Food and other edible substances will be reviewed, recommended or scathingly panned. Be warned, I am a highly critical foodie. If you tell me you serve Fried Ice Cream…it had better have met the deep fryer or your reputation is toast.
I am the proud owner of a new Toyota Prius V. Or rather, I’m very close to being a proud owner. Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, being close to owning a car isn’t very satisfying. (Although, one could make an argument that having hand grenades explode isn’t desirable either. I guess it depends on whether you are on the receiving end of that exchange.) This is why I am grateful for pastries. Allow me to explain.
Last week Wednesday, I’m anticipating the joy/terror of getting a brand new car.* I am giddy after finally making up my mind (despite the pressures of family and friends to pick almost any other vehicle) to buy a Toyota Prius V. Blue. It must be blue. In a delighted state of anticipation, I walk to the nearest bakery on my lunch hour to indulge in taste-testing a champion cupcake. Chocolate. It must be chocolate. Cakabakery won awards** for being able to stand the hot lights of fame and produce magical muffins on the Food Network Cupcake Wars bake-off. I had to try these puppies. Victory never tasted so sweet. As it turns out, I celebrated a bit too prematurely.
It’s Thursday, I’ve just signed over the contents of my checking account and put a hefty balance on my Visa when the nice car guru takes me out to teach me all the confusing knobs and dials I need to learn to be able to drive my car***
Guru: “And this button here will interface with the satellite to allow you to revisit 70’s music.”
Guru: “Why does it need to interface with a satellite?”
Me: “Why would I want to listen to 70’s music? Living through that era was bad enough.”
As you can see, it was going swell. Then she tried to swipe the magic screen developed by Hogwarts School of Engineering when…nothing. The screen locked up. For the next two hours, the fine folks at the Toyota dealership tried to figure out why. Time passed…slowly. I was dropped off to buy the car so I have no way of demanding my money back and stalking out, not unless I want to walk the sixty or so miles home and my phone battery is nearly dead. My blood sugar drops as my ire increases. To save the lives all around me, I walk to the nearby Rykse’s Bakery and Restaurant for lunch. After enough chicken salad to pacify a slavish horde, I purchased a cookie for my son. This bakery makes great things, one of which is iced cookies that they number with frosting (for no real reason I can see). My son loves numbers. I pick out a six—at least one of us will be happy. I’m walking back to the dealership, cookie balanced atop my leftover, when it happens. The cookie flies off and hits the ground. The cookie cracks; the number six is now just a sad suggestion of its former numeric self and I learn my brand new car will need to be fixed.
I really want to cry.
Broken pastry in hand, I finally leave the dealership with the loaner car and a strong longing to never return. Except they have my car. My blue, blue car. Sigh…blue, blue me.
To assuage my grief, there were more cupcakes to be had. This time, I hit the Cupcakes by Design people in Grandville, MI. These confections had a ratio of at least 75% frosting to 25% cake. If you like frosting, this place is for you. I snatched a caramel, mocha chocolate and a chocolate brownie cupcake to taste test at home. (Some crises call for a double-chocolate antidote.) If I have to suffer, the upside will come glazed or slathered in frosting. That’s just the way I roll. (Emphasis on roll.) Defeat has never tasted so good.
Tuesday I went to yoga and discovered the downside to a combination of cupcakes and Netflix binging.
Today, I have survived nearly a week of car nebulosity and will be returning to the dealer to—hopefully—pick up the newly repaired, blue beauty. And if it isn’t fixed? Well, sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*New car smell is immediately washed away by the stench of anxiety waiting for that first dent.
You know how you sometimes picture a perfect occasion? Not really? Okay, c’mon! Work with me here. Your brain is crammed with the planning, the vision of how exactly something is supposed to go?* Then the wet fish of reality hits you upside the head? Yeah, that’s pretty much how my efforts to host a tea party this past week went.
First came: The Idea. Last summer whilst my son was at camp, I visited Mackinac Island and enjoyed a sumptuous, if overpriced, Tea at the Grand Hotel. I thought to myself, “I ought to host an event like this!”
Second came: The Recipe. Reading Sarah—A Young Foodie’s—Blog I was inspired to try and make the Foolproof Victoria Sponge.** I had the chutzpah to look at sugary, confection perfection and say, “I can bake that.” Turns out, it wasn’t so ‘foolproof’ after all.***
The recipe itself was fairly basic—if calling for an inordinate amount of butter and eggs. But the numerous British terms had me revisiting my childhood fear of metric conversion and scrambling around my local Meijer’s store trying to locate something called ‘Caster Sugar’. Turns out there is a stage between the coarse granulated grains most of us use in baking and the fine, talcum powder consistency of powdered sugar. It’s called Baker’s Sugar here in the States—in case you want to try making this. (Read: in case you are a masochist.)
