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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The Random Restaurant Tour (XIII)

Some restaurant locations just seem star-crossed.  A new place opens up at the spot, seems to do well for a time, then closes, the building stands vacant for an extended period, and after a few years you’re trying to remember how many restaurants have actually operated in the space.  So it is with a building at the corner of Spring and High in downtown Columbus, which once was a Wendy’s, and at one point was a nice tapas-type place with a bar and outdoor seating.  Hey, has it been anything else?

Well, now the building houses Haveli Bistro, an Indian restaurant.  Hope springs eternal!

JV and I visited the HB yesterday for lunch.  The place was jammed with a lot of people who were angling for the buffet, and we had to wait briefly to be seated.  It seems that diners have two options — a lunch buffet, upstairs, or ordering from a very limited lunch menu, downstairs.  Because of the wait for the buffet, we chose the downstairs option, which allows you to choose from a non-vegetarian platter, a vegetarian platter, and a biryani platter.  The specific items on your plate depend upon what’s being served that day, as disclosed on a typed sheet at the front counter, and it doesn’t appear that you can choose your spice level.  (At least, we weren’t offered that option.)

JV and I went for the non-vegetarian platter, which turned out to be two chicken dishes, a chicken “lollipop,” rice, and two pieces of naan, with a dessert.  The food was served on a kind of cafeteria platter that reminded us of the Swanson frozen dinners of days gone by, except that the platter was plastic instead of foil.  (No “TV trays” in sight, however!)  I’m not sure of the specific names of chicken dishes, but they were good and served at a moderate spice level, and the chicken lollipop was tasty and not overly breaded.  I finished them all.  The dessert was a kind of vermicelli disk soaked in a sweet liquid.  I’m not a dessert guy so I tried a bite and decided I’d pass on the rest.

Lunch at Haveli Bistro isn’t really comparable to lunch at Indian Oven, with its full menu and terrific service, and my allegiance to IO as the best Indian restaurant in town, and one of the best Columbus restaurants, period, is unyielding.  Nevertheless, the Haveli Bistro is a nice option for people downtown who have a taste for some ethnic food.  Will the HB be able to exorcise the ghosts of restaurants past?  Stay tuned.

Deliberate Eating

Recently I’ve come under withering criticism about my eating habits.  It’s not that I’ve got elbows on the table, or that I’m chewing things with my mouth open, or that I’m violating other basic rules of dining etiquette that you learned from your Mom when you were about five years old.  Nor is it that my choice of cuisine is decidedly weighted toward the meat end of the spectrum, with a pronounced disdain for vegetable matter.

348sNo, this complaint is more about the eating process.  That is, when food is put down in front of you, how do you go about consuming it?

Consider the most recent instance where this issue arose.  Kish and I were having brunch at the German Village Coffee Shop, and I ordered two of the plate-sized whoppers that you get when you order pancakes at the GVCS.  I like my pancakes with butter and a liberal amount of syrup, like any other rational human being.  So, my eating process is straightforward.  First, while the pancakes are still piping hot, I slather on butter, making sure to spread the butter both on top of the stack and in the area between the two pancakes, in order to ensure an even array of moist butteriness.  Second, I carefully cut the pancakes into bite-sized pieces, so that the fluffy interior of the pancake is exposed, the better to soak up the forthcoming syrup cascade.  Then, and only then, do I apply the syrup — taking care to add enough syrup to flavor each bite, but not flood the plate — and begin eating.

This seems like the only proper way to consume good pancakes while achieving the squishy butter/syrup/pancake combo that any pancake lover strives for.  But by the time I have completed my preparations and begin eating, Kish has finished her food and is checking her watch, tapping her fingers on the countertop, and looking at me with a friendly, bemused, yet mildly impatient expression.

lsOr take Indian food.  At Indian Oven, which is the only place to get lamb korma in Columbus, Ohio, you are served a dish of well-prepared, steaming basmati rice and a separate dish of the lamb korma itself.  How, then, to proceed?  The only reasonable course is to dump the entire portion of rice onto your place, spoon the lamb korma on top of the rice, and then carefully mix the two, so as to ensure that every grain of rice is adequately coated with the spicy korma sauce.  Admittedly, this takes some time and attention to detail — but who wants to eat plain basmati rice, or end up with extra korma sauce in the dish that you have to eat with a spoon because you don’t have any remaining elements of the rice delivery system available to you?  And yet, the Jersey Girl finds this well-conceived, entirely rational approach to consuming lamb korma hilarious and, in all likelihood, evidence of some deep-seated psychological issue.

