Last Friday, I had to go to Warsaw and stay the night there. As my latest book (co-authored with Justyna Ziółkowska) has only just been published in physical copy, I decided to celebrate and celebrate handsomely. A few days before travelling, I booked a table at Nolita, which some reviews have as the best restaurant in Warsaw. And here I want to write my first ever restaurant review, and, hopefully, the first ever linguistic review of a restaurant.
My companion and I arrived a few minutes early, only to be set upon by three waiters who asked my name and didn’t have to check whether it was the right one. I made a joke about it, which was ignored. The three waiters were so professional that not even a hint of a smile appeared on their faces. I did notice that but thought nothing of it at the time.
We were led to our table, which we didn’t like so we asked to be re-seated. That was greeted with some poorly hidden surprise – it seems when Nolita people say, you do, but after a couple of minutes we were led to the table of our choosing. I tried to ask something, that was ignored again – no talking yet. I noticed that more clearly and thought that if the food would not be excellent, at least the evening would be interesting communicatively. And so it was.
Before I continue, I want to say that the food was excellent. We ordered a seven-course tasting menu (I ordered it with wine pairing) – after all, I was celebrating! The first course swept us off our feet. It was a Japanese rendering of the tomato, with savoury tomato sorbet. The second course, steak tartare, was pedestrian (which in Nolita terms means it was still excellent), the third one was foie gras in orange jelly and it was divine (though it’s a dish I already had had somewhere else). The fourth course was octopus with wasabi and honey (their signature dish) – it was very good. The seabass which came next was pedestrian again, as was the raviolo. The dessert – I actually can’t remember what it was – we enjoyed very much. All in all, the food was excellent, though perhaps two courses were below expectations, yet, they were still keeping the very good standard you’d expect.
And then there was wine. The never-smiling and somewhat stuck-up sommelier was so knowledgeable that he appeared to want to kill us with the facts about the wines he was serving. It was almost like he knew the names of the individual worms living in regions of Italy or Germany. Still, the wines were excellent. The pairing? Oh well, only once in my life have I experienced wine paring that actually delivered what it promised. It was not at Nolita.
Still, the sommelier is the first of the waiters I want to mention moving on to the linguistic part of this review. He was extremely knowledgeable and while I tend to think that I know a little bit about white wine, he quickly made sure that I didn’t dare ask any questions. Well, I only asked one and it was enough, but after mixing Zinfandel with Sylvaner (he was wearing a mask and I could not hear what he was saying….), I thought I’d better shut up. I came to Nolita happy with my knowledge of white wine, I left a humbled ignoramus, which I probably am. However, I am fairly certain that it’s not for a sommelier at a very expensive restaurant to make me aware of this. But at least my utter wine ignorance saved me from believing that you can taste sea (or was it river?) stones in the wine. No, you bloody can’t.
As minutes passed, courses started appearing, we were not able to engage even in briefest of conversations with the waiters. Especially, that there were too many of them. Questions were answered only in the most laconic of ways. Obviously, we were not asked whether we liked the food. At course three, my companion observed that we were on a conveyer belt. Indeed, I didn’t manage to finish one of the courses as it was snatched from before me, only for another to arrive seconds later.
At course four, I asked what time we had to be off, as they were in such a hurry to serve us. The waiter was surprised with the question, but simply told us we had the table and could stay however long we wanted. He also offered us a break, but we decided that it was too risky. Who knows what kind of Nolita master plan would be wrecked by such a request? To be honest, we both also realised we wanted to get out. So, the food kept coming as we speedily guzzled it down, almost not daring to stop for conversation.
No one spoke to, no one asked whether we were enjoying the food. At some point the owner (and top chef) arrived at the restaurant. Oh, I observed, perhaps he would care to come over and say hello and ask about his creations. After all, we’re paying so much for by then a dubious privilege of fine dining at Nolita, that such a courtesy would be highly appropriate. Oh no, the chef was half hidden at the entrance to the kitchen, observed the room, talked to some of the waiters, very aloof.
My companion and I both started paying more attention to the dynamic at the restaurant than to the (excellent) food we were eating. They talked to no one. The communicative channel of communication was closed all the time. The waiters spoke unto us, announcing with glee the subsequent courses, but never engaging in idle chit-chat. At Nolita, they simply know how good they are and they don’t need a pesky customer to tell them. Basically, you don’t talk to God, you worship and admire him. By the end of eating, we were so tired of the admiring that we both really wanted to get out. At least the two of us could discuss what had just happened.
But then came a surprise. At the end, one of the waiters (we were waited on by 5 different waiters who were like robots extremely efficiently serving the food and taking the dishes) asked what we thought. And so, you will think, at the very last, the channel was opened. We were invited to share our thoughts; we were invited offer feedback. It turns out that the top-god-chef does actually want to listen. Well, I don’t think so. I think we were invited to praise the Lord. Not much more. We were invited to say how wonderful everything was. Indeed, as there was no reaction to what happened next, I am fairly sure that my assessment is quite right.
My companion said the food was excellent – the waiter thanked perfunctorily (first sign the communicative channel was opened, but only for certain kind of communication). The waiter turned to me and I said I’d better say nothing. That seemed to have irked the waiter’s interest, so he asked sarcastically whether I liked nothing. I was already irritated as I was expecting a bill that, in my view, demanded exceptional service, but this sarcasm, this inflated ego by proxy, really pushed me over. I said I loved the food, but Nolita was the best restaurant I would never ever come back to. And that I had never been at such a heartless, unfriendly, silent, altogether dreadful restaurant. But yes, the food was great, but I can’t wait to get out and forget this awful experience.
At that point, I somehow think the waiter decided I was mad. He thanked me for my comments (it’s professionalism all the way in Nolita) and left. As we made our way out, no one said goodbye. Gosh, I thought, I really did abuse the communicative channel I was afforded, didn’t I? The bill was the highest I have ever paid in a restaurant (a tasting menu for two, with wine pairing – also disappointing, incidentally, in a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris a couple of years ago was cheaper). I will never go back to Nolita, the most linguistically inept restaurant I have ever set my foot in. But, to be honest, I am sort of pleased I had the experience (not the bill, though). It’s not the first time I thought about a restaurant in linguistic terms, but it’s the first time I thought a restaurant was in urgent need of someone to tell them how to communicate.
But there is another moral to the story. There’s an uncanny resemblance between restaurants and doctors. Just as restaurants are not only food dispensers, doctors are not only pill pushers. Consider having a chat with your patient, doctor. It will do them much much good. They might come back too.