The day before the party, I’m cleaning my house like a mad woman, throwing together the makings of three…count them…three kinds of tea sandwiches, lemon zested cookies and the delectable dessert which is to be the crowning achievement of my table. I decided to tackle the sponge first. I’m like a virgin on her wedding night—nervous, but excited. But I’m all, “Bring on the groom…er…I mean, cake.”
Third Came: The Wet Fish of Reality. I pull together my sponge ingredients, painstakingly following the instructions. I slid my pans into the oven and commenced work on the sandwiches…only to discover the bread I had put in the freezer had fused each slice next to the other. While struggling to dissect that mess, the wonderful odor of cake rising in the oven prompts me to peek in and see how it’s doing. (Did you gasp with horror? That’s because you know what’s coming. It’s the slasher flick equivalent of a sorority girl heading into a dark cellar. You are all collectively shouting: “No! Don’t Go In There!)
When the timer finally dinged and I pulled my masterpiece out of the oven, it was to discover that my beautiful-smelling dessert looked like a California sinkhole had formed underneath it. My cakes had fallen. (I’m not sure where the bridal analogy would go in this scenario…but calling my cakes flaccid would be appropriate.)
Faced with my Failure Sponge and shredded loaf of bread, did I give up? No! This is where the British came up with the stiff-upper lip-ism. When faced with defeat…we rise to bake again.
Not trusting my first efforts, I find what looks like an easier version on the internet and throw that into a spring form pan and hope for the best. It came out of the oven looking pretty good. I hurdled the stumbling blocks to making the perfect tea party and sallied forth. Tally ho and all that rot.
(Musical Interlude: Cue Verdi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons )
The day dawns, birds are chirping. The house is looking about as good as I can make it—as long as no one opens a bedroom door or goes into the basement. I have a fridge full of prepared food. I have the makings of a dessert. I decide to get my hair cut and styled as a treat before the party. (I was not going to mess up that bathroom.) It was only when the stylist is getting out her blow dryer that I remembered I left the sandwiches in the freezer. Panicked, I text my mother-in-law to take them out. I just crossed my fingers and hoped they would thaw in time.
The hour before guests are to arrive, I discover to my dismay that, sometime in the night, the second cake I made had deflated into a dense, rubbery disc. This is where I learned that eating the failed efforts of the first cake meant I had nothing to fall back on! (By the way, it was flat—but delicious.) With no time to try for a third cake, I slice the vulcanized monstrosity and smother it in fruit and whipped cream and called it ‘Good Enough’.
Everyone was very complimentary. Despite the jam causing the heavy layers to slide apart and the whipped cream to squoosh out the sides when it was cut, the guests called the cake delicious. Which just goes to show—being polite sometimes requires a judicious amount of lying. I don’t regret trying something new. But next time I host a shindig, I am probably buying something instead. Or better yet, I’ll just watch Downton Abbey and laugh at all the perfection depicted.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Ask any bride who ever planned her “Dream Wedding” how it actually turned out. (Have a box of tissues ready just in case it turns out they are now getting a divorce.)
**The Victoria (meaning victorious) Sponge—most ironically named dessert of my baking career.
***Here is the recipe, if you feel lucky. Ask yourself, “Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?
Raspberry and Blackberry Victoria Sponge
For the sponge :
1 Cup (8 oz) softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 Cups (8 oz) self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
1 ¼ Cup (8 oz) 250 g caster Baker’s sugar
4 large free-range eggs
4 tablespoons good-quality raspberry jam
300g (about a cup 1/2 each) of fresh raspberries & blackberries, washed and dried.
Preheat your oven to 190°C/375°F/gas Grease two 20cm sandwich tins cake pans with butter, line the bases with greaseproof paper and dust lightly with flour.
Beat the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. A great tip is to stop when the mixture turns from being slightly yellow in color to almost white. Add the eggs one by one, making sure you beat each one in well before you add the next, then add the vanilla extract and the flour. Divide the cake mix between the prepared tins. Spread it out well with a spatula and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and risen and a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly, then carefully turn out on to a baking rack to cool completely.
Whip the cream with the vanilla bean paste and sugar until you get soft peaks- careful not to overbeat it though! Spread the jam and then the vanilla cream over one of the cakes. Place the second cake on top, spreading onto it a thin layer of whipped cream and decorating with alternating raspberries and blackberries. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
***You Read This Far Bonus***
British Expressions You Need to Know:
Sandwich Tin = Cake Pan
Caster Sugar = Baker’s Sugar
8 oz = means different ‘effing’ sizes because it is a measure of weight not volume, you idiot. (Sorry, this is my dictionary so I get to say it like I mean it.) So 8oz of butter is one cup but 8 oz of flour is two cups. I hate math, have I mentioned this?
