August 31, 2006

A restaurant question.

Ever go to a restaurant and know that something is wrong with the food -- for example, that it was cooked in rancid oil -- but you eat it anyway, as if you had a second brain controlling your actions that did not know what your real brain knew? And then afterwards, you wonder why in hell you do things like that?

ADDED: I should say, the restaurant in question was not the place I featured in a post yesterday. And if you're a Madison restauranteur wondering if I'm talking about you, don't check your credit card receipts. I was there today, but I paid cash.


Ruth Anne Adams said...
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MadisonMan said...

Yes -- I used to. Now I tell them, 'cause I figure the chef would want to know. I'm doing them a favor by telling them. Not raising a stink is being polite, but there's such a thing as too polite! If you think you're doing them a favor though, telling is much easier.

Sissy Willis said...

No, but something similar just the other day. At a shopping mall, we sat down in an utterly charmless environment -- the only sit-down restaurant in the place -- resigned to having mediocre burgers but at least a martini or two. The martinis turned out to be laced with some liquor-lite called "apple gin," which we decided against. There was musak, there were screaming kids, there was cardboard hamburg. You don't want to go there.

tcd said...

I've learned to be more assertive in such situations in my old age. Life's getting too short for me to tolerate bad food or bad service. Although last week, I did tolerate bad service at a cafe; I chalked it up to snot-nosed teenagers doing a bad job per usual. Of course the place will never see another penny from me.

howzerdo said...

Ugh. This hits very close to home - I had a terrible bout in the middle of the night that I assume was food poisoning. It's my second episode this summer, both times from restaurant food. And last month my (adult) niece and nephew were deathly ill for over a week from food poisoning, again from restaurant food. But they, and I, did not suspect it while eating so it doesn't exactly fit your question. When I am suspicious, I don't take the risk.

Maxine Weiss said...

How many times do I have to tell you.....

....if you don't eat beef, that solves your problem.

Never order beef, or fish at a restaurant, in most cases.

Peace, Maxine

Palladian said...

"but you eat it anyway, as if you had a second brain controlling your actions that did not know what your real brain knew? And then afterwards, you wonder why in hell you do things like that?"

Sounds like a good description of a lot of dates I've been on.

Hollywood Freaks said...

Just last night, my brother and I went out for burgers. They tasted like chlorine and as we were discussing this, the waitress asked us how everything was and we said "fine." We then continued eating.

Freeman Hunt said...

Yes. It is as though a separate eating function takes over and cannot be stopped until the process is complete.

knoxgirl said...

I have been in a couple situations where I felt like I had to eat something nasty--one time I was a guest of someone else at a restaurant, and once was at an office pot-luck where a co-worker had said "oh wait till you try my dish tomorrow!!!!' and I had to force it down despite its yak-factor.

(I am afraid to complain about anything at a restaurant, fearing the whole spit/piss/snot in your food phenomenon...)

AJ Lynch said...

This brings to mind an SNL skit where the charater dies in an accident and he goes to heaven and is greeted by a 3rd-tier angel. The newly dead guy asks who killed JFK and the angel says he does not have that level of info. So the guy asks the angel "what's the worst thing I ever ate?" and the angel replies ..."you really don't want to know".

And I have a cast-iron stomach and never get sick from what I eat.

S.T. Steiner said...

Maxine: "How many times do I have to tell you.........if you don't eat beef, that solves your problem."

"Never order beef, or fish at a restaurant, in most cases."

Peace, Maxine

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Oh my goodness, Oma just phoned and left a voice message: "We just returned from China" ~ I'll let you decide what you think she said next.

Beef, Maxine? In China, it's anything that has a spine, and doesn't necessarily say moo.

Vegetarian Chop Suey: The Queen's choice ~ with a gin & tonic, of course.

Vicky said...

In a similar vein - have you ever make a mistake while cooking, and yet you eat it anyway, as though for penance? I do it all the time.

Ann Althouse said...

It's not lack of assertiveness. I've often sent things back. I was engaged in conversation and just autopiloting the meal. I knew it was rancid but it just wasn't on the dominant track of what I was paying attention to.

Palladian: Yes, exactly. I was thinking of the more general metaphor. There are so many things you put up with even though you know they are bad, because you seem to have this other you that somehow doesn't know. Even though you do know!

And don't worry. I'm not sick. I haven't vomited since the 1970s.

Simon Kenton said...

There's a politeness factor that can have appalling strength. I had a friend who was raped in a public parking lot, and raised no outcry. When she took self-defense classes later, she could not bring herself to make any noise when landing a blow. The instructor had to dismiss the other students before she could let herself shout while striking.

Good middle class persons do not make a fuss - even when it might do them a lot of good.

Simon said...

