Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Arugula Pergola, Part I

I often visit restaurants on the recommendation of friends or other food critics. In the case of the Arugula Pergola, however, I was compelled to visit because of a warning. I had been receiving a number of anonymous e-mails from close friends in the food community, who told me that although my wide-ranging exploration of the eatery world was commendable, there was one place I should never visit... the Arugula Pergola. I was told that the building site on which the Perg' was erected had once been the scene of a grisly and brutal crime. This lovely stone-and-timber cuisinery was once a horrifying house of terror. Numerous ghost enthusiasts have told me that the...leftovers,if you will, of this crime's victims were still aromatic in this upscale venue. To enter the Arugula Pergola, I was assured, was to offer my mind as just one more sacrifice to the phantom maniac of Arugula Pergola. Near the entrance of the restaurant, a woman in her early seventies wearing an orange vest was seated at a card table laid out with cheaply printed flyers and brochures. A banner hung on the table stating, "Beware the curse of the Arugula!" I walked swiftly past her, averting my eyes, though I did drop a few pieces of loose change into the slotted plastic lid on the can she shook like an Eliotian "dead geranium" in my face. The label on the can stated that the purpose was to raise funds for "future victims of the curse," and since I could not be completely sure I would not at some point need some assistance on that end, I let a few pennies plummet to the bottom of the can. Walking in, I immediately felt a "cold spot." This may have been due to my poor sense of direction's leading me through the kitchen doors and into a walk-in freezer. Have you ever smelled a freezer full of freezer-burn vegetables? Yecch. Not a fan. When I was rescued from the freezer, I made my way to the hostess station. I see that "hostess" calls up various opportunities for wordplay such as "ghostess" but I will not pursue them. I was led to my table beneath a wagon-wheel chandelier hung with fake cobwebs. The waitron when he finally arrived was dressed like some kind of old-west mortician. Clearly someone had decided to turn the upscale Pergola into some sort of sensationalistic ghost tour. I couldn't have been more disappointed. "Would you care for any appetizers?" the waitron asked, rather pryingly, in my opinion. "We have a wonder panko-encrusted fried popsicle. It's hauntingly refreshing!" I ordered the popsicle and a glass of kiwi jelly and perused the menu. Apparently the Pergola had "gone electronic," because I was told there were no paper menu's (I know, there's an apostrophe there--I've gone into this ad nauseum)and I was to use the touch screen. I was happily "pinching" the icons (a gesture which makes people look like some annoying combination of magician and symphony conductor) when... The power went out. [TO BE CONTINUED]

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Student Driver Pizza

A combination driving school/pizza delivery service is one of those high-concept restaurant ideas that can either be ludicrous or laudable. In the case of "Student Driver Pizza," the pendulum is fortunately stuck at fantastic.

I recently ordered a large pizza, anchovies only, no cheese, from "Student Driver Pizza," and I was pleasantly surprised. First, by the website. While the site did feature grainy black-and-white footage of the aftermaths of auto accidents, it was otherwise user-friendly and fun. Easy to navigate, the site allowed me to order the pizza within seconds, without any tiresome "logging in" or "registering."

I must admit that the pizza took quite a while to arrive. In fact, when the pizza arrived, I was no longer hungry, having availed myself of whatever leftovers I could assemble into an omelet. I wasn't upset, though--not a bit! Safety first is my motto, in food safety and in driving safety. These are student drivers, remember! They're supposed to drive slow. Slowly.

The delivery person arrived at the door with a beefy older man in a short-sleeved shirt in tow. He must have been the driving instructor/supervisor. He shepherded the delivery person through the entire process of unzipping the thermal pouch (more important than ever when the driver is a student!), handing me the receipt and pen (which the supervisor kindly uncapped for me--marvelous!) and processing my credit card. The instructor even had his own credit-card machine so he could stop the transaction instantly if the worker made a mistake! The whole operation took only a few minutes, and compared to the six-hour wait I had patiently endured, the time flew by like mere seconds.

How was the pizza? Well, I must say that I was heartened that "Student Driver Pizza" did not succumb to the temptation of shaping the pizzas like road signs: Stop signs, Yield signs, Merge, Railroad Crossing, and the like. Well, it was shaped like a Railroad Crossing sign, but that was unavoidable in a pizza.

The pizza tasted wonderful, with a piquant surface of anchovies laid down like hot, salty tar on the concrete-crunchy crust. Amazing! Call me a fan. I not only like them, but I "like" them (you Facebook fanatics will know of what I'm talking about. Of? About? Hmm).

Overall, then, if you are patient enough to wait for a long delivery time, I believe you will love Student Driver Pizza. What a fabulous service the owners are providing for the youth of today, lending them both employment and needed, practical instruction in the art and craft of operating a motor vehicle. A glance at the company website shows that a new restaurant concept is in the works--Community Service Driving School Pizza, which apparently will combine punitive, community-service style driving lessons with pizza delivery. I for one can't wait!

For their anchovies, and for their vision, I give Student Driver Pizza--five Green Lights!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Objets Cachés

There's nothing puzzling about why Objets Cachés has become one of the hottest restaurants in the region. I dined there last evening and found it a wonderful combination of diabolical puzzles and delicious fare.

When you walk into Objets Cachés, you realize the restaurant is well-furnished and entirely empty of guests. Doors open onto a balcony, and a fresh breeze blows in. The furnishings are formal yet home-like. It's seemingly a place that would attract a large post-church crowd. The sandstone fireplace has no fire in it, but it charms nonetheless.

The host greets you and hands you a piece of parchment. You look down at it, expecting perhaps a menu or wine list. Instead you see a list of objects:

Conch shell, transistor radio, bubble, armadillo, hot-air balloon, ghost, clock, razor, basket, rose, wagon wheel, tongs, extension cord, flame, rug, newspaper, witch, glue pot, shoes, brick, whale, hog, tape dispenser, star, bar of soap, crown, heart, goose, diploma, castle, aardvark, vinyl record, plow, and rabbit.


"This way, please," the host says, leading you past the dark paneling and into a dining room.

The dining room is a jumble of clutter. You can't even make your way to your table. It's as though one of those hoarders on television had decided to open up a restaurant.

"Is this your first time at Objets?" the host asks. When you state that it is, the host tells you: "Before you are allowed to dine, you must find all the hidden objects on that list. They're all hidden somewhere in the dining room. As you find each one, it will disappear. For example, over there is the bar of soap!" The host points to a bar of soap that has been cunningly camouflaged in the ceiling. A fiery red line races across the phrase "bar of soap" on the parchment and the soap itself vanishes. "When you've found everything, you will be allowed to eat."

Now I understand the sign above the entrance to Objets Cachés: HE WHO DOES NOT SOLVE, DOES NOT EAT.

He handed the parchment to me and vanished like the bar of soap. I got down to the job of finding these objects, because I was truly hungry. My stomach was growling and I felt light-headed.

I pored over the jumble of objects, looking for an armadillo, tape dispenser, hot-air balloon. Try as I might, I was able only to spy those objects which were not on the list: a toy truck, a pack of cards, an oil well, shaving cream, a fence, a croquet mallet, a fish...these popped out at me, but none of them were on the list of hidden objects, and thus none of them were bringing me any closer to my meal. I mumbled the names of objects over and over as my bleary gaze moved around the room, up and down, across and over, the things all blurring together, merging, fading, sharpening tantalizingly into a shape that quickly turned out to be a mirage. No, that isn't an armadillo--it's a roll of aluminum foil! Foiled again!

Suddenly, an owl descended from the ceiling. Its eyes were glowing a bright burnt orange. I looked on the list but saw no owl. "Where on earth is the hog?" The owl perched on the back of a hog. Was this owl my helper?

The host chuckled as he stepped into the dining room. "I see you've found the owl...when you get truly desperate, ask him for a hint."

I became more and more drawn into the game. It was like a case of tunnel vision. The entire universe had shrunken into this game of hidden objects. It became a mania for me. I must find the wagon wheel!

More time passed, and I was no closer to my goal. The owl could only do so much. Finally, at the point of giving up, I began to catch on...the objects were not placed logically around the room. The whale may not be in an ocean, but instead may be on top of a globe. The hog needn't be in a pen. Once I comprehended this concept, the game became much easier.

It may have been five or six hours later that I finally sat down to my meal. Thankfully, I was able to solve the puzzle before I collapsed of hunger.

For my entree, I chose the sand dabs--they were excellent! In fact, I'm still spitting grains of sand from my tongue even now! The wine was outstanding--I don't usually enjoy Wine Floats, but for some reason the scoop of pistachio ice cream floating in Cabernet was marvelous! For dessert, I barely tolerated the Unflavored Custard--I don't recommend it!

Overall, my dining experience at Objets Cachés was pleasing, but I perhaps would have enjoyed a less challenging puzzle as an obstacle to satisfying my hunger. Also, I was unimpressed with the dessert.

And so, I give Objets Cachés a not entirely enthusiastic Four Armadillos!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Return to the Tarnished Ladle

After posting my review of the abomination that is the Tarnished Ladle, I received an email from the owner. I have received his permission to reproduce this communication here:

I've read your review of my place, and I have to admit it--buddy, I just don't get it. Did you go to the real Tarnished Ladle, or did you get disorientated somewhere along the way and wind up at Bowl of Glop or something? I mean, your article has little or no relation to my eatery and what we do here. Your article is comical at best, and somewhat insane. But I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and invite you back. I want to show you what the Tarnished Ladle is really about--not the fantasy story that you wrote. So here's what I'm going to do. You come down to the Tarnished Ladle, any day, any time, and I will personally greet you at the door and show you what we do here on a daily basis. I will personally be your host, maitre d', waiter, waitron, server, chef, and dishwasher! And I think you're going to be pleasantly surprised!

I'm sure as you read this e-mail you had the same reaction I did. This communication is nothing more than a thinly veiled (I'm talking see-through) threat. Obviously, the owner--or CEO as he styles himself--of the Tarnished Ladle had a problem with me posting a truthful, accurate review of his establishment. And now he's "inviting" me back. Yeah, he's inviting me back all right. Greet me at the door? That sounds terrifying. Terrifying and menacing. But as always, I will take the supreme risk for you, my readers. And so, here is my full report concerning the RETURN TO THE TARNISHED LADLE.

