Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At Least the Food is Good: Finn & Porter

Valentine's Day is the single busiest night of the whole entire year for the restaurant industry. Reservations are booked weeks in advance and it is not uncommon for restaurants to book 300+ counts. It is the one night of the year that every restaurant needs to be 100% on-point, the ONE NIGHT in which failure is not an option.
Someone should have told the folks at Finn & Porter that.

Now granted, Finn & Porter is a new restaurant. It just opened inside the newly renovated Fort Shelby Doubletree Suites and is still subject to various opening "kinks." (Nevermind that other just-opened restaurants such as Detroit Fish Market and 24 Grille seem to be operating just fine without the need for patrons to overlook poor service, but not all new businesses can hit the ground running.) Given that, I am willing to give them another shot a few months from now. However, when every couple leaves the restaurant grumbling about long wait times for food, slow service, etc., on Valentine's Day, it doesn't bode well for the future of the restaurant.

Immediately upon entering the restaurant, we were greeted by an empty hostess stand and another couple waiting at the empty hostess stand for their coats (and they seemed to have been waiting there for some time). No problem...it's Valentine's Day, they're busy, I get it.

Except they weren't busy. They weren't even half-full. Which isn't to say that they weren't still underprepared, and THAT is exactly the problem.

So they missed the greet. Strike one. When the hostess finally did come, she didn't really seem to know what was going on. She seemed awkward, confused, and entirely new to the whole restaurant industry. She sat us and seemed perplexed about...something. Then she returned to the hostess stand where the first couple was STILL waiting on their coats, and asked them politely (and somewhat automatically) if everything was okay this evening. The man said, "Not at all" and proceeded to put on his coat. Again, confusion. He went on to say, "Not at all--nothing was okay tonight. Absolutely nothing. We'll try back in three months." Now, again, the hostess seemed to be new to the business because the first thing she should have done was sincerely apologize, grab the manager, have the manager offer an apology and a meal credit for their next visit, and attempt to ensure that the customer left at least somewhat satisfied. Instead she said, "Oh," and let them go on their not-so-merry way.

Strike two.

Our server actually seemed competent and well-trained; I'm assuming he's an industry vet because I don't imagine he learned his etiquette there. With us he was prompt and attentive...though he seemed to disappear for long stretches of time. While there I hypothesized that this was because the kitchen was short-staffed and backed up (given the extremely long wait times for food), and perhaps he was helping them. Later I realized it was because he was running back and forth between the restaurant and the bar, an entirely separate location across the hotel hallway. Note to management: separate locations need separate staff.

Upon being seated, he came over and asked if we would like to start with a glass of wine. At this point I had to ask for a wine list because the hostess did not provide us with one when she sat us. Strike three: in a place like this that has fine dining aspirations, patrons should always be seated with a wine list along with their menus (unless, of course, you're in a very high-end establishment, at which you will first be seated then presented with the wine list, and usually by the sommelier). One should never have to ask.

At this point, my partner and I had a pretty good idea of what we were in store for.

And then I got the wine list (delivered by the still-befuddled hostess), which actually rather impressed me. It is fairly small, but carries a good number of very decent wines, as well as a rather nice selection of Michigan wines--which, sadly, many local restaurants still have yet to find that bandwagon. I debated on the A to Z Winery's Pinot Noir, but finally opted for a Late Harvest Reisling from Chateau Grand Traverse--a deep golden wine full of perfumes and a mild honey nectar on the tounge--as well as a Cabernet from one of my favorite American wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State. (I remember I was first introduced to Chateau Ste. Michelle by Matteo at Bacco with their partnership wine, Col Solare--to this day one of my favorites.) This wine exhibits all of the characteristics of terroir, a wine appreciation term which refers to the grapes displaying the characteristics of the land in which they were grown (the soil, the climate, the weather conditions). This Cab was stinky and dirty and deep, like nutrient-rich wet soil, with some black pepper and other dirty, stinky things. Terrific. For this, I remove one strike.

The menu is still a bit sparse, but they had a good selection of seafood and steaks. I was torn between a Filet with Gorgonzola Butter OR Truffle Butter (can I have both please?), the Valentine's Day special Duck Breast, and Trio of Lamb. Since my last experience with duck was disappointing, and really it's not like I've never had a filet with gorgonzola and/or truffle butter before, I opted for the Trio of Lamb. Mint and chile crusted rib chop, kalamata and feta tapenade-stuffed noisette, and a "curious" shepherd's pie. The server commended my selection and informed me that this was how Chef de Cuisine Aaron True (from Small Plates) got his job there--by presenting this dish. I like it when I choose well.

