The Virus That Wouldn’t Go Away

The coronavirus continues to rage through Ohio, as it is in other states. The Buckeye State has experienced a significant spike in cases, but it is not alone; cases seem to be on the rise everywhere, causing all kinds of cancellations and maximizing the uncertainty we’ve all been dealing with during 2020. If you were looking forward to watching the Ohio State-Maryland football game on Saturday afternoon, for example, you’d better make new plans: the game has been cancelled due to a spike in positive COVID tests in the Maryland program.

Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine addressed the latest coronavirus developments yesterday. He said that, thanks to the increase in cases, we are at a new, “crucial phase” in the pandemic — the latest “crucial phase” in a year full of “crucial phases” — and detailed some changes in the Ohio mask-wearing rules to address apparent slippage in mask-wearing by some businesses and the general public. He announced that he will be issuing orders that public gatherings must be limited to 10 people or less, that “open congregate” areas at weddings and funerals must be closed, and that dancing and playing games will be banned. And he added that, if the current trend lines continue, in a week he may need to order the closure of fitness centers, restaurants, and bars — again.

The Governor recognized that people are tired of all of this, and many are discouraged. He urged people who have relaxed their approach to coronavirus prevention to get “back to the basics” of vigorous hand-washing and mask-wearing. (In our little corner of Columbus, I haven’t noticed any slippage in mask-wearing and social distancing among people who are out and about, nor in our Friday night visits to restaurants over the past few weeks.)

Let’s face it: whether we’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or not, we’ve all got a serious case of coronavirus fatigue. The virus won’t go away, we’ve lurched from one “crucial phase” to another, and the efforts we’ve taken haven’t prevented additional spikes in positive tests. There’s a nagging sense that we’re all going to have to live with these conditions for the foreseeable future — and that’s where the possibility of another bar and restaurant closure order becomes so dispiriting. Much as I think our home cooking has improved, and much as we have adhered to social distancing and remote work concepts, it’s nice to have the option of going to a restaurant, experiencing a change of scenery, and eating food that you haven’t cooked yourself as a kind of safety valve to break up the monotonous sameness.

Perhaps we’ll get a vaccine that changes this grim paradigm, or perhaps it will end when so many people get infected that we reach the “herd immunity” point that some public health experts talk about. Until then, the big challenge is to keep going, accept the uncertainty, and recognize that, one way or another, this bleak period is going to end at some unknown point in the future. It’s not a very encouraging message, but sometimes that how the real world works.

The Random Restaurant Tour —XLI

Here’s some tangible evidence that the entrepreneurial spirit in America remains strong — a new restaurant has opened up in our neighborhood. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of the extraordinary challenges it poses for food service establishments, some people had sufficient confidence in their food and their business model to give a new restaurant a go. It’s great to see, and naturally we had to check it out.

The new restaurant is called Chapman’s Eat Market. It’s open for business in the old Max & Erma’s location on Third Street in German Village. If you ever visited the place when it was Max & Erma’s, you won’t recognize the interior of Chapman’s. All of the kitschy Max & Erma’s bric a brac has been removed, leaving a very clean, spare look. The space never looked better, or felt roomier — which is a good thing when you’re setting up tables that are appropriately distanced for your diners.

Chapman’s serves a set tasting menu that is a nice change of pace from the normal “order off the menu” restaurant. When we went on Friday we received an eight-course meal that included two dessert courses. Every one of the dishes, from the smoked salmon fritters that began our culinary adventure to the yuzu key lime pie that ended our journey, was excellent. My favorites were the pork shoulder lettuce wrap, pictured above, which included grilled pork shoulder, nuoc cham, cucumbers, jicama, peanuts and mint, the khao soi, with yellow curry, shrimp, chicken, fried noodles, pea leaf salad, banana, tomato, and peanut, and the duck confit leg and mole rojo, with cowboy beans, Carolina Gold Rice, pickled chayote, and roasted squash. I ate it all with relish, even though the dishes included more vegetable matter than I would ever have ordered for myself.

