Hello Restaurant Review: a Restaurateur’s Rant
When we were teenagers and our parents asked us where we were going, my best friend T and I would say “oh, just off to the south of France for a bottle of wine” when, in fact, we were likely on our way to the local greasy spoon for tea and toasted honeybuns, or into the nearby ravine to smoke a doob and drink purloined peach schnapps. But well into our twenties, thirties and beyond, “going to the south of France for a bottle of wine” became our constant refrain, our go-to expression to cheer up our otherwise mundane excursions to Costco for toilet paper, or the Bay for socks and underwear. I actually did go to the south of France at twenty years old, a stop on my backpacking European tour. At that time, I had a beer taste to match my beer budget, and my sister (who was my traveling companion) and I never did pay homage to my childhood dream by curling our toes over the smooth rocks on the beach at Nice whilst sipping a 1982 Chateau Margaux.
Fast forward (mumble mumble) years, and T and I are both about to celebrate a milestone birthday. We decide that we really should, for reals, go to the south of France for a bottle of wine. A bottle of wine per meal of course. Each. We are middle-aged women now after all, and that early and rigorous peach schnapps training really helped develop the old alcohol muscle. T and I decided we were going to do it right this time: nice hotels, expensive bottles of wine, great food. Our trip would require at least one visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant, and so we began our research. Antibes? Cannes? St. Tropez? And then I looked at those Michelin restaurant menus. $400, per person, not including the whole point of our trip: wine. OK, so maybe a lunchtime tasting menu instead? How about à la carte? I just couldn’t pull the trigger. “Sorry T”, I said, “I love you and all, and I know it’s our (mumble mumble) birthday, but if I’m going to have a once-in-a-lifetime foodgasmic experience it’s gonna be with my husband.”
I just couldn’t rationalize the expense. I know that a $20 salad is probably going to be twice as good as a $10 salad, but how can a $100 salad be ten times better than a $10 salad? What could possibly comprise a $100 salad that would ever make me feel like I got my money’s worth – except perhaps a salad consisting of a shredded $100 bill? So instead of the Michelin restaurants, we ate at mom and pop restaurants that were recommended to us by locals, and we pleasantly (and much more economically) wined and dined in each one. Mind you, I’m sure food is more delicious in the south of France just because it is the south of France. Like my friend L says, “an orange tastes better when someone else peels it for you”. I don’t know if I will ever make it back to the south of France, and I won’t have the excuse of that momentous birthday again, so I rather regret that I didn’t shell out for the Michelin restaurant experience. At least I did regret it – until recently.
There is a newish restaurant in town, let’s call it “Hello”, that has critics and patrons alike clamouring for Michelin stars, notwithstanding that Michelin doesn’t bother with piddling and pedestrian Toronto. Torontonians really need to get over this grovelly, “we’re a world-class city, we really are” thing already and stop looking for everyone else’s congratulatory, backslapping imprimatur. A world class city says, “fuck you Michelin, we don’t need no stinking stars!”
I think I’ve read all the professional food writers’ reviews of Hello, as well as many of the comments on social media sites like Facebook, Trip Advisor and Yelp. So far as I can tell, with the exception of one poor Trip Advisor rating, Hello has both professional and amateur food critics gushing paroxysmally and panting about Hello-related multiple oralgasms. You would think it was the (ahem) Second Coming. It was never my intention to venture into restaurant reviews on this blog: I’m not adequately steeped in critical theory, I have some food-related constraints, and I have no desire to anger the karmic gods by slamming a fellow restaurateur’s life and livelihood. Having said that, mostly in the hope of placating the karmic gods so they will move on and let me lose my shit about Hello in peace, what follows is less a restaurant review as such, and more a lament. Why are so many restaurants these days less about the food and more about the bullshittery? The project management triangle is familiar to most people who have renovated their home or business: cheap, fast, good – pick two. The same can be said for many restaurants these days, except the choices are pretentious, expensive and bullshit.
My husband and I often discuss, debate and wonder about the magic bullet for restaurant success. We usually have these conversations while staring glumly into a half-empty dining room the night before the rent is due. How come we have a five star rating on Yelp and a certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor but no line up out the door and no reservation line ringing off the hook? Sometimes we have our conversation after a disappointing meal at a bursting-at-the-seams, trendoid little boite that the professional critics are raving about . Sometimes after a middling meal at a grotty taqueria after having lined up in the rain for an hour beforehand. Sometimes after a so-so brunch where a server with a suppurating facial piercing just shrugs when informed about the long black hair in my eggs. How do the seamy, average, careless places pack ‘em in?