As I pulled my car into the scant parking lot of the Tarnished Ladle, I noticed a beefy guy standing by some traffic cones and a velvet rope. The guy was wearing a weird chauffeur's outfit that didn't fit him in the least and seemed to be made of black vinyl. "Hey!" he bellowed at me. "Hey hey hey hey hey!" Terror gripped my brain as I sat there idling, looking through the windshield at this behemoth as he approached.

"Are you the food journalist?" he asked. I nodded. He signaled me to get out of my vehicle. I did so. "Didn't I tell you in my e-mail you were getting full service today? That means...valet parking!" This man, obviously the owner of the Tarnished Ladle, plopped into the driver's seat of my car and pulled it into a parking space stenciled CUSTOMER OF THE CENTURY...AND BEYOND!

The owner locked my car door and led me to the entrance of the Tarnished Ladle. "Now do you get that kind of service at Pork Belleez? I think not." The air in the parking lot was palpable with terror and menace. I was aware at every moment that what seemed to be a friendly conciliatory gesture on the part of the owner may have been nothing more than a crude set-up. What would happen to me once I stepped into the lobby of the Tarnished Ladle? Terrifying fantasies oppressed my inner eye as I followed the owner to the hostess station.

"What was all that horse hockey about a wax dummy? My hosts and hostesses are lively, vibrant professionals!" The owner jumped behind the lectern. He made a big show of looking over a seating chart then looked up at me as though I had startled him. With false alacrity, he said, "Will you be dining alone, sir? Or have you company?"

It's always weird when a Bluto clone like the owner is polite. I mean, I appreciate it, but it's always unexpected. "I'll be dining alone," I muttered bitterly. "We dine alone as we later die alone. It's just a question of one letter's difference," I said.

The owner pounded the lectern, guffawing. "Where do you get these gags, Las Vegas? You should put some of that humor in your articles, buddy. Here, walk this way," he said, speaking that last phrase with the kindness people throw into a factual statement when they feel pleased by you because you made them laugh. Shaking his head, the owner walked into the dining room. Amazingly, though not surprisingly, the dining room had completely changed since my last visit.

It was exquisite.

I can't explain to you how a sordid, shabby, moth-eaten type of diner suddenly becomes transformed into a sparkling, atmospheric, sophisticated eatery. But this transformation happened...seemingly overnight. And I cannot explain it!

Almost like a character in some medieval folk tale, the dining room of the Tarnished Ladle went from horrible to wonderful as though with the stroke of a magic basting bulb.

The tablecloths, which before were mildewed and put iron bands of terror around the soul, were now bright and laundered, like laundry in some television commercial. The horrid fluorescent lighting had been replaced with jazzy ceramic fixtures, orange-spotted cylinders that created a warm ambiance in the room.

"So what do you think?" the owner said. "Cool, huh?"

It was certainly a change from my last visit. But this may have simply been a cosmetic operation. Maybe the essence of the Tarnished Ladle was still the same. The only way that I would know would be to taste the food.

"Your server will be right with you," the owner stated. He spread his hands out as though balancing and spun around. "I'll be taking care of you this evening," the owner said. "What would you like to drink?"

I asked to see the wine list. The owner said, "Let me call in the Wine Cryer."


A man dressed in a tricorne hat with a large lavender artificial feather stuck into it, a coat, and tights, stepped into the room and began shouting out the names of wines from a scroll he'd unrolled. Just to stop him, I chose one of the first wines on the list, an introverted Cabernet.

The wine was palatable--potable? I was a bit disturbed when the Wine Cryer informed me that it was available in both Regular and Diet, but I soldiered on and drank it...again, as I remind you, for you!

Instead of the clear broth I had last visit, this time I had the Cool Whip soup in a cantaloupe bowl. Fantastic! The owner wasn't kidding--the Tarnished Ladle maybe wasn't as tarnished as it first appeared. It was as though a tarnished ladle had itself been dipped into that liquid they used to advertise on UHF television during the daytime...way back when...when I used to sit spellbound by the antics of the Galloping Gourmet. Rubber chickens are falling from the ceiling!

Suddenly, the image of a rubber chicken dropping onto a stove snapped me back to reality. Fear seized my mind in its grip. This had to be an illusion! Nobody could makeover a dump like the Tarnished Ladle in that short a time. Who knows what sort of trickery was working behind the scenes to make the Ladle appear to be an acceptable, even excellent dining establishment.

"This can't be real," I murmured to myself, slapping the table over and over. "This just can't be real!" I jumped back from the table. Out-of-tune trumpets shrilled as the room spun and purple polka-dots whirled through the air, ending in a plummeting black-out.

* * * * *

When I awoke, I looked around me to see that the Tarnished Ladle was once again Tarnished. Perhaps it had only been an illusion, perhaps it had been real but temporary, but the eatery was no longer the Polished Ladle. I creakily rose to my feet. The dining room was empty, and the owner was nowhere to be seen. The eerie aria of the ceramic doll began once more. I had to get out of here. Disoriented, I tried to remember how to get back to the lobby. I took what I thought was the exit, but found myself in a corridor bound on one end by a pair of swinging doors into the kitchen, on the other by a unisex restroom. I made my way through the kitchen--deserted as it happened--and left through the back exit. In the humid, chilly stench of the dumpster area, I stood with pounding heart, wondering what had happened. I knew that I must document everything that happened that night...

Well, there you have it. Through some kind of mind control trickery, the owner was able to make me think the Tarnished Ladle was shining like gold. If I were to rate the illusion, I would give it five stars. But since I know now that what I took to be a polished ladle was nothing but a cruel illusion, I must give the Tarnished Ladle a cantaloupe bowls.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Tarnished Ladle

Although I was warned repeatedly by various folks not to even consider stepping into the Tarnished Ladle, I had lunch there yesterday afternoon. The Tarnished Ladle rests on a street among depressing furniture stores, cheerful mortuaries, and terrifying ice-cream parlors. The Tarnished Ladle's exterior is old brick and features an electric sign with an animated ladle swinging stutteringly from a 90 degree angle on the right to 180 degrees south and back again, with pulsing permutations in between. I stared at the ladle for a number of hours and then awoke with a start as several patrons brushed past me and through the glass door into the Ladle's lobby, a shoebox-shaped room, poorly ventilated. I remembered my friends' warnings about the eatery, but I decided that they were alarmists and that for the sake of my readership I would press on. I noted the sanitation rating--a disturbing D--and walked into the Ladle.

The host stood at a decrepit particle-board lectern. Dressed in a tattered suit of black crepe, he smiled like a wax figure at my arrival. I realized that this would be my last chance to leave the Ladle, but I know that you are counting on me to give you an honest and accurate review of the restaurants in the area...and you need me to eat even at the horrifying places.

The funereal old-fashioned soap opera sound of an electric organ throbbed as I followed the host into the dining room. The host found me a seat next to a niche in which stood a very creepy ceramic figurine of some 18th century French person.

"Could you do something about creepy doll?" I asked the host. He smiled and pulled down a convenient black shade that completely covered the niche. "Your server will be with you shortly," he said, and tiptoed away.

I rubbed my fingers over the stiffened, mildewed surface of the velvet tablecloth. Disgusting!

My server arrived.

"Evening, sir. I'm Oliver and I will be taking care of you today." As always, that phrase gave me the creeps. Why didn't I listen to my friends? Did I really owe it to my readers to dine in such a horrible eatery? I'd soon find out...

Oliver handed me a menu that looked like it had been rescued from a fire. As it crumbled, I searched it for the safest item available. "I'll have the broth," I ordered. "The clear broth. Just hot water," I said, adding a safe temperature to my order.

"And to drink?"

I requested the wine list and decided on a cobwebby Chardonnay.

The server stepped away. Someone was singing an aria, unaccompanied. The sound was coming from the wall. I put my ear against the shade covering the niche and the singing grew louder. The creepy figurine was singing!

I didn't dare raise the shade. My sanity could not abide the sight of a ceramic doll vocalizing. When my server reappeared with my glass of wine, I ordered him to somehow stop the figurine from its eerie crooning.

"It feeds on your annoyance, Sir," he said. "Just ignore it and it will fade away. I promise you."

To put the sound of the figurine's singing out of my mind, I concentrated on the taste of the wine. I put the smudged, chipped glass to my mouth and tasted something that I would happily splash on a salad. It was positively balsamic!

Thankfully, the figurine had stopped singing and I waited for my broth to arrive. The terrible sanitation rating was still worrying me, but I hoped that the boiled water would somehow be OK to imbibe. How wrong I was!

The broth was tepid and was served in a bowl on the bottom of which was still stuck a sticker stating "Not for Food Use." A bullion cube still in its wrapper floated among little surface-tension puddles of grease on the broth.

And for you, dear Reader, I drank a spoonful--one!--of this dreadful broth.

In a similar vein of self-sacrifice, I went on to order dessert--a Salted Ice Cube with Piece of String...yes, I ordered dessert and got a magic trick!

As I lifted the ice cube to my mouth with the string (attached to the cube by the encrusted salt) I thought of all that I have done for my readers over the years. Do they at all appreciate what I go through for them?

I popsicled the salty, frozen cube until all that was left was the string, which I laid carefully next to my soup spoon.

I hope that you will be good to me. After all I've done for you...! Eating at places like the Tarnished Ladle, an eatery that I give One Salted Ice Cube!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Diner's Remorse

Tonight I ate at Diner's Remorse...and yes...I regret it. I ate something I shouldn't have...and now I'm paying the check.

What is it about the alluring menu at Diner's Remorse that makes the bitterest pile of ashes look like the sweetest dessert? Their menu designers are geniuses! Evil geniuses, but geniuses nonetheless. Because I ordered...and ordered...and now I am suffering the consequences.

I wish I could have back all the wasted time, money, and energy, that I spent tonight at Diner's Remorse. But I never will get them back. And now I am left alone in this bleak diner...contemplating the waste...the utter, irrevocable waste.

The waitron was so beguiling. "You have to try our three-tier cocoa salad torte." And like a fool, I ordered the torte. And now the flames of regret lick mockingly at my ankles.

Because the glamourous glossy photography of the menu was just an the ashes of stark reality clump in my stomach, the realization hits me. I want my money back! I want my time back! I want my energy back!

The waitron cackles. All of those things I want back have been greedily absorbed into the infinite maw of Diner's Remorse...and here I sit, depleted.

There are no other diners. I am alone. I chased the illusion of the candied poppering pears...and now the walls of the pit rise around me.