Three things stood out from our Chapman’s experience. The first was flavor; this is not a restaurant that is fearful of adding a nice kick to its dishes and laying out some creative spice and seasoning combinations. The second was texture; most of the dishes featured a very interesting and enjoyable crunch as part of the package. And the third was variety. In one eight-course setting, the offerings touched the bases of classic American, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican cuisine, sometimes in delightful combination. And the key lime pie, pictured below, was a beautifully tart way to bring a fine meal to closure.

If you want to try a new place and get a meal that might just make 2020 a bit more palatable, put Chapman’s on your checklist. You may well see us there — from an appropriate distance, of course.

At Greenhead Lobster

Greenhead Lobster is one of the places where the Stonington lobster fleet unloads its catch.  Once the lobster boats dock at the Greenhead pier, the lobsters are taken from the salt water tanks on the boats, put into plastic bins that are placed on a conveyor belt, then rolled up a ramp to a large holding facility where the bins are removed from the ramp and put into a large salt-water holding tank, shown above.  The holding tank takes up pretty much the entire building and can hold immense quantities of freshly caught live lobster that waits in the tank until it is trucked off to its ultimate destination. 

It’s an interesting operation, and a labor-intensive one.  From the lobster boat crews unloading their catch, to the guy rolling the bins on the conveyor belt, to the guy who removes the bins from the belt and lugs them over to the holding tank, the people you see at Greenhead are all working hard to get America the fresh lobster it loves.  

This year has been a really tough time for people in the lobster trade.  With the coronavirus, many restaurants are closed or operating at reduced capacity, which means reduced markets for the lobsters.  We can’t make up for the reduced demand all by ourselves, of course, but we’ve been trying to pitch in by going down to the retail shop and buying lobster regularly.  You know when you buy from Greenhead that the lobster is absolutely fresh, and you’re getting a great price, too.

If you’re thinking of what to have for dinner tonight, how about some lobster?  The hard-working folks at Greenhead Lobster would appreciate it.

Reopening . . . One Step At A Time (Cont.)

A sense of palpable excitement swept through Ohio yesterday, like a fresh, warm May breeze carrying the scent of lilac trees and spring flowers.  Continuing with its gradual approach to reopening the state’s economy after a prolonged shutdown, the DeWine Administration announced the next step in the process:  allowing hair salons, nail salons, barber shops, and bars and restaurants to begin to service customers once more.

gettyimages-638568556Some other businesses and offices opened this week, and retail stores and service businesses can reopen next Monday.  Under the Governor’s latest order, tonsorial parlors will be allowed to begin operating next Friday, May 15.  Restaurants and bars that have outdoor seating will be allowed to start serving patrons in their outdoor areas that same day, and indoor dining will begin again on May 21.  By May 21, the vast majority of the state’s businesses will have been permitted to reopen in some form or another, and the economy will lurch into gear once more.  Governor DeWine has concluded that, with the curve flattened, the economy simply can’t be shuttered for much longer without doing irreparable damages.

The Governor’s order indicates that the reopening won’t be an immediate return to the old, pre-coronavirus operations:  customers and stylists will be masked, for example, and restaurants will be trying to align tables and establish patron admission procedures to achieve social distancing.  There will probably be a run on plexiglass and plastic barriers, too.

Shaggy Ohioans who are heartily sick and tired of eating their own cooking, and who yearn for a return to more normal times, greeted this news with breathless excitement.  Soon we can get haircuts again!  And eat at a restaurant, too!  (Well, kind of.)

The news spread like wildfire on social media, where announcements of hair styling appointments became, for the moment, more popular than unsubtle political memes or cute videos of tumbling kittens.  Expect to see lots of Facebook posts with selfies of masked people getting their hair trimmed by other masked people, or people eating at some outdoor venue.  What used to be taken for granted is exciting news right now.

Working Too Hard

Recently I was on the road and arrived at my hotel at about 8 p.m.  I hadn’t eaten, so after dropping off my bag in my room I visited the hotel restaurant, had a cheeseburger for dinner, and then was tempted by an apple crumble for dessert.  I asked if I could get it with ice cream, and the waiter said that would be fine.  The combination above is what arrived.

