The Nose Knows
You walk into a decent restaurant and order, say, cioppino. It's a local thing, and at this time of year there's plenty of good fresh crab. (Weather permitting.) But when the dish comes, the cracked crab emanates a foul odor of ammonia. You summon the waiter, who carries a bit of the shellfish back to the chef. While you wait (for a definitive pronouncement?), you wonder what you will do if the waiter returns to say that, according to the chef, the crab is fine. Will you eat it, holding your nose?
Luckily, this does not happen. The chef agrees that the crab is bad, and offers to replace it with prawns. (Were you served the last crab? Or has all the crab gone bad?) Since it's getting late and you don't feel like waiting for the kitchen to whip up another complete plate of food (and you've lost some confidence in what's going on back there), you accept, feeling certain that you won't be charged for the offensive cioppino. But you are. And the replacement prawns are underseasoned and forlorn on the otherwise bare white plate, like third-string football players sent into a game that slipped away a quarter or two ago.
The fact is that seafood is highly perishable, and it does sometimes go bad. Even at a high-volume seafood place like McCormick & Kuleto's in Ghirardelli Square (which serves between 500 and 750 dinners nightly), there are probably a half-dozen complaints a week that something doesn't taste right, says Manager Melissa Katz.
"If a customer is unhappy with a dish, our policy is not to charge for it," she says. "We wouldn't argue with a customer, and we don't want anyone to go away hungry. If a customer thinks something is bad or doesn't like it, we take it off the bill and offer to substitute something else."
If a customer complains that something doesn't taste right, the suspect dish is returned to the kitchen for inspection. ("We can't check every single order before it goes out," she says. "We do check things when they come in from our purveyors.") About half the time, the chefs determine that the food is OK. But while "we don't accept that occasionally seafood that's turned bad ends up on someone's plate," Katz says, "it does sometimes happen."
If it smells bad, it probably is bad, and the restaurant should accept responsibility for it. One good rule of thumb: Don't order crab in lousy weather, because storms keep the local crabbers from going out, and what turns up on your plate is more likely to have been frozen or shipped in from Oregon. Trust your nose. And if you don't like it, don't pay for it. As Katz says, "We're a service industry, and I would hope that would be the policy everywhere."