What’s the magic bullet? I keep dining at other restaurants in my quest to figure it all out and I have a theory. A restaurant’s food, service and décor are all irrelevant – while it’s advisable as a restaurateur to require that your restaurant offer them, if only to assuage your integrity – two, one, or even none of these characteristics is actually required. In my darkest and most pessimistic moments, I think the magic bullet for restaurant success, at least in this city, is bullshittery. This perfectly plays into our collective need to be seen as worthy, hip and world class. We’re like the fat best friend in every movie ever who just wants to eat lunch at the cool kids’ table.
Whatever the trend, we’re all over it, often after the trend has already played itself out elsewhere: picnic tables, farm-to- (picnic) table cuisine, mason jars, mason jar desserts, mason jar pig face desserts. You get the picture. If they’re doing it in Brooklyn, Ho Chi Minh City or Oaxaca, we need to be getting all up in it here too. Because we want to be world class, because we want to fit in, because we want to run with the cool kids, because we don’t want to be the fat best friend sidekick anymore, we lap up whatever bullshittery is served to us. In a mason jar. The food, service and décor at Hello are all very, very good (sort of, more about this later) but the place still creeped the crap out of me. Hello satisfies the restaurant version of the project management triangle: pretentious, expensive and bullshit, tick tick tick, you get all three.
T made our reservation months in advance and I am pleased that they take reservations at all; I can’t stand the “no reservations” trend. You want my money? Well I want a chair, not a place in line, thank you very much. Our cab pulls up to an address in a dodgier part of town. There was no signage, as I recall. Ugh, if that whole speakeasy trend isn’t over it should be. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, we know the secret handshake and the magic incantation. We’re cool! We’re in! We open the door and are in a dark stairwell. Seriously. It’s kind of murky but I think I can make out a flight of stairs on the left and an industrial-looking elevator on the right. All that’s missing is the chlorine smell from what I imagine is the building’s basement swimming pool. The only light in the space comes from a music stand light mounted on a podium. Also on the podium is a reservation book, and standing behind the podium is our hostess who, after determining that we have a dinner reservation, directs us to the elevator. This appears to be her entire job and it is this introduction that sets the tone for me. All throughout our dinner, and the next day, and even now, I think about that young woman. Alone, in the dark, in a stairwell, on a freezing February night. She has no coat, no chair, and no apparent means of entertainment, never mind protection, all so guests can feel like they are entering a word-of-mouth-only, afterhours supper club. Why didn’t the restaurant just put a speakerphone or a buzzer outside?
Up a couple of flights and our elevator opens into a bar where T and her husband are waiting for us. The bar area is dark and pretty. Another hostess takes our coats and we are ushered to our table. The dining room is light and pretty. The seating is comfortable and the tables are widely-placed. I remember thinking what a great apartment this place would make. And that’s about as much attention as I pay to the décor.
Generally, in a restaurant, I can tell who is who. The hostess, the bartender, the owner, the chef, the cooks, the servers, the busboys, the foodrunners. I can’t tell which way is up here. Ok, the folks in white are the cooks but everyone else just blends together. Server? Owner? Sommelier? Busboy? Not really sure, and there are so many of them, so everyone from here on in everyone will be called a server. I might mention here that every server at Hello is so gilded and sun-kissed, so artfully choreographed and daintily cat-footed, so dulcet-voiced, so obviously descended from cherubim, that I am certain that rather than applying for their jobs they all auditioned during a fly-by from Heaven.
While we are having our cocktails a server approaches with a tray of rolled up napkins and we are offered our choice of white or grey. I get it. If you are wearing black (as everyone is, because black is cool kid-approved), you might want a dark napkin so that you don’t get white lint on your clothes. Whatever. I guess avoiding the whole white lint on clothes fashion disaster explains why there are no tablecloths. I choose the white napkin because a grey napkin is just, well, weird. We are presented with the menu. Hello offers only a tasting menu consisting of several courses. Dinner will cost, at a minimum (more about this later), $90 per person. We all elect to go with the accompanying wine pairings which adds, at a minimum (more about this later too), $70 per person.