Ah, yes, I am paying the piper now. A flickering black-and-white television braced against the wall is playing that old TV commercial: "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing." That is the only thing that TV ever plays in here.

I thought that the Artichoke Fries would make me happy.

They didn't.

And so...I signed away...everything! for what turns out to be a pile of charred charcoal. Or, in other words, charred coal or charcoal. I poke around in the ashes. I try to derive sustenance from the aroma of the smouldering embers. But there is no hope in that.

The waitron lied. It's that simple. The waitron told me that the Mint Gelatin Skins were Incredible. And I believed the waitron. And I know the waitron is laughing up its sleeves.

What is the decor like in this place? Bleak of course. Tired and wilted and clammy. The linens are clammy. I don't like this place. Fluorescent light like soiled laundry. The stainless steel is stained.

I'm going to leave soon.

And so, as I cover the remains of my meal with the funeral pall of my napkin, I can only warn you away from this place. But I know you will never believe me. You see only the sizzle...not the stake!

I would give this place zero stars if I could. But the code of the Restaurant Critic does not allow for that. Perhaps I will give it five that you will think the place overrated...and thus avoid it!

And so, consumed with remorse, I give Diner's Remorse five heaps of ashes.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Panica: The Anxiety-Attack Place

So the other day I decided to have lunch at Panica, the Anxiety-Attack Place. It's a theme restaurant, and in this case the theme is panic attacks. Interesting, huh? You have to go to a place like Panica in the proper state of mind. I mean, you have to be feeling pretty vulnerable and washed-out and on the verge of a panic attack to even begin to appreciate this eatery. And so I waited till I was tipping over into an anxiety attack before I made my way to Panica.

The exterior of the place is meant to induce panic in you from the beginning. If you're looking for a cozy place to dine, Panica is not it. The entrance is imposing and brutal, with gigantic oppressive columns and a blunt stairway. The heart starts rabbiting from the moment you view the building.

Inside, everything is conceived to make you jittery. The music is terrible synthesizer-based "new wave" music from the last century. The treble is turned way up and everything sounds tinny and distorted. The music has that annoying "energetic" sound that I despise. I wanted to find the nearest exit, but I had to dine you wouldn't have to. Unless, of course, you're looking for an anxiety-attack theme restaurant, which, judging by how crowded the dining room was (of course!), many others apparently are.

The host at his lectern was commited to making you feel nervous. In a fascinating twist, the host was not high-strung and impatient. In fact, his ability to give you a case of the nerves was based on how plodding, molasses slow he was in everything he said and did. In fact, he didn't even acknowledge me for around one to two hours. I stood in the lobby of Panica, feeling more and more clammy by the minute, pummeled by the awful keyboards and drum machines and hyperactive vocals. I walked over to him after the second hour and asked for a table. "I'm sorry, but...well, let me go in the back and see if anything's available." He worked kinks out of his neck as he loped back to the kitchen.

Another hour passed. A trap-door of panic opened up. And somehow I suppose the host was able to detect that, because he re-appeared at the moment my anxiety attack was revving up.

"This way, sir," he said. I followed him through the press of a dazed, stupefied crowd. My table was full of stains and made me fear some food-borne illness would waft up into my system from its surface. I asked him to clean the table, but somehow the anxiety had lowered the volume and projection of my voice until it became so weak that the host could not hear me. "Your server will be back later tonight. Give him at least three or four hours."

When the server finally arrived, I was wringing my hands, passing my hand across my brow, and unconsciously tearing the cloth napkins into shreds. Fears of imminent madness or sudden death pierced my mind. The waiter arrived.

"Would you like a large coffee with a shot of adrenaline?" the server asked.

The waitron left for the coffee and I perused the menu. The print was extremely small, and it was difficult to read with the hysterical eyestrain I was presently suffering from. The descriptions of the dishes made no sense and confused me. Try as I might, the words wouldn't connect. When the server returned, around an hour later, I was weak with hunger and anxiety.

"Anything look good?" the server said.

"What would you suggest?" I asked. Again, my voice was extremely weak and the waitron couldn't hear me. I raised my voice...which took great effort. "What's good?"

The server said, "You'll love the bottomless bowl of creamed corn."

Bottomless. As in...bottomless pit. The panic escalated when I heard the word bottomless and thought of what it meant...THE ABYSS.

The creamed corn was flavorful, not too salty or runny, and had some exceedingly large kernels, which I thought was a generous touch on the part of the chef. I usually enjoy my creamed corn hot instead of tepid, but otherwise the dish was excellent.

The panic subsiding, I asked for the dessert menu. "Ah," said the waitron, "you've ridden out another panic attack! Now you get your prize!"

The Panic-Lover's Blondie was crisp and tangy. By the time I finished it, the anxiety attack had been replaced by a feeling of calm and relief...just the sort of mood to accompany an excellent fried dessert.

Overall, Panica delivers what it promises--adventurous cuisine in a nerve-shattering ambience. If you like a little anxiety with your creamed corn, Panica is the place for you. And so, I hyperventilatingly award Panica Five Brown Paper Bags!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Early Food Writing (1979): Description of a giant hamburger from "The Adventures of Buzzie and Poindexter"

I recently came across a notebook containing "The Adventures of Buzzie and Poindexter," a work of fiction which I wrote when I was 13 years old. Here's an excerpt, a description of a giant hamburger:

I stood in awe of the burger's great height: 20,000 feet! And oh, the tons of American cheese gently dripping from the sides like moss on a tree, gently strewn by gentle hands, like tinsel, or garland draping the yuletide fir! And the sesame seeds! Sprinkled like golden tears of joy, round and crisp, yet ovoid and soft! Filled with a soft greasy yet light fluid, covered with a shell as strong as it is weak! Yes, the sesame seed is a seed of contradictions! Sprinkled gaily, as if by a sprite tossing rose petals in an enchanted forest, on a lightly toasted yet crunchy and satisfied bun! Strong and husky, but still giving way to the long, loving, firm, never failing teeth of yours and my mouth! And, oh, the pickles! Yecch! But, ah, there is the lettuce! Crisp, clean, cool, wet, strong lettue! And the two all-beef, all beef, mind you, patties. Yummy pieces of dead cow!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Game Show Diner

As theme restaurants go, The Game Show Diner is one of my all-time favorites. Imagine...a 1970's game show set. The marquee bulbs. The 1974 colors. The sparkly sculptures, smooth abstract shapes. Yes--that's the decor of the Game Show Diner. What could be better?

The other day, I had lunch at the Game Show Diner, and I was impressed--as usual. The host, of course, is dressed like a host. A game show host, that is, one from the early seventies. (Early? Mid? Is 1974 mid? How does that work?) Anyway, walk up to the host lectern and see a man in a crazy, wide-lapel suit covered in criss-crosses. The tie is gigantic, as large as a human being made of cloth. The hairstyle is longish--how strange the way hair has changed since then...much more restrained.

When you walk into the Game Show Diner, you immediately hear the theme song. It's maddeningly repetitive. You hear the wah-wah, the ostinato, the brass section. The host says, "What do you do for a living? Tell us a little bit!" and extends the magic-wand-like Bob Barker microphone to you.

The host brings you to your seat...a game-show-contestant desk...your name appears on a light panel in front of the desk, and lights up as you approach. You sit down and the host says, "Your celebrity will be right with you. Good luck."

Normally, if your host told you "good luck" at a restaurant you'd be terrified, but it's the Game Show Diner, so you understand.

A moment later, your celebrity indeed is with you.

Now if you'll recall, the celebrities on game shows in the 1970's were allowed to dress down, a little more loose and with-it than the hosts, and so you're not surprised to see your celebrity wearing a sport coat. The host comes back and stands at the celebrity's side.

"Name a beverage," your host states.

"Uh," you rack your brain, looking for a beverage to match the one in your server's mind. "I'd like a glass of wine..."

The server turns his pad around--on it is written: Wine. The happy theme song starts playing. The horns, the wah-wah. "Great!" the host states. "Just fantastic."

"OK, next..." the host says. "Name an entree."

Again, it takes a bit of ESP to win this game...What is your server thinking?

"Chicken a la King!" you shout. The server turns around his pad. "Corn Dogs Florentine."

A horrible buzzer grates in your ears. The host says, "Aw whoa! So close! Wow! Sorry!"

Unfortunately, you don't get another choice, so there's no entree for you tonight. Next you need to guess the dessert the server is thinking of.

"Apple pie," you say.

The server flips his pad and you see he's written "Melted Milk Balls with Lettuce Wedge."

The buzzer again. Audience sounds of disappointment with a little booing.

The host says, "So sorry, my friend. But you do have that fantastic glass of Boone's Farm!"

"That's fine, that's OK," you assure the host. "I didn't come here with any food, and I won't leave here with any food."

Which other eatery gives you this kind of suspense and excitement? And so I am happy to award the wonderful game show diner a full Five Consolation Prizes!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fishsticks-on-a-Stick Au Go-Go

Today I did something I had never done before in my career as a food critic. Today I walked out of a restaurant before I ordered.

Walking out before you order violates the food critic's code, I know. How can I possibly review an eatery if I haven't tasted the food? But today I walked out of Fishsticks-on-a-Stick Au Go-Go.

First let me state that the decor at Fishsticks is marvelous. You really do feel like you're in a swinging discotheque that happens to serve fishsticks. If fishsticks had been provided on Sunset Strip in the late 1960's, maybe things would have turned out differently for the counter culture.

That being said, the decor is no excuse for what I found there. Go-go cages with animatronics robots can't cancel out what's deeply wrong with Fishsticks. In all good conscience, I had to walk out. And it wasn't just my conscience bothering me--the whole concept of Fishsticks made me want to crawl under a rock in embarrassment.

The reason I walked out before I ordered anything from this living exercise in nostalgia and seafood is that I literally couldn't order anything from their menu without turning red in the face.

You see, Fishsticks is one of those places that thinks it's cute to give their menu items names that you couldn't possibly order without cringing and wanting the earth to swallow you up.

It's one thing for International House of Pancakes to offer something called Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity. I would be physically incapable of speaking that phrase aloud. I can barely write it. But it's just one item on the menu, and I suppose one could always abbreviate it to Fresh and Fruity. Or point.

And it's another thing for bars to offer drinks with suggestive names. That seems appropriate in a bar atmosphere.

