Friday, July 2, 2010

Le Petit Restaurant Epi

Dining out is not just about the food, but the whole experience - the taste and texture of the food, the service, ambience, etc. And human interactions should generally be governed by a general rule of decency. I recently dined at Le Petit Restaurant Epi in Daikanyama and had the single worst dining experience of my life - after a misunderstanding about the bill, the chef publicly humiliated and verbally assaulted me in front of a room full of diners. It was inexcusable behavior, from human to human - the encounter left me shaking and crying afterward. I didn't know it until then, but being verbally attacked in such a violent, unexpected and irrational manner feels a lot like being physically assaulted. It was a horrible, traumatic experience. He could not have hurt me more if he had punched me in the face.

Some background: I am a freelance food critic/writer for the Tokyo Weekender magazine. I write about food because I love to eat and I love to write. And I do it for free - I am not compensated by the magazine for any of my meals or for the articles and have never asked to be. Many times, I critique and write up restaurants that I have dined at independently and enjoyed so much that I want to share the restaurant with others. In those cases, I don't let the restaurant know that I am reviewing them since I want them to treat me exactly as they would treat any other customer, so that I can report accurately what an average dining experience is like. I pay for the meal myself, and am not reimbursed or compensated by the magazine.

However, other times, a restaurant will invite me to dine at the restaurant because they specifically want to be reviewed, or the Weekender arranges for a meal at a restaurant that has requested to be reviewed. In these cases, the restaurant always provides the meal at no charge, since I am not dining there "just for fun" or out of my own choice, but at the specific request of the restaurant that is requesting to be reviewed. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to afford to review many of the higher-end restaurants in Tokyo, since as people know, dining out in Tokyo is a costly affair.

Earlier this week, I was told by the Weekender that Le Petit Restaurant Epi had invited me to dine and review the restaurant. I arrived at the tiny restaurant and the waitress was clearly expecting me and announced to the chef that Deborah-san had arrived.

I perused the menu carefully, taking notes of the various offerings and prices for reporting purposes. The menu includes a solid lineup of classic French bistro fare, including a variety of steamed mussel dishes, ratatouille and bouillabaisse. As I always try to do when on a restaurant review assignment, I ordered items that I thought would lend themselves to an interesting review, items that I thought a fellow diner might want to read about and try. That evening, my dinner consisted of a shrimp and avocado tartare, bouillabaisse and a small portion of steamed mussels in saffron cream sauce.

All said, the price for the meal came out to 7330 yen, not a large sum. I am always careful not to abuse the restaurant's offer of dinner in exchange for a review and generally refrain from ordering too much or ordering alcohol.

Usually when a restaurant specifically invites me to dine at their restaurant for a review, they do not give me a bill at the end but graciously provide the meal, since they were requesting to be reviewed. In this case, when the waitress brought me the bill, I tried to explain quietly that I had been under the understanding that the restaurant had arranged with the magazine to have me dine at the restaurant for a review, and that usually in such case, the meal was provided by the restaurant. She asked me to sit down for a minute and went back to the kitchen to talk to the chef. Then she motioned for me to come to the kitchen door (the restaurant in only about 300 sq. feet, so the kitchen door is just two steps from the dining area). The chef, Tomonori Suzuki, stepped to the door and then started screaming: YOU PAY, YOU PAY NOW, I CALL POLICE NOW. He then grabbed the phone off the wall, threw it at my waitress and barked: YOU CALL POLICE NOW. He continued to scream at me, without ever pausing for a moment to try to listen to me. I asked if I could call my editor or the staff person the chef had talked to in order to arrange for the meal - I wanted to try to clear up any misunderstanding. He continued to scream at me while the tiny room full of diners watched.

I felt like I was being accused of being a thief. I was verbally assaulted and humiliated in front of a room full of strangers for a misunderstanding that was entirely not of my doing.

Not wanting to prolong the horrific verbal attack from the chef, I quickly asked to see the bill and paid. As I did so, my hands were shaking from the shock of being verbally abused. Even after I paid, he continued to scream at me: YOU PAY, YOU PAY, I CALL POLICE. I faced him and asked him to please stop yelling at me since I had paid. I quickly made my way out and contacted my editor, who profusely apologized and promised to get in touch with the chef to figure out what had happened.

