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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

You know how I feel about food. A large chunk of my life revolves around eating it, cooking it, thinking about it, planning it, shopping for it, talking about it. So when someone gets between me and my food I get a little cranky.

I especially get a little cranky when I go someplace nice and expect a good meal only for it to be subpar. I don’t like spending money on bad food. But mostly I don’t like the disappointment that comes with having an unsatisfactory experience.

Last night, Ralph and I took our friend Joel to a restaurant in Nashville that we have always loved. We raved about the food and the cocktails. After a day at the conference, eating inedible barbecue for lunch (or what someone thought passed for barbecue, which is a travesty in itself since you’re in NASHVILLE and barbecue is on par with breathing), I was looking forward to my upscale dinner.

I wasn’t going to name names because the point is not to be mean to this restaurant, but why not because I’m not saying anything that isn’t true. We went to Gertie’s bar, which is served by the 404 Kitchen.

Look at it this way, at least I didn’t have a rant on Yelp. I took the “be nice” lesson to heart so I will merely share my experience here instead.

We’ve taken a number of out-of-town friends there and everyone has loved it.

Then last night happened.

I opted for a burger, because their burgers have always been fabulous. This one had bourbon truffle mushrooms. Provolone. Confit onions.

Sounds expensive already, no?

I told the server that I would like it cooked medium rare.

He said… it’s a smash burger, so it is only cooked one way.

Even my father cooks burgers three ways: burnt, burnt, or burnt. You can be pretty assured of what to expect every time, and a burnt burger off the grill is still pretty tasty if you like the flavor of charcoal.

But this was red flag number one. Who in their right mind smashes a piece of high-end beef and only, in their words, “cooks it all the way through?” In a restaurant where a slab of ground beef, truffle mushrooms notwithstanding, costs $22, you might at least expect it to be cooked how you like it.

I was surprised, but ok. I’ll get my burger smashed. It would be covered in deliciousness anyway.

I told my server that I’d like the bacon cooked on the crispy side. I cannot abide by soggy bacon and it seems like in addition to liking the indoor temperature to be 55 degrees at all times, the majority of people also like mostly raw bacon. Not me.

He said… there are no alterations. It’s chef’s choice.

Let that sink in for a minute. Chef, who was about to obliterate my burger like a fast food line cook, will not cook my bacon how I like it, but how HE likes it.

Red flag number two. I know this is a better restaurant so you kind of trust the chef to know what he’s doing, but come on. I’m at a bar in the middle of Nashville, not some snooty fine dining place on the Seine, wearing my sequined dress and fawning over a plate of foamed salmon. I just ordered a bacon cheeseburger.

And I can’t, in their words, “make alterations.”

Plenty of restaurants don’t allow substitutions, so if I had said can you give me peanut butter instead of onions, I might have expected them to say no. But crisp the bacon?

But whatever, I had a purple cocktail and I’ve always had a good meal at this place so go ahead chef, knock yourself out. Give me food the way YOU want it cooked.

And it might have ended there.

But then what kind of a story would this be?

The food came. Joel and Ralph got their pork chops which, according to the menu, came with hoppin’ John (or in English, black eyed peas) and smoked andouille. I looked as hard as I could but the only thing I saw on the plate was a pork chop and some smear of mush, more like a mistake with a paint brush than an actual side.

I got my smashed burger. It was well and truly smashed, about a quarter inch on a bun, with a layer of paste on top that I presume was truffled bourbon mushrooms? The bacon was not just flaccid, but cold.

The fries were cold.

The burger – flavorless if I’m being generous – was barely lukewarm. Bun? Cold.

Remember how I told you that I don’t like to complain in a restaurant, and will rarely send food back unless it’s something truly egregious, like well done ahi?

This was one of those times.

Had I not been told the burger would only be cooked one way, had I not been told the chef got to decide how I wanted my bacon, I might have sucked it up and not said anything, because nobody wants to be THAT PERSON. But if the chef was going to be the chef, then I was going to be the customer. I flagged down the server and told him it was cold.

They took it back and cooked me a new one, and the next version I got was piping hot. It didn’t taste any better. There wasn’t an iota of seasoning on the fries, and all I got was a little tin cup of ketchup next to my $22 plate.

But the bacon was crispier.

And to be fair, they comped me a $15 pour of bourbon and took the burger off the bill. Which is good, because I didn’t eat it anyway. I drank three more cocktails instead and mulled over how a chef, who was so particular about serving food his own way, could pass off something as bland and badly served as that dinner.

I don’t know this for a fact but that chef can’t possibly be the same one who cooked all those amazing meals of dinners past.

Ralph and Joel said their pork chops were great, which was nice considering it was a $38 hunk of pig with no side dish to speak of and one could be forgiven for going home and ordering a pizza.

On the plus side, I appreciate that they tried to make it right, so I can’t complain about the service.

On the pluser side, we went to Cork & Cow tonight, where I have never had a bad meal. We had baby lamb chops and fried oysters, watermelon and tuna ceviche, a big poof of bread and mac and cheese. I had salmon with a smoked corn salad that was so good I almost forgot to chew. And a giant s’mores bomb for dessert. Ralph had a roasted peach cobbler and when he couldn’t finish it, I ate that, too.

I’m not going to say I’ll never go back to the 404 Kitchen, but I have a lot of options here if I want a great food and a great burger. One that I can get cooked however I want it.

Photo, top: Gertie’s bar, served by the 404 Kitchen. Someone there needs to read their own sign.
Photo, bottom: my purple cocktail, not just beautiful but pretty tasty, too.