Everyday Paulista

While in Sao Paulo I had the opportunity to sample some local fare. Instead of hitting the best restaurants in town, I hit some locales by obligation and some by random selection. So here they are.

The Jockey Club welcomed us with a Sunday Brunch. I have to say the spread was fantastic. The range and quality of the food was superb. Truth is I restrained myself. There was so much to eat I was overwhelmed. Being the start of the trip I felt it'd be unwise to kick-off with a good ole fashion gorging… especially with Rio's beaches awaiting a few days later. Regardless, I could not resist sampling a few of the deserts – coconut galore. This was a great place to eat.

Later that day, I fell back into standard behavior. The pull is invisible and undetectable, but it is there. Upon the recommendation of a fellow traveler, a few of us ended up eating in a chain restaurant. Go figure. I cannot seem to get away from this pattern. The results: as expected. The place was great. Barbacoa, a typical Brazilian "rodizio" or "churrasqueria," was really good offering some excellent cuts of meat and a very nice salad bar. I ate more than I wanted to. The table had a couple of bottles of Cabernet/Malbec Argentinean blends and after all that I thought the price was quite good. What wasn't good was trying to split the bill into 8 different amounts depending on what people had had to drink and so forth. I gladly passed along those responsibilities to the first one to offer an opinion.

After the heavy meal we decided to go to Skye Bar, a bar/restaurant on top of one of Sao Paulo's trendiest hotels. Keep in mind it was a Sunday and the crowds were tempered. Some of the folks that had gotten in a day earlier had waited 45 minutes to get in the previous night. If patience is virtue, these guys must have had it coming out of every crevasse in their bodies.

Upon getting up there, I understood the allure. The place offered an almost 360 degree view of the city. The hotel's pool was up there which, at night, only served as a drunkard's hazard. It was very nice. Had a beer, took it all in, and then headed back to the hotel.

We headed to Pelé Café for lunch on Monday after visiting the Brazilian Stock Exchange Bovespa. I hate to say the homage to soccer's greatest had very sub-par sandwiches. Even for a coffee shop that serves light fare, the offering was lacking.

For dinner, and our last real meal in the city, a small group of us wandered around the hotel looking for a sushi place a tour guide had recommended. Upon finding it, the place was closed. Monday night, 7:30PM, closed. Oh well. So we wandered some more and found a pizza place that looked semi decent: Pizza Marguerita. The price was right and the personal pizzas were great. Maybe this place won't even register in the inside of a Frommer's guide, but as far as I am concerned, it was good.

Truth is I would've liked to try more of the real local fare, but I was bound a bit to less adventurous travelers. No biggie. For me, it was more about the company and less about the actual food. I'll eat anything and for the most part the places we went to in Sao Paulo were just fine.

Created: 5/7/2009

Just Flipping Burgers: A-

So Richard Blais left the restaurant where he had been head chef (Home: B+) after his success in the TV reality show Top Chef to start his own eatery. Flip, a burger bar they call burger boutique, is not far from my home and thus we ventured there not too long ago.

There is perhaps no easier way to convey my opinion of Flip Burger Boutique than to tell the story of that first (and so far only) visit. I believe describing the steps and emotions of my own personal experience will certainly be the most just course of action.

I will not lie. When I first read/heard the place was a so-called "burger boutique," I felt my wallet tighten up. I knew high prices were following closely. Of course, then I thought a little and wondered how expensive could a burger really be. "A $30 entrée in a decent restaurant is no big deal. There's no way they can charge that much for a burger, "I rationalized. And so, my wallet rested. Yet I wondered.

I walked in and my fears were diminished. "There is no way I can get raped in a place like this," I thought. The interior looked like what you'd expect if IKEA were running the show. Not to say that the place was not nicely decorated or clean – it just didn't spell fancy eatery. It was modern utilitarian – designed to fit the most people in the little space available. Forget comfort and privacy. Perhaps the setting was the most disappointing. Had the place been in a nicer part of town might have even helped. Alas, that was not the case.

It looked pretty busy, but we were seated promptly. The table was small and in a row with a bunch of others. The people in the table next to me were close; too close in my book. I never felt comfortable. Perhaps it was the chairs. I don't know exactly. It might have been the whole ambiance. I just didn't feel like unwinding.

Carrying on, the menu came out. The pricing lulls you into the belief that the meal is affordable – cheap even. Average price per burger is about $8; sides are on average $4. Although I was uncomfortable, the meal wasn't going to break the bank and that was comforting. So we ordered a couple of drinks, a couple of burgers and a couple of sides.

By the time our meal came out, the surprise had already been spoiled. You see, the people sitting impossibly close in the table next to ours had gotten their beautifully tailored burgers (and that they are) before we did. The guy sitting next to me commented to his date that he'd likely have to order another one to satisfy his appetite; one was not going to be enough. Indeed, the burgers are small – stacked tall and hard to eat because of it – but small. The sides? You guessed it. Small also.

We enjoyed our meal. The food was excellent. But, there was only so much of it. That is perhaps because I am accustomed to American-sized portions or because I rank value above all things. I did not perceived the prices to be out of line when I imagined a regular-sized burger and sides. When I saw what I had gotten, my valuation fell apart and I was a bit outraged.

