Monday, September 06, 2010

A good date makes all the difference

A week ago tonight, to celebrate my completion of level 1 rowing, James and I went on a date.

It was absolutely HORRIBLE.

And tonight we went on a date that was absolutely FANTASTIC.

(As a side note, in relation to my previous post about m-i-l issues, we got to go on our date tonight because James persuaded his mom to look after Andrew with b-i-l at our place and she agreed…I’m not going to get into all of that though – that’s not what this post is about).

OK…so I want to discuss the two totally different experiences.

Last Sunday we decided to hit up Ciao Bella on Denman Street. We’d been twice before and while the food was good both times, I remember not being super impressed with the atmosphere or the service. We decided to give it one last chance. We were in the mood for pasta and it seemed like a good choice given it’s close to our place and we didn’t want to experiment with a new place.

Now I’m kind of wishing we had.

We were seated on the patio, although they put us at a table right beside the door when there were better seats a little ways away from it. So we ended up moving, which was fine. The heat lamp was SO HOT though, and part way through our meal I heard a woman at a table nearby ask if it was possible to turn it down or off, and the waitress said No, which I found a little strange, but whatever. So we were out on the patio but it was stifling hot as if we were sitting inside by a fireplace. I think it would have been much cooler if we’d just sat inside, but who could have known.

Things went awry when I went to order something I ate there before, only this time to be told it was not vegetarian. I’m not even going to mention what is in this sauce because it made me want to start sobbing on the spot (and I’m not joking, it really did make me feel awful). I would have left the restaurant right then and there without eating a thing and that would have been fine by me. Thinking back, that’s probably what we should have done.

But he assured me that their Fettuccine Alfredo IS vegetarian so I ordered that. And James ordered some seafood pasta, the pescatarian that he is.

We ordered our drinks at the same time that we ordered the meal. I can’t remember what James got but I ordered a Cosmopolitan. I was actually planning on just having water but after being frazzled by the non-veggie thing I felt alcohol was in order.

Well the drinks were on the table within 30 seconds of ordering them. And I think it should take longer to mix a Cosmo, wouldn’t you think? I should have known when the waiter actually APOLOGIZED for how it looked, saying something about the juice they use and that it might not look great but it would have all the right flavours.

Well I have had my share of Cosmopolitans and certainly they are different from place to place. But this one contained zero alcohol and tasted basically like watered down grapefruit juice with a bit of sugar. It was disgusting. But whatevs, I wasn’t going to make a scene about it.

At the same time that the drinks arrived, bread was brought to our table. There was oil and balsamic vinegar on the table for us to use for dipping. So I put some on the side plate and JUST broke a little piece of bread off to dip when OUR MEALS ARRIVED.

I kid you not, this is NOT an exaggeration – it took less than 5 minutes from the time we ordered everything to have it all on the table. You can’t boil pasta in under 5 minutes, so you tell me how fresh our food was?! I am actually going to hazard to guess that it was three minutes tops when our food arrived from the time we ordered it. TOPS.

I was totally put off. The pasta tasted good, but that’s not the point. I felt like I was at an Italian version of McDonalds. Only the food came a little faster than Mickey D’s. I wasn’t there to be hurried out. I wanted to be out having a nice date with my husband without watching the time.

I just wasn’t having a good time and that was evident. I did try to make the most of it, but by the time the bill came I just sort of felt like crying. I didn’t, obviously, but I was just blah from the whole experience, and angry that it cost us $50 to have such a lousy time. I mean, sure I enjoyed James’ company, but I could have done that for far less money and we probably could have had a better experience at Subway. And I once had a fly fly right out of my sandwich from Subway (seriously) so that’s saying something!

Anyway, I was feeling disheartened because our last two dates before this were kind of similar. An Indian restaurant that was boiling hot with horrible service and ugly atmosphere, decent food but not worth the experience of being there to eat it. And Thai place where they seemed to be out of more than what they had and very slow service.

It upsets me each time this happens not just because we’re wasting money on a somewhat lame experience but because we really don’t usually get to go out very often just the two of us, so when we do I really have high hopes that it will be a great time.

Well, tonight we got our great time.

And we got it at Earls of all places!

I say ‘of all places’ because truthfully I tend to think of Earls as quite trendy and not really all that unique. Cookie-cutter servers usually and overpriced food. BUT we had a $50 gift certificate that my uncle gave us last Christmas so we thought we might as well use it once and for all. And as it turns out, it actually wasn't as overpriced as I'd thought - it was comparable to all the other restaurants of its calibre.

