Thursday, 1 January 2009

Taking the Bull By The Horns - Or Not, As the Case May Be

I had been looking forward to our New Year’s Eve Dinner at The Waldorf Astoria for months. The Waldorf is the stuff of legend and I felt that we would be just about assured of a memorable meal. I had booked The Bull and The Bear Restaurant, as it sounded like it was just up our street, specializing in beautifully cooked steaks and a comfortable atmosphere.

When we arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon, it was suggested that as the dinner started at 8pm, we ought to show up at restaurant reception at about ten to eight in order to collect our tickets. Hoping for a memorable evening, we duly arrived at what we thought was the entrance at the requested time. However, apparently this was not the correct entrance, as a member of staff made strange gestures thought the window to indicate that we had to go back upstairs and back down another staircase. We did so and arrived at another entrance with several other couples - only to be met with another locked door. The staff members who could clearly see us from inside the restaurant appeared to be ignoring us. The corridor we were standing in was rather breezy and after a while we were all very cold indeed. Then two guests appeared out of nowhere inside the restaurant and were seated. We all felt very cross indeed and the 21st Century Husband knocked on the doors. The staff member who had been ignoring us waved at us indicating we had to wait. By this time, freezing cold, we were angry enough to knock again and when someone finally came to us angrily to say they were not ready, I enquired as to whether we should go to the bar upstairs. “Oh no,” we were told. “We are nearly ready.” Well, by this time I was too cold to be polite and was more than a little cross so I said, “Well, it’s freezing out here and I’m not very happy.” The lady shut the doors angrily, but seconds later a chap came back and opened them and we were finally admitted. Not a very good welcome I have to say.

It was clear they truly were not ready at all as we were led from one section of the restaurant to another apparently hunting for our table, although we were the only people of our last name to have tickets for the evening. We were finally sat, just across from the kitchens, but mercifully not in the same room as the musician who was already playing extremely loudly and slightly off key.

We were served a glass of champagne, but it soon became clear this would be the only alcohol included in the dinner (despite the price) as we were presented with a wine list. We chose one of the cheapest wines on the list, shockingly priced at nearly $100 a bottle. It was one we had before at our favourite Harris Steakhouse in San Francisco, but which had cost us less than half of what the Bull and The Bear were charging. The wine tasted just as we expected, but when we requested different glasses (the only wine glasses on the table were for white wine), it took the waiter some time to find different ones and they still were not appropriate for the heavy red wine we had ordered as they were simply a larger glass for white wine. I don’t normally fuss over glasses, but when the wine costs $100 a bottle, it suddenly seems awfully important!

The first course, which offered us a choice of butternut squash soup with braised beef, smoked salmon or a seafood selection was actually the best of the whole evening. The 21st Century Teenager and I had the soup and I have to say it was just incredible. The flavours were balanced and it was amazingly delicious. And I say this as someone who really does not like squash at all. The 21st Century Husband had the smoked salmon and commented it was both a generous and delicious serving. Sadly things went downhill from here.

The next course offered a choice of scallops or polenta with truffles. The 21st Century Husband and I ordered scallops and the 21st Century Teenager ordered the polenta. Our scallops were cold on arrival and that ruined the dish for me. I appreciate scallops have to be cooked lightly but they should still be warm when you eat them. As for the polenta with truffles – well, the 21st Century Teenager has eaten all over the world (truffles are one of his favourite things) and is not a fussy eater. But this dish defeated him, as he quietly whispered to me that it was “the worst thing I have ever tasted”.

By this time we were feeling very worn out indeed. The atmosphere had not improved, the entertainment was mediocre and the service was quite poor. I was praying the main course would be good. We had all ordered steak and to the credit of the chef, each steak arrived done as we requested it, despite our wildly varying requirements for the cooking of steak. The 21st Century Teenager had a beautiful medium well done steak, mine was medium and the 21st Century Husband’s was medium rare. The vegetables were cooked beautifully – tender crisp and delicious. The potatoes looked a bit grey, but were actually a beautiful garlic mash. However by this time the evening was beginning to go a bit sour, in fact some of the guests had begun to leave before dessert, and I have to confess that however nice the main course was, the price for it had been so grossly inflated it was almost obscene. We had been charged, in advance, $275 a plate for this dinner, not including the $100 for a bottle wine.

I know it was New Year’s Eve in New York, and I expected an inflated price, but $275 for something was clearly not worth it is not something you expect to see in this market. Bear in mind please that this comment is from someone who is used to prices in London, and who does not mind paying a lot for something of value, but who hates to feel like she is being ripped off. And last night I really felt I was being ripped off. I regularly pay upwards of £150 ($200) a person for dinner but only in places where I am made to feel special and welcome when I do it, and where the food is worth the price. I felt neither special nor welcome at the Bull and the Bear.

The promise of a trio of desserts made us hang in there but while dessert was tasty enough, the service and atmosphere were still so dire that even more people were leaving, not bothering to wait to see in the New Year, despite the promise of another glass of champagne.

I have never heard so little laughter at a New Year celebration. Once we had finished dinner, we all decided to admit defeat and leave at 10.30pm. By now, the slightly off key singing was becoming annoying and there was no celebratory atmosphere. In the end, we had much more fun watching the ball drop in Times Square on the television in our hotel room.

Sadly I have been left with a rather bitter taste in my mouth, from $775 spent on something I expected to be the dinner of a lifetime, but which turned out to be a huge waste of time. I truly hope the rest of our experience at the Waldorf is not as disappointing as this very negative first impression. Perhaps the Waldorf don’t rely on repeat business for their New Year’s Eve entertainments, but in this market they may soon find they have to. Certainly, it will be a cold day somewhere other than New York before I ever attend a New Year’s Eve dinner here again.

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