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Review Sun Jun 13 2010

Seafood Customer Service: Riva v. Masu

I don't usually have a negative enough experience in a restaurant that I feel the need to immediately run home, fire up the computer and write about it. I also don't usually eat out at two locations in a single evening. So when my evening this past Friday started with one of the most appalling customer service experiences I've ever had, hitting another restaurant on the way back to complete my rage-filled write-up wasn't my first instinct. Thankfully, it saved my evening and restored a little of the faith I still stubbornly have in the institution of dining service. Riva v. Masu, after the fold.

It all started at Riva restaurant, which I don't usually patronize despite its close proximity to my office. I included Riva in my recent write-up of Navy Pier more because of its distinction as the Pier's single "fine-dining" establishment, than on any particularly amazing eating experience I've ever had there. But on Friday, I was celebrating a recent milestone and decided to meet a friend there for a drink and the $16 "colossal shrimp cocktail." The drinks were fine -- Campari, which I don't usually like, goes really nicely with grapefruit in their signature cocktail, and was a pleasant pairing for the shrimp's sweet and gently biting cocktail sauce. The shrimp, though big, were only four to the plate. A little disappointing, though they were tasty. We were there for maybe an hour total, sitting at a table in the upstairs bar. We'd had to ask a dining room waiter to find us a bar server, and then couldn't find said server when we were ready for the check, but nothing felt particularly amiss. Until my companion tried to validate her parking. I saw part of the end of the conversation unfold at the hostess' stand, but from my seat in the bar, couldn't hear what exactly had happened to cause such a confused and offended expression on my friend's face as she returned, unstamped parking ticket in hand.

She was told, upon asking if parking validation was possible, that Riva doesn't validate parking, unless it's come from their valet. This is approximately a $12 difference in pricing between the valet and the full garage price. Not totally insignificant. She explained that the valet was nowhere to be found, even though she'd waited several minutes, and that no signage had made it clear that garage parking wouldn't be discounted. The host listened somewhat compassionately and at least apologized for the inconvenience. The hostess, however, who arrived about halfway through this conversation and then asked what was going on, half-listened to my friend's request for clarification and advice (not a request for compensation, not a complaint), shook her head and said:

"I'm not going to do this with you."

End of conversation. My friend was stunned. I was stunned when she told me what had happened back at our table. "I'm not going to do this with you"? "This" being what, exactly? Clarifying a lack of communication, explaining a policy, apologizing to a disappointed customer? If this is how patrons are treated right now at Riva, by a staff member who seemed to have time to check her hair and make-up in the mirror next to our table following this altercation, but didn't have the time to answer a perfectly valid question from a paid customer, I can only imagine it's going to get worse as the crowds and pressure increase this summer. But what can you do? Ask to speak to another manager? Create a scene over a $12 parking fee discrepancy? It doesn't really seem worth it, even though it shouldn't have happened in the first place. $40 for two drinks, four shrimp and a scolding (not including parking!) also doesn't seem worth it, any way you do the math.

The evening was, however, redeemed. My friend had later dinner plans that she asked me to join in on, originally scheduled for Café Ba Ba Reeba until a two-hour wait drove us slightly further down Halsted to Masu Izakaya. Masu opened earlier this year as a "Japanese pub"-styled sushi and small plates purveyor in the old Minnie's spot in Lincoln Park. Izakaya restaurants are more like gastropubs, with less focus on the raw fish and more on drinks (sakes and beer, mostly) and areas of Japanese cooking not typically highlighted on menus around Chicago: salads, tempuras, deep-fried items, skewers, bowls of rice and fish or meat, and other various small side snacks to have with your drinks -- sort of like the Greek or Turkish idea of mezes, as far as I can tell.

And it's good. Like, real good. Tuna Tuna is generous hunks of fish and avocado, lightly dressed in a fresh, citrusy and slightly sweet sauce. Hamachi jalapeño is served as paper think slices of fish, each topped with an equally thinly sliced pepper, all in a subtle vinaigrette-ish sauce, and with a pool cue chalk-sized well of a spicy, puréed orange radish. Kimpira salad, burdock and mirin, was a perfect combination of bright and earthy, and somehow managed to feed four people out of one tiny dish. The maki we tried were excellent -- the spider lotus roll is a beautifully presented take on the classic soft-shell crab roll, embellished with fried lotus root rounds, spicy tuna, and a carefully applied mango sauce. And a single scallop sushi was generous enough to take two bites, but well-crafted enough not to fall apart after the first.

All of this was consumed over the course of several hours, and mostly reflected the recommendations of our patient, charming and highly informed waiter, Jonathan. The poor guy first talked us through the entire menu -- what each subheading meant, what dishes we'd find there, and his personal favorite dishes (he described the Buta kakuni, deep-fried pork belly with a tangy ginger dipping sauce as "the best thing that's ever happened in my mouth." So of course we had to get that. It did not disappoint). And then had to return twice before we were even ready to order, interrupting a heated conversation about our earlier experience at Riva, one of our party's recent engagement, new jobs, etc. We finally threw ourselves on his mercy and asked him to bring us some of his favorites. He deftly managed the chess game of wine, water and champagne glasses covering our table, fielded questions about the cookbooks on display behind the bar (not for sale, though staff at Masu are trained by studying one of them, which is available at Barnes and Noble), and never wrote a single thing down while quickly and correctly taking our orders and delivering platter after platter of food. We were never hurried, even as the restaurant filled, our glasses were never low, and the $40 we each laid down at the end of the meal covered an ocean more seafood than four lousy shrimp.

The service experience could not have been more different from where our evening had started. After the scene at Riva, we slunk away, back to the car, stinging a little from a very unpleasant end to an otherwise fine outing, and vowing never, ever to return. At Masu, Jonathan told us it was a pleasure to have us and that he hoped to see us again soon. And he will.

Masu Izakaya
1969 N. Halsted


O. Lee Mincey / June 13, 2010 4:51 PM

Truly and awful experience at the first place. Did you speak with the manager or just leave?


O. Lee

Andie / June 13, 2010 9:55 PM

At that point, we just left. Maybe we should have asked to speak to someone. Ah well.

Baked Fish Recipes / June 14, 2010 9:35 AM

If i were you i will complain to the manager immediately

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