Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Parade results...

Thanks to all you readers who tuned in to hear me on “The Jordan Rich Show”. As always, Jordan is the consummate host and makes me sound much better than I really am…

Marching in the “Pasta Parade 2010” was almost like the Bataan Death March…hot, sweaty and lots of chafing-at least in my mind, and waistline. Actually, it wasn’t too bad, even for someone like me who doesn’t eat a lot of tomato sauce.

Unlike my Asian quest, I did not eat the same thing at each location. Though I ate at a few “local” joints, I also ate at several “chains” since several of you were imploring me to do so, and those places are very popular with the American dining public.

What follows is a list with my commentary about each location…

Il Forno in Westborough, challenging “Vinny T’s” for the most use of garlic. I love Northern Italian cuisine-lots of herbs, garlic, olive oil and wine. Maybe a cream sauce or two. We went to Il Forno without any pre-conceived notions, and it was packed when we arrived-always a good sign. The food was good, and especially heavy on the garlic (that stayed with me for several days). Fair warning-low ceilings and really close close, I wasn’t really sure that it was “my” garlic I was smelling, or even tasting. Because of the low ceilings, it’s noisy and you can participate in other people’s conversations at the other tables, which I enjoy, even if the other people don’t. A few locations around the periphery of Worcester County. I give it a fork up.

Macaroni Grill-better choice than the Olive Garden, but then again, what isn’t? Macaroni Grill is really growing, and after years of seeing them all around Florida, they’re creeping into Massachusetts. The menu is similar to the OG, with décor and the essence maybe a half-step up the food chain. The two times we ate there, we had really excellent service, and the most recent time, we were with a large group and almost all the food came out right, hot and fresh. The kitchen is wide open, so I give them credit for showing you if their product comes from a boil-in bag. They did have an especially pleasant appetizer: Mediterranean Olives: “Handpicked olives from regional farms in Italy. Marinated with extra virgin olive oil, orange zest and roasted red peppers”. I also enjoyed the Pollo Limone Rustica, which, according to the menu is slow-roasted chicken sautéed with imported penne pasta, lemon-basil cream sauce and fresh spinach, then baked until golden brown. It’s not terrible. The Palate gives it a “tongue up”.

Bella Costa in Framingham-nice family-owned single location place with some traditional and non-traditional dishes. Had the Chicken Putanesca, which had garlic, olives and capers…frankly, a perfect combination of savory elements for me. This was my top pick. Strong reccomendation.

North End Treats, Natick: This is just a takeout sandwich shop, with pizza, and some phenomenal desserts and gelato. Had a nice sandwich and a whoopee pie there. Nothing says Italian food than a whoopee pie. Isn’t it “when the moon hits your eye like a big whoopie pie, that’s amore”?

Olive Garden-the usual pre-fab, pre-packaged, previously frozen Italian food from a boil-in-bag. Our most recent trip was slightly better, dimmed only by one waitress asking our second waiter “do we have any more packages of “Garlic herbed chicken?” Once again proving the theory that they serve the best of steam-table cuisine.

La Cantina, Framingham-an old mainstay in Framingham. They bottle their salad dressing which is available in Stop and Shops locally. It is a “three parm” type of place, but they make a wonderful polenta with chicken that is only available on Sundays and Tuesdays; you can’t get polenta everywhere You want to see the who’s who of Framingham (if there is such a thing), this is the place. Or Ken’s Steak House.

Paparazzi-the food is ok, but the price to value ratio is way off. Comes off as upscale Italian, with prices to match, but not the food. The hosts wear suits and try to appear important…comes off as self-important and pretentious. Had a private event there last year, and it was pleasant, but very expensive. There’s something about this place that is a little off...almost a “Stepford” restaurant. There are a number of them in the Metro-Boston area, but I’m not rushing over.