What can I say?  I guess I’m a deliberate eater.  Say, have I ever explained the right way to apply mustard to a hot dog?

The Right Way To Eat Indian Food

IMG_2392I freely concede that I am very much a creature of habit.  Some might contend that this is because I am borderline obsessive-compulsive.  I think, instead, that through my years of life experience I have learned that there are just right ways to do some things.  Once you figured out the right way, why in the world would you want to take a different approach?

Consider the proper approach to consumption of Indian food.  When I make a trip to Indian Oven for lunch, I invariably order lamb korma, medium plus on the spice scale.  Why not?  It’s delicious, has the right level of spice to give a flavorful kick to my day, and the portion size is perfect, with just enough food to satisfy my midday hunger without leaving me feeling bloated or leaden during the afternoon.

But there’s a right way to eat this perfect dish, too.  At Indian Oven, the dish of lamb korma is accompanied by a dish of freshly made Basmati rice.  Obviously, the rice is to be consumed in conjunction with the lamb korma — but how?  I suppose you could spoon out partial portions of each and gradually work your way through the servings, but that approach risks misalignment of rice and topping, potentially leaving the diner with either naked rice or leftover korma.  That would be like working through a plate of nachos at a bar and arriving at the end to find that, once again, there is an imbalance of chips and toppings, leaving you in a frustrating chip-less state even though there are still beans, salsa, shredded beef, and rapidly congealing cheese to be consumed.

In the Indian food context, the best way to avoid this unseemly predicament is to promptly combine the rice dish and the lamb korma on your plate, and then carefully mix the two together, so that each grain of rice is well coated with the korma sauce.  You also want to eyeball the meat and egg and potentially divide a few of the larger chunks, with the ultimate goal of enjoying a piece of meat and egg along with the rice on every forkful of curry-laden goodness.  So what if this almost scientific mixing and apportionment process takes a while as your fellow lunch companions gobble down their food?  Life is a journey, not a sprint.

So, what a casual observer (like, say, the Jersey Girl) might mistakenly perceive as almost a form of superstitious ritual is instead a carefully considered, time-tested way of maximizing enjoyment of a favorite dish.  There’s nothing weird about it.  An obsessive compulsive would do something outlandish, like count the grains of rice before mixing them with the korma.

You know, that’s actually not a bad idea.

Battle Of The Buffets

I’ve written before about Indian Oven, one of my very favorite restaurants in Columbus.  It’s a great place that serves top-notch Indian food, and I always get the same order when I go there for lunch — lamb korma, medium plus on the spice level — because it’s just so darned good.

imag0415Recently, however, I deviated from the time-honored norm.  The Jersey Girl, who also tends to get precisely the same order at IO, and I decided to break out of our ruts and issue each other the IO Buffet Challenge.  After all, most of the people who go to Indian Oven for lunch tend to have the buffet.  It’s not like it’s that big of a deal.

But for me, it kind of was a big deal.  To be blunt, I really detest buffets on general principle.  Perhaps it’s because I have an instinctive aversion to sneeze guards, or because I think food should be served hot, or cold, but not sit there at or near room temperature.  Maybe it’s because, at many buffets, the food has a distinctly pawed over look, or it has turned crusty under the beating glare of the warming lamps.  And then there’s the lingering issue of buffet gluttony, which causes otherwise normal people to load their plates with absurd quantities of food to make the buffet bargain an even better deal.  I’ll take the portion control of a regular entree any day.

Actually, the ability to eat obscene quantities of food mightily influenced the last two times I remember actually enjoying a buffet.  Both happened during the college years.  One time my friend Snow and I were starving and went to the Swedish Buffet near campus, where I recall eating approximately four dozen Swedish meatballs and drinking a gallon of milk to compensate for the resulting salt intake before leaving with a satisfied groan.  The other incident occurred when I was working at Alpine Village, a resort in Lake George, New York, and my fellow co-workers and I learned that an establishment across the border in Vermont was offering an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet with real lobster.  We didn’t eat anything one day, then drove over en masse and gorged ourselves on lobster, crab, oysters and steamed clams while the proprietor glared at us in hopes we would leave before his profits vanished in a flurry of cracked lobster shells.

But the days of going somewhere specifically to cram myself with food are long gone, and with them went any desire to make a pig of myself at a buffet . . . or for that matter, to eat any buffet food, period.  Not surprisingly, then, I approached the IO buffet with some natural trepidation born of prior buffet unpleasantness — but a challenge, once issued, cannot be retracted.

