March 18, 2004

Finger Lake'n Good

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Ah, the digital joys of dining in the 21st century: cordless thermometer guns, wine lists on hand-held computers, and booking reservations online. In fact, Rhapsody, the Statler Hotel School’s student run exercise in restaurant management is one of only seven restaurants to offer the service in upstate New York.

H ADM 305, a required course for hotel school students, uses hands-on experience to teach students restaurant management skills. During the first four weeks of class, student teams develop a concept and practice their skills on each other. By the fifth week of class, the students are on their own, while professors guide and grade the process.

Peeking in the back door, I noticed a professor showing a student how to chop carrots. It’s hardly a realistic experience. According to Professor Spies, each section must have the same number of student “employees” running the restaurant; too few or too many students might cause a management imbalance. But ask any restaurateur around — labor is the single most unreliable item in a restaurant. There are never a consistent number of employees on any given night. Having the same number of students for each section is but one of Rhapsody’s tragic flaws. What of the fact that over 50 percent of the students in the class don’t have prior restaurant experience? All these students know is what they learned in the class’s two prerequisites — an introductory food and beverage course and a cooking course. I have to argue that a one semester course in culinary arts does little to prepare a college student for a restaurant kitchen. Here’s proof:

One Wednesday night, I’m greeted at the door by not one, not two, but four hostesses. They are chatting with a fellow student. Five minutes later, when they realize that I’m not just standing there for fun, I’m seated at a table near the kitchen. Rhapsody, when it was first developed about two years ago, was supposed to offer lower prices and a casual tone. Yet dim lights and candle-lit tables aren’t exactly casual. What about the bread and butter plate next to my two forks? Last time I checked, fast-casual service was like Applebee’s, not Banfi’s.

Let’s not get too discouraged — starters are okay. French Onion soup stands out. I can’t tell if they’re using bouillon cubes or real beef stock, but either way, it’s loaded with flavor.

On the other hand, I thought that Culinary Theory and Practice, H ADM 236, taught students how to cook meat to various degrees of doneness, but maybe not. I ordered a Bacon Cheddar Cheeseburger medium well, but it came out bloody rare and blackened on the outside. When I asked if the burger’s “steak-cut fries” had skin, the server said no, then reconsidered and said yes, then went back to check and confirmed no. But two seconds later, a student with an actual French fry in his bare hand came out to prove to me that yes, the russet potato fries have skin. Hopefully, he didn’t put that fry on someone’s plate — that would be a health department violation.

I wish my server on Thursday knew more about the menu. She didn’t know if the pineapple salsa that goes with the grilled chicken was made in-house. Then, when I asked what else was in it, she sighed with more than a hint of annoyance. Still, it was delicious salsa, perfectly tangy and sweet with fresh pineapple, and it even went well with the chicken.

The bread and butter plate couldn’t just be table decoration, could it? I had to ask my server to bring me the bread — it hadn’t come before the meal. The par-baked roll was warm, but the melted butter made me wonder why a bread knife sat on the edge of the plate. Don’t they know that it’s impossible to spread melted butter?

Sometimes Rhapsody acts like the fusion-casual place it should be. Fried Perch with a Vera Cruz Sauce sounds exotic enough. If only that sauce didn’t combine canned tomatoes and olives, it might actually taste like something besides aluminum. It lent no flavor to the “Tortilla encrusted” (I think this is a fancy way of saying “breaded and fried”) Perch that sat atop desperately unseasoned steamed rice. Yawn.

Unfortunately, I can’t end on a sweet note. My dessert tasting, a combination of a molten chocolate cake, scoop of sorbet, and apple cake was all wrong. The funny thing about Rhapsody’s molten chocolate is that it isn’t molten. Here, it just sits on the plate, next to equally dry “Buttery Apple Cake”, and some mysterious purple sorbet.

Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I still think that actual restaurant experience would be far more beneficial to future restaurateurs than Rhapsody, a make-shift study in cooking, serving, and patience.

Rhapsody is open Tuesday through Thursday, 5:45pm to 7:45pm. (607) 254-2500.

Archived article by Daniela Galarza