Saturday, January 27, 2007

Not even Average...

One point of this blog, and the reason I gave it this name, The Critical Palate, was to discuss the extremely high number of bad dining experiences, from cheap places, to “high-end”. I make no secret to my disdain for restaurants. They expect us to come and freely spend money, but most couldn’t care less about the service, or quality of their food. I cannot comprehend the current reality of pre-fabricated food merely reheated on site, whether it’s boil-in-bag soup or “fresh” cut vegetables. It’s something disguised as food, but missing some essence of freshness. Friends of mine and I have begun referring to this phenomenon as “Stepford Food.”

What really kills me is restaurants that continue to recycle essentially the same concepts and essentially the same food. How many times do I need to read about a new bagel shop opening with an owner whose cutting edge concept is “bagel sandwiches using really fresh ingredients and high quality deli”? Oooh…I’ve gotta rush right over because that’s a concept I’ve never heard of before. When you live in area as I do, where there are several national chain restaurants, and a few local chains too, everything starts to look the same after a while. However, one local chain experience stands out as one of the all time worst.

This particular place opened about 6 years ago. It chose to use the phrase “not your average…” in their name; the inference you are supposed to draw is that they above the average on everything. The reality, to me, is that they are tremendously below average, if even that high, on every count. And so, without further ado…my tale of woe.

About a month after this place opened, we decided to go for a late lunch. I should note that I would never have chosen to go there, given its location. On a major road, but sort of removed from the beaten path and away from most of the commercial areas. My mother was with us, and we decided to give the new place a try, since we happened to be passing by. We pulled in at about 3:15pm on a quiet Sunday, unprepared for the experience.

We were a party of four (my mother, me, my wife, and four year old son). We were greeted by a hostess, who led us to a table near an open kitchen area, where they apparently prepare soups, salads and brick-oven pizza. There were very few people there at the time, given the off-hour, but the hostess handed us menus and told us that the lunch menu was still available until 4:00pm. We perused the menus, and perused, and perused some more. No service staff came by, at all. At one point, I wondered if I was going to need a shave before our server would come around. Finally, at 3:45pm, almost a half hour after we got there, I got up and found someone to bring us water; she went and found our waitress. I broke out my shaving kit—this was going to be a long meal.

The waitress came over, welcomed us, and took our drink order. When she came back, we gave her our lunch order. I should note that although they had kids’ meals, they did not have a separate menu; the kids’ meals were listed on the menu. While I don’t expect them to entertain my children, I would think someplace billing itself as a family restaurant would have a kid’s menu, and maybe a few crayons. Since they did not, we tried to keep him occupied, but he was very entertained by the Chef’n Ball pepper mill on the table. We got a lot of value out of that pepper ball, and the fresh ground pepper that had been in it.

Once that waitress took our order, I think someone pulled up behind the place, grabbed her and tossed her in the trunk of the car, and took her out to the desert to meet Joe Pesci, a-la “Casino.” She was never seen, nor heard from, again, during our meal. So, since she’s gone, literally, I took on the role of refilling our drinks, getting us water, and basically creating a fire to make a smoke signal for some new staff member to come and help us.

When a new server brought our food, everything seemed fine. I had the meat loaf, and it was passable. My son had a grilled cheese sandwich ($4.99, no drink) that came with fries that were inedible. Salt, pepper, spices…for a four year old, his mouth was on fire; even I could barely eat them. So now, we have a $4.99 grilled cheese and nothing else. When we mentioned this to the new server, who just got released from the methadone clinic, he scoffed at us and said “that’s how we make them.” Well, Mr. Courteous, how about we try to get some that are edible…?

While the meal was bad enough, the worst was yet to come.

So, we had to hunt down the server to get the check (I was hopeful that since I had worked so hard, it would be free), and it came to about $70.00. This was lunch for 4 people, one of whom was a kid!!! It turns out, they charged us dinner prices for all our meals. When I pointed out to the server that we ordered off the lunch menu, he said “well, you got 3 pieces of meatloaf, and that’s the dinner portion.” OK, buddy, but one piece was left on my plate, so I really only ate the lunch portion. WTH??? Now the manager had to come over to explain that the computers convert automatically at 4:00pm to the dinner prices. He still didn’t offer to adjust our bill, but I just stuck to my story, and finally he adjusted it to about $50.00. My mother paid with a $100.00 bill. The server had the audacity to ask if we needed change! We waited for him to come back with it. And waited, and waited. I think Joe Pesci came back for a second time…

While we were waiting, it really got interesting. As I said earlier, we were seated near that open kitchen area. Most of the kitchen was in back, but they had this small, limited open kitchen area where a couple of cooks were preparing small plates. So, we’re sitting there, waiting for them to print our change, and a guy wearing a chef’s coat that said “Executive Chef” on it comes out into the open kitchen, from the back. He comes out, apparently pissed about something. He walks up to a cook, grabs a ladle and starts spooning soup into a bowl. While he’s doing this, he says to the cook “Uno, Dos, Tres, CUARTRO”!!! (I’m assuming this is how you spell “four” in Spanish.) By the time he gets to “cuartro”, he is screaming at the guy, and everyone in the dining room is staring (it was now early dinner). The “Executive” chef then throws down the soup bowl, splashing everywhere, and yells “if you can’t count, or speak English, you’re not working here. Now clean that up!!!” and storms back into the kitchen. Apparently we get a floorshow with this awful meal. The manager comes back with the change, and we begin walking out the exit, when our original server suddenly reappears, hands us a comment card, and says “I hope you enjoyed yourselves. Please feel free to fill this out and send it back.” Oh yeah…that’s a great idea.