The really difficult thing about that situation is, I think people often feel inclined to lower their tip, as if either the state of the food has anything to do with the server or the tip went in part to the chef.

Albatross said...

Maxine: "How many times do I have to tell you.........if you don't eat beef, that solves your problem."

Not so, Maxine. Ever smell rancid pasta? Or lettuce and tomato that have been kept around one day too long? I've been served these items before, at which times I politely sent back the offending dishes and contented myself with a beer on the house.

It ain't just meat that goes bad.

nina said...

And you tell me that I do not squeal on bad places. Ann, give us a name!

Ruth Anne Adams said...
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nedludd said...

While some folks do get food poisoning from restaraunts, it is a much rarer event than most folks realize.

I put myself through college working in kitchens. I started out as a commis in a classical French kitchen (even the dishwashers get to slap around the commis, you are so low in the food cahin you hope to become whale shit one day) and ended up Garde Manger.

The job of the Garde Manger is to use up leftovers. This is why I don't eat brunch in restaraunts. Think about it, the money for any dining place is Thursday through Saturday night, so who's working Sunday morning. It ain't the top talent.

The nice thing about working in a French place is that you can just put a heavier sauce on it and get an extra day out of it (have too much chicken? Saute it and make a pan sauce with white wine, tomatoes and crushed galic garnished with croutons and a fried egg and you have Poulet Marengo, or do Poulet a la Normande which is the same piece of chiken with a sauce mad by deglazing the pan with Calvados and garnishing with apple slices poached in butter, same chicken with a pan sauce of white wine and veal stock and garnished with Pommes Savonettes and you have Poulet Parmentier).

Anyway, bypassing the digression, restaurants have pretty tight controls over food, being required to keep time and temp logs, etc. Most people who get food posioning get it ether at home or at the local church fair.

BTW, the danger is usually in the cooling. More people get food poisoning form reheated foods than anything else.For each cook cycle you should not be between 40-140 degrees more than four hours total. Tha includes the time getting it home from the grocery store, preping it on your counter, etc. Most people when they try to cool something either let it on the counter or just put it in the fridge. A thick stew or sauce can take over twelve hours to cool if it is in a deep pot and not stirred. A moist protien rich environment at between 40-140 degrees for an extended period of time will give you the chance to find out just how many threads there on are the botls that hold your roliet to the floor. Shallow containers (lewss than four inches deep), stirred and put into a sink with ice water will cool your food quickly. This will also save wear and tear on the fridge.

There are only two foods I will not order out. Mussels, because they are usaully sitting in there own piss for a week or so until they are served, and anything with Hollandaise, as this sauce must be kept at about 100-120 degrees or it will break. This is a bacterial playground

Elizabeth said...

nedludd, we'll have to exchange kitchen stories someday. I never got the luxury of being off for brunch, though; all our top talent worked Wednesday through Sunday. Brunch is big business in New Orleans. We went through quarts of hollandaise.

Let me add rice to your list of things to avoid. I got food poisoning from rice in the steam table of a nation-wide healthy foods market; it was just at the wrong temperature, sitting there all day long. Now at home, I toss rice within an hour of dinner, too bad for fans of leftovers; it's cheap and easy to make and I never, ever want to feel like that again.

Thank you especially for that vivid image of what mussels do in their spare time.z

Jennifer said...

No! I'm paranoid about funny tastes in food, so I'm hyperaware.

I could definitely apply your general metaphor to some interactions with friends.

Elizabeth - If you want to save rice leftovers, spoon individual portions into ziplock baggies and freeze them. Works like a charm.

Ann Althouse said...

Nina: One of our colleagues who is nervous about blogging asked me the other day if I worried about being sued. I said I didn't and that I do take some precautions, and not naming this restaurant is one of them. Note that this wouldn't be a matter of stating an opinion about the food but a very specific fact.

The stories of bacteria are disturbing, but my problem in this case was rancid oil, which isn't contaminated, just old to the point where the flavor changes. It is unheathful though. You really are supposed to throw oil, nuts, etc. out once they have that smell. I think some people don't recognize the smell and don't realize it's not right.

hygate said...

A thick stew or sauce can take over twelve hours to cool if it is in a deep pot and not stirred. A moist protien rich environment at between 40-140 degrees for an extended period of time will give you the chance to find out just how many threads there on are the botls that hold your roliet to the floor. Shallow containers (lewss than four inches deep), stirred and put into a sink with ice water will cool your food quickly. This will also save wear and tear on the fridge.

I keep quart sized bottles of water in the freezer so when I have to cool something down in a hurry, like a stock, it can be placed in the middle of the pot, which is also sitting in an ice bath in the sink.

Telecomedian said...

re: restaurant horror stories...

