The Importance of Service

dscn2426Port View Seafood Village

I don’t really care about service. Food is the focus. I will tolerate slow service, put up with inexperienced or worse, incompetent servers if the food is good. I will endure rude or gruff waiters a la Peter Luger’s or like those in your local diner or favorite busy hawker. However looking back at my meal at Thomas Keller’s Per Se I realized that the service was so expert, subtle, warm and comforting that it elevated a superb meal to one that was sublime.

Two meals during my Brunei stay made me reevaluate my preconceived notions of the service-food relationship. They happened within days of each other as my parents and I embarked on a road trip across Borneo from Brunei to Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia.

The first meal was at Port View Seafood Village in Kota Kinabalu. We picked it because it was the closest to our hotel. All we were willing to do was walk no further than across the road after a whole day of traveling.

And in terms of food, I have to admit it was excellent. Every morsel of food was full of fresh flavor and expertly cooked. Sweet scallops were quickly stir-fried to showcase their pristine condition. There was a tender crunch to the huge prawns bursting with flavor. Plump oysters had a veneer of gratin-ed cheese, while the oysters itself was still delectably moist and slippery soft. Soft-shelled crabs were fried crisp yet lusciously juicy inside.

dscn2435Pristine Scallops

dscn2436Closeup

dscn2440Prawns

dscn2448It’s as big as my hand

dscn2456Oysters

dscn2459Fried soft shell crab

The problem was that while the prices of the seafood was very clearly spelled out, the amount you get when you order isn’t. The way the restaurant handled the situation when addressed also wasn’t very kosher. They weren’t cheating but they weren’t ethical. It definitely ruined the mood for dinner, as my mom was pretty upset for being taken for a ride, in fact I don’t think I’ve seen her so upset since I was a kid (and I don’t know anyone as calm as her.)

dscn27871The “Restaurant” at Sutera Resort Manukan Island

Three days later we returned to Kota Kinabalu from Mount Kinabalu. A short boat ride later, we docked at the Sutera Resort jetty on Manukan Island. The clear turquoise water of the South China Sea was too tempting to resist and an hour after stepping on the island I had checked-in, drank my welcome cocktail, gotten a quick bite and was out on a boat again, coasting through Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park to the dive sites. Wanting to cram as many dives in, I added a night dive.

The night dive unfortunately delayed dinner. 

dscn2795Going for my night dive

I was ravenously hungry, which happens every time after I dive, as I walked on the stone path to meet my parents for dinner. And I was pleasantly surprised to see them sitting in a private tent that the resort had set up for us on the beach, illuminated by hurricane lamps with a view of the sea and the soundtrack of lapping waves playing on repeat. We even had our own chef to barbeque our meal. Unfortunately the staff wasn’t told of my night dive and had prepared the food so that it would be ready for us when we came. But we came an hour and a half later than expected, causing the cooked food to sit on a charcoal warmer for the duration of time.

dscn2791Setting up

I still wolfed down the squid, fish and prawns. After looking at fish the whole day I was really craving seafood. The meal as a whole was actually immensely enjoyable. We felt so pampered by the resort staff. I had actually seen them setting up the tent while waiting for the residual nitrogen to bleed off from my body after the day dives, and I was wondering what that was for and it seemed to be a lot of effort. There was an intricate “tablescape” that was an exotic and beautiful garnish to the backdrop of the “restaurant.” Yes the food was overcooked (at least for the first platter, when we got seconds cooked to order it was delicious,) but the level of attention and effort we got from the resort staff more than made up for it. The genuine warm hospitality, which is so rare, made the meal so memorable.

dscn2817Check that tablescape out Sandra Lee!

I don’t go to a restaurant for the service or ambience, but I think I’d return in a heartbeat to Sutera Manukan Island. Would I go back to Port View View Seafood Village? I’m tempted to state an outright no. But the food was really good that it trumped the shady service.

dscn2810BBQ Seafood, Satay and Lamb.

I realize that I haven’t come to a definitive rubric on service. My two examples seem to contradict each other. If anything, my two meals have made me more aware of the role service plays.

2 responses to “The Importance of Service

  1. Wow tough crowd out there.

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