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Posts Tagged ‘rant week’

Restaur-Rant Week Redux: One Last Rant and Some Rookie Mistakes

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 5, 2013

Loose ends from the rant week series. I found a note in my iPhone from months ago that was long forgotten but still warrants discussion.

On a final, final note. Butter. Butter is the most basic of food stuffs. It is often wasted on the table, which brings me great sadness. That being said a good restaurant should have great butter and a bad restaurant should have good butter. Most importantly, if butter is offered, it should be served at a temperature that would allow it to be spread and enjoyed. It should not be as hard as a rock.

Bread: One cannot eat a great or good sandwich with bad bread. But, one could have a an OK sandwich with good bread and mediocre ingredients. If bread is to be served in an establishment, please make sure it is good and fresh so that it will not be wasted and thrown away. To avoid waste, ask the diner if they would like bread instead dumping it as a peace-offering, the provide the sense of value or to fill time between beverage service and the order. If the bread offered does not suck, it will disappear. The best bread service in town is at Deepwood – a small serving of a variety of breads with smoked salt butter that is ready to spread. The worst bread service – a cheap, airy, generic roll that is still hard from the freezer. Don’t bother to waste your 9 cents to serve me bread I won’t touch.

The Hall of Fame Lame
I have noticed some restaurants that proudly display a review or article about the business from the 1990’s. If no one has written about your business again in the last 5 years or longer…..it is often best to not point that out by keeping the dusty, yellowing, faded review on the wall. Place it in the office and treasure it but don’t leaving it hanging out there as a reminder of days gone by.

Facebook and Yelp Stickers
Why would a business have a Facebook sticker that does not list the business Facebook address?. “Find Us on Facebook!” GOOD LUCK on that search!! As for Yelp, it you post the sticker on the door as a reminder for people to write about you – be prepared to graciously deal with the good and the bad, you asked for it.

Credit Cards, Debit Cards do Upset Us
It costs a business more money to do a credit or debit card transaction with a customer. For food businesses with small margins, the transaction fees takes a big bite into their profits. If a small mom and pop place wants to request a minimum purchase for a credit or debit card – I am fine with that. Cash may be an inconvenience in today’s world but it does still exist.

Finally. Music on restaurant web sites. This is a cardinal sin. Consider if you will where people scout out their meal plans. At work: no one wants to advertise that they are goofing off with a burst of Muzak. On the phone: same as above but consider band width baby, a music files takes a while to load. If a diner is checking out a restaurant on their phone, they are most likely on the run and mobile and doesn’t have a nano-second to spare. On the off-chance that you can give me a good reason to include music on a restaurant web site then let us please ensure the following: 1) The music burst will last 10 seconds or less 2) It will not repeat or recycle 3) There will be a clear and easy to access off or skip button 4) It will be related to the restaurant in some significant manner – an age-old jingle, something written by a customer or the owner’s nephew….it should have some true meaning or it becomes more than meaningless.

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Posted in culinary misadventure | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Chili: A Rant, A Recipe and Some Science

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 2, 2013

Well, here I go again. I judged two chili contests in the last month. The entries for both ranged from horrible, to meh with the best being slightly above average. One contest involved some of the best chefs in town, the other was a mix of people in the neighborhood helping to raise money for the school PTO. So if it was just the past month, I would say, it was just a bad run of luck. But as I thought about the last two years of chili consumption, most of my other memories from contests and meals on the run was the same….mostly abyssmal. I judged a Texas style child contest at Cajohn’s in the fall. I tried Texas Chili, Green Chili both professional and amateur and again, most of what I tried was not that good.

I don’t think I am a chili snob. I am an eater of the people, neither high or low brow, aiming for the palate in the middle and the man on the street. However, there must be a reason for the bad chili plague.

For the professional competitions, I get it. They feel the heat of competition against their peers so they are trying to do something different: more heat, less traditional ingredients, secret spices…..alligator. For each of the last two North Market Fiery Food Competitions, my fellow judges and I have walked out of the sequestered room saying “if anyone had just made chili, regular, basic chili, they would have won.” I would like to think that my fellow judges and I are nice, good people however the horrible, mean things we had to say about the chili we sampled seemed inspired by the devil.