That comment card had an email address on it and I wrote detailing our experience. I do give the parent company some credit. The owner called me at work, and invited me to lunch with him to discuss things. He also called the restaurant and verified what I told him actually did happen. He also sent me some gift certificates to use in the future (like I really want these). I did take him up on his offer to come and meet him for lunch, and give him my feedback. He explained how service (with bad attitude and a scowl) is what differentiates his place from all the others (how many times have you heard that before?) and how ashamed he was of the experience (and well he should be). I ordered a hamburger for lunch that day, medium rare, and it came totally well done. I didn’t want to embarrass the owner by returning it because they were trying so hard. Later that day, I got an email follow-up from the owner, and he said that he was sorry my burger didn’t come out to my liking, and he appreciated my comments. He did incorporate my best idea-give the kids a drink or an activity sheet with crayons for that price. He acknowledged that they have a long way to go to get things right…I guess they never did—the place closed within 2 years of opening.

I have so many more…this is just the beginning.

How about you people?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

No Deal!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Does anyone really watch "Deal or No Deal"??? I'm telling you, this is no "Press Your Luck" or "Sale of the Centruy." Unlike Peter Tomarkin, only Howie Mandel's career was dead until this show. Last night, we turned it on for a few minutes, only to see Marty Feldman's long-lost sister from "Marty's Trailer Park Shangri La" rolling the dice and using her skills to try to win a million dollars.

I think the casting directors for these shows, including American Idol, pick people we can hold up for scorn and ridicule--so I must oblige. This woman's eyes were like those from the beginning credits of "The Twilight Zone" and her rube persona and affection for NASCAR made me recall "Deliverance" or ...Britney Spears.

How does anyone watch this show (including me). These people are such freaks, and so unlikable. And don't forget GREEDY and STUPID!!!!! That's a cocktail for disaster. Last night was classic: The woman's got $100K showing on the board, along with $1000, $500, $400 and $50. After a series of bad plays early in the game, her offer from the "banker" (I'd like to know what he's doing in the dark up there, while staring at all those case-holding models...) is $25K. She's already turned down $77K, so we know she's greedy, but now the smell of stupidity is wafting through the studio. Howie entices her a little: You have a 25% chance of having $100K. No kidding jerkweed!!!! But she has a 75% chance of holding garbage!!!! Of course, she says "No Deal" with a flourish, and then proceeds to pick the $100,000 box! Ha!!! Collectively, all of us do the fist pump and say "Yes!!!" Serves her right--pigs get slaughtered. What a surprise that she went in the tank. With her mad skills, there was no way she could lose...She should have listened to her husband Gomer, instead of her father, Floyd the Barber. What a country!

Random thought for my night: Now that Rosie is calling out Oprah, who's next? The Pope?

Who made Rosie O'Donut the guardian of my morality? Who died and left her Queen? Did they get permission from Helen Mirren, because frankly, no one plays a stiff queen better. Helen was at her best in Caligula, by the way.

Why does Rosie need to open her mouth? So what if Trump wants to give Miss USA a second chance? Isn't that what Rosie's stint on The View is? If Trump dumped Miss USA, I am sure Rosie would be screaming about how cruel he is and how the poor girl is doing everything she can to pull her life back together. Hey, I don't like Oprah one bit, but if Oprah didn't interview the kidnapping victim first, Rosie would have been pounding the family's door down offerring him a car and tickets to her "family cruise." Rosie is nothing if not a hypocrite. Move on Rosie, have another donut, and answer the phone: it's you career calling, saying "you're killing me!!!"

Until next time America...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

And the Winner Is...

I love the movies, or I should say: I loved the movies. In the words of Badfinger, "something's happenin' here, what it is, ain't exactly clear...".

What is going on in Hollywood? How can they put out the stuff they call film? Are all the movie critics across this country drinking some Jim Jones kool-aid? So few questions, so much time...oooh, strike that, reverse it.

I like to think of myself as a discerning movie-goer. I have a select group of people with whom I see movies every third week or so. We've seen movies that are Academy-award winners, and movies that should never have been printed to celluloid, but each time, I thought we knew what we were getting into and we made the choice. Our group would go in with its collective eyes open, but lately, a disturbing trend has revealed itself...movies, with rare exception, have become stale, but read some reviews, and you'd be convinced that Hollywood is churning out classics.

Case in point: Children of Men.
Critics say: Oscar worthy, cutting edge, moving, thought-provoking, 4 stars, two thumbs up...such great reviews, even Gene Siskel is giving it a thumb up.
Eric and his movie group say: Ishtar was better. Of the seven on us, 4 thought it was one of the worst movies ever, and three of us thought it was bad, but not horrible. Not a great endorsement.

