Monday, 20 July 2009

Service From Another Era

Sadly these days, it can be hard to get really good service. The days of “service with a smile” and “satisfaction guaranteed” can seem like they are long gone. But once in a while you experience service as it used to be, and it reminds you that there are still people out there who really care about what they do, and who take pride in their work.

New Year’s Eve this year was an important one for us. After a couple of really sad years during which I lost both my parents, we were going to try to make a new start, and move forward by doing something really memorable. Not only that, but our son was about to turn sixteen, a very important age in my opinion, and we wanted to do something really special for him. We decided a trip to New York City fit the bill, and I looked into how we could celebrate his birthday and the New Year in style. We decided to stay at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and go to the New Year’s Eve celebration at their Bull and Bear restaurant.

We were really looking forward to this event, expecting something quite outstanding at the Bull and Bear. Firstly there was the reputation the Waldorf Astoria has for New Year’s Eve celebrations and secondly, as you would expect, the meal (for which we had completely pre-paid) was quite expensive. Sadly, from beginning to end, it was a bit of a disaster. The atmosphere was not good, the service was not up to standard, the food was mediocre and the whole thing was a major disappointment. I was so upset I did not even complain until a few days later when we ate at one of the Waldorf’s other restaurants, Peacock Alley. I did so almost in passing, when I was complimenting the waiter on that evening’s dinner.

The manager there offered us a complimentary after dinner drink, and passed my concerns on to the General Manager of the Bull and Bear, Oran Kierans. He rang me first thing the next day, apologised profusely and refunded over half the cost of the evening. He then said that we should get in touch when next we were in New York, and he would treat us to dinner. He said he was proud of his restaurant, and wanted us to see just how wonderful it could be.

We were not sure when we were going to be back, but I kept Mr Kieran’s email address on file. When we decided to return to New York recently, I contacted him, wondering if, six months later, he would even remember us, let alone his offer of dinner. I need not have worried. He replied to my email immediately, and Saturday night found us once again at the Waldorf Astoria, enjoying a meal at the Bull and Bear. From the very start, it was a totally different experience from New Year’s Eve. The whole atmosphere was different. (Everyone has a bad day once in a while, and clearly for the Bull and Bear New Year’s Eve last year was it.) We felt so welcome, and we were so impressed with the food. From our entrées to our desserts, everything was beautifully prepared and tasted amazing.

My son started with Waldorf salad, and enjoyed a crisp salad of shredded apples in a light mayonnaise, garnished with candied walnuts. My husband’s smoked salmon appetiser was delicious (I had to take his word on this; I don’t like smoked salmon!), and my shrimp cocktail was one of the nicest I have ever had. The cocktail sauce was a beautiful balance of flavors, and I have no idea where the chef found shrimp that were as big as these and yet still so tender and delicious. We all had the same thing for our main course – prime fillet mignon. We love our steak, and we sure have eaten a lot of it over the years, both at home and in restaurants all over the world. We all agreed that the fillets we had Saturday night at the Bull and Bear were among the most delicious steaks we have ever had. The meat was wonderful and they were beautifully seasoned and cooked, served with a Bearnaise sauce that was absolutely ambrosial.

As for dessert, the Bull and Bear have such a delicious sounding selection it is hard to choose. It’s a good thing they encourage you to select three of the delicacies on offer, and then serve them to you in miniature. (Actually, they are not even that miniature – the servings are very generous.) It is a dessert lover’s dream. My husband and I shared a perfect little key lime pie, a miniature goblet of honeyed rice pudding with apricot compote, nutmeg and almonds and a vanilla crème brûlée with forest fruits. All three were simply gorgeous. Our son had the same as we did, except instead of the rice pudding, he had an exquisite version of the classic “S’more” dessert. He shared a taste of it with me and it was about as far removed from the sticky sweet concoctions of my Guiding childhood (however delightful they may have been!) as you could possibly imagine. This was a grown up gourmet S’more, and it really has benefitted from the makeover.

As we drank our coffee and finished the meal, I reflected on how rare it is to find places that actually care about their food and service to the point that they clearly do at the Bull and Bear. Not only did we have an outstanding dining experience on our return, but the general manager and staff at the Bull and Bear have reminded me that in some places, old fashioned service and attention to detail still thrive in the post-modern world.

The Bull and Bear, which is located at 301 Park Avenue at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, is well worth a visit when next you are in New York City. I highly recommend it.

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