For the “pro” competitions, there is a contributing reason that their chili concoctions are less than stellar. Most competitions require the chili to be cooked and prepared on site. This is an automatic guarantee for mediocrity. Most chili’s do best when they have an opportunity “fester” for several hours or several days. I call this the next day effect. This is the case for some other foods as well: lasagna, some types of pizza, cole slaw and more (you can share your favorite next day food with me as a comment to this post. Read more about the next day effect -> HERE.

There are many different definitions of what is or is not chili. People that know me, know I am not a purist on any cuisine or as a stickler on the “rules” about what does or does not define a food. However, in the arena of chili competitions, I opine that the contestants should consider the chili of their youth and try to make that, but with better ingredients. Chile Verde, White Chili, Vegan Chili…..I am cool with all of those, but if you aim to win, make the most mainstream chili you can think of and make it well. I cook a lot of different varieties of chili at home and I really like my white chili, but when I aim to impress, I go traditional.

What is chili as we know it in the Midwest? Here we go: a tomato based sauce, a mix of spices that always includes chili powder, meat, usually ground beef, and beans, often kidney beans. That is the chili my dad made, it is what I ate at neighbors houses and it is what Dave Thomas made with leftover hamburger patties at Wendy’s. Make that, and make it well, and you can win.

A note to competitors. If possible, ask the coordinator what the judging criteria are and consider those in your preparation. The esteemed Mary Martineau from North Market runs the best judged contests in town. Her ship is tightly run and on schedule. Tied scores are expressly verboten. She provides a point system to rate each of four categories which are typically: Aroma, Consistency, Taste and Appearance. If you plan to garnish your chili with cheese, sour cream, corn muffins, corn crusted jalapeno pieces….or whatever, make sure that is placed in a sample cup on the side. Judges are evaluating chili, not the stuff on top of it so you are just blocking the flavor of what your base is and if you choose add garnish on top that implies you have something to hide. Only add garnishes if presentation is a judged category.

I have judged at least ten professional chili competitions. I have participated in three official competitions and several “friendly competitions” including my now defunct annual chili party. I never won any contest but I have consistently placed second and third. My recipe is never the same, but it always uses the same base and techniques with a lot of cheats mixed in to the pot. I most recently tied for second at the Food Fort Holiday Party (December 2012) chili contest which was judged by Chuck Rundio from Charity Newsies, Miriam Bowers Abbott now at Columbus Underground and Shelly Mann from Crave. While I am biased, this was the best collection of chili I have sampled in years.

I never make the same chili twice but all of my concoctions fall on the same spectrum and have the same base.

Here is the step by step breakdown of my base.

I go to Bluescreek and buy 2 lbs of whatever meat looks most interesting. Sometimes I get goat, other times ground beef. Most often I get some type of sausage. The sausage is usually well spiced, that might be considered a cheat.

I set out my crock pot and start to put the base together. The base is always as follows:

I pour this in:
2 cans of Trader Giottos (Joes) Low fat Tuscano Marinara sauce (28 oz)
1 can of Red Gold or Ro Tel Diced Tomatoes and diced green chilies (10 to 16 oz)
and crank my crock pot to high.
I then shake in the following:
cracked black pepper
chili powder
garlic powder
other spices that suit my fancy
whatever fresh or jarred garlic I have on hand

I then drain in a colander a mix of beans which is usually two cans of dark red kidney beans and one can of black beans….sometimes two.

Depending on the type of meat I get, I may add 1/2 jar of Giardinera using either Il Primo or Marconi usually hot and finely diced when I can find it.

After the base is made, I cook the meat in a cast iron skillet with a bit of olive oil until it is brown and then drain the meat in a colander and dump into the crock pot. I let the chili “ferment” for a minimum of 6 hours. I then take a few tablespoons to sample, place in a cup to cool for 15 minutes then taste. At this point, I then add some more spice if desired and check the consistency of the base (I’ll add just a bit of peanut butter if the base is too soupy). I dump the condensation from the crock pot lid, place it back on the crock and set the temperature to low. When I go to bed, I place the crock in the refrigerator for more “fermenting”. The next day, I pull out the crock out again and set it to low for three or more hours before serving time.