But it's something else for a restaurant to only offer menu items that have names no one could possibly ever want to speak. And offer those of us with shame no alternatives.

Again and again, I searched the menu in vain for something I could say aloud. Why on earth would they call the Caesar Salad-flavored fishstick "I Have Weird Thoughts about Mucilage"? Giving a name like that to a salad shows nothing but a kind of snickering contempt for the patron. And why take an open-faced beef sandwich-flavored fishstick and call it a "Simply Super Idea"? And is it really necessary to call a radish-flavored fishstick "The Wink Factory"?

I will say the waitrons were incredible, bearing up under the burden of hearing patrons jump through the degrading hoops the restaurant chain has set up for them. But the courage and determination of the waitrons, just like the clever decor, was not enough to keep me in my seat once I'd seen the eatery's abysmal menu.

I hope that the Fishsticks corporation will rethink this naming strategy. Are you really trying to humiliate us? Why else give your food, which one would hope you are proud of and which some day, if you drop this silliness, I may indeed taste, these ridiculous, anti-human names?

And so, sadly, I give Fishsticks-on-a-Stick Au Go-Go a mortified Zero Stars.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Insomnia Waffles

When it's late at night..after midnight..and you can't sleep for whatever reason - whether you're worried sick about some loss you fear is impending or else annoyed by some noisy person downstairs - well, you might want to go over to Insomnia Waffles to while the time away till dawn. It's past one am and I can't sleep so here I am at Insomnia. I've set up my laptop on the counter here so I can transmit my wi-fi review to you live from the waffle shop. So with my waffle wi-fi working, I send you my thoughts about Insomnia Waffles, my favorite waffle shop in town. First off, let me say that Insomnia Waffles is the non-scary version of an all-nite waffle place. I really dig and appreciate and admire any place that is the non-scary version of something that people usually think of as scary and to-be-avoided. So for somebody to take the waffle shop concept and transmute it into a diner-friendly place is almost miraculous to my eye.

Insomnia is also great because it doesn't try to help you sleep. I think that a restaurant that tried to put you to sleep wouldn't actually be worth much. If you walked in here and they were playing lullabies over the sound system and serving you glasses of warm milk--well, that might put you to sleep but what would you do then? Spend the night in a waffle shop? I think not.

So Insomnia Waffles does the best thing, the best response to insomnia, it just doesn't acknowledge it or try to treat it. Insomnia Waffles tells you--ok, you can't sleep, let's just make the best of it. So they do serve coffee. They don't serve warm milk. And, of course, gloriously, they do serve waffles.

In keeping with the non-scary mode, this is a waffle place that actually has more the ambiance of a coffee shop, complete with mood lighting and great background music--right now they're playing Manhattan Transfer's "Spies in the Night." It's the cool phone-call part right now--"The winds are calm in the channel" and so forth. So while this driving tune plays, I'm sitting here looking over the non-laminated menu.

Laminated menu's. Don't they kind of scare you? Because really they're made for easy clean-up, which is always the sign of some creepy institutional ware. I mean, why on earth would you need to clean a menu with a sponge? It's too disgusting to think about.

But Insomnia Waffles, of course, has no laminated menu's. (I've already noted elsewhere that I realize there is no apostrophe in menus but I think it looks goofy without it so I use it anyway. Critic's prerogative.) The menu's are on a nicely browned parchment with cool early-70's inspirational-pamphlet calligraphy and ink-brush drawings of egrets. That's the kind of menu I like. So you can see it's just one more way that Insomnia Waffles departs from the scary waffle shop concept.

Now there are many choices with a waffle. You can have a round waffle. A square waffle. A triangular waffle. I'm particularly fond of the rhomboid waffle. And once you've chosen the shape, next on the decision agenda is how large the indentions or "wafflings" should be. Now, I'm not a fan of those waffles with only one or two gigantic indentations. I like the standard waffle grid or checkerboard pattern, though I know some disagree.

OK. My server has just appeared (I mean that literally--one minute they're not there and then they suddenly materialize). I will stop typing for a moment then report back.

OK. I just ordered the Powerhouse Waffle. This is one of those menu items that gains you a special engraving on a plaque if you eat it. Normally I don't go in for such sensationalistic food stunts, but in this case--well, it's a waffle! What do you expect me to do?!

Of course I'm also having the coffee. Coffee and waffles. That's what Jarmusch should have called that movie. It would have been an infinitely better film had it been about coffee and waffles rather than coffee and cigarettes. I mean, really. And the checkerboard table would have gone so much better with checkerboard waffles than with cylindrical cigarettes. I mean, it isn't that hard of a decision, people! And I'm a food critic not some famous motion-picture director!

Let me say something about syrup. Now I have been accused by various persons of drenching my waffles in syrup. Well, as a diner, I fully indulge my instincts, and I have a strong instinct for hot, sweet syrup, and I indulge that to the fullest! I also put a couple butter pats on each waffle before I ladle the hot honey-like syrup on. I like butter pats that have little images carved onto them (I don't know if carved is the right word exactly--I'm a food critic, not some self-conscious pedant! Who cares!). I like famous faces on my butter pats. Especially cartoon characters from the 1930s. And that's exactly what Insomnia Waffles does--they have people (characters) like Mutt and Jeff molded into their butter discs. Isn't that phenomenal? You can watch Mutt's face interestingly morph under the cascade of ladled hot syrup. Delish!

The coffee at Insomnia Waffles is incredible. It isn't typical waffle coffee. It's really great cafe coffee. So again it's the non-scary version of a waffle shop and that's why I keep coming back here! Again and again. Especially when I can't sleep (which is probably the point). Like tonight.

The service is serviceable. Nobody has ever disappointed me here. And what's especially appreciated is--the waitrons don't try to make you go to sleep! Wouldn't it be annoying if your server kept saying, "You look exhausted. Time to hit the hay!" I mean, I would not want to be served by that person.

Overall, then, Insomnia Waffles is the perfect spot to dine at when sleep is elusive. You can use the wi-fi and enjoy the waff-fi, as you sip the rich roast. The roast has an incredible gravy! The coffee is good too.

And so, although I wish I could sleep, although I wish I didn't worry so much which keeps me from sleeping and sends me off to Insomnia Waffles in the middle of the night--I still enthusastically--in a sleepy nocturnal way--award Insomnia Waffles Five Winks!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Oulipo's Snack Bar

Today I had lunch at Oulipo's snack bar. A fabulous location, fantastic waitrons, astounding food--that's why I'm mad about Oulipo's!

Oulipo's surroundings? Simply amazing. Brilliant wall art (mostly oil paintings) charms you. Catchy music (classic rock hits mostly--Styx, Pink Floyd, Boston, and so on) wows. Waitrons and patrons? All cool folks.

I sit down in a comfy booth. My waitron displays Oulipo's voluminous food list. What looks good? All of it! In a quandary, I finally pick Oulipo's Lipogram Crust with squash filling. And to drink? Glug a mug of Squirt, straight up. Cool!

An Oulipo waitron is not your typical waitron. Quick, watchful, mindful, thoughtful--all you want in a waitron! My tip is always grand--not A grand, mind you, but grand. My waitron fills and fills again my Squirt mug without fail. And without my having to flap my hands! Oulipo uniforms? Stunning. Classic, classy, chic duds--not clinging or form-fitting but not baggy. Just right.

My Lipogram Crust is also just right. Crunchy and savory, this crust falls apart in your mouth. What bliss!

And so, looking back fondly, I found Oulipo's--as always--an out-of-sight dining spot. Oulipo's looks good. Oulipo's waitrons show us what waiting is all about. And Oulipo's food? Astronomically outstanding!

That's why I am awarding Oulipo's Snack Bar an avid four stars. No... I award Oulipo's Six Stars!

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The other day I had lunch with Jacques Wool at Waba, a restaurant I highly recommend. Let's start with the menu. I like the menu there because although I had been to Waba a few times before, I have no idea what most of the dishes are. So I appreciate the menus, which are presented flat on the counter for easy perusal. You don't have to crane your neck gawking at a menu board full of items you don't understand. You can stand relaxedly at the counter and look down at the menu. And the menu has photographs of the dishes. This is helpful for those who don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of Korean cuisine, and I count myself among that group. Also helpful are the little hot-pepper icons. Whoever started this hot-pepper icon craze was a genius. As you know, I love hot, spicy food (when it's flavorful heat, not just some chemical burn). I want the hottest thing on the menu, sir! And I can find that hottest item by looking for the hot-pepper icon. And Waba uses this fantastic feature on their menu. They even have double hot-peppers! Of course, my eye was immediately magnetized to those items. And I zeroed in on the Dduk Bok Ki. Now, though I am multi-lingual (to say the least, though my Guugu Yimidhirr is a bit shaky), I haven't the least idea how to pronounce "Dduk Bok Ki." I just can't do it. I could try to fake it, but that would be ridiculous, I would end up just embarrassing myself and others. So I love the menu at Waba because you can just point to things. But I truly want to learn, and so I just come out and say it: "How do you pronounce that?" And the person at the counter will pronounce it for you. Isn't that great? Now I have a pretty good idea how to pronounce Dduk Bok Ki. And I feel better about everything as a result. So I'm standing up there pointing and asking, and I realize that I'm not just ordering food, but I'm learning. I am a lifelong learner, as all food critics (or any critics, really) must be.

Jacques Wool ordered the Mandu. These are dumplings or pot-stickers. Whoever came up with the name Pot Sticker? It's mildly embarrassing. I mean, what is that supposed to mean? They stick to the pot? The pot hasn't been sufficiently greased and therefore things are sticking to it? That's like calling an omelet a pan-sticker. Nobody would ever call it that. It's a chummy, overly familiar and faintly disrespectful way to speak of a dish. And that dish looked good! I was covetously eying Jacques' Mandu the entire time, hoping for some kind of diversion to happen out on Hillsborough Street (great new modernistic aluminum fixtures, by the way!) so I could reach out and take one...with my fork!

OK, here's the next thing about Waba. They offer you forks or chopsticks. This is a controversial topic. I know people who think it's unbelievably gauche to eat with a fork in a place that offers chopsticks. Well, let me tell you--there are things that I like to do with my food when I'm eating it that I don't know how to do with chopsticks. I like to move my food around, let it drag through the hot sauce, swirl it...things I don't think I can do with chopsticks. Anyway, I guess I just like the pure sensation of spearing my food, instead of just gently cradling it between two distancing pieces of wood. Call me a vulgarian! But it isn't because I can't use them. No, I've been trained in their use. I know how to do it. And I have eaten with them plenty of times. Anyway, Waba gives you that choice, and I'm grateful for it.

