Monday, November 16, 2009

Tapas, Bloomfield, CT, November 2009

Food: C-
Service: C-

Amy and Joanne write:

My husband Chris loves Middle Eastern food and introduced me to Tapas, via the West Hartford location, years ago. We don’t go often, but whenever we have gone, it has been a very good experience. He’ll get a gyro, I’ll get something off the blackboard specials, and we’ll enjoy the warm, friendly atmosphere. When I found out that Joanne has never been to Tapas, I was surprised. Shortly thereafter, we decided to have an early dinner at the Bloomfield location.

When we arrived, there were no customers in the dining room, so we decided to sit at the bar. A bartender helped us choose from a selection of special drinks and martinis and ended her shift shortly after she served us said drinks. The next bartender set up a chafing dish of “Madd Greek” wings, and served them up, on the house, to the customers at the bar. The sauce was sweet and spicy at the same time and was a nice change from the ubiquitous buffalo sauce. We also received a complimentary bowl of their home made kettle chips. These free treats were a nice surprise and a good start to our visit. We thought we would finish the appetizer portion of our meal with stuffed clams. There were two on the plate, and they were moist, flavorful and full of diced clams that were tender, unlike the rubber-band clams and dry stuffing that all too easy to get in New England restaurant.

Amy wanted to wait to see the dinner specials before ordering, but I knew before we even got there what I wanted to order. I fell in love with Middle Eastern food while living in Boston and don’t have it often—not nearly often enough—these days. Falafel is not common, but it is one of my all time favorite foods so I chose to have the falafel sandwich. The “hand helds” all had a platter option (Greek salad and rice pilaf), but I wasn’t interested in rice pilaf, so I asked for a salad without the rice. It was a matter of time until I feasted on one of my favorite foods.

The salad came and was delicious, as Amy promised--mixed greens, crumbled feta, onion, olives, tomatoes and pepperoncinis with just that right amount of an herby vinaigrette. It was also huge, and could have been a meal on its own, but I stopped myself after a few bites to save room for falafel.

The falafel sandwich came in a huge pita, which I discovered was stuffed mostly with iceburg lettuce and three falafel balls dressed sparingly with tahini. I removed a falafel to savor the moment…and was disappointed. What should have been crisp on the outside and cakey and moist on the inside was burnt on the outside and pasty on the inside. And it had a strangely tangy taste that masked the garlic and chick pea flavor that should have come through. I should have eaten more salad.

Nothing really excited me on the special menu, which was a let-down after waiting for it to appear. I ended up going with the chicken kebob dinner, two grilled skewers of marinated chicken served over rice with toasted pita points and tzatziki (a cucumber-based creamy sauce). Knowing how much I love their salad dressing (in fact, Tapas is famous for it around here), I also ordered a dinner salad. But, between that and the apps, I was close to full. And it was a good thing, too. The kebob platter was average. The chicken was pretty dry, as was the rice. The tzatziki had only a hint of cucumber taste, and the rest of the plate was filled with six (six!) pita points. Who needs that much bread? This was not the Tapas I was used to.

When we alerted the bartender that we had a coupon when we asked for our check, he seemed inconvenienced. And when I questioned being charged 4.00 for a platter—since I didn’t have rice—plus another 1.00 for the salad, he treated me like I was stupid. I did have the platter, he assured me, by having a large salad (which I didn't ask for). He said I got for 5.00 what is on the menu for six. Trouble is the menu didn’t say “No rice? Sub fries or supersize your salad.” It simply said “No rice? Sub fries or a Greek salad for 1.00.”

Needles to say, dinner—like my falafel—ended on a sour note. What started off as fun and tasty ended less than satisfying. It was not the Tapas Amy was used to, and not one either of us would return to.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Max Burger, West Hartford, CT, October 2009

Food: A-
Service: B+

Joanne and Amy write:

Amy and I have been meaning to go to Max Burger since it opened. Fans of all the Max restaurants, and unabashed burger lovers, it really was a must try for us. We missed our opportunity to go for lunch this summer, but committed to a date and decided to go right after school, as late lunch/early dinner—daring to dine in that time Amy and I sometimes feel is The Dead Zone, when you can’t signal a server to save your life.

I had heard rave reviews from fellow burger buffs and had been on line a dozen times to view the menu (three the day we were going) but still had trouble deciding. In the end I chose to begin with a Max salad and build my own burger, modifying the 5-ounce Max Classic.

