When A Restaurant Goes Downhill

Last night Kish and I went out to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. JV at a Grandview restaurant that, at one time, was among the better restaurants in the Columbus area.  We hadn’t been there in a long time, and boy . . . the years have not been kind.  The meal was mediocre at best, and we came away shaking our heads and thinking that we wouldn’t be surprised to hear in the near future that the place is closing.

crash-996-1499798871This once-hot restaurant is heading downhill faster than a mountain biker who missed a hairpin turn.

The telltale signs were there from the beginning of the meal.  First, the place was almost deserted — in contrast to its glory days, when getting a table was almost impossible.  Initially, we thought it was just a late-arriving crowd, but it turned out to be a never-arriving crowd.  Second, the service was indifferent.  We had a perfectly pleasant young woman take our order, but she ignored us for long stretches of time — even though she didn’t have many tables to worry about.  She also committed the unforgivable sin:  when I specifically asked for something, she promptly forgot about it, and I had to remind her about it when she came around again after I had eaten about half of my dish.  Good restaurants know that attentive service is a key part of the dining experience.  This restaurant, unfortunately, just wasn’t paying attention.

And finally, the food wasn’t very good.  This particular restaurant was once a kind of a foodie place, where you could anticipate getting interesting, fresh, well-prepared food.  Last night, I ordered a pasta dish, and the pasta tasted like it came out of a box, the marinara sauce was bland to the point of total flavorlessness, and the meatballs tasted like they might have been frozen and thawed for the night.  I finished about half of it and then decided that my taste buds had suffered enough.

I’m quite confident I won’t go back to that place, but I found myself wondering about the arc of a restaurant.  What changed?  Has the original restauranteur lost interest, or given up the reins to someone who thinks scrimping on the food and service is the road to profit?  Whatever the reason, this restaurant looks to be in death-spiral mode.  The unpleasant experience also made me appreciate restaurants that have consistently maintained high quality food, service, and ambiance over the years — like two of my favorites, G. Michael’s and Indian Oven.  Fortunately for fans like me, they’ve been able to avoid the downhill arc.

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Drawing An Unscientific Maggot Line

I have a high regard for scientists . . . generally.  But sometimes scientists don’t exactly have a solid appreciation of the sensibilities of normal human beings.

maggots_lede_photo_bigstock_2100-768x526Consider, for example, this report on the work of scientists at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.  They conclude that, given the population in the world, humans need to start turning to alternative sources of protein besides animal meat.  The article linked above quotes “meat science professor Dr. Louwrens Hoffman” — apparently “meat science” is a discipline that has been developed since I’ve been in college, because otherwise that would have been a pretty darned tempting major — as saying:  “An overpopulated world is going to struggle to find enough protein unless people are willing to open their minds, and stomachs, to a much broader notion of food.”

So far, so good.  But Dr. Hoffman and his team at the University of Queensland are looking to replace beef and chicken and pork with — gulp! — maggots and locusts.  They reason that the world’s insect population is a far more sustainable source of supply for such protein.  They also recognize that most people rebel at the notion of consuming chitinous locusts or squirmy maggots, so they are working on developing “prepared foods” that include locusts and maggots as disguised ingredients.  So far, they’ve worked on a maggot sausage with promising results, and Dr. Hoffman swears that a student has developed an insect ice cream that is “very tasty.”  Who knows?  Soon you may be able to have an ice cream cone with a scoop of vanilla and a scoop of “insect.”

According to the article, there are already some insect-based products available in the U.S., such as Chirps chips and Chapul protein bars.  I haven’t had any of these items, and I haven’t noticed them flying off the shelves at the neighborhood grocery store, either.

There’s a basic repulsion issue involved in eating maggots.  With a nod to the French government defense strategy before World War II, you might call it The Maggot Line, and scientific-based arguments aren’t going to cross it.  I think the the issue with insect-based foods is whether ingredient lists on food packaging are required to accurately and clearly disclose the insect element.  If maggots can be called by their scientific names — which are Lucilia sericata and Phaenicia sericata — and jumbled in with the other scientific sounding ingredients for prepared foods, like sodium benzoate and monosodium glutamate, then maggot sausage might stand a chance.  But if the packaging has to use plain English and disclose maggots as an ingredient, forget it.

Meal Emotions

Burger King wants you to know that it respects your emotions and that you should feel however you want to feel.

burger-king-real-meal-hero-1To celebrate Mental Health Awareness month, Burger King has rolled out a new promotion in certain cities in which it is offering “real meals” in different colored boxes that are supposed to promote the “overall mental health of all Americans.”  Pointedly, there is no “happy meal.”  Instead, you can get one of five boxes with mood-matching colors — red for “pissed,” blue for “sad,” teal for “salty,” purple for “YAAAS,” and black for “DGAF.”  (If, like me, you don’t know what the last two moods are, “YAAAS” reflects extreme excitement and the first three words of DGAF are “don’t give a” and you can figure out the rest.)

Burger King explained:  “With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect.  With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.”  A commercial running in one of the markets where the promotion is being offered — Columbus isn’t one of them — ends with the statement:  “No one is happy all the time, and that’s OK.”

I’m all for promoting overall mental health, but I wish companies like Burger King would just stick to making the best food they can at the best prices, and not act like they care about their customers as unique individuals with their own emotional lives — because they don’t.  And that’s really all right, because Burger King’s job is just to sell food, and any time they veer into other territory, like focusing on customer mood, they’re just being distracted from being the best at what they’re supposed to be doing.

