Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bertucci's, Manchester, CT December 2008 Grade: C-

Joanne and Amy write:

Ah, the holidays: overly ambitious social calendars, rapidly depleting check book balances and suburban shopping mall gridlock more typical of midtown Manhattan than Manchester. Clearly, venturing toward said area at this point--two days before Christmas-- is an exercise in frustration and should be avoided at all costs...Unless, of course, you are Amy or me, who might even brave a New England blizzard and gridlock for a holiday wine toast and to try a new restaurant, which is why we went to Bertucci's yesterday at the Buckland Hills Mall.

I got there first and ordered a half carafe of Sangiovese. At $11.50 this was a bargain for a 2+ glasses of decent wine. When Amy arrived a few minutes later, she did the same. I passed her the menu and told her she could decide on the pizza we would share.

We ordered "The Sporkie," a traditional crust pizza baked in a brick oven and topped with sweet Italian sausage, tomato sauce, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. We chose the large over the individual size, and when it arrived, Joanne and I just looked at each other, wondering how we were going to eat it all. It was much larger than we expected, but we'd just take some home after we finished. The menu had promised a "light, crispy crust," and while it was tasty, I found it to be thicker and more chewy than I would have liked. The tomato sauce was sweet as was the crumbled sausage. The ricotta seemed to have been placed in tablespoonfuls randomly around the pizza and was not spread well, but it imparted a creaminess to those bites that contained it. We each had two slices and were each able to take two home for a midnight, or perhaps next-morning snack.

Our service fell apart when our server, whose name we learned only when we asked, had given us our check before we were done with our dining experience. It was our Christmas celebration, after all, and we wanted a little liquid something for dessert. However, once she had packed up our leftover pizza, she put our check firmly on the bartop. I turned to Joanne to say, "I guess we're done," at the same time as she said, "Is she rushing us out of here or what?" We thought about leaving and having our dessert somewhere else, but couldn't face attempting to park again. We asked for the menu again, and taking our chances with more bad service from the bartender, ordered limoncello martinis. As we sipped the well-made drinks, we toasted the holidays and exchanged our gifts, both of us laughing at the coincidence of giving each other cookbooks. It was at this inopportune point that the server attempted to engage us in conversation. Alas, we were no longer interested.

Our experience at Bertucci's is exactly why we will begin, in 2009, giving separate grades for food and service. Our pizza and wine earned an admirable-for-a-chain-restaurant B. Our service, on the other hand, plummeted from a C to an F when our server held up our respectable tip (especially for her quality of service) to her sidekick and said "OMG," while we were putting on our coats, both within earshot and eyeshot...

Oh, yes, she did.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Max Amore, Glastonbury, CT December 2008 Grade: B+

Joanne and Amy write:

Believe it or not, Amy and I are bargain hunters and coupon clippers. We even share coupons so they don't go to waste. Like back in the day when kids traded baseball cards, Amy and I spread out our spoils and trade coupons. You have 20 percent off Bed and Bath? I've got buy-one-get-one at Bath and Body! Of course the often more interesting offers are the free appetizer or BOGO entree deals we come across. How lucky for us that our dinner last night came about because of a deal we didn't even go looking for. Rather, it fell in our laps. Well, in our email boxes--as had the Restaurant Week advertisement that lead us to Max's Oyster Bar a couple of weeks ago. In this case, on Monday after school, we both got an email about the Max Restaurant Group Prix Fixe dinners this week. 3 courses for $24.95. Yay, us! This time, we chose the more suburban Max Amore, in Glastonbury. This time we were also a little more indecisive about what to order, despite seeing the menu in advance.

The options for first course were Caesar salad or soup. I chose the Caesar salad. While we waited, I picked at dish of marinated olives which were quite fruity and flavorful (Amy doesn't like olives, so I didn't have to share). We were also served a basket of two types of bread and a head of roasted garlic. I prepared a slab of foccacia with garlic and dipped in some olive oil that was on the table and things were looking promising. Then my salad arrived. At first glance it looked like a decent Caesar, but once I started, was a bit disappointed. Perhaps the most disappointing detail was that there were no Parmesan shaves or shingles in sight, not even any matchstick shreds. Rather, the salad was dressed with grated Parmesan that was unable to temper the slightly too pungent anchovy and garlic dressing. Finally, the croutons were more stale than crispy. So we were off to a tepid start. Well, figuratively, but Amy can tell you about that.

I was hungry and couldn't wait to dig into the cup of Tuscan white bean and pancetta soup I ordered to start. I should have waited, because it was so hot that I wished I had an asbestos lining in my mouth. When it cooled down enough for me to actually taste it, it had good white bean flavor with a hint of smokiness. It also had a hearty mix of small diced carrots, celery and pancetta that was all the more sublime when I dipped the country-style Italian bread into it. A bowl of this soup with that bread would have made for an amazing meal in itself.

