Room for improvement

My wife and I went to see Kate Rusby at Hugh’s Room in Toronto’s west end two Sundays back. She’s had limited exposure here in Canada, though true anglophiles will know her as the singer of the theme song for the understated comedy Jam and Jerusalem, which comes highly recommended to fans of French and Saunders, Father Ted and so forth – though it has a much lighter touch than its antecedents. The theme song is the Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society, and Rusby imbues it with a rustic innocence and wistful melancholy.

This is not a concert review, but I must say that Rusby was a revelation, and luckily her absence from Canadian stages, by her own admission due in a large part to her fear of flying, is compensated for by the fact that she has more than half a dozen CDs to her name, all of which are available for purchase from the Pure Records site.

And while Rusby’s delicate and unabashedly northern-accented voice instantly transports you to a land with a grey sky that may or may not clear some day, where you stand on a lush green hillside with the smell of hay in your nostrils, and where you may or may not be crying but it is almost certainly raining on your face, her self-effacing charm and infectious humour will disabuse you of any expectations that she is some distant wan depressive. In between heartstring-pullers she regaled the crowd with stories of dressing her dog up in a Superman costume, and of gigs that had to be called off midway due to uncontrollable fits of laughter onstage.

If you’re not quite convinced of how cheerful, polite and winning Kate Rusby was on Sunday night, this ought to do it: mere moments into her set, she declared to the audience that she and her entourage had just been treated to an “absolutely lovely” meal. At Hugh’s Room.

Before this gets really ugly, I want to tell you that I like Hugh’s Room. It’s a warm, intimate room with good sight lines, and they manage to pull in some truly great performers. I’ve seen Kelly Joe Phelps there a couple of times, likewise Jane Siberry, Leon Redbone, Colin Hay, Nathan and a number of others. I would go there more often, but the problem is to get a good seat you have to get a dinner reservation, and the food is nearly inedible.

Why don’t I just reserve a table and not eat? I might just be too politely Canadian. But when I’m looking forward to a concert, I don’t generally think a confrontation between me and the waitstaff is going to help me to relax and enjoy the music. Plus, I’m not heartless. I know they’re trying to run a business. I keep trying to find something that I can nibble on that won’t make me as angry as a fight with my server might. I keep failing. I wonder how receptive they would be to a promise that I will happily consume the value of their prix fixe dinner in wine and beer?

The servers are often quite understanding. I remember being warned off some particularly overblown vegetarian option on one occasion. She might have seen my eye lingering on the madness of grains, seeds and raisins in the description and mistaken my confusion for anticipation. Her suggestion that we avoid that particular dish was unnecessary, but taken in the spirit intended. I only wish that she, or any server since that evening some years ago, had ventured to suggest something that I might actually enjoy eating. I give them points for their tacit honesty.

There was a dish, some time ago, that I found palatable. Penne and some kind of hot Italian sausage in a red sauce. This would have been at the Colin Hay show, I think. But since then my luck, and mercifully my memory, has not held out. I forget what my entrée was for the Redbone show. The appetizer, a caesar salad, is however indelibly etched in my mind. You see, after a few dinners at Hugh’s you will stop merely avoiding the dishes that look dicey, you will start eyeing the familiar favourites with the question “how can they possibly make me not want to eat this?” in mind. And so we come to the caesar salad. What’s the worst caesar you ever had? Are you okay with the one from the deli in the food court? If there is a little too much dressing, would you not just scrape it off with your fork? Would you say “hold the parm” at the last minute if you saw them reaching for that devious Kraft cylinder?

I think the lettuce was described in the menu as a “wedge of romaine.” That was a blatant lie. It was an entire head of romaine lettuce. Not a delicate tender yellow-green heart, a single, entire head, such as might be left if you grabbed one out of the bin at the supermarket and peeled off the outer 4 leaves. It sat there in the middle of my plate like a clown shoe, drizzled in a zigzag pattern with dressing squirted from a mayonnaise dispenser, with a single crostini leaning up against it. My dinner companion wanted me to send it back. “They can’t expect you to eat that,” she insisted. I gauged the futility of suggesting they take another swing at creating a salad as I watched a sea of identical dishes being distributed throughout the restaurant like some all-vegetable re-enactment of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I soldiered on. My butter knife was neither long nor sharp enough to hack through it entirely. My lone crouton shattered under my fork and shot off the table.

