Sunday, October 12, 2008

Different Experiences

In the last posting, I wrote about Chowpatti, a vegetarian restaurant in the suburb of Arlington Heights.

On a wall in the dining room, two reviews hang side by side. One, from the Daily Herald newspaper, lauds the restaurant; the other, published in North Shore Magazine, isn’t as kind. That article, by Steve Dale in the magazine’s June 2004 issue, reads as follows:

North Shore readers named Chowpatti their favorite vegetarian restaurant. It’s fortunate that we’re a patient bunch. The wait on busy evenings can exceed an hour before the first food item arrives— in all, the entire affair can be a nearly two-hour melodrama. On a good night when crowds are thinner, you can chow it all down and escape in less than 60 minutes. By the way, the food arrives as it’s prepared, in no apparent order. For example, the freshly baked flatbreads ($1.50-$2.15) may hit the table between entrees, rather than before. That’s not necessarily a criticism; this is the practice at various ethnic restaurants. The menu at Chowpatti, which is named for a beach in Bombay, is primarily Indian. Although there are sections for Mexican and Italian dishes, stick with the Indian ones.

Owner Anil Kapadia meets and greets, boasting that every dish is prepared to order. Yet when a request is made to leave peas out of a pav bhaji (a stew-like dish), the waitress reprimands, “No, we won’t do that. We have a 20-page menu, I’m sure you’ll find something else to your liking.” Admittedly, the menu does indicate in small type, “no substitutions,” but there’s no defense for that attitude.

“Hummus ($4.95) is a good idea as a side dish. Ragda patties ($5.50) are very good: a grilled potato patty with yellow peas and onions, accompanied with a splendid sweet chutney sauce that mixed perfectly with cool coriander. Another clear winner is masala uttapam, a thick pancake made of rice and lentils stuffed with spinach, cashews, raisins and potatoes ($8.25). Like all menu items, you can order it hot and spicy or mild; this one is good with a kick.

Grab a catcher’s mask before you ask for a doggy bag, as the waitress tosses a box in your face, saying, “Wrap it yourself!” Kapadia, who is celebrating the restaurant’s 10th anniversary, pleads convincingly that they weren’t prepared to handle heavy crowds— especially after the North Shore award— and that glitches in service are being improved upon.

The article ends with the restaurant’s hours.

I asked Niyama Kapadia, son of the late Anil and a hostess at Chowpatti, about the review.

“We got, you know, news from North Shore Magazine that we were voted the number one restaurant,” she explained. “And we were so happy about it. We were excited, and it was like, ‘Wow,’ you know? And […] we were very busy after that, you know?

“He must have come in,” she went on, “and just like any customer comes, you know, we treat any customer with a lot of love and respect. […] He wanted this meatless stew without the green peas. So, I explained to him that, you know, the batch is already made; I can’t remove the peas from that. But then I suggested other items that might not have peas.

“But he wasn’t happy from that moment, I think.

“And then […] eventually, you know, he added a bread— like, I had suggested that he orders an Indian bread to accompany his curry dish. He didn’t listen to me. And then, during his meal, he decided to order a bread.

“Then I told him, you know, it will take some time. But he’s like, ‘No, I want to eat it with this food.’ And his ticket went at the end of the line. I mean, you know, when we’re busy, it’s busy, which is my mom and my sister cooking back there, and my dad and myself used to handle the floor.

“So, the bread got to his table a little bit later, and I think he was upset about that.

She continued, “When he wanted his food wrapped up, we provide containers. We’re short-handed; it’s just a small fam— so, we provide containers, and we allow the customers to pack their meals.

“He didn’t like that.

“Most reviewers don’t tell us, but he came on the counter, and— you know, my dad always asks— when he goes to the tables, and he always asks, ‘How was your experience? Did you enjoy your meal? I hope we see you again.’

“And he said, ‘That waitress you have there… you need to fire her.’

“He was like, ‘What are you talking about?— What? What?’ […] And he wanted to make sure if it was, like, my sister or me, who he’s talking about. And so, my dad said, ‘Tell me what happened.’ You know, ‘Let me try to correct it.’

“So, he told that ‘she was so arrogant, she didn’t want to remove the peas from my meal. I told her, “I don’t mind. I want her to make the meatless stew without peas.”’

“He insisted— he wanted my dad to insure him that my dad would fire me.

“And my dad said, you know, ‘You don’t understand. She’s my daughter. […] And somehow it’s hard for me to believe that my daughter was rude to you.’

“And that’s it. So, Mr. Dale said to my dad, ‘So, you’re trying to tell me you don’t believe me?’ And my dad said, ‘No, don’t get me wrong. It’s just hard for me to believe that my daughter was rude to any customer. Not you.’ […] And fortunately, we had a few regulars that were sitting next to him. And so they—

“Then Mr. Dale became loud. […] The other customer that was sitting next to them got up and said that, you know, ‘We were here throughout the dinner and […] no, Anil, your daughter was behaving very nicely with him.’ You know, ‘Just like she behaves with everybody.’

“And he said, ‘You watch… you watch the review I write you.’

“So, my dad’s like, ‘Write whatever you want.’

“So, he wrote a nasty— You know, in the article, he says, ‘Wear catcher’s mask, because the waitress w’— Ugh!

“And then my dad put it on every table. […] Whatever story we get written up, he would make small copies, and then”—

She tapped on a piece of plastic.

—“these would go on every table, you know? And, so what happened is, even with that negative write-up, my dad put it on every table. And I’m like, ‘Dad! Why are— He’s writing mean things about me! How could—’

“And my dad said, ‘No, no. Just because we got something negative, that doesn’t mean we’re going to hide it from people. You have to learn to take criticism.’

“And I said, ‘But dad, he was so wrong.’ […] I was young, and I was mad, and I’m like, ‘How dare he write something like that?’

“My dad said, ‘Don’t worry.’”

“He put it on every table. I could not believe it.

“Well, what happened is, our loyal customers read it, and on their own, they wrote to the magazine. Some customers are like, ‘I’ve been dining here for 12 years.’ Somebody would say, ‘I’ve been dining here since five years.’ ‘We weren’t here that evening, but we know this can’t be true. We know the family so well. It’s not possible.’

“So, the editor of the magazine contacted my father. And he said […] ‘I have a stack full of letters,’ and you know, ‘They’re all saying something negative about my reviewer, Mr. Dale.’

“Yeah. So, the owner of the magazine contacted my dad, apologized to my dad, and said, ‘Maybe he had an off day,’ you know. He’s like, ‘It can’t be possible that so many letters are wrong.’ So, he’s like, ‘I think my reviewer had a […] off moment, and maybe he didn’t like your daughter. I don’t know what happened. But,’ you know, ‘I can’t go back and erase, because that was already printed. But what I will do for you is I will print some of those letters.’

“So my dad said, ‘See? It always pays off to be honest.’ You know, ‘Never hide.’

“We never asked our customers to do that.”

At this point, a man entered the restaurant. It was 4 p.m., and Niyanta, who was standing behind the front counter, greeted him.

“Hi, how are you?” she said.

“Do you serve now?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” she replied in a sweet voice. “We’ll re-open at 5 o’clock.”

“Okay. That’s what I saw outside.”

“Yes. Sorry about that.”

Niyanta continued: “So, yeah. From that point on, I knew that my dad was right about so many things.

A more-recent review of the restaurant, by Marla Seidell in The Daily Herald last month (a different article than the one hangining on the wall), had this to say about Kipadia: “Niyanta made for a gracious server, host and owner rolled into one. She expertly fielded our finicky eater's many questions, and made suggestions that pleased all.”

Different people; different times. Different experiences.

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