The Random Restaurant Tour — XLIX

Yesterday the B.A. Jersey Girl and I were looking for a lunch close to the office, because it was a day when work commitments strictly hemmed in our lunch hours. The B.A.J.G. suggested that we head over to Freedom a la Cart, located about two blocks from the firm at 123 Spring Street in downtown Columbus. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to try, because Freedom a la Cart combines catering and in-restaurant food services with workforce training for local survivors of human trafficking. You can read about the business and its important mission here,

When we arrived at Freedom yesterday, the place was hopping with diners and carry-out customers. Fortunately, we lucked out and a table opened just as we made our orders and looked for a seat. And the orders were a tough call, because the cafe menu offers an array of breakfast items and sandwiches, as well as bowls and salads. Admittedly, dodging the bowls and salads was not a tough call for me, but I wrestled with the choice between the Don’t Judge Me sandwich, the Monte Cristo sandwich, the bacon quiche, and the grilled three-cheese sandwich.

After careful deliberation, I chose the Don’t Judge Me, which featured roasted chicken, two different kinds of aioli, Swiss cheese, a mound of arugula, and on-the-sandwich potato chips on toasted sourdough bread. That’s the sandwich in the photo above, and you can see one rogue potato chip that escaped from the sandwich when a server set it down. The D.J.M. was an excellent combination of flavors and textures–the crunchy potato chips were a distinctive touch–and fun to eat, too. The B.A. Jersey Girl went for the bacon quiche, which looked light and delicate and flaky and almost made me regret my choice, until I considered that the quiche came with a salad. Since I pride myself on membership in the Clean Plate Club at lunch time, it was wise to give the quiche a pass. With the D.J.M., there was no challenge whatsoever in scarfing down every bit.

It’s a nice thing when a local restaurant is dedicated to a good cause and serves really good food, besides. Freedom a la Cart will be going onto the standard lunch rotation, for sure. Next time I visit, I think I’m going to give the Monte Cristo a try.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLVI

Sometimes, you just find yourself in a hot dog frame of mind–and a little curious, besides. That’s why the Bus-Riding Conservative and I found ourselves in Tasty Dawg yesterday for lunch. Located catty-corner from the Ohio Statehouse close to the intersection of High and State Streets, Tasty Dawg is a place the BRC and I had each passed dozens of times without going in, and we wondered what it was like. Yesterday, our frankfurter appetites stimulated by the baseball playoffs, we decided to change that.

Tasty Dawg is all about hot dogs, in all their glory. It offers an array of different kinds of hot dog concoctions, which you stand in line to order, ultimately taking a tray back to a table of your choosing. If you were interested in a little weiner experimentation, the options would merit careful study. Fortunately, I don’t go in for jalapeno peppers, pickles, tomatoes, sauerkraut, or any of the other oddball topping options that can interfere with enjoyment of a tube steak. Instead, my target was a simple chili dog with cheese–well, two of them, actually–which I consider to be a crucial red-hot baseline. The BRC, who always walks a little closer to the culinary wild side, actually got a frank that had corn niblets on it, as part of some unholy combination. Corn on a hot dog just seems wrong, but I digress.

After the dog of your choice is assembled on a pretzel bun, it is placed into a nifty steamer machine, which in the case of my chili and cheese dog ensured an appropriate degree of cheesy meltiness. I added a side of white cheddar mac n’ cheese and a bottled water to complete my order. Be prepared: Tasty Dawg is a bit on the pricey side (at least, based on my expectations, but then I haven’t been to a hot dog joint in years). All told, my order came to more than $20. The BRC saved a few shekels by skipping the side and opting for tap water, so his two dogs were rung up for about $17. Tasty Dawg also offers Velvet ice cream, incidentally, but for the sake of dietary self-respect neither of use had any.

My chili cheese dogs were good. The dogs were meaty and had the desired snap to their casings, the chili sauce was thick and rich, the melted cheese had that nice cheddar tang, and the pretzel bun offered appropriate structural support. There was such a generous allotment of chili and cheese that after an initial in-hand bite I decided that prudence demanded a knife-and-fork approach. The mac n’ cheese side was creamy and quite good, too. As for the bottled water, it was wet.

