Archive for August, 2011
A few weeks ago, we went to Carrabba’s Italian Grill for the first time. Last week, we had a quick lunch at Champp’s. Because we do not typically patronize these places, it was an interesting reminder of why we stopped eating at corporate food outlets (our term for high-priced, fast food.)
First, there is a plastic friendliness grilled into the employees, almost as plastic as the surroundings. Deep down, you know the employee is not happy and under normal circumstances, would not greet you with an overzealous, “Hello! Welcome to [fill-in the blank]!” So why do it? It’s a corporate thing, just like the Manager who painfully travels from table to table; interrupting conversations to remark that the [fill-in the blank] you just ordered is his favorite. He then asks, “Is everything perfect?” or something equally scripted and moves along. You know his insincerity is real, because moments before he told table 36 that her [fill-in the blank] was his favorite. At normal restaurants, comments and queries from the staff and management seem real and a genuine caring is attached to the questions. They understand that your approval means a return visit, not an “atta-boy” from Corporate.
The main reason we don’t frequent corporate food outlets is the food. It is not bad. It is just not that good. The food has been created and sampled and tested to offend the fewest amount of people as possible. It has also been designed for preparation by a wide variety of cooking skill. To us, this was clearly brought to a head when two chains opened, Maggiano’s and Bahama Breeze outlets a few years ago. During their initial weeks in town, the food was actually very good. After a month or so, the quality begins to slip to a point where you must stop eating there. When we asked about this phenomenon, we were told that Corporate sends expert chefs to new locations to train the staff. In the first few weeks, work is done under the watchful eye of a talented individual, or someone they trained directly. As weeks go on and people quit, the skill level deteriorates. Finally, the kitchen is left to its own devices and slips into a well-established mediocrity.
Contrast this with better chains. We have eaten at McCormick & Schmick’s a few times and each visit was very good. They are priced a bit higher than the others corporate chains, but they appear to have secured the talent of a real chef in the kitchen and it shows on the plate. The same can be said for Mon Ami Gabi. (No venue is located in Cleveland.) Food is honestly good because they allow the locale to customize the place to the customer base. The Original Pancake House may be the best example in Cleveland. While a chain, there is little or no indicator in the quality (except their sub-par coffee.) The menu is the same, but this is not mass produced food for the lowest common denominator. Instead, this is “come back because we make great breakfast,” food.
We know a lot of people like these places. The horribly over-priced, blasé food at the Cheesecake Factory, the generally mediocre fare at Applebee’s, the deteriorating slop at Friday’s and the “we don’t even know how to explain” food at PF Chang’s hopefully is leading those eaters to try better, well prepared food at privately run local restaurants. If they do not graduate to something better, we wonder what they are eating at home. We know. Don’t ask.
After Cleveland, our second favorite place to eat is New Orleans. We travel there yearly to relax, shop, check out art and of course eat. This year’s trip was no different. We were fortunate enough to revisit some old favorites and try the “hot” new spots. In a word, the food was great. If you’re thinking about a trip, here are a few new comments to go along with the NOLA page at this blog-site.
After arrival in the city, it has become a tradition to share a Shrimp Po’Boy at Johnnie’s on St. Louis. We order it “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise) and the shrimp is perfectly fried and tender to the bite. Wrapped in a fresh French bread section, this sandwich is a great way to put us in the New Orleans mood. Apparently, lots of other people agree. Johnnie’s is almost always packed to the door. Grab a seat in the front room to really enjoy the atmosphere.
Muriel’s is located on Jackson Square. Deep in the back they have a relaxing (and well air conditioned) bar. Inevitably, we end up there mid-way through a day of looking at the shops and galleries in the French Quarter. After a day at the French Market and an afternoon listening to an assortment of musicians at the Sachimo Summer Fest, we decided to have dinner there as well. Muriel’s is a beautiful place to eat with period décor and windows that look over the square. Their food is good and reasonably priced. Both of us started with soup (even though the humid day reached into the mid-90’s!) The Turtle Soup au Sherry and Seafood Gumbo were both excellent. Michele enjoyed her Pecan Crusted Puppy Drum but Jeff felt the Seafood Au Gratin was lacking some spunk. Desserts of Bread Pudding and Chocolate Brownies were tasty. In the center of the French Quarter, this is a convenient place, especially the bar. It comes in handy on hot days in New Orleans!
