It’s not often that a Restaurant Rater forces Y&H to pick up the phone and talk to the restaurateur under evaluation, but capitolfoodies, in their meticulously detailed critique of Vidalia during Restaurant Week, dropped this small, tactical bomb:
After we paid the bill and were preparing to leave the server asked how we enjoyed the meal. Parry and I exchanged looks. This is that embarrassing part of a bad meal where guests feel compelled to lie. We opted for the truth. Parry asked to speak with the manager and seconds later Michael Nevarez, the General Manager of Vidalia appeared. We carefully and somewhat gently explained that we had been eager to dine at Vidalia because of Chef Buben’s reputation and the rave reviews many have afforded the establishment but that we were gravely disappointed in the five-course tasting menu because so much of the food was either bland or overcooked. I suspect many of you will doubt what you are about to read but Parry and I swear it is the absolute truth. Mr. Nevarez responded by telling us that the dishes we were served fell short of our expectations because it is Restaurant Week and that in order to provide the five-course tasting menu at the price of $45 the chefs had to cut costs and use inferior ingredients. I swear Parry’s mouth slipped open during this horrendous explanation. I wish I’d had a camera with me to capture it. My response differed from Parry’s. I looked right at Mr. Nevarez and asked why Vidalia would risk their fine reputation by participating in Restaurant Week if doing so meant serving shoddy food. His response? In this economy, Vidalia wouldn’t survive if they didn’t especially since Congress is out on a break and business has been so slow.
It’s a serious charge that required a serious phone call to Jeffrey Buben, the owner of both Vidalia and Bistro Bis. He was hesitant to talk about the issue on the record. He didn’t think any good could come from refuting a customer’s experience; his main goal is to make his diners happy, he says, not treat them disrespectfully in the media.
Buben would allow this, though. “The menu for Restaurant Week is a menu created for Restaurant Week,” the owner tells Y&H. “It’s not lesser ingredients. It’s different ingredients.”
It’s only reasonable to expect some changes in ingredients during RW, the chef notes. A five-course tasting menu during any other week will run a diner $75 at Vidalia ($115 with wine pairings), but the bulked-up five-course Restaurant Week menu is only $45. To make such a menu cost-effective for Vidalia, the restaurant has to use cheaper, not inferior, ingredients and then prepare them in the Buben/ R.J. Cooper style.
For example, Buben says, Vidalia’s signature dish of shrimp and grits comes with smaller crustaceans, sans heads, during Restaurant Week as opposed to the larger, pricier head-on shrimp. Similarly, the kitchen substitutes Shenandoah lamb shoulder for the regular menu’s Shenandoah lamb loin. “They different preparations,” Buben adds. “They’re not inferior.”
For the most part, these ingredients are listed right on the RW menu (with the exception of the shrimp-and-grits description, which does not mention a change in crustaceans), but regardless, these ingredients should not translate into poor meals, if prepared correctly. Which is Buben’s main point. The kitchen simply screwed up the preparations.
Buben says he was quick to respond to capitolfoodies’ complaints. Vidalia immediately implemented its Triple A response plan: acknowledge the problem to the customer, apologize for it, and take action on it. The last response, Buben says, usually means trying to bring the customer back for a “memorable experience.”
“We make sure we’re on top of every detail” during a customer’s return visit, Buben says. “I’ll do whatever to make sure they’re a customer for life.”
Buben’s approach must have worked for capitolfoodies. The following night, the couple dined at Buben’s Bistro Bis. Check out the glowing review they posted.