I am sure that I’ve mentioned before how, when it comes to dining out, Alison and I can be rather ‘particular’ in how we spend our time and money. That’s not to say we demand 5-star experiences at the most posh establishments in the country; quite the contrary actually; I love a good greasy diner, or classic English pub fare just as much as I do a velvety plate foie gras or molecular cuisine. In fact, I’d have to say that my favourite form of cuisine is the ever-so indulgent late night street food; to me that is local fare at it’s most authentic and proud. No, when I say ‘particular’ I mean that we want the food and the experience to match the budget. Locally, here in Elora, I have to say that balance is rather difficult to achieve, given the high prices and, frankly, underwhelming offerings. Just because it’s expensive, doesn’t mean it’s good…or flavourful.
Sadly, it is few and far between when we discover a restaurant and an experience where all of our expectations are met, and so when I do stumble across something unique, I like to share it. Which brings us here, to Sultan’s Tent on Front Street in Toronto.
At a high level, and upon first impressions, what I will say is that this Moroccan restaurant lets you know right away what it’s all about and what you’re in for. I don’t mean in the sense of its decor, though that would certainly be true; I mean the undeniable and satiating aromas. That bouquet of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, clove, a hint of chili and a sweet, yet savoury essence that carries itself through the air, enchanting and teasing you for what’s to come. Maybe it’s because we haven’t had the opportunity for dining out as much these past couple of years (with certainty I can say that my feelings are at least heightened by such a hiatus), but even if that weren’t the case, there’s no denying that this restaurant has authenticity, and that’s the magic I long for and the experience that I miss.
Beyond those initial impressions, a dynamite old fashioned infused with Moroccan spices, a lovely spread of appetizers, an immersive belly dancing show, and a killer lamb tajine, what made this experience truly exceptional and worth babbling on about, was Dominic.
When it comes to restaurants and dining out, it is only logical to think first of the food and how the meal left you feeling by the time the check hit the table. And while that may be the fundamental reason for putting down money for someone else to bring you nourishment, it can’t be denied that the service, quite literally, sets the table for your entire experience. Of the countless restaurant outings throughout my life there have been two occasions that have stuck with me more because of the server than the meal itself. Occasions in which I actually remember the name of the individual who catered our experience, this was the second; the first was in New Orleans.
In 2011, just a year into dating, New Orleans was the first trip that Alison and I took together. It was decided upon during a winter storm; we were stuck at home, sheltered by a fire, cozied up on the couch with a bottle of wine, day-dreaming of places we’d like to see someday. Through a series of serendipitous Google searches we stumbled across the website for the New Orleans Jazz festival; a multi-weekend, music-infused celebration of all things expressive and joyous. The lineup was impressive: Arcade Fire, Wilco, The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, the list went on and on, and I cannot recommend this experience enough if you can make the time to go; the Gospel tent alone transcends this plane of existence and can only be described as an experience in euphoria. You need to go. Anyway, ten minutes after discovering the website we had purchased our tickets and started planning our road trip. It was an adventure, to say the least; mapping out our route based on the accessibility of various ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ establishments and a scheduled overnight in Nashville before reaching our destination, parking the car downtown and exploring the land by foot for the next two weeks.
If it hadn’t already happened, it was that trip which sealed the fate of Alison and I; discovering that we each enjoy the journey perhaps even more than the destination, and that, to us, travel is about experiencing it all, making the most of any situation and being open to anything new, most notably: food. We made sure to try everything local and inspired in southern cuisine, and it was a culinary adventure more notable and flavourful than I could have hoped for. We dove right in and appreciated everything in front of us; in the first few days, we had no idea how to eat a tray of crawfish, but by the end of our trip we slurping back mounds of those sweet little beauties with confidence and vigor, just like a local. As amazing as all of the food was, there was no denying the truth behind the term ‘southern hospitality’ (they do, after all, have a museum dedicated to the subject), especially when it came to Daniel, our server at Antoine’s.
Antoine’s was on my New Orleans bucket list because of its claim as the home of Oysters Rockeffelar, which seemed a good a reason as any to choose a dining establishment. Though the food was good, it was Daniel’s approach to being our host that made the experience most memorable for both Alison and I, one we reflect on to this very day. What made him so extravagant was his clear passion for what he does and the environment he was in. He cared for the history, the culture, the food, the music and he wanted us to walk away from an experience. On top of this he had charisma, he tossed us a few comped mimosas, provided legitimate menu suggestions, lit himself of fire (for real), gave us a tour of the wine cellars, and he even had a business card. A server with a business card! I had never seen such a thing; restaurants don’t do that, do they? I know now that they should. I mean, this guy knew what he was talking about with the history of the building, the menu, the locale, he called us by name, and had fun with us. Using one simple example from this experience, how great would the world be if restaurants provided their staff with a daily ‘allowance’ of comps? That $10 worth of free mimosas on our $200+ bill made our day and was clearly impactful enough that I am writing about it 11 years later.
Serving can be a gruelling task, and not much fun, especially if your employer doesn’t give a crap about you. I’ve done it before and I’m not cut out for it, but this experience changed my view of not just what a server could do, but how a restaurant can treat its employees: with respect. His actions showed that we were a part of his day, not merely an interruption in it, and he set the bar at the highest level. While I don’t expect every server we cross paths with to match this level of energy and enthusiasm, the few things he did that were most impactful: smile, engage and care, are harder to come by than you’d think; and I’m not saying that all sits on the shoulders of the servers themselves. If the staff are curmudgeons, just look to the employer to find out why, a fact not limited to the restaurant industry.
Circle back to Dominic, our charismatic host at Sultan’s Tent, 2,154 km from Antoine’s, and I am experiencing it all over again. Granted, he didn’t set himself on fire, but I’ll forgive him that because what he did do was show us that he cared for and had a clear passion for the cuisine and culture he was representing. He didn’t just read specials off of a coffee-stained notepad, he took us on a journey of explaining what the menu items were, what the flavours represented and how they combine to deliver an experience. He didn’t just rhyme off his ‘recommendations’ like other servers do (trained to always steer the customer towards the higher priced items), nope, he explained why he was bringing forth those recommendations with a genuine emotion and a story. He encouraged us away from the items we would just cook at home and reminded us that “We are out for something different…so try something different.” He took his time, he provided entertainment but not at his or anyone else’s expense. In short: he cared, and whether you’re in the front of house or back of house, the way in which you construct your restaurant should represent that seemingly very basic and obvious principal.
You can build the fanciest restaurant using the most expensive materials, with the biggest windows overlooking breathtaking rushing waters flowing down a beautiful gorge, charge the steepest prices and create insta-worthy backgrounds, but if you neglect to include authenticity, you can’t explain what’s on the plate and forget to include flavour or a smile, then I have to think the that your treatment of your staff is equal to your treatment of your guest. There’s nothing real there. Show me that you actually care about what you do, the ingredients you use, the people you employ and the message you’re sending and I will make many a happy return.
Toronto, and New Orleans, for that matter, are home to a multitude of exceptional dining establishments, of that I have no doubt, and I don’t mean to suggest that the staff or owners of countless other locales don’t care; I know that they do. But to speak of experiences most recent and most memorable, Dominic welcomed me back to the dining world with enthusiasm and glee. I feel once again ready to get out and explore a world of late night street food, curious new flavours, and to hear the stories and cultural teachings of those unique individuals who deserve and want to be heard. So, Alison, where are we headed next?