Food Matters: Whoa, Shlomo!

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ALL FOUR OF US had elbowed our plates toward the center of the table in defeat. They were a sad bunch, strewn with dry meat shrapnel, soggy bread, undercooked fries, and limp greens. We would have welcomed the chance to mention these grievances —including a grilled cheese sandwich layered with multiple slices of unmelted cheese, next to a mysteriously bland cucumber spear masquerading as a pickle — to our server, but he disappeared after dropping our food and didn’t return until we were finished.

While the food was a bummer, our expectations of slow service at Shlomo’s Deli and Grill were met with flying colors. Shirtless male servers were shivering in rainbow-striped bikini briefs made modest with waist-apron loincloths, squeezing through the crowd packing the patio. No cause for alarm there, though, because this was Friday near the end of 40th annual Aspen Gay Ski Week downhill costume parade on the Little Nell run, skier’s left, emceed from a stage setup on gondola plaza. Anchoring that corner, Shlomo’s is the default viewing venue. It was a zoo.

We had a hunch that lunch might drag on longer than usual, since we waited almost an hour for an indoor table. Despite much confusion, our food arrived soon enough, but we spent many minutes facing our plates minus silverware. So many minutes that I began to feel sorry for the guy sitting opposite me, gazing into a Greek salad with no tool to eat it—until I realized that the waterlogged bread beneath pastrami in front of me meant that I’d need a fork, too, to pick it apart.

“So are you gonna say something?” one of us asked, after we all stopped picking. “You’re the food critic.”

Usually I sigh out loud when someone says that. I don’t write secret reviews or rank restaurants. But in this case I had to be critical. As a consumer who cares about the quality of Aspen’s dining scene and as a scribe who knows how easy a newcomer can fade away or burst into flames (best fanned by juicy gossip à la Nello Balan or David Burke), I do feel a responsibility to inform management when an experience is so sour that everyone at the table gripes about it while waiting for the check. Word these days can travel faster than it takes to walk across town.

Which is why I approached owner Shlomo Ben-Hamoo, a veteran Aspen restaurateur: Surely he’d want to know that four local customers were deeply dissatisfied—and not for the first time since his namesake Jewish deli opened around Thanksgiving? We stepped to a quieter area, where — deep breath — I detailed everything. It was awkward, but Shlomo seemed concerned and receptive to the feedback. He apologized more than once. Then a manager walked by.

“She’s telling me how bad it is,” Ben-Hamoo said, by way of calling him over. That’s not a line to forget. I winced, and repeated some problems: Cooks sending out food that clearly isn’t cooked properly; servers lacking hustle and initiative; zero follow-up for possible troubleshooting.

“I want you to succeed,” I said. The reality is that Shlomo’s is the latest tenant in an historically unfavorable space in the Residences at the Little Nell complex. Mandated as a bar and restaurant property by the Aspen City Council in 2004 as part of the development package, it’s been home to three restaurants in four years. Original tenant and Manhattan import Il Mulino (2009-2013) survived the longest. Rent is a ridiculous sum, no doubt. And it’s in the shade of Shadow Mountain, which might seem trivial until you feel the sunshine on your face at Ajax Tavern across the way.

“You can’t do any worse than the last guy,” Local Licensing Authority board member Terry Murray was quoted as telling Ben-Hamoo in the Nov. 2, 2016, Aspen Times report. (When Nello Aspen closed quietly this spring after five months, Balan allegedly skipped town with three lawsuits and three small-claims cases to his name, leaving creditors out $300,000.) That’s some pep talk.

Back in December at Shlomo’s I witnessed another unmelted grilled cheese incident with an old boss. We agreed it was a total fail, but possibly a fluke? I wanted to be right, but now almost two months later it had happened again.

“That place is cursed,” is a popular refrain, as if a logical explanation why lunch at Shlomo’s — and at Nello Aspen and Zeno Aspen before it — is consistently regrettable. Yet we return. We hope for change. Some of us will peg a gray, mushy “veggie burger” made mostly of puréed black beans as simply a case of ordering the wrong thing. Others don’t mind that a place calling itself a Jewish deli doesn’t make the bagels in-house. How many weak meals does it take to blacklist an eatery from your rotation?

Ben-Hamoo is no stranger to Aspen’s hospitality challenges. He opened the original Shlomo’s restaurant (in the current Ajax Tavern space) almost 30 years ago, followed by similar food and beverage ventures in town. He’s a real estate agent at a respected firm, known by many as friendly, funny guy. Which might explain why, when our server vanished and my friend got up to ask for napkins, Shlomo himself yanked his shirt forward from the hem as if it were an adequate solution.

“Please come back,” were Ben-Hamoo’s final words to me. (Not a peep from the manager, though.) So I was surprised a few minutes later when we opened our bill and found 100 percent of it due — more than $100. They might as well have scribbled a big fat bird flipping us off, too. Was it because we looked like ski bums?

“You did the right thing, pointing out the error to the manager,” says Florida-based etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, when I call to ask her about the appropriate customer response in this situation. But that’s not enough: “You could have [asked] for something taken off the bill. The answer is always no if you don’t ask.”

Isn’t that…gauche? “If the manager thinks the food and service were excellent and doesn’t take anything off, you can tell all of your friends not to go there and discuss it on social media,” Whitmore adds.

She tells a story of a recent hotel stay with Sunday morning construction and a moldy bathroom.

“I wasn’t asking for a free room,” Whitmore explains. “I was looking for compensation for the inconvenience that I experience.” At checkout she complained, and the clerk discounted her bill 50 percent. She left rattled, but satisfied with the conclusion.

“I used to be in hospitality industry, so I understand the importance of good service and how to handle uncomfortable situations,” says Whitmore, a former flight attendant. “I know what happens on the other end. Some people complain just to complain…but most restaurants will offer you a dessert or glass of wine because it costs them nothing.”

Whitmore is surprised to learn that I spoke with Ben-Hamoo that day and introduced myself as a columnist not officially on assignment. Her take? That’s life.

“Chalk it up to a bad experience,” Whitmore says. “Even if they had offered you a free meal, would you really have wanted to go back?”

Happy Groundhog Day.

Aspen Times Weekly

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