Two restaurants, two experiences.
A diner goes to Dino’s Tomato Pie, Brandon Pettit’s (Delancey) pizza joint on Olive, and finds her pizza crust burnt and bitter. She mentions this to a staffer who says, “It’s supposed to taste that way.”
Another diner goes to Sushi Kashiba, suchi legend Shiro Kashiba’s latest spot at Inn at the Market, and is presented with several pieces of tuna nigiri which Kashiba sets before him saying, “These have been seasoned already.” In other words: It’s supposed to taste this way.
Both of these actual experiences invite a question which has emerged in bold relief over the last decade: Is it the diner’s job to submit to the vision of the artist in the kitchen, or is the kitchen’s job to submit to the individual appetite of each diner?
In Dino’s case, Pettit allows, the East Coast style crust he is going for is meant to be charred; only then will the sugars in the fermented dough caramelize to a sweetness that will complement the other flavors fully. Early on, Pettit and his team fielded complaints from diners who didn’t like it, and, he thinks, they’ve mostly self-selected away from Dino’s. Now, when faced with negative feedback, Pettit has instructed his team to “very nicely say, ‘That’s the style we do, but we’d be happy to make it lighter if you’d like another.’”
Across town at Sushi Kashiba, Shiro presents his omakase the way he always has—with instructions on how to eat it (ie: It’s already just right). The guy’s a legend; most eat in his restaurant to submit to his artistry. Still: There’s soy sauce within reach.
This dilemma appears within a much broader service context, extending to the practice—now pretty much the default in higher-end restaurants—of withholding salt from dining tables. I’ve made no secret of my belief that this just makes kitchens look arrogant, and among critics I’m not alone. (Frequent-dining friends of mine call the salt that one must request “F-You salt.”) Whether the underlying message here is “We make no seasoning errors,” or “We don’t care what you like,” neither arguably belongs in what is, after all, the hospitality industry.
Seattle, which has grown from small town to world city in what seems like just a couple of decades, has a long history of being lectured on culinary taste—from Starbucks’s early explanations on the difference between “burnt” and “long-roasted” to European-trained chef Scott Carsberg (Lampreia, Bisato) famously flying into tantrums if a diner requested a Caesar.
If it seems like a middle ground is what’s needed, perhaps both Dino’s and Sushi Kashiba provide a model. You have been advised as to how the experts judge this tastes best, both approaches say. But we give you the choice. This seems a particularly practical strategy within the current climate of diners increasingly bringing dietary restrictions to dinner with them--a trend chefs agree is a game-changer, tilting the debate in favor of the will of the diner, that's not going away anytime soon.
Good or bad evolution? You be the judge. Me, I just want the F-You out of the salt.