Local kitchens, dirty truths

Elis who consider food safety a vital concern when selecting a New Haven restaurant to dine in can rest assured — for the most part.

Food service inspection reports obtained by the News for 33 restaurants revealed that most of them were free of major infractions, but a few of the more serious citations could make some stomachs turn. Problems cited included a failure to serve “wholesome, nonadulaterated” food at Geronimo, the “thorough cleaning needed throughout establishment” at Thai Taste, and the presence of “rodent droppings” at Mory’s and Miya’s. Bulldog Burrito was also cited for rodent droppings, but a closer look revealed the “droppings” were actually black beans.

The News followed up with many of the worst-performing restaurants for a response to the inspections. Most owners and managers interviewed said in interviews this week that the problems cited had already been remedied.

Low achievers

Samurai, known among Yalies for its sushi and sake bombing, received 25 different demerits on its September 23rd inspection, and at 69, received the lowest score of any of the restaurants for which records were obtained. It was the only restaurant of the 33 that received two four-point demerits — one for storing items inside the hand sink, and one for not having a menu warning on the dangers of consuming under-cooked meats and raw fish. A four-point demerit is reserved for the most serious violations, and any facility with a four-point demerit is supposed to be reinspected within two weeks.

Most of Samurai’s other demerits were dirty equipment and facilities ranging from “rusty shelves in coolers” to the need to “clean top of stove” and “clean walls.”

When questioned about the inspection report, the employees at Samurai said they were not familiar with it. Vivian, a waitress, said the manager was on vacation in China and she was unsure when he would return.

Many students said in interviews that since they only go to Samurai to do sake bombing, the low score will not deter them from going there.

“It’s pretty seedy to begin with,” Austin Kase ’11 said. “You go in with low expectations.”

Likewise, some students said low scores at Thai Taste would not deter them from platters of pad thai at the basement establishment.

Thai Taste scored a 75 on its September 23rd inspection, the second-lowest score. According to the health inspector’s two page list of violations, a “thorough cleaning [is] needed throughout [the] establishment.” Other violations included not properly labeling toxic items and having fruit flies.

Pad Thai, located on the same block as Thai Taste, received a score of 84 and had no four-point violations. After hearing about the reports, some Thai Taste fans said they would be more likely to sample one of New Haven’s other Thai restaurants.

The manager at Thai Taste did not return the News’s repeated requests for comment.

The only other restaurant to score below an 80 was Geronimo, at 79, which surprised many students.

“It seems really nice. I would have never guessed it” Sarah Yager ’11 said.

The severest violation Geronimo received was for the presence of fruit flies in liquor bottles. Paul Morbidelli, Geronimo’s executive chef, said since the inspection fruit fly traps have been put in place and the violations have all been corrected.

Mouse hunt

While the other restaurants assessed all had higher scores, several of these establishments were cited for problems with vermin.

Miya’s, popular for its innovative sushi, was cited for rodent droppings in the basement in its March 25th inspection. Bun Lai, Miya’s owner and head chef, said food is not stored in the basement and that while Miya’s, which received a score of 83, uses a professional service to take care of vermin, it is difficult to keep rodents out since the restaurant is surrounded by apartments.

He stressed that safety is a priority at Miya’s and that “when that inspection happened we were not up to par with our own standards.”

“We are extremely careful and do everything possible to keep the place as clean as possible,” he said. “It is really, really important to maintain high standards, since we are dealing with raw fish.”

Recently-beleaguered New Haven staple Mory’s was also cited for rodent droppings in its basement. Jim Shumway, Mory’s general manager, said the club is connected to the Yale steam tunnel system, allowing mice into the building. Whenever there is construction near by, Mory’s experiences an influx of mice.

Shumway said Mory’s is very aggressive in its attempts to control rodents. Mory’s tries to prevent the vermin from having a food source — for example, storing the rice in the basement in mouse-proof plastic containers — and has an exterminator come in once a week.

Twice a year, the building is evacuated and the exterminator sets off an “insect bomb,” Shumway said. Once a year — during students’ vacations — the restaurant completely shuts down and is cleaned from tabletops to duct work.

Even with all the steps Mory’s takes, Shumway said there will always be some vermin in an old building like Mory’s.

“I’ve been around this business a long time and you will never get rid of all the creatures — no matter what you do,” he said.

And while rodents are a problem for some local restaurants, health inspectors sometimes make mistakes in their reports. Bulldog Burrito was cited for “rodent droppings in the basement,” but Jason Congdon, the owner of Bulldog Burrito, said the health inspector made a mistake — the “rodent droppings” were actually black beans.

When contacted by the News, Shelly Longo, the senior sanitarian at the New Haven Department of Public Health who inspected the facility, confirmed that she had mistaken the beans for rodent droppings. She said while going over the report with Congdon after it had been prepared, he showed her they were beans. The report was not corrected because she had already finished it, she said.

The news that the “rodent droppings” were actually black beans came as a relief to Nava Rafati ’11.

“I’m glad. Now I will keep going there,” she said. “If there were rodent droppings I would’ve started just going to the carts.”

Subjective scores

Eighty points is “not a low score,” said Frank Patrick, the manager of Bar, the Crown St. restaurant and nightclub.

In its Feb. 28th inspection, Bar received one of its demerits for storing waste water in buckets instead of disposing it down the drain, and the popular late-night pizza spot was also docked for the presence of fruit flies.

While standing by the register, Patrick told this reporter to “keep your voice down” when he was asked about the violations. Patrick said all the problems on the report, including the fruit flies, have been corrected, and most were fixed within a day.

Patrick said Bar’s performance should not be considered poor, because the inspector will always find a couple of things that she does not like.

Claire’s Corner Copia received a relatively low score of 81 despite the lack of any particularly serious violations. The veggie haven received one four-point demerit in its April 8th inspection for storing “wipe buckets in hand sink,” though the report notes this problem was fixed instantly. The remainder of Claire’s violations were one or two-point violations, including a demerit for not wearing hair restraints.

Owner Claire Criscuolo told the News, “We can’t wear hair nets. They would be horrible.”

Hair in food, she said, is just not a problem.

“I can count on one hand the number of times in 33 years that we have had hair in anything,” Criscuolo said.

She said some rules, such as not having open drinking cups for the staff in the kitchen area, are sometimes hard to follow.

“We really try, there are just some things that are really difficult,” Criscuolo said.

And scores alone may not tell the whole story.

Paul Kowalski, Environmental Health Program director for the New Haven Health Department, said the scores are a “subjective statement” that are not publicly posted because, depending on the situation, a 96 could represent a greater health risk than a 77.

Restaurant owners agreed.

Chris Candido, owner of Temple Grill, said many demerits are given for violations that do not reflect how safe the establishment’s food may be. His business partner, Tony Marchitto, said he believes many of the point assignments do not properly indicate the severity of the violation. For instance, a rat running across the floor of the kitchen is a two-point violation, but a mislabeled bottle of Windex is a four-point violation.

And students interviewed seemed to understand that a restaurant’s low health score does not necessarily indicate a health hazard.

Amy Liao ’11 said Bar’s score of 80 does not bother her.

“[Davenport] got a 77 , she said, “and I still eat there.”

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