In case you’re wondering, on the plate that’s closest to the camera, that’s a kind of crumble pie, with no apple pieces, at the far left, two little green apple spheres with faux stems in the middle, and an apple slice dipped in dark chocolate in a mold made out of a cheesecake-like substance on the right, all set against the backdrop of Aztec-like lines inscribed in dark chocolate that was hardened on the plate.  The bowl at the far side of the plate contains my scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I’m sure I was supposed to admire the artistry of the presentation of the dessert, and the delicate nature of the plating. Mostly, though, I wondered how I was supposed to eat the various elements. I spooned the scoop of ice cream onto the crumble pie to let it melt, grabbed one of the little green apples by its faux stem and ate it, and then was stumped.  Was the molded cheesecake-chocolate option on one side of the plate supposed to be eaten in conjunction with the crumble pie at the other end?  If so, how?  And what was I expected to do with the chocolate markings –scrape them off and chow them down with the crumble pie, or the apples, or the cheesecake chocolate mold, or all three?  I ended up alternating between bites of the crumble pie and the molded object, ate the second little green apple at some point in between, and left the dark chocolate stripes alone.  It was fine,  I guess, but it would have been even better if I’d just gotten what I expected in the first place — a single dish that contained warm spiced apple slices, crumble, and ice cream on top that you could eat in the normal way.

I admire haute cuisine, and the efforts of chefs to bring creativity to the art of cooking and to reimagine some time-honored dishes.  But there’s a time and a place for it — and a late dinner at a hotel restaurant isn’t it.  It was clear that the kitchen had worked hard on the dish, but it really was making me work too hard in order to enjoy it.  Call me a philistine if you will, but I wasn’t ordering dessert to get a work of art.  I just wanted a traditional fruit dessert served in the traditional way.  Maybe the artistry can be reserved for the souffle.

Bad Waiting

Yesterday Kish and I went out for lunch.  When we were getting ready to place our order, the waitress pulled out an order pad — and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Why?  Because lately I’ve been bedeviled by wait staff who don’t write down what I’ve requested, and my orders have inevitably been screwed up as a result.

It’s kind of maddening, really.  The waiters stand there, listen as I tell them, for example, that I want only a slice of onion on my cheeseburger and specifically say that I don’t want lettuce or tomato or pickles.  They nod reassuringly and then march off to the kitchen, and I groan inwardly, knowing that there is a better than a 50-50 chance that, when the order comes back, I’ll be scraping tomato and lettuce and pickle debris from my cheeseburger bun.  But what’s a patron supposed to do?  Hand the waiter a pen and piece of paper and plead with them to please, please, write down the order so there’s hope it will be correctly prepared and delivered . . . and thereby look like a jerk?  Or wait until the order comes back and pleasantly point out that it’s wrong, so that the waiter has to trot back to the kitchen and bring out a new, correct order — and thereby further delay the meal?  Or just accept that the order is wrong, eat it anyway so you’re not waiting even longer, and grumble at the injustice of it all?

Why, exactly, has it the no-write-down approach swept through the waiting world like a cold winter wind?  Do waiters think that not writing down the order reflects their professionalism, or that we’ll be impressed at their memory capabilities and give them a bigger tip?  Don’t they realize that, when most patrons see that the waiter or waitress isn’t writing down the order, their hopes for a pleasant meal take a tumble?

The waiting world works for tips, so here’s one:  write it down, already!

 

Grace Periods

Last night Kish and I went to a new restaurant for dinner.  The food was exceptionally good — I had a duck entree that was as succulent as any duck I’ve ever had — but the service was definitely wanting.

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After taking our order, our waitperson pretty much ignored us.  Other tables in the restaurant got bread; we didn’t.  When we asked a busser to let our waitperson know that we wanted refills on our glasses of wine, she scurried off and . . . nothing happened.  We were never offered a chance to order dessert.  Different people kept appearing at the table and apologizing for the delays.  Finally we just decided to chalk up the service issues to a new restaurant that is still working out the kinks, so we got our check — which also took longer than it should have, frankly, and prompted another apology from the restaurant staff — and then we hit the road.