I think that partly, Hollywood makes movies for themselves. With their bloated wallets and bloated egos, they celebrate themselves with elaborate parties and award ceremonies. They celebrate a director's "vision", but if "vision" is a plotless, colorless film without character backstories and development (I guess the director's creative consultant was Helen Keller), they love it even more.

Without beating this horse to death too much, I posit 5 films for your consideration. These are not my all time best, not my all time worst, nor my all time mediocre, just 5 films that I was thinking about during this post. Love them, hate them, don't even know them? Here they are:

1. Billy Jack (1971)--who doesn't love a story featuring a Vietnam era veteran single-handedly protecting the hippie Native American "Freedom School" from the oppressive Sheriff, his kid, and the other hick locals right out of Central Casting. Frankly, the closing theme, "One Tin Soldier" by Coven, rolling as Billy Jack is taken into custody and rides in the back of a cruiser while all the students raise their right fists in a show if "Native American" solidarity is chilling. LOVE this movie, independently made by the star Tom Loughlin and his wife Delores Taylor. I have the Billy Jack 4 DVD boxed set, which includes the classic "Born Losers" from 1968, a prequel where Billy Jack makes his debut, "Billy Jack", sequel "The Trial of Billy Jack" and its sequel "Billy Jack Goes to Washington." Unfortunately, Coven does not perform in the sequels. This movie should be required viewing for every highschooler, in an effort to teach tolerance and acceptance. "Listen children, to a story, that was written long ago..."

2. Massacre at Central High (1976)--This movie has to resonate with every "B" list kid in high school. New transfer student finds himself the victim of a high school bullies, kills each of them in extreme ways in order exact revenge and free the other "B"-listers from their oppression, only to find the "B"-listers opprssing those deemed to be below them. The film explores high school hierarchy, student uprising and rebellion, ill-fated love, corruption from power, social liberation, and extreme acts of violence. Couldn't be better!!!

3. Bless the Beasts & Children (1971)--A Stanley Kramer movie. He produced one of my all time favorites, "The Caine Mutiny" (for another post in the future). This poignant film focuses on "troubled" teens sent to a boys' camp. The campers discover buffalo being "hunted" in pens, and set out to save them. This movie is disturbing on many levels, and leaves you wondering who the troubled really are, the boys, or their parents and the hunters. You can't go wrong with the Academy Award nominated theme sung by the Carpenters. Will anyone be saying that about "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from 2006's "Crash." Not likely!

4. Over the Edge (1979)--a staple of afterschool, early afternoon HBO in the early 80s. These were the days when HBO didn't start broadcasting until 5:00pm, and just ran a test pattern the rest of the time. And, there was only 1 HBO channel. Can you believe that!!! Only one! This movie features a young Matt Dillon. Parents move to a planned community called "New Granada" that has nothing to offer teenagers: no mall, no movie theatre, no fast food joint, no crack den. While the parents all focus on attracting businesses and industry to their new community, their kids are getting bored. After an accidental shooting, the kids go monkey-house crazy and show the parents they are bored as hell, and aren't going to take it anymore (I've seen something like this somewhere before...). The soundtrack features a bunch of Cheap Trick tunes, some stuff by the Cars, and the classic "Oooh Child" by "The Five Stairsteps." Righteous!

5. The Warriors (1979)--I could write my doctoral thesis on this movie! Something like: "Reactionary Film Viewing: Social Responses to Depiction of Non-Realistic Fictional Recreations of Imaginary Situations", or some crap like that. The tagline from the movie says it all: These are the Armies of The Night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber cops five to one. They could rule New York. Tonight they're all out for the Warriors.
For those who grew up under a rock, the Warriors was a gang movie. THE gang movie to end all gang movies. Storyline: gang gets accused of killing an opposing gang's leader, gets chased through NY by every other gang, including the Sopranos, and tries to make it back to their home turf before they get their comuppance. Serious, violent, cutting edge. So violent (allegedly) that some theatres banned it after gang wars broke out after showings. Talk about movie hype and publicity. The producers of this movie could not have asked for better...this movie set the stage for the battle of "which movie can get worst press and great publicity" between "The Warriors" and "Caligula" (which, by the way, if finally out on DVD with a "director's cut", as if we needed a "director's cut"!) Anyways..."The Warriors" is what makes movies like "Escape from New York" and "New Jack City" possible, if that's a good thing. Having seen "The Warriors" many times, I assure you, it is! Warriors...come out and playaaaaayyyy...

Hollywood just doesn't make them like this anymore!


Well, I suppose it is all about the content, right? What good is a blog without content? But is my content any good??? Doubtful, but this blog was free...

I come from a family of people who think they have a lot to say. Mostly they do, but of course, not as much to say as me! Just ask the people who know me. Some of my "peeps" think I am funny, some others, not so much. Nonetheless, like most attorneys, and members of my family, I usually have something to say, whether you want to hear it, or not.

So....more to come, I promise.