Friday, April 02, 2010

Passion 5: Nice Design = Crappy Service, and Why Gangnam Restaurants Suck

[Update: I've revisited this topic]

It's ridiculous that it is this way, but what can you do (except complain, warn your friends, and go elsewhere).

OK. Now I'm not that picky, really, about restaurants. Like Zenkimchi Joe, I'm more an enthusiast than a critic, but there are some things I won't abide, and every once in a while - not often - I have an experience that actually upsets me.

Dear readers, I'd like to share a particularly unpleasant experience I had. See, down by Hangangjin Station, between Hangangjin and Itaewon, there's this really, really cool building. It's big and black and beautiful, and in the middle, there's this amazing shining, shimmering, spinning chandelier. I've noticed it and thought about going in there for a long time, readers, out of curiosity at what's going on in such a cool looking building. It's feng shui was fenging me shui down the block!

The Chandelier.

Other bloggers have written about it: the bakery gets good reviews. Even from me. Dan Gray, who likes fusion foods and fancy design with good presentation, has posted on it a number of times.

And famous people like to go there. I saw Jeon Jihyun there once. And a friend spotted a famous politician.

nice looking place.

I managed to eat there for a brunch once with my nemesis Dan Gray once, and met a girl named Amy. She was nice, too. Smart. And the food was alright. Portions on the small side. A bit pretentious: you're not allowed to take pictures inside the building. Your food's too good for pictures? Really? Is it vampires?

Look at that: a place that looks that nice MUST have good food and great service, mustn't it?

Well, that's what I'm here to tell you. A couple of weekends ago, it was time to go again, this time for a mini-meeting of some bloggy people, talking about some stuff that might be coming up on the horizon. (oh ain't I such a tease!) I arrived a bit late, joined with the meeting proceedings, and grabbed a menu: I hadn't eaten that morning, in order to especially enjoy my food.

Well, I got the menu, chose what I wanted, and waited.

and waited.
And waited.

We were a table of about 15, and they made us wait. And we were in painfully plain view of the entrance, where the greeter (oh wait: this one had fancy decor, so it must have been a maitre'd) seated people and took your money, and they could see us look around anxiously, and then hungrily, and then angrily, and they made us wait.

and then they came and took orders for drinks... and left.

And we waited more.

But the design of our little cubby hole booth was very nice. We had lots of time to admire it.

And then they brought us our drinks, but didn't stick around to take orders; maybe that was somebody else's job.

And that somebody didn't come. And didn't come, and didn't come. I was ready shatter one of the water glasses on the ground just so somebody would come to our table...

Approaching desperation, finally we flagged someone down, possibly with the help of a referee's whistle... and asked them to come and take our orders.

We ordered. I told them, in Korean, that I have a milk allergy, and that I'm allergic to milk, sour cream, cream, and cheese. I pointed at a menu item and asked if it had cheese on it. The guy said it would be OK. I ordered it.

Twenty minutes later, three of our group got their food. The person who brought the food was very well-dressed and groomed, and nice to look at.

The dishes were beautiful. My food didn't come. But the dishes were beautiful.

Twenty more minutes later, we asked them where the rest of our food was.

Ten minutes later, my food came. It was a spaghetti-ish dish. It looked really nice -- attractively presented, as were all the meals. Very attractive. And the staff were well-dressed. And the restaurant's decorations were very nice. Very very nice. And that chandelier... like I said before: wow!

And then I looked a little closer at my food. There were these funny little whitish things on top of it. Maybe shaved ginger - it being a fancy fusion place, you never know what they might put on top of your pasta! Or maybe it was some kind of radishy thing: a taste explosion, perhaps!

It was cheese.

It took about an hour to order, about an hour for my food to arrive (and I was HUNGRY, readers) and the one thing I told them I COULDN'T eat was on the dish they SAID it was OK to order. I didn't send it back, because I didn't want to still be there at freaking closing time. And it wasn't quite enough food to totally satisfy me either. And that and a cup of coffee was 25000 won. It was like being mugged by a guy wearing armani.

The food tasted OK, but I'm never going there again. I don't care who you are.

Oh yeah: I forgot to mention: three THREE people didn't get their food at ALL.

The name of the place is Passion 5. Avoid it.

Somebody tried to excuse them because they appeared understaffed... but how is it MY problem that the restaurant manager didn't bring in enough people to deal with brunch, on a Sunday, in a stylish place... they were surprised people came on Sunday brunch, the best brunch time of the week?

I commented, between the crap service, the nice decor, the outrageous prices, the small portions, and the beautiful presentation of so-so food (it was nicer than the Pomodoro chain, but not ENOUGH nicer to justify double the price), that even though they were Itaewon, they'd managed to succeed in their attempt to convince their diners that they were in Gangnam.