Self-raising Flour = Self-Rising Flour (and actually means that in high humidity, your cake is probably going to fall.)
Woe to the restaurant that finds me in a bad mood. Fortunately for Zeytin, a Turkish restaurant in Ada, Michigan, I was in fine fettle last Thursday. The food I consume can affect how I feel, but the reverse is also true. If I am in a great mood, everything tastes better.* Happiness is a spice all its own.
My friend, Kay, joined me for a belated birthday lunch celebration.** Kay and I are both enthusiastic ‘foodies’, while not necessarily qualified by training, we are experienced gourmands and picky about our palate and the foods we try. I like to utilize her taste buds because she will eat the meat dishes so I can tell you about them. And, before you cry foul, Kay is okay with this arrangement—the safe word is “Rocky Mountain Oysters”.
Kay, and I wrestled with the many choices of appetizers. So we ordered enough to feed a small army—or a house with teenagers. Soon plates of borek, spinach pie, and bowls of soup arrived along with a basket of very thin, cold pita and a generous bowl of tzatziki—called Cacik in Turkish. The yogurt dish was the favorite among the four we chose.
The Feta Borek—a deep-fried crispy roll filled with feta cheese—was the Turkish equivalent of a crab Rangoon, minus the crab. We both agreed, this was phenomenal. (Especially dunked in the cacik—everything is better with yogurt sauce on it.)
Next we had the stuffed grape leaves. Here Kay and I parted ways. Kay loved them, believing they were flavored with anise, I had reservations because of the odd and unexpected taste. When asked what the secret ingredient was our waiter admitted this was the one item on the menu that they did not make at the restaurant, but ordered in. My internal food detective went ‘Ah Hah!’ But I said nothing aloud; I like to savor my smugness along with my meal.
Kay and I both had reservations about the spinach pie. I am a huge fan of spanakopita (the Greek iteration of this dish) so I was a bit disappointed by the approach taken by the Turkish chef. Instead of getting a rolled, triangular packet stuffed with feta and spinach chopped in a good ratio, this came more as a lasagna-style serving—where the phyllo dough had a bottom and a top layer with a huge helping of spinach dotted with feta as a leaden center. This arrangement made the upper layers of phyllo a touch gluey. My research informed me that Phyllo, the thin, layered pastry, which I thought was a strictly Greek invention, actually originated in Istanbul. So, it was likely I ate the more traditional rendition of the dish. That said, I would still prefer my puffed savory to be a little more flaky and the proportions of dough to filling better measured to prevent the steam from collapsing all that delicately structured crust. Still, it tasted pretty good and it would beat most fast food restaurant food hands-down.
There is something entirely decadent about sitting in luxurious comfort sipping sweet tea in delicate glasses, chatting with a good friend. Our booth had colorful, thick cushions with a Turkish rug pattern and pillows at our backs, the music playing was soft and a woman sang with plaintive, if incomprehensible words, as we dined.
The only jarring note to the bright, clean establishment is the décor. Looking around we saw what looked like Southwestern paintings which veered very heavily near to something you might see painted on black velvet or found on a Thomas Kinkade Calendar—if he’d ever managed to escape the English village where he’s been held hostage for years churning out lilac-strangled cottages. Twisted iron chandeliers which mimicked the antlers of a many pronged, exotic animal prompted us to ask whether the owners had kept the previous establishment’s theme. The puzzled waiter replied, “No, this is all new with the restaurant.” Okay then. Since I inadvertently painted my basement to look like interior of a submarine, I cast no interior design stones. But be prepared if you go there.
Kay enjoyed her grilled lamb. (Which I would describe to you in detail if my son hadn’t stolen my notebook to create a Jackson Pollock inspired mess on his bedroom floor.) I loved my Turkish Delight—a mélange of veggies swimming in a delicious tomato-based stew on homemade hummus. I was surprised to find uniformly chopped carrots with the telling zigzag that screams ‘frozen veggie’ but, that said, the dish was fantastic.
I won’t quibble if they can make frozen food taste that good. We both thought that the presentation of the hors d’oeuvres on rough chopped iceberg lettuce with thin half-moon slices of tomato was underwhelming. My thought was that if they just added a nice, light lemon-olive oil vinaigrette and made it a side of the appetizer then it wouldn’t be such a waste of vegetation.