From human to human, to launch an abusive verbal assault on someone the way the chef did to me is simply inexcusable. I sincerely hope that Chef Suzuki enlists the help of a therapist to help him control his irrational anger and violent behavior. I wholeheartedly discourage anyone from dining at Epi - service is an integral part of any meal, and Epi fails miserably.

Food rating: ***
Service rating: NEGATIVE TEN, simply inexcusable
Bang for buck rating: 0

The essentials:
Location: between Ebisu and Daikanyama stations


  1. I wrote this elsewhere, but to repeat to you directly. . .

    This is a highly inappropriate. I have no affiliations with the restaurant, but I think it is unfair to publish such an inflammatory “article”. What happened to you was an isolated incident, unlikely to be repeated as I’m sure few patrons walk into a restaurant expecting their meal to be comped. You have to take some blame for what happened as you should have confirmed with your “employers” (can they be called that if you're not even getting paid?) that the meal would, in fact, be comped.

    Why didn’t you just pay the bill and discuss the situation with your “employers” after? It's pretty clear you handled the situation as poorly as the chef did (and I do not deny his behaviour was also highly inappropriate).

    By the way, you can't really call yourself a "freelance food critic/writer" if you're not even getting paid for your work. Freelancers submit their work, then get paid if publications decide to publish it. If you're not getting paid, you're just a volunteer.

  2. RY - I don't walk into every restaurant I go to expecting my meal to be comped. But if a restaurant INVITES ME TO DINE at their restaurant SPECIFICALLY TO BE REVIEWED, it is common practice that the restaurant provides the meal at no charge. Before I went to Epi, I confirmed with the magazine the arrangement, and when I arrived at the restaurant, they were clearly expecting me - and clearly not just as a regular customer since the waitress announced to the chef that I was there.

    If you read the entire article, you will note that I did "JUST PAY THE BILL" as you suggested. What is highly inappropriate is that the chef made NO attempt to try to clear up the misunderstanding and would not give me a single second to try to contact my editor or the magazine contact who had arranged the dinner but instead launched into a screaming attack at me as soon as he came to the kitchen door. He continued to yell at me even AFTER I paid.

    Whether I am a freelance writer or volunteer, regular diner or whatever else is not the point. People should not treat other people the way the chef treated me - it's simply unacceptable human behavior. At the very least, he should have allowed me to try to figure out the situation with my editor before launching into his tirade.

  3. I did read the entire article. You walked into this restaurant expecting the meal to be comped. You didn't just pay the bill when you were presented with it as you suggest. You first mentioned to the server that you thought it would be comped and it was then that the chef first showed his anger. You did not even pay the bill then, but instead you asked to call your editor. Only after the chef became angrier did you pay the bill.

    I'm not excusing the chef's behaviour; the way he behaved was unacceptable. But as I said, you should not be publishing such an inflammatory article. However upset you may be, it comes across as being vindictive and grossly unfair to the restaurant. Like I said, it was a unique situation--not likely to ever be repeated again.

    If you insist on writing about the experience, you should at least remove the name of the restaurant. I'm not sure of the corresponding laws in Japan, but in the US you could easily be sued for defamation. You should at least be wary of that.

  4. Rona - I fail to see how my blog post of something that happened to me is an "inflammatory article." I am merely recounting my experiences. How is recounting a situation "vindictive and grossly unfair?"

    I disagree with you on US defamation laws - in the US, if something like this happened, I would have the right to file a complaint with local regulatory authorities and business bureaus. NO ONE deserves to be verbally assaulted.

  5. Rona, why do you continue to go to such lengths to defend someone's actions that you yourself say are 'unacceptable'? You claim to have no affiliations with the restaurant, but either you are lying or you are just a bored, angry person with too much time on your hands. Plus, even though many people have commented on the post that appeared on the Tokyo Weekender website, you seem to be the only person who also found it here - which tells me that you are going out of your way to defend the actions of a mentally unstable, irrational man. If you condone this kind of behavior then you, along with the chef, need to go into therapy as Deb suggested.