I didn't finish the soup because I was very much looking forward to my interesting entree of "Gobetti con Anatra," described as pasta with duck confit, roasted butternut squash, fresh sage, and sweet potato cream. The waiter placed the dish in front of me and the smell of spices (was it the nutmeg? maybe the cinnamon?) made my mouth water. Again, I couldn't wait to dig in. This dish had the perfect balance of sweet and savory: sweetness from the squash, spices and cream sauce; savory from the duck and the sage. It also had a skillful blend of textures, with the al dente pasta mixed with no-too-firm squash and fork-tender duck. This was the ultimate duck pasta dish, and the best, most unique one I've had in a long time.

I should have gone with my initial instinct and ordered the chicken parmigiana rather than be dissuaded from doing so by the server, who was "sick of serving chicken." That is to say, Amy won. In that restaurant game of sampling each other's dinners, deciding whose is best, and coveting another meal: Amy won. My salmon dish The fish itself was good and cooked well, but the preparation had a disconnect. The polenta on which the salmon was artfully placed looked and tasted more like scrambled eggs than polenta. The plum tomato sauce resembled and tasted more like a helping of canned, diced tomatoes, and frankly--even if it was a great sauce and my palate missed that--didn't seem to compliment the salmon. The leek and roasted pepper tapenade was a few juliennes of leeks and peppers that tasted mostly like roasted peppers. I pushed them off to the side with the tomatoes and ate the 5 haricot verts that sat between the polenta and fish. I couldn't help but long for the wonderful preparation of salmon I had at Max's Oyster Bar a couple of weeks ago. But honestly, if all I had was the piece of salmon and a full helping of green beans I would have been more content. At least there was dessert.

We wised up this visit and got one of each of the two dessert choices: creme bruciata (which is Italian for creme brulee), and flourless chocolate cake, so we could taste them both. The creme tasted as good as the one we had at Oyster Bar - it was chilled and creamy and topped with that delightful burnt sugar. Unfortunately, the presentation was lacking, as the dish sat atop the raspberry sauce which ended up smudged and hidden rather than acting as an enhancement. The tiny "Nilla-wafer" sandwich cookie accompaniment was dry and tasteless. The flourless cake had the consistency of a not-quite cooked brownie, which is to say, it was awesome. It was topped with a deep chocolate ganache that was countered with an equally tasty Tahitian-vanilla gelato that packed a powerful punch of flavor by itself.

For Amy it was a hit, for me a miss, but overall it was a good dinner experience. Our service was good (although the server was flat) and with wine and tip, we had three courses at this high-caliber restaurant for $60 apiece. While we acknowledge this is not cheap, it's actually a great deal in a place where entrees alone range from $15.95 to $31.95. To the Max Restaurant Group we can only say, keep doing what you're doing!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Max's Oyster Bar, West Hartford, CT November 2008 Grade: A-

Joanne and Amy write

Every once in a while it's nice to forgo the adventure of trying a new place and fall back on a sure thing, to sit down to dinner where you know your meal will satisfy. Max's Oyster Bar is one of those places. Dining there last night, for only $20.08, was extra pleasing.

Last night, like many others, Amy and I both knew what we wanted to order before we got there. The CT Restaurant Week menus were available on line and we had already made our decisions. No stammering indecisively over the menus, asking questions, or tying up an already in-the-weeds server.

I started with Max's classic chopped salad, with Gorgonzola and sherry vinaigrette, which was dressed perfectly. For my main course I chose their grilled Bay of Fundy salmon with a maple syrup glaze, served with a apple and potato hash and pomegranate nage. It was outstanding. The generous salmon filet was cooked perfectly with a beautiful crust and the precisely diced apple potato hash was sweet yet tart and a perfect accompaniment.

I chose the clam chowder to start. It came in a stainless steel mug that was poured into my bowl by the server, and was accompanied by a wax-paper bag filled with homemade oyster crackers. The chowder was thick and appetizing, with plenty of clams, few potatoes, and bits of applewood smoked bacon. The shellfish pappardelle was excellent as well. The papparedelle was made in house, and it was cooked al dente as it should be. There was plenty of shellfish also - two grilled jumbo shrimp and several littleneck clams and mussels - tossed in a fiery fra diavolo tomato sauce. The portion was just right. Creme brulee is one of our favorites, and we both chose it as our finale. The cool, velvety custard had rich vanilla flavor and a flawlessly burnt sugar crust. The only downside was the topping of too-tart chopped strawberries. A little shortbread cookie on the side was a nice extra touch.

This restaurant is typically busy, being located in West Hartford, but was even more so during Restaurant Week. Thus, it was easy to forgive the lagging service. Our friendly waiter (who Joanne mentioned was in-the-weeds) was as attentive as he could be given the situation he was in, delivering double-tiered platters of shellfish to tables of six or eight in addition to taking care of us and several other "deuces." Besides, the gap between courses gave us time to gossip and digest. Our water glasses were kept full and our table was cleared in a timely manner throughout the visit.

