One of my all-time favorite food quotes is from Mario Batali, as cited in Bill Buford's excellent Heat:
"If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don't serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you're a d**k."
I thought about that sentiment last week at Grace, which is one of the most exhilarating restaurants I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.
But here's the thing: they always have one word on their kitchen whiteboard: "Consistency." I was talking to one of the chef's about it, and he said, "That word is always there because it's always all about consistency."
I've been to Grace twice this summer and both times I've had the crème caramel with truffles, which is listed on the menu as "Australian Black Truffle, crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE BLOSSOM." [Menu description includes those caps]
The first time I had it, I loved this dish and thought the creamy preparation with slight oniony notes and crunch was a perfect vehicle for truffles. At the time I wrote, "Rarely does a truffle dish deliver such deep and powerful truffle flavor: a crème caramel with crispy scallion, chive blossom, and, of course, a generous helping of the black diamond."
I was knocked out by that dish.
The second time at Grace, when I saw this dish on the menu, I leaned over to Tribune Wine Critic Bill St. John and said, "This dish is going to breath-taking."
But when the dish arrived, I was abashed. It was a different preparation and although quite good, I was let down, deflated…I think I may actually have sniffled a little. There were no chive blossoms, though that ingredient was FEATURED IN CAPS on the menu, no crunch…it was, finally, a different dish and that was disappointment.
And avoiding that kind of let down is the main reason a kitchen strives for consistency. You don't want to set up the customer to expect one thing only to receive another.
Admittedly, there's a certain attractiveness to inconsistency, to places that vary their menu based on "what's best at the market" on any given day. And at small mom and pop joints or diners and other less formal places, if they're out of the usual green pepper and substitute red pepper on the salad, fine. No more Swiss cheese, fine, go ahead and use cheddar on the burger. French fries were all used up at lunch – no worries, I'll have American fries.
But the apparent inability of an exceptional restaurant like Grace to deliver a consistent dish during a single season did lead, in at least one case, to disappointment and honestly a little embarrassment.
The embarrassment was silly, I guess, and I'll cop to that as my problem, but the disappointment, well, that was due to the kitchen's oversight.
I understand that sometimes ingredients (like chive blossoms) are not available. In that event, the right response seems like it would be to either not serve the dish or, at the very least, to not feature that missing INGREDIENT IN CAPS.
At Grace, next to the word "Consistency" on the whiteboard, is a countdown of days to the next round of Michelin ratings. I think Grace will do well, and they'll probably get a few stars, but still, if you have a watch word, watch it. Follow it. Or it's just a word.