Fine service obviously is a key part of fine dining.  Anyone who has received good service and bad service knows how important the service element can be.  As Kish pointed out after we left, bad service leaves you feeling both unappreciated and tense — which isn’t exactly conducive to a stellar food experience.  You end up anxiously searching for your waitperson and trying to signal them rather than focusing on good food and good company, which is what should be happening.

I can understand how it might take a while before a restaurant gets its sea legs on service, and I’m willing to give any restaurant that serves such good food a second chance, and probably a third chance, too.  Maybe we just went on a bad night, or drew a waitperson who is inexperienced.  But how long does a grace period reasonably last?  If you believe that service is important, shouldn’t that be something that is a point of emphasis from the very first days of training and through the dry runs and soft openings?

Plus-Sizing America

People come in all sizes, large and small.  And in these days of increasing obesity among Americans, the range seems to be shifting toward the “plus-sized” end of the spectrum.

So, what’s a business that deals with seating any customers who might walk in — like a restaurant — to do to account for that fact?

merlin_151790223_3ada2026-fba6-48d7-9782-0ac8b26447bf-articlelargeThis year the New York Times ran an interesting article about the challenges that “plus-sized” diners face when they go out to eat.  They not only feel judged by restaurant staff and other patrons about what they are ordering in view of their weight, they also struggle to find places where they can comfortably sit for a meal.  Depending upon a diner’s size, booths may be impossible for them to squeeze into, and bar stools may be too narrow and shallow to provide a viable seating option.  And places where the tables are positioned closely together may put larger diners in the position of intruding into the personal space of a neighboring table.

Those of us who aren’t in the plus-sized category don’t pay attention to such issues, because standard seating options are perfectly suitable for us.  But for the large people among us, such options may be so painfully confining that they interfere with the enjoyment of the meal — and some options may be physically impossible to use, period.

It’s an example of the challenges that are arising from the plus-sizing of a significant chunk of America’s population.  People who are XXXLers are going to want to go out to eat like everybody else, and they are going to want to find places that can appropriately seat diners their size.  If restaurants want their paying business, they are going to need to come up with ways to comfortably accommodate such patrons — without calling undue attention to the effort.

A Test Run Would Be Nice

Recently we went out for brunch at a nice restaurant in the Short North.  Our meal was perfectly enjoyable, but my dish was a bit messier than a mere napkin could manage, so I went to the restroom to wash my hands.

The restroom is one of those with a rectangular paper towel dispenser — the kind where you are to remove the paper towels from a slot in the bottom that is supposed to allow the towels to be taken out one at a time.  I washed my hands and went to get a towel, but found that the dispenser had been left so crammed with paper towels that it was impossible to remove one.  Due to the sheer weight of the towels that had been packed into the dispensing space, I couldn’t get my hands into the slot. My efforts to extract a towel had me desperately clawing away at the towel opening, trying to remove a whole towel, but the cheap paper towels were immediately ripped to shreds.  I never did obtain a complete towel, and had to make do with tiny towel fragments instead.  The whole experience left me a frustrated, wet-handed patron who was cursing the paper towel manufacturers of the world — and whoever decided to overfill the towel dispenser.  It didn’t exactly give me warm and fuzzy feelings about the restaurant, either.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me lately; overfilled towel dispensers have unfortunately become commonplace.  I suppose the bathroom attendants of America figure that if they overfill the towel dispenser, they’ll have to fill it less often.  But bathroom attendants, hear me!  Have pity on the hand-washers!  Doesn’t anybody do a test run anymore, to see if a device is actually working as intended?  Is it too much to ask that an establishment have a towel dispenser that actually allows a patron to wash their hands — and then properly dry them?

 

Suffering Seriously Slow Service

Yesterday our lunch group picked a restaurant that was about a block from the firm because it was too cold for a long hike.  It’s a place that specializes in sandwiches and hamburgers.  When we arrived at about 12:10, there was — literally — not a single patron in the place, and the wait staff near the front door were glad to see us.  We were seated promptly and given menus and water.

lsAfter a few minutes, our waitress came by to take our order.  We ordered three burgers and a sandwich, then began talking about the issues of the day.  Another table of patrons came into the restaurant, and shortly thereafter another group arrived.  The waitress came and gave us water refills, and our pleasant lunchtime conversation continued.