So dinner was over and I was still hungry. Since we'd gotten there we'd seen milkshakes going all over the place. Aside from burgers, milkshakes were their other specialty. By the looks of them they were either really cold or had dry ice in them. They left "steam" trails as they were moved from the bar to their respective tables. The trick was dry ice we soon found out. A shake caught my eye from the beginning and once I realized my appetite was not to be fulfilled, I had to have it: the Krispy Kreme shake. It was good – like drinking a liquid version of the donut (it actually had chunks of it. It was also almost as expensive as a burger.

By the time we got in the car, we were about $70 lighter. All I could think about was, "I just spent $70 on two burgers and two fries and one shake. How the heck did that happen?" I must confess we also had a total of two alcoholic beverages (a glass of wine and a beer) and that accounts for about $20 for those trying to add it all up.

So that was my experience at Flip and perhaps the reason I feel like I want to go back, but am hesitant too. The food was good, but not enough to warrant the price. I'd rather take my $70 and have two or three good "burger and fry" type meals elsewhere.

Did I mention that Richard Blais himself was there that night? He walked around greeting some people he perhaps knew. It was funny to see everyone look and giggle – like "OMG, that's the guy from Top Chef." If that's the only allure of the place, it will unfortunately run its course soon enough.

Created: 4/23/2009

J. Christopher's Brunch Place: A

Apparently there's a ton of these in Atlanta, although Id' never heard of them. Our friends and I were looking for a brunch place to cap a long weekend visit and chose the midtown location. Some of us wanted breakfast, and some others lunch. We really guessed right with this choice – it was as if the place was custom-made for our needs. Besides, I'm sick and tired of going to Murphy's in Virginia Highlands for breakfast. It's not so much that I hate the place as much as it is that I don't like it (although it's passable for breakfast).

So the food was great. Instead of going the breakfast route, I tackled the lunch menu and had one of the best club sandwiches I have had in a very long time. It was huge and it was good. Everybody liked their meals. The prices were fair and the location was nice and convenient. Although the mid-morning crowd was subdued (I wonder how typical this is), we still had to wait a bit for a table. Almost like more well-known national "breakfast" diners, the place offered their full breakfast and lunch menu during the totality of their operating hours (which do not include dinner). Unlike some of those well-known national "breakfast" diners, I wouldn't mind taking out-of-town visitors to J. Christopher's - and I likely will again.

This chain has risen to the top of my list for breakfast-brunch-even lunch restaurants close to home. I certainly enjoyed the first meal I had there.

Created: 9/5/2008

Six Feet Under – The Restaurant: A-

Not to be confused with the popular HBO series, Six Feet Under a two-restaurant Atlanta chain is a casual "seafood pub" we visited a few days ago. We visited the Midtown-West location specifically. The location was great – really close to home. The restaurant featured valet parking and a rooftop deck with breathtaking views of the city. Of course, getting a table on the deck was harder than a personal audience with His Holiness Barack Obama – the wait was an ungodly two hours. We didn't have an issue getting a table downstairs (15 minute wait) in a much more subdued environment. Although we had to wait, they had a very cool way to let you know your table was ready. Instead of handing you a pager that ties you down to the location and the device's range, they take your cell number and an automated system calls you when a table is ready. You can tell the automated system if you still want your table or if you've gone somewhere else. Although this was the first time I'd seen this type of system being used, I found it extremely cost efficient and customer-friendly. I wonder why more restaurants haven't adopted the system. How expensive can it be? Can the system be replicated and sold for less? Is the technology patented?

The food was good and plentiful – the portions weren't crazy, but they weren't small either. We had chips and calamari for appetizers. I had fried fish and shrimp for my main course. Sure, anything fried is good, but if they mess that up it tells you a lot about the place. For the most part everybody was satisfied with their meal.

Although the food was good and inexpensive (fairly priced for location and portions), the location makes this place a good alternative for a night out. Sitting downstairs robs of the vistas and ambiance of the rooftop deck. On a fair spring or fall night, nothing would beat being up there enjoying a casual meal and a cold beverage in the company of friends.

Created: 9/5/2008

Eating in Sin

So part of going to Vegas was eating out. We only really had reservations in one place, but quickly noticed that if the time is right, reservations are not quite necessary – there's a gazillion restaurants, all a stones-throw from each other. Supply definitely outweighs demand.

Many years ago, during our first trip to the fabled city, and on a tighter budget, we'd done the buffet thing. This time, there was no chance of that happening. There are just too many good restaurants in Vegas to waste time gorging on sub-par food served out of troughs to hoards of camera-wielding tourists. Pass.

Diego's: A
The night we got there, we didn't feel like wandering too far and decided to eat in one of the restaurants at the MGM Grand. It was a carbon copy of Rosa Mexicano. The food was great though. I had the pork tenderloin and it was superb. The table-side guacamole was good too – although they used white onions instead of red ones, which was odd. Their chips came with three different types of salsa, from hot to mild – all of which were tasty. This was not a bad start.

Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill: A
The second day, after a long day at Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, we didn't fee like venturing off too far either. After a lot of walking around the hotel, we settled at this restaurant. I was hungry and of all the things in the menu, the burger sounded the best. I have had a lot of burgers in a lot of places. It's not hard to make a burger – beef, buns, lettuce, tomato, maybe onions, maybe pickles, ketchup, more. These guys somehow managed to make the best burger I'd ever eaten anywhere. The beef was red/bloody just enough to soak the bun. The burger came with caramelized onions, lettuce, and tomatoes (I discarded the pickle). It was an absolute delight. I wolfed it down in seconds.