The only thing special in my recipe – again as you can see, it is mostly “cheats” – is I give all the ingredients time to cook down and blend together. Do that and you will have a better chili and I will suffer less at the next chili competition.

Posted in culinary knowledge | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Restaurant Rants The Sequel

Posted by cmh gourmand on February 28, 2013

Comments on the last post, as well as some side conversations and apparently some displaced annoyances in my subconscious, brought some more rants to the surface. So here we go. This should really tie up the loose ends of the rants.

Noise

Sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s a restaurant research company determined that loud restaurant environments help restaurants turn tables faster. Consider many of the mid to high-end restaurants built during that era and you will note some noisy constructs: high ceilings, open spaces, poured concrete, etc. To extroverted, marketing types, the energy, excitement and high decibels of a wall of sound probably does seem exhilarating. I hate it. I read several of the marketing studies and I get the need to turn tables to make a profit and how subconsciously noise may make us eat faster. However, my gut tells me that a noisy atmosphere gets a person through the door the first time, but does not get them back or at least discourages them from coming back at a peak time again. Maybe these environments are well suited for restaurants that serve tourists in places like Vegas, but the concept is not well suited to restaurants in the heartland that need regulars to survive and thrive. Silence is not expected and can be a bit awkward but too much noise is not my cup of tea. It seems like restaurants were trying to look and sound like nightclubs….but I don’t like loud bars or clubs either. Strangely, I am always a sucker for a restaurant with an old guy at the piano playing away in the style of Billy Joel, that is charming not dismaying.

I want to have a conversation during my meal with my dining companions. I don’t want to have to raise my voice or have to keep asking the person across the table to continue to repeat themselves through the night. Absorbing noise is not so hard. Restaurants can add cheap and simple cloth tiles or art work to the ceilings and walls to suck in the sound. Music, is always best when muted and just barely in earshot. In the realm of music, as a restaurant owner, I would worry that my patrons would not like my choice of music (which is exception and eclectic of course).

TV’s – always in sports bars, taverns and the ilk. I prefer having the closed captioning on and the volume off. At a place where multiple TV’s are blaring the drivel of multiple monosyllabic commentators, I don’t see how one can separate out what they want to hear from the background noise. I noticed background music for the first time at Alana’s last week. Maybe it was new or maybe I never noticed it before (I was there on a rare night, where I was early and few others were there). The music was light and instrumental and not obtrusive.

To summarize: Lots of noise sucks. Avoid it.

Young Children in finer dining establishments

Children should be exposed to different foods as often and as early as possible so they don’t become food isolationists at an early age. I admire and respect the work that it takes for parents to load up their children, navigate the nuances of high chairs, kid seats and etc, to have a night out that feels more adult than the Brady Bunch. But when the kids are running amuck around the table to the amusement of the family but to the dismay of those of us eating around you and the servers trying to accommodate you, I say “Go home and don’t come back until you can all act like young adults”.

Kids Menus

Kids menus to me says that the children are by getting just what TV and their peers tell them they want. I get it, trying to get your kids to eat something other than chicken fingers and mac & cheese is hard. How about if you save some bucks and serve that crap at home and take the money saved to get a baby sitter. Some child sized meals and accommodations are a necessary evil, I am sure. However, the best child diners I know, including the well-respected Mr. Vincent, would never waste their time with a pedestrian kids menu when they can educate their palate with something new and different. I mean, hey, your parents are picking up the tab – live large and order with some abandon, one can’t get a free meal their whole life. There was an NPR story a while back, on one of my RSS feeds, relating that American Food changed – largely for the worse – when we started to let kids take control of the grocery lists from what they saw on TV. Fight the good fight parents of the world, and teach, your children well, to avoid the hell of canned beets, feed them on your dreams of CSA Brussels sprouts……. In the words of the Muse, dining duder and the partner in dine, Suck It.