After about 20 minutes of chatting, however, we started to get antsy because the food hadn’t arrived.  When we hit the half-hour mark, we asked the waitress where the food was.  She was a friendly young woman who apologized for the delay and said they were working on it.  More minutes went by, and . . . no food.  We’d reached the point of inexplicable ridiculousness — after all, we’re talking basic food orders here — and our comments to the waitress became more pointed.  JV noted that we had been waiting a long time, and the Unkempt Guy reminded the waitress that we all needed to get back to work.  Of course, the delay wasn’t her fault, but we had to voice our exasperation to someone, and she was the only option.

At that point, the direction of our conversation began to focus exclusively on the delay.  We noted that there were only three tables occupied in the restaurant, so the long wait couldn’t be due to a busy, backlogged kitchen.  The two of us who were seated facing the kitchen kept an eye on the kitchen door, and we began speculating about what had happened.  Was our order not begun promptly for some reason?  Did somebody just drop the ball, or was there some other issue?  The next time the waitress stopped by, she swore that she had seen our orders being prepared and it wouldn’t be much longer.

Sometime between 45 minutes and an hour after we had placed our order, the waitress brought out the side salads the Bus Riding Conservative and the Unkempt Guy had ordered, and a few minutes later two of our burgers and the sandwich arrived.  JV, alas, was left waiting for about another 10 minutes for his burger.  In the interim, the waitress — knowing we needed to get back to work — asked if we wanted to get our checks, and I think JV actually got his check before he got his food, which has to be be a first.  We wondered how in the world our three orders were finished so long before his, but at that point we weren’t capable of being surprised by anything.  The waitress finally brought his order, and then took the checks, apologized again, and said we were being comped.  No one ever explained why it took such a ludicrously long time to serve us with our orders.

We finished our food — which was fine, by the way — and left cash tips for the waitress, and talked about whether we would ever come back to the restaurant.  JV took the position that the comping was an effective cure for the bad experience, and the UG noted that in prior visits to the place he’d been served promptly.  As for me, I don’t think I’ll be going back.  The waitress was put in an unenviable position, but she clearly was not telling us the truth in giving us initial assurances that our food was on the way.  And I think if you make people wait for such a long time you owe them more than a comped meal, you owe them an explanation.  Somebody — the manager, or the chef — should have come to our table and told us what happened and assured us it won’t happen again.  As of now, if I went back to the place and had a similar experience, I’d have only myself to blame.

By the way, by the time we left the other two tables hadn’t been served yet.

The Only Guy In The Restaurant

When you’re on the road a lot, you get used to skipped meals and eating at usual times. Today my travel to Boston meant that I didn’t eat anything until dinner time. By the time it got close to 6 p.m. I was famished, headed to a restaurant down the street from my hotel with book in hand, and once again found myself once again . . . . the only guy in the restaurant.

This happens from time to time. Still, it’s a little weird being the only guy in the restaurant. When you’re seated, they tend to put you in the rear, back in the shadows. Nobody wants to put a single, potentially creepy old loner reading a book up front, because it doesn’t send a fun-filled message designed to entice people passing by to stop in, unless the restaurant is eager to attract potential serial killers. A table of four or six laughing twenty-somethings will always get put in the front window; the bookish old nerd gets shunted to the back, where he hopefully won’t be seen by anyone until he finishes his food and slinks out of there.

This isn’t actually a bad thing, if you’re truly interested in reading your book. It’s quiet in the rear, and you aren’t disturbed by the hormonal antics or vapid conversation of young professionals out after work. You read your book, eat your food, and move on. And you try not to notice when the maitre d breathes a sigh of relief to see you head out the front door.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XI)

In Columbus, at least, Greek restauranteurs must be an emotional bunch who wear the core elements of their personalities on their shirt sleeves. In the footprint of our fair city, we’ve got dining establishments identified with a Mad Greek, a Crazy Greek, a Simple Greek, and even a Yappy Greek.

Yesterday, though, we were in a good mood at lunchtime, so we ventured to The Happy Greek. It’s a Short North staple that’s been there for decades — which makes it all the more bizarre that I’ve never been inside its doors. But there’s a first time for everything.