If you’re in a hot dog frame of mind, Tasty Dawg will allow you to thoroughly scratch that itch. And if you’re in a hot dog and Velvet ice cream frame of mind, prepare yourself for an afternoon nap.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLV

Toraya Moroccan Cuisine, located at 72 East Lynn Street less than a block from the Ohio Statehouse, is a new establishment that holds itself out as the first authentic Moroccan restaurant, serving halal food, in downtown Columbus. Dr. Science and I are always on the lookout for new ethnic food options, so yesterday we rambled over on a cool fall day to give Toraya a try for lunch.

In addition to the Moroccan cuisine, a few things about Toraya are very distinctive. First, it’s a white tablecloth set-up, which you don’t see that often in a lunch spot. Second, rather than a menu, you get handed a business card with a QR code so you can call up the menu on your cellphone, so don’t forget to bring yours. And third, the menu, which you can see here, offers food at a wide spectrum of price points–ranging from tagine dishes for less than $10, to sandwiches for under $15, to tagine dishes between $20 and $25. Dr. Science and I, appetites stimulated by the fine fall weather and a spirited discussion of just how cool NASA’s DART mission was, decided to go for something on the high end of the price scale.

I opted for the meatballs tagine–because who wouldn’t want meatballs for lunch?–and Dr. Science chose the chicken tagine. A tagine is a pyramid-like clay pot with a vent on top, as shown above, that is used in cooking the dish. Our meal started with a piping hot pot of honey-sweetened tea, which you pour into small glasses, Moroccan-style. And when our orders came, we learned that Toraya doesn’t scrimp on the food. I got a hefty portion of meatballs, very attractively presented in a colorful tagine, a bowl of saffron rice, and a basket of pita bread, as well as a piece of candy. Dr. Science’s portion was equally large. We agreed that you could easily share these dishes, or take some home to reheat for dinner, but since we were both famished we laid into our food with gusto and finished it all, except for the mound of pita bread.

My meatballs were great, and not overcooked as is often the case with meatballs. They came in a red sauce that had a very good flavor that paired well with the saffron rice. I first ate them by forking a meatball, some sauce, and some rice onto one of the quarters of pita bread to create a de facto sandwich, which was a tasty, messy, and fun way to eat the food. Dr. Science sampled some of the meatballs, and I tried a wedge of his chicken tagine dish, which was tender and mildly seasoned and also tasted good on the pita. After a while, I decided to ditch the pita so as not to fill myself up and just went straight for the meatball and rice combo, and that was a satisfying culinary experience, too.

When we finished, Dr. Science and I agreed that we would definitely come back to Toraya. We hope we’ll have the chance to do so, because the 72 East Lynn location is a bit of a revolving door for restaurants; we’d tried the predecessor in that spot, called Aroma, only a year ago, and now it is gone and Toraya has taken its place. We’re hoping that Toraya succeeds where others have failed, because it’s nice to have a little Moroccan flavor in downtown Columbus.

The New Restaurant On The Block

It’s always exciting when a new restaurant opens in downtown Columbus. It’s especially exciting when the new restaurant is in your neighborhood, only a few steps away from your door. That’s why I’ve been keenly interested in following the progress as Speck Italian Eatery builds out its space and gets ready to open its doors. Recently, the name went up over the front door, as shown in the photo above, which it usually a good sign that the grand opening is not far away.

Speck was a beloved Delaware, Ohio landmark that decided to relocate to downtown Columbus. It offers what it calls “innovative modern Italian recipes” that drew raves from the customers who frequented its Delaware location. And, after our recent visit to Italy and Sicily, I’ve got a decided taste for more Italian cooking–so having a place nearby that offers that fare will be much appreciated.

It’s not clear exactly when Speck will open, but the scuttlebutt in the Gay Street District is that the restaurant is aiming for mid-July. Welcome to the neighborhood, Speck!

A Tipping Point

Yesterday we went to a restaurant. When we sat down after finding our way to a table on our own (“Sit anywhere you like,” the hostess helpfully said) we were confronted by this increasingly familiar QR code item on the tabletop. I’ve been in restaurants before where you use the scanning feature of your cellphone to connect in order to call up the menu.

But this scanning feature was more extensive. You not only called up the menu, you placed your order yourself–hitting a “send to kitchen” button when you were done–and then proceeded to pay for the order, entering in our credit card information on the key buttons of our phone. But when I got to the “tipping point,” where I would put in a gratuity for our waitress, I was stumped.