It was certainly worth our while to brave the unseasonably cold weather to visit Max's Oyster Bar for what we knew would be an excellent meal and an exceptional deal.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ted's Montana Grill, South Windsor, CT November 2008 Grade: A

Joanne and Amy write:

I remember on one of my solo visits to
Ted's Montana Grill, while sitting at the bar at a fairly quiet hour, thinking--as I looked around and burger juice dripped down my chin--"oh my god, Ted Turner is brilliant. This is a diner in disguise! Steak house style dining room in an upscale outdoor mall, with a flattop grill." Just then, I looked over and saw a stainless steel bowl going over a burger to steam it. Diner style, indeed. Despite higher-than-diner prices, Ted's consistently delivers a good burger worth the price. Because I love their burgers and onion rings so much (if I can keep my hand out of the dish of complimentary half-sour pickle coins long enough to eat them), I don't deviate on the menu. Amy, however, who also frequents with her husband, has delved deeper into the menu than I.

The first time I went to Ted's was shortly after it opened four years ago. My husband and I sat at the counter overlooking the kitchen. The cook working in front of us was busy, but he took the time to talk with us and gave us several samples - of the bison chili, the freshly cut french fries, and an onion ring or two. It was dinner and a show--with freebies! I ordered a ribeye that day, and I've ordered it several times since. Available in beef or the slightly sweeter-tasting and much leaner bison, it's always grilled to perfection and drizzled with butter sauce. Between my husband and me, we've tried different soups, steaks, burgers, chicken dishes and seafood at Ted's and we've never been disappointed or gone home hungry. In fact, the only time I didn't leave with leftovers was when I tried the perfectly-portioned Blue Plate Special (diner lingo--maybe Joanne is on to something) of short ribs over mashed potatoes. That one time, I completely cleared my plate.

I go back to Ted's often, not because of their prices, but because of the consistently good food and service I get within a unique concept restaurant. That concept is two-fold: fresh and green. Fresh: Ted's doesn't freeze or microwave anything. Everything is made to order, even the lemonade. Green: Each location recycles, is non-smoking, uses low-voltage lighting, and strives to be 99% plastic-free. The atmosphere also beckons me...I openly declare my love for the Craftsman-style decor while keeping my fondness for the hokey "Montana-at-the-turn-of-the-century" music more secret. But the burgers...that's where it's at. Thick, juicy, with any kind of topping you can think of, they are amazing. Just ask Joanne.

While I ate every single half-sour pickle coin in the dish, Amy started with the tortilla soup, a warm and creamy cup of comfort on a rainy day. For the main attraction, Amy ordered the "naked burger," medium-rare, with fries. I ordered the cheese burger (medium), with American cheese, loaded with mushrooms and bacon. Instead of french fries, I substituted onion rings. Our server accomodated Amy's request for a slice of raw onion, and mine for a side of their horseradish mayonnaise to accompany my onion rings--and which also found its way onto my toasted, buttered, burger bun. Once we assembled our giant creations, the task of getting our mouths around them was worth the reward of the moist and delicious burgers. (Ladies, there's nothing dainty about eating these!) Both my onion rings and Amy's fries were crisp and delicious as well. The Big Sky cabernet sauvignon (exclusive to Ted's) accompanied them well.

This and countless other great dining experiences for both of us at Ted's puts it firmly on our list of favorite restaurants.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sauce, Glastonbury, CT October 2008 Grade: A -

Amy and Joanne write...

I've been wanting to try
Sauce since it opened last December. I thought it brave for a restaurant to open around the holidays, when most of us, including me, are so busy and/or broke from shopping that restaurant dining isn't really an option. Early reviews from local newspapers brought raves and made me all the more excited to try it. However, a pair of bartenders whom we know and who are foodies, gave Sauce a bad review and I put it on my list of need-to-try-sometime-but-not-now. Then a few weeks ago, I was driving through Glastonbury and caught the sight of a happening place out of the corner of my eye. It was Sauce, and I realized the time is now. I checked out the website, which has a great look to it, and the menu, which is not overly extensive as Italian-American menus tend to be, with their pages and pages of pasta, seems to focus on what I'd call "contemporary Italian" dishes, made with seasonal ingredients.

I had only heard about Sauce through Amy, who forwarded a restaurant review. Other than that and the comments I heard from the aforementioned bartenders, which weren't very good, I hadn't heard much else. I did go on line as well, and was equally intrigued by the menu. But I was in Amy's hands, with an open mind, as we started last night's dining experience. Given our last "Italian" dining experience, I was feeling confident that a good meal was in store.

I started with one of their "cicchetti," or little snacks , choosing a simple salad of small pieces of fresh mozzarella and halved grape tomatoes dressed in a high quality balsamic vinaigrette. We shared this with the dark crusty bread that was offered with a hearty red sauce for dipping, while we waited for Amy's antipasto and my insalata. Things looked promising.