Filling my glass, my cup doth not runneth over

I don’t like my glass being filled to often but I hate it not being filled enough. Where is the sweet spot of over half empty/under half full? As mentioned in Foodcast, a beverage filled too often becomes a distraction to the meal. If filled too infrequently, I become parched. If it is water, I would say, refill when it hits the 55% level but start to check less frequently and ardently after the 3/4 complete part of the meal. Always, top off water glasses before desserts are served. Back off if serving pop (not soda you fussy east coast people) and you have refilled more than two times. Although I must say, the servers at Adriaticos have this skill mastered. They always refill at the perfect time. They refill automatically without asking while I am consuming pizza, double checking what pop it is (regular or diet) as they walk away to fill the glass, sensing that this is a rare time when I am drinking pop and “living it up”, but they start to ask before securing my glass when consumption of pizza comes to a standstill. I don’t know if they teach a class in this, but if they do, restaurant owners, send your staff for some education.

Alcoholic Beverages

Booze means big tips, but I have definitely seen servers pushing drinks too hard on some people. I have also seen bright servers, timing their trips and interactions in such away to avoid the unchaperoned and buzzed patron asking for more and thusly transforming into the drunk patron becoming a bore (AKA a Drunktard). It is an art and a science and it is hard to time it all right.

Posted in culinary knowledge, culinary misadventure | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Restaurant Rants

Posted by cmh gourmand on February 24, 2013

The service industry is hard work. Pleasing hard to please people is no easy thing: Spending hours on your dog-tired feet doing the hustle and bustle dance of a busy Friday night; getting stiffed on a bill or a tip. Have you ever seen the show Top Server? No, it does not exist. Again, it is hard work and not for everyone.

That being said, I have some restaurant rants. Recently Johnny DiLoretto and I vented some of our pent up annoyances on FoodCast. And while we covered some of them….there is only so much we can do in 4 1/2 minutes.

The Financial Transaction
This rant has bothered me since my first job. I was taught how to handle giving change to the customer. It is not rocket science and doing it right takes an extra second or two. Now, granted, we are largely a card based economy but we still use cash on occasion, especially for small transactions. And for small exchanges, we often deal with people with the least amount of job skills but neither party should lower their expectations. Let’s walk through two virtual transactions below. The first one will suck. The second one will be the model.

#1

Wage Slave: $5.37
Customer: Hands ten spot to the cashier
Wage Slave: dumps wad of bills and loose change into you hand….the change slides off dollars to the ground and many of your don’t bother to pick it us since it is not worth your time. Then I will come in behind you and scoop it up. Thanks for the tip. While this benefits me, it is wrong. Next time you are at a carry out window – take a look at the ground when you park – I promise you will see at least 4-5 coins the ground. Let us proceed to the right way.

#2

Wage Slave: “$5.37 sir”.
Customer: Hands ten spot to the cashier. (Might say…here you go sport or something like that).
Wage Slave: Out of $10 (states the type of bill to avoid the $20 vs. $10 scam).
Wage Slave: (Hands the change first). 63 (cents) makes $6.
Wage Slave: Counts out each dollar, 7, 8, 9 and $10.
Customer: Thanks

Making change is a little thing. Yes, it mainly applies to fast food windows, some food trucks and QSR’s (quick service restaurants – like Chipotle) – but it still the last impression many restaurants make with a customer and it should be a lasting impression. This is a key element to the customer experience and from an owners standpoint, it helps make sure the cash drawer is balanced at the end of the night.

Bathrooms
I look for this everywhere, especially in higher-end restaurants. Bathrooms should start the day clean and stocked. A good restaurant – like a typical fast food restaurant – checks bathrooms hourly for any critical issues. A messy bathroom – usually indicates other things are not being checked on either.

Food Safety
Open kitchens are cool right? On the chef end, it is a nice feature because on occasion you can see how customers react to your creations as well as the operations of the front of the house. On the customer end, it is nice to entertain yourself by watching the action between courses. So, if your kitchen is open, you are on a stage…and people are watching. What I am I watching for? Gloves, hats and head coverings, hand washing and how food is handled. If you are on the stage, you are on all the times. Watching people not handle food properly when everyone can see them….that is a bad.