I used to be a deejay, then became a mild-mannered telecom engineer. When the telecom economy collapsed in 2001, I became a restaurant server, bartender, manager and cook. I did that until I found another telecom job in 2004, but I look at restaurants in a whole new light now.

Nedludd is spot-on - brunch can be scary for many restaurants. However, there are plenty of safe options at most of them. Omlette bars generally feature meats (sausages, hams, bacon) and shredded cheeses that are prepped that day. Some vegetables can be reused from the night before, but most people can easily see a bad veggie and avoid it before a bad cut of meat. Veggies tend to show heat and bacteria damage before meat.

Bacteria playgrounds - ditto on the Hollandaise sauce in many restaurants. I'm also wary of ordering soup later in the evening - that stuff has been sitting out for hours at that point. Real tiramisu with ladyfingers and marscapone, not that faux cheesecake that most places sell, and large Chesapeake Bay style crabcakes can be dangerous. They are made with eggs, and tiramisu isn't cooked - it's simply put in the fridge to set - and large crabcakes, while delicious, seldom get the center hot enough to kill any bacteria in the egg mixture in the filler.

Also, be afraid of any restaurant that won't allow you to have a burger cooked less than medium or well done. They'll say it's a health code violation, but that's not the case at all. Many other places will cook burgers at whatever temp you like. It's more that those places either don't have cooks who properly know how to temp a burger, or they're not using a completely sterile beef supplier. Good steakhouses will use uncooked cuts of meat and chop them up for burgers or cheesesteaks, but lower places, and most mid-priced chains, use pre-prepped patties that can be made from multiple cuts and multiple cows, increasing the likelihood of infection.

Maxine - If you look at the health code violations of local restaurants, many of them are closed to due improper storage, cleaning and temperature control of vegeatables. The meat areas are usually pretty strictly monitored, but vegetable prep is often near a dish a dish sink or mopping area. Rodent defecation, bacterial growth or chemical contamination are more common with vegetables than meat. Why? Meat's expensive to purchase and replace. A head of lettuce costs a restaurant pennies, and thowing that out isn't the issue that a 10 dollar filet is.

Another big violator is pre-cooked rice at Asian restaurants. Many Chinese places will prep a big bowl of rice and then let it sit out during the course of the day. Not the most sanitary thing in the world.

Hollywood Freak and Knoxgirl if the food is ever bad at a restaurant, by all means send it back. Just don't make a song-and-dance number out of it, or make it sound like it's the worst thing that's ever happened to you in your life. A simple comment to your server or the manager on duty should suffice. Knoxgirl, the movie "Waiting" has a pretty funny, disgusting thing about the woman wanting her food redone, and the cooks being disgusting on it, but I've never seen anybody knowingly ruin somebody's food. If you're nice and polite, people are nice and polite (usually) back. If the food itself is rancid, they need to know before they serve it to other people. But, Hollywood Freak, never, ever, ever accept bad, funny tasting food, ESPECIALLY anything that tastes like chlorine. The only thing that tastes like chlorine is chlorine, and could be a sign of bleached meat to kill a bacteria/fungal infection, or of a chemical contamination. You guys should have spoken up immediately. A responsible staff wants to know about problems like that.

Tibore said...


I just felt my Filipino and Chinese relatives have a heart attack at the notion of throwing away hour old rice. :) We fridge the portion we don't use, and it comes out just fine, although those older portions usually end up getting used to make fried rice. You really wanna use older rice for that anyway; fresh rice just doesn't seem to come out right when you try to fry it.

Although in my personal experience, I've noticed that the long grain variety my family uses seems to hold up better over time than the medium and short grains you see used by some folks & restaurants elsewhere. Never stopped to figure out why that was so, or even if anyone else has noticed what I have.


Seriously, don't be afraid of speaking up at a restaurant. As long as you're polite about it, just about any place I've been to, worked, or knew someone that worked at it would be much more embarrased than angry, and would probably fix you up something fresh. They're really, really worried about someone writing a letter to the editor, to some local investigative reporter, to their corporate HQ (if they're a chain or franchise), or worse yet, to the Health Inspectors.


If the bad oil at that restaurant was just a one time thing, then it could be a new employee or some dumb mistake like simply forgetting to change it out. On the other hand, if it keeps on happening, I'd definitely stop going.

knoxgirl said...

Thanks for the advice, everyone. I will try sending it back next time. (I was a server years ago and had a particularly sadistic coworker who would routinely do gross stuff to customers' food who inconvenienced her... so this has made me a bit paranoid.)

Everyone on this thread should read Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. In addition to being very entertaining, there's a ton of "insider" information about restaurants, and he has a whole chapter on what to avoid when you eat out and the reasons. Maxine, he also says that raw vegetables are more dangerous than most meat. The one thing he says to NEVER eat, is mussels, for the reason nedludd sites.

MadisonMan said...