When making the reservation, T advised that I am deathly allergic to fish and was told that they would be happy to accommodate me. The day before our dinner date, T phoned the restaurant again to remind them about my fish allergy but got no response. The day of our dinner date T phoned again to remind them of my fish allergy and again received no response. No matter, they obviously remembered because my menu doesn’t contain a fish choice. In fact, it doesn’t contain a choice at all. While my husband, T and T’s husband all get to choose between, say, lobster and mushrooms, then fish and duck, then fish and pork, I get mushrooms, then duck and then pork. I think that is shockingly lazy. Hello’s menu (the one with actual choices) contains maybe 14 items. They couldn’t have cobbled something together for me? I know they offer a vegetarian menu, so why not crib some of the choices from the vegetarian menu? It makes me angry, really, especially when I think of how we accommodate our own customers. Notwithstanding a menu with almost 50 items from start to finish, my husband and his crew are eager to please in the kitchen. No salt? No problem. No sauce? Sure. Cut up into tiny, heart-shaped rosettes? OK. And, by the way, no extra charge and, in fact, you get this for much, much less than half of what Hello costs.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about each menu item, mostly because I can’t remember them. Isn’t that terrible? You would expect that when you spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment on dinner for four that you would remember everything you ate explicitly and forever. Nope. I remember random stuff, most not food-related. For instance, I could see into the open kitchen from our table. Did you know that chefs usually have a little pocket on the sleeve of their jackets at the shoulder? Did you know that that pocket is intended to hold a chef’s tasting spoon and maybe a pen? At Hello, at least one chef kept a pair of tweezers in that pocket. I saw him reach for the tweezers, brandishing them with a dramatic flourish before using them to assemble someone’s dinner plate, molecule by molecule. I know that plating at Hello is performed on an atomic level because every single one of my courses was miniscule; like smaller than Easy Bake Oven-sized, as prepared by and for Keebler elves. The tweezer chef was responsible for placing each peeled radish seedling and grain of fennel pollen. The portion size of every menu item is so small that the chef’s face was two inches from each plate as it was assembled. No wonder every single one of my dishes was merely tepid; I think it was cooked only by the heat of the chef’s breath as he laboriously positioned each sliver of preserved lemon.
My first course, however, the foie gras, was cold – like refrigerator cold. I would have expected that a kitchen like Hello’s would have a dedicated piece of equipment whose sole job was to maintain a precisely-calibrated room temperature. The foie gras was accompanied by a traditional sweet wine (wouldn’t have been my choice), but that’s where tradition stopped. There was no toast. How much fun is it eating cold and lonely liver? Not much, I assure you. My second course was hedgehog mushrooms, and both teeny bites of it were delicious. The accompanying chardonnay was a poor match in my opinion, so I switched it for my husband’s much more appropriate pinot noir. The third course was rack of pork. At least, that’s what it was called. Anytime I’ve had rack of anything, there is usually a rack involved. My thimbleful of pork, while tasty, could have come from anywhere for all I know. The next course was duck, of which I have no recollection at all. Then something with parsnip which was equally forgettable.
You know how when you rent a hotel room you want to try everything so that you feel like you got your money’s worth? Yes, I’ll have a jacuzzi AND a shower. Lots of shampoo please! I think I’ll use every single towel I can put my hands on. I’ve never worked out in my life (not true, but just for the sake of argument) but I’m gonna give that exercise bike a spin, and maybe a few laps in the pool. I only need one of the beds but I think I’ll sleep one night in each of them just because I can. Thank you never-been-worn slippers! Thank you I’ve-never-worn-a-sleep-mask-before-but-now-seems-like-a-good-time-to-start. Thank you every single glass in the room. Shower cap? I’ll just put that in my overnight bag. Well, even though it’s not necessary biologically, I need to check out Hello’s bathrooms.
I am no more than two steps from our table before one of the servers is at my elbow. “Let me show you to the bathroom”, she says, like it’s a real estate viewing. She walks me across the restaurant and through the bar to a sliding wall. I find this odd. I’m not a fan of someone waving or pointing in the general direction of the toilets as a signal to me, and everyone else in the dining room, that something is about to go down, so to speak, but being walked to a toilet makes me feel like a kindergartener. And embarrassed. It’s like standing in line at the grocery store and having the checkout clerk wave around a box of feminine hygiene product and shout to her co-worker across the aisle “how much for the jumbo tampons?” or the pharmacist’s assistant bellowing into the store loudspeaker “price check on the small condoms.” Couldn’t you at least say “price check on the small BOX of extra large condoms”?
When we arrive at the sliding wall, she theatrically pushes it aside and opens the door to the toilet. “I think I can handle it from here”, I say. Ablutions and spying complete, I dry my hands on the individual hand towel selected from the artfully arranged tower of individual hand towels and drop it into the empty individual hand towel basket. And then I’m like a mime in a box. “How do I get out of here? Where is the golden girl who opens doors for me?” When I visit the bathroom again later in the evening, I notice that the individual hand towel basket has been emptied since my last visit. I wonder if the person whose job it is to empty the individual hand towel basket has special individual hand towel tweezers for this duty.