Friendship is the flavor which makes life worth savoring. I can laugh, joke and chew my meal and it has a gustatory pleasure you cannot recreate no matter how well cooked a dish is when eaten alone. Minor pet peeves aside—frozen veggies and a slightly too heavy emphasis on salt in many of the dishes—I suggest you run right out and dine at this hidden gem. Gustatory treasure hunters will not be disappointed.
Zeytin gets three out of four olives. It is a great place to go with friends. The meals are slightly higher in price than your average lunch fare, but then, the food is better. It is intended as a slower dining experience, has tables arranged in either booths, or two-to-four person settings with the possibility of reorganizing for larger groups. It looks to have a well-stocked bar for those who like a little aperitif with their meal. There are a few ‘American’ food options for kids (cheese burger/chicken nuggets) but adults had best be prepared to dine in Turkish style.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Apparently I am an emotional eater in more than one sense.
**Like we need an excuse to go to a good restaurant.
Hidden Soup Bonus:
If given a choice between the Lentil or Spinach Tomato soups, go with the latter. Unless you hate spinach–because it really does have a Popeye’s powerhouse vegetable flavor.
There is something about the call of battle that is so invigorating. At least, that’s what every science fiction novel has lead me to believe. Now I am more informed. War isn’t pretty. Not even a war covered in chocolate. I attended the Hobart Dessert Wars held at the Amway Grand Plaza Friday night. I was late to the event and my poor planning landed me in the fudge sauce right away. I had no idea how well attended the event would be. Too well attended. The line to get into the Ambassador Ballroom took at least twenty minutes—snaking in and around the foyer, through a back hall, around a bathroom (presumably to give you an opportunity before continuing the trek) and back around to the foyer again. By the time I got inside it was wall to wall with chocolate crazed donut lovers.
It was a sweet smelling madhouse. People wedged their way through the crowd, some holding up coveted box tops garnered at a dessert table to keep their trophies in. I was to learn to my sincere regret how necessary these shields of battle were. Because of the size of the room, they placed the tables all around the outside of the space with tiny, standing hors d’oeuvre tables draped with white tablecloths in the center. They were calm oases where one could set down their treasures and feast. But no one was doing that. It was a sadly long wait to get to each of the thirteen stations. (I was feeling quite cross, I can tell you.) After the first table, I knew I wasn’t going to make it unless I got ruthless.
At the first table I went to, The Melting Pot, which is a restaurant I have never been to because of the idea of drowning things in scalding chocolate has never appealed to me, I sidled my way to the edge, because the movement at the center was negligible, only to discover that they were only serving at the front. I managed to throw down a ticket and snag a dessert myself—the harried servers barely blinked at my chocolate ballsy theft. I turned away cackling in triumph only to have my victory dashed away by the plate of cubed brownies and pound cake with fudge sauce and strawberry slices flying out of my hands and splatting on the floor. (We won’t discuss the five second rule and the possible application thereof. I had waited a long time to get to that dessert.) That said, the brownie was definitely the best part of that arrangement.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sample everything, so every once in a while, I’d stop someone to get a picture of their food or their impressions of the event. The consensus was that the venue was too crowded to make the experience pleasurable. I met Cathy with her grandson, Adam, in line. Cathy told me people were leaving because of it. She was harried by the stress of the battle for bite-sized vittles, but she was one of the people I saw at the close of the event. What a grandmother won’t do for her grandkids!
I learned a few lessons from the veterans in attendance. People who had been to past Dessert Wars came prepared. Some had baking cupcake tins to pop their samples into, others came as teams, with one person hitting a few stations, collecting five or more samples and then they would converge somewhere else to divide the spoils.
Opinions on the quality of the entries differed. Some people had nothing but good things to say. I spoke with 7-year-old Tessa who, when asked agreed that she was definitely an ‘expert in desserts’. In her opinion, she liked the chocolate truffle the best…until she tasted the chocolate red velvet ice cream cookie. That immediately became her favorite. “It was better than the truffle.” She said.
Others held more reserved judgment of the event. Ruthanne – who is not pictured except for her hands—felt that what the Melting Pot served wasn’t really appropriate to a “Dessert Wars” theme. “They didn’t make it from scratch.” She went on to say that they simply cut up brownies and cake. “I could do that!” No, she felt that the winner should be someone like the Love’s Ice Cream because they constructed a dessert on the site. The official judges must have agreed. The ice cream/cream puff swans took second place. As it was one of the desserts I got to try, I had to agree. It was worth the hassle and fuss of fighting my way to the front. Despite the chaos and disappointment of not getting to try many of the sponsored delights, there was a heady thrill of getting the last puffed pastry (or piece of carrot cake, in my case) and walking away a champion in the sweets arena. To the victor the just desserts.