Speaking of a mussel lover, I must say I'm discouraged! Lombardino's here in Madison has a Mussel appetizer that is to die for. Well, maybe that's not a good adjective :)

There are so many restaurants to choose from in Madison -- if I had a bad oil episode, I'd probably stop going to that restaurant altogether unless its location was just too convenient. I've had too many meals where you eat and think afterwards "What was memorable about that!?" and kick yourself for spending hard-earned money on mediocrity.

Ann Althouse said...

I will never go there again.

David said...

I worry about employes washing their hands, checking for clean fingernails, dirty restrooms, no soap in the dispensers, meat stored over the vegetables in the cooler.

I think I'll eat at home!

stoqboy said...

On the subject of two brains, I often get a subliminal message when speaking with my teenager. The subliminal part of "Kristy's mom is coming to pick me up" didn't break through until the police arrived at my door a few days later. It is all in the context, of course, but if I paid attention to that low level nagging voice, I might have saved my daughter from what turned out to be an embarassing (although potentially dangerous) situation.

S.T. Steiner said...

I had one meal out in December 2005, and was hospitalized with pneumonia about a week later. Strange. Couldn’t figure out how I got the bug, but figured it was probably from the restaurant. So, following my hospital stay, I vowed not to eat in restaurants, and did not for 1-1/2 years, and surprisingly, I was bug-less. My house docter actually missed me, and when I finally got my first cold in 1-1/2 years, in June 2006, it was a grand reunion and we both had to catch up on all the family stories.

With this thinking, we avoid restaurants and only visit a restaurant once a year at Valentine’s Day, and then we order everything on the menu and dine for hours with a fine wine. And so far, still bug-less.

Ann Althouse said...

I eat in restaurants several times a week and I've had 1 cold in over 10 years.

nedludd said...


If you are going to order mussels that sounds like exactly the type of place you should order them from. The most important thing, particularly with seafood, is turnover. An Italian joint with great mussel appetizers is going to be selling a lot of mussels, so they won't be sitting around very long, even if they are swimming in there own piss. On the other hand, if you go into one of the places that tries to be all things to all people and order the mussels, they may have been there a little long.

As far as veg, I have one word. Chi-Chi's. From reading the articles, it sounds as if they followed HACAP procedures closely, but just gor unlucky with some green onions. Since they are served raw and are not washed in hot soapy water, once the grower contaminated the green onions with e. coli it was going onto a plate. Long story short, people get sick and the chain goes under. With cooked foods you at least have a chance of killing the e. coli.

As far as sending food back, do it, just don't be an asshole about it. Be nice to the server, because the first question the line cook will ask is if the customer is a dick or not. If not, the next question is what's wrong with it? If you were a dick, then you will wait for your food to come back and you will get it close to what you asked for. You have to be a royal asshole to get your food spit on or anything else, because the chef can not allow that. One time getting caught and the owners may as well close up. Be nice and be specific with your complant. The guys on the line do take pride in their food and will try to accomadate you.

I would rather have food come back than the people who come out and want sauce on the side, and can you make it low fat, oh and is there a way to make the bouef en croute low carb?

Most restaurant kitchens are cleaner than the overwhelming majority of home kitchens (how oven do you tear everything down and clean it with presurized steam?).

First thing you should do is look at the dining room. This is what you see. If it looks filthy imagine what the kitchen looks like. Next thing is to look at the table setting. Pay close attention to glasses and mugs. If you see any lipstick this is a very bad sign. It means that the water temp in the dishwasher is set too low to actually kill all the little nasties. When ordering, ask fo advice from your waitron. They know what's good and what's to be avoided. Ask about the special, the staff has tried a taste of it and with a raised eyebrow may warn you off of it, thereby saving your experience. Specials tend to be one of two things, either stuff the chef is trying to use up or somethng the chef is really excited about. The latter tends to be seasonal foods.

Best nights to eat out are Tues, Wed & Thur. On the weekends it is about survival in the kitchen. On Tuesday you get a Chef that was off for the last two days and is excited to be back at it. Wed he is just hitting his stride,a nd by Thursday the staff is having fun trying out new recipes for the weekend. You also tend to get the diners you want to impress in during the week. On the weekends you have the couples coming out that only go out to diner three times a year. If I lose them I can survive.But durning the week you have the people who dine out regularly. These are the people you want to please, because they will keep coming back, week after week.

I loved being in kitchens, but it is really more of a lifestyle than a job, and I just burned out.

Eat out, enjoy. Where else can you go and have that many people trying to make you happy?

nedludd said...

I seem to be writing very staccato with lots of typos. Time to pour a nice glass of bourbon and contemplate just why it is that the Kossacks and the Little Geen Foosball guys just can't get along, like Rodny King and Reginald Denny sang about in "Ebony & Ivory"