Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tastes may change but restaurants may not.

Back in 2004, I was only recently married and my adventures into the culinary world had only just begun.  I was still exploring new restaurants and trying new food but the concept of paying more than $50 for a meal for two people was still too far away to be even considered an idea.  It was at this time that through a recommendation from my uncle, my wife and I tried our hand at restaurant A.  Now, before anyone goes on a rampage, keep in mind, that this first experience was 10 years ago.  For my first time there, 10 years ago, I thought that the food was amazing.  I only had traveled out of the city a few times and in America, it was always small cities when I was a child and didn't remember where we had eaten. This restaurant, A, was always the base for which I compared other places to.

Now, over the years, I had learned more, acquired a more intricate palette and learned about wine and food and how things should be done.  I went and tried interesting foods, more authentic ethnic foods particular to this St. Louis restaurant and all the while, about half of a decade later, my wife and I came back. Sadly, the things that we had loved so much from the first time, had not changed and that had meant that the restaurant  did not change anything in those 5 years.  While this seems like a grand idea, restaurants need to change with the trends of food, service and decor so that you do not become one of those places on Restaurant Impossible.  Furthermore, the restaurant A, also only lacked in service compared to the last time, especially when it came to the handling of dirty dishes and food delivery.

It is just such an odd experience coming to a restaurant over a time period and seeing how it may have changed for good or worse.

Friday, March 21, 2014

There is nothing more dangerous than a writer with no edits.

I feel bad sometimes as I look at my blog and wonder where the posts have gone.  I feel a bit nostalgic as I wonder where my passion for writing a blog 2-3 times a week has gone.  Have I lost a love and passion for real food?  Have I lost a need for finding and tasting interesting things?  Have I lost a feeling of allowing writing to be so easy as my own thoughts on paper (or on a keyboard)?  No, I think the main reason that I don't do so much now is actually because of time.  I do not own a TARDIS.

I have never owned a time machine nor been able to travel and contain time.  So, the possibility of myself to be able to be a full time father, a full time sales and accounting person as well as do my new hobby and still have time to go out and about and write about some restaurant that St. Louis is told to follow like sheep, is just not on my mind right now.

Contrary to what some may think, I am not paid to eat out.  I am not under the salary force of any magazine, website or institution so no one is paying me to write about certain things.  In that same sense, no one is paying me to not write about certain things.  There has always been this loyalty to the truth, which I write by that very little other writers in the metropolitan area live by.  The truth being what a restaurant really is like.  I want every person who reads my reviews to be able to feel as though they had been there in my same circumstance.  I do not want to read about how someone was specially greeted by the manager and sat at the best table where they were given the best food and then everything was on the house because their arrival was predetermined and arranged.  I don't want to hear about how someone called and called and had whole conversations with a group of chefs about where their favorite places are and then make sure they have advertisements with my company before they have their reviews posted.  The fact remains, as it does in any city, that if you wish to be paid for writing about a restaurant or item, you cannot piss off the sponsors.  It seems like a very simple idea.  The sponsor pays the company, the company pays you to eat at the sponsor's location, and you need to write something good about the sponsor so they are happy and maybe pay more.  It makes complete sense and if I was a sell-out, I would ask for advertising and then write post after post about those sponsors and make them out to be the best in the world.  The problem with this concept is: I have too much integrity for the truth to sell-out.

I have read online reviews of restaurants which rave and rave about how perfect everything is only to go there and have a horrible dining experience.  Why did this restaurant get such good reviews?  Well first of all, in the online version of the magazine, they have links, banners and ads on the site.  In the tangible magazine, they have 1/2 to full page ads, which can be as much as $1,000 a run.  Like any good business, the site would not dare say anything about someone who just paid them $1,000 to promote their restaurant as that would be completely the opposite of the original intention.  Also, the online negative reviews were hidden and removed.  There are a lot of online reviewing sites but most of them give the reviewed location or company a chance to remove the negative ones, making them in the best possible light even though they are not.

In this case, as you read above, the restaurant I was thinking of is always listed as one of the best 'burger' places in town.  It is hailed as also being a great LGBT friendly location as well.  They have ads in almost ever St. Louis magazine and on their sites.  The problems is though, the food is so-so and the service is difficult.  In my mind, if the service is horrible but the food is good, then I'd be happy to come back.  If the food is bad and the service is amazing, I'd even come back to be pampered.  But if the service and food is bad and the only savings grace you have as a unique restaurant is the fact that your mascot is a cross dresser, then I don't count that as saving your ass.  This isn't an anti LGBT post or sexist or chauvinistic or anything having to do with people, but only food.  I have been in a local bar where the female staff wear costumes like Tinkerbell and even serve customers in bikinis. You could have the best looking staff wearing next to nothing but if it has nothing to do with your food and your food and service still suck, it will not save you from me.