What is the proper tip amount under these circumstances? By the time I was entering the tip amount, our waitress had literally done nothing; the whole process had been entirely self-serve. By tipping at the outset, there was no connection whatsoever between wait staff performance and the tip, to say nothing of the fact that many of the traditional wait staff duties–providing menus, offering helpful information about what was good, presenting the bill and receiving payment–were being done electronically. We didn’t really interact with our waitress until she brought the food.

I still gave the waitress a good tip, because I appreciate anybody who is working under these circumstances, but not as much of a tip as I would under normal circumstances, when the waitress would offer the full array of services and I wouldn’t have to do 80 percent of the work. Is there a new normal for tipping under these circumstances?

A Clean, Well, Quieter Place

One of my favorite short stories is A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in which Ernest Hemingway tells the story of an old guy drinking in a cafe. A young waiter, impatient to move on with his evening, rips the old guy for hanging around rather than going home so the cafe can close up. The older waiter, made a bit more patient and understanding by years of life, respects the old guy’s need for a clean, well-lighted place where he can enjoy a drink before heading back to his presumably lonely life. It’s a great story, written in the classic, straightforward Hemingway declarative sentence style, that speaks to both the young and old among us.

I suspect that if the old guy were around these days he not only would be looking for a clean, well-lighted place, but also one that is quieter, too. So many modern restaurants seem to be intentionally designed and consciously configured to be as loud as possible, as if a raucous atmosphere will make a place seem really exciting (and, perhaps, compensate for marginal food). It’s annoying for those of us who want to have a nice conversation over our dinner, and find ourselves unable to do so because of the din. I suspect that the old guy in the Hemingway tale would be irritated by the noise, too.

So I am happy to report that the new Sycamore restaurant in German Village has dialed back the noise level to the point where you can actual talk to the people you are eating with, without shouting or asking people to repeat everything. The prior incarnation of the restaurant was so loud that was impossible, and in my view made eating there unpleasant. Last night we took a large group to the Sycamore, had a great meal–the food is uniformly terrific–and enjoyed lots of chat over our dinner. I’m hoping that is a sign that the trend toward ever louder restaurants has ended, and the proprietors are recognizing the value of some effective sound-dampening. efforts

If I want a loud venue, I’ll go to a sports bar where I can drink beer, eat chicken wings, and cheer for my team without worrying about irritating fellow diners. But if a want to good meal, give me a clean, well, quieter place.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLII

Some locations seem like a revolving door for restaurants. A place will open, start offering its wares, and then before you know it a new restaurant has replaced it. The location at 72 Lynn Alley, in the heart of downtown Columbus, is one of those locations where dogged restauranteurs keep trying.

The new eatery at that location is called Aroma, and Dr. Science and I went there yesterday to check it out. Aroma is a Mediterranean venue with an extensive menu of appetizers, entrees, sandwiches, and pizzas made with a cauliflower crust. The Doc and I opted for handheld lunches—no cauliflower for me, thank you very much!—and I got the braised lamb wrap. It was quite good, packed with tender and juicy lamb that was delicately seasoned, and came with a mound of crisp and crunchy fries that were a lot more than I could eat. All in all, it was a considerable lunch at a reasonable price point. The server was pleasant and professional and the seating area is spacious, allowing Dr. Science to gesture freely as he lectured me on the delta variant in authoritative tones.

In short, Aroma looks well-suited to giving it a go, undeterred by the ghosts of Si Senor and other former residents of the space. I’d definitely go back for another one of those lamb wraps.

The Art Of Presentation

When I first started going out to eat, and for most of my dining career, restaurants didn’t seem to pay much attention to the presentation of the food on the plate, or the design or decoration of the table, or the decor of the restaurant itself. You might get a sprig of parsley on your plate next to the baked potato as you sat in a dim room, but that’s about it.

The American foodie scene has changed all that—and how. In addition to offering fresh, local food that is packed with flavor, modern restaurants pay much more attention to the whole eating experience, from the point of entry to the end of the meal. The holistic approach makes for a far more enjoyable, and interesting, dining experience, where you can’t help but admire and appreciate the effort that has gone into making sure that your meal is a wonderful time.