Raffles: A
The third day, knowing we had reservations at a nice restaurant for the early evening, we decided to have a late brunch. This restaurant is known for serving one of Vegas' best breakfasts. So, we crossed the street and walked down to the Mandalay Bay. The menu was huge – worthy of a restaurant that never closes (it doesn't). I had a ham and cheese omelet (boring, I know). It was huge, fresh, delicious. It came with some hash browns and toast – a regular ole "eating out" breakfast. The restaurant faced the gardens behind the hotel. This was a great starting meal for the day.

Delmonico Steakhouse: A
To close the trip, we had dinner at this Emeril Lagasse restaurant in The Venetian. The place was nice – I liked the decorations and ambiance except for the fact that it felt a bit constricted. There were no windows. The food was great. I had the calamari for an appetizer, which was good, except it was prepared in chopped olives and I'm not a big fan. The main course was excellent. A medium-rare "side of cow" sized rib eye looked like chore, but I couldn't stop putting away the flavorful bites until there was none left. The dessert: an unimpressive cheesecake. This was definitely the low point of the meal. The meal was good and the service was unparalleled. For the size of the bill, I would've expected better though. Compared to The Capital Grille, this restaurant is equal in the main course, loses in appetizers, desserts and in the cost. I guess Emeril's name requires a premium that I'm not necessarily interested in paying unless it's backed up by quality and flavor. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, it didn't blow me out of the water.

Created: 3/4/2008

La Dolce Vita if the Price is Right: A

So we finally went to Dolce in Atlantic Station. The Italian restaurant opened about a year ago and I had wanted to go ever since (mind you the pull wasn't particularly overwhelming). Owned by the Ashton Kutchers, Wilmer Valderramas, and Demi Moores of the world, I figured it had to be at least half-decent. That it was.

The place was nice – modern décor, tall ceilings, long flowing drapes, big mirrors, dim lighting. The host sat us uncomfortably close to another two-person table that joined minutes after we'd arrived. This was perhaps the biggest turnoff. I like a little space when I'm having dinner. Given there was certainly room to spread out, someone placed these tables too close for comfort. I would've asked to be seated somewhere else had I known that they would sit a couple there so shortly after we'd arrived.

The meal started with an order of "Fresh and Crispy" – a bowl of crispy fried calamari, shrimp, and zucchini strings. It was great. The dish came accompanied by two dipping sauces, yet the bites were so flavorful I resisted the urge to dip them. The appetizer was enough for two to three people to share. To top that, I followed with a Caesar salad which was status quo. A small basket of bread was also brought out – it didn't last long.

The main course was a bit more complicated. I had a hard time deciding what to order because so much of what they offered sounded good. After much deliberation, I picked the grilled pork tenderloin. By then I was almost busting at the seams, so when the main course arrived, perhaps smaller than anticipated, I didn't fret. The tenderloin came pre-sliced, with each slice wrapped in Italian bacon, and was accompanied by baby vegetables. It was superb.

Despite not being able to finish half my main course (I love taking leftovers home), I had to take a peek at their desserts. Once presented with the options, picking was easy. We had an Italian Banana Split. It was great – the perfect end.

I conclude with a few words of caution. The food was good and pseudo-plentiful although not a great bang for the buck when placed next to a Maggiano's. And I say this under very special circumstances. For a while now and perhaps only part of a limited time offer, Monday night dinners at Dolce are half-off everything (except drinks). Considering the amount of food ordered, I felt a bill around $80 would be fair and that's what I got. Double that and I would've been fuming. Despite the quality, the quantity (portions) did not warrant a price tag in the $150s. So, that said, I'll recommend this restaurant for a Monday night escapade (while offer lasts), yet buyer beware any other night of the week.

Created: 2/13/2008

Rosa's Atypical Mexicano: A-

After realizing one visit at lunch was perhaps not enough to rule out a restaurant forever, I decided to return to Rosa Mexicano - specially considering is just a couple blocks from home. At first glance, the name comes across as a translation faux pas (which can be a bit of a pet peeve), although I'm sure there's a reason for the mistake (I just don't really care to find out). When I first went, I qualified this Mexican restaurant as extremely expensive. That idea would hold true if you could really categorize the place as a typical Mexican restaurant. Mexican food is typically cheap, generally inexpensive. This restaurant didn't get the memo. Actually, maybe they did and therefore decided they wanted to be different (and charge extra for it). This is definitely not your run of the mill south-of-the-border eatery although, at times, it plays one on TV.

The table-side guacamole is fantastic. We got ours a notch above mild and it was perfect – I'm not a spice nut. The menu was not particularly deep, but not shallow either. Again, this is not a typical Mexican restaurant. The main courses are not necessarily what you'd expect (unless you count the tacos). I was wavering between the steak tacos and the boneless short ribs. I made the right choice with the short ribs. Not only were they exquisite, but they were plentiful. The tacos were good, but a lot less filling. I was pleasantly surprised. Note I didn't necessarily care much for their flour tortillas – I don't know exactly what it was, but they didn't taste right.

For dessert (although it was unnecessary – I was already taking three of my four short ribs home) we got the "Tres Leches" – a typical hispanic moist cake made with three different types of milk. It was delicious, although I would've preferred it without the citrussy tang found in theirs.