Years ago, my husband took me to a great Italian bakery in Hartford's Italian neighborhood and introduced me to arancine. I love arancine, balls of risotto stuffed with a variety of fillings and lightly fried so they are crunchy on the outside and soft and melty on the inside. Sauce's were exactly that and thus, did not disappoint. For $9, we received 3 large arancine (a very generous portion, in my opinion), and the arborio rice was mixed with spinach, fontina cheese, and onions, with a piece of prosciutto in the middle. They rested on a thin layer of marinara. They were delicious and I would have no qualms about stopping by one night when I'm out shopping by myself and having this appetizer and a glass of wine for my dinner.

I would like to say that I took a walk on the wild side when I did not order arugula salad, with which I am obsessed --but it wasn't particularly adventurous to order Caesar salad instead. In my defense, there are a lot of bad salads out there claiming to be Caesar salads, so it was a risk. I am happy to report that this was not one of them. The dressing was delicious. The garlic and anchovy did not overwhelm or offend. The herby croutons added a nice flavor and crunch, and were accompanied by little pieces of crispy, salty prosciutto--an unexpected and unique addition.

I haven't had a great penne with vodka sauce in some time, and unfortunately, even after last night, I still haven't. The penne was cooked appropriately al dente, and the large shrimp I requested to be added into the dish were perfect, but the sauce was too sweet and had the overpowering flavor of onions. It didn't have that red pepper bite that I associate with, and really enjoy in, a good vodka sauce. I could somewhat taste the ripeness of the San Marzano tomatoes in the sauce, but with each bite, the onion quickly prevailed. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, and it certainly didn't outshine those amazing arancine.

For dinner I ordered the broccoli rabe with sausage and orecchiete. The dish was generous and tasty. At first I declined the addition of fresh grated Parmesan, but then reconsidered. The saltiness of the cheese added a nice bite to the slightly bitter broccoli rabe and the sweet sausauge. The sausage was browned nicely, but--for my liking--could have been broken into smaller pieces and had too many fennel seeds. Overall I liked it, but might try another dish before ordering this one again--perhaps the papardelle that the server recommended or one of their pies.

The server/busser team that waited on us was attentive and professional. The server was able to make recommendations and answer questions when we had them. The team anticipated and met all of our needs, including water refills, freshly ground pepper and grated parmesan, and other things for which we didn't have to ask. We left satisfied with all around.

That is, more Sauce, please.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pazzo Ristorante, Springfield, MA October 2008 Grade: D+

Joanne and Amy write:

I admit I am a repeat customer at
Pazzo. Despite mixed reviews, with the bad being really bad, I decided to try it. I had my niece for an overnight last spring and since it was next door to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and had a kids' menu offering "spaghetti and basketballs" and no line, we went. The meatballs were good, my pasta dish was nothing to write about, and the garlic bread was not kid-friendly. Our waitress took it back and had it taken off the check, although I hadn't asked for that. Given that excellent service, and my delicious arugula salad, I decided I'd come back. The menu had other interesting choices that I could try another time.

I did in fact go back for a late, leisurely lunch--on more than one occasion--this summer. I always get the arugula salad, and I have never been disappointed with it. One day I tried to recreate a dining experience from Italy (while Amy was actually there!) and ordered the prosciutto and arugula pizza. It would have been perfect if not for the Americanized red sauce on which the prosciutto and arugula sat. I made a mental note to order without sauce. Other things I have tried are the mussels and the pollo prosciutto lunch entree. The chicken dish is rich and delicious, a rather generous lunch portion, which of course is also more Italian-American than Italian...but I enjoy the leftovers and continue to patronize the restaurant. My service has been good and the food tasty enough to try it with Amy, and her discerning Italian palate, which we did last night.

Joanne has told me about her visits to Pazzo, while I had never eaten there before last night. I was aware of the mixed reviews, many claiming it's the best Italian in Springfield, many others, that it's the worst, and not much in between. I was a bit wary at first, but prior to the visit, as I often do, I perused the menu online, and it made my mouth water. When I got there and saw the wine list, I thought someone was reading my mind. All of my favorite red - from cabs to pinots to zins to great Italians - were there. I had to ask Joanne to choose because I'd never be able to make up my mind.