Well, the Dduk Bok Ki was fabulous. I loved the hot sauce, it definitely merited two hot (hott?) peppers. The fish,sliced into thin strips, was very tasty. The rice dumplings held my attention throughout the meal, and chewing them added suspense to the conversation as Jacques waited for my responses.

Overall, Waba is a reliable, enjoyable dining experience. I'm looking forward to trying every single item on their horizontal menu. It's a great place to meet and hold an intelligent conversation--something about the airiness and calm atmosphere seems to lend itself to this. And so I enthusiastically award Waba a full FIVE DUMPLINGS!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Zoë's Kitchen

This afternoon, Jacques Wool and I had lunch at the wonderful Zoë's Kitchen. Located in the Shops at Oberlin Court, a center full of interesting places underneath apartments, Zoë's is an awesome dining experience. Jacques pulled into the ample parking lot and we walked over to the restaurant. When we stepped inside, I became disoriented--which is no fault of the restaurant, I was merely preoccupied with some thought I was exploring and expressing. What else is new. I think I was looking for a hostess station, but Jacques gently guided me to the front counter. There is no hostess station. For ZK is a fast casual restaurant, and you needn't worry about a hostess when it's fast casual. I don't know if I've told you this before, but I love fast casual. To me, it's the best of both worlds. It has that relaxed fast food or quick serve feeling, but with the quality food of a sit-down restaurant...along with all the ambiance. We walked up to face the menu board. I could tell immediately that the eatery had on offer the types of items that I am currently looking for in my quest for better eating habits. I will not sacrifice flavor, however, and there's no need to at Zoë's place.

Let me tell you about the interior. Have you ever been to a library built in the 1970's? Have you ever been in a school built in the 1970's when the "open classroom" model was in vogue? Well, then you have a pretty good idea of what ZK looks like, because it's fabulous. The restaurant has these terrific 1970's colors. I mean, I'm talking seventies orange. Colors like that. And it also features a charming "high-tech" look. You know I love the exposed pipes of "high tech" and ZK has them to spare. And these pipes are huge! It's delightful to dine while glancing up at these giant orange pipes. I mean, from a design point of view it's matchless. It's like eating in some great university student center, or a restaurant in a really with-it art museum. I love it!

Speaking of art, ZK does feature some brilliant art. What they have is some astounding naive art lining the walls--with sophisticated portraits above the naive art. What a mixture! I immediately wanted to find out how to offer my drawings to be displayed there. You know you're in a good restaurant when you wish your art were hanging there. I mean, seriously.

OK, here's their system. Once you've ordered from the friendly, helpful cashier, they hand you one of those tiny flagpoles with your order number on it. And listen to this--Jacques and I ordered separately and yet we got the same flag! Isn't that efficient? We walked over next to the drink station. You won't believe this, but they actually have Coke Zero on tap there. I mean, I have never EVER seen a drink station where they had Coke Zero. I mean, they always have Diet Coke but never the Zero. Coke Zero is mystifyingly great to me--I mean, it tastes EXACTLY LIKE COKE. I don't know how they do it. I mean, there is no other diet item on the planet Earth that somehow replicates in perfect measure the thing it's meant to calorie-lessly clone. I mean, I can't think of anything--can you? Coke Zero? I think they ought to call it Coke Everything! Because it's even better than Coca-Cola. Because it has no calories, no caffeine I don't think. I mean it has nothing but flavor. And they have it there! They also have three urns of iced tea.

I really chuckled when I saw the sign stuck magnetically to the sweet tea urn. "Sweet Tea served with Southern Hospitality." Isn't that great? Because it's self-serve, which means ZK is such a tremendous place even when you're serving yourself it's in a gracious style full of southern hospitality. I mean, eateries don't get better than that!

So Jacques grabbed an iced tea and I my Coke Zero and we sat down--among the many choices--at a table near the window but not too close that the hot sun would bother us. In a few moments, a server brought my salad. Now, pay attention here, because it's fast casual--but with table service!! Isn't that great? This is part of what I mean by the best of both worlds. Now, remember, it isn't fast food--far from it. Which means, you have to wait a little longer than you do in some place where they're just grabbing a burger from a heated chute for you. Since Jacques didn't have a side salad with his entree--I believe he had the Mediterranean Tuna Pita, though I'm not sure because I was so caught up in my meal, which I will be describing for you--he graciously suggested that I tuck into my side salad. It was great! I can still taste the olives. And the pita. And the red onions. It was just right, and then we were served our main meals.

I made a great decision, because I ordered the Veggie Pita Pizza. This was astonishingly good. The spinach was full of flavor, and the pizza had just enough tomato sauce. The pizza had a nearly-stuffed quality while retaining a crispy crunchy crust, really terrific. I enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed it immensely. And I can't wait to go back there.

In fact, I haven't been this enthusiastic about a dining establishment in a long time. The menu seemed to offer so many healthful, flavor-filled favorites that I think I'd like to eat there every single day until eternity, sampling one dish after another.

Remembering that he had left his Panama Hat at Fosters at our last luncheon meeting, Jacques wisely brought a less costly chapeau with him to Zoë's Kitchen. But the service is so great there, I assume that if he had forgotten this hat as well, the servers would have made sure to secure it until it could be safely retrieved.

Again, the service was amazing. Table service! As we ate, a server came and took our plates out of the way. I love that in a fast casual restaurant. It really helps out the conversation when you aren't distracted by plates you've eaten from. Take them away! And they did--without our asking.

It was very easy to hold a conversation in ZK. I mean, it wasn't noisy, I don't even recall if there was music playing or not--always a good sign. I mean, I think there might have been, but I can't attest to it. Which means it probably was, but wasn't in the least bit distracting.

I really regret not having ordered dessert. The entrees were so good that I truly believe that the desserts are probably fantastic there, and I know that the next time I'm there I'm going to order a dessert.

I also want to mention the wondrous Greek salad dressing--a wine vinaigrette--that awaits you on each table. Isn't that amazing--they already put out the salad dressing for you, and it's a great signature dressing--it had a faint taste of mango, but I don't really know what they put in it aside from awesome. I poured it on my side salad and was very pleased with the result.

I have seen the future of the restaurant industry, and its name is Zoë's Kitchen! Go there--try it--you will thank yourself later--actually, you will thank ME, since I'm the one who suggested it. I give it an enthusiastic FIVE OLIVES!!!!!

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Chicken Steak-Fried Chicken XL at Wag Nabbit's

If as Ernest Hemingway once averred, morality is what you feel good after and immorality is what you feel bad after, then the steak-fried Chicken Steak-Fried Chicken XL at Wag Nabbit's is immoral--because after eating this entree I felt very bad indeed. The thing is still squatting in my guts like a granite curling stone. And I still can't tell you whether it was beef or chicken. The title completely disoriented me. I think it's a steak-fried chicken-steak, or a chicken-fried steak-fried steak-chicken, but I can't tell you. All I know about this aporia on a platter is that I'm still suffering from ingesting it. When I close my eyes I see it spinning eternally on some weird potter's wheel.

Wag Nabbit's is one of those plastic, Stepford Dives-type places that have absolutely no character. I guess they tried to lend the place some character by making a dish that was completely inedible. Well, if that's their idea of character, then I'll take bland soullessness, because I don't like to feel the way I'm feeling right now.

I don't suppose you know what it's like to have this kind of meal taking up residence in your stomach. No, you don't have to eat at places like Wag Nabbit's--because you aren't a food critic! There. I've said it. Because you're not a food critic, you get to choose the places you want to eat it. You don't have to go somewhere because it's on your list of places you haven't reviewed yet. Oh, no, you've got it easy. You can eat at the same place every single day of the week if you want. Imagine if I did that. I mean, really. Imagine it. Close your eyes and in as much sensory detail as you can, picture and imagine me, your food critic, eating at the same restaurant every day for a single week. I mean, picture me wearing different outfits, and visiting the restaurant under varied weather conditions. Are you picturing it? Are you smelling the smells, hearing the background music? Well, that will never happen. Push that vision away! That's right, erase it, because I have to eat somewhere different on a daily basis. Because if I turned in the same review seven times in a row, even if it was different each time, why my public would be outraged! They would turn into the torch-and-pitchfork mob that hunted Frankenstein's monster. I'm serious (I always am).

If this is a rant, so be it. Wag Nabbit's, or Dag Dabbit's, or Wascally Wabbit, or whatever the heck it's called, it just isn't the kind of place I would ever set foot in were I not a food critic. I mean, you may not believe this, but at one time I was a very cool and with-it individual. My favorite Velvet Underground LP was the Couch Album, for goodness' sake. And now here I am eating some darn chicken-fried steak-chicken-fried steak steak thing at Dang Dabbit's suburban hellhole. You like I like this place? You think I like the music they play in here? This isn't music, I know what music is. This is the kind of music they play as soundtrack to the horrifying rituals of the spiritually embalmed.

I'm not sure how long I can continue to review places like this. I mean, do people who dine at Dab Diggety or whatever even read my reviews? They just eat there because it's attached to the mall, don't they? I mean, if they'd made a left turn they'd be at Dippin Dots instead, wouldn't they?

OK. I've vented. I feel better. The indigestion is settling. I'm going to finish my review and take a nap. The Steak-Fried Chicken XL wasn't really all that bad. Not really. I give up. I give it five stars...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flannel's Cafe'

According to a recent New York Times article, "Gen X [is Having] a Midlife Crisis". Well, you wouldn't know it at Flannel's Cafe', because in this midtown eatery, Generation X it still in its grungy, nihilistic, slacker prime.

Yes, it was inevitable. If most theme restaurants have a sixties/seventies ambiance, why not a theme restaurant for the "Nevermind" generation? Yes, I know "why not"--but let that pass, because Flannel's Cafe' is where X marks the spot for flavor.

I like Flannel's because it just has that friendly, unassuming vibe that we associate with the post-boomer generation. Walk in and be pummeled by the music to dine by: Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice" from a Peavey amp suspended above the hostess station.