At some point during our repast, towards the end in fact, the bread was served. This was my favourite part of the entire meal. Much has been written about the milk buns at Hello being worth the price of admission. Meh. I like my own recipe better. And mine makes dozens. At Hello, you get one tiny little bun with a matching tiny wodge of butter. But, and here is why this was the highlight of the evening for me, when the bread and butter arrived, the server said “and now for the bread and butter interlude”. I don’t think I have ever snorted in my life before that moment. I clasped both hands over my face and full on snorted. It was like laughing at a funeral: improper and ill-advised, but that was just about the funniest thing I have ever heard someone say in a restaurant. He then went on to describe the tube of hand-churned butter so reverentially I thought that the butter must have been extruded, fully formed, from a unicorn’s butt. I could hardly breathe. My husband was glaring and T was kicking me under the table, but I just could not stop laughing. The bread was worth the price of admission indeed, but not for the reason everyone else has written about. Then dessert which was some chocolate confection or other. Again, another miniscule offering reminiscent of more fairy-dusted angel poop.
With the exception of the chardonnay with my mushroom course, the wines accompanying each course were all pleasant but not exceptional. And they could have entirely dispensed with the prattle about terroir and provenance. I suppose that impresses some diners, but if I’m interested I’ll ask. That bloviated wine blather puts me to sleep. It’s rather like having William F. Buckley explain a movie to you as you are watching it: it doesn’t make it better. When introducing one of the wines, the sommelier (I think) explained that the chef had been instructed to ramp up the acidity in the accompanying dish in order to better complement the wine. “As if”, I thought. What Michelin-ish chef takes instructions from anyone but God? And speaking of God, I should mention that each course appeared to have its own custom-made serving vessel; the plates were truly beautiful so kudos to all the artisanal angels involved in their creation.
After 3 ½ hours, dinner is officially over and we are starving. And I am seriously hammered. I’ve noticed as I age that my once legendary alcohol tolerance has diminished. But we didn’t really have that much to drink; these are tastings of wine after all. My husband figures that it wasn’t the quantity of the wine that did us in, it was the fact that we consumed more calories from alcohol than we did from the actual food. As we’re still hungry, we take up the server’s offer of a cheese course and matching wine. The cheese plate was the most substantial entry in our dinner. Finally! Although I was disappointed that there was only one type of cheese presented. In our famished rush to stave off starvation, however, we neglected to ask (and they neglected to advise, which I think is shameful actually) the cost of our stop gap. As it turned out, it cost more than $100 for a couple of ounces of cheese and the combined glass of wine that we consumed. Ouch!
Speaking of ouch, the bill arrives. We had cocktails beforehand, plus the extra cheese and wine course, but our bill has ballooned beyond anyone’s expectation. Good thing I’m utterly plastered and still chuffed about the “bread and butter interlude” business. As it turned out, T and I had dined Michelin-style after all, and conveniently in our own town, but I don’t think I need to do it again. Not unless, as is the case with Hello, there is a convenient late-night hamburger joint and cash machine nearby. On our departure, we were each presented with a small envelope, closed with a pretend wax seal. Inside each envelope was Hello’s business card and a copy of our menu setting out the food and wine selections. At the time I thought that this was the absolute height of cheek. Imagine! A souvenir from Hello so precious that I would store it in my memory chest with all my other treasures like my first concert ticket, my first love letter and locks from each of my children’s first haircuts. It was only later that I was grateful for Hello’s presumptuous billet doux: I otherwise might not have remembered a single thing about what I ate and drank.
I don’t regret our dinner at Hello; it was a learning exercise. In the cab on the way home I asked my husband what his takeaway was from the experience. He felt the same way I did: no regrets, but no burning desire to do it again. He said he appreciated Hello’s full on commitment to service, to artistry, to completely thinking through the entire dining experience, but it just wasn’t him, and it’s not who he wants himself or his own restaurant to be.
As the days passed, I thought more about what my takeaway lesson was. For me, my strongest feeling about the experience is shame. I am embarrassed about how much money we spent. I am ashamed that, when we left, I didn’t inquire about that poor girl in the dark, scary hallway freezing her lady nuts off while we pretended to be kings and queens. A couple of days after our dinner I read that Jay-Z had given his wife Beyoncé 10,000 white roses before her Superbowl performance. What can 10,000 roses say that a single rose cannot? What happened to those roses? How can anyone justify the expense of 10,000 roses or live with themselves after accepting them? That kind of profligacy is something I could never become accustomed to. Our Hello dinner seemed to me to be the same in principle, if not degree. It was lovely and pretty and enjoyable but, like those roses, fleeting, excessive and, ultimately, shameful.