But back to the food. The appetizer that was especially interesting to me was the spiedini alla Romana, which was described as "mozzarella grilled Roman style." Unfortunately, what I got was a strange version of cheesy garlic bread. When it was delivered, I stared at the plate and thought, "I don't get it." Soggy, oily and served with a horseradish-based dipping sauce (!?!), it was like day old, microwaved French toast gone awry, and there was nothing "grilled" (the definition of spiedini!) about it. Joanne summed it up as a waste of good cheese, and I have to agree with her. Next I ordered their house-named salad which promised baby spinach with pancetta and crumbled gorgonzola cheese served in a phyllo cup with sliced green apples. How can you go wrong with bacon, cheese and pastry??? Well, apparently you can. Although the salad itself, large (not baby) leaves of spinach tossed with gorgonzola in a sweet and tasty dressing, was good, some of the bacon bits were hard enough to crack a tooth, and the apples were julienned and - unbelievable in October in New England - they were brown. The phyllo cup? Unspeakably bad. Pale yellow in color, I thought they forgot to cook it. Then I took a bite of it and my mouth was full of the taste of rancid, stale oil. So very very bad and so very very disappointing. The one hope of salvation came in the form of my entree. I went for a classic lasagne, and it was that. Layers of pasta filled with meat and cheese, it was quite good, but would have been better with less of the orange sauce in which it was drowning.

For me the only thing that didn't disappoint, besides the wine, was the arugula salad, which I suppose I can conclude now is the only consistently good thing on their menu in my experience. I was so disappointed, especially since it was Amy's first time there. Her name-that-cheese thing was so bad (not that the waitress noticed it was barely touched) that we shared my mussels done in white wine sauce. The preparation was simple and basic and hard to get wrong, but some of the mussels were a little mealy, so even that wasn't a great consolation. For dinner I chose swordfish, done with olives, capers, garlic, and tomatoes. I was in the mood for fish, and the Provencal/almost Puttanesca sauce seemed interesting. And it was good. Only the fish was swimming in it, pardon the pun. There was a lot of extra sauce but nothing to eat with it, as the dish was served with a side of polenta (a square piece) and vegetables.

The first time I went my server saved the day. Amy and I were not so lucky. As noted above, she didn't notice that things were relatively untouched, she did not come around--or send a bus boy--nearly enough to refill water, and she corrected our correct pronuncations of words that included a double-z, which sound like a ts. Like the restaurant name (after which Amy's salad was named), like intermezzo, like pizza for God's sake. Listen for yourself.

I agree that our server was unfriendly and inattentive. I think she filled our (small) water glasses one time in three courses. When she took away my salad plate, I said, "You may want to let the kitchen know that the phyllo cup tastes bad, like bad oil or something," she replied, "It's baked," and walked away. My mind's reply? "Baked or not, it tasted really bad, and by the way, you're a terrible server and I'm only leaving 15%!"

Would I go to Pazzo again? Hard to say. The prices were high, especially for what we got. If we hadn't had a gift certificate, we would have paid $100 each, which is the equivalent of two or three outings at one of our "favorite" restaurants. Joanne says their pizzas are good (with special instructions) and I'd like to say I'd be willing to give them a try. But I think it's going to take me awhile to get over last night's insult to Italian food.

Pazzo means "crazy," and honestly, I think we'd have to be to go back anytime soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sonsie, Boston, MA December 2007 Grade: B+

Joanne writes:

Amy and I have a tradition of going to Boston for an overnight getaway in December, on the pretense of Christmas shopping, but it ends up being more of a culinary adventure than a retail one. I enjoy sharing with Amy the Boston I knew and loved when I lived there after college, one that she couldn't really experience when she was a student at BC.

While I was never a fan of the nightlife at Sonsie, or the see and be seen culture in general, I was a fan of the restaurant--especially for lunch. A college friend of mine and another foodie, Deanna, and I have been there multiple times and have always been pleased. So when Amy and I were wondering where to go to lunch, on our second day in Boston, I suggested
Sonsie. Giada (DeLaurentis, of Food Network fame) had just been there on one of her weekend getaways, and she gave the brick oven pizza high marks. I had never tried their pizza, and Amy loves pizza, so it was a go.

Amy's selection of cocktail had her taking notes so she could recreate it for Chris at home. Unfortunately, she has since lost said notes and can't for the life of her remember what it was. I went the boring route, a Bloody Mary, and was ready to move on to lunch.

I got a mushroom pizza. One bite and I was in heaven. I was never so happy that Amy doesn't like mushrooms! Grilled mushrooms, caramelized onions, and brie, on a thin crust. I have made it my mission, since then, to recreate this at home. Amy must have really enjoyed that cocktail because, albeit almost a year later, she doesn't remember what she had. We both remember that as we finished, she ordered a pizza with butternut squash, melting cheese, and walnuts to take home for Chris so that he could experience Sonsie too. He loved it.

Interestingly enough, our server was the same young woman who served Giada. Unfortunately, she saw a group of businessmen gathering in the foyer as the bigger tip opportunity, and left us without service at various points in our meal, including when we were ready to order wine. At those times she was busy serving drinks to the men seated around the low table in the foyer, squatting as she placed the drinks on napkins, glancing up in suggestive servitude.