Do you remember all those articles in Time magazine in the 1990's about how Gen X types were sullen wage slaves? Well, the help here at Flannel's lives up to that stereotype, but in an amusing, ironic (of course) way. So it isn't offensive at all. In fact, it's kind of sweet, bathing you in nostalgia for a time when people were deeply shocked to see a cash-register operator wearing a nose ring.

The bare bones atmosphere of Flannel's won't win any interior design awards. Exposed beams and wiring, with glaring lamps (and blaring amps) and uncomfortable seating, drop you down a time warp into the psychological darkness of the grunge decade.

As befitting a "Hard Rock Cafe" knockoff, Flannel's features goofy rock star memorabilia on the walls, items such as Kurt Cobain's death certificate that couldn't be more obvious and unimaginative.

As for the food, it's excellent, and I think if Flannel's dropped the 1990's nostalgia trappings, they might have a decent little "hole"-in-the-wall. I had the orange roughy with a lime smoothie, because I believe in taking the roughy with the smoothie.

Overall, I had a wonderful experience at Flannel's. This trip down memory lane made me pine for the days of that surprisingly light-hearted decade. If you're looking for a similar experience, be sure to pop into Flannel's Cafe'. I'm happy to give Flannel's Cafe' Five Smoothies!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Restaurant Review: Fosters American Grille

As I was walking through the parking lot, my cell phone vibrated. A message from Jacques Wool. He'd left behind his panama hat--would I go back and retrieve it from the restaurant? But of course! As I walked back to Fosters, I pictured going back to the table and grabbing the hat from the chair Jacques had sat in. I stepped back into Fosters. I was about to tell the friendly and helpful hostess that I had returned to pick up my friend's hat, but before the words escaped my lips I saw that Jacques' panama hat had been thoughtfully placed on one of the stands in the entry.

That impressed me. Then again, a number of things impressed me about the restaurant. I liked the bright, airy dining room. The decor was appealing--I enjoyed the amber spheres enclosed in wrought iron bands that hung from the ceiling. A pleasant, talkative din filled the dining room, though Jacques did mention a more sound-absorbing floor material would help us hear each other--then again, you may not be as soft-spoken as Jacques and I. I didn't notice any music playing, if there was any, and there certainly was not a television in sight. Fosters would be an ideal place to discuss Wallace Stevens...and his world.

The server was great--attentive but not intrusive. My iced tea glass kept being refilled as though by magic! And that's the way it ought to be. The menu featured a great range of items at different price points, all the way from BBQ pizza to scallops. Jacques enjoyed his Buffalo Shrimp Po Boy. I couldn't resist snapping up one of his French Fried Potatoes sprinkled with sea salt--excellent! I like my French Fries to taste like...potatoes, for that's what they are.

I had the fantastic Four Cheese Pesto pizza. The crust was just crunchy enough and the Feta cheese was terrific. I think next time I'll ask for extra cilantro--though I understand why they may have gone easy on it--cilantro does have a way of taking over a pizza...though I like it when that happens.

I absolutely will be going back to this restaurant. I like how a menu with more reasonable prices exists in a restaurant with such a pleasant atmosphere and outstanding food. And so, I am happy to report that I give Fosters--five cilantro leaves!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Special Report: The Ivory Satin Cake at Sleepy Chapel Sandwich Shoppe

I had a very disturbing and upsetting experience the other week at Sleepy Chapel Sandwich Shoppe, an experience I must share with you. As you know, for me, the Sleepy Chapel is already a place that carries an atmosphere of anxiety, so having this event occur there merely doubles how much of an ordeal this experience was for me.

After my typical Sleepy Sandwich meal, the Calamari Po Boy, I decided to throw caution to the winds and order dessert. The dessert itself was fabulous, but I rue the day that I ever ordered the Ivory Satin Cake, because doing so flung me into an entangling Kafkaesque nightmare from which I still have not recovered.

Just picture all those computer wires beneath your desk that you could never dream of untangling, and that is the sort of maddening, devilishly frustrating bureaucratic terror trap I have been cast into.

Now, at this point you're thinking to yourself (probably), "He got into some Kafkaesque nightmare because he ordered Ivory Satin Cake?" I know--sounds crazy. But hang on, because you're going to be shocked.

The cake was great. I jokingly said to the server, "You know, I would love the recipe!" The server, whose eyes were glazed, and whose head was lolling on his neck, slurred, "Sure, thing. I'll paper-clip it to the check." I shook my head sternly. "No, man," continued the disoriented waitron, "We do it all the time."

Imagine my shock when in the mail today I received a bill from Sleepy Chapel. A bill for the amount of $500! What?! I thought to myself, "They're billing me $500--for what?" Luckily it was an itemized bill...and guess what I was being charged for? You got it. Five hundred bucks for the recipe for Ivory Satin Cake.

I was floored. I was flabbergasted. I was flummoxed. I immediately got on the phone and spoke to a manager.

I was told that the Sleepy Chapel Sandwich Shoppe charges a recipe fee! I tried to explain to the manager that I had been only kidding, and that I would never have asked for the recipe had I known that I would be charged anything at all, much less five hundred dollars.

I'm sharing this tale with you so that you may learn from my experience. Don't even joke about wanting a dessert recipe from Sleepy Chapel...because the joke will be on you!

Caveat Emptor!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bowl of Glop Extended-Stay Diner

If you truly want to savor a meal, you need to dine at an extended-stay restaurant. The way I like to eat, an hour or two is definitely not enough. Dinner hour? How about, dinner week! And so when I want to give my tastebuds an all-out experience, I have a week-long meal at Bowl of Glop Extended-Stay Diner.

You'll love Bowl of Glop because, for one thing, you can reserve a table online. When you arrive, it's there for you in your own dining suite, complete with television, bed, and desk. I love how Bowl of Glop anticipates my wishes based on previous orders. The suggestions are marvelous! Order panko-encrusted plankton one day, and the next evening you'll be sure to see Jumbo tofu shrimp on your platter.

I like a leisurely lunch, and that's what you'll find at Glop. When the server sets down your bill and says, "No hurry!" you know they actually mean it, because you'll be staying for an entire week's worth of meals!

The ambiance, not surprisingly in an extended-stay diner, is a bit utilitarian. You might consider bringing some paintings or sculptures, or even houseplants, from home to spruce up your dining chamber a smidgen. Did I just say smidgen? But although Glop may look like a drab motel, the food is anything but. Your mouth will play an electric Sousa fireworks amusement-park storm of flavor when you bite into the unpopped-popcorn globes at Glop. Tantalizing tastes will greet you when the gates of your kiwi curd pork chops open on your tongue.

Overall, this relaxing dining concept is just what is needed in today's text-message society. So chill out and enjoy the week-long, 28-course meal offered at Bowl of Glop Extended-Stay Diner. I calmly give it Five Gobbets of Glop!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Shambles Steakhouse

The maitre d' at Shambles stood at his lectern, eyes crinkling, smiling, shaking his head in wonder. "Astonishing," he said. "Simply astonishing. Table for one?" And that's the kind of greeting you can expect at Shambles Steakhouse. Ah, maitre! Want Shambles Steakhouse to always love me. I must say that if you'd like a restaurant staff that dresses like the mascot of an anglophile 1970's hotel, then Shambles Steakhouse is the place for you. I followed him through the mineshaft-style corridor into the main dining hall, where I was seated at a large wooden board. Since the board didn't have any legs, it was difficult to keep it from tilting, but I was able to keep it balanced on my knees the entire visit. "Marvelous!" the maitre d' cried. I think that I saw a tiny rivulet of moisture make its way down the rubbery surface of his cheek. Assuring me that my server would soon be arriving, he walked away, fists pumping in time with his footsteps. I sat a few moments at the rumpled tablecloth, enjoying the decor and ambiance of Shambles. The wintry Victorian atmosphere was most welcome, especially on a brutally humid summer's evening. Soon, the waitron arrived. The gigantic menu was impressive--it actually was a few inches taller than the server, and had to be walked into the dining room. The server opened it, but really that was unnecessary--I was in Shambles STEAKhouse, after all. I knew what I wanted.

After ordering the crab cake sandwich with a side of linked onion rings, I sipped ale from my pewter mug and waited for my food to arrive. Shambles has always been an incredible dining experience. As you know, I have many pet peeves, and somehow Shambles manages to avoid all of them! It's positively Shambolic! Sorry. While my meal was being prepared, the singing strollers stopped by my table. You know how I feel about piped-in music--well, live music is always 100% better. And Shambles proves it. For you see, even when it's amateurish, live music has a life and charm to it that recorded music, no matter how professionally crafted, can never attain. The singing strollers, dressed in over sized overcoats, heartily sang "Greenland Whale Fisheries," perhaps my favorite sea shanty, though really, how can one choose? The amazing strollers roared out the shanty, to the delight of everyone in the dining room. Thankfully, when the owners of Shambles changed the eatery from a seafood emporium to a chop house, they kept the singing strollers on staff, and let them gradually begin the process of changing their repertoire. Only recently have western-themed songs like "All Along, Along, Along, the Colorado Trail" and "The Summer Wind" been added to the line-up. Combine the Victorian England ambience with sea shanties, and you have a great, unbeatable combo!

The strolling singers continued to tickle my eardrums with their vocalizations when my food arrived. The crab cake sandwich was out-of-this-world! I loved the wonderful frosting and the layer of pineapple was just right. The linked onion rings were fantastic. Some of you may pull them apart before you eat them, but not I! No, I shove the entire thing in my mouth at once--a fried chain of delicious!

Overall, I had another great experience at the reliable Shambles Steakhouse. The combination of food, atmosphere, music, and interpersonal dynamics among the waitstaff makes it THE steakhouse in the area. One would have to take a shuttle to colonized Mars to have a better dining experience. And so I enthusiastically award Shambles Steakhouse an almost-unheard-of FIVE PINEAPPLE RINGS!

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Sno-Cone Wagon Outside Unclaimed Carpet

I think in my next life I'm going to be not a food critic again, but the operator of a sno-cone wagon. Today's visit to the sno-cone wagon that can be found on the sidewalk in front of Unclaimed Carpet convinced me of that. For one thing, the profits must be phenomenal! I mean, basically you're selling frozen water with syrup poured on it. So a sno-cone wagon may be in my future. And how often can you say that!

After wandering in a stupor through the aisles and aisles of Unclaimed Carpet, numbed by the smell of carpet padding and dizzied by the carpet rolls that towered above me, I was in the mood for lunch. And what better way to satisfy your appetite than a sno-cone?

