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The Carmel Chop House: Good steaks, strange service (a long report)

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The Carmel Chop House: Good steaks, strange service (a long report)

susancinsf | Jul 27, 2004 01:48 AM

It was the start of a long weekend of eating, diving and concert going in Monterey to celebrate hubby’s birthday. To start the weekend early, we decided at the last minute to purchase tickets to the Thursday night concert at the Carmel Bach Festival. However, I did have to work part of the day, meaning it would be a rush to get to the area, check into our motel, and be in Carmel for the 8 p.m. concert. To further complicate matters, the hotel we were staying at for most of the rest of the weekend had sold out for Thursday night. Fortunately, there was a vacancy at a motel that is a short walk from the concert. Next we needed a dinner spot, and knowing from previous years that parking for the festival can be a hassle and that we would be short on time, I wanted to eat somewhere within walking distance of both motel and concert.

The Bach Festival website included several nearby spots offering “Dine and Bach” specials. I had been craving steak, and the offer at The Carmel Chop House seemed like a nice deal (“Complimentary Chef’s Choice of Appetizer with dinner”), plus it was literally across the street from our motel, and five blocks from the concert. Problem solved, and so I reserved on Open Table, mentioning in the ‘comments’ section of my request that I had seen the ad for the Dine and Bach special on the Bach Festival website.

We arrived on time and were warmly greeted by the manager/Maitre’D, who actually had been standing outside the restaurant looking almost like a barker waiting to invite passers-by to try the place. He seemed, well, just a bit too happy to see us, but I decided that was just my imagination. We were seated promptly at a comfortable table next to the windows that line one wall of the dining room. There were perhaps three tables occupied when we arrived, a few more when we left.

After a brief wait the server came over to answer questions and take our order. She noticed that we had brought a bottle of Langtry Meritage Red (on sale at BevMo last week for just about half price), and after nicely informing us of the corkage charge of $15, not unexpected, opened it for us, after commenting that we were smart to bring a ‘red table wine’ because there weren’t many on their list...I’m not sure how we were supposed to interpret that...In any case, we had brought the wine after noticing via the website that, while the wine list at The Chop House is extensive, it is quite pricy, with many of the reds in the triple digits and just a very few bottles under $50. There are some unusual bottles listed in the “Narsai’s Cellars” portion of the list (Narsai David is a partner in the restaurant, I believe, with Kurt Grasing): the one that most caught my eye was a 1979 Pat Paulsen’s Vineyard Cab for $35, but we resisted the temptation to try that one (Though I wouldn’t mind ordering it just for the label, which given the price, might be what I’d be getting :-))

In any case: the service weirdness started with our orders. I asked what the ‘Chef’s Choice appetizer’ was for the Bach Festival special promotion. She looked at me blankly and asked what Bach was...after I explained she adamantly told me that she had not heard of any such festival (despite the large banners lining the street outside) nor of the special, and was quite sure there was no such special offered. I asked her if she could check with the manager to be sure. She left, and eventually came back and asked me for my ‘coupon’. I explained that the special was listed on the Bach Festival website, that there was no mention of the need for a coupon, and that I didn’t have one, but that I had mentioned the special when making my reservation (as instructed on the website). She left, came back, and said that she could not honor the special without a coupon because “otherwise how would we know that you knew about it”.

Ok, this was getting weird. I patiently explained that it seemed unlikely that we would have known about it if we hadn’t known about it (meanwhile, I was feeling a bit like the duck in the insurance TV commercials with Yogi Berra, for you Giants fans out there)…arghhh….then, I remembered that we did have a (written) verification of our Open Table confirmation, including our mention of the special, so I produced that along with our concert tickets. She left again, came back, and told us that yes, our written verification was enough (but surely the manager had already seen that when he reviewed our reservation?) and that we could order any of the appetizers on the menu, free of charge.

Well, while I was quite perturbed at how assertive I had to be in order to receive the special, the offer was certainly more generous than I expected. To me, ‘Chef’s choice’ means the restaurant gets to choose the comp’d app, not me. But who was I to argue? So, after a further perusal of the menu, I happily ordered the crispy oysters with Thai dressing,(regularly $9.50) and hubby ordered their signature ‘magic mushrooms’: a combo of several types of mushrooms in a garlic sherry sauce. (also $9.50) For mains I ordered a petite filet, rare; hubby the grass-fed NY strip, medium-rare. I also asked for a side of creamed spinach.

From then on, service seemed to be somewhat done in a sleep-walk. We had to ask for bread after seeing it on several neighboring tables but not getting any ourselves. Then the apps came: mushrooms as ordered, but no crispy oysters: instead the server brought six (raw) oysters on the half shell. Since we were on a fairly tight schedule, I didn’t send them back, and besides, I figured they were free (since they were also listed on the appetizer menu) and in case, they looked quite yummy. Indeed, they were good, although the advertised ‘champagne mignonette’ tasted just like red wine vinegar to me. The mushrooms were tasty, though something I could easily make at home.

Then came our steaks. Both were cooked exactly as requested. However, we had no steak knives, and had to ask for them. Moreover, I was given a portobello mushroom side instead of the spinach. This time I did point out the mistake and the correct side was eventually brought along with the steak knives. I could take or leave the creamed spinach, but those steaks were both quite good. They were served with tasty scalloped potatoes and a (not memorable) vegetable. Both steaks were topped with small bits of fried onion ring that didn't add much.

We skipped dessert but did get two cappuccinos (and eventually a teaspoon to stir in a bit of sugar).

Then came the bill. I immediately noticed that we were charged for the mushroom app. I asked the server about the charge, she went to speak to the manager, and came back to tell me that the special was good for only one member of the party, and that only the less expensive app was complimentary. Ok, now I was really confused, since we were in fact charged for the less expensive app (mushrooms) and got the more expensive one (oysters) comped. Moreover, the website makes no mention of this one-per-table condition, though the Bach specials at some of the other participating restaurants very clearly and specifically outline the limits per party. Moreover, of course, no mention was made of this restriction when our ‘coupon’ was finally accepted and she described the special offer to us.

I might have pressed the issue, but we had that curtain to catch and at this point I was just getting tired of the whole thing. However, when I reviewed the bill more carefully later I also realized that we were charged for the more expensive portobello side, not the spinach I actually ordered and eventually received. Total bill, btw, with tax, tip, and corkage, was $115.

Postscript: When we arrived at the Festival concert hall, we noticed that The Carmel Chop House was prominently thanked in large signs near the entrance, as well as in the Festival Program, along with the other ‘Bach and Dine’ Sponsors.

Bottom line: I’m not sure what to think. The Chop House knows how to cook a good steak, and we would normally enjoy dining there again. However, the attitude about the special really soured me on the overall experience. It seemed odd that the server had never heard of it, but inexcusable that I had to go through so many hoops to (sort of) get an advertised special when, had we just been offered a complimentary salad or cup of soup, we would have left happy. Admittedly, the lackadasical nature of the service in general also didn't endear the place to us... Finally, I am not sure if the problem was really of management’s doing, or just the result of a sleepwalking server who didn’t want to go back to management with too many requests and questions….However, again, while it could have been my imagination, it did seem that the Maitre’D was a lot less effusive with his ‘good-byes’ than he had been with his welcomes…..

Link: http://www.bachfestival.org/dinenbach...

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