The restaurant is good. The service was fine. Their tea was great. Their food was tasty. Again, this is not your typical Mexican restaurant, so if that's what you seek, go somewhere else. If you are looking for a more eclectic fusion of Mexican flavors, then this place might fit the bill. After a second visit, I came away feeling a lot better about this place. When I am craving Mexican food, this place won't come to mind. When craving something different (generally speaking), Rosa Mexicano will certainly pop up as an option. For a Mexican restaurant, the food is overpriced. For a place that's something else, it's not particularly expensive.

Created: 11/15/2007

Two Urban, Too Good, yet Too Loud: A

Last weekend I went to Two Urban Licks for a friend's birthday. The restaurant is awesome. The ambiance is like none other. Picture a warehouse converted to a restaurant. Extremely high ceilings lined on the walls with gas sconces and paintings. The kitchen is in the middle of the restaurant, open on all sides, giving patrons a view into the cook's goings on. Behind the kitchen, perched eight or so feet above the floor, there's a huge torch (an ensemble of many small gas torches) that warms and illuminates the area. It looks more like an elevated bonfire than a torch really. Even the entrance is somewhat surreal. You drive up a ramp into where a truck unloading dock would've been, hand the keys to a valet, and then he'll drive down another ramp where another dock would've been. Even getting to the place you have to drive to the back of an industrial area, just like going to an abandoned warehouse. It reminded me somewhat of the Seinfeld episode where George, through the use of a beautiful woman's picture (Jerry's "man hands" girlfriend), manages to get into the Meat Packing/Slaughterhouse facility that doubled as a really cool and exclusive club at night. The restaurant had that feel – like all the tables and chairs would be stowed away during the day, giving way to a distribution center of sorts.

And then, there was the food. I had the gumbo for an appetizer, which was okay, but not spectacular. Some of the other choices around the table looked better. The bread that accompanies the meal is worth mentioning. Warm and delivered wrapped in cloth napkins, the loaves came loaded with garlic butter on the inside – truly addictive. The main course was a homerun. I had the skirt steak. It was served with shitake mushrooms, peppers and onions. It was outstanding. Okay, the portions weren't Capital Grille-worthy, but enough to satisfy. I also tasted the pork and it was unbelievable. It came accompanied by macaroni and cheese which was also fantastic. If there's anything worth complaining about the menu is perhaps that it's not deep enough. There's only one choice per specie (not counting fish/seafood): one steak choice, one pork choice, one chicken choice, one duck choice. I also tried the Shrimp, which attempted to be a kind of Jambalaya. It was good, but not Red Fish good. The desserts were okay. I tried the cheesecake and it was decent – it didn't blow me away.

I have one bone to pick with this place – it's loud as heck. I could hardly hear someone one seat away from me. It was loud to begin with, but when the band (3 guys with instruments on the corner of the bar) started playing it got much worse. This really dampened an otherwise great experience. The food and the ambiance combine to make this a great place, but it's hard to enjoy the experience when you can't have a normal conversation with your friends. This is a true shame, because I think the place could've become a real favorite of mine otherwise. I think I'm going deaf already, so my experience was painful at times. I just nodded and smiled a lot – I had no idea what was being said. This will get me in trouble at some point. I know.

This restaurant is really worth trying out. Your tolerance for noise will likely make it or break it for you like it did for me.

Created: 10/30/2007

Linger Longer at the Linger Longer Bar & Grill: A+

So we went back again to the Ritz-Carlton in Reynolds Plantation, GA for a weekend away from the city. If a consistently exceptional experience is the key to repeat business, then this hotel should count in their future cash flows a revenue stream coming from the pocket of yours truly. I won't focus too much on the hotel because that'll just take away from some future cube about that location. I will focus now mainly on the food – primarily at one of their restaurants: The Linger Longer Bar & Grill.

This restaurant, abreast the golf pro shop and the Oconee Course, is absolutely great (especially for dinner). Much less stiff than the main dinning option – Georgia's (A+) - the Linger Longer offers awesome steaks, sea food, and southern favorites. The restaurant is split into a dinning room, with an open view into the kitchen, and a bar (not the best sports bar in the world with only a couple of TVs and limited channels available) warmed during the winters by a large fireplace. Although it's supposed to be a casual restaurant, you will be hard-pressed to see anyone in shorts or jeans for dinner. It is the Ritz after all I guess.

They have the best sea scallops appetizer, seared in the pan they are served on, topped with portabella mushrooms and surrounded by sweet creamed corn. My favorite dinner is the large portion (probably too much to eat once you've had the appetizer) of the risotto paella. I don't even care for risotto, but this dish is unreal. The steaks are always top notch and you can't go wrong with any of the other seafood options. The lobster bisque is also a staple.

Captive to only three true restaurant options (two during the winter when Gabby's by the pool is closed – and I'm not counting the lounge or the club level), this is definitely the choice I recommend. Although the food at George's had a greater culinary depth and a much more refined atmosphere, the Linger Longer offers a great meal in a much more relaxed environment. The service is exceptional in both restaurants – as it is in the resort, the golf courses, and the spa. I can't wait until I go back in January.