It may save you from the droves of men that fit that demographic.  About a year ago I was picked up as the first ever food writer for a website which normally only did sports and sports news.  They wanted to try having a food writer and so I started writing about places that I go to.  I don't go to super fancy locations but the places I go to require you to wear a bit more than a T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops and a hat.  During the year which I had submitted articles for this site, it was becoming more and more clear to me, from the trolls as well, that the majority of readers of my articles were actually men looking for the best place in St. Louis that served the best food, for the cheapest price, the cheapest beer, and the best looking girls.  And you know what?  That doesn't fill what I write about.  I like beer, and I like to get great food for a low price, and having a wait staff that is clean-cut, nice-looking and in a uniform certainly helps, but usually the places that have great food don't have half-naked girls running around.  (Although the last time I did eat the food in the VIP section of the Penthouse Club in Sauget, the food was pretty decent and there were half-naked girls running around.)  The owner of the site told me that they were moving in a different direction after a year, which is code for "the readers don't want to spend more than $10 for a meal".  But as a food writer who actually has some restaurant experience, I don't want to stick to the $10 beer and hot wings every day for every meal.  I want to explore and taste new things and that often means that I need to go to new places and try the food, even if it is more than $10.

But food writing is also a large editorial and is entirely opinion based.  Traditionally it is, at least.  I like to add a bit more though.  I know that from my dark days working on that cook's line at Home Town Buffet, making cheap food for old people to push down their throats, I know that if you have a frier full of grease and set at 385 degrees, you can drop and cook 2 whole chickens in about 13 minutes.  I know that you can cook chicken strips in a frier for about 3 minutes.  I know that French fries take about as long and I know that you can cook a whole sheet tray of baked chicken in an oven at roughly the same temperature in less than an hour.  I have some basic education and know how long a steak should take.  I know how a sous vide machine works and how some basic molecular gastronomy techniques are used.  I can't be fooled easily because I still experiement and cook food at home.  So, me going to a bar or restaurant, that specializes in chicken wings, and having to wait for 50 minutes to get them delivered to my table, cold, is not an excuse.

Here is a fun fact for you:  While working 8 and 1/2 years for Buffets, Inc.  I developed some basic understanding of the Spanish language.  I did take Spanish for two years in high school but didn't really full grasp it until I worked at the restaurants, where most of the staff was illegal Mexicans.  Am I calling them out, will I cause a scandal?  I doubt it.  Were they really illegal?  Well, let's say this:  one instance had the general manager asking two employees who were related about their SS card because they had the exact same number.  Secondly, about once a year, we would get tipped off that there was an INS agent coming in and on those days, half of our staff called in sick. So, when you speak Mexican Spanish, drive a car with a temporary license plate for 2 years, live in an apartment with 10 other people in St. Louis, can't recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English and call in sick when the manager has a meeting with a representative from Immigration,  I would call you an illegal immigrant. But I digress...  I learned Spanish from them.  So, while I was dating my now wife and even after we married, anytime I would go to a Mexican restaurant, and my family asked for a table, I would listen to the banter, I would hear what they were saying about us.  I would also make suggestions.  For instance at one restaurant they claimed that they could not seat my group of 6, and we had to wait 20-30 minutes.  Well, in Spanish, I suggested that we could take those two tables if they turned them and pushed them together.  I will never forget the look on the face of the hostess, because right there she realized that I A: knew what I was talking about and B: knew what she was saying.  It would be like if you want to the local nail salon and could understand the language that the Vietnamese women use.  You could understand all of their banter and you could find out if they were saying anything about you.  Imagine how honest they would become, all of a sudden, if you said something in their language.

So, back to my point, going to a place that says they have great burgers and getting an okay burger is not a good thing.  The best part of my hobby, is that I can write about it as it is.  The restaurant I went to was called Hamburger Mary's.  Sorry, I don't have pictures.  In fact, the place was so dimly lit that I bet it helped the food look better than it actually was.  My wife and I entered, and were sat upstairs, surrounded by tables full of women.  The bar which was about 6 feet away from us, had one bartender who came over and was also our server.  After greeting us, we told him that we were actually stopping in for a quick bite and had a show in an hour at the FOX.  Ordering a coke, a burger and fries and a grilled piece of chicken, didn't seem like it would take forever or should take forever, but it did.  The restaurant had two levels.  The top level, by us, was where the bathrooms, bar, and 4 televisions on the wall were located.  There was 4 different movies playing at the same time.  There was music and talking and it was a very loud place.  My wife and I waited for almost 45 minutes before our food arrived.  It was the most boring burger I have ever had.  The burger tasted like you took regular ground 85/15 beef from the supermarket and cooked it.  It didn't even have salt or pepper.  My poor wife, ordered some grilled chicken sandwich and the chicken had nothing on it as well.  I know people, even health nuts, like their grilled chicken to have some flavor so it doesn't taste like you are eating a piece of cardboard.  This had no salt, no sauce of any kind, and no pepper.  Here is the thing, my wife and I were starving, attempting to fill our bellies before a two show at the FOX.  So, we wanted to eat the food, but it was so bad that we didn't.  We didn't even take it to go!  It was just bad.  How does that rate?  Well, in my book that is a 0 out of 5 stars.