The Max salad was a simple, fresh and crisp start to my meal. Mixed greens, halved grape tomatoes, Bermuda onion, cucumbers and radishes were delivered cold, on a chilled plate, with blue cheese dressing on the side. The dressing was creamy without being overly thick, and tasted of blue cheese, but not overly pungent. There were chopped scallions in the dressing that gave a nice flavor as well.

I kept wavering between burger selections, but finally decided on the Alfred, an 8-ounce burger with Comte cheese, caramelized onions, and rosemary aioli served on an artisan roll. Since it was a larger burger, I chose not to get a starter. The burger was thick and juicy, with well-seasoned, tasty ground meat cooked to medium as requested. The creamy cheese melted into the burger and along with the onions gave it a nice sweetness that the herby aioli counterbalanced. Unfortunately, the roll was very light and airy, and while I think it would be great alongside a bowl of soup, it wasn’t sturdy enough to handle the burger and its juices; it fell apart on the first bite. I enjoyed the crisp, hand-cut fries with ketchup and with the garlic aioli that was served with them.

The menu lists allowable substitutions for $1.50. In addition, it lists toppings and cheeses available for $1.00. My classic burger came—as requested—with the addition of bacon, mayonnaise on the side, and arugula instead of lettuce. I declined on the Max sauce, which was described as a spicy, chipotle mayonnaise, but our server was kind enough to offer it on the side and, though both Amy and I thought it lacked the kick it should have, we found it just as tasty as the aioli for dipping the fries. My burger was cooked a perfect medium and the flavor did not disappoint. It was a combination of my favorite sandwich—bacon, arugula and tomato—and a burger and just what my taste buds expected it to be. I would have preferred hot bacon over room temperature and a better bun. Though more substantial than Amy’s artisan roll, the standard supermarket bun was a disappointment. A ciabatta roll would have elevated the burger from delicious to exceptional.

The Cabrini Malbec, an Argentinean red, was berry-forward and complimented the burger nicely. The $6 per glass price made it a good value as well. For dessert, we had to try the whoopie pies, which came two to an order and were perfectly sized for our almost-full stomachs. The cake wasn’t overly dry, just dry enough to hold up the frosting, which was creamy and sugary. Other nostalgic offerings on the dessert menu include milkshakes, brownies and hot fudge sundaes.

Despite the overkill on the cow motif (no pun intended) throughout the restaurant and what we would consider weak buns for such delicious burgers, we would both return. Neither of us tackled the Fatty Melt (a burger sandwiched between two grilled cheeses) and it calls from the menu like a challenge. Meanwhile, the special of the day was a scallop dish that, had we not been there specifically to sample their burgers, we would have been interested in trying. Our service was good but it took some time, and appearance of other patrons to be seated, before our server was more visible and available.

That being said, we might not travel long distances or make pilgrimages for their burgers, but Max Burger does pass the Max Restaurant Group test and makes its way onto our list of restaurants we’d recommend.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sakura Garden, South Windsor, CT, October 2009

Food: B
Service: A-

Amy and Joanne write:

My husband loves sushi, so I often find myself at Japanese restaurants noshing on a bunch of appetizers – a Japanese version of dim sum. One of the places we’ve visited is Sakura Garden, where Chris enjoyed a humongous sushi/sashimi platter and I, uncharacteristically not hungry, only had the chicken tempura app with some white rice. That tempura, however, was delicious. I had that delicious tempura in mind when Joanne suggested Sakura Garden for our latest outing.

We decided to make it an early dinner and take advantage of Sakura’s great Happy Hour menu, on which soups, salads, hot appetizers, maki and hand rolls, well drinks, beer and wine all range from $2 to $4. It appeared this could be our cheapest outing yet.

We started with the tempura, which was as I remembered it. It had good structure – it was well-battered, but fried lightly enough to make it good and crispy out the outside with tender, juicy chicken inside.

We were off to a tasty—and free—start, as I had a coupon for a free tempura. Now it was time to work our way through the rest of the appetizers. I had looked at the menu while waiting for Amy, and decided that everything in the appetizer column, except for the edamame and the miso eggplant, appealed to me that afternoon. She agreed, so once the tempura came out, we worked our way down the list.

We loved the gyoza (pan fried dumplings) as much as the tempura. They were the perfect contrast of textures--tender inside with a nice crispness to the dumpling. The sesame ginger dipping sauce went very well with these. The haru maki (deep fried spring rolls) were also good, although we would have preferred them crispier and the peanut sauce that accompanied them, while tasty, was a bit thin. The yakitori, (chicken skewers) were tasty and tender, served with teriyaki for dipping.

