I remember the first time I had steak tartare. I was about 7 years old, living in Spain, and it was in the most extravagant hotel I had been in. Dad offered me a piece and although I didn’t DISLIKE it, I was upset that it wasn’t hot. I wanted to like it. Because it was a grown up thing. And it was steak. And I loved steak.
This post is not really about steak, while, at the same time, being about steak
Fast forward to 2017 and I REALLY started to get my tartare, on. Thank you Eastern Standard, for you changed my life forever. There is something quite romantic about eating in their dining room. Even alone, I would guess. Maybe even MORE SO, alone. Must try this.
I immediately felt like I was in Bugsy Malone and for some reason, raw steak seems to go with that image perfectly. And gin. And the two are intertwined in my mind forever. If I had known I would have made that connection, I would have worn a flapper dress. No I don’t need to dress up to eat food, but, y’know, experiences.
America – 1, UK – 0
I am impressed 9/10 in the US, with how seriously the servers take allergies. I know mistakes are made, but my experiences have been nothing but good (just wait until I have a bad one…). Eastern Standard impressed me so soooo much. They listened, they understood (BIG DIFFERENCE) and with every plate that was put in front of me – by someone directly from the kitchen – they reiterated what the plate was free-from. I was overwhelmed by this treatment, because you just don’t seem to get that in the UK.
Holler at me if you HAVE experienced this. I will make a reservation, pronto.
So last Thursday, I was on a date (go me) and we wound up in Aster (a D&D restaurant – so it isn’t all that surprising to me what followed as it’s always the luxury side of dining in the UK that I have trouble with – the complete opposite to the US) in Victoria – right next to the theatre we were at (Hamilton, since you asked, and yes it was a first date – I KNOW). There’s always a little anxiety, particularly when introducing new people (especially men – more kissing) to my allergies, because, well, someone who is PERFECT on paper, can rapidly decline in my opinion, depending on how well they fair from here on in. Long gone are the days I pretend it’s not that serious/ try to hide it/ guess at the menu to not create a ‘bad’ impression, on my date. Now I just announce it. And then I judge him. Sorry not sorry.
After scanning the menu in my normal state of anxious-fear, I found my fave. Steak tartare with sourdough. Thank god. Stage one, complete. If i’m totally honest, I had pre scanned outside just to make sure we wouldn’t have to get up and leave and I think he thought I was looking at the prices and worrying about them and very kindly reassured me it was on him. I mean, tick tick tick, but no, I’m just doing a recce to work out if we’ll end our night in A&E (we very nearly did. But that’s another story). I’m romantic like that.
Stage two – communicating with the staff. The waiter listened, wrote everything down, assured me he’d speak to the kitchen and I really did think, between us, we had covered all bases.
Turns out, no, there were a couple of things I hadn’t – in my 30-something years of allergies – thought of.
- That they would bring the steak without the bread because – traces – which I would have preferred they’d mentioned to me so I could have made my own decision on whether to eat it or indeed order something else, because who in their right mind eats 5 mouthfuls of raw steak on 4 gins and (how many?) margaritas?
- That they would garnish the plate with pesto.
Because now I’m panicking
Let’s just take a moment here to talk this through. I know pine nuts aren’t one of the 14 allergens, but I’d had the conversation and included seeds. Nothing was said as the plate was put down, no reassurances, nothing. Which left me staring at the plate, panicking at a good 80% on a) how to deal with this and b) how my date would deal with this.
Sounds ridiculous? Well, this is my life, baby. Truths. We don’t really talk about the psychological impact of allergies as much as we should. And the whole evening had just played out in my mind in those 2 seconds of pesto staring. And imaginary-outcome-me, didn’t look good.
As politely as I could, I called the waiter over and asked if it was pesto. He cheerfully replied, YES!
He followed it up with – NO NUTS – and we had that back and forth that only food allergy people have where we search the servers eyes, desperately, for recognition and comprehension while asking slow, deliberate questions, unblinking for fear the message will not be transferred.
Punchline: It was celery pesto. Oh amazing.
No, YOU calm down
This is where allergy-free people say, relax, see, they DID listen, it was just celery (an allergen, FYI, but admittedly, not one of mine), don’t overreact (date didn’t say this, as it happens, but I was so absorbed in worst-case-scenario-thoughts, to be honest, I don’t remember if he said anything at all).
But actually, I don’t think I AM over reacting. What chefs don’t seem to appreciate is, there are circumstances when a substitute ISN’T necessary – or wanted (direct contradiction to the bread scenario, I’m aware, but this is different). It isn’t helpful to someone allergic to pesto to SEE pesto, on their plate. No matter how much certainty goes into saying it isn’t stuffed with pine nuts. How the mind works has been completely overlooked. And I get it, the chef wanted to create something that looked appetising to eat (and hell, the plate was pretty empty, sans bread…) but… no thank you. Please do not feel you have to do this. Part of the pleasure of being in your restaurant, is that I don’t need to worry. But to also KNOW I don’t need to worry.
It’s like this WOW butter that I keep seeing in allergy forums. WHY would I want to put in my mouth something that looks and smells like peanut butter?! This is absolutely insane to me. It’s a similar sort of thing.
Eating out should be an experience. I couldn’t agree more. But what chefs don’t seem to appreciate is that this devalues the experience. I just wanted to eat food in front of someone and get to know them. In a relaxed way. I won’t eat there again. It wasn’t good for my blood pressure. When I go to a restaurant and do everything I can to make them aware of the limitations of what I can eat – even going as far as ordering something uncooked and made, pretty much, identically, the world over, please don’t get inventive on me. It’s a cruel joke. UNLESS of course you take a leaf out of book USA, and up the communication stakes. Otherwise this is a stalemate. And I almost certainly won’t come back.
Please, Chef, I want no more (decorations)
We know we might not be getting a pretty plate of food. And we know this is not a reflection on your mad skills in the kitchen. Promise. We know. Boy, do we know. But I can honestly say I would prefer the plainest of plane plate and zero anxiety to questioning every mouthful.
Like, if someone is afraid of heights, you wouldn’t put them in a simulation game where they feel like they’re on the 82nd floor. You would get them a fast pass to the teacup ride and everyone would have a super day.
I ended up delicately covering the celery-pesto with a third of my 5-bite meal, in a sort of expensive, out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach, because, even with reassurance, I just couldn’t bring myself to put it into my mouth.
I don’t want to BLAME the restaurant (*it should be known the staff, despite all this, did all they could in a genuinely pleasant way, the steak was divine and the atmosphere that perfect balance of buzzy without being too loud to chat – we even made friends with the next table who ALSO had a nut allergy – stats alert) exactly but…
…I’m STILL hungry and…
…he hasn’t asked me on a second date yet.
But then he did say he really loves peanuts.