I was entirely impressed with the bakeries and restaurants that participated. They kept their cool in the face of crises. When swans took too long to prepare, the basic cream puffs were handed out so that people could at least try them. The Melting Pot was the last table standing…scraping the pot for fudge sauce even after the competition was officially over. At tables where I was too late to sample the wares, the assistants proudly showed off cell phone pictures and rattled off the many entries offered. It definitely was incentive to go out and try these establishments at a later date. There were many winners that evening. Winners for people’s choice: 3rd place was a tie: Twisted Rooster and the Melting Pot 2nd place was “Sprinkles” 1st place was Robinette’s Judge’s decision 3rd place Robinette’s 2nd place Love’s Ice Cream 1st place Town to Town The real winners were the area food pantry “Kids’ Food Basket” which benefitted in part from the proceeds of the event. It is good to know, we all went to bed slightly sick with over-indulgence for a good cause.
* * * * *
Bonus: How to Make a Cream Puff Swan
There were too many choices and competitors to all list here. There are many great sites where each competitor’s entries may be found. Here’s a list of the entrants and a link to their entries:
(FRUSHI – fruit roll-up sushi with sweet rice and fresh fruit.)
Frushi—Fruit Sushi is a hybrid fusion dessert taking the concept of ‘sushi’ in a new direction. I managed to get a lovely picture of the promoted items, but again, I was too late to sample the elaborate constructions. The basic ingredients were fruit roll ups, sweet sticky rice with vanilla, fresh fruit and dehydrated pineapple and they were served with a sauce which I was assured could go on anything! It looked convincingly enough like soy sauce to fool me. I was told it was vanilla, honey and balsamic vinegar though with a plop of “Wasabi” in the form of ground pistachio paste.
Cookie bars that were called Tiramisu. Complicated ingredients made it hard to identify all of their choices. I tried three of the cookie bars and the fruit option was the best. They were not as elegantly served, but they were generous portion sizes.
(Won First Place in People’s Choice awards and Third Place in Judge’s Choice. Came bearing cartloads of their signature donuts: apple cider, cinnamon & sugar, chocolate covered chocolate, chocolate with sprinkles, red velvet, black forest, s’mores, lemon, chocolate almond (or coconut almond…I couldn’t read my handwriting on account of the drool.)
Sara’s Sweets was out of cupcakes by the time I got to the table. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, I am bound to fall in love with their menu. They brought a mother load worth of cupcakes. And from the screen shot on one baker’s broken iPhone, I could see I missed out. Almond, mint chocolate, strawberry shortcake, peanut butter, raspberry filled white cake, snickers, buckeyes and frosted cookies were among their treasures.
I may have to look this place up, or I’ll feel bereft.
Apparently served a prickle pear mojito dessert, but alas, I was too late. I did however get a scrumptious serving of peanut butter, snickers cupcake that was incredible. The burst of peanut butter when you bit into the fluffy frosting was astonishingly good. And, since I am not a fan of peanut butter, that’s saying something.
Let me just tell you that cupcakes were the most popular items at the Dessert Wars competition. I know, because every time I got to a table, they were already gone. Sprinkles apparently served chocolate ganache, toffee and peanut butter creme cupcakes, Devil Dogs and Sprinkle Puffs. I saw these go by. I could cry, I tell you. Took Second Place in People’s Choice Award.
By the time I made my way through they only had the puff pastry curl with Holland crème. I have always had a fondness for cream horns—also called cream curls— when I was a girl. I used to call them unicorn horns. These were perfect examples. Light airy, cylindrical pastry filled with a yummy cream filling. I won’t argue with the judges who gave them First Place.
Another shot glass entry came from Twister Rooster. This was describe to me as a ‘Tiramisu’ style dessert made of peanut butter mousse, with strawberry and raspberry jelly using a ladyfinger cookie as a ‘spoon’. Sounded intriguing–snapped up before I could even sniff it. It was popular enough to share Third Place in the People’s Choice award.
Asterisk Bedazzle Footnote:
*The title of this piece is the battle cry coined by me and a fellow patron when I nearly upset my dessert tray a second time.
One thing I have discovered, house hunting makes you hungry. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a side effect of staring at so many kitchens without being able to look in the refrigerator. (Are we supposed to be looking in the fridge?) One of the things I stumbled across while cruising a prospective neighborhood yesterday was a new restaurant. Well, new to me anyway.
