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Perfect Pairings

From lamb and mint jelly, contented customers come

Where there’s a valley,
there’s a hill.
Where there’s lamb chops,
there’s this Bill.
They go together
with mint jelly still.

Pardon me Robert Frost and Edgar A. Guest — but at least three lines rhymed, and you don’t get that many in much of contemporary poetry. Moreover, I wax poetic whenever the subject of mint jelly and lamb chops come up.

Certain things go together. Every dish has a traditional sidekick or two. Without it, it’s naked. It’s gotta be dressed up. Even if the diners aren’t.

Accounting for Tastes

Above all, might I ask you, how could anyone partake of mutton, lamb chops or the rack of same without mint jelly? The only thing possibly worse is a martini without a big green pimento-stuffed olive.

Apparently, the folks in Glen Burnie up here in North County can do without mint jelly with their lamb — and therein lies the tale of a restaurant that will go to extremes to satisfy its customers.

There, Carol Benner, husband Alan Doelp, wife Lois and I sat checking out the menu at a crowded Outback Steakhouse at Ritchie Highway, GB, with a pert waitress hovering over the table, pen in hand waiting to take the orders. As usual, I was last and about to order steak rare when my eyes spotted rack of lamb. To me, that’s like truffles to pigs.

I had but one question: Of course you have mint jelly?

“I’m not sure,” responded the waitress. I’ve never had anyone ask for it, but the rack of lamb comes with a delicious cabernet sauce that everyone likes — and I’m sure you will, too.”

Can you check with the kitchen? I asked.

The waitress returned, no mint jelly in hand, only word that the kitchen’s condiment shelves were barren of mint jelly — though the cabernet sauce was exceptionally good. I was hyped on the rack of lamb, so I acquiesced. Sometimes something different can be a culinary adventure. In such situations, go with the flow and hope for the best, my mother always told me.

When the main course arrived, I had never seen a more appetizing rack of lamb. It lived up to its looks. It was the most tender and juicy lamb I ever had — and the thin sauce lived up to the waitress’s raves.

But there was no mint jelly. With me and the flesh of sheep, that’s an absolute.

Just then the manager, adorned in an Aussie hat, passed by. I beckoned him to the table. How can you serve such a delicious rack of lamb without mint jelly?

“No one ever asked for it,” answered he. “We had a jar in the kitchen, and it just sat there. Maybe people don’t want green jelly. Probably someone threw it out. It was there for ages. Wait, I’ll go check.”

When he returned, his head was shaking side to side, not up and down.

Okay, I’ll take what I got, but it’s the best lamb I ever had, and no mint jelly to top it off. Thanks anyhow. When I come back, I’ll bring my own jar.

I was about a third of the way through the rack, when a different waitress appeared carrying a small paper sack. From it she pulled a jar of mint jelly.

Ah, you did find some, I said.

“No, I got it at the market next door,” she said.

Here, I’ll take some and you take the rest back to the kitchen.

“No, the manager said it’s a gift to you. Enjoy.”

I dug deeply into the jar, and a meal that was already delicious became absolutely delicious. The best $23 and change I ever spent.

That jar of mint jelly, still three-quarters filled, now rests in my refrigerator waiting for my next visit to Outback Steakhouse, which surely will be soon.

The Contented Customer

Glen Burnie eateries might not stock what every diner wants, but I’ll tell you it seems they’ll do anything possible to ensure the customer leaves content. Some years ago, when Garibaldi’s opened next to Southdale Mall, I was among the first to dine there for lunch, for I’m a devotee of Mexican food. My doctor had just ordered me to give up caffeine as well as sugar in my drinks, so I ordered a caffeine-free diet coke.

“Sorry, we have diet but not caffeine free,” the waitress said, then adding, “But I’ll go double check.”

When she returned, she had a glass of coke and a bottle with more in it. I thought you might have some, I said.

“No, I ran over to Giant and got it for you,” she said. “We’ll have it next time. Enjoy.”

The Moral of This Story

Wife Lois’ dining experiences don’t have such happy endings. There was the time she ordered a shrimp salad sandwich at an upscale Ritchie Highway restaurant now under new management. The shrimp tasted bad — and had an odor to match. She called the waitress over. She smelled the salad, said it was freshly made and that it had to be good.

Lois insisted it wasn’t, and the waitress took the salad to the kitchen. Lois was deciding what to order next when the waitress returned with the sandwich. “The chef said it’s okay,” she announced. “Fresh shrimp might taste and smell different.”

“I know shrimp, and it’s not fresh,” said Lois.

Whereupon the waitress picked up the sandwich from Lois’ plate, took a bite and informed Lois “This doesn’t taste bad to me, smells okay, too.”

She put the sandwich back down on the plate and departed. That’s what Lois and party did also. Though the restaurant was closest to her office at Anne Arundel Community College, Lois never returned until new owners took over.

Therein lies a message for restaurateurs and merchants. To stay in business, the customer is always right. Garibaldi’s and Outback Steakhouse stretched that belief a bit further: The customer is king. And they’re still in business. Enough said.

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