Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chili’s Grill and Bar

711 Gravois Rd
Fenton MO
7 Nov 2009

"Seriously Dennis, you’ve never been to a Chili’s?"
Maybe I have, I honestly don’t recall. I’ve business travelled quite a bit and have been to a lot of the chain restaurants, but I seriously can’t recall if I’ve ever been to Chili’s. Don’t pound on me if you know I have, what is important is that if I did I don’t remember it.

The Place:
Fenton again, just a block or two from the Red Robin that I complained about a couple of weeks ago. Chili’s is a big chain, all their places look alike. The interior tries to mimic a barn with open rafters and thick, rough wood paneling. Lone stars are everywhere to let you know this is a Texas style barn.
The place was crowded on Saturday night, we had to wait about ten or fifteen minutes holding one of those oversized flashing, wiggling pager devices. Once paged we were escorted to our booth near the back. They scored immediate points with me for the background music, which was loud enough to hear but not blasting. I had feared that there would be country music, being as the place looked like a barn, but mercifully it wasn’t. The theme of the music seemed to be ‘Music that Dennis likes.’ Starting with a cut from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Neil Young’s “Horse With No Name” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”, U2’s “In the Name of Love” and even the Animals’ “House of The Rising Sun”. Some people would call this “Classic Rock” but I don’t think it’s anywhere near old enough for that moniker as all the songs are younger than I am and I’m certainly not a classic yet.
We were seated and handed our copies of “War and Peace” that served as a menu. The thing was ten pages long. Ten pages is too long, too many choices, just ask Gordon Ramsey; too wide a range of selections begs for trouble.(more on this later)
I made my choice and was ready to order until Angel found an even better choice on page eight. I had picked out a Sirloin, she had found a ‘create your own’ section which enabled me to mix entrees.
The tea, tea and coke arrived in plastic mugs, so we could pretend we were drinking beer. After all we were in a Texas barn. The tea was crisp, clear and Lipton, two points automatically deducted for not being Luzianne… after all, we were supposedly in a Texas barn, how hard would I be to hop over the pretend state line into Louisiana for some decent tea?

The food:
I ordered the ‘create your own’ Sirloin plus Shrimp and loaded mashed potatoes. I inquired about the included ‘seasonal vegetables’. When the waiter responded “broccoli” I made the requisite gagging, hissing and spitting noises. He let me substitute ‘corn on the cob’. I like corn, but as you know I don’t like fussing with served food, and chomping corn off the husk is a little too much effort, but at least it wasn’t broccoli.
Angel went for the Fajitas Trio, beef, chicken and shrimp. Adam ordered the Country-Fried Chicken Crisps. When asked which of the dipping sauces he would like he responded “Gravy” because he is his mother’s son. She used to fill Adam’s baby bottles with it. (Angel denies this.)
The food arrived in a reasonable amount of time. I had ordered my steak two degrees Fahrenheit above raw, and paid an extra $1.25 for the opportunity to do so. The waiter urged me to slice it before doing anything else to make sure it was done to my liking. It was. I should have checked the potatoes and the shrimp at this point, but the savage carnivore in me took over and the bloodlust ensued.
Angel’s plate was sizzling with beef, chicken and shrimp, it smelled great. They gave her five soft tortillas in a lidded warming bowl, the meat and sautéed veggies were served in the sizzling iron flat skillet, and the cold items, the guacamole, salsa, etc. were served on a separate small plate. Some assembly required. I was glad I hadn’t ordered it, too much fussing. Of course I had to cut the corn off my cob, which was quite messy, odd kernels and buttery juices spraying across the table. The corn itself was good though.
Angel patiently and artfully loaded up a tortilla with mostly the meats, the salsa was too hot, she bypassed it completely after a taste. The assembly effort didn’t seem to bother her, in fact she seemed to enjoy the challenge. Adam dunked his heavily breaded chicken chunks into the tiny container of gravy. I say ‘tiny’ since in our family any gravy delivery system under a gallon is just pathetic, almost sad. Adam made it stretch though.
New drinks arrived often, at about the just-less-than-halfway point.
After a couple of divine bites of steak, I tried the potatoes. They were dirty style, topped with cheese, green onions and bacon bits. They were a bit starchy, and not exactly hot. I then took a bite of one of the six medium sized shrimp and loved the taste, sort of. It was spiced just right, but there was something wrong, maybe overcooked, a little rubbery. I asked Angel to try one. She smiled took a bite then sort of winced, like something wasn’t quite right. “Does that taste cold to you?” I asked. That was it, they weren’t just overcooked they had also assumed room temperature. It takes about fifteen minutes or so for shrimp to drop to that temperature on a warm plate snuggled up to a steak, I’d had this plate for about two. I took another bite of the potatoes, same thing, room temperature. I dug into the core of the potatoes and found a small hotspot or two. Microwave reheated? That would also explain the rubbery texture of the shrimp. The kitchen was not managing time and delivery well. These side items had been plated well ahead of the steak.
By this time the waiter had disappeared so I tried to pretend it was all okay. The shrimp was not getting any warmer though and by the third one I couldn’t take it any more… same with the potatoes, I dug out the hot spots but there would be leftovers. The steak I finished, but this was the first time in my long and handsome life that I’d abandoned shrimp; they had given their lives in vain.
We were all full by the end of our meals, and more or less satisfied. Angel had earlier urged me to send my plate back but I didn’t. Except for a black pepper hot-spot or two the steak was wonderful, and I was afraid that I would be punished with it if I sent the plate back because of the sides.
I did mention it to the waiter when he came around to ask about desert. He had noticed the abandoned shrimp on the plate and seemed concerned when I told him the problem. We refused desert as we most often do, and he went away for the check. In the interim a headphone clad lady approached and asked if everything was okay, I sensed she had been summoned. I reluctantly told her about it and she assured us she would have a word with the kitchen staff.
We paid and departed.