The Main Street Pub is aptly named and has the potential to be a main staple as well. Hand-painted flowers decorate the windows facing the street luring customers to try greener pastures. Located at 1730 28th Street SW in Wyoming, Main Street has a hardwood character that makes me look around to see if “Norm” is going to walk in and take a seat at the end of the bar. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81QluTS-mWc I believe it is a comparison the establishment fosters because the first thing my waiter, Zack, did was ask me my name. He was charming and attentive. It surprised me to learn he’d only been working there for a week. He too blended right away into an atmosphere that makes you feel as if the place has always been there and always will be, even though the restaurant is only eight or nine years old. And I will bet you a dessert of your choice—and the menu sports quite a few nice looking ones—that you won’t guess Zack’s age correctly if you visit.*
The place is large enough to host fourteen tables in the dining area with additional seating in the bar—nicely segmented by a midrise wooden wall topped by stained glass panels. It is family-friendly while still catering to bar stool jockeys in a segregated area, with a rowdier crowd in the wee hours of 2:00 a.m. (Which I will never be able to describe as that is past my bedtime. Feel free to stay up and let me know what happens.) Although the food reflects much of the standard bar fare, touches of culinary expression make this pub a cut above the rest.
I ordered the portabella club (7.99) and a cup of the tomato basil soup (2.49). I had planned to squeeze in a slice of the luscious-sounding Lemon Mousse Melody cake, but the sandwich came with an unexpected pile of French fries. The meal was more than plenty for lunch. As I ate, I watched the diners who were enjoying friendly conversation—not having to shout over the televisions there for the bar crowd and sports enthusiasts was pleasant. Because I came after the lunch hour, it was calm and yet still had the friendly feeling I look for when I dine out. (If I want crabby company, I can eat alone at home.)
The food I ate was tasty but not too pretentious. The fries were in my favorite, slightly soft state and hadn’t be doused in too much NaCl. Although I suspect the food will lean to the saltier side, so be prepared to drink gallons or just ask if the cook can “Just Say No” to the sodium.
The soup had a lovely tang of fresh basil which offset its salty character. The toasty pita bread oozed just a bit of the aioli red pepper sauce with each bite. If I could change something, I would have preferred a giant portabella mushroom to sink my teeth into rather than the slices of baby portabella. But that didn’t hurt the flavor. I’d also suggest they use a shredded Monterey Jack versus sliced to help better marry the loose lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers—melted cheese makes a terrific mortar. Minor gripes aside, the food comes with the promise of a warm welcome and a hope that this might become a favorite hangout of mine. Just as soon as I can find a house in Wyoming that I can afford.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Yes, the title is about as cheesy as it gets. I like cheese. Get used to it.
**I’m serious about the bet. First person to write in with Zack’s accurate age (as of 2014) will have dessert on me. Well, not on me, on me. This isn’t that kind of foodie site.
Another submission to Friday Fictioneers: Roasted Wood Gnome
Photo copyright: Madison Woods
While hunting for mushrooms recently, I came across an unusual specimen: the Wood Gnome. A rare gastro-gnomic delicacy, the small creature was hunted nearly to extinction by German foresters; Wood Gnomes came to the New World along with other unsavory immigrants: pox, diphtheria and the Welsh*. French fur trappers made Quebec famous for its gnome fur exports. (It takes several thousand gnomes to make a decent coat.) To prepare, simply remove lederhosen, wash gnome thoroughly and skin before spitting and roasting over hickory fire embers. Gnome is done when the tiny nose pops. Sprinkle with gruyere and serve.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Please, no hate mail from the Welsh. It just sounded funny to me.
Picture courtesy of FreeDigitalPhoto.Net/praisaeng
Sometimes, life just is one big, flaming bag of poop. This is probably not a traditional start for a food review, but it is an appropriate one.
* * *
In search of experience as a food critic, I have finally run up against the burning question which every Culinary Columbo must face: “Is it right to totally tank a restaurant’s reputation because of a bad day?” I’ll let you be the judge.
Following a whirlwind vacation in Chicagoland, I decided I need to do my bit for local tourism. So, Friday ,I took take my very special guy downtown for lunch. It was only after getting on Monroe Street that I discovered construction has turned the downtown area into an M.C. Escher nightmare. Streets went nowhere or suddenly became one-way in the opposite direction. (I am fairly certain I drove up the side of a building at one point.) Eventually I nudged my flame-red Toyota Echo into the perfect parking spot on Monroe Center, chortling at my good fortune.*
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Stuart Miles
I filled my pocket with quarters for the meter and then got distracted by the effort of coordinating my date—who will eat nothing at a restaurant that isn’t covered in syrup served with a side of bacon—and his haversack of emergency snack food**, and as a result, I entered the nearest restaurant without performing that one task that, if forgotten, can turn your sunshiny day upside down in the blink of an eye.