The food was better than the service, but it was good enough to put Sonsie on our list of favorite restaurants.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ruth's Chris, Newington, CT October 2008 Grade: C-

Joanne and Amy write:

Clearly we don't go out to eat so that we can say, "that sucked!" We want to be satisfied, and on occasion we like to be wowed--inpsired to go home and recreate a dish, or get on the phone and recommend the restaurant. Usually our expectations are met. Rarely, we walk away feeling like it wasn't what we expected. Last night, at
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, was one of those nights. Moreover, the dining experience was less than anyone should expect from the menu and for the price, and without stellar service to soften the blow.

I have been to this location before, and visited two of the New Orleans locations a few times when I lived there. The franchise began in the Big Easy in the 1960's and has a great backstory - the now-famous "Ruth" was a single mom looking through the Times-Picayune classifieds when she noticed an ad announcing "Steak House for Sale." She mortaged her house and bought the Chris Steak House whch thrived until a fire destroyed it in 1976. She bought a new property close by, but her contract with the original "Chris" wouldn't allow her to use the name, hence Ruth's Chris was born. Ruth's entrepreneurial spirit encouraged her to franchise, and since her death in 2002, the company has gone public and is based out of Florida. Based on last night's visit, they have all but lost the character of the original company.

We ordered a shrimp appetizer to share, and were off to a good start. Five shrimp, probably 31/40s, were served in a casserole full of creole spiced butter, an ode to Ruth's New Orleans style. They were not earth shattering but tasty, with good crusty bread for dipping. We also shared a steakhouse salad with blue cheese dressing, which they were kind enough to split for us. I loved mine--greens, red onions, grape tomatoes--but Amy's was way overdressed. On to the entrees.

I know that I should have ordered a steak, but I have had remarkable fish dishes at other high end steak houses. Halibut was a special on the menu, so I ordered it. I was not impressed. The preparation obscured the fish. Any delicate flavor of the halibut was lost to the generous mound of garlicky bread crumbs. I may as well have been eating cod or sole, and I can live with that. But not for $29. Especially since the sides left a lot to be desired as well.

How a restaurant feels it's okay to charge $6.50 for 1/2 pound of plain old blanched broccoli is beyond me. No salt, no butter, no seasoning whatsoever, and only lukewarm to boot. The au gratin potatoes, undercooked (think al dente potatoes) and covered in oily cheddar, were also not worthy of the Ruth's Chris reputation. What did hold up, however, was the Petite Filet - a generous steak, served on a sizzling plate; it cut like the "buttah" in which it was served. It was the highlight of the meal for me.

In comparison to other high-end steakhouses we have visited, the service and ambiance were under par. Specials were recited by rote memory without commentary or enthusiasm or, it seemed, any knowledge of the food. The personalization of service and the little extras that make experiences at restaurants such as this memorable were lacking. The bartender, although friendly and personable, fell short on professionalism and polish (she swore in front of us) and knowledge (she wondered aloud what Armagnac was). Even the mahogany--or dark cherry-- was missing. In place of traditional steahouse decor was cheap pine laminate. Sadly fitting.

California Pizza Kitchen, Farmington, CT January 2008 Grade: A

Amy writes...

A while ago, Joanne and I had both been wanting to go to Trader Joe’s for a stock-up and thought it would be fun to go together. Across the street from the store is a huge mall, and in that mall is a California Pizza Kitchen. We went there first, because it’s just never a good idea to shop at a grocery store hungry. Now, the two of us have always had a lot in common, but lately it’s been getting kind of creepy. So it didn’t really surprise either of us when we both ordered the exact same thing: the “Tricolore Salad Pizza” with a glass (or three…) of wine. We both tried “A by Acacia” Pinot Noir, a first for both of us. The wine was spicy and medium-bodied with hints of dark fruit, perhaps blackberries. It was easy to drink on its own but it also went quite well with our meal. Now, this salad/pizza (pizzalad???) is one of Joanne's favorites as it brings back memories of the pizza to end all pizzas she had in Florence, but it was my first time trying it. The crust was very thin and crispy, with parmesan cheese baked into it. There was also a hint of sweetness that neither of us could really place. We asked our server and she let out the secret - they brush the dough with corn syrup before cooking it that caramelizes in the brick oven and gives the crust that little extra something. Works for me. This amazing crust was topped with a three-color (hence the name) mix of arugula, radicchio and baby red leaf lettuce, as well as some chopped tomatoes tossed in a Dijon balsamic vinaigrette. I added grilled shrimp to mine, Joanne chose rosemary grilled chicken. Shaved parmesan was a great finishing touch to both, which really enhanced the parm found in the crust. The flavor profiles were spot on and – shocker! – I can tell it’s going to be a favorite of mine.

Our service was also very good. In most of our dining adventures, Joanne and I tend to sit at the bar because we find service is better there--especially at busy times. We were not proven wrong. Our bartender was friendly and efficient, and always within earshot. She checked on us without hovering, refilled water, and was knowledgeable about the menu, able to answer questions when we asked.

