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Many Unhappy Returns?

Dear Mr. Gold:

Do you ever send food back to the kitchen? If so, what's the threshold of egregiousness that would prompt you to do so? Does it matter what company you're in? What I'm really asking is: Would you ever send food back while on a date?

—Nate Smith

Dear Mr. Smith:

I tend not to send food back to the kitchen — it's an occupational hazard. I kind of smile at it, and push it around on my plate, and try to hide the offending protein under a lettuce leaf if I think I can get away with it. And in my experience, sending food back rarely has a happy outcome. If the fish is undercooked, it will be turned into leather. If a soup is cold, it will be returned hot enough to melt your spoon. If the meat has spoiled, the chances are that the next piece of meat may be spoiled, too. I can remember only one happy outcome: A friend sent a curry back to the kitchen at a Thai restaurant because it wasn't spicy enough, and it came back spicy enough to light up a pinball machine, which to anybody but him would have come across as punitive.

And even when you're right, and you happen to be in a restaurant where the kitchen is concerned about the effects of too much fire on the scallops or too much salt in the pasta, it can sometimes take half an hour to remake the dish properly, by which time your date has finished her sole, is eyeing the dessert cart and has already begun to thumb through her text messages.

You are well within your rights to send back food that has something seriously wrong with it — steak requested rare is stiff and bloodless; the crab cake has a lump of ice at its core; the béarnaise is curdled and lumpy — although you probably should shrug off minor infractions. If you are polite enough when the waiter comes to take your plates away, the offending dish probably will be taken off the bill without you even asking.

I do, on the other hand, send wine back all the time — something around one bottle in eight is "corked," which is to say spoiled by a bacterial infection that makes the wine smell and taste like wet cardboard. Returning corked wine is almost a civic obligation, especially when the wine is ordered by the glass.


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