This is a somewhat funny story about my dining experience before a race.  For those of you who follow my blog, you will know that I am a quasi-vegan and an on-the-mend triathlete. I’ll keep the Palm Desert tri race report side of this short since it was over a month ago and there was nothing extraordinary about it (except that I managed to lose 74 seconds to the person ahead of me in combined transition times ONLY—that, my friends, is REALLY bad in a Olympic distance triathlon, especially having been in this sport for 10+ years).

The better  (or worse, depending on how you look at this) story comes out of our dining experience Friday night (two nights before the race).  Geoff had jumped onto Yelp and researched some restaurant options.  He’s good like that.  We settled in on an Italian restaurant called La Spiga, which, despite good reviews, did not have a menu posted online.  We arrived at La Spiga dressed in our SoCal casual clothes. It was a beautiful restaurant with waiters preening around in tuxedo vests.  We decided to sit at a table in the bar.  Geoff wanted a plate of pasta and I was hankering for a salad.   A waiter nervously came over to take our order. I had to pry some answers out of him about the preparation methods, as he wasn’t completely forthcoming in explaining the menu.  I did notice in small print (like, 4 point) the disclaimer at the bottom of the menu saying that sides must be ordered with a main course.  I explained to him that while I am usually an adventurous diner and usually order a full meal, I was racing on Sunday and needed to eat lightly.  He said that it “shouldn’t be a problem”.

So the ordering process gets underway. Overall, the menu choices are safe and familiar. I didn’t see anything that was on the cutting edge of redefining Italian cuisine.

Geoff settles in on a highly recommended plate of house made papparadelle (ribbon cut pasta) with Bolognese sauce (made from ground beef and veal; a little tomato and cream) and I ask for a side of spinach but only if the kitchen can sauté it in olive oil instead of butter, and Greek-style salad of tomatoes, cucumber, olives and “but-can you-substitute-gorgonzola-for-feta-and-leave-out-the-red-onion”?   I swear that I wasn’t trying to pull a “Sally” from the movie “When Harry met Sally”.  As a professional chef and former restaurant owner, I understand what can and cannot be executed in a restaurant kitchen.

The server hesitates for a long second and finally replies, “I need to check with the chef”.  I’m thinking to myself “what could possibly be so difficult with this order”?  I am acutely aware of what a restaurant kitchen, especially one that claims to make most everything to order, CAN and CANNOT do on any given night.   I actually used to empower my service staff to say “yes” to a guest request and then only on the off chance that we couldn’t execute it (no, I can’t make a quesadilla without a tortilla) we would return immediately to that table with that news and give them other options.  In my opinion, there is no need to alarm the guest that there is a chance that you cannot honor their request with the response “I need to check with the chef”.

A longer five minutes passes and the waiter returns to inform us that he has good news and bad news. “Great” I’m thinking to myself.

“The good news”, he proudly announces “is that the kitchen is willing to cook your spinach in garlic and olive oil”

“The bad news”, he continues, “is that the kitchen will not be able to accommodate your request to change the cheese on the salad”….

My voice suddenly gets a half an octave higher and about 30 decibels louder. “Really”, I exclaim, “and why not”?  At this point the chef approaches the table and proceeds to answer my question with a very indignant “because it will compromise the integrity of the dish”.

Really?  I mean, REALLY?  It’s a f&%@ing greek salad that I am willing to pay $14 for. In this economy, buddy, WAKE the f$#@ up!

At this point, I am really insulted.  I tell him that he has to be kidding me.  He says something to me along the lines of “you really must not know food….”  Okay, that was almost laughable since I have been involved in the culinary world for close to three decades and I am one of those most passionate foodies around.  He had no idea who he was talking to.

But I was mad.  Really mad.  It wasn’t as though I had asked the chef-this old school egomaniac of a chef-to make me a soufflé without eggs.  I retorted with a couple of remarks about how unbelievable this situation was and we got up and left. But not before telling him that I would write a scathing Yelp review (which I still need to do).

The funny thing is that we ended up in this fairly new hipster sushi bar.  The owner was there and Geoff regales him with the story of the salad debacle.  He sighs says that he shouldn’t comment because he is friends with the chef and that La Spiga is very renowned for their food. A couple of guys sitting next to us overheard the story and told Geoff that the pasta is the BEST around-specifically anything with Bolognese sauce (at this point, Geoff let out a big, disappointed sigh).  The sushi place was exceptional. I had a terrific bowl of miso soup and an octopus dish.  I wish I could remember the name.

The only thing that I can thank Vince Cultraro, the arrogant chef-owner of La Spiga, for is that I have a great story for a blog post and to tell in my culinary classes.   On the restaurant’s meager website, there is a blurb about the owners: “Vince is a multiple award winning Chaine des Rotisseur chef who has cooked for prime ministers and other heads of state, ambassadors, movie and sports stars, and international business leaders. As hostess, Connie ensures each and every guest receives impeccable service.”

So be it.  Who cares whom you have cooked for in the past and obviously Vince isn’t letting Connie do her job.  You couldn’t pay me to walk in, let alone, try to eat there again.

Back to triathlon racing-I ended up with a solid race and 2nd on the podium and overall fairly happy my performance minus my transitions.  The Palm Desert triathlon is a great way to open the season; a season that I hope will be long and successful.