14 West, not the best

Yesterday, hubby and I were recounting all of the Valentine’s Days we’ve shared thus far. Last year, we were in Paris — that’s going to be a hard act to top. Ever. Year before that, I was 8 months pregnant and laid up on bed rest. Neither of us can remember what we did the year before that, but for our first V-Day as a married duo (2006), I cooked a lovely candlelit dinner at our little rented cottage in Sonoma. We weren’t physically together for Valentine’s Day the year we were dating. I was in Indiana and hubby was in Germany, but I seem to recall he sent me some books for the occasion.

So that gets us up to speed. We weren’t sure we’d even have a chance to do anything romantic this year, between getting toddler-care squared away and hubby having to work at some sort of motorcycle trade show downtown at the convention center this weekend. Lo and behold, the daycare where the toddler attends offered a babysitting service last night courtesy of a Girl Scout troop trying to raise money for a trip this summer. Sold to the man without the hat! Hubby pledged to knock off work by 5 p.m. and date night was on like Donkey Kong.

I started thinking about dining options, worried that we might have trouble getting in somewhere nice, what with the trade show going on and the fact that it was Saturday night on Valentine’s Day weekend. My original idea was to hit Tastings, a relatively new wine bar located in the swanky Conrad Hotel. However, hubby and I knew we would want a full meal and it looked like they only served cheese plates, so that was out.

I’d wanted to try 14 West for a long time, and an online search discovered they had a special menu this weekend. Perfect! When I called, the only reservation times open were 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., both well outside of the babysitting window. Hmph. I put my name on a wait list and figured if all else failed, maybe we could eat at the bar. As luck would have it, I got a phone call around 3:30 from the hostess saying she’d had an opening at 6 p.m. I figured I must be livin’ right and quickly claimed it.

Hubby agreed to meet me in the 14 West bar at 5:30. I changed outfits about five times (hubby told me to wear something “hot”), packed up the little man and we were off. Right on time, I had just parked the car in one of the Circle Centre lots and was locking it up when I got a text. “Running late, just got called into a meeting.” Great. I texted back to ask how late and walked on up to the restaurant. With my hand on the door, hubby replied “45 minutes.” I nearly burst into tears, seconds away from spinning on my heel and calling the whole evening quits. Fortunately, hubby then called as I was on the verge of meltdown to tell me it was just a joke and he was waiting for me at the bar. Whew. Crisis averted.

14 West was hopping, obviously a popular spot. It’s pretty upscale, the décor is fairly romantic and hubby looked very dashing sitting at the bar. (My heart went pitter-patter all over again when I caught sight of him.) We enjoyed a drink – Stella Artois for him and a fragrant glass of Riesling for me — and chatted warmly for a cozy half an hour. The bartender was very friendly and had a wonderful laugh. I had high hopes for a lovely meal.

At 6 on the dot, we got up to claim our spot – a very wide table tucked into a corner upstairs in a crowded, noisy room. Hubby and I felt miles away from each other, but our table was nearly jammed flush with the one next to us. It was almost like we were on a date with the people sitting next to us instead of each other! Intimate conversation was a little difficult to achieve, but no matter. We settled in and turned out attention to the menu.

Our waiter, who we’ll call Brandon (because that was his name) seemed pretty stressed; we overheard him explaining to our fellow compadres next door about how many tables he had to take care of and how busy they were that night. Um. Yeah. Not what you want to hear from your waiter immediately after being seated. This didn’t bode well. Still, Brandon managed to get us our drinks fairly quickly and explained the steak frites appetizer in detail when hubby asked, but didn’t give us any schpiel about the special menu. We placed our order and waited. And waited. And waited…

We didn’t order anything complicated, two entrees and a Caesar salad for the hubster. I really wanted to try either the lobster mashed potatoes or the lobster mac and cheese, but the side servings looked huge and I knew my seafood-hating hubby wouldn’t have pitched in to help. A hostess with huge boobs brought us a couple warm pretzel rolls in the meantime, which we devoured in about two seconds. Thirty minutes later, we’d watched Caesar salads flying around the room to every table but ours. Brandon finally came by to let us know our entrees were on the way and got flustered when hubby asked about the status of his salad. Hubby told him if it was coming out as the same time as the entrees to just forget about it. So he did.

Entrees arrived a few minutes after. The food was delicious – hubby got a steak with steamed vegetables on the side. Nothing terribly fancy, but he said it was good. My meal was a nicely cooked piece of Chilean sea bass on top of risotto with some wild mushrooms and a basil sauce. It tasted great, but the serving size seemed a bit scant for $36 or whatever we paid for it. Also, when I took a bite of mushrooms, I felt something in my mouth that didn’t seem right and proceeded to fish out a dime-sized piece of cardboard. That was somewhat alarming. I’d already eaten half my meal by that point, so I went ahead and finished it, hoping I wasn’t in for some sort of delayed-reaction contamination.

Brandon finally came back to check on us and I pointed out the cardboard. He apologized profusely, promising to bring it to the manager’s attention. A short while later, he returned to let us know they were going to comp us two desserts, which we would have ordered anyway, so that worked out pretty well. I did find it a little off-putting that he didn’t let us select the desserts we wanted, instead just telling us which two they were going to give us. But hey, it was on the house, so whatever.

To Brandon’s credit, the desserts arrived fairly quickly – an individual cheesecake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate drizzle, and a slab of chocolate mousse cake with another scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, this one rolled in an addictively crunchy praline coating. Both were yummy. We polished off the cheesecake, but the chocolate cake was so rich, we could only manage a few bites. That’s saying something – I usually have no problem tackling the most decadent of chocolate desserts, but this was too much even for me.

By this time, we really needed to get going in order to pick up the toddler on time. Brandon dropped off the check, but then kept passing by our table without picking up my debit card. I tried unsuccessfully to flag him down three or four times before getting pissed off. We finally just stood up to leave and handed him our payment on the way out, standing in the hall while he ran my card. Even with the comped desserts and the subtraction of one of hubby’s Stellas, the bill still topped $100.

I realize Brandon was extra-busy and stressed, but still. There’s no excuse for lackluster service at a restaurant of this caliber, especially on a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. I tipped 10 percent; an amount hubby and I felt was extremely generous, all things considered. The food was great (well, apart from the cardboard) and the ambiance was nice, but overall, the 14 West dining experience was something of a letdown for us. And served as a reminder why we don’t tend to frequent upscale restaurants very often – too much pressure and too many high expectations that can fall short. When we’re paying that kind of money, we expect things to be pretty much perfect, and they rarely are. (St Elmo’s is one of the few spots that really delivers in this capacity.)

In retrospect, we figured we probably would have had a much better experience just eating at the bar like we’d originally intended. Live and learn. It was still great to get dressed up and meet my handsome husband out for a real date, so in that sense, it was definitely a happy Valentine’s Day.