Restaurant favorites: Now you taste it, now you don’t
There are many good reasons why restaurants cast off their classics: Chefs tire of making the same things over and over. Costs rise. Banh mi (or crudo or kale) go in, then out of fashion. But diners, left with nothing but memories and longing, often have a hard time letting go.
The New York Times
I can’t recall the exact date a few years ago when I ate my first ciabatta egg sandwich at Seersucker, in New York City. But I remember precisely how great it tasted and made me feel, which is why I ate it again and again at every possible opportunity.
It was an upscale version of the corner deli standard: fresh scrambled eggs with smoked country bacon and aged New York cheddar, tucked into a warm, crusty Balthazar Bakery ciabatta roll lightly smeared with a delicate homemade ketchup called tomato jam. All love, no greasy afterburn.
Then one day, after settling into a table at Seersucker for brunch, I discovered that the menu had undergone a makeover and my beloved ciabatta sandwich was gone. No amount of pleading for a special order would bring it back.
I had suffered a setback all too common in this age of restless chefs and novelty-seeking diners: the discontinued dish.
There are many good reasons why restaurants cast off their classics: Chefs tire of making the same things over and over. Costs rise. Banh mi (or crudo or kale) go in, then out of fashion. But diners like me, left with nothing but memories and longing, often have a hard time letting go.
After JCT Kitchen & Bar in Atlanta killed off its bacon, onion jam and blue cheese burger last June, one devotee created a Bring Back the JCT Burger page on Facebook, illustrating it with a stock photograph of an angry crowd, arms raised, in front of billowing black smoke.
“This ain’t right! It was my favorite in town!” a visitor posted. Another pleaded: “I came all the way from Hawaii only to be disappointed! Bring it back!”
Twitter is awash in protestations about spiked menu items, like one from Mathew Brooks of Fredericksburg, Va., who sent what he describes as “an immediate and despondent” tweet to Panera with the hashtag #unrequited last fall after the chain revoked its steak and white cheddar panini.
“It has gone unanswered,” Brooks lamented in a Facebook message.
The Num Pang Sandwich Shop in Manhattan received what might be the world’s only love letter to a mahi-mahi sandwich after replacing it in January with what one customer, Rick, thought was a “boring” salmon version. “I am deeply saddened and highly depressed,” wrote Rick, who lived across the street from one of the restaurant’s outlets. “I’ve been eating about two or three of your mahi-mahi sandwiches per week. They were the greatest and made me a happy man.”
At Sotto, a trattoria in Cincinnati, it was not the diners but the staff who had a hard time saying goodbye when the beloved porchetta bruschetta was terminated in February.
“Porchie. Always a treat to be around,” a server, Sarah Temples, eulogized the appetizer during a mock funeral held by employees. “He was a true friend that made strangers feel comfortable in his presence. When people saw him they would fall in love.” (Temples also sketched a tombstone, with this epitaph: “Here lies Porchetta Bruschetta with his friends grain Dijon mustard and shallots.”)
Most chefs and restaurateurs say they consider diners’ feelings carefully before making menu changes.
Michele Mazza, the executive chef at Il Mulino in New York, says he hasn’t altered the menu since opening in 1981 because he is certain that it would hurt business. “For me it’s important to be very constant,” he said. “If I don’t have the Dover sole or the osso buco,” customers “won’t come in.”
Alfred Portale, the executive chef and co-owner of Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan, has for years wanted to overhaul his tuna tartare, having tired of its towering presentation, but he and his business partners, including Bret Csencsitz, worry that regulars would be upset. “We would have a mass uprising,” Csencsitz said. “It would just be mayhem.”
Michael Lomonaco, the executive chef of Porter House New York, experienced an uprising of sorts two years ago after replacing a popular oven-roasted herb chicken with a grilled version for the summer. Allen Grubman, the entertainment lawyer and a regular customer, tasted the new chicken and immediately summoned the chef to his table.
“He called me out in the dining room and dressed me down,” Lomonaco recalled. “He said, ‘I eat in all the best restaurants in New York and you have the best roast chicken,’ and he gave me arguments why I shouldn’t take it off.”
Grubman said that he doesn’t fully remember the details of that conversation, but that his devotion to the original recipe is justified. “It was moist, it was crispy on the outside, it tasted very, very fresh and it’s rotisserie chicken, which is my favorite,” Grubman said. “It’s perfect.”