The Chateau-With locations all around eastern Massachusetts, they claim to have invented the toasted ravioli. Nothing says heart-healthy like deep fried ravioli and chicken Parmesan. The food isn’t bad, and they have a very traditional menu. I want to like it there, but they do serve some pre-packaged food. When we asked about the ingredients in an item, they said they had thrown the package away. Had a slice of their pizza, and surprisingly, it was pretty good. Most of the Chateau locations are more traditional red-sauce type places, but their Stoughton location, operating under the family name “Nocera’s”, is more Northern Italian and frankly, more enjoyable.

Bertucci’s-When people talk about their favorite Italian restaurants, inevitably, the talk turns to rolls or bread. You can always gauge the quality of a meal with the care a place takes when selecting and serving the first course…Bertucci’s made their bones off this theory, by dropping fresh baked hot brick-oven rolls and butter onto the table right at your arrival. These sublime doughy pillows from heaven suggested a hint of wood smoke, with a crusty exterior and a hot, fluffy interior. It was like a party in your mouth…but, all good things must come to an end. Alas, they’ve gone away from “brick oven” and now their rolls are just common fare, baked in an “Alto-Shaam” oven; no essence of wood smoke, no darkened crusty exterior…just a pedestrian “Sysco” style roll you can get anywhere. I hear it’s about labor and food prep costs. I say that when a restaurant turns away from its signature product or method of cooking, the end can’t be far away.

Speaking of bread, one last comment on that topic. As I said on the air, Italian restaurants and bread go together. Nothing says “you’re in for a good meal” than a decent bread course. Thankfully, most places have changes to a fresh-baked bread product. Bella Costa had particularly excellent bread to start us off. The Olive Garden is known for their breadsticks which I think have declined in quality over the years. As I mentioned, Bertucci’s has gone away from the brick-oven rolls. Paparazzi serves hard, cracker-like breadsticks…a very puzzling item in their quest to be a Stepford restaurant. My advice, if an Italian restaurant serves you a cracker at the outset, run, don’t walk, out the door.

You’ve been great…enjoy the overrated Andrea Bocelli…

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Command performance

Just a little taste of the Palate before I go on Jordan's show tonight. This is essentially a repost of a posting from July 2007...I ate there again on my pasta parade, and it was only slightly better. An update is forthcoming, but for now...

Sometimes a meal is just so bad, so utterly awful, from beginning to end, that you feel compelled to complain, at the highest level. Sometimes you have to go all the way up the “food chain.” What follows below, is just one of those occasions. While the name of the restaurant remains anonymous, I think you all can infer where this was. Why I ever ate there to begin with is still a mystery. We haven’t been back.

“Dear Sir or Madam: I feel compelled to write you about what could be the singularly worst meal I have ever had at one of your restaurants. In fact, I have never had a good meal at your Framingham location, and I have reached the end of my rope when it comes to giving this location any more chances.

My wife and I went to the Framingham location last evening and were seated promptly. Upon the arrival of our waitress, we gave her our drink order, which did not come out right; that was the beginning of a total breakdown of this meal.

My wife has a severe allergy to dairy products, shellfish and peanuts; when she orders, she carefully details her allergies. She ordered the Chicken Marsala after being told by the waitress, who was resolute, that it was dairy free. We also asked for breadsticks without butter, and salad without cheese, with oil and vinegar dressing; the waitress assured us that it would not be a problem. I ordered Chicken with Broccoli and pasta. Within two minutes, having now been in the restaurant no more than seven minutes, our meals were on the table in front of us; yet we still have not seen the salad or breadsticks! I told the server, who was not our waitress, that I would like to see our waitress and get the salad and breadsticks. I know that you need to turn over the tables, but can I have 15 minutes for dinner?

A moment later, a manager, "Rich", came over and asked if there was a problem. We merely explained that we wanted the salad and breadsticks prior to getting our meal, which we were not quite ready to eat. I told him that we merely wanted to speak with our waitress. He told us that our waitress was having a "personal moment" in the office and that things were not going well for her tonight; she would not be attending to our table-he would. So he took our meals away, and arranged for the proper salad and breadsticks to be brought over. When they arrived, he told us that they had run out of vinegar, and he only had oil, which he brought. What kind of restaurant runs out of a popular condiment? Alas, my wife enjoyed only a partial serving of salad, without dressing.

