In what seems like a lifetime ago, but was in fact only January, my wife saw an offer on the discount coupon website-come-smartphone-app Groupon. $69 for a “four-course global tasting menu for two”. With a keen eye for a bargain at the best of times, a 60-70% saving could not possibly be ignored. She bought the “groupon” which had to be used by September.
Fast forward to the present. I have just returned home from the worst dining experience of my life. This is not Groupon’s fault, but if this was supposed to be a deal for some kind of intentionally terrible ironic restaurant, where everything goes wrong on purpose, an ill-advised and utterly bonkers themed eatery of some kind, it would have been perfect.
To begin, I have to go back exactly one week to the previous Wednesday. My wife Sara and i made our way into downtown Toronto to Kultura restaurant near the intersection of King and Jarvis. We had an early booking for 5.30pm and we had arrived a little early, so we walked around the block (twice) to kill time. On returning, although dark inside, we saw that there were people at a table, but when I tried the door I found it locked. Shortly, a girl opened it. After asking if we had a reservation (“Yes”), we were told that the restaurant was “closed until friday due to technical difficulties in the kitchen”, which we took to mean that the chef had walked out. Turns out the people around the table were not satisfied customers chowing but probably disgruntled servers and front of house staff. I hope that they didn’t have our phone number or email address, because if they did, they didn’t use them to tell us they were closed and we wasted a journey. I didn’t say anything as she closed the door, partly shocked, partly because I am an archetypical Brit who is culturally predisposed to not making a scene.
Sara contacted Groupon and we were offered the chance to go back. I was less than keen on this idea. They had had their chance. Another of my cultural dispositions (or is it just a character flaw?) is to sulk brilliantly. A McDonald’s once refused me entry when I just wanted to use the washroom because, in that instance, I was not a customer. Nevermind the 100’s of times I had been in the past, such as the time their Kidderminster branch held my 10th birthday party where half the kids in my class came along. Well, I went on to boycott McDonald’s for some 3 years. I digress…
We returned to Kultura tonight (22nd Aug). I was over joyed to find that the door was unlocked and could barely contain myself when we were greeted, taken to our seats and promptly served water and cocktails. I had a B52 Expressolini and Sara had a Sparkling Tropics. We would each have a second, because the website menu and the reservation confirmation both said that cocktails are half price before 7pm, costing $6 instead of $12.
We had arrived at 5.50pm, 10 minute early. There were four courses. Before my first course arrived, our server returned to inform me that I would have to change my second course, as they didn’t have any sushi tonight. I chose something else. After 40 minutes, my first course arrived. It was Beef Tartar presented in what they triumphantly described and I would optimistically describe as spring rolls. I didn’t start my food as my wife’s Oysters had not arrived, but after 5-10 minutes my hunger and preference for warm food out-weighed the remains of my manners. Perhaps, I reasoned, the Oysters were being dredged up from Lake Ontario.
Dishes continued to alternate in this manner for the rest of the night. I would get a course and finish it before Sara would receive hers. It wasn’t until the second course that we realised that this was by design. Everyone was being treated this way, unless both parties ordered the same food, in which case, it would arrive together. I don’t know if they intended for us to share our food or if they knew they couldn’t keep up in the kitchen and to hell with it. Perhaps it is an experiment in a new dining experience where your partner gets to appraise the manner in which you eat while they wait.
The manager had made an appearance at this stage. He seemed to be interviewing someone, perhaps about the Kultura website, we weren’t sure. The manager, even after the interviewee had left, appeared oblivious to the dissatisfaction. The website should have been his least concern.
Averaging at one course per hour, my Tofu Thai Curry (rather than Sushi) arrived, and it was bland. Very average. I’ve had food-court meals better than this. But I was lucky. There are plenty of reviews slagging off the sushi. Sara’s second course was Scallops, which took even longer to arrive than any previous serving. It gave us plenty of time to reflect on the music that was playing. An elaborate mixing desk with two record players was situated behind me, though it was playing a mix CD with about seven songs on it, including an awful remix of Empire State of Mind and some other track that would always skip before the CD restarted. We had heard each song about 5 times by now. I understand it is supposed to be a leisurely experience, that’s what fine dining is. But this was all fine and no dine.
Anyone newly entering the restaurant was left waiting for up to 10 minutes before being seated. People in the restaurant were beginning to get visibly agitated by this stage, albeit in a kind of whimsical disbelief, possibly almost extending to a Blitz spirit. We’re stuck in here, there’s no escape, might as well make the best of it. Patrons began conspiring amongst each other, whispering conspiratorially about how awful it was before quickly zipping quiet when a server would eventually arrive. I can guarantee that if we were in England at this stage, the eventual arrival of each course would be greeted by the sound of jeers and sarcastic applause.
Just as I thought there might be an uprising, complaints started to be verbalised to the staff. A couple beside us complained about the slow arrival of courses. Their “Cornish Hen” then arrived undercooked. They left the restaurant refusing to pay any extra beyond what they had already paid for their Groupon (tax is not included in Groupons and nor are tips or any extras you order, like drinks). As they left, they turned to us and wished us luck.
The third course arrives and Sara has taken the lead! Her Mushroom Orecchiette arrives after another hour or so. We now begin to share food, mostly to relieve the boredom of whoever didn’t get served. This was supposed to be a signature dish. The pasta tasted of old water to me. Sara felt there was too much cheese, and she love cheese. She has Montreal genes in her, for goodness’ sake. There was a bizarre addition of chutney which didn’t so much pleasingly contrast with the cheese as was probably intended, so much as unpleasantly declare war on each other in your mouth.
Mistakes start to happen, perhaps as the staff are now under extra pressure. Two separate tables receive the same course twice. The table beside us (the female has already introduced herself as Claire who just moved from Hamilton) receive one of their second courses before their first course. Claire, upon finding out that Sara is from Toronto, asks her for recommendations for any GOOD restaurants.
My “Cornish Hen” arrives and it’s pretty miserable. The vegetables are overcooked and mushy enough to please a baby. Even as an amateur ornithologist, I am underwhelmed by this sorry bird.
The longest and most painful wait is for dessert. Sara was served first. It took 50 minutes for the “dish” to arrive. It was 4-5 cinnamon “timbits” with chocolate and caramel dipping sauces which just didn’t taste good. The regular price for this dish is $7. My dessert took an additional 25 minutes. The couple who’d arrived before us were finally leaving. The lady placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder and wished us luck. The lava cake arrived in a plastic container and I have to assume it was microwaved. Banana tempura was overly mushy. Ice cream was simply lame. I tasted each and left it. It was clear we were annoyed at this stage. Our server had made eye-contact with Sara several times over the long wait. She asked if we would like complimentary champagne. I declined. An older couple was sat behind us. They had faces like thunder, but not the temperate kind. They had faces like the kind of thunder only experienced within the red-eye of the planet Jupiter.
The bill arrived and we were told that one each of our drinks had been taken off. The bill was $55 (in addition to the $69 Groupon). Two drinks had indeed been taken off, but we had been charged full-price for the others instead of the advertised half-price before 7pm. Sara mentioned it and they said it was because we had a Groupon. I understand not combining offers, but we should have been told. They offered to make them half-price but I cannot explain how overwhelming the desire to leave was. Charges and tax would have to be recalculated. We had been imprisoned for 3 hours and 40 minutes. We paid the bill, which already included a 20% tip!!!
We have had good experiences with Groupon before, but they need to cancel this contract for the sake of their name. While we don’t blame them, it also doesn’t reflect well on them. Unless you are a sadomasochist or have a twisted sense of humour and more money than sense, avoid Kultura.