What does that mean for you?  Well, if I was paid to write by any of the St. Louis magazines, websites or organizations, you would not know how bad the food is there, until after you got ripped off as well.  This also means, that I can help relate the truths that the restaurants who DO NOT pay out for ads are like.  One of my favorite restaurants in St. Louis is called Basso and they are by the Cheshire.  They have all of the makings of a restaurant that is highly praised by the news and media outlets, yet they are not.  Instead, the magazines, websites and news shows seek instead to draw attention to Niche and Sydney Street.  Now those two restaurants are good, I'm not saying they are not, but what everyone else fails to understand is that Basso is here as well.  There has been a lot of press recently because the head chefs of Niche and Sydney Street are nominated for a James Beard Award, which is like the Emmy of the food world.  Every news outlet, every magazine and website are talking about how great this is to have these two chefs represent St. Louis and bring home a James Beard Award for this city.  They say things like "this is awesome", "we deserve this", and people saying they have a life-long dream of eating at a James Beard Award recipient's restaurant.  But, we have a James Beard Award winning Chef at a restaurant in St. Louis already.  I have just honestly mentioned this to all of these posts and my mention gets ignored.  What does the chefs of these other two restaurants have over these magazines and website?  I bet you that if these two chefs didn't win this award, the above sources would be depressed suggesting that St. Louis will never be recognized for their food.  Yet we have an award winning chef here already!  I don't understand, but maybe it has to do with politics.  Maybe Basso is so good of a restaurant that they don't feel that they need to give food away to the owners of those magazines and site to get good reviews.  It is amazing how the mediocre restaurants, like Hamburger Mary's or Brazikat, get pushed and represented as the best in the area because they paid the most for the biggest ad. 

I know that the restaurant scene in St. Louis is highly political.  I was reassured of that truth upon my first conversation with Chef John Johnson, but at the same time, that political correct view of which restaurants are allowed to be on top and which ones stay on the bottom does not work well with the same concept turned to reflect actual quality.

(And this is why I am dangerous.) 

Overall though, as work and time permits, I do wish to write about more things, like new food ideas and new restaurants.  I feel that you can always come to me for the real story of some of these restaurants and not the controlled suggestions that these outlets claim to be the truth.  Although, maybe you can't handle the truth.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bad restaurant with NO responsibility

How many shows have you watched, where the restaurant owners complain that they are losing money and think that it might have to do with the service?  Everything from Restaurant Impossible to Mystery Diners to others, shows and whole organizations spend time to help failing restaurants.  Most restaurant owners are so passionate about their cause, that they do not wish to end it.  Unless you are in St. Louis where restaurant owners have no care about their food or service and will do anything to make a buck, like this guy:

So, recently my wife and I spent time and money at Brazikat, which is supposed to be like a churrascaria.  Let me tell you this, the place is a joke.  From online reviews, it is seen that on the nights that the owner is there, the service and food is impeccable.  On other nights, when the owner is not there, everything slips.  Horrible service had our waiter complaining about the number of people in his section and then didn't get us plates or even tongs or the red/green card to start the food coming to our table.  The salad bar looked like a bus of vegetarians dismantled it and then the restaurant failed to restock it.  The food came out either over cooked or under cooked.  You could have two different preparations of prime rib and one would have been so salty and over cooked that it was all gristle and the other one was still bloody with NO seasoning at all!  The place is an utter joke.  Then, when my wife and I were finished, we complained to the manager on duty.  The first thing she did was ask who our waiter was, in an attempt to likely throw him under the bus.

A good manager would try to do something that could make us come back or recommend it but this manager actually looked my wife right in the eyes and asked "so what do you want me to do?"  My wife also mentioned to her that we have a large family and we like to go out all together.  This meant that if we were happy, we would have had a party of 10-20 people there on a regular basis.  But, as my wife said that we wouldn't bring our groups there, the manager looked at us and said "so?"   With that level of customer service, I wouldn't let that woman manage a lemonade stand.  I tried to contact or leave a message with the owner but it would seem that that real owner doesn't know how to use email or a phone, so that went bust.  What is sad as well, is that this place fills up fast on Saturday nights, so we had an hour wait, because we didn't make a reservation.  Even more so, even if we had a reservation they likely would have ignored it.  I am just am amazed at how bad a restaurant can be and then act like it is no big deal.  The blind sheep of Clayton, jump at anything new and because it is new, they believe it to be the best, when it is not even mediocre.

