You know how when someone you really love lets you down, it hurts even worse than when it is someone you don’t know? That’s how I felt after my recent visit to Taste Café’s new dinner service, Aftertaste. If you haven’t read my review of Taste for lunch, I will tell you that it is probably my favorite place in the entire city to eat lunch. They do everything well, the kitchen is quick and so is the service. They specialize in salads and sandwiches and everything is terrific.
Recently, they added dinner service one night a week (Wednesdays) and I was so looking forward to it! We went with friends who also love lunch at Taste, and who were equally excited. They start serving at 6:00 and don’t take reservations, so we got there shortly after service began. The hostess was friendly, but tried to seat us at 2 different tables for 3 before we sort of chose our own table.
Once we got seated, we perused the menu. It is a pretty big menu, with starters, salads, tartines (open faced sandwiches), mains and sides. Many of the salads and tartines are versions of what are on the lunch menu, but most of the starters and mains are different. Our server sort of mentioned sharing, but didn’t really make a big deal of it, and we sort of thought we would share starters and then get our own mains.
The best part of the meal (and it was really great) was the starter portion. We got the hot blue cheese bacon dip served with flatbread, the avocado puree with plantain chips, and the warm olives. The blue cheese bacon dip was so delicious. Hot and super creamy, but with the tanginess and kick that the blue cheese brings along with the salt of the bacon. Seriously, I almost slapped the hand of the busser who tried to take it away before I had thoroughly cleaned out the bowl. I would love to get this for a holiday gathering. I wonder if you can order it. Anyway, the “avocado puree” was guacamole. Not sure why they call it puree as it is nice and chunky, just the way guacamole should be. It was also really good and the fried plantain chips really added to the dish. The warm olives were, well, a little too warm I guess. I am not sure why they need to be warm to be honest, room temperature would be great, and these were clearly over warmed in a broiler and lost a lot in the process (not to mention burning your tongue as you ate them).
For the next course, one of my friends ordered one of the tartines, the rare roast beef with caramelized onions and nice big slices of blue cheese on top. I, along with our other friend, ordered the chimichurri shrimp, which our server told us, had gotten great feedback from customers. Hubby ordered the short ribs, which were also recommended by our server.
The only thing that was good was the tartine, and it was outstanding. I know, because I ate quite a bit of it waiting for my main. They served the tartine at the same time as hubby’s short rib, and it was a good 10-15 minutes before the shrimp came out. Well, one order of it anyway. They served that order of the shrimp to our other dining companion. He gave me one of his in the interim, which I ate and realized I really didn’t even want my order of it. After flagging our server, I asked her if I indeed did have an entrée coming, or maybe only one order was mistakenly put in, but regardless, I didn’t want it, so please cancel it. She came back and assured me that yes, 2 orders had been put in, but for whatever reason, only one came out.
As for the shrimp, they were not good. They were very large, and a tasted a bit past their prime ( I want to say “fishy”, but I guess “shrimpy” is more accurate?). The “chimichurri” was a sprinkling of herbs on the outside of the shell and the shrimp were clearly stuck in a broiler or something along those lines. They were exceedingly hot, dry and overcooked. They needed some moisture (and flavoring) from something---maybe an actual chimichurri sauce drizzled over top? Maybe cook them in a chimichurri sauce? My friend who had been served them did not finish his, even after giving me one.
Hubby said the short rib was very bland and seemed to have been cooked without much seasoning. He also didn’t finish it, and that is a sure sign of him not liking something.
Again, the tartine was really good and thankfully, my gracious friend shared a lot with me because I never got a main.
We did get the frites (they the regular pomme frites that they serve for lunch and hubby and I the truffle frites). The truffle aioli was tasty, but not overly “truffley.” I am sort of a truffle hound though and can usually smell if a truffle is being served in a restaurant the minute I walk in, and couldn’t really even smell them when the frites were in front of me. The truffle frites at Capital Grill are much more “truffley” although the quality of the frites themselves at Taste is probably the best in the entire city. Luckily, you can also pretty much make a meal of the frites, and between that, and the starters, I was pleasantly full. We also had the warm asparagus side which was not bad.
Hubby and I also shared the cheese plate for dessert and it was pretty good too—although with all those gooey French cheeses in the case, I was hoping for more of those, but it was still good and served with a variety of accompaniments (nuts, fruits and quince paste) which I enjoy when eating cheese.
The biggest problem in this place is service though. From the start, the staff doesn’t seem clued in to full dinner service yet. Now, I know we need to cut them some slack as this was only the third week of dinner service, and this is a lunch place that doesn’t do table service during the day, so it is a very new thing for most of the staff, I am sure. But there were very long stretches where we didn’t even see our server, not to mention the fact that our mains came out at such different intervals (if they came out at all).
I do think there are several things that could be done to improve this. First, they could change the menu to tapas, call the mains “larger plates” and tell the table to order to share and that the items will come out when they are finished. Our waitress sort of mentioned sharing, but never specifically said that it was recommended. This way, you don’t expect mains that are presented to the entire table at the same time. The weird thing was, no one really seemed surprised that we didn’t get our mains at the same time, or even really made any attempt to remedy the situation.
The other thing they could maybe do is cut the menu way back. There is A LOT of stuff on the menu, and as I mentioned, much of it is a lot like the lunch menu. Now, I hesitate to say take that stuff off, because it was the best of what we had, but maybe they should focus on fewer things and try to do them better.
Another suggestion I have is to take reservations. The fact is, nearly the entire restaurant was seated at the same time, and surely that would be enough to overwhelm even the most experienced kitchens. They could space their diners out a bit more perhaps with reservations.
The other thing is when you only serve dinner once a week, I am sure it is hard for a staff not used to table service to get up to speed quickly---they just don’t get enough practice. And obviously, you aren’t going to be able to hire a different staff for just one night a week. Hopefully, with more experience (and it is really trial by fire as this place was completely packed when we were there), the service issues will get ironed out. The prices are good, a little over half the food we had was quite good, and I know the potential is there. (And hey, they obviously have the business).
I was a bit depressed about this experience for a couple of days, but I am starting to come out of it. I was so hyped up, but I guess….we always have lunch!
Taste Cafe & Marketplace
5164 N College Ave