A few moments later, Rich came over and asked if my wife was "lactose intolerant." My wife responded that she has an extremely severe allergy to all dairy (she carries emergency medicine in her pocketbook), and he said that the Chicken Marsala had a lot of butter in the sauce already mixed in, so that she would have to order something else. In hindsight, it was a good thing that the manager intervened, since he probably prevented a trip to the hospital by telling us about the butter in the sauce, a fact to which the waitress seemed oblivious. That mistake could have had severe health ramifications for my wife, and the waitress would likely end up with a more severe “personal moment.”

While my wife was picking out something else, Rich decided to sit with us, and while doing so, the other wait staff brought over our meals. Rich sent them away, and had them "remake" mine and make my wife something different. Eventually, Rich left and brought over our food, and my wife's meal was fine, but mine at this point looked as if it had spent the past thirty minutes under a heat lamp, or in a microwave; it was certainly not "remade." The pasta was hardened and crusty at the edges, and the broccoli was shriveled and had darkened spots from overheating. When Rich asked if everything was okay, we told him no, but we were not asking for new food, because who knows what type of mess would come out of the kitchen. He apologized, and stressed that he hopes we will come back and give them another try. I assured him, and now you, that we will not rush back.

After having cleared our table, Rich came back over, and told us that he wanted to offer us a free desert as an apology for our experience. I was shocked! Apparently, we not only had to suffer through this mishap, but now were going to have to pay for the privilege! He brought the desert, and presented the check, which although did not charge us for the desert, did charge us for the rest of the meal! I guess along with poor service, I should expect poor customer relations as well. After all my experiences with this location, I assure you I expect nothing more.

Your new ad campaign says “when you’re here, you’re family.” If this is how you treat family, I prefer to be a stranger.

The Framingham location is a disgrace to your chain; I hope you address their problems.” With so many family restaurants in Framingham, you give people little reason to patronize you.

On the air!

Please join the party tonight on WBZ 1030am, or at midnight on The Jordan Rich Show, where I'll be talking with Jordan and guests about Italian food and other food-related topics. Over the next few days, I'll be posting a full report, along with recommendations as they come in tonight on the air.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pasta Parade 2010

Full disclosure…I don’t “love” Italian food, at least not what most people consider “traditional” Italian food. As faithful reader “Amy” tossed out, there are two types of Italian restaurants-the “three parms: chicken, eggplant and veal” and “everything else”. Due to a number of reasons, mostly due to an aversion to tomato sauce (for medical reasons), I prefer “everything else”. Thankfully, in my experience, that’s where the real flavor lies.

As I embarked on the Pasta Parade, I was thrown a curveball on a personal level, which limited out ability to venture into some unknown, though recommended, places. However, I was able to enjoy, or not, as the case may be, a number of places.

After some discussion with my Critical Palate “team”, we decided to eat at places that many of my readers would likely eat. In addition, I ate at a some small family-owned places recommended by the readers. I have come to realize that most ethnic foods, “Italian” included, engender very passionate views. Everyone has “their” place, and everyone else’s stinks. It would be practically impossible to eat at all the recommended locations and “avoid” places that some of you shared with me, so I took the low road and ate at a lot of chain-style restaurants, because that’s where many of you are eating and suggested to me in the emails.

Not to worry, I ate at some smaller, more intimate, one-location, venues and will report on them as well.

For the full oral report, tune into the Jordan Rich Show on WBZ 1030AM Saturday night at midnight to hear me and Jordan, and a few other special guests, talk food in general, and Italian food specifically.

After the break, the Pasta Parade Route, as well as more travelogues from Florida.

You’ve been great, enjoy Dean Martin…