So the Jersey Girl and I tried the IO buffet, sampling the different options while attempting to maintain some semblance of consumption decorum.  And you know what?  It was good.  In fact, it was great.  The offerings were hot and fresh, and I got a chance to sample some things I hadn’t tried before.  I shouldn’t be surprised, because the food at Indian Oven is always of excellent quality — but then I was going against decades of contrary experiences.

Since the day of the Buffet Challenge, though, I’ve gone back to the lamb korma lunch order.  Old anti-buffet instincts die hard.

The Columbus Top Six

The Brown Bear, a faithful reader of the Wall Street Journal, alerted some of us to a Journal article that includes Columbus in a list of “6 great small cities for food lovers” and identifies six great food options for the lucky residents of Ohio’s flagship city.  The Journal‘s six Columbus choices are The Refectory, Skillet, Basi Italia, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Katalina, and Ajumama.

I’ve got no quibble with the restaurants on the list, although I haven’t been to Katalina yet.  In fact, I’ve written about my excellent omelet at Skillet, the delicious toad in the hole at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, and the mid-boggling amdong chicken at Ajumama, pictured at right.  The Refectory has long been a Columbus gastronomic landmark — its oyster soup may be the best soup this committed soupophile has ever tasted — and Basi Italia is a favorite of our friends the Bahamians where we’ve always had great meals.  I also commend the Journal for including a food truck, Ajumama, among the six choices.  I’m a huge fan of the Columbus food truck culture, whether found at Dinin’ Hall or the annual food truck festival, and I’m glad to see one of their number get a deserving nod in the pantheon of foodie destinations.

No, the problem with the list is who’s not on it.  No G. Michael’s?  No Rigsby’s?  No Indian Oven?  No shiznite from the Green Meanie?  And what about Alana’s, or the Black Creek Bistro?  They’re all deserving choices, too.

A list of six just isn’t enough to do justice to the great foodie options in Columbus.  And one other thing about the Journal article:  it says Columbus isn’t well known for its dining scene — yet.  Says who, WSJ?

In A Car2Go

Today I was scheduled to have lunch with the Rising Star.  When I stopped by her office, she looked at me with a mischievous grin and asked whether I was up for an adventure.  When I said yes — after, admittedly, a moment’s hesitation — she said we’d be taking a Car2Go to the Indian Oven.

Car2Go is the minute-by-minute rental car fleet that you can use in downtown Columbus.  The Rising Star and her husband are members, and also participate in the CoGo bike rental program. They frequently use Car2Go, CoGo, their feet, or some combination of the same to get to their evening destination and back again.  Today the Rising Star handled the Car2Go process — which includes swiping your membership card, confirming your identity, answering a few questions, getting the key, and then proceeding on your journey — like an experienced pro.  I was impressed.

IMG_2480A few observations about Car2Go vehicles:  (1) The smart cars are more spacious than I expected.  It’s a two-seater, but there’s plenty of leg room, and I didn’t feel cramped at all.  (2) The vehicles don’t seem to have a lot of power, and you wouldn’t want to be taking them out onto the Bonneville Salt Flats for a little rat-racing, but there’s enough oomph to get you around downtown in good order.  (3) It’s weird to get into a car, turn it on, and hear a stranger’s radio station preference.  The person who used our Car2Go vehicle most recently had tuned the radio to WNCI, which is the modern pop station in Columbus and one which I haven’t listened to since, say, 1973.  I was tempted to tune it to some appalling seniors station right before we left the car, but I resisted.  (4)  The smart cars can turn on a dime and can fit into the smallest imaginable parking spaces, which is pretty handy when it comes to downtown driving.  The Rising Star easily found parking spaces and was able to zip in and out on our short trip across downtown.  (5)  There was a parking ticket in the “glove compartment” area of the dashboard.  The Rising Star explained that Car2Go users can park the cars in any standard parking spaces in the designated footprint area of Columbus, but can’t park in a 30-minute spot.  Sure enough, when we checked the ticket, it was for that violation.  The ticket will be routed to the offending user.

It was a pleasant ride to IO, and as always the food there was fantastic.  Fortunately for us — and for the people of downtown Columbus — our Car2Go car was still where we parked it when we left the restaurant, and as a result Columbusites fortunately were spared the unseemly sight of a sweaty, out-of-shape 50-something guy huffing and puffing on a bicycle ride back to our starting point.  But the Rising Star, as always, was right — it was an adventure, and a fun one at that.  One of these days I’m going to try a CoGo, I think.