First, let me describe the cart. This stainless-steel sno-cone wagon draws in the eye like a Venus Fly-Trap. The white powder finish, combined with the charming bicycle wheels, made me feel that I had been transported to a childhood beach. It was 1974 again, AM radio had gone completely insane, and 7up ads were everywhere. The perfect day for a sno-cone!

After being magnetized by the wagon, I next spoke with the owner/operator of the wagon, "Mr. Phelps." "What are you having?" he asked. Let me tell you, the variety of sno-cone flavors is phenomenal. After looking through a thick binder of plastic sheets listing the thousands of flavors, I finally settled on Lime.

How shall I describe the sno-cone? Oddly, it isn't precisely a cone. And it isn't literally made of snow. But, as they say, it is what it is. While the ice was a bit occluded, and I suspected the water was not fresh from a spring but perhaps had gushed from a garden hose, I did find the Lime syrup to be piquant and intriguing. In fact, I bought a jug of it to bring home with me. I think I'll pour a glass of it right now!

Overall, my visit to the Sno-Cone wagon was exactly what it needed to be. Though it may not have been the finest sno-cone I've ever had, the Lime cone was cold, syrupy, and solid. The service, as performed by the indefatigable Mr. Phelps, was exemplary. All in all, a good experience, especially after the confusion and exhaustion of shopping at Unclaimed Carpet. And so I award the Sno-Cone wagon Three Ice Shavers!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Sleepy Chapel Sandwich Shoppe

This afternoon I stopped for lunch at the Sleepy Chapel Sandwich Shoppe. This eatery is located in the shopping district of Villageville, a place I had avoided for years because for some mysterious reason the drive up there always induced a panic attack in me. What was it about the sedated greenery on the sides of the highway, the droning scent of summer and slumber, that made me feel trapped in my own car as I drove to Villageville? Painful thoughts attacked my psyche as I stayed in the right lane so as to be able to exit whenever I wanted to (much as some people like to sit near the exit in a movie theater, in case the figures on the screen loom too large, and the excessive soundtrack pummel the delicate mind). This somnolent village, once I'd arrived, seemed pleasant but oddly disturbing in its agrarian gentlemanliness. But I always made the trip because of my love for the Sleepy Chapel. Every year I would overcome my anxiety, get in my car with a well-highlighted set of printouts from the automobile association's site, and set forth for Villageville. And today I again had the longing to visit Villageville. After the car trip, which for once was in no way harrowing, oddly enough--my experiences last year traveling to numerous eating establishments may have inured me for good to interstate driving--I parked in the municipal dirt pit, got my ticket, and made my way to my destination, the one-of-a-kind Sleepy Chapel Sandwich Shoppe.

The Shoppe itself is, like many of the other buildings in Villageville, a red brick building which seems to absorb somehow the heat of the sun and to be in a state of endless drowsiness. How amazed I was to see that the Shoppe, which a year ago had opened at 10 am (which I consider rather late for a restaurant) now, according to the sign in the window (a cartoon chef held on a tray a clock with moveable red hands) was to open at 11. Eleven o'clock! I pulled out my cellphone and noted that it was now 10:30. I had exactly a half hour to spend waiting for the Shoppe to open. What would I do? What was going on with the Shoppe that their hours of operation were becoming more and more circumscribed? I decided to go for a brief stroll, walking for fifteen minutes in one direction, upon which point I would turn in the opposite direction, taking another fifteen minutes to return to the Sandwich Shoppe. I thought it just might do the trick, and bring me back to the restaurant in time for opening.

As I strolled along Village Street (not to be confused with nearby Village Road, Village Avenue, Villageville Street, and Village Circle), I glanced into the windows of the shops. The paint everywhere was peeling. A number of charming thrift shops charmed me, but I was intent on keeping my senses clear until I was ready to dine at Sleepy Chapel. Finding a long-lost childhood lunchbox might skew my critical eye for the entire day, and that would be doing you, the readers of these reviews, a grave disservice.

After my half-hour's walk, I stepped into the Sandwich Shoppe. And who did I see sitting at one of the antiqued, green wrought-iron tables but my old friend Jacques Wool? I rushed to greet him, tripping on a rug but quickly righting myself. I shook hands with Jacques and sat down to join him for lunch.

"I see you have overcome your little anxieties and have made the trek to Villageville!" Wool said. "Though sometimes I wonder whether it is indeed worth the effort. The Sleepy Sandwich is not what it used to be. That is for certain!" Jacques leaned back in his chair and a gale of laughter stormed from his lips. Jacques continued, more soberly, "Once, I told you to check this place out. But you must realize, I am only human. And so is this Sandwich Shoppe! This may no longer be the food palace I once deemed it to be. This may be my last time in this joint. I am glad that you were able to be here for my farewell to Villageville!"

The waitroid arrived then. As usual, Jacques ordered the cigar-flavored smoothie. I decided on the wonderful Eggless Omelet (all the ingredients you'd expect in an omelet, without the eggs--we're talking genius, here!). "I mean, really," Jacques stated, "is it worth the angst? You look like a ghost, man! Like a freaking specter!" Jacques cackled. "And for what? A plate full of diced ham and onions? I don't think so. You make the harrowing journey to Villageville once a year, and something about driving on that interstate gives you anxiety attacks--big time!" As we talked, I noticed that they'd turned on the music. The Buggles' "Living in the Plastic Age" was playing. "I haven't heard that one in years," I said. Jacques said, "What, the phrase 'big time'?" Our waitroid returned and set down our lunch. Before the server could leave, Jacques clenched his forearm and said, "Wait a moment, R2D2. I want to ask you a question. There's a big tip in it for you if you have the correct answer." Jacques blew a personified cloud of smoke into the air and said, "My friend here has a problem. I think he has a certain sensitivity that is making him act strangely when he comes to Villageville." The waitroid looked at Jacques quizzically. Jacques said, "I think our friend here has a morbid sensitivity to...pinecones!" The server looked at though Jacques were either being nice to him or mocking him, and he couldn't be sure. "Pinecones?" he asked. Jacques said, "Yes, I think the highway to Villageville is lined with many pinecones, and these cause him to have a strange reaction. Maybe he was traumatized in the past. Maybe as a child a pinecone hit him on the noggin--and now he is afraid of them!" Jacques laughed heartily and pounded the table with his fist. "Whatever you do, do not--and I mean, do not--serve this man pinecones!" The waitroid answered noncommittally, and walked away. "What in Hades was that all about?" I asked Jacques. "Oh," Jacques said, forming a devilish point at the end of his Van Dyke beard, "you will see soon enough. Now that I've broached the subject, the true import of the symbolism will penetrate your subconscious mind." I started tucking into my omelet, pulling the sheet over my nose and mouth. "Jacques," I said, "you're a loon." Jacques slurped his cigar smoothie. It sounded like the suction in a dentist's office. "My friend, you need to get at the root of these phobias. But perhaps the Sleepy Sandwich is not the place for such explorations."

The omelet as usual was fantastic. The diced ham and onions were well-polished and clicked pleasantly in my spoon. Jacques seemed to find his cigar smoothie rather satisfying--it appeared to put him in a mellow mood. "Did I ever tell you," Jacques said, "about the aspiring food critic who never actually ate at any of the restaurants he reviewed? Scandalous! He simply picked up copies of their take-out menu's and made up reviews out of whole cloth. Imagine! And no one was none the wiser--not any, not one!" Jacques absently tapped his forehead with his spoon. "Of course, he was apprehended. People cannot go through these kinds of clandestine machinations without being exposed. The idiot, he wrote a review of a restaurant that had been turned into a reptile shop! You can imagine how his editors reacted to that review when he phoned it in to them. They threw him out into the street! You may have your numerous faults as a restaurant critic, my friend, but at least you visit the eateries you are reviewing! I can say that much for you. You give us at least that much credit as readers--darn it, as human beings! Food criticism is not a game of jumping jacks!" At this Jacques slammed his fist on the table. "Food criticism is the most highly evolved form of reviewing in our century--and this man was playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with it! Madness! Who knows how many people, taking him at his word, journeyed down to that reptile shop expecting it to be Shambles' Steakhouse? It's an insult! A literal insult!" Jacques' face was flushed with anger as he sat there panting, his aviator glasses misted over with rage, like seeing a red neon light through a car window on a rainy, foggy night. After a few minutes of trembling fury, Jacques seemed to calm down again. He slurped his cigar smoothie once more, then shrugged with upturned palms and pursed lips. "But if that's how he wanted to play the game, who am I to say no? I am not Milton Bradley."

The waitroid returned and offered us dessert. I love dessert at Sleepy Chapel. I ordered the avocado cobbler; Jacques had the Calcium-Lover's Sundae. Lunch with Jacques was amazing always, but I needed to psychically prepare myself for the stressful ride home. "You think about those pinecones," Jacques reinforced as he shook my hand. Oddly though, as I pulled my car onto Village Street, the prospect of driving on the highway no longer caused me any anxiety. In fact, I was home before I knew it. Perhaps talking with Jacques had done the trick. Or more likely it was the confidence I'd gained through my many food-inspired roadtrips and daytrips of the previous year. Whatever the cause of my newfound calmness on the interstate, it showed that just as I could get used to new dishes like the fabulous avocado cobbler, so could I get used to the unfamiliar road to Villageville. I was glad I had overcome this driving phobia, because I had already begun to map out a number of restaurants in the surrounding area that I wished to travel to and enjoy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Back to the Egg: the Beginnings of a Food Critic

Long before I dreamed of being a food critic, I wanted to be a magician. Crazy, huh? No, it's magical. I was obsessed with magic. The embryonic food critic was a little boy in a tuxedo and a magic set. From the public library I checked out a book, no doubt some instant-bargain reprint (on cheap newsprint) of a book from the 1930's (I imagine) by somebody named Duninger (sp?) all about how to perform magic tricks. I'll google it later (google it later--isn't that everybody's motto now? Unless it's "google it now.") I remember my wand, black with white tips at both ends. I remember the black bowls, the coins, the rings, the scarves. All in a package for Christmas. I was going to be a magician. I was obsessed with Houdini. I watched a TV Movie called "The Great Houdinis" (plural--it was about his wife as well). I read paperback books about Houdini. I remember the local mall/indoor amusement park had a magic history exhibit. I saw Houdini's straitjacket! That mall also had a magic shop. I'd go there and buy tricks--for a while, but soon I started buying the gags and novelties instead, until at last I bought only the coverless (!) comics they sold there (I found a copy of The Great Gazoo). That mall is out of business now. I wanted so bad to be a magician. I was everything T.S. Eliot said about Edgar Allan Poe, except I really was a nine-year-old boy (or whatever age Eliot claimed Poe was stuck in). I think I bought Blue Oyster Cult's (umlaut to be provided later if never, I'm feeling lazy--can't you tell?) Agents of Fortune LP (on vinyl!) because of the mysterious picture of the magician on the cover. The strange glyph. The intriguing cards (I didn't know they were Tarot cards then. In my early twenties I became obsessed with the Tarot). And so I thought I would become a magician in later life, little dreaming (little dreaming!) that I would become instead the world's foremost food critic. What a twisted, misted labyrinth that led from that midwestern magic shop to my place at the forefront of culinary theory. Back to the egg, indeed!

