Let me be up front with you, dear reader. I love food. I love new restaurants. I love unique experiences and getting together with friends. I do not go into restaurants with the sole purpose of trying to tear them down, because I honestly believe there is something redeemable in almost every situation. As a personal code, I try and gauge a venue against what I consider a ‘peer group’ such that Shake Shack isn’t set against the same standards as say, Noma.
Are we clear?
Furthermore, during a soft launch of a restaurant, I understand that perhaps not everything will be available or that the kitchen hasn’t sorted out its expo. I am completely willing to forgive those things. But there are a number of things, no matter how long a restaurant has been open, that I cannot and will not let go.
Let’s get this night started then, shall we?
Following new restaurants on Instagram, I like to keep up with what is going on and opening around Dubai. When I saw last week that Zoco (at Habtoor City) was offering a week long promotion of 50% the entire bill for their soft opening, I called up some friends to see who would be interested. I made reservations for a party of 8 people, confirming at the time that there would be options for our vegetarian diner. Yes, there were. All of the details were confirmed, and we set out on Monday evening, looking forward to getting together.
Reflecting on his menu, Chef Jimmy said: “I like to respect the product and enhance its natural flavor while playing with different textures and flavors, using a variety of culinary techniques to create harmony in each dish. The guest should have a sensorial experience with my food.”
My husband and I were the first to arrive (at 7:45 PM). We were shown to our table and shortly joined by another couple from our group. We were presented with food menus, and asked to see the cocktail menu. Placing our orders, had I known this would be my last drink for an hour, I probably would’ve ordered three.
From this point, the evening derailed quite quickly. I will not go into every horrifying detail, but the grossest misconduct falls under the completely unacceptable treatment of the simple act of requesting a vegetarian plate. When my friend asked for a recommendation beyond the corn that was suggested, a manager said he needed to check with the kitchen, who then reported back that the chef refused to make any changes. He allegedly “wanted to concentrate on cooking the dishes on the menu.”
I’m sorry, what?
Eventually, at nearly 2 hours into the service and far too much back and forth between management and the kitchen (including the manager walking off a few times), my friend was served some corn. Towards the very end of the meal, she finally received a taco of some kind when she had the brilliant idea to order a short rib taco without the short rib, but not without significant prodding from the table. The chef did come around at the end, and I hope listened to some of the feedback. Seriously, however, I cannot follow the logic of telling a guest “no, I will not do that.” The request was not a difficult one, nor was it an expensive one, or one that would not be common in any kitchen around the world. A simple substitution should not set off an hour-long battle with a kitchen.
Let’s not also forget: I was never actually served my main. Mine was not the only dish that went missing, or simply didn’t appear. After the first few times of asking, it was a lost cause asking for replacements.
Or, when my husband simply went to the bar to order drinks and came back within 5 minutes (after we had been waiting for another 30 minutes).
Or, given our level of frustration, when I suggested perhaps it might be best for us to simply leave, to have a manager walk away from me.
Yes, these are simply some of the things that occurred in a 3-hour window.
Zoco Management, I promised my suggestions and here they are, in no particular order. What you decide to do with them is entirely up to you. Ironically, the venue is a unique space and the food is mostly quite good. There are many elements to a great restaurant in place.
- Make your staff aware of what is available in the restaurant. No guest wants to place an order, wait for an item, only to be told 10-15 minutes later that item is not available. For example, I would much rather hear up front that something in not in stock at the beginning, than well after the fact. This happened multiple times throughout the evening (to the point that it became a joke).
- Teach your bar staff how to make a proper Old Fashioned.
- Hire a bar runner or bar back. Having not been served our second round of drinks IN OVER AN HOUR, it was clear that the staff could not keep up with our orders. Identifying a member of the team to keep drink orders up in the dining room would’ve gone a long way in keeping our table happy. In fact, if the staff member had even been able to stop by the table and say, “Hey guys, we’re super busy and it’s going to be a few more minutes,” would have been fantastic. To wait a long time without any form of communication was unacceptable.
- If I am politely making remarks, management telling me “we don’t have enough staff” is not my problem.
- Similarly, if it is clear I am unhappy with the service and address management calmly and in a private space away from other customers, it would be appreciated to have a senior manager check in on the table at some point during the rest of our meal. For a three hour service, we only were approached by additional management at the very end of the meal. I point blank asked why this person did not come over earlier, to which there was no response.
- “I’m sorry” goes such a long way. In fact, some form of industry best practice training would be money well spent. For each member of our group to feel personally insulted by multiple members of the Zoco team takes a skill I didn’t know was possible.
- Consider putting some time and energy to develop more vegetarian options. There are many vegetarians in Dubai, and they enjoy something more filling than salad and corn. Mexican cuisine has lots of wonderful choices for non-meat proteins.
- Consider removing the AED15 salsa (which does not come with chips) from the menu. It is insulting to your guests and frankly is a poor representation of what is a global standard.
- Have a look at your portion sizes versus the pricing. While I appreciate fine dining and the expense of ingredients involved, I found many of the dishes to be undersized and overpriced versus others in the market (AED95 for three small soft tacos seems off).
- Consider offering complimentary chips and salsa (or, at least chips with the salsa).
- Consider some of the plating. The carne asada came on an unappetizing bed of black beans, with some random peppers and balls of potato.
- Consider upping the heat level to some of the dishes, or offering a range when diners order.
How long will it take for these issues to be remedied? For as many dining options as there are in Dubai, if Zoco continues with their current trends, I do not see them remaining open for very long.
Finally, I want to point out I’m lucky to have such forgiving friends. As a someone who proclaims to enjoy food and write about it quite often, I was utterly embarrassed at my choice in venue. While everyone laughed it off (it was a memorable experience, after all), I still feel terrible I chose a place that did not look after my friends.
In any country I’ve been to and any of the restaurants I’ve visited, this is a new low for service and experience. What makes it worse is how little the management seemed to care. There were multiple opportunities during the evening where things could’ve been turned around or professionally addressed, but not once did that happen.
While in the end, the meal was comped and I have been invited back at a later date, I do not recommend a trip to Zoco now, as they will surely need time to sort themselves out. Save your pesos for Loca or Fuego.