All of these appetizers we would order again; the one big disappointment was the shrimp shumai. These were steamed to the point of sogginess and the consistency was quite mushy. As for the flavor, rather than fresh shrimp, all we could taste was fish. Fishy fish. A few of these remained on the plate.

Because this was Happy Hour, we were seated at the bar, of course, and always within eyeshot of our server, who was attentive and prompt. Toward the end of our appetizer sampling, we were offered a complimentary sake tasting—a nice, and unexpected, touch that brought our meal to a satisfactory close. We were full, we felt taken care of, and it didn’t break the bank. This was one of our least expensive excursions to date and a place to which we would both return—even on a tight budget.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wood N Tap, Vernon, CT, September 2009

Food: C-
Service: D+

Joanne and Amy write:

A new Wood N Tap opened in Vernon last year, and although we have both been to other locations, Amy and I put it on our list of places to try. The other night it was a convenient place for us to meet, so we did.

We were both ravenous, having eaten our school lunch at 10, so we ordered an appetizer to share while we made up our minds. We agreed on the fried mozzarella. Three large triangles of breaded fried cheese were delivered with a splash of marinara, garnished with unnecessary shredded mozzarella that took away from both the presentation and the taste. After we scraped off the shredded cheese, this was a tasty accompaniment to our red wine.

I tried their steakhouse salad and was disappointed. It sounded so good on the menu—“a blend of chopped greens with candied walnuts, crumbled bleu cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped egg, roasted red peppers, carrots and bacon tossed in a bleu cheese vinaigrette, topped with bourbon marinated sliced steak and frizzled onions.” It was delivered by a server other than the one who took our order, and unfortunately, when it was presented, the first thing I noticed was that the steak, which I ordered medium, was raw. And because it’s marinated, it looked bruised and raw. It distracted me from wanting to eat the rest, and it took several minutes until our “real” server passed and we could flag her down to send it back.

When it came back, it was no less disappointing. The frizzled onions were soggy at that point, and the salad was overdressed and limp. I’m not sure there were any roasted peppers, or if there were, they were clearly unremarkable. Overall the salad looked like soggy leftover bits from the crisper, rather than a crisp, fresh salad cut into bite size pieces. Our server never did a second check-back, and when she finally came to pick up our dirty dishes, she didn’t comment on the mostly uneaten salad other than to ask if I wanted it wrapped, which I certainly did not.

I was starving and decided to go with the half-rack of barbecue ribs that came with French fries and cole slaw. The ribs were falling off the bone, tender and well-seasoned, and the portion was a good size. I really liked the sweetness of “Uncle Fred’s secret sauce” because it paired well with the smokiness of the meat. The cole slaw was crunchy and creamy at the same time, and although I’m not a big slaw fan, I could see the appeal. Too bad that the fries were tasteless and limp, and therefore most ended up left on the plate.

After a very long wait with dirty plates, our server asked if we wanted dessert. She couldn’t find a dessert menu, so rattled off the four choices, highlighting the fact that all four are made in-house. We decided on the apple cobbler, it being early fall and all. What we got, however, was an unappetizing, unrecognizable mess. There was a large square of so-called cobbler completely covered in chopped nuts, way too much caramel and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. One bite revealed that that wasn’t just all we could see, it was all we could taste. The caramel and nuts overpowered any bits of apple or the topping usually found on a cobbler, and after only a couple of bites, we gave up. Then we sat for over fifteen minutes, again with dirty plates, waiting for our check.

The poor service shaded our meal. That is, if we had a great server who was apologetic about the salad, even just attentive, we might be willing to give Vernon’s Wood N Tap another try with a mental note to skip the sticky dessert. But even though Amy’s ribs were a hit, my salad was a miss on several points. And the service missing to make up for it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vito's By the Park, Hartford, CT July 2009

Food: C+
Service: B

Joanne and Amy write:

Amy and I penciled in a couple of RRC dates at the end of the school year. We didn't want to go the summer without seeing each other or without a review, and we thought we might try another Italian restaurant, so we settled on Vito's by the Park. Here I admit I had an ulterior motive--1000 points for a Monday night reservation on OpenTable.

I have been to Vito's multiple times, but mainly for cocktails and happy hour. Years ago I remember a great experience with lobster ravioli, as well as other appetizers, but couldn't remember the last time I sat down for dinner there. Clearly, it was time.

I too had been to Vito’s a few times, a couple times for dinner, a couple times for happy hour, but it has been a while. I was happy to walk in and see Joanne already at the bar, which was offering complementary pizza to its guests. We had a drink at the bar, but saved our appetites for the meal.