Breakfast? There is only one place. Coffee au Lait and Beignets at Café du Monde in the French Market. The coffee is blended with chicory and the “square doughnuts” are piled a mile high with powdered sugar. There is no better way to start a day, but probably not every day!
One lunch stop is always a must, Mr. B’s Bistro. Michele has the Seafood Gumbo, Jeff has the Gumbo Ya Ya. Warm crusty bread is the accompaniment. Dessert is Pecan Pie. All are excellent and we’ll be back next year for another bowl and a slice!
For the last few years, Rio Mar has been receiving a lot of media attention. Run by Adolfo Garcia, the Chef blends the foodstuffs ofLouisiana with his familial heritage in Spain to create sumptuous seafood ideas. This was our first visit here and will likely not be the last. Jeff started with the special watermellon crabmeat salad. It was cooling, sweet and flavorful. For dinner the Serrano-wrapped Tuna was perfect. The ham was cooked, but the buttery tuna was raw, both served on a chickpea puree. It was heaven. Michele felt like shrimp, as she rarely orders it outside of New Orleans. The Gulf Shrimp Arroz with saffron and garlic hit the spot. For dessert, the Gran Chocolate was surrounded by dulce de leche cream and finished a perfect, second day in New Orleans.
We had never really spent much time exploring Magazine Street. This six-mile avenue is filled with antique shops, boutiques of all stripes and eateries that serve everything from coffee to gourmet fare. We bought an all-day bus pass and plotted out stops along the road. After about three hours of walking and shopping in scores of establishments, we needed to get out of the heat. We had expected to stop in a tavern/bistro that looked interesting, but they were closed. Luckily, Lilette, the famous French restaurant was still open for lunch. We both ordered the cold corn broth with avocado and crabmeat and it was remarkable. Jeff had a cold Belgian beer and it was the perfect refreshment for the sunny day and allowed us to continue our shopping journey on this new area (for us) of the city.
Our final dinner came as a surprise. Just before we left home we grabbed the “Best of…” issue of New Orleans Magazine. In it, James Corwell was named best New Chef for his work at Le Foret. A few months ago, Le Foret was picked by the magazine as Best New Restaurant. We were thinking of returning to MiLa or Cochon (our favorites from the last few trips) but instead decided to give Le Foret a try. We are glad we did, because now we have another favorite in the city. Michele started with the crabmeat salad, a beautiful heap of sweet meat that was gone in a flash. Jeff’s Le Foret Champignons was a sculpture of food. A gentle rigatoni-shaped shell was filled with pate de foie gras and capped with the top of a shitake mushroom. In the field below these faux mushrooms, was a dressing of pickled onions and watercress greens. Beautiful and delectable. The entrées were equally stunning. Michele had the grouper with crabmeat croquette and Jeff the duck, each a memorable meal. Dessert was a Coconut Cake, unbelievably moist and refreshing. Each detail of dining here was perfect, from the amuse bouche of duck pate sandwich and demitasse cup of gazpacho to the gift-wrapped Madeleine when leaving, the staff wants to assure you of a memorable time and that they did.
One word of warning. We were tricked and you could be too. The Soda Shop in the new World War II Museum advertises itself as John Besh’s. Inside the museum, Chef Besh does operate the American Sector restaurant, but is apparently just responsible for the creation of the ice-cream flavors at the Soda Shop. It’s too bad, because this could have been a great idea. We assumed this would be a 40’s-50’s Shoppe with jerks and table service. Instead, after a long wait in line and a longer wait for delivery of the snack, the expensive sodas are served in a plastic cup and the Sundays in a paper cup! The ice cream was OK, but certainly not worth the wait or price. If you want a Besh restaurant, try August or Lüke.