And I seriously can’t wait to go back there, it was such a great experience!

I was feeling frazzled from the m-i-l so you could argue that I had the same sort of problem as I did at the other place re: the food issue. On both dates there was something hanging over my head a little. But this experience was so good that I was able to leave my issues at the door and just enjoy myself, since there was nothing else bad happening to cause me to dwell on things. Which is a sign of a really good restaurant experience, if you ask me.

We wanted to sit outside, and were told to pick anywhere we wanted on the patio. We were far enough from the heat lamps so they weren’t too hot (although, I should add that without us saying anything we were told that if we got too hot they could easily turn the heat lamp off for us) and we got a bit of a breeze coming from Robson Street down below. It was glorious. They even had blankets on the chairs if we needed them (which we didn’t, but I thought it was a really nice touch!)

Our waitress wasn’t cookie-cutter-ish and was super friendly and knowledgeable about the menu (and accommodating vegetarians, since it’s not the most veg-friendly menu). We ordered drinks first – some sort of Rah Rah Raspberry something or other cocktail and a Wild Orchid martini (which I drank and it was DELISH – I would definitely have it again). We ordered an appy to start – a spinach and artichoke feta cheese dip with crispy flatbread and it was to die for. SOOOOO GOOD. I could eat more of it right now.

When we were finished with that we ordered our main courses, James got the chicken tacos with mushrooms instead of chicken, and I had a vegetarian kung pao. It’s so important for vegetarians to ALWAYS ask to make sure something is pure veggie because I was surprised to learn that the kung pao has bok choy in it that they usually SOAK IN CHICKEN STOCK before adding to the dish. Which of course they didn’t do for mine, but wow, stuff you just don’t think about. But the waitress knew all of this and was so good about all of it.

We sat and sipped our drinks and chatted and then, a totally appropriate amount of time later, our meals arrived.

And they were fantastic. I couldn’t try James’ tacos because they had avocado in them and avocado wants to kill me every time I eat it so I don’t anymore. But they must have been good because he said minus the avocado, we should try making them at home. And my kung pao seriously hit the spot. I was worried because it said ‘ginger soy sauce’ and I HATE ginger with a passion, but it was subtle and tasted so yummy. I could also eat more of it now (and I had leftovers I could have eaten, but a homeless guy asked for the take-away box as we were walking home so I gave it to him. How could I have enjoyed eating the rest later thinking that I left a guy starving on the street so I could have a snack when we’ve got tons of food in our fridge and cupboards?!)

The food was SO GOOD that we didn’t stop there. Well, first with the drinks – James ordered a classic martini with a lemon twist, and I got a B52 coffee. James mentioned I had my eye on the S’Mores dessert but I told the waitress I needed to coast for a bit. She came back a totally appropriate time later and asked if I was ready for it yet, which I was, and it came to the table about 10 minutes later. And it was so so so so so so good.

The server checked on us just the right amount of times. The food was all SO TASTY. The drinks were good. The atmosphere great. And we enjoyed their choice in music. There really was nothing about the date that was bad.

I’m surprised I loved it so much but I did!

And I am so relieved after our negative experience, most especially at Ciao Bella, but at the other places I briefly mentioned as well.

I’d love to be able to support the more independent restaurants, but I’ve come to realize that while of course there are exceptions, there are certain standards that these chain restaurants like Earls have set. I like having a fairly good idea what my experience at a particular place is going to be like. Sure, things could go awry even at Earls. It depends on the server we get, my mood at the time, possibly even the weather could make it or break it. But I do think they in general have a particular standard that they set out to meet and they tend to do a good job at it. These other restaurants could learn a thing or two from that.

I am just so tired of going out and spending money on an experience that isn’t all there. Tonight we got really lucky, since $50 of our experience was paid for with the gift card, but even if it hadn’t been, it seriously would have been worth every penny.

I thought I was already pretty choosy about where we go on our dates, but from now on I’m going to be extra cautious in making a decision to go somewhere and spend money. And if I get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach from the moment we sit down, that’s when I know we have to boot it out the door and go someplace where it feels right to be there. Why bother going out otherwise?

I’m so glad James and I had our night out tonight. We had great conversations and lots of laughs. It’s a night out I won’t soon forget!

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