Overall it was a great experience, worthy of an A grade.

Dish, Hartford, CT May 2008 Grade: C

Amy and Joanne write...

We made plans to go to a relatively new, upscale restaurant that both of us were dying to try. We decided to do it between our birthdays (this was back in early May). The place is called Dish and is in Hartford. It opened to some rave reviews, which is why our outing was so very disappointing. Here’s the dish on Dish.

Don’t let the funky industrial décor at Dish trick you into thinking the entrees are worth ten dollars more than most are at Hartford’s reliable Max Downtown. Your palate will know the difference. If it ever recovers from the butane taste. More on that in a minute. We were seated in the back of a mostly empty restaurant, with one of us overlooking UHart’s Senior Housing. Not much of a view. After ordering plain old tap water and a bottle of wine, we perused the menu and chose our meal. Our starter would be the “Surf and Turf Dumplings,” described on the menu as “Maine lobster with ginger-lemon aioli, and short rib of beef with natural jus,” for $14. We received three of each dumpling, served on a platter with two dipping sauces. The dumplings were encased in a dry, gummy wrapper that was hard to bite. The lobster ones had a nice amount of chunky lobster but nothing else, and the definitely needed the lemony flavor of the aioli, which lacked any hint of ginger. The short rib inside the others tasted and looked more like pulled pork, and were dry, so they needed the dipping sauce which was more like A-1 than natural jus. Not a good start.

What promised to be an interesting accompaniment to the Pan-Roasted Halibut entree—a brick of watermelon, flavored with fish sauce, then grilled and pressed—tasted like a butane Jolly Rancher. A sparse amount of springy mache was mixed with tinny-tasting mandarine oranges that seemed straight from a can. Not the arugula and clementines promised on the menu. However, the halibut was nicely cooked and, thankfully, left alone to proffer its mildly sweet flavor. Pricey, though, at $32.

Deconstructed plates seem to be a mainstay at Dish. The Maine Lobster Pot Pie was a deconstructed mess. Mushy, overcooked lobster swam in an odd-flavored heavy sauce the color of a burnt sienna crayon. The “seasonal” vegetables of carrots, potatoes and onions belied the fact that it was almost June. A thin oval of undercooked puff pastry rested on top with no apparent purpose other than decoration. The amount of lobster was certainly not the 1.25 pounds as promised on the menu, and for $34, it's not recommended.

Dessert, of which we forget the official name, resembled the aftermath of an explosion of chocolate covered strawberries. And tasted worse than it looked. After pushing our spoons around the “chocolate soil” on which the strawberries rested, we wondered where the requisite gummy worms were hidden. The berries were supposed to have been infused with honey, and if they were, it was barely so. The sauce on top was described as a chocolate sabayon, but it was quite thin and tasted of coffee. Strange cubes of “vanilla gel” looked like mozzarella or tofu cubes and had no taste whatsoever.

The highlight of the meal was the “Dish Bread,” a foot-long crunchy loaf filled with garlic herb oil and Boursin cheese. Yes, it was tasty, but what decent restaurant can’t put out a good garlic bread? We also enjoyed the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, at $38, the one decently priced item on our check.

Service was at best perfunctory. Our server felt the need to explain what “deconstructed” meant, but when asked questions, merely restated what was said on the menu. Without many other people to serve, our server should have given us much more attention. Instead, water glasses remained empty for up to ten minutes and dirty plates sat for what felt like ages. We never knew her name, for the only conversation that did take place involved our placing an order and her thanking us for it: Amy: “We’ll start with the dumplings.” Waitron: “Thank you.” Joanne: “I’ll have the halibut.” Waitron: “Thank you.” Amy: “I’ll have the lobster pot pie.” Waitron: “Thank you.” Then off she went. Strange indeed. When we received our bill, we realized we had been overcharged $3 for what we are now referring to as the “dumb-lings.” The explanation was that they had just changed their menu, which only means their prices are going even higher! Then, rather than split the bill in half onto two credit cards, Waitron added on a random six cents each. Was that a split bill charge? If so, we certainly expected it to be higher. Our opinion, go to Max Downtown. You’ll spend less and leave happier, and likely, with leftovers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Burton's Grill , South Windsor, CT June 2008 Grade: B

Joanne writes:

Amy and I went out for a celebration lunch to one of our favorite places,
Burton's. We love it there, and are both regulars, but that doesn't mean we have nothing to say...

When it first opened, I happened upon it first. It would have been enough to love it just because it existed, and was not another national chain in an overdeveloped mall area, but I also loved the service and the sauteed shrimp appetizer. Amy and her husband C went on my recommendation and loved it too. We've all been regulars ever since. Back to lunch.

We don't often get to go out to lunch, so we were excited. But that's when we discovered the flaws. The menu offers a varitety of salads--Cobb, house, Ceasar, Mediterranean--but they are all entree size. No half salads or side salads to be found. If you happen to be with someone who wants to share the same kind of salad, you're in luck. They'll even deliver it on two plates. If not, skip to the entrees. Which is where we discovered problem number two.