Another trip to our favorite city and another collection of great food stories to tell. We can’t wait to go back!
http://www.johnnyspoboy.com/ 511 St. Louis New Orleans, LA 70130 504-524-8129
http://www.muriels.com/ 801 Chartres New Orleans, LA 70116 504-568-1855
http://www.cafedumonde.com/1039 Decatur Street New Orleans, LA 70116
http://www.mrbsbistro.com/201 Royal Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504-523-2078
http://www.riomarseafood.com/800 South Peter Street New Orleans, LA 70103 504-525-3474
http://www.liletterestaurant.com/3637 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70115 504-893-1636
http://www.leforetneworleans.com/129 Camp Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504-553-6738
http://www.nationalww2museum.org/american-sector/the-soda-shop.html945 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504-527-6088
Saturday was a beautiful day and despite the relative low quality of goods at this year’s art festivals, we decided that one more couldn’t hurt and the walk would be enjoyable. On the way there, the issue of lunch/dinner came up, as it so often does. We cruised past La Boca Barrio (the former RoseAngel and Boca) but they were closed until 5:00, so another place would have to do. As we got closer to the festival, Jeff remembered that Deagan’s was named the Best New Restaurant by Cleveland Magazine. We decided to try, even though throngs were in attendance. When we entered, a large amount of people were waiting. Expecting the worse, we asked, “How long for a table?” Surprisingly, a two-seat table had just opened up and all of the other people were waiting for larger accommodations, so we were seated in a flash.
The menu looks nice. Divided into bar snacks, big and small plated with sandwiches and traditional dinners, it looked like there was something for everyone. We both decided on the lunch specials. Michele tried the roasted Opah (Hawaiian Moonfish) with couscous. She loved it and wanted more. Jeff had the less successful Beef Quesadilla with spicy fries. Both of us wanted an appetizer that was sold-out (likely due to the huge art festival crowd.) The cold avocado soup sounded as good as the goat cheese deviled eggs. Hopefully next time. For dessert, we shared the key lime torte, with a beautiful collection of fresh berries and mango coulis. It was great.
Because the menu and tap beer list was so interesting, we are likely to return. Do we agree with Cleveland Magazine? We think this one was a bit of a stretch, but our minds remain open. Many restaurants grow into greatness and the bones are here to do so.
http://deagans.com/ 14810 Detroit Road Lakewood, OH 44107 216-767-5775
We wanted a quick meal, had hoped to spend just a little and as always, we wanted it to be good. Yikes! What a tall order. We circled through the usual suspects and nothing clicked. Then Michele had a great idea. “Let’s try, Map of Thailand.”
If you have read a few of our posts, you know that our new weekend go-to breakfast spot is Koko’s Bakery on Payne Avenue. The buns are wonderful and we are slowly making our way through the scores of Chinese/Taiwanese bun variations. Each Saturday morning, we park next door, in front of Map of Thailand and each Saturday morning, one of us says, “This place looks cute, we should try it.” Finally we did and boy are we glad. Since the ownership swap at Mint Café, we’ve been without decent Thai food. We have found the replacement.
Because of the rush, we simply had an entrée. Michele fully enjoyed their version of Pad Thai, especially the extra-peanuty flavor. Jeff usually orders duck in Thai restaurants, but was drawn to the Mango Curry. Creamy, sweet and just the right amount of bite. Also of note were the human sized proportions. We both actually finished our meals with enough room for deep-fried ice cream dessert. Because no liquor is served and therefore no delightful Singha Thai beer, (the perfect complement to Thai cuisine) Jeff ordered the Iced Thai Tea and that proved to be a real treat. He may forego the Singha in the future!
Shortly before we left, the next table was served. A trio of beautifully presented meals was set down. Michele quizzed the waiter and made a mental note for our next visit, which may be as often as our trips to Koko’s, next door.
http://www.mapofthailandrestaurant.com/3710 Payne Avenue Cleveland, OH 44114 216-361-2220