The tab, with modest tip came in at sixty dollars. I scored Chili’s an eighty five for the cold food balanced by an excellent steak. Angel and Adam were quite satisfied with their meals however Angel was really bothered that we had to wait as long as we did to get in. She’s not spent much time in really big cities where reservations and long waits are merely part of the experience. She was irritated enough to rate Chili’s an eighty. Adam offered no score, he’s just not judgmental that way. Angel also LIKED the massive menu and the plethora of choices, We discussed this at length but neither of us could change the other’s opinion, so we did what we usually do in case of a tie, we yelled at Adam. Final score; eighty three. That’s a ‘C’ in my grading book.

Bonus! Extra words for no additional charge!
What happened here with the shrimp and potatoes is unfortunately not rare enough. These chains all potentially suffer from the same symptoms. Too large a variety stretches the abilities of any kitchen staff to properly prepare so many different offerings. Add to that that there are no chefs in these places. They have boilerplate trained cooks to prepare formulaically designed meals according to a strict procedure. There’s no love, if you know what I mean. Attention to detail is missing since there is no ownership of the meals. This became obvious to me at another place. It’s a meandering aside, but it is on point.

Ruby Tuesday’s:
This whole quest really started after a trip to a Ruby Tuesday’s. We had frequented that place for a few months. The first time I ate there I ordered the sirloin, rare, creamy mashed potatoes with onion straws, green beans, and a salad bar. It was simply awesome. No, it was perfect. Everything was absolutely perfect, even and especially the tea. I spoke about it ad -nauseam as Angel and Adam can tell you. It was simply perfect. I had never had a more perfectly prepared and executed meal. I went on and on and on about it.. just ask them.
A couple of weeks later we went back. I ordered the exact same thing. This time there were no onion straws. We mentioned it and they brought some out, too little too late.
The next time we went I again ordered the same thing. They delivered the meals before we had time to get through one third of our salad. I hate that. They were rushing us through. The next time, the tea was bitter and the steak tough to the point of being inedible. My knife could not slice it, it could only crush it into sinewy blobs. By this time I was heartbroken and furious. They knew how to make a great meal, they knew how to prepare things perfectly, how could they only get it right one out of four times? The more I thought about it the more I understood. We had been lucky that first time, that’s all just lucky. Errors like this were bound to happen rather often in this meal mass-manufacturing joint. Underpaid, under-trained kitchen staff applying rote procedure to a wide, too wide assortment of meals. This works fine at burger chains where the menu is very limited, prices are rock-bottom and expectations are minimal, but it simply does not scale up to finer foods, especially with such a wide variety of components and products.
This is like Ford Motor Company trying to manufacture Jaguars. Ford’s products and processes are simply not compatible with the expectations of Jaguar customers.
Okay I know that Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s aren’t anyone’s Jaguar, I’m just using an absurd analogy to make a point.
It was very soon after the last disappointing Ruby’s trip that we started discussing alternatives. This eventually led to the creation of this quest, to find better places, or just different places to eat. It also explains the basis for my ratings, my expectations. That first meal at Ruby Tuesday’s would have scored one hundred percent.

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