Finger foods: Wilted service at White Orchid

A recent Dish column about White Orchid, the new Vietnamese restaurant on West Main Street ["Paris transplant," September 8], chronicled its romantic roots: The owners, Duyen Nguyen and Leonard Mirman, met several years ago in Paris at Nguyen's restaurant. Recently, Nguyen moved to Charlottesville to open White Orchid with Mirman.

"Charlottesville diners live happily ever after," Dish columnist Christina Ball wrote, then added, "or something like that."

Esther Johnston falls into the "something like that" group. "The restaurant," Johnston wrote in an indignant letter to the editor, "does not live up to the fairy tale."

She went on to describe the evening she'd had there with a group of friends that, she claimed, included a one-hour wait to be seated, another one-hour wait to get their food, and rude behavior by Mirman when one member of the party complained.

"Never have I been so insulted or mistreated after a dining experience in my life," she wrote. "I hope that The Hook's food reviewers provide a more accurate portrayal of Charlottesville restaurants in the future."

Johnston's letter was forwarded to me, and I called to get the details. The group of seven or eight had gone to the restaurant, she reported, on the evening of Saturday, September 17, eager to try cuisine that had been praised not only in the Dish, but in a September 15 Cavalier Daily review as well.

They arrived around 7pm and waited in the bar– where, Johnston claims, they told the bartender they wanted a table. She says the bartender assured them he'd take care of it– i.e., that he'd tell the host, Mirman, that they were waiting to be seated.

At 7:45, Johnston claims, they learned that Mirman hadn't been told. About 15 minutes later, they were seated– where, she claims, they not only waited an hour to begin getting their food, but the last meal at their table arrived 20 minutes after the first.

But the zinger, according to Johnston, was what happened as the group left. One man in the group "asked quietly to talk to the owner," she says, and told Mirman that they'd "had an unpleasant experience" and didn't plan to return. In reply, she claims, Mirman said, "I don't care if you never come here again."

Mirman doesn't dispute the first part of Johnston's saga. "We had a very tough night," he says. Thanks largely to the two rave reviews, the restaurant– which had opened only two weeks earlier– was stretched beyond its capacity. In one 10-minute span, he claims, 50 people arrived.

Mirman, an economics professor at UVA, shudders at the memory.

"It was an experience I'd never gone through," he says. "This is not my world. Most people were very unhappy all night."

As for Johnston's account of her friend's "quiet" complaint, however, he vehemently disagrees. "He stuck his finger in my nose," Mirman claims– I think he meant to say "in my face"– "and said, 'Let me warn you, I'll never come back.'

"I don't like people coming in and telling me they're going to warn me," he says. "I would never let a student speak to me that way"– and freely admits he replied that that would be fine with him.

The crucial fact, of course, is that the man wasn't one of Mirman's students; he was a customer, and although his manner might have been a bit heavy-handed, it sounds like Mirman wasn't exactly a poster boy for good customer service, either.

I ate there anonymously with a friend the following Saturday night, and we were seated immediately, served promptly, and treated courteously. As fairy-tale endings go, I guess that qualifies; still, it may not be enough to charm Johnston– or her friends– into returning anytime soon.

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