And so, faced as I was this weekend past with the prospect of another puzzling and regrettable meal, I spent some time analyzing the posted menu, weighing its potential strengths and weaknesses, plotting a bullet-proof course of action. “There,” I stabbed a finger at my monitor. “The cheese plate ($15).” My faithful companion vowed she would dare nothing riskier than pita and dip ($9) with a side of wine. They’re folkies, after all, they must be able to whip up some hummus. My metabolism tends to run a little hotter; I knew I wasn’t making it out of there without an entrée. I chose my adversary: chicken pot pie ($16).

There was no point considering the “concert special” prix fixe. I’m not the kind of penny-minding cynic who assumes that every prix fixe is a rip-off, with the cost of the main buried in an overpriced starter. But we could probably manage to spend less than $32 apiece on our meals. And the last time I ordered a tempting dessert it ended up being one of those frozen lava cakes that you heat up in the microwave.

The evening did not start well. We were seated at a two-spot about the size of a postage stamp, against the south wall. I tried to make the best of it. “I’m not sorry I didn’t bring my camera now,” I said with a shrug. We were both thinking the same thing: we brave the food in order to get a good seat. But now we’re just fucked.

We dove into the rolls, but they were of the sort that you might get pre-bagged at the bakery counter at Loblaws, with the driest ones artfully placed on top as though they’d been waiting for us in situ since about noon. We ordered a couple of glasses of viognier and, just for pure theatre, inquired after the “mussels of the day” which, for the past 5 years, have always been an unthinkable coconut curry.

“Tomato and herb,” we were told. My wife and I looked at each other in amazement. If only we were seated at a table large enough for a single plate of mussels, let alone two with a bowl for shells. Then our “how can they screw this up” credo crossed our minds like scudding clouds. We decided to pass.

“What’s on the cheese board,” I asked.

“Just what it says there,” our server replied, helpfully. I glanced again at the menu. It said “Assorted cheeses.” Well, it’s cheese then, isn’t it. It also said seasonal fruits, nuts, apple butter – accessories more suited for an after-dinner plate, but given the circumstances, a small concern. Those I could read, in any case. I couldn’t imagine her coming back from the kitchen and listing off names of cheeses that I wouldn’t want to eat, so I changed my tack. “Enough for two?”

I fancy she rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah,” she said.

My wife ordered the pita, which came with two dips. “And what are the dips?”

“One is sweet potato, the other is goat cheese and pear.”

A scribbled thought bubble such as you might have seen illustrating Lucy’s state of mind in a Peanuts strip began to form over my wife’s head. She hates pears.

“No hummus at all, in the kitchen, then?”

Our waitress was beginning to sense trouble. She squinched up her face as though she really wished she could help. “Sorry, no.”

I shrugged sheepishly, involuntarily. Even by our lowered expectations this was not going well. But finally my chicken pot pie was ordered. There was hope. Until our server returned with the inevitable news: at quarter past seven, they were out of the chicken pot pie. Our server apologized, but there had been a run.

“It was the only thing people knew they could stand,” my wife muttered. I winced. I looked over the list of entrées again, and again. I willed myself to have missed something simple, comforting, satisfying. I had not.

I am a man of fairly simple needs and pleasures. I require that a dish with a price tag north of $12 contain meat. I pretty much require meat, in some form, at every dinner. But I’m not a neanderthal. There are exceptions. Squash ravioli. Eggplant parmigiana. And fish, of any variety, qualifies as meat in my secular household. So the butternut squash risotto ($18), which I had tried before and found inoffensive but unremarkable and stingy, and the vegetable paprikash ($16) were out. Why could I gain no purchase on this menu? In retrospect, it was the sauces. The pumpkin seed basil pesto on the shrimp trottole (I feel that either basil or pesto in that description is redundant). The apple-cranberry molasses sauce on the pork. The bourbon-soaked raisin cream sauce, for God’s sake, on the roast chicken.

At last, Atlantic salmon. I don’t usually order salmon in restaurants, for the same reason I don’t order egg salad; we are quite capable of making it ourselves. my wife is responsible for the cooking, for the most part. Blackened and spicy. Maybe baked or with shallots, sage and lemon slices. Once a week, usually. With an unassuming pinot grigio or unoaked chardonnay. I am spoiled. But salmon is, after all, a big thick slab of a thing that is pretty easy to cook, and whatever you drizzle over the outside, if it turns out to have been a mistake, can be gracefully scraped or spunged off to reduce its overall effect. Salmon is salmon. Fatty and tasty, yet light and healthy. The perfect compromise, hold the compromise.