Created: 8/28/2007
Last Edited: 2/1/2008

Chao Chow Baby: C-

We tried going to this restaurant twice before we actually got to eat there. The first time the wait was too long and the place was packed to the gills on the inside – hardly the ambiance for a nice meal. The second time, they pulled the old "sunk cost" trick and I basically told them to go to hell by leaving pretty pissed. For those not familiar with this terminology, the "sunk cost" trick involves telling a patron that the wait for a table will be from 15 to 25 minutes – hardly a long time to wait considering the time it would take to go to another place. Once they got you waiting, 25 minutes turn into 35, then into 45, even into an hour or more. By the time you realize you've been lied to (or set up), you've waited so long you won't consider leaving – that's a sunk cost in time – and that's one of the most obnoxious tricks some restaurants like to pull. "Homey don't play dat."

The third time, we got there pretty early and got a table almost instantly. As you can tell, I really wanted to go there. After all that aggravation I would've never given the place another chance, but I'd had such a good experience at a "similar" restaurant, that I was willing bend my own rules. The "similar" restaurant was Fire + Ice. During my last trip up to the Boston area, I went to the one in Cambridge with a couple of local friends who spoke highly of it and had a blast. The concept was great. The food was delicious. I was hooked. I thought that Chow Baby was the Atlanta version of Fire + Ice. Let's just say, when Chow Baby grows up, it will aspire to be like Fire + Ice, but it won't make it.

So what's wrong with this place? It's small – too small for the concept. Instead of being able to freely wander from meats to vegetables to sauces to grill (all in separate stations with ample room for movement), you have to stand in a line, cafeteria-style, and assemble your plate one ingredient at a time. At that other place, putting all the ingredients in a bowl was quick and waiting for them to cook was comfortable enough for pleasant chitchat while having a drink (fun). At this place, there was little elbowroom in the "assembly line" - forget bringing your drink. This part of the process was tedious and monotonous. Once your plate was ready, you'd turn it in and then you'd go back to your seat to wait. They turned the worst, most boring part of the experience into the experience itself. Kudos.

There was also very little variety in the ingredients. I went for seconds just twice (these are small servings) and found that as much as I tried to come up with interesting combinations of the rice, veggies, sauces, and meats, there was little I could do with what was available.

I mention this restaurant almost a whole year since my ill fated visit because it came up in conversation the other day with a school friend. He mentioned it in a positive light and I slammed him pretty hard for it. That got me thinking. Did he have that bad a taste or had I been spoiled by another restaurant beyond possible objectivity. Perhaps, had I gone there with no preconception of what they were trying to accomplish unsuccessfully, I wouldn't have been so negative about the place. Had I never been to Fire + Ice, maybe I would have thought that Chow Baby was a novel and interesting restaurant with above average food. Actually, I don't think so. I was so unimpressed with what they offered that I would have reached the same conclusion regardless. I'll admit that instead of a C, I would've probably given them a B-. That's as good as it'd get for that place… and I'm being generous.

Created: 8/13/2007

Whack-a-mole out of the park: A+

No, this is not a restaurant although if it was there'd have to be plenty of reasons to go to counter a name like that. Furthermore, this is not the correct way to spell or even pronounce guacamole, even though this is what I'm writing about. That green pasty substance made mostly of avocados has recently become one of my favorite chip dips. For as long as I can remember, I didn't care for guacamole - not one bit. Something within me suddenly changed and I started not only liking it, but craving it. For the past few months, I have had it at least once a week. I guess it's good to replace greasy cheese dips with this healthier alternative.

This weekend I decided it was time to bite the bullet and make a batch from scratch. I got a recipe from Real Simple magazine, bought the ingredients, and started preparing. Word to the wise, know what you're doing when you finely chop red onions and jalapeños; my skin was oozing this stuff for hours; my fingers still stink a day later. After all the pain and suffering, the "guac" was done and it was excellent. I put a good dose away - too much to openly confess. Unfortunately, I threw away the avocado seeds and that made my leftovers turn dark overnight (you're supposed to leave the seeds in the dip to help preserve it).

Lessons learned:
1. Leave the chopping to a machine
2. Save the avocado seeds
3. Get more than one bag of yellow chips (as recommended by the recipe)
4. Serve to more than 2 people (serving suggestion is 8 although I think it'd be a good amount for no more than 6)

Recipe (modified):
5 avocados, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
2 tblsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
2 16-oz yellow tortilla chips

Combine ingredients well (except the tortillas - duh!), and enjoy!

Created: 7/8/2007

You'd be Loco to want Loca Luna: D+

For the third time, and against my will, we went to Loca Luna last Saturday night. It was a friend's thirtieth birthday and she wanted to go there. Powerless, I braced for another sub-par tapas experience.

Where do I start? It was very loud. It was very hot. I guess they are going for the truly south of the border feel here so much so that I was scared to drink the water. I was careful not to get punctured by one of their rusty chairs and contract tetanus. Air conditioning must be only for spoiled gringos. We were sitting in what looked like a warehouse after hurricane damage (roof missing) with a big nonsensical fountain in the middle. About twenty feet from our table was a unisex bathroom that looked like a hut. The place was a mess – not my style at all.

And then there's the food… yes, that so important factor in a restaurant's success. Well, the food was average. I don't know who coined the phrase "Tapas is Spanish for ripoff," but they were right. At $5 to $7 a plate it looks like you're doing fine, but then realize you have to order three or four to be satisfied. But that's not all, ordering here is like playing the lottery: you might hit a good dish or a really bad one. If you get a good one, you might be inclined to order something different just to try more things, furthering your exposure to bad choices. My suggestion: order a plate at a time and if you hit something you like, stick with it until you're full.

