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?

The Random Restaurant Tour (IX)

Yesterday Kish and I met for lunch. We try to get together for lunch about once a week, where we can eat in peace and talk without an aging dog hoarsely barking at us to give her people food. We try to pick a spot somewhere between home and the office, and we’re always game for something new.

Yesterday we checked out the Blind Lady Tavern on Mound Street. It was a bitterly cold day, with a sharp wind that chilled to the bone. It felt good to finally reach the Blind Lady, which has a warm, welcoming ambiance complete with a cool pressed tin ceiling and a single room shared by the bar and lots of wooden tables.

After my walk through the arctic wind tunnel, I decided to warm up with the fried chicken sandwich and chips. The sandwich was excellent, with fried chicken that was crunchy but moist, with a nice sauce and tasty coating that wasn’t overly breaded. I also want to commend the chips, which looked to be homemade and were crisp and blessedly not over-salted. I left nothing behind. And because I knew I would be venturing back out into the brutal chill, I decided to end the meal with a cup of very good coffee that was served piping hot in a huge cup that was just begging for a shot of cream. All in all, it was a completely satisfying meal. Kish got the blackened fish sandwich with an enormous pile of greens and also said her food was very good.

According to our pleasant waitress, the Blind Lady — the name of which refers to the blindfolded depiction of Justice, in deference to the nearby Franklin County courthouses — has been around for two years, in a building that has housed the Jury Room lounge and other courthouse-related spots. We can attest that it is now a first-rate place to have a beagle-free lunch.

The Random Restaurant Tour (V)

I’m not sure exactly why, but the Arena District has never been a regular stop on the workday lunch caravan.  We’ll walk past the Arena District to the North Market, or head east to the Flatiron, but we never seem to stop in that little cluster of buildings adjacent to Nationwide Arena, even though we know there are food places back there.

Last week the Jersey Girl and I decided to cross into No Man’s Land.  Our destination was the Three-Legged Mare, an Irish pub.  It’s been there eight years, located just a few steps away from the Arena, but neither of us had been there – which is kind of embarrassing when you think about it.

I don’t think it will be another eight years until we go back again.  The TLM has all of the classic Irish pub woodwork, wall inscriptions, and other trappings — including a sign, below, that made me laugh as we walked out — so it’s a visually interesting setting that has both indoor and outside seating.

We ate at a high top in the bar area and got good service from the bartender.  He recommended the corned beef sandwich, shown above, so I owe him a debt of gratitude.  It was excellent, with a mound of lean, succulent, juicy corned beef served on a pretzel roll, with just the right amount of fries.  The Jersey Girl raved about the beer cheese soup and couldn’t finish her Irish Burger, so she boxed up half of it.  The bartender highly recommended that we try some of their traditional pub fare next time, so I guess we’ll just have to go back for the bangers and mash.  

Now that we’ve decided to break the barrier and dine in the Arena District, we can do just about anything.

The Random Restaurant Tour (IV)

Last week the Jersey Girl and I continued the random restaurant tour by leaving the friendly confines of downtown Columbus and heading north to the Italian Village area.  Our destination was a converted brick barn called Cosecha Cocina.

Italian Village is one of the areas of Columbus where the redevelopment wave is rolling along at tsunami-level strength.  Every time I visit, there is a cool new restaurant, brew pub, or breakfast joint in the neighborhood.  That’s because you can find two key components of redevelopment there:  inexpensive buildings that can be refurbished into cool spaces for your use, and a population of people in the immediate vicinity ready to frequent your establishment.  In the case of Italian Village, businesses can draw upon both the downtown crowd, who need only drive, walk or bike a few blocks up Third, and the flood of people moving into new condos and apartment buildings in Italian Village.

Cosecha Cocina is a happy addition to the Italian Village ‘hood.  It definitely satisfies the cool building requirement, with its cavernous internal space and outdoor eating area, and its menu of traditional and modern Mexican fare will keep that flood of people coming back.  During our visit the Jersey Girl and I split some brussels sprouts — served piping hot with melted cheese — and I tried the pork meatball torta with esquites, a traditional Mexican street corn dish, on the side.

The fact that brussels sprouts and meatballs are on the menu at all tells you that Cosecha Cocina isn’t your Daddy’s kind of tacos and enchiladas Mexican restaurant.  Another clue is the quality and delicate flavoring of the food itself.  The pork meatball torta, which features chipotle tomato sauce, cilantro, black beans, avocado, and cheese and is served on airy, crunchy bread, was succulent and a reminder that Mexican food doesn’t have to be overpowering on the spice scale.  The brussels sprouts were terrific, and the esquites corn salad was a perfect, light accompaniment to the meal.  The Jersey Girl, who tried the chicken tinga tacos, raved about her food, too.

The zone of lunch places for the lucky workers in downtown Columbus continues to expand, limited only by their willingness to get out and try someplace new.  With options like Cosecha Cocina only a bridge and a few blocks away, the incentive to experiment with a new lunch spot keeps growing.