Sotto Terra- Lesson Learned

I wasn’t even going to write this post to be honest with you. I truly feel like I spent enough of my precious time at this dinner and it shouldn’t get any more press than it deserves. However I feel like it wouldn’t be fair of me to you readers that actually entered the contest and tried to win without a full disclosure of the dinner. So here goes!

As you know I was offered a four course dinner for two by Sotto Terra and they also extended a giveaway to two of my readers. (Blog post about it here )I held a contest; got some winners and we went. We arrived to a gorgeous brownstone where inside we were greeted by George Duran and Phil Lempert.

We were given some sangrias and appetizers from George Duran’s cookbook and milled around a bit. George and Phil were very talkative and interested in everything we had to say about food and restaurants in general. I thought they were being quite friendly and really making sure we were having a good time although some of the conversation was strange. Early on George brought up the Alan Richman article and asked me what my thoughts were on his “good friend Sarah’s restaurant” M. Wells. It was a little strange and awkward as I had to say my service had been quite similar to Alan's, which is horrible. I tried to change the conversation after that but he seemed to stick with it and I was very happy when he was called into the kitchen.

We went downstairs to dinner and the conversation went to what we, as food bloggers, were concerned about most with today’s food. The talk covered everything from CSA to healthy food for raising children, etc. Everyone was encouraged to share but it was quite obvious that Phil Lempert was the one in control. He seemed to pass on stories he wasn’t interested in and delve deeply into others without direction. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time and I honestly just found him to be a little obnoxious and rude. He didn’t even stop talking when everyone had their first course in front of them. George finally said something to the effect of "Eat Up" and we all finally felt okay to dig in. It turns out he was completely trying to steer the conversation for his own means but I wouldn’t know what that was until the end.

The meal started off with a Strawberry Arugula Salad with Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette Goat Cheese and Nuts. It was simple and fresh- nothing outstanding but definitely something I could recreate at home.

I thought the Cheesy Garlic Bread was pretty good as well. I enjoyed the fact that was made with whole wheat bread, although it definitely packed in some salt. For our main course the piece de resistence arrived. A double stacked Cheese and Meat Lasagna which was described by George as having his favorite special ingredient inside- pepperoni. He had been raving about it all night so I was pretty excited to check it out.

Now being that I’m not a pasta lover, I was really looking forward to this meaty, cheesy filling George talked up but unfortunately the dish seemed to be mostly noodle. I tried to pull it apart to get some good filling but there just wasn’t much to get. Finally about halfway through pulling off different layers I gave up. I can play with my food at home- I didn’t want to offend George by destroying the lovely plate he had cooked for us. My guests ate the whole thing although one muttered under his breath that it reminded him of a Hot Pocket.

Our palate cleanser was an icy cool Mojito Granita shot.

Then onto dessert which described as Razzleberry Pie a la mode. I thought it was a very, very strange that George named the dessert Razzelberry. It didn’t seem very restaurant like but I figured he was appealing to families with children as well as the adult set.

Since I hadn’t finished my salad or the lasagna I devoured this. Hot, sugary sweet raspberries and blackberries topped with cool vanilla ice cream. The pie itself had a slightly strange eggy texture but it satiated my sweet tooth just fine.

The meal concluded with some coffee and two giveaways. The first was a copy of George’s newest cookbook. The second was a box of Maria Callender’s new frozen lasagna dinner.

Wait...say what? Why is George giving away a frozen Marie Callender’s dinner? Because folks- that’s what we had been eating. Both the main course lasagna and dessert had come from a box. While George had been pretending to slave all day making this elaborate meal for us he had instead just heated up some boxes. Apparently he is going to be the spokesperson for this new line of frozen meals.

I wasn’t mad at first- just shocked and I felt very awkward. We had been unknowingly part of a focus group for frozen dinners. The entire meal had been taped and they were having people sign off on waivers to use the footage (did anyone else wonder why the light settings kept changing?). We didn’t stick around to sign anything and simply got out as soon as we could. I wasn’t angry, just confused. I mean it’s not like I paid for the dinner or anything and they did give us as much wine and sangria as we wanted so no big deal right? Plus it was a Tuesday night…not like I wasted my weekend on this or anything…

However the more I have thought about it I've gotten a little upset that they encouraged me to extend this “underground dinner experience” to my readers as well. It’s one thing to pull the wool over my eyes a bit but totally different to encourage me to do that to one of my readers myself. This isn’t just staging a bizarre hidden camera episode with me, but people who read my blog. I don’t want it to seem that I am in any way a part of this and would have given my guests full disclosure of what was about to occur if I had indeed known. I feel like I let them down and that makes me upset.

It also angers me that all of us dining there that night said they were concerned about healthy eating (well except Mr. T, he said something about Ramen and in progress that one) What in the world were these people thinking when they gave us frozen, high sodium, dinners? Did they actually think people wouldn’t be upset? Why didn’t they pick some people out of the frozen food section in a supermarket or something? That might actually garner them some good press!

In the end- lesson learned. I will always research my PR events much more thoroughly to hopefully prevent this from happening in the future. You can also bet that even thought I can probably count on one hand my frozen food purchases this year, it will never include a Marie Callender’s- that’s for sure.

I decided to include a few links below of others who attended. You will find they run a gamut of emotions so to each their own I suppose...

Mom Confessionals

Chubby Chinese Girl

Foodie City Mom


Sean said…
As the winner of this contest, I am really happy you decided to write about Lempert and Duran's Dinner of Deceit. Sitting at the table, listening to those two losers yap about food was like a ping pong match of stupidity. Ironic, that every time we mentioned how Corporate America is ruining what we eat, Lempert quickly changed the subject. Dealing with sell outs is one thing, but watching them act like they are legitimate intellects is revolting. George Duran makes Guy Ferrotti look like an elite master chef, and I wish there was a clean up in aisle 4 for the Supermarket Guru Lempert, because I could not listen to him any longer. Nevertheless, I look forward to future blogs about true eating experiences.

I think that the night was full of lessons - for the brand and bloggers alike. Thanks for sharing my link. That is my version for my blog readers (who have indicated in the past that they don't particularly care for blogger/brand focused posts). As such, my thoughts on the behind the scenes "blogger/brand" dynamics of the dinner can be found at

Take care,
Kimberly/Foodie City Mom
Roze said…
Sean- your clean up in aisle 4 made me laugh out loud. I know your angry but I'm so happy you can still find some humor in the situation as well. Next time I have a "real" dinner giveaway you will be the first one I call :)

Kimberly- I agree the night was full of lessons and hopefully they will learn from the experience as well as I did.
Anonymous said…
That just makes no sense at all. The PR person behind all of this probably has lost a job.
Gary said…
So this is the same one that ConAgra put together! The press has been all over today. Check out the NYTimes article about it when you get a chance. Sounds like it was a fail for everyone.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for sharing your experience at Sotto Terra. It may amuse you to know that your mention of Marie Callendar apparently results in an ad placement for that brand along side the blog post. Lempert, Duran, ConAgra (ironic name), Omnicom (more irony), and Ketchum (even more irony) should be ashamed.