So as the table ordered tapas of all kinds (gambled), I went for the only main course in the menu: the paella (a real gamble). I've had a paella craving for a while now. Earlier this year, while at the Ritz-Carlton in Reynolds Plantation I had paella that was unbelievable. It was reminiscent of the one my parents used to cook many years ago. (As a side note, one of the tastiest paellas I have ever had was back home in a restaurant that is likely not to exist anymore. It was a squid paella cooked in squid ink – the whole thing was purple. It was beyond delicious.) The waiter recommended it and I was delighted by it. Fast-forward a few months later, in Charleston's Coast restaurant, I couldn't decide amongst a few dishes and saw they were also offering paella. I asked the waiter about it and he recommended it. It was okay, but nothing like the one before. Still, I love saffron rice, seafood and all the other different meats and spices that constitute the traditional Spanish dish, so par paella is still okay.

So, I ordered the paella – even after the waiter told me it'd take 45 minutes to cook. Had I known they were going to start throwing food on our table in less than ten minutes, I might have changed my mind. Unexpectedly, a festival of food delivery began in short order. Waiters with random plates started showing up with the many ordered dishes. In no particular order, in no particular manner, some people got food well before others. An order got lost and never made it to the table, so it had to be reordered. Finally, after the sun had set, my paella (touted as a plate that would serve four to six) appeared. First, there's no way this would feed more than two people – three would be a stretch. Rating: edible. I had some, shared some, and took the rest home.

So, the service was not great; the food was not the best; the facilities were horrible. Yet, the damage was not too severe, so at least I didn't feel completely ripped off. In conclusion, if you absolutely have to have tapas (and why on earth would this be the case) don't waste your time in Loca Luna. There's a multitude of other tapas places in the city that will fit the bill with much better food, in a more enjoyable setting, and with better service.

Created: 6/19/2007

A Bacchanalia it's not: A-

By definition a bacchanalia is a festival of excess in honor of Bacchus (the Greek god of wine) or a drunken orgy, a boisterous, wild, alcohol-aided festivity. The owners could not have found a more unrepresentative name for their highly-rated restaurant. The name implies rowdiness, abundance, debauchery – none to be found there. If we were to go on name alone, this restaurant should be sued for false advertising. Then again, no one goes to Bacchanalia expecting any of these things – quite the opposite actually.

That said, it is rated one of the city's and the country's best restaurants. Yadda, yadda, yadda prix-fix yadda, yadda, yadda four-course yadda, yadda, yadda expensive. If you want those details go to their website or read a review somewhere else. I'll focus on my experiences there and why I just don't think it's a good value.

The place is small. If you happen to sit in a two-person table, you will be a few decibels from sharing your conversation with the couples sitting to the right and left of you. This topic alone brings me to share my last experience there (last of two). Because I have observed that money and not class can get you into these types of places, the purpose of going to a high-end restaurant is losing its allure. Whereas you expect a certain type of people, dressed in a certain type of way, conducting themselves by to a higher social standard, we were lucky enough to sit inches away from your classic nouveau riche. The guy looked like your typical young and sleazy salesperson (autos perhaps – and yes that's a stereotype). In his mid-late thirties, he wore a loud almost Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Needless to say the volume of his voice was not appropriate for such a small space – we got to hear everything. I can tell you, the couple (obviously in a first date) had done the wine pairing and he had definitely gotten a bit on the inebriated side – finishing his date's drinks more than once. His lady friend looked embarrassed to be with him about half the time. He made rude comments to the waiter. He invited his date to go to Jamaica with him… he offered to pay for it all, and get separate rooms of course (what a gentleman). Luckily enough, they left before we got our third course. This event represents a classic dining experience killer.

Past the gamble of sitting next to a jerk, there are other flaws that I am quick to bring up in casual conversation about this place. Maybe I have been turned this way by the American restaurant industry. I don't know for sure who's to blame – it may be I just place too much weigh on value. Regardless of the culprit, good food should be somewhat plentiful. Now don't get me wrong – I'm not advocating the need for a trough of food, but there is something to be said about being satisfied after a good meal. Four courses later, you'd think one would be full and content. Not necessarily the case. The food is good, but it's not nearly enough to enjoy. For the price, they probably claim the highest food margins in the whole restaurant industry. This yields lower value to customers.

Service in Bacchanalia is exceptional. For once, it is what one expects out of a restaurant of its type. A waiter usually tends to one to three tables (from what I could assess) and does so very professionally. There are absolutely no complaints in this department.

As far as I'm concerned, a meal in Bacchanalia offers mediocre value to the customer. The place is small and not necessarily comfortable. The food is good (even great) but not plentiful enough to enjoy fully. On the other hand, the service is indeed superb. Perhaps one other value-increasing attribute (although ridiculous and pretentious) is name recognition. Mentioning you dined in Bacchanalia often generates the "oohs" and "aahs" of people who have never been and want to. Big deal. I say take that same amount of money and go have a real experience in the Capital Grille.

I will mention as a humorous side-note that before my first visit I read some online reviews. They were mixed - some good, some bad. There was one in particular that I can't forget - one that wasn't very complimentary. The person made a comment so unique and on point I can't help but laugh every time I've walked into the restaurant. This person wrote something to the effect of "Bacchanalia is like an expensive Cracker Barrel." All I say is, go and you'll know.