Aragosta, where we went for a fantastic meal last night, is at the top of the line when it comes to attention to detail. From the bright interior and huge windows that leave the dining room bathed in light and present a terrific view of Goose Cove, to the little touches like the delicate fresh flowers on the table, to the presentation of the excellent food on the plate, the chef and proprietors have thoughtfully considered every detail. And the plates themselves—shown here by photographs of two of our courses from our meal last night—are like individual works of art, featuring beautifully arranged rocks, mosses, shells, ferns, pine cones, white birch bark, and other accent pieces—all of it local. I’ve never been to Japan, but I expect that the experience of dining at Aragosta is a lot like eating in a fine Japanese restaurant.

I’m an old codger who has to resist reflexively thinking that things were better way back when. But I have no hesitation in saying that the experience of dining out in America has improved tremendously during my lifetime, and is light years better now than it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s. Aragosta is exhibit A in support of that conclusion.

Back To The Fin & Fern

The Fin & Fern is a cozy local restaurant on the edge of town, next to the mailboat dock. It serves great food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Last year it was a dining mainstay for us during the COVID Summer of 2020, when some of the other local restaurants shut down. And it apparently stayed open, at reduced hours, through the winter months, continuing to serve the residents of Stonington and provide them with another chance to get away from their home cooking for an evening.

So when we got back to Stonington, of course we decided to promptly pay a visit to the F&F, both to get an excellent meal and also to reward them for being courageous stalwarts during a very difficult time. The food was great, as always–we shared some very tasty oysters, and I had a delicious, perfectly cooked ribeye steak for my entree–and we were glad to see that the place was jammed with patrons. I’m betting that many of them also wanted to reward the F&F, and that the restaurant’s decision to stay open created some customer loyalty that will last for a long time.

Last year I wrote periodically about the need to support local restaurants and bars, which were hard hit by the shutdown orders. Keep them in mind this year, too, as the country works to recover from the pandemic period. And if there are places in your towns that stayed open during the worst of it, give them a special nod, won’t you? They deserve it.

The End Of Eating Out

In Stonington, Maine, the Harbor Cafe is a bedrock of the downtown business area. During the winter, it’s typically the only restaurant open on Deer Isle. It serves a great menu of classic diner fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with many chowders, stews, fish dishes, lobster rolls, and other classic New England favorites mixed in. It’s a great place to go for a glass of Allagash White and a bowl of haddock chowder (with extra oyster crackers and hot sauce, of course) and, if you’re up to it, a piece of one of their great, homemade pies.

But now the local newspaper is reporting that the Harbor Cafe is in danger of closing. Thanks to the coronavirus, its revenue have been cut by a third this year, and it still has to pay rent, and water, and the other costs of running a restaurant business. As a result, the Cafe is in danger of closing, which would cost the downtown area an iconic business and eliminate 12 jobs on Deer Isle. A former employee has started a Facebook fundraising campaign to try to help the Cafe stay in business.

The Harbor Cafe is not alone in its struggles to survive a business-crushing global pandemic. CNN reported this week that 17 percent of America’s restaurants have closed — about 110,000 restaurants in all. We’ve seen closures on the restaurant row on Gay Street and elsewhere in Columbus, and the CNN story reports that the news for those of us who like to dine out from time to time may get even worse: a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that 37% of respondents say it is “unlikely” they will be in business in six months unless things change.

In short, an economic disaster is happening right in front of our eyes — although many of us, keeping to our snug coronavirus cocoons in our houses, haven’t really noticed it yet. The shutdown orders, the changing instructions from health officials, and the fear that has been generated is decimating an important small business sector and causing a loss of jobs that won’t come springing back if and when a vaccine gets here. 100,000 restaurants aren’t going to magically reopen when the “all clear” is finally sounded.

I don’t like the idea of Stonington, Maine, without the Harbor Cafe, and I don’t like the idea of an America without a rich smorgasbord of restaurant options. If you agree with me, I urge you to get out to your local restaurant of choice, have a hearty meal, and maybe splurge on that piece of pie, too. Stimulus packages are nice, but what restaurants really need right now are full dining rooms.

Edited to Add: Just to make it clear, I’m not suggesting that people disregard governmental orders or flout social distancing norms. Most of the restaurants I know of (including the Harbor Cafe) have implemented social distancing in entrance and egress rules, creating distance and/or putting up barriers between tables, masked staff, and other measures to make dining out as safe as possible. And if, notwithstanding the safety measures, you just don’t feel comfortable dining in, carryout is always an option to help support your local restaurants.

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.