I started with the Poached Fig and Pear Spinach Salad, made with bleu cheese, spinach, radicchio and frisee, spiced walnuts, and a pomegranate vinaigrette. Outstanding. Truly. Save for the figs--which, when poached, tasted like giant, giant raisins...a bit too much fig for any bite--this salad was full of pleasing and well-matched flavors. The bleu cheese was moist and fresh, the spinach green and crisp, the radicchio and endive ever-so-slightly bitter, the pear soft and sweet, the pomegranate vinaigrette reduced to almost the consistency of syrup and full of flavor to complement the salad. I thoroughly enjoyed this and was given ample time to finish it before our entree course was served...much to the dismay of my partner, who opted not to start with an appetizer or salad.

To be fair, it is proper restaurant etiquette to allow diners ample time between courses so they won't be overwhelmed with plates of food being plopped in front of them. I finished my salad and then waited perhaps another 10-15 minutes for my entree--yes, a little too long, but certainly not unforgivable. My partner took huge issue with the wait time for his meal, but if he had ordered a starter he likely would have been satisifed.

Other diners, however, weren't quite so lucky. A couple who were there before us were still there once we finished...and they didn't look happy about it. Another couple, who were staying in the hotel, walked out after waiting 10 minutes without being acknowledged (I later saw them at the adjacent bar). A third couple seemed to have a pleasant evening right up until they were forced to wait an excessively long time for their check. A fourth couple complained that their steak was not cooked properly as requested. A fifth couple complained to the manager about the long wait for their entrees. And this was every diner within our immediate earshot.

Speaking of the manager, just where exactly was he, anyway? I would hope that my "short-staffed kitchen" theory is accurate and that he was back there making salads and steaming vegetables, because his absence from the floor amidst all of these many issues and complaints should otherwise cost him his job. There are too many good restaurants in this city, all competing for the same clientele, for this one to be offering such shoddy service as this.

It would be so much easier to write off Finn and Porter entirely if it weren't for the food. The Trio of Lamb was wonderful--the lamb meat was rich and flavorful, cooked a perfectly pink "medium" as I requested, and the different preparations were bold and thoughtful. The chop was simple, and really the crust didn't do much for it, but the meat was still tender and rich. The noisette was absolute perfection, tender and juicy, and the Mediterranean flavors of kalamata olives and feta cheese were oddly flattering...though it certainly shouldn't seem so strange as lamb meat is a staple of Greek and Lebanese cuisine; it is just simply not what these high-end American tastes are accustomed to. The "curious" shepherd's pie was served in half a hollowed-out baked potato with whipped potatoes on top. The stew itself was rich and meaty, the lamb tender and well-seasoned. Both for presentation and flavor, this one was the winner--even if the whipped potatoes were a bit crusty on top.

My side of steamed aspargus was just a simple side of steamed asparagus. The desserts sounded decadent (such as a Chai Spice Cheesecake and the Chocolate Raspberry Fudge "Tulip," a chocolate torte made with chocolate mascarpone cheese and raspberry coulis), but alas, I had no stomach for it. The bread was somewhat stale and obviously store-bought, including the overly-dry jalapeno-laced corn muffin. The remainder of the menu is a bit of a hodge-podge--Asian influence meets traditional South with a French accent. Kind of all over the place, but if all of the food is as good as what little I sampled then I would consider that a strength more than a weakness. Pricing is on par with other steakhouses and seafood destinations.

The d├ęcor is borderline cheap Vegas lounge (specifically, the floor and the upholstery), but the lighting is fairly stylish even if it does at first seem a bit garish. The adjacent bar, called the "Round Bar," is not quite what I expected...I suppose I had envisioned less a neon-doused sports bar and more an Old-World-styled, plush, sophisticated high oak bar with bartenders wearing proper vests and a separate cigar humidor. But the Four Seasons this is not. Neon-doused sports bar it is.

Overall, my experience at Finn and Porter was a pleasurable one. The food was really fantastic and the wine list is fun and fresh. The atmosphere doesn't quite hit the mark, but doesn't quite miss it either. The biggest opportunity (which is a nice way of saying "failure") here was the service, and not even specifically the server (whom I believe was doing his absolute best in a poorly managed environment). If they can get that under control--and, as the hotel's premiere restaurant and the ONLY fine dining spot in the hotel's immediate vicinity, they will NEED to--this will be a great place. But, guys...don't test our patience.

Finn & Porter is located at 525 W. Lafayette Blvd. and is now open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For reservations and questions, call 313-963-5600.