At bottom, getting a different colored box at a fast food joint to celebrate your “mood” seems like a pretty weird and superficial way of promoting mental health.  If you feel sad when you’re ordering your burger, do you really want to confess it to the kid wearing the paper hat behind the counter so your order can be put into a blue box rather than a purple one? And the superficial nature of the whole concept is confirmed by the fact that everyone who orders a “real meal” gets a Whopper, french fries, and a drink, whether they’re feeling “pissed” or “YAAAS.”

So if you’re at one end of the mood spectrum or another, it all boils down to a different colored flimsy cardboard box that will get pitched into the trash and whether you get a diet soda or not.  That doesn’t seem like much of a way to “celebrate being yourself and feeling however you want to feel,” does it?

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXVI)

The original Max & Erma’s restaurant was located only a few blocks from our place in German Village.  It closed more than a year ago, and now the space has been “repurposed.”  By day, it hosts a co-working venture, and as the cocktail hour approaches the space transitions to a place called Wonderbar that features food from Pierogi Mountain.  The other day, Kish and I dropped by with the Columbus Featured Artist to check out the new spot.

The bar itself will seem familiar to anyone who went to the old M&E, because they’ve kept many of the fixtures and oddities that made the old M&E bar memorable.  And yet, there is a decidedly different vibe.  Whereas the M&E bar was a place where regulars camped out for the night, Wonderbar seems to attract a much younger, more diverse crowd, and the bar area itself seems a lot more energetic and more fast-paced.  Many of its patrons appears to see it as a good place to stop for a beer or cocktail on their way to somewhere else, so there’s lots of movement and coming and going.

If you’re interested in pierogis or other food from Pierogi Mountain, you order from a window to and take a marker to your table to be served when the food is ready.  The three of us decided to share a sampler of every kind of pierogi, and I also got a dish of shredded chicken, dumplings and gravy.  Pierogi Mountain says its pierogis are great drinking food, and it’s not hard to see why:  if you want to establish a solid consumed-food “base” before going all in on a few drinks, you’re not going to do much better than doughy morsels stuffed with potatoes, cheese, and other goodies and topped with sour cream.  The chicken dish I got was in the same belly bombing vein. It was substantial stuff that all went down pretty well with a Wonderbar brown ale.

I have no idea how the co-working venture is going, but I’m glad to see the old M&E spot open again and contributing to our neighborhood nighttime options.

Excited About Fries!

I passed this sign on the door of a Boise gyro shop yesterday and it made me laugh. When was the last time that French fries, long a staple of the American fast food diet, merited an exclamation point? 1948? And I’m in Idaho, for gosh sakes — the potato capital of the world, where you would expect every eatery to feature spuds galore. And it’s a gyro shop, to boot; gyros and fries have been linked since time immemorial.

So the Gyro Shack is just now adding fries to the menu? There’s a back story there somewhere.

Pretentious, Indeed

The Doc Next Door knows I like sour beers, so when he and Mrs. Doc came over for a visit last night, he brought along four assorted sours he picked up at the Pretentious Barrel House. The bottles are a bit pretentious, I suppose — they hold 8.45 ounces and are shaped like tiny champagne bottles — and with handles like Grandiloquent and Magnanimous the beer names are, too. But the beers really aren’t. The Grandiloquent, which I enjoyed last night, was a great, mouth-puckering, as sour as sour can be effort, and today’s Magnanimous is a bit fuller-bodied and less tooth-curdling . . . the perfect beer to sip and savor along with Tiger Woods’ improbable Masters triumph.

Pretentious? I’ve never thought of making tasty beer as pretentious, but who am I to argue with brewers who produce these kinds of results?

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXV)

At any given moment, there’s always a hot restaurant in town.  It’s the place that has gotten some favorable press, that has a certain distinctive buzz about it, that everyone is itching to try.  In Columbus, the restaurants don’t come any hotter than Service Bar, which has been getting great press — including a recent rave from no less than the New York Times.  Last week, Kish and I decided to check it out.

Service Bar is part of Middle West Spirits, located just off Fifth Avenue in the zone between the northern part of the Short North and the southern edge of the Ohio State campus area. It’s in a bright, fresh space, with room for a row of tables, a long common table, a private dining room, and a bar.  The wait staff is terrific — friendly, professional, and knowledgeable.  A fine wait staff is a pretty strong sign of fine dining to come.

When we were deciding on an appetizer, we looked down at the row of tables where we were sitting and every one — without exception — had ordered the “cheesy poofs.”  These are a mound of colossal pork rinds served with pimento cheese spread that you slather on.  Our waiter said they seem to be a favorite for patrons, so we gave them a try.  They were greasy and cheesy and good, but the order was just too much food for the two of us, and we wanted to save room for our entrees.

We both ordered the Mongolian glazed short rib for our entree, and here the meal really hit its stride.  The short rib was meaty and luscious, topped with an interesting assortment of mini cucumber slices and other items, and surrounded by dollops of a delectable sauce.  The challenge was to carefully assemble each forkful to feature meat, the different flavors and textures of the toppings, and a healthy dousing of the sauce, and when you successfully met the challenge the taste combination was incredible.  But to take the whole dish a step further, the meat was accompanied by three “bao knots” — moist, doughy, chewy morsels of bready delight that were a perfect complement to the meat.  I think I could probably eat a thousand bao knots and never think of the words “low carb” again.

After a main course like that, we had to get dessert, and went for the carrot cake with our after-dinner cup of decaf.  The cake was light and delectable, served with a schmeer of meringue, some crunchy items, and a delicately flavored ice cream.  It ended the meal with a bang, and was the kind of dessert where you find yourself surreptitiously scraping the plate multiple times just to get a final taste before you reluctantly allow your server to take it away.

Service Bar lived up to the hype, and then some.