It wasn’t a particularly busy night, and we were able to choose a seat by the open French doors with a cool breeze and view of nearby Bushnell Park. We chose to share a bottle of the decent but not spectacular, specially-made-for-Vito’s Cabernet sauvignon, and perused the menu. I was in a seafood mood, and decided on the vongole oreganata to start, followed by the lobster ravioli entrée.

There were four clams to the vongole oreganto appetizer plate, and they were tender, cooked well in their own juices, and topped with a spicy breadcrumb mix and finely chopped bacon. I’m a big clams casino lover, and these being so similar, I enjoyed them very much with a few squirts of lemon. I declined Joanne’s invitation to try her lobster ravioli, and instead helped myself to the bread basket as we waited for entrees.

I went with what I remembered being good and ordered the lobster ravioli appetizer. It was as I remember, but this time (years of dining out and palate development later) I thought the ample vodka crème sauce competed with the lobster ravioli—and won. I kept thinking the rich sauce with a sundried tomato depth could have been the star, served with penne as a stand alone dish, or perhaps with a few shrimp or some chicken. It was richer than it needed to be with lobster ravioli, and obscured the flavor of the ravioli filling. That being said, I enjoyed them still, and ate them all since Amy was getting an entrée portion and refused my offer to share. Lucky me, I also tasted a one of her clams and agree that they were tender and delicious.

For my entrée I debated between the Bolognese and shrimp scampi and ultimately chose to stay with a seafood theme (and against what Amy said harkens a cold fall night). The shallow bowl had a perfect portion of pasta and shrimp, with an interesting addition of capers. As I prepared to eat it, it seemed a bit soupy, and every bite of fettuccine that sloshed through the broth as I twirled it around my fork left me looking for the flavor of garlic. Maybe it was in the shrimp? No. Not there either. Not even in the thin broth left on the bottom of the bowl in which I did find a couple of garlic slices. Alas my shrimp scampi was bland, and disappointing, and left me wishing I had tried the Bolognese.

I had an idea of what was coming with the lobster ravioli since Joanne had it for her appetizer, but the menu described the entrée as being accompanied by asparagus spears and topped with lobster meat. Several asparagus spears were present, but they were slightly overcooked, with no “snap.” More disappointing was the minute amount of lobster found inside the ravioli, and on top, I only found a bit of knuckle meat so drenched in the sauce that I mistook it for a chunk of tomato. I loved the vodka cream sauce that the ravioli came in, but—as with Joanne’s appetizer portion—there was so much of it that it overpowered any chance of tasting any lobster that might have been there.

It was difficult to choose a dessert, but the New York-style cheesecake with fresh berry compote was one we could both agree on. It was everything it promised to be – smooth, creamy, and not too dense cheesecake on a thin graham cracker crust. The berry topping was the perfect blend of sweet and tart, and the entire thing paired well with our ice-cold limoncellos.

Overall, the service was good on this not-very-busy night, but we were both disappointed with our pasta dishes, something that should be basic fare in an Italian restaurant. In the future, we would probably consider Vito’s for happy hour, but no more.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

J. Gilbert's Wood Fired Steaks, Glastonbury, CT June 2009

Food: A+
Service: A-

Amy and Joanne write:

Joanne and I had planned some time ago to make J. Gilbert’s Wood Fired Steaks an RRC destination. We finally had the opportunity last night, as an end-of-the-school-year splurge. My husband and I have been many times, and we have never had a bad experience. The food is consistently great, I dare say outstanding, and the service is spot on. In fact, both have won several local “best of” awards.

I arrived first to this bustling and busy steak house and had a chance to peruse the menu while waiting for Amy. (Not that I hadn’t looked online!) In that time our server also brought me a sample of Malbec I was interested in trying. Satisfied, I ordered a glass, which was delivered just as Amy joined me.

I also ordered a glass of wine, choosing the J. Lohr cabernet. Since we were going “all out,” we decided to begin with a shared appetizer before moving on to our own meals. We chose the Shrimp Durango. Six large shrimp arrived, arranged like a sunburst around a heap of sauteed Roma tomatoes, spinach and basil. A sprinkling of shredded parmesan gave it bite. Below the shrimp was a puddle of orange-red ancho chili butter that added a subtle but pleasant heat to the freshness of the dish. I had no problem dipping my slice of sourdough into that sauce! It was a great start.