We finish our wine as we wait for the cheese. “Maybe there was a line-up at the Loblaws,” my companion suggests.

Finally it arrives, as promised, in quantity. I see why the server misinterpreted my question; there’s Brie, a mound of crumbly blue, and a stack of mild cheddar, cubed, family-reunion style. What other kinds of cheese are there, really? We suspect it really did come from the Loblaws, prepackaged. I have to admit that for $15 it was not bad value; we couldn’t finish it between us, and juggled the remnants on our bread plates as we jockeyed them around making way for our mains.

Have you seen Reuben, Reuben? At one key moment Tom Conti, playing a drunken, Dylan-esque poet, is spied by a couple of ornery waiters clumsily pocketing tips from recently-vacated tables. In a vaguely bizarre and cinematic attempt at payback, they humiliate him on his next visit by answering his complaints of small portions with an unsummitable matterhorn of chicken parts. Was this now happening to me? Did my wife’s aspersions on the menu earn me the ignominy of this cedar-plank-sized loaf of overdone salmon, which was 400 grams if it was an ounce? The vegetables were a mixed bag, pre-peeled baby-finger carrots of the type that get carved out of larger carrot pieces that you’d rather not eat, and broccoli half-bleached from lack of sun. The green beans were tasty and crisp, though untrimmed and plated haphazardly.

The pita bread appeared, much like the cheese, to have come straight from a shopping bag, cold and dull, without so much as a few seconds on a grill to acclimatize it to its new environment. The sweet potato dip had the consistency and subtlety of pie filling. My wife barely touched it, and it was later comped without an explicit request.

I’m not particularly enamoured of Gordon Ramsay or the roster of “let us fix your restaurant” reality shows that he inspired. I’m not a chef, and, surprisingly for a musician, I have never worked in the service industry. So I’m hardly qualified to offer advice on the subject. But the food at Hugh’s has been so bad for so long, and needlessly so, that I feel I have to offer some kind of suggestion, in the hopes of making everyone’s next visit a more comfortable one. And I will be back, in spite of it all; it’s simply the only club some bands frequent. Here are a few suggestions from a guy who goes out to eat once in a while, and occasionally shops somewhere other than Sobeys, to whoever is running the kitchen at Hugh’s:

Upscale your bread. You’re catering to a folkie audience. Set them up with some heartier artisanal bread, something with some seeds in it. Something that looks like it was baked by a human being.

Portion control. I will happily pay the same amount for half a romaine head as I will for a full one. It’s a salad. I’m only eating it out of a misplaced sense of duty to my mother. And a pound of salmon thrown on a plate is not a bargain, it’s a gauntlet. Make flavour and customer service your value; I can get quantity pretty much anywhere.

Aim to please, not to impress. You’re over-reaching with the current menu. There are so many things that can be cooked more simply and with less of a margin for error. Don’t put a crazy sticky sweet sauce or demi-glaze on everything. Make the raisins optional (and see how many people opt out). And keep in mind people paid a few bucks for tickets already, don’t soak them $26 for steak frites that they can get for $20 anywhere else in town. Go out and visit some other restaurants and get some ideas. How about a falafel plate for the aging hippies? How about a hamburger or a lamburger, or just a nice sandwich?

On the other hand, stop letting your mom make the cheese board. There are lots of great cheese shops in town, which means a lot of your customers buy cheese that isn’t mass-manufactured. You’re a few minutes’ drive from the Cheese Boutique, and the Leslieville Cheese Market has a Queen West location now. Stop by sometime and ask for a consultation. Consider two cheese plates, one for before dinner, and a different one for dessert. Pair the dessert and late-night platter with a port, maybe.

Pair a host or hostess with the ticket-taker at the door. I want to be greeted once and taken to my table. I don’t want my reservation confirmed only to have to stand at the threshold of your dining room like a lost kid at the train station. The show doesn’t start for another hour and a half. Someone has time to take me to my table.

Look, Hugh, I don’t go to dinner looking for a fight, or even to review. But plenty of talented restaurateurs in town would kill to have your captive dinner audience, and it pains me to think what someone who actually knows what they’re doing could make of the opportunity that you are wasting night after night. The vibe off the stage is consistently friendly. So feed us like your friends, not airline passengers.