And everybody laughed the knowing laugh that means "Yeah. I've had overpriced mediocre food with beautiful presentation and shit service in a stylish restaurant in Gangnam a BUNCH of times, too."

And this is what it boils down to: If you're new in Korea, remember this:

The nicer a place looks in Korea, the better the design, the more likely you're going to get shit service, and pay through the nose for it, and end up feeling like you've been mugged. Don't go there until two people whose taste in food you trust ENTHUSIASTICALLY recommend it to you. (This is also my rule for all italian restaurants in Korea: there are so many that it just means there's a lot of mediocre italian out there.)


This is not to say there are no stylish restaurants with good food and good service. Of course not. I've been to a few. Some were amazing, and worth every penny. But every time I HAVE gotten pretentious service and overpriced, mediocre food, it's been in a restaurant just too damn stylish to even look at.

But cards on the table: The best Korean food, for one thing, is the cheap, hearty, farmer food. The bibimbaps and the jigaes and the seolongtangs, that are messy, spicy, flavorful, and cheap. The best Korean restaurants are the little ajummah places out in a back alley, where you have to know how to find it, or you never will, and at lunch on a tuesday there's a lineup out the door. I've had slow service, but always a reasonable price and great food, in the dinky hanoks where I've eaten. (The fancy restored ones... jury's out, because I can't afford the 70 000 won per person those kinds of Hanjeongshik places serve... but I bet the jigae jip is better)

For another thing, it seems, again and again and again, that the nicest, fanciest looking restaurants really feel like they can, or ought to be able to, get by on the sheer amazingness of the design of the place, and not have to back it up with a quality menu, or any kind of service at all. I'm convinced that they're not selling themselves as places that serve food, but places to be seen. Try to convince me otherwise. Tell me the waffles at that dumb cafe in Samchungdong really are better than the cheaper ones elsewhere, and that they're worth 15000 won or whatever.

I'm not saying the service at the little mom and pop places is the best all the time... but first of all, they're not charging 20 000 won a plate now, are they? That changes my expectations a bit.

(my favorite expression of "Expectations are different, stupid" - Jon Stewart, on Crossfire - 7:15 "You're on CNN! The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls!")

Also, at least at the old ajummah place, you're allowed to shout down a waiter and ask for what you want, or just get up and get it yourself. Korean food, Korean service: it works! And it's satisfying; hell, it's even a fun part of the Korea experience, to holla for an extra dish of naengmyeon, or to get up and bring back handfuls of plastic cups of water for everyone at the table! At Passion 5, after the first hour, I'd have been happy to see a 스파게티는 셀프 sign, to step up to a grill and cook the damn spaghetti myself.

In the fancy places, it sometimes seems like the wait staff was trained to wait for a chogiyo, but everybody feels like they can't shout, because this is a "nice" place, and in the absence of a chogiyo, they think nobody needs any service. People trained in Korean "Chogiyo!" service at a "western" style restaurant where the waiters are (in the western style) supposed to come by and check on you, is about the worst combination I can think of - about as ill-suited as a foot fetishist inviting a leg amputee to salsa lessons on a blind date.

So, to the fancy restaurants in Korea: Listen up and listen good.

I don't give a cracking booger if the owner of your restaurant was on TV.
I don't care if your chef apprenticed at a four-star restaurant in Paris.
I don't care if you spent a bazillion dollars on your layout and design, and if my chair is made of gold leaf, and my plate is a 3000 year old restored artifact from ancient China. YOU'RE A RESTAURANT! Give me good FOOD!
Train your staff in the style of the restaurant you are: if you're western style, train them to come by from time to time and check up on people.
Teach your waiters to know what's on the menu, and to check with the chef rather than to freaking lie if they can't answer a question about the menu! I actually appreciate when waiters run to the kitchen to check about dairy, because it shows they actually care that I get food I can eat. Some people have deadly food allergies.
Bring out the food at the same freaking time if you're a restaurant that serves food in individual portions, rather than big pots for everybody to share.

That's the barest, barest of service expectations, and I really don't care if your waitresses are all dressed the same, and are as pretty as those girls in the Korean Air ads, if they can't get my order and my food in a timely fashion, answer questions about the menu, and check in if I need anything.

And Passion 5: you took it pretty hard in this one. But frankly, I'm furious at you! Your service was insulting. If I'd been alone, I would have refused to pay, and made a scene. You just got Google bombed. Choke on it. I choked on my cheesy spaghetti. Twice. Ask the guy next to me, who had to move out of the way twice so I could walk past him and scuttle off to the bathroom to choke in privacy.

