Maybe I'm extremely lucky in that I rarely encounter service issues that mar my dining out, or maybe I'm more tolerant than some. If I'm shown to a table that I consider less than ideal and I spy another one I like, I don't have any trouble asking to be moved, and usually my request is honored with good grace. If I'm at a small-plates restaurant and our individual plates aren't changed frequently enough, I have no problem asking for new ones. Sometimes I feel uneasy when the inherent rhythm of a meal is thrown off, when we're waiting too long to receive menus or courses or the check, but not often and if the food is tardy, it's usually a kitchen problem, not a service one. And an intuitive server will know when to comp an item to sooth a table's hurt feelings. We're supposed to be having a good time, after all.
But recently I had dinner at a posh, otherwise more than professional place, where the server made us so uncomfortable that, despite enjoying the ambience and the food, I dreaded a return visit. I'd made a reservation at Lark Creek Steak, in the Westfield San Francisco Centre, based on the time the Centre's movie complex had told us that our screening of Children of Men would end, which turned out to be half an hour off. We rode the escalator to the floor below and asked if they could take us early, but no, we were offered counter seating only. Therefore, we were forced to shop, not really a hardship.
So, after a good movie and a couple of good buys, we were in high spirits, especially when we followed the hostess to what I feared would be a tiny deuce and were led instead to an expansive booth that would seat four in comfort. From our plush perch, we admired the open-grill kitchen, an interesting display of all-California wines behind glass, and several large figurative landscape paintings. The room was vaguely impersonal, but no expense had been spared. Lark Creek Steak is the latest offering from beloved Bay Area Chef Bradley Ogden, who's expanded his original artisanal Marin County Lark Creek into a national brand that includes Lark Creek Cafes, Yankee Piers (even at the airport), and an eponymous restaurant in Las Vegas.
That night we were offered, in addition to the lengthy menu whose 10 non-steak mains outnumbered its seven beef steaks and roasts, a bargain prix fixe as part of the annual January "Dine About Town" promotion, a three-course dinner for $31.95. At first I told Ruby we'd have to order off the regular menu. But once we'd ascertained that everything on the $31.95 menu was available on the regular menu including a six-ounce filet mignon, regularly $26.95, and that price for the steak alone, without the whipped potatoes it came with on the prix fixe the bargain proved irresistible.
We were even treated to shot glasses filled with a refreshing carrot-apple juice, and a crisp toast topped with tapenade. But apparently an insufficient response to a weak witticism offered by our server, after an equally weak one uttered by me, set our server against us. He made us feel uncomfortable throughout the meal, with looks, sighs, little abrasive comments, despite our attempts to win him over. At first it was funny ("He hates me," I said, cheerfully), but then it became awkward; I dreaded his arrival at our table. "I feel like I'm being schooled," I said to Ruby, when he lectured me after I automatically pushed my entrée plate an inch away when it was placed too close to me.
When we turned our attention to the food, we were happy. The starters of a decent, though rather mild, Caesar salad and a lush creamy curried cauliflower soup were good. Our main courses were stellar: The luxurious baseball-shaped filet mignon, a cut usually known for its tender texture rather than flavor, was extraordinarily, unexpectedly beefy. I savored every bite. I also admired a beautifully balanced preparation of skate wing, carefully sauteed to a crisp golden hue, with capers, muscat grapes, pine nuts, and tea-soaked raisins. A tasting of two sides (not part of the prix fixe) was excellent: chilled julienned beets with roasted walnuts and blue cheese, and a more unusual and delightful dish of polentalike Ansom Mills grits tarted up with scallions and pepper jack cheese. We were so full that we asked to have our desserts, a chilly blood orange cheesecake and Ogden's signature butterscotch pudding, wrapped up to go after a couple of bites. We managed to enjoy ourselves despite the curious incident of the waiter in the nighttime. That fabulous steak went a long way in the effort.
Still, I was nervous about a return visit. I wondered if I should ask the host to seat me "anywhere but in Mr. X's section," when I made the booking, which would have been a first. In the event, I took my chances. Again we were going to a movie above, again the Century gave us an incorrect ending time. But this evening, when we arrived a quarter of an hour early, we were given a table, another comfy booth, after a wait of a few minutes.
Mr. X was nowhere to be seen, and we were able to devote our full attention to the food. But tonight nothing thrilled me quite as much as that wonderful filet. Even the gift of the pre-prandial shot, a house-made raspberry soda, was off: too sweet, not a boost to the appetite like the previous carrot-based juice. My father's carpaccio of Wagyu rib-eye was beautifully garnished with hearts of palm, big caper berries, and slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and it was tasty enough, but it didn't excite his palate like a recent similar dish he'd loved at Joe DiMaggio's. Similarly, the dish of sauteed Monterey calamari I shared with my mother was tender enough, but its simple sauce of garlic butter, Meyer lemon, and parsley needed another ingredient to up its impact.
There was nothing wrong with the generous portion of thin-sliced slow-roasted USDA prime top sirloin, aka roast beef, my father ordered. He chose a delightful compound butter flavored with red wine and peppercorns from the five you're offered gratis with your meat; the béarnaise I tried was equally good. I was surprised, however, with the relative blandness and dryness of my nine-ounce $27.95 New York cut, usually a tastier cut than the filet: Perhaps I should have sprung for the priciest dish on the menu, the 16-ounce, 28-day dry-aged prime bone-in rib-eye, at $43.95. But the $16 difference did me in. Surprisingly, the best of our three entrées was the chicken, gently pan-roasted and stuffed with a savory mixture of chestnuts, pancetta, foie gras, and cipollini onions.
But my favorite dish of the meal was actually a luscious dessert of creamy almond-flavored panna cotta topped with a layer of thick caramel sauce, and strewed with chopped malted milk balls. A delicate Meyer lemon tart was very good indeed, but "whoever created that panna cotta is an evil genius," I told anyone within hearing distance. I could have eaten a second helping immediately. At $5.95, it was the menu's best bargain next to the January prix-fixe (now vanished until next year). You can seat me wherever Chona Piumarta is the pastry chef.