But--you must be asking--show us the thread and how it leads from one dream to another, please! I'd say I probably always was a food critic. Because I indeed was that child who people stated "ate like a bird." Ate like a bird! What kind of bird? A vulture? A hawk? No, I know what they meant, they meant some tiny pipsqueak of a feathered friend, chirping and chirruping, pecking and picking, eating crumbs, ah, not a ravenous lion tearing great chunks of meatloaf from his plate. That's what they wanted to see. But I, alas, had a bird's beak, not a lion's fang. Looking back, now, I see that what I possessed was greater than both of those things, for I was endowed with a little thing called "taste." Because I was able to make disinctions, even back then. I knew that King Vitaman (note the spelling--not "Vitamin" but "Vita-Man" in other words "VITAL MAN"--what crazed fantasies of virility were being packaged in these cereal boxes??) was much more interesting than Cheerio's. What could be less "cheery, oh!" than a bowl of Cheerio's, I thought as a child. Those sad, round oat rings floating pitifully in a milk bowl, the milk usually over-sweetened with grains of sugar since the stuff was inedible without adding at least seven lumps to it, and the sogginess of the rings as they became saturated with warming, sickeningly sweet milk. Where's my King Vitaman? Don't give me these nihilistic, life-despising circles of pathos! Give me my King Vitaman! And when that happened, when I decided that I preferred KV to Cheerio's, that was a mind-blowing, earth-tilting epiphanic moment that decided it for me. I put down my wand and picked up my food-critic's notepad. And I never looked back!

As a food critic, I must make judgements. I must use the sword of criticism to divide the good from the bad, cuisine-wise. And most of all I must preserve your trust in me, as I promise not to lead you astray. I pledge that if a meal, no matter how trendy, tastes like chalk tablets to my tastebuds, I will report that to you. I recall walking up to shoppers in the supermarket as a child and warning them about products they were intent on buying. "No!" I howled. "Don't make the mistake of purchasing those jars of peanut butter already mixed with jelly! I had some last month and it's horrific! Please don't do that to yourselves!" And with crazed gestures like some insane symphony conductor I pulled boxes of Chicken-in-a-Biscuit off the shelves and threw them into their shopping carts. "Eat this stuff instead! I promise, you won't be sorry. Aw, you gotta listen to me. That stuff is just no darn good!" Soon I was tossing jars of canned heart-of-palm into the carts as well, as I stood there windmilling my arms, racked with frustrated, altruistic sobs. And so, a food critic was born. If there's a hero in this story, it's that little boy that I was, howling as he tosses bottles of Squirt and boxes of Quisp into the shopping carts of clueless consumers. Soon, of course, I began to speak up not just in supermarkets but in restaurants, and here my career as a food critic begins in earnest. If I saw somebody pouring ketchup on their fries at McDonald's, it was all I could do as a youngster not to flap my hands in their face and ask them if they'd never heard of vinegar. "Sour? Available in bottles? Good on French fries?" I began typing little reviews of restaurants on index cards and thumb-tacking them to telephone poles. I graduated to borrowing the school mimeograph machine to turn out purple copies of my restaurant criticism. Soon, as you know, I was given the Food Critic Prodigy Award . I was well on my way to greatness as a food critic. But of course, it's a "Long and Winding Road" from here to there.

In between those early days and now there were many periods of transition as my tastebuds evolved. (For example, as a child I couldn't abide calamari, whereas now it's practically all I eat--or at least that's what some people would tell you!) I won't pretend that I haven't made a few food faux pas on my road to greatness. I was one of the first critics to predict that aerosol lard would soon be a tableside staple--what was I thinking?! But all in all, I think I've hit more bullseyes and stuck fewer bystanders with my opinions. And now with the Internet, I have a way of instantly seed-casting my insights across the entire solar system--even to colonized Mars!

I want to thank you for joining me on this journey from the embryonic magician that spellbound his schoolmates and teachers, to the courageous food-reformer taking a stand in the grocery aisles, all the way to the successful, complacent food guru who rules the cyber waves! Remember, it's not how the chef stirs the food, it's how the food stirs you!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Foghorn Seafood

On TV sitcoms, when somebody gets a new job it's always one their friends don't know about at a fast-food place. (Fast food, convenience food, quick serve, whatever). And there is one thing that always happens to this person. Two things. First, they are always made to wear an embarrassing cap. This cap is never the kind you actually encounter in a fast-food establishment--it always has a large spring attached to it from which bounces and bobs a giant chicken. And the person's friends always show up at the restaurant and get in line when the character is working the register. No, three things. For some reason unfathomable to me, television screenwriters believe that persons who work for fast food eateries are given company cars. The company car the character is given always has a (giant) chicken attached to the roof of it, much as the chicken is attached to his cap, though not on a spring. (Spring chicken? That is not where I was going with this observation). Anyway. Foghorn Seafood ("Where the food is never forlorn") is just the kind of place a sitcom character might get a job at, but in a good way. I'd had a hankering for seafood, so I stopped in at Foghorn this afternoon for lunch. If you're not from North Carolina, you don't know that there are two kinds of seafood in the piedmont state: Eastern (beach) style seafood and Western (mountain) style seafood. Now some purists may prefer Western seafood, but I myself, and perhaps it's a guilty pleasure, prefer the seafood that is served near the Atlantic ocean. While Western tartar sauce has its own flair, I suspect that most of you will agree with me (and you had better) that oceanside seafood is cooler. Now that we've gotten that little debate out of the way, let's talk Foghorn. Now remember, Foghorn is fast food, so there are no servers. You must take your place in line with the rest and read your selection not from a menu but from a menu board (huge distinction). There are two parts to this menu board: the main section, for adults, is subheaded "Old Salts." The smaller section is dubbed "Little Sea Monsters," which contains offerings for children. From "Old Salts," I ordered the beer-battered octopus-suckers with a side of anchovy fries, washed down with bottled saltwater. Now, some argue that saltwater in a bottle is no different from saltwater direct from the ocean, but I beg to differ. Bottled saltwater is better, and I can prove it. The atmosphere in Foghorn is what you'd expect in a quick-serve emporium--primary colors, plastic, music you would never willingly listen to. The octopus-suckers were scrumptious, and the anchovy fries some of the best I've encountered. I really love how the anchovy fries make you thirsty, and the saltwater you drink to ease your thirst makes you ever more parched than before! It's a lot like life. And it's a lot like lunch at Foghorn Seafood, which I'm giving a solid three tentacles!

Monday, March 15, 2010


What's the first LP you ever bought? Chances are it's framed and hanging on the walls at Golly's. Winner of the "best credit-card folder" award from my 2009 Restaurant Round-up, Golly's gives you all the nostalgia with none of the neuralgia. Dig? My first LP (vinyl of course) was K-Tel's Fantastic, which came out in 1973, I believe. I remember my parents buying it for me at Sears. I remember walking past the 1970's furniture department to the record department. Does Sears even still sell records? What an album! Whatever happened to Gunhill Road? Anyway, I was pleased as spiked punch when I was seated at Golly's and saw Fantastic on the wall right next to my booth. At Golly's, the platters on the table aren't the only platters you'll love! As I gazed at the cover, which I suddenly realized in a humbling ephiphany actually depicts the 7 colors of the spectrum--yes, Roy G. Biv himself--I recalled such favorites as "Back When My Hair was Short" by the aforementioned Gunhill Road and "Hocus Pocus" by Focus, just to name a couple from this 22-track cornucopia (22 Hits!! 20!!). You can imagine how sweetly thrilled I was when the server approached my table with my frosted glass of Squirt and apparently noticing me looking fondly at the album cover, stated, "You know, if you press the PLAY button beneath the cover, you can hear the album!" I had no idea. I mashed the button with enthusiasm and sat back with my Squirt as "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" dangled above my head from the ceiling like some musical sword of Damocles. I was in hog heaven! These were the songs that the other children in elementary school were always talking about--owning that album was possibly the last time I was ever "with it." This is just the kind of experience that Golly's will make you feel. The placemat was wonderful. It had cartoons of famous inventors on one side and cartoons of their inventions on the other. The puzzle? Match up the inventor with the invention. Sounds simple, but I had trouble with which innovator came up with AstroTurf and which one invented the Hitching Post. The menu was amazing, printed on placemat-style paper. In a place like Golly's, you have to order typical diner fare. What I had in mind was the pupusas on a pu-pu platter, and that's exactly what I got! By this point, Jerry Jeff Walker's unbelievably great "L.A. Freeway" was barreling down my brain folds, and it was time to order dessert. I passed on the dessert special, the Sea Cucumber a la Rasputin, and instead had a more traditional after-dinner sweet treat--the Haggis Volcano! Yes, folks, Golly's serves my all-time favorite dessert. If you haven't tasted hot haggis erupting like lava from a rich chocolate cake, then you haven't lived, my friend! The wonderful aroma of haggis drifted toward my nostrils like a fresh spring breeze as I gently broke the chocolate Etna with my fork. The mingling flavors of haggis and fudge tumbled on my tastebuds like acrobats. It wasn't till Maureen McGovern's heartsick "Morning After" fell over me like a parachute of sadness that I realized my dessert was gone. So let's see. I got to hear my favorite songs as I ate my favorite dessert, the wondrous, magical Haggis Volcano. Together, they make a great combo, and make me happy to give Golly's an enthusiastic Five Original Stars!