was on another planet... At one point he went missing. We brought this to the attention of management, but nothing was done, and nothing improved.
In a word... AWFUL! Made a reservation for 8 adults.... when we arrived they acted surprised that we wanted to sit together. It took them 10 minutes to get a table together and this was just after they opened for the night. From there it only got worse... All in all, a real disappointment... and worst of all was their attitude! What an awful night.
The food was mediocre, the service unacceptable. Just not a good dining experience. My third time at this trendy little dining spot is my last.
God and Militello have turned their backs on City Place. Unless you're the type who digs abuse, you might want to make other plans.