This is the part of the food review where I am supposed to wax poetic on the innovative use of space, the side of the room which housed a wall of no doubt, high-end wines in their impressive angular, shoebox-sized cubbies and the other side which was part deli, part corner store rummage sale. I ought to be waxing about the novel, handwritten artsy signs which made trying to read with bifocals the pretty, but distant, menu an exercise in near-sighted humiliation: “Do you have this printed anywhere in Pica 16 I can hold two inches from my nose?” Instead I will raise a pointed question: “If one, hypothetically, bites down on something and a tooth goes ‘crunch’ on un-chewable matter, is one obligated to inform the restaurant their food is booby-trapped?”
Now, in my opinion, that answer is a resounding, ‘Yes’. I was happily masticating my very delicious salad when I heard a horrifying sound reverberate through my skull—a sound which I can only image is what glass sounds like when it goes through a trash compactor. Now, I like hyperbole as much as the next girl, but let me tell you I am not kidding when I say I was entirely surprised that, when I spat that mouthful into my napkin, that there wasn’t a sparkling diamond and/or a trail of bloody spittle following.
I dithered, as I checked my mouth for open wounds and picked whatever rock-like thing it was I’d gnashed with overly fragile molars. Should I tell the management the salad bites back? Should I just finish up and leave? Then I came up with what looked like a large-sized grain of something hard. Possibly a piece of my tooth, possibly whatever it was I’d bit down on. I decided this was worth informing someone.
This is the point of the story that gets kind of disgusting—but only to people who actually expect the restaurant to care whether they are serving sanitary, safe food. I went to the counter where I was met by a suspicious and hostile clerk who interrupted my explanation to go get a manager.
A young lady came over and asked what happened. I explained that I bit down on something in the salad and I showed her the piece of whatever it was—no doubt gifting her with my molar dna to replicate later, in private, for her alien overlords. She asked, “So, was it something plastic?” I whispered, as if I was afraid the health inspector had bugged the joint, “It sounded like glass.”
I heard the following when she walked back to the food counter to determine what it was I’d been served (paraphrased since I was ten feet away):
“What was it she ate?”
“A mixed salad with a lot of different ingredients.”
(Inaudible muttering which I took to be the decision that I was a con-artist who no doubt had eaten 90% of my meal and then complained in order to get my lunch for free.)
“…It wouldn’t be worth the trouble to go through everything.”
This last sentence I heard very clearly. They weren’t going to bother to check the food that, while delicious, apparently was working on commission for the tooth fairy.
I objected when the manager offered me a refund. “I don’t want a refund. I enjoyed the salad, it was delightful, right up until I broke a crown.”
Another underling came over and retrieved my credit card, when I protested again that I didn’t want a refund, he said, “No, my manager insists you get one.”
The thing is…they took my salad away. They took the bite I spit out away. It wasn’t until afterward that it occurred to me they wanted the evidence. They were apparently concerned about a frivolous, or fictitious, lawsuit. Perhaps the manager apologized at the time, but what I felt most of all when I left the restaurant was a burning embarrassment. That I was treated as if I was a plague upon their establishment. “The one who dared complain.”
Leaving the place, red-faced and feeling like I was somehow at fault for trying to prevent a rash of tooth-related catastrophies, I was confronted by the final inequity: a parking ticket slapped on my windshield. My free lunch had cost me more than my dignity. It also cost me the absentminded-parent penalty tax.
So, I have decided that, as a food critic, I will refrain from judging a place based on an isolated incident. It might have been an overlooked stone in my lettuce. It might be that my dental hygiene has slipped and I need my enamel checked. I won’t name the restaurant. I will say, however, that treating a customer as if they were to blame for faults with your food pretty much guarantees you are not getting a four-star review. The nicest thing I can do is to omit naming the place and simply advise you to chew with caution at deli’s located on Monroe Center between numbers 56 and 58…oh, and don’t forget to feed the meter.
Now, you tell me, what would you have done? Please comment below. Thank you.
[I want to practice having ‘topics’ on my blog. Basically, I want an excuse to play around with my basic 20/13 format. Here’s hoping it is more socially acceptable than playing with one’s food.]
I have always secretly wanted to be a food critic. And no, it’s not just because I want to eat for free. I think I would make an excellent cuisine diva. You know, the nose-in-the-air snob who slinks into a posh establishment wearing sunglasses (as if they won’t recognize the terrifying taster at a glance anyway) orders one of everything on the menu and then delivers pronouncements from on high that make or break the restaurant’s reputation. Only I have a small problem. I don’t eat meat.* (Meat, for the purposes of this article refers to red meats: beef, pork, lamb, musk ox, bambi…) I’m not a vegan or anything like that (no offense to Vegans intended) but, I just don’t like the taste or the texture or sometimes the politics. (Okay, who out there can eat Veal? I mean, seriously. The Vegans aren’t entirely wrong about their Eating Animals is Cruel stance.)