Next I moved on a Caesar salad, for which I requested no anchovies. A generous portion of romaine was presented with a parmesan crisp. The dressing’s first flavor to hit my taste buds was lemon, followed by Dijon mustard. I enjoyed this mild Caesar dressing that left me ready for dinner.

I tasted Joanne’s Caesar as well as the parmesan crisp. I liked both, but I’m not a big salad person, so I ordered the crab bisque. The bisque was presented in a large shallow bowl topped with lump crabmeat and a garnish of chives. A bit of fresh cracked pepper was all that was needed. Creamy and velvety, the bisque was both warming and satisfying. I could have eaten several bowls, but not with an entrée on the way.

When dinner arrived I was glad I limited myself to 2 shrimp and a salad, as I had every intention of eating every morsel of the 4-ounce petit filet and 4-oz scallop combination dinner I ordered, served with asparagus and chipotle cheddar mashed potatoes. While I enjoyed the asparagus and tasty potatoes, I focused on the protein. The scallops were outstanding. Cooked perfectly, soft and sweet with a balsamic glaze. For an extra 1.95 I asked that my petit filet be prepared au poivre. It was perfect. The sauce worked on this oh-so-tender filet that was cooked to a perfect medium.

Between the shrimp and the bisque, I had my fill of seafood and was glad I ordered just a steak, in particular, the six-ounce filet au poivre with the chipotle cheddar mashed and haricot verts. The filet was perfectly cooked and nicely coated with cracked and whole peppercorns. The cream and brandy sauce made the fork-tender mesquite-grilled filet taste extra special. The green beans were crisp while the potatoes were smooth and flavorful. I ate half of everything and packed the rest, which reheated well to make a nice lunch for the next day.

As full as we both were, we had to have dessert, in particular, their almond tuiles cannoli. Rich chocolate mousse filled a crisp almond cookie shell which rested over raspberry sauce and crème anglaise. A mix of sweet berries prettied up the plate as well as our palates.

Overall it was exceptional. Our server paced our dinner well, which was important for a multi-course meal. She was friendly, knowledgeable, and checked in appropriately to refill water and wine. With a variety of steakhouses in the area from which to choose, J. Gilbert’s is a great value. Think Capital Grille but less pricy and austere or Max Downtown but more homey and with more customers. The food and service will make future visits to J. Gilbert’s an inevitability.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pancho Loco's, Vernon, CT May 2009

Food: B+
Service: A-

Joanne and Amy write:

We’re back! Needless to say we haven’t had much time to dine out together these last couple of months, but there’s nothing like nice weather and the end of the school year to bring us out again. Coupon in hand we headed to Pancho Loco’s, a Mexican restaurant on Rt. 83 in Vernon, whose signage boasts “voted best Mexican in Tolland County.”

Having visited San Diego over my April vacation and sampled some good Mexican food on my trip, I had both a hankering for Mexican food and a good Margarita. I ordered the Pancho’s ultimate, on the rocks with a salted rim, and was pleased. I sipped as Amy and I perused the menu at our table on the deck, trying to navigate through enchiladas vs. burritos vs. chimichangas.

I decided on Sangria, and—knowing I’d have a couple of glasses and Joanne would share—decided on the pitcher. The homemade sangria was a refreshing blend of red wine and fruit juice, neither of which was overpowering. It was delicious and easy to drink, particularly with the complimentary chips and salsa. For my meal I ordered the chimichanga, a lightly fried burrito stuffed with moist shredded beef, grilled peppers and onions, and topped with a thick spicy queso sauce. The side dishes, beans and rice, were well-prepared; that is, the beans were not a mushy mess and the rice wasn’t bland or dry.

I ordered a soft taco dinner. I would have liked to see fish tacos as an offering, but I suppose that’s a California thing. From my choices of beef, pulled pork, and chicken I chose pulled pork. The three soft tacos were simply stuffed with shredded lettuce, diced tomato and pulled pork. Condiments were served on the side, which I prefer, and which enabled me to really taste my pork, which was juicy and delicious. My side dishes, like Amy’s, were not a disappointing plate-filler, but rather a tasty accompaniment to my tacos.

Pancho Loco’s has a variety of happy hour specials and plenty of premium tequilas from which to choose. Our server/bartender, familiar to us for a reason we have yet to figure out, was pleasant and attentive. She was friendly and cheerful and checked back on us often even though we were the only customers around (it being that lonely time between lunch and dinner rushes), and despite our location out on the deck. That back deck provides a great spot to sit and sip on a warm sunny afternoon, and we were all too happy to take advantage of that.

And since we were so full we forgot to order the fried ice cream, we’ll have yet another reason to go back!