Created: 6/5/2007
Last Edited: 6/14/2007

The Chain Gang

I don't make any apologies about liking chain restaurants. As previously written, consistency is key. Chains offer familiarity wherever you may be, and depending where you are, this might be exactly what you're looking for. For instance and although I hate to admit it for many reasons than just one, when in Paris I was happy to enjoy the sub-par food of their local Hard Rock Cafe. I guess I was sick and tired of paying the equivalent of $5+ for a glass of Coke. Big deal - I ate a week's worth of Parisian delights and a little familiarity was exactly what my appetite had been craving. Nothing trumps a stop at a Chili's when returning from Latin America. It's a way to tell my taste buds "We're home" (or almost home if it happens to be in an airport).

Dining out being one of my greatest pleasures, I have eaten at chains an uncountable amount of times. Throughout the years I have gone to the great, the good, and the "not for me." Note this list is not the typical "good, bad, and ugly." I don’t think there are bad or ugly chains. That would go against their nature – their genesis. There would be no way for a bad or ugly chain to become one in the first place. Also note my list might include local chains not available elsewhere in the country or world.

That said, here's my list with a few notes by each location (I will add to this as they come to mind):

The Capital Grille - the best overall experience
Chili's - get the chips and queso
Maggiano's Little Italy - the best value of all. Get a group of four or more and do the family style dinner – order seconds enough for all to take plenty home – be shameless – it's well worth it. If not, the beef medallions are a staple. They have the best and most plentiful calamari appetizers anywhere.
On the Border - table-side guacamole is a delight
Fellini's - the local pizzeria that will make you avoid all others
Rusans - the best tasting, best value sushi I've found to date
The Cheesecake Factory - the deepest, broadest menu anywhere with servings to satisfy. Get the cheesecase – duh!
Outback - call ahead or don't bother going. Good, abundant food + good value = human zoo waiting for tables.
California Dreamin' - Their club sandwich is obscene, served with a huge portion of steak fries. Get their house salad as an appetizer - if nothing else, it's the one thing that keeps me going back.

Frontera - typical affordable Mexican – good, greasy stuff
California Pizza Kitchen - great hummus, good specialty personal pizzas
Macaroni Grill - good Italian – Maggiano's baby brother
Fuddruckers - make your own burger that rocks
Longhorn Steakhouse - decent steaks
O'Charlies - the rolls alone are enough. Good fried chicken salad.

Not for me:
The Olive Garden - I can’t forget the Mad TV skit about their "Chicken a la Pasta" or their "Hot Dog Tour of Italy"
Fridays - I used to love it and then, one day, the food just got bad
Hard Rock Cafe - the place is gimmicky, the food is overpriced and mediocre
Red Lobster - do I really have to give a reason?
Planet Hollywood - a less trendy version of the Hard Rock Cafe
Applebee's - bland

Created: 6/3/2007
Last Edited: 6/14/2007

Shiraz? Sirah? Si, por favor

I’m not a drinker. I drank in college and during the times ones supposed to drink. I drank to achieve the end of being drunk. I never enjoyed alcoholic beverages. Hard liquor eventually became repulsive to me (specially tequila). Many experiences documented perhaps later in other cubes will tell about some of my actions under the influence of the powerful OH additive. Needless to say, those days are gone. Every now and then, if the company and time so inspire or require it, I will enjoy one or more beers. That’s about as far as I will go with the poison… well that’s true except for wine – shiraz in particular.

Shiraz or sirah depending on the grape type (and/or origin) is my favorite of all wines. Long ago, I "graduated" from white wine to red wine. After that named graduation, I found this type of red wine – I remember having it first with my friend Eileen. Its unique mix of flavors took me in (to find out more about shiraz/sirah, click here). I don’t pretend to be an expert – I’m not necessarily a connoisseur - but I really know what I like and what’s good from what isn’t. This drink’s bouquet and taste are just want I look for in a wine. To me, it’s the best there is.

A glass of good shiraz is, in my mind, the perfect accompaniment for a great meal. I seldom order one brand or type in particular. Good restaurants usually have a great assortment and their main (or house) selection is often fine. As a personal financial note, I know restaurants make their largest margins from alcohol (wine included). This is strikingly obvious when you look at the prices of a glass of a known beverage you have previously purchased in a liquor or grocery store. This is one of the reasons I don’t accustom ordering more than a glass or two. The other, and perhaps the most important one, is that alcohol has exponentially diminishing returns as the drinks stack up. The more one drinks, the less the flavor matters – of both food and drink. Alcohol numbs senses – all of them. This just takes away from the experience as far as I am concerned. One glass usually lasts me the whole meal. I find that shot-gunning wine also defeats the purpose of its consumption. How can one enjoy its many flavors while gulping it in gobs? Impossible.

I say all this to say that you will hardly ever hear me mention a restaurant’s particular beverages. When dining out, I focus on the eating part much more than the drinking part. Maybe one day I’ll have a cube totally dedicated to my love of this type of wine where I will take it upon myself to describe and rate some of the ever-growing available bottles. Cheers. ;)

Created: 6/3/2007

Capital Grille – my favorite place: A+

If there is a place I always visit when celebrating some of life’s important milestones and random celebrations it’s the Capital Grille. A national chain, this steak house is unrivaled by any other restaurant I have ever visited (and I’ve been to a few). Bar none you get the best value for your hard-earned dollar… and you’ll be dropping a few.

