Yay for Basque food, Boo for Iluna
I have a friend who swears by only the food. Service, ambiance, and everything else doesn’t matter – only the food counts, he says.
Service is part of your food experience; ambiance dictates everything; and factor in the price, too. The price point determines whether all of the above was worth it – or not.
I had an event to attend at Iluna Basque. With the recent Haiti Earthquake, the chef/owner of Iluna Basque was holding a charity function where all or a portion of the $40 four-course dinner and wine pairing was being donated to help Haiti. Two dinner seatings were being held – one at 6:30 PM, the next at 8:30 PM. Five in our party attended the 6:30 PM seating.
For $40, you got to pick two choices from the appetizer (small plates) section, one from the entree category, and a dessert.
Iluna Basque is a relatively small restaurant. The chef/owner had been a contestant on the popular TV show, “Top Chef”. The atmosphere is casual and the layout is conducive for large gatherings for friends and family, but can also be appropriate for a dinner date (the noise level was decent), though not quite “romantic” in any way. There is a small bar area that can seat approximately six people or so, it seemed, and the remainder of the restaurant is for table seating.
First, the menu reads beautifully. I love it when I overlook the menu and find myself wanting to try everything. Having spent some time in the Basque region of Spain – I also know the cuisine to be fabulous, and combined with the chef’s involvement in “Top Chef”, I was excited to try Iluna Basque.
But before getting to the food – the service at this restaurant ruins the entire experience.
Our waiter was not just scattered but totally inefficient. The dinner included the wine and as soon as we sat down, the wine came out. Two glasses for each person were dropped off before us with barely an utterance in regards to what type of wine, and whether we were meant to have one or two – when, or why. But I don’t usually complain when someone places alcohol before me.
The server takes our order, and two at our table decided they want to split the dinner. The waiter says, ‘I don’t think that’s possible, but I’ll check,” but the two people insisted that neither were hungry, and that they would just share. The waiter takes the order as such – and 4/5 of us place our order. We requested butter for the bread they served; it didn’t come. We asked again; it didn’t come. Finally, on the third try, we got the butter.
Over the next hour – a plate would be served to our table every ten minutes. With four of us having placed an order, that amounts of eight small plates coming out, and almost every single plate came out ten minutes apart. Now I understand that it was a full house and that the restaurant is busy, but if a restaurant can’t manage a full house, they shouldn’t host these dinners to encourage a full house. What are warming plates for? And exactly how is the kitchen cooking this stuff that identical orders would come out ten minutes apart?
Basically, one of us would be eating while four people watched. One would finish, sip some wine, and the next person would begin eating their dish, with the rest of us watching. Eventually, three of us were eating entrees while one person was waiting on their last appetizer. I find this totally unacceptable.
Putting service aside, the food was awful to quite good.
I started with the ahi tuna – which bordered on being the worst ahi tuna I have ever had as it was nearly fully cooked through. If I wanted a fully cooked tuna – I would not have ordered this, obviously. Then came the potato/shrimp croquettes – and these were piping hot and tasty. It tasted fresh, and the flavors were alive.
For my entree, I had the stuffed squid in ink sauce with Spanish rice – and the dish was very good. The butter in this dish was overwhelming, and like Julia Child might say, there is no such thing as “too much butter”. However – while it tasted good due to the butter, the flavor of the squid and ink faded into the background and died. I did, however, clog about 1.5 arteries while finishing that dish.
The flan I ordered for my dessert choice was also very good – and it was the only course served in unison to the whole table.
Then came the bill.
We had been charged for five people despite only four of us ordering. In the waiter’s defense, he had originally said that he would check, but made no mention that it was denied. He also only took FOUR orders for a table of five, and the two ladies did split the entire dinner course to course. For whatever reason, five desserts were served, so each did get their own dessert.
One person at our table who knew the owner made mention of this discrepancy to the server, who shrugged and told us that it’s just not possible to split the dinner between two customers. The owner was then brought in to explain the situation – with the ladies explaining that had they been told it would NOT be allowed for this evening, they would have each ordered their own dinners in the end since they’d have to pay the full amount anyhow. Both the owner and server looked irritated but finally ended up taking it off the bill.
Now keep in mind that I find it rather irritating when people try to split a prix fixe dinner at a stated cost between two people. These are the types of dinner where everyone comes knowing exactly how much it will cost, and to minimize cost or because one is not hungry, asking the restaurant to take the loss of their one seat because they chose to attend dinner anyway seems cheap and unnecessary.
Do I understand their irritation? Yes.
Should I have SEEN their irritation? No.
Altogether, with the exception of the two ladies, each person’s portion amounted to $50. As stated, the food ranged from bad to good, but this is just one of those cases where service really put a damper on the meal. Discounting service, I don’t feel like it was a waste of money (especially considering the good cause and the wine pairing), but considering the majority of the $10 addition to the $40 cost of the meal was for tip – left to me, I would have tipped significantly less. You cannot make each individual in a party eat separately and then expect any significant tip.
In San Francisco where food is king, and service differentiates one restaurant from the next – there is no excuse for offering this low level of service. This may be a kitchen staff problem – but that is not the customer’s problem.
Iluna Basque has the decor, location, and menu to really shine, and it’s unfortunate that my experience with their service skills leaves much to be desired. The restaurant is located 701 Union Street in the North Beach area of San Francisco. Parking can be difficult, so allow yourself enough time if dining here. Their website is www.ilunabasque.com, and they seem to close at 10:30 PM, and later on weekend evenings.
Addictive Factor: 1/10
Overall Rating: 5.5/10