Wait Training

Poor service mars an otherwise satisfying dining experience at Tokens

Just what does "good service" mean? Must a restaurant server have the deportment of an English footman, know more about food and wine than M.F.K. Fisher and dispatch oyster forks, cheese knives and escargot tongs with the swiftness and precision of a surgical nurse? Of course not. After all, you can receive exemplary service at an all-night pancake house or a dime-store luncheonette. Good service, to my mind, simply requires that the server be familiar with the restaurant's menu and specials, beverage list and house policies; be attentive to customers' needs; and be pleasant and gracious as long as diners remain cordial in return.

Servers are entitled to be shown courtesy (and to be given a proper tip) by their customers, just as diners should be able to take good service for granted. Top-drawer food journalists, such as William Grimes of the New York Times and Caroline Bates of Gourmet, do not dwell on service in their reviews unless it was particularly careless, obtrusive or affected. You might even say that service is the constant -- the control factor in the dining experiment -- whereas food and ambiance are the less predictable variables.

At Tokens, the waiters assigned to our table seemed unacquainted with some of the fundamentals of good service. One waiter had only a meager knowledge of ingredients and cooking techniques. We ordered an elegant special of stuffed quail and wanted to learn how it had been made. I gestured toward the two guillotined birds, which lay supine in an inky pool of plum-brandy sauce, their spindly legs crossed demurely at the ankle. "This is a nice dish -- how is it prepared?" I asked our server. "It's baked ... in an oven," he replied obtusely, with the plodding condescension of Mr. Rogers. Later, the waiter suggested dessert, assuring us that the crème brûlée was wonderful. We thought -- mistakenly, as it turns out -- that we hadn't yet tried it, so we decided to take some with us. At home we discovered that the waiter had confused the promiscuous crème brûlée with crème caramel, a baked, caramel-sauced wallflower of a custard. This softspoken, undiscovered starlet usually goes by flan, its Spanish name.

The waiter also ignored commonsense standards of sanitation. When I had finished picking at my salad -- huge pieces of lettuce that consisted of more ribs than leaves -- the waiter took my plate and handed the dirty utensils back to me. "Here," he explained flatly, thrusting the besmirched fork and knife toward me. "I don't want to take your silverware."

The wine service was disappointing as well. On two visits, the waiters failed to show us the bottle we had selected before opening it. One waiter had just begun to cut the foil when we noticed that the wine in the green-glass bottle was white. We had requested a Pinot Noir, so we stopped him and asked to see the label. It was a Chardonnay by the same producer.

If the service at Tokens is inept, the two variables -- food and ambiance -- make a more respectable showing. Diners' first, regrettably misleading impression of Tokens is its cluttered exterior -- desiccated vines cling to bald trellises, neon beer signs cast a thin iridescent sheen over a dreadful patio fountain and chains affixed to posts border the restaurant's lawn.

The modest dining room is more inviting. Ficus trees spangled with white lights stand next to tidy, white-napped tables, and etched-glass partitions separate the smoking and nonsmoking sections. A narrow shelf atop the frosted panels displays curious trinkets -- a fearsome stuffed blowfish, a conch shell, a collection of brass water pipes.

The dining room is so dim that diners can barely make out the food on their plates. But the grassy flavor of dill, whether the herb is visible or not, tyrannizes the dishes on chef/owner Ali Kasim's Mediterranean menu. Chopped dill is even dusted over bread drifting in a bowl of lusty, fragrant onion soup. One dish in which dill relinquishes the scepter is a bland-sounding but rousing appetizer of zucchini crostini. Three shingles of French bread are buttered and toasted, spread with cream cheese and heaped with a thick, ratatouille-like relish of zucchini and chopped onions, peppers, eggplant and herbs.

An appetizer of grilled Mediterranean eggplant, on the other hand, really is as lackluster as it sounds. (If I had my way, I'd compel everyone to adopt the eggplant's lyrical French name, aubergine). Left intact at the stem end, sliced vertically into three pieces and marinated in vinegar, olive oil and herbs, the vegetable has nicely charred skin, like a flame-roasted pepper, but its flesh is a bit too soft and mealy.

Many of the dishes at Tokens -- including poultry, steaks and several variations of angel-hair pasta and couscous -- have been on the menu since we dined there a couple of years ago. The chef's specials, including a few stuffed items such as the quail, are among the most persuasive. One evening we ordered stuffed filet mignon, the steak expertly pocketed and filled, and stuffed sole, the fish neatly cinched around a delicate breadcrumb-and-seafood stuffing. Both are plated with dill cream sauce and lobster sauce.

During one meal, we watched an apparently experienced waiter carefully instructing another. No doubt the fumbling at Tokens is unintentional -- caused by inadequate training, absentmindedness or fatigue, perhaps -- and might easily be remedied. Then diners could simply savor Mr. Kasim's satisfying cooking without any vexing distractions.