Rant over.

[Update: as of June 9 2010, this post is STILL the top google hit for "Passion 5." Still waiting for the apology. I'm a reasonable man. I'll happily retract this story for a bribe.]


Rich said...

Thanks for the warning. I walked my dog by there today and put it on my mental 'to eat' list.

If anyone feels like splurging on a top-class western-style meal in Seoul, I strongly recommend Naos Nova (on the side of Namsan, further along the street from the Hilton). Rather than pretending to be exclusive and high-quality like the Gangnam places, it alctually is both of those things. Easily the best western-style food I've eaten in Seoul.

My favourite restaurant in Seoul is still Tosokchon, near Gyeongbokgung station. Best samgyetang you will ever eat, for 13,000w.

Rich said...

That is, I put the restaurant on the 'to eat' list, not my dog.

Roboseyo said...

Sure you did, Rich.

I've been to restaurants where you can choose the fish you want from the tanks out side... but I haven't seen places where you can bring a dog in and have them whip it up for you.

Chris in South Korea said...

Obviously you haven't been near the Moran Meat Market (a real place - I wrote it last summer)... They usually work with their own dogs, but I bet if you brought in one of your own they could fix it right up.

Becky said...

That reminds me of the first time I ate at Mad for Garlic in Gangnam. I was with my Korean friend and I ordered a Coke with my meal. The waiter said that I should try the orange aide. I told my friend to nicely tell him no thank you, I want a Coke. This went back and forth for five minutes with the waiter refusing the give me a Coke.

My friend told me that the waiter said the orange aide was good for my health. Screw that, I wanted a Coke!

Finally, she said he would bring me the orange aide and if I didn't like it, then he would bring me a Coke.

I gave in and drank the damn orange aide but I still missed my Coke. I was upset that you don't tip so I never did get my point across.

Isn't the customer always right? Not necessarily in Korea.

Anonymous said...

"Really? Is it vampires"

F**k that made me laugh out loud. I'm going to come to Seoul and make you hang out with me sometime this spring, if you're game? Kimbab Nara is good enough for me!

Roboseyo said...

Melissa: well get yer butt on over here, lady!

Becky: I've had similar experiences, but usually it's in Korean restaurants where the staff have their ideas about how the food should be prepared, even after they've brought it to the table, and I've had to practically bat their hands away to prepare it myself, the way I like it.

I haven't had this happen to me, but one of my female friends have even once had a hair stylists decide that she really need layering, setting her another eight months back in her process of trying to grow out the layers the last stylist had given her.

Brian said...

Excellent rant, and very true.

Koreans do Korean food very well. Something to remember.

HiExpat said...

I cracked up at "as ill-suited as a foot fetishist inviting a leg amputee to salsa lessons on a blind date." haha
Yeah I agree about the pretentious restaurants. Sometimes it feels nice to sit in a really nice stylish place, but you inevitably feel like you're getting mugged by a guy dressed in armani.

Stafford said...

Best meal in Korea I have ever had was sucking down steamed scallops on a plastic stool while stubbing out my cigarette on the concrete floor under the table.
Having been at Passion 5 on the day in question I think you give it too much credit.
Definitely on the blacklist.

Roboseyo said...

Plastic stools aren't always a good sign, but plastic stools and a lineup out the door: gold!

kissmykimchi said...

Rob. I'm torn! I just went to passion five yesterday and had the best pastry in Seoul. In fact as I write this I'm on my way back! I didn't know they had an actual restaurant. Il avoid that thanks to your post but my god man I can't give up those brioche!

Roboseyo said...

KMK: You'll never hear me say anything against the bakery... except maybe that there was too much Jeon Jihyun that one time... but yeah. The restaurant... yeah.

Anonymous said...

and have you tried the jam on the first floor in the chocolate shop? best jam I've ever had ... I bought "mango passion orange" and can't stop eating it.

there's no preservatives in it so one does need to finish it within a month of opening it.

nice bread too!

Roboseyo said...

Ooh. I'll have to try that jam. I adore the dark chocolates in the shop there.

Hannah said...

Hey Rob,
I was googling around about Passion 5 and saw your post. Actually, I remember this time, because it's when we first met!
The service was truly atrocious that day.
I rarely order off their upstairs menu. I usually get stuff from the bakery downstairs, then have them heat it up and bring it to me upstairs. It's never taken long. And that way, I usually don't spend that much since like, one quiche, a pastry and pudding will fill me up.
Sorry you didn't like it there. I really do not think they had an excuse for their poor service that day, but I still go there for their delicious baked goods.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah, Hannah, you've gotta hand it to them: that bakery is pretty much above reproach. I'm glad we met that day.