Service with a frown

A mediocre menu and lackluster service take the fine out of the dining at Mel Hollen's

One of the things I love most about dining out is excellent service. I prize that coddled, back-to-the-womb feeling of knowing that someone cares enough to strive for that 20 percent gratuity by brushing the bread crumbs from my wingtips or wiping the burgundy dribbles from my chin.

Service: It's the element that, when absent, we critics, in our perennially indignant rants of overweening culinary self-righteousness, seem to whine about endlessly. "Go ahead. Serve me an E. coli infested burger crawling with ants," we say. "But saturate me so thoroughly with your pampering gestures of graciousness that when your menu does me in, your royal treatment will convince Elton John to record a cheap, tear-jerking retread of one of his sappy '70s melodies on my behalf." These are just some of the things we critics say.

And somewhere down deep in Mel Hollen's heart, I know he believes service is a swell thing to strive for, a strand of fundamentalist dining dogma. That's why I have to believe the service I experienced at Mel Hollen's Bar and Fine Dining was an aberration; either that or I was right smack in the middle of a training video on how to turn your dining guests into indignant postal employees.

It started when my companions and I were seated in one of Mel Hollen's romantic little private dining booths cordoned with burgundy-hued velvet curtains. A lot of traffic was sweeping past our cozy little hovel, and it moved swiftly--servers, busboys, guests, even Mel himself--for a full 15 minutes without anyone noticing we were there. And I'm convinced we could have stayed in that little dining closet rent-free for weeks without so much as a "Can I help you?" if I hadn't been able to flag down a busboy in mid-stride.

It was several more minutes before a server came by in a huff and said "I didn't even know you were here. They went and switched tables on me." So here we were in Mel Hollen's Bar and Fine Dining, and after nearly half an hour, the only thing we were served was an excuse.

But after we digested his explanation, service was suddenly attentive, if a little poorly paced. Then things started to get rushed. At one point, one of my companions was contentedly nibbling her salad when our server delivered the entrees and began to slowly shove her salad out of her immediate reach with a plate of food. He didn't stop until we protested. He stopped pushing and left her entree half in front of her and half off to her left side.

Yet the most interesting example of Mel Hollen's avant-garde interpretation of excellent service occurred when our server began clearing the table. In his zeal to remove our dishes, he dumped a small cup of soy sauce in front of my companion. She flinched and watched as the dark liquid spread, threatening her personal space. "Don't worry," our server said. "The table covering is thick. It'll absorb it."

We, of course, thought he was kidding. No server could be so socially stunted that they imagine a diner would think it swell to eat dessert over a huge, aromatic wet brown spot directly in front of them. But after several minutes without a sign of his return, we concluded he was indeed the nitwit we imagined he couldn't be. We were forced to flag yet another busboy and instructed him to return with several napkins.

He delivered them, but seemed confused as to what to do. So we pressed one into the wet spot, making cute little soy handprints into the clean white cloth, and this seemed to click on a light somewhere. From there, he mopped up as best he could and covered the spot with layers of fresh napkins--fine dining at its best, the kind that transforms the potential 20 percent tip into a priceless bit of advice: "Consider the postal exam."

Unfortunately, the food, while adequate, had nowhere near the star power to pull the dining experience out of the cellar. The restaurant is patterned after an old San Francisco restaurant, and the menu is heavy on seafood available broiled, sauteed, or pan-fried. There are also steaks, lamb chops, veal, chicken, and seafood pasta dishes.

Pepper seared ahi tuna, thick slices of chilled flesh with a putty-hued exterior moving in a gradient of deepening pinks up to its deep rose interior, was plopped atop a bed of pickled cabbage. The fresh, silky fish came with a cup of that infamous soy-ginger dipping sauce seasoned with a little brown sugar to tone down the salty intensity of the soy.

But the dish wasn't freshly prepared. The plate was cold, indicating that it had been prepped and put into a cooler, which was painfully evident in both the pepper-corn crust--mushy instead of crunchy--and the accompanying pair of cold wontons, which were lifeless instead of freshly crisp.

With generous fragments of cheese, the sliced tomatoes with sweet onions and blue cheese crumbles had a rather stingy portion of tomato slices. But the sharp, tangy sting of cheese contrasted well with the slightly sweet, juicy tomatoes.

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