Like all mothers, mine believes emphatically that she doesn’t see me often enough. So two and a half months after coming for a week in March, she was back for a repeat visit at the beginning of June. I was able to take a few days off, and we enjoyed a thoroughly relaxing weekend. Forced inside by some monstrous downpours, we contented ourselves by watching Netflix, doing crossword puzzles, and baking. Although the visit was ultimately lovely and successful, it didn’t start out that way. 14th Street beckoned, and our curiosity was piqued by the new Belgian restaurant from the owners of Belga in Eastern Market, B Too. B Too is in good company for newcomer restaurants–it joins Le Diplomate, Etto, and Ghibellina as all very recent additions to 14th. With Belga being a consistent favorite, we entered with high hopes, and even higher expectations.
Although we were about 15 minutes early for our reservation, the staff seated us immediately, and tried to make us comfortable with drinks and a paper bag of crusty (and I mean, crusty) bread to dip in olive oil. The trouble started when I asked our server what kind of oil they use for frying. It’s common for upscale restaurants to use peanut oil for frites, and the server confirmed that yes, B Too uses peanut oil for their frites. Disappointed, but not yet discouraged, we asked about ordering the hangar steak and roasted root vegetables with something other than frites. The server’s response was a bit shocking: “No, we don’t do any substitutions here.” Incredulous, I asked, “No substitutions? Not even for an allergy?” He then left to confer with the chef. His return was very positive–they would certainly accommodate my request and substitute a different side. We settled on the potato mousse, and also ordered the monk fish, and an asparagus dish to start. Before he left, he urged that he would put a large “No nut” warning on our entire order, and that the restaurant would use vegetable/canola oil for any of our dishes.
My suspicions started to grow when we were given our first dish: white and green asparagus with chopped egg and butter sauce. The dish was topped with a rice cracker that looked like it had been flash fried. A little nervous, I asked him again to confirm that the kitchen hadn’t used peanut oil. After another trip to the chef, he confirmed that they had used canola oil. Still, I decided to set aside the cracker, and just focus on the asparagus. Unfortunately, they didn’t hold my attention for long. Well cooked, but lacking in flavor and literally drowning in a tasteless, oily sauce, the asparagus had few redeeming qualities.
We were served our main dishes, which we planned to split between us: Kraaie Biefstuk met Vergeten Groente (Josper grilled hanger steak with root vegetables, and our subbed side of Potato mousse with roasted garlic), and Roulade van Zeeduivel met Bloemkool (Monkfish roulade with cauliflower risotto, fried capers and parsley). It all looked delectable, but looks can be deceiving. I tried the hangar steak first–ordered medium rare, but served almost well done–and was dismayed to find the steak had little flavor, and gained little even when completely dunked in the hot pepper sauce. The root vegetables were equally lackluster, and though sprinkled generously with herbs, were obviously not roasted with them. Finally, the potato mousse was not the fluffy, garlicky masterpiece I had expected. It resembled a thick cheese soup, and was so buttery and rich you could barely eat a bite without your arteries clogging. But then, it got worse.
We switched plates, and I started in on the monkfish. While the fish itself was properly cooked, and sat on a bed of cauliflower “risotto” (although I hardly think pats of rice mixed with various vegetables can be called risotto), I found the presentation, with the strange foam and giant okra pods a bit disconcerting and pretentious. A few bites in, I had…well…a moment. Others with food allergies may know what I’m talking about. It’s the tiny seed of panic, lodged only in your subconscious, that you might have a big problem on your hands. I realized that the capers in the dish had been fried. I know enough about kitchen practices to assume that my capers would not have gotten special treatment, and, more likely, were made in bulk in a fryer, to be tossed into the various dishes when necessary. I immediately feared that they had been fried in peanut oil, and I was about to face a serious allergic reaction.
We called the server over for the umpteenth time, and I hastily explained that I wasn’t feeling well, and that he needed to check on whether the kitchen had accidentally included capers from a peanut oil batch. A scuffle ensued, which ended up with the manager coming over to the table to look after my well-being. Then the most unbelievable thing happened. “We don’t use peanut oil for anything in the restaurant,” the manager said. Excuse me? He further explained that the restaurant doesn’t use peanut oil, but it does use Pinola oil, apparently a brand of vegetable oil. The server had apparently gotten very confused, and heard peanut, and not Pinola. I was shocked that such a miscommunication error could have happened, and I asked to speak with the chef personally. So out comes the chef, obviously harried, but exceedingly pleasant and goodnatured. Yes, he assured me, the only oil we use in the kitchen is Pinola. No peanuts anywhere. So I was safe. Sure. But not happy.
We never saw our server again–the manager stepped in to handle us. He admitted that it was the server’s first day without supervision, and offered to get us a dessert on the house. Uninterested in dessert after a veritable anxiety attack, I instead aired my frustration and dismay at the poor training this fellow had received. This was a most basic error in communication, and could have been totally preempted had the server had a more thorough knowledge of the restaurant’s menu and policies. Peanut allergies are everywhere. They are not obscure, and they’re entirely manageable. One would think that a restaurant would have trained their staff in how best to deal with food allergies, and would have required at least a basic understanding of food preparation (e.g., what kind of oil the restaurant uses, if they make desserts in-house, if the soups are made with chicken or vegetable stock, etc.).
Ultimately, the manager was sincerely apologetic, and after failing to tempt us with a free dessert, took the asparagus appetizer off the bill. Personally, I expected a bit more, but that’s neither here nor there. I was disappointed and still suffering the effects of my psychosomatic allergy symptoms when we left. I hope that B Too can improve and expand their training practices to better prepare for customers with food allergies, and to avoid these grievous miscommunication errors. With that said, I hope their food gets better too.
B Too | 324 14th Street NW 20005 | 202.627.2800