You think: “Okay. You don’t like meat…but you could try all the seafood restaurants…” Wrong! I am anti-seafood. I lack the gene or whatever it is that makes water-based life forms appetizing. I find crustaceans to be thoroughly repellent. Shrimp are just about the worst thing ever. How can someone willingly put a watery cockroach into their mouth, bite the head off, and spit out the crunchy leg parts? Eaugh! (The sound you make when you suppress vomit.)
So you say, “Well that’s because you have never had good seafood.” For some reason, people who like seafood cannot fathom a world in which people like me exist. Vegans don’t count. They are aliens to our planet and therefore cannot be used for statistical purposes. As to the attitude, I get it, I really do. Whenever I meet someone who doesn’t like chocolate, I suspect them of being a terrorist with an anti-confectioner’s manifesto: “The Cocoa Bean Has Had Its Day. Bring Back Saltwater Taffy.” Now, where was I? Oh, right, seafood should only be served to other seafood.
Regarding good seafood: I have tasted several dishes at the behest of many astounded people who don’t believe me when I say, “No, I do not like eating something that swims in its own feces.” I have tried ‘good’ lobster (stringy rubber bands), ‘good’ calamari (chewy rubber bands), ‘good’ crab, (eek, giant sea spider), ‘good’ shrimp (nasty, filthy, gelatinous horrors of the sea) and don’t let me get started on octopus. The suckers…oh god…the suckers. As for regular old fish…if it is coated with a shield-layer of deep fried breading, slathered with a quart of tartar sauce and wedged between a soft Kaiser roll with a fistful of hairy lettuce…I can manage to suppress the gag reflex long enough to swallow it. Not exactly “Yummo”**.
So why do I want to be a food critic if I don’t eat 90% of what is on the menu? It’s for that remaining 10%. I eat chicken because it marvelously doesn’t contain feelers, veins, or protoplasmic tendencies like a mollusk does. Also chicken can be smothered by a thousand different toppings and taste completely different each time—if it is cooked well and with care. I love veggies and, even though they are considered an afterthought at most American restaurants, there are some incredible variations at the Ethnic establishments. Countries where living on vegetables is a necessity and therefore, the flavoring of said staple is given some thought beyond “Let’s toss some bacon in it and call it good.”
That said, on occasion, when I have been out to a fine dining establishment that does not involve “Would you like fries with that?” inquiries, I may be moved to share my epicurean wisdom. For example:
The title of my article, which was the intended subject of this rant blog, was meant to pique your interest about a Mexican Restaurant I enjoyed yesterday. El Barrio http://www.elbarriomexicangrill.com/ is located at 545 Michigan Street NE just East of College Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. I recommend it with only minor reservations. I have only dined there twice, so my exposure to the food is limited. But what I have had there has been well cooked, hot and served in a timely fashion. The chips are crisp and the salsa is a nice, mild accompaniment. The service is friendly and considerate to families with special needs. (Spoiler Alert.) Two things detracted from my most recent experience. It is located at a section of the road just before a highway entrance/exit. At rush hour, be prepared to nose your way through aggressive drivers to access the parking lot. (I blame their discourtesy on low blood sugar.) The other detractor I would say is they LIED on their dessert menu. I ordered the ‘fried ice cream’ expecting, silly me, to get fried ice cream. No, what we got was a ball of ice cream that had been rolled in a crushed nut topping and then served with stale ‘crisps’ which I think would have been delicious if they weren’t old. I say that because the taco salad I ordered came in the most amazing bowl I have ever eaten. I mean, it was traffic-stopping good. I had the leftovers today and the bowl, while a little soggy still tasted fantastic.
I may not be Julia Childs but I can appreciate a decent meal and a lovely ambiance. Anyone who wishes to challenge my street cred as a food critic is welcome to take me out somewhere for dinner and test my acumen. (I promise, I can accurately identify kale from radicchio at ten paces—which is as close as I am willing to get to either of those bitter weeds. Not all veggies are created equal.) Just don’t ask me to taste your meat.* There are things I am willing to do for a free meal…but that isn’t one of them!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*All those of you who are of a prurient mind and are snickering to yourself about the use of the word ‘meat’ in this article—shame on you. (Okay, you are allowed some license for the last reference. That was intentional.)
**Yummo is a trademarked phrase of Kitchen Goddess Rachael Ray. If you don’t know who Rachael Ray is, she just hasn’t reached your village yet for occupation, wait a bit. You might want to stock up on EVOO before she gets there though.