New York Restaurants Have a Pacing Problem
Photo: Grub Street
A running list of everywhere I’ve been, week 40: 384. Hillstone 385. The Grill 386. The Lobster Club 387. Stone Park Cafe 388. Culture 389. Masalawala and Sons 390. Winner 391. Flora 392. Syko
Increasingly, restaurant servers seem intent on explaining a menu’s format to diners — sometimes offering advice on how many small plates might constitute a proper meal — even when that format is more or less obvious. That’s the case at Rolo’s in Ridgewood, where the menu is divided into sections that would traditionally be understood to represent appetizers, pastas, and entrées. A few Sundays ago, while dining alone, I chose three dishes from the menu: polenta bread with Calabrian chile butter, grilled head-on shrimp, and the “two sheet” lasagna verde.
Even in this era of small-plates madness, when everything is meant to be shared and the idea of two defined courses is more or less obsolete, I didn’t think I’d need to specify that I wanted to eat the lasagna after the shrimp, since the dishes were clearly designed to arrive at different points in the meal. (Plus it doesn’t make a lot of sense to serve lasagna, a dish eaten with a fork and knife, with shell-on shrimp, which is perfect for eating with your hands.) But there I was, focused on the task of extracting crustacean meat from its charred exoskeleton when my main course was dropped off fresh from the wood-fired oven.
Lasagna (and not-finished shrimp).
Photo: Tammie Teclemariam
Now I was stuck. Do I finish my shrimp or move on to the lasagna while it’s still warm? I opted for hot pasta — reluctantly (and temporarily) abandoning my final shrimp and a half in the process, which I then had to protect four different times from bussers asking if I’d like them to take away the plate. (Not yet!)
The pacing problem, as I’ve come to think of it lately, is not unique to Rolo’s. I recall the time at Wenwen when I had specifically asked for the dishes to come out in rounds, since we had ordered so much, yet was served a whole fish a couple minutes after two entrées had hit the table — we had to ask for takeout containers to make space. Then there were the confusing decision to serve gazpacho after a whole baked potato at Public Records, the onslaught of entrées at Kimika before our salad and starter were finished, and the duck rillettes I was served at Claud at the same time as a very rich steak tartare.
This phenomenon can partly be attributed to a desire among restaurateurs for shorter turn times, but the experience feels less like being rushed out to make room for other customers — at Rolo’s, there were still a handful of seats at the bar and some empty tables — and more like inattention. Maybe the labor shortage means good expediters are harder to find?
I worry we’ve gotten so accustomed to shared plates and wine bars where food just appears when it’s ready that the notion of having distinct courses can seem like nitpicking or an expectation reserved only for fine dining. But look, it’s not like I go to Noodletown seeking a multicourse tasting experience. Rather, hospitality is about how you are treated during the time you are at an establishment, and even though I was getting so much attention at Rolo’s, none of it helped my meal. At a certain price, when glasses of wine are $18 and dinner for one costs more than $100, the enjoyment of any single dish can be severely undercut by pressure to consume something else.
The current dining experience in New York is largely defined by a disordered assembly of cocktails, natural wine, and small plates. Everything may be good on its own, but it’s a shame when the service and timing don’t reinforce the integrity of, and the work that goes into making, the food and drinks.