My last visit, to celebrate a big promotion, was as good as the first time and the second time and so on. Consistency is the cornerstone of a good restaurant as far as I’m concerned. Throughout my half-dozen visits to that particular location I have never been anything but totally pleased – happy to sign that credit card slip knowing that I am paying for an unrivaled experience not soon to be forgotten.

Their appetizers are all tempting, but from my first visit I found a winner I am hard to part with. Here’s an insider’s tip because this item is no longer on the menu (hasn’t been in years), but you can always get it. If your palate allows, ask for the lobster bisque. It is something else.

I have had many of the main courses – all steaks though. The massive porterhouse, the steak au poivre with Courvoisier sauce (I make them put the sauce on the side), the fillet mignon, the delmonico, just their dry-aged sirloin steak – all winners. Every time I either try something new or go for one of my favorites. Never have I been disappointed with any of my choices.

We usually accompany our dinner with a couple of sides. Over time we have had the potatoes au gratin, the mashed potatoes, the asparagus, the wild mushrooms, the onion rings, and the parmesan fries. All have been stupendous (except the parmesan fries – we just didn’t like what they tasted like) and plentiful. After many visits we’ve realized that one side for two people is plenty unless you really don’t want to leave any room for dessert.

So how do you finish a meal at the Capital Grille? You order one of their exquisite desserts. These are definitely big enough to share – actually they’re too big for one person to consume alone. The cheesecake is superb. Anything chocolate is truly decadent and delicious. The crème brulée is pretty good – above par, but nothing to rave much about.

Overall the whole meal is complemented by excellent personalized service. The restaurant sits atop a building with great views of the city below. The dinning room and bar are comfortable and inviting. This place is great.

Having gone to one of these restaurants in another city (Chicago) – and yes, it is a chain – I have to say the experience translates seamlessly from location to location. There should be no doubt on why I rate it so high. Go and experience – wherever you are in the country. Your wallet might be lighter when you’re done, but you won’t be. You will certainly not be disappointed.

Created: 6/3/2007

One fish, two fish, Redfish: B

Last night we returned to RedFish, a Creole bistro. This was the fifth or sixth time we’d been there, so this is not the review of our first visit to a restaurant, but more the review of the restaurant as seen throughout our many visits.

Through and through, this place has been consistently good. The food has always been very tasty and plentiful. To make things unique, they start the table off with freshly fried potato chips and a dipping sauce – the perfect catalyst to get your appetite started. If you like gumbo, etouffe, or jambalaya you’re in for a treat. I have never had anything else although my friends have enjoyed the rib eye, fillet, fried chicken, po-boy, and their signature red fish – never any complaints/actually mostly accolades.

So, what’s wrong with the place? The food seems to be great, and it is. I really enjoy it. Why just an above average grade? The one problem is location. Nestled between the bad part of town and the wrong side of the tracks, this nice mid-upscale restaurant is in a terrible area. From Midtown you have to drive by the housing projects, where streets are lined with loitering individuals at all times of the day and night. What could they be inconspicuously doing in the streets? Selling drugs? Impossible... Every time I drive or am driven to this place I fear a stray bullet will find its way from some gangbanger’s or drug dealer’s glock to my head. Statistically the chances of that happening are very low, but they are infinitely smaller if I were driving down a suburban neighborhood.

The service has always been adequate to average – nothing extraordinary and perhaps not par to the price of the meal. Regardless, the food is good enough to ignore your glass being empty often… unless you’re being burned by the spices in the food – then you really will notice it and remember it and perhaps write about it later.

So, if you’re the adventurous fearless kind, the only gamble will be surviving the trip there and back. Once you get there, the food won’t be a gamble at all. Consider that if this actually happens to be your last meal, I don’t think you’ll be terribly disappointed.

Created: 6/2/2007

"What do you eat for?"

As my weight dropped and my dad’s remained on the heavy side, I remember talking to him once about food. I was ragging on him playfully about his weight and how bad his eating habits were. At that time, with a serious tone, he asked me "What do you eat for?" (I’m paraphrasing of course – I don’t remember the exact words he used)

The question took me by surprise. "What did I eat for?" I didn’t get it.

He noticed my perplexed look and offered an explanation. It was something to the effect of "Do you eat because you need to – to satisfy your physical need for sustenance? Or do you eat because you like food? because you enjoy food?"

I got it – finally. I wanted to immediately respond, but found that it wasn’t an easy question to answer. If I recall correctly I answered that I ate because I liked food. The conversation pretty much ended there – it was his "there you have it," to me. His "I’m not skinny because I like to eat good food more than I care about my weight – so there."

After further thought, I realized I wasn’t necessarily honest or accurate with my answer. I often find myself eating things I don’t quite love because they are healthy. I do try to pick healthy alternatives that are flavorful and enjoyable – heck I eat soup for lunch pretty much every work day. Regardless, I got my dad’s point. He’s a foodie and I guess so am I.

Food can be expensive. Good food can be really expensive. I have found that dropping a few pennies for an excellent eating experience is well worth the expense. I realize that really sounds pretentious and it’s not meant to be. It’s really intended to express how important this multi-sensory experience is to me. It’s more than the simple consumption of food. Eating out is about enjoying a meal with people or just with someone, over conversation, being served well, in an inviting location. It’s about sights, sounds, and touch just as much as it is about smells and tastes.

I love eating out. Although I enjoy cooking, I really love eating out.

Created: 6/2/2007
Last Edited: 8/1/2007