Three lunch specials were listed: a grilled vegetable sandwich, a chef salad, and salmon picatta. I was happy because I love salmon and all things piccata. Amy, on the other hand, was not interested in any of them, so she felt relegated to said entree salads, a burger, or full-priced, full-portioned dinner entree. She didn't want a salad or a burger. And while she could have dug into a rib eye, she resented that they didn't offer a lunch portion. Ultimately she decided on the clam chowder, followed by the scallops appetizer.

The chowder was thin but flavorful, packed with clams and potatoes, with a touch of applewood smoked bacon. The server had asked if she wanted the scallops medium-rare, a question she had never been asked before, and said yes. She shouldn't have. The scallops were underdone for her taste, but they were seasoned well. They also had the ubiquitous applewood smoked bacon and a hint of jalapenos for nice spice.

I ordered the salmon piccata served over spaghetti. The salmon was delicious, cooked perfectly. The sauce was good, but could have been just a little lighter without the garlic, which--incidentally--is typically not part of a piccata. But the dish was crying for color and texture. Some wilted spinach or arugula would have elevated the dish from good to excellent.

We opted out of dessert that requires a fork, but have had a good experience with them in the past. Instead, we had dessert martinis and toasted to summer vacation.

Rizzuto's, West Hartford, CT June 2008 Grade: B+

Amy writes:

A new place recently opened at Blue Back Square in West Hartford, so J and I naturally had to go check it out. The restaurant is called
Rizzuto’s Wood-Fired Kitchen and Bar and is the second location to be opened (the other is in Bethel).

First, the space is pretty – very open, modern, with mirrors and glass everywhere. We were slightly confused by the dimensions and orientation of the bar – no matter where you sat, the entire restaurant was behind you. Not good for paranoid people… I also thought the drawing of a cow over the kitchen door was a bit strange, but otherwise liked the airy space.

We were there for a late lunch and were able to order from the lunch menu which ends at 4. The classic Italian menu starts with small plates of meats, cheese, vegetables and/or fish priced individually or in groups of one’s choice. There are several salads, both starter and entrée size, to which one can add protein. Next comes the wood-fired pizzas, paninis, and pastas, and finally, for heartier appetites, entrees and sides. Several specials were touted from large chalkboards in the dining area.

The wine selection, primarily Italian, is excellent. I started by ordering a bottle of Donnafugata, a wine I was surprised to see outside of Italy, where I first experienced it. I had noticed it on the online menu and was thinking of that wine all day. Unfortunately, I was disappointed as they were out. I chose the Peppoli Chianti instead, which was good, but not what I had been lusting after. J went with a white Piedmontese Gavi by the quartino, and pointed out that someone missed the lesson on volume in science class. Glasses are poured from small, six-ounce decanters. They are technically not quartinos, as described on the menu, and therefore, they are not a “greater value” as stated on the website. If you’re going to have more than one glass, go for the bottle. You can always take home the remainder.

We split an order of mussels. They were good, small and sweet, with lots of nice buttery sauce, and bits of proscuitto, but were missing nice crusty bread or toast points or toasted baguette slices or something for dipping into the sauce. The bread we were given was limp and spongy and generally unsatisfying, so the sauce went virtually untouched.

Next we shared a salad of baby spinach with caramelized onions, pancetta and gorgonzola cheese. It sounded great on the menu, and it was good, but it didn’t meet our expectations. It needed a little crunch and sweet balance. The caramelized onions and pancetta were few and far between, and didn’t add enough sweetness to the tangy, salty dressing. The gorgonzola cheese was creamy and delicious, but it either needed to be crumbled better or—as mentioned above—needed toasted bread slices for spreading, which then would eliminate the need for croutons for crunch.

I was nervous about the pizza after trying the bread. But the prosciutto, arugula and mozzarella pizza was very good. The crust was deceptively light and crisp, and the ingredients were fresh and nicely enhanced by a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It would have been better served with thin slices of parmesan rather than a smattering of shreds done table side. Also, the size was clearly individual but not priced so - $16 dollars seemed high for a 9, maybe 10-inch thin crust pie.

Dessert was delicious, and was the highlight of the meal. It’s called “Toasted Almond Panna Cotta” and was served with a salted caramel sauce and generous piece of almond brittle. The custard was delightfully creamy and sweet, and the caramel was salted just enough to balance out that sweetness. It reminded me a little of a Snicker’s bar, but in a good way. One small suggestion, though - someone from management should take a walk across the street to Crate and Barrel to pick up some inexpensive, but more appropriate dessert dishes. Eating panna cotta out of a water glass was a little awkward.

Perhaps they’re still working out the kinks. We had some ups and downs, but both of us agreed that we’d try it again. At least for dessert…