Lomonaco considered the matter overnight, reinstated the dish and hasn’t disturbed it since.
Other chefs have learned to give in just a little. At Picholine, in New York, Terrance Brennan euthanized an acclaimed dish, tournedos of salmon with horseradish crust, about 10 years ago. “I was so sick of salmon I didn’t eat it for two years,” said Brennan, who had cooked the dish at three previous restaurants. “I couldn’t even look at this special marble plate we used to serve it on.”
But fans of the dish, like Barry Winograd, who has eaten at Picholine more than 1,100 times, according to the restaurant’s records, began calling in advance to request it. “If we want something in particular, we just tell them, and they have it for us,” said Winograd, who ate the salmon in March for his 62nd birthday.
At Gotham Bar and Grill, requests for fettuccine with tomato, basil and Maine lobster Bolognese, from Portale’s opening menu in 1985, can send staff members scurrying. “If we have lobster stock in the refrigerator, we can put the sauce together quickly, but we don’t always have fresh pasta,” Portale said, “so we send a food runner to Whole Foods.”
To minimize off-the-menu requests, chefs employ a variety of psychological tactics. “When people come in and say: ‘Oh, my God! I can’t believe you took the salmon off,’ I tell them if you give us a few days’ notice we’ll make it for you,” Brennan said. “That kind of gives them a sense of relief. Then they forget about it and order whatever else.”
Sirio Maccioni, who has genially presided at Le Cirque for decades, taught his staff a diversionary technique: quickly offer a replacement from the current menu. “You don’t say no. You say, ‘I don’t have that today’ and get them to try something else,” said his son Marco Maccioni, who now runs the restaurant with his father.
Indeed, when I visited Seersucker and was informed that my ciabatta egg sandwich had perished, I ended up ordering a poached egg atop a mound of toasted barley and hazelnuts, served in a languid pool of vegetable broth. The crunchy grains were studded with juicy gems of roasted mushroom; the broth was delicately seasoned and precise.
The chef and co-owner, Robert Newton, declined to respond to my calls and emails asking why the sandwich had been cut. Only when I cornered him in person did he explain that he had changed the menu to suit his evolving interests.
“Chefs that really want to be chefs don’t really want to do the same thing day after day, after day, year after year,” he said.
CIABATTA EGG SANDWICH WITH TOMATO JAM
Makes 4 sandwiches
1 large shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons ground coriander
1½ teaspoons fresh ground fennel seeds
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 anchovy fillet
2 tablespoons lemon juice
10 ounces tomato purée
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
8 slices bacon, preferably Burgers’ Smokehouse Original Country Bacon, available at Bklyn Larder or smokehouse.com
4 ciabatta rolls
8 slices sharp cheddar
8 eggs, preferably fresh from a local farm
1. Make the tomato jam: In a medium saucepan, warm 3 tablespoons olive oil over low heat, then add shallots. Once they soften, add garlic. Cook for about one minute, or until the garlic starts to soften but not brown, then add the coriander and ground fennel. Allow the spices to toast slightly and become aromatic, adding more oil as needed so the mixture remains a thick paste and the herbs do not burn. Add the brown sugar and anchovy; use a wooden spoon to mash them into the paste. Once they are combined, deglaze the pan with lemon juice, then add the tomato purée, oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Raise heat until mixture starts to boil, then turn it down and gently simmer about 30 minutes, whisking often, until jam thickens. Remove from heat and add salt to taste. As it cools, jam will continue to thicken.
2. Make the sandwich: Heat oven to 250 degrees. Place the bacon in a large, cold skillet, then cook over low to medium low heat, turning until crisp on both sides. Set aside on a plate. Remove all but 1 tablespoon fat from the skillet.
3. Slice the ciabatta rolls in half and place on a baking sheet. Put 2 slices of cheese on each top half, and smear bottoms generously with tomato jam. (Refrigerate remaining jam for other uses.) Put bread in oven to warm.
4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together with a little salt and pepper. Put the skillet on medium heat and when hot again, gently scramble eggs. Once eggs are just firm, divide them among the ciabatta bottoms. Top with 2 slices bacon, and then the ciabatta tops. Serve immediately.
— Adapted from Robert Newton