Here is a good example:  The waiter brings us this dish, which he says is a "Brazilian staple" and it is mashed potatoes with cheese.

Now, you may notice something strange amount this dish, being the fact that the cheese is NOT melted at all.  That would further indicate that the mashed potatoes are likely cold and you would be correct.  The potatoes were cold as in, not warm or even hot.  The cheese was cold as well.  So, in a tropical climate where meat is very salty because the use salt as a preservative due to the lack of large refrigeration units, you have cold mashed potatoes and cold, un-melted cheese, and this dish is supposed to be a staple, a regular, everyone has one of these, items?  I doubt it.

But, a "Brazilian Steak house" should have great, large pieces of meat given by the Gauchos, right?  Well...., if you had a tunnel vision like cataract in your eye and everything that was small looked huge, then you would be correct.  One guy came by and off of his sword he gave us this:

This is not a huge piece, look at that size.  That is a normal sized dinner plate, fork and knife.  So, the piece of ultra-rare, still moo'ing beef is about the size of a Kennedy half-dollar.  Now, just about every piece of meat was this size so while it is all-you-can-eat, you will be there for years trying to eat your fill of tiny pieces of meat.

Who loves candied bananas?  Well, at just about every Brazilian restaurant I have been to, they make them all the same way: they cut the lengthwise, and cook them with sugar or syrup, until they are almost spoon tender and sweet.  Well, here at Brazikat, they do things differently.  The bananas came out in a tiny dish and looked like this:

This is a tiny plate.  Just count the banana slices: one, two....eleven.  So, eleven slices isn't even a whole banana.  So, where is the rest?  Did I mention that while the banana slice at the 3 o'clock position looks like it has browned, the others were all raw?  Yeah, it just wasn't there.

I straight up give this place a 0 out of 5 stars.  I've never given a place such a low score, but the waiter giving bad service, the manager being a bitch, the food for anemic people and the design being done and organized by a blind person made me think that this is one of the worst places in St. Louis.

Monday, March 10, 2014

I am eating candy for breakfast

Sorry, nothing cool and awesome here.  I'm at work, didn't feel like going out to get breakfast back here and decided to stay in and clean up my office.  What have I to eat that is around here?  Candy and left-over birthday cake from my son's birthday party.  Sounds good to me, right?  But what about cake?  Is it really that bad for you?

Here is the thing though, compared to other things that people are marketing to adults and children as breakfast items, I think chocolate cake is in fact more healthy.  I make chocolate cake with whole grain, unbleached flour, leavening agents, kosher salt, cocoa powder, eggs, milk, vanilla extract, oil and cane sugar.  The whole grain unbleached white flour has more Omega acids in it and fiber and nutrients than the white bleached flour, so it is better for you.  Just about anything you find out there has other kinds of flour like "unbleached enriched white flour", which is a technical name for taking the lowest quality of flour and adding nutrients to it to make it at least a decent flour.  So, the cake is better.  What about oils?  Most fast food or pre-packaged baked goods contain oils to use as the fat in their recipe.  Hostess, for example, explains in the ingredient list that the oil may contain any of the following types of oil: soy, cottonseed, canola or beef fat.  Really?  Did it really say Beef Fat?  Yep.  Which is better?  Anyway, enough knit picking, what about things like sugar?  A good chocolate cake recipe has about 2 cups of sugar and while that seems to be a lot of sugar, let's look at how it breaks down:  the recipe I am looking at, makes 2- 9 inch round cakes.

Sure, if you put them on top of each other, it makes it thicker and more cakeyer, which makes it about 10-12 servings.  2 cups divided by 12 comes to about 2.6 tablespoons of sugar per slice.  That is about 30 grams of sugar.  That 30 grams of sugar is comparable to the sugar found in most fruit drinks for children.  Most of the large Cliff Bars have about 30 grams of sugar in them.  I like to focus on sugar, because it has the most calories and has the most negative effects.  At the golden arches, the bacon, egg and cheese mcgriddle has  has 15 grams of sugar and a large 190 calories from fat.  It weighs 6.1 ounces.  A 6.1 oz slice of the chocolate cake would be larger than a normal average slice.  Also, in a cake that large, if we look at the amount of fat in it, the 1/2 cup of oil in a chocolate cake is not as bad as the oils found in mcdonalds items. Back to sugar, this cake has no corn syrup, much less high fructose corn syrup and it doesn't have any questionable items like beef fat or lard.  It is a simple chocolate cake.  Which makes me wonder if Mr. Cosby was onto something.