The Happy Greek has all the trappings that you’ve come to expect in a Greek restaurant, including wall paintings of happy dancing Greeks and a bar fashioned to look like the Acropolis. (Surprisingly, the proprietor wasn’t outfitted like Socrates.) And, of course, a menu that features lots of salads and other traditional Greek fare.

My theory on a new restaurant is that you first try one of the basics from their menu, and if that is good you then branch out to other options on subsequent visits. Since I don’t eat salad, Greek or otherwise, I went for the lamb pita sandwich with onions, tzatziki sauce, and fries. The sandwich was big, with lots of succulent lamb and fresh pita bread, enjoyably messy to eat with your hands, and very tasty. The fries were a little on the salty side for my taste, but the seasoning did go well when I started to use the fries to mop up stray pools of the tzatziki sauce, which was so good I could have imbibed it by the tumbler. I’ll definitely come back.

And I should add that the people inside were very friendly, too. With a name like The Happy Greek, they’re pretty much required to be, I guess.

The Keep

23_the_keep_restaurant_bar_columbus__hotel_le_veque-1500x1001Last night Kish and I and Mr. and Mrs. JV had dinner at The Keep, one of Columbus’ newest restaurant options.  It’s located on the mezzanine level of the Hotel LeVeque, smack dab in the middle of downtown Columbus.

Given the name, I thought The Keep might have a medieval castle theme, with a wait staff carrying crossbows or broadswords.  There was no jousting or armor plating visible during our visit, however.  We first had a drink — well, actually two, since none of us were going to be driving home — at The Keep’s bar, which was packed with people and hosting at least two separate holiday parties.  We knew we were in a cutting-edge spot when we learned that the people next to us were both out-of-towners who had arranged their first meeting via Tinder.  The bar offers lots of different cocktail, wine, and beer options, as well as a limited bar food menu.  We skipped the food, since we were going to be eating at the restaurant next door, and enjoyed our drinks and the lively, bustling urban vibe of the place.

The restaurant is a few steps away from the bar.  It is modeled as a modern French brasserie, and — to this uneducated wine fancier, at least — it has a very solid selection of French wines, as well as domestic labels.  Given the brasserie setting, I felt compelled to start my meal with the French onion soup, which was good and served piping hot, without the overload of bread and cheese that you frequently get with that order.  You could actually eat the soup without having to use your spoon to saw through an inch-thick layer of bread and cheese and having the soup splash out of the bowl as a result.   My entree was the Guajillo pork cheeks, served with black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn nuts.  It was very tasty, too.  As JV observed, the portions are kept to moderate size, so you can be a member of the Clean Plate Club without having to waddle out of the joint, groaning with a mixture of satiation and discomfort.  The reasonable portion size also left room for Kish and me to split a really good dessert consisting of a kind of miniature spicy Bundt cake with ice cream.

The ambiance of The Keep restaurant is appealing and has definite brasserie elements, with a central dining counter area and tables and booths spread around.  One other thing:  as we looked around, we realized that we were by far the oldest folks in the room.  That was true in the bar area, too.  How often are fun-loving 60-year-olds the senior citizens in a downtown restaurant?  Maybe the younger crowd is attracted by the brasserie setting, or the central downtown location, or the prices, which I thought were very reasonable.  In any event, it was nice to know that we oldsters had stumbled upon a hip place where the cool kiddie set hangs out.  We’d go back, if they let us in.

Neighborhood Wish List

The spot in the middle of German Village where the original Max and Erma’s once operated for four decades has been vacant for a few months now, without any apparent signs of activity. Recently, though, stickers that look like those irritating “My name is” name tags that always fall off your suit coat appeared on the front windows. Yesterday Kish and I took a closer look, and the stickers represent some people’s wishes for what business should now occupy the property. I’m not sure whether the stickers were filled out by neighbors, former employees, Trader Joe’s shareholders, or somebody else who likes comics. Seriously . . . a comic book shop?

I’d like to see a restaurant in the spot. Something ethnic, perhaps. Maybe a good Szechuan spot?