Timing
Timing is the key to most thing right? On a busy evening, the best laid service plans are going to go to hell. If one order gets misplated and needs fixed – the whole grill line goes out of whack. One high maintenance table can throw the front and back of the house off their game. All of that being said, there is a need for balance. If I have to wait for my check (I track service on a stopwatch all the time) – then balance it out by bringing back my completed bill super fast and have the timing even out. Some people get bent out of shape when items arrive too close to each other. The whole experience is often dependent on when things arrive or when your begin or end your meal. I find communicating problems with timing to the customer and asking them to work with you – cancels out much of the ranting.

Greeting
This is specific to me. There is one local restaurant owner who begins every conversation with the question…..”why haven’t you written about me?” After my eyes roll, I mentally note to not even think about the place for at least six months.

Otherwise, welcome the customer, introduce yourself as a server. As a customer, recall the server is not your maid or slave.

Cell Phones
There are some aspects of the restaurant experience are not in control of the restaurant – but they need to be addressed. Restaurant staff need to be proactive about this but, when they can’t or don’t we need to step up to the community plate.

A few years ago, I was placed next to a table where a nuevo-rich salesman dining with his disinterested family sat at the table having a loud business conversation on his phone. As they say on the menu at Alana’s “cell phone use disrupts digestion“. It was clear based on the tone of the conversation and the body language of the family at the table with this asshole that the conversation had been going on a long time. This behavior was not acceptable. The restaurant was not busy. The manager of the restaurant or a senior staff person should have approached this customer and asked him to move his conversation to the lobby or outside. They did not. After five minutes of this, I asked my server to move me and told her the reason why in a normal conversational voice. I guess we might let this slide at Taco Bell because we have different expectations for the environment, but I opine that at least in the world of fine dining, equal to high standards for the food and service, we expect the atmosphere to be as important of an element. If the restaurant staff can’t protect the atmosphere sometimes we have to step outside our comfort zone without making a scene. If I had my way, we would bring back phone booths for people to use for their cell phones.

I would also ask that ringers and other notifications be changed to vibrate. Think about others and disrupting their dining.

Photography
In the age of blogs, Facebook, Yelp and more, lots of people take photos of their food to share with others. Here is the awkward part. Looking back at the body of work on this blog, you see a lot of photography. I would say that photography, flashes and the like can be as distracting to other diners as a cell phone conversation. So yes, there is a certain self loathing I have for my own behavior. So, what am I to do? I try to be mindful of other diners in what I do. I avoid using flash photography and while photo quality can sometimes suffer, I now limit a photo to my cell phone (with the ringer off and notifications on vibrate). I try to go during off-peak times to minimize the people I might annoy with my behaviors and I try to be somewhat discreet by taking photos quickly and not staging as much as a I used to. This may be a lot of rationalizations but I am at least trying.

Hovering
Servers that hover too much, are not getting great tips. Servers that disappear will not either. Somewhere in between is the right amount of attention and that is not the same for everyone.

Complaining
Too many people use Yelp to complain. If you have a problem with your service or food or both speak with the manager of owner first. If they can’t fix the issue for you in a reasonable manner – then Yelp your ass off, but it is not fair to rip or snipe from a distance if you did not try to resolve things at the source.

Reservations
If you make a reservation at a restaurant you expect them to honor it and not make you wait when you show up. On the flip side, people that do not call to cancel reservations hurt us all. They take away opportunities from the rest of us and can mess up staffing and service for a restaurant for the whole evening. I once showed up at a restaurant at 5 pm, the place was empty and I was told they could not sit me because I did not have a reservation. They could not turn a table for two before they filled up the space? I took a peek inside 20 minutes later…it was still 85% empty. I never went back to that place because they were unwilling to show some flexibility. On the flip side I spoke with a restaurant owner friend the other night and he had 15 different reservations that did not show up in one night. None of them called. A Friday night that should have busy was dead and thirty plus people who could have dined there were eating elsewhere.

What are your rants? Let me know.

Posted in culinary misadventure | Tagged: | 3 Comments »