Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Red Lobster

Many, many years ago, when we were younger, thinner, poorer, and living in Springfield MO, Red Lobster constituted fine dining. This is where we went to celebrate special events such as anniversaries, birthdays, etc. All was well with that until a business trip put me in Boston for a week. It was there in Boston that I had fresh(er) seafood for the first time. Though I had lived in Japan for three years, I did not experiment much with the ample oceanic offerings there. Sashimi, sure I tried it, didn’t care for raw fish. They offered dipping sauces, soy or wasabi (a hot horseradish) neither sauce in any amount superseded my gag reflex.
In Boston the seafood was not raw. Since I had traveled with co-workers we ate out every evening and every night someone would order an appetizer or a meal consisting of something I had never tried; calamari, oysters and other mollusks, and various types of sea fish. Since beer was also served (this is where I first met Sam Adams) I had more courage than usual so I tried everything. I still didn’t like most of it, but I could no longer say I hadn’t at least tried it.
I had shrimp that wasn’t breaded and fried, and discovered it was great. I also had lobster that was actually prepared correctly. I fell in love with lobster on that trip.
Weeks or months later, back in Springfield we were celebrating something, and for the first time at a Red Lobster I actually ordered the lobster. I was neither amused nor impressed. It was small, and rubbery, it had been overcooked. There was a hint of the luscious sweetness but the texture was off-putting.
I think we may have tried it again sometime later and found the same thing. Thus, it was sometime in the early nineties that I made the declaration that I would never go back to a Red Lobster again. Lobster was part of their name, and yet they couldn’t cook it properly, that was just too much of a violation for me to overlook.
The next memorable seafood experience was on a family trip to D.C. in 2000. We stayed in a hotel near Baltimore since it was considerably cheaper. The inner harbor in Baltimore was on our to-do list as well, we ended up spending more time there than in D.C. I recall sitting at an outdoor table above the harbor at one of the many seafood restaurants there. The meal was complete, the sun was slipping into the bay, we were stuffed and we were the most satisfied we had ever been. The feeling was glorious. To this day, this is my own personal happy place.
A couple of years later when the tech boom imploded and the company I worked for asked one third of it’s workforce, including myself, to go away and not come back, I went on a targeted job hunt. Springfield had no suitable positions, so we were going to have to move. Our thought was, if you’ve got to sell the house and move, you may as well make the best of it. So I targeted Maryland. For the next five years we celebrated in fine style primarily at ‘The Captain’s Table’ in Solomons. We discovered cream of crab soup and crab cakes. But I digress. The point is that we discovered or rediscovered that there was more to seafood than rubbery lobster tails, fish sticks and breaded fried shrimp. There was no going back to the old ways, settling for poorly prepared seafood.

The Place:
Red Lobster
5733 S. Lindbergh

St. Louis, MO

Since it had been fifteen or more years since we last ate at one, we figured that maybe, just maybe things might have improved. Angel declared that we would wait in line if necessary; she was tired of driving all around trying to find something from the road. So we waited. They estimated a half hour wait and impressed me by having actually been on target with that.
The ample bar was filled nearly to capacity, three older CRT-style TV’s were showing yet another basketball game, as best I could make out it was some sort of tournament, NCAAP or something. The waiting area was large enough to hold us all with only a little spillage out the door. Separating the waiting area from the bar was the obligatory one hundred-plus gallon tank filled with small, rubber-banded, lethargic and disinterested lobsters. The many children that were running around screaming and generally germing everything up seemed to enjoy watching them for short periods, tapping their slimy clinched fists on the glass, depriving the sea bugs of any dignity or privacy. The lobsters protested by bunching together impossibly close and not moving much. The children got bored pretty quickly and went on about their task of making the evening less enjoyable for me; running, jumping, screaming, shouting indecipherable clusters of syllables, touching everything.
All kinds of people came and went, the place was busy. Finally the flashy pager thingy indicated that we were ready to dine. We were escorted to a booth and offered menus, our drink orders were taken. Tea, tea and soda pop.
The Food:
Adam struggled with the menu. Did I mention that Adam doesn’t like seafood, ANY seafood? We had assumed that there would be other things besides seafood, and we were almost incorrect. There were no burgers or sandwiches, nearly every offering was laden with fish, shrimp, lobster or at least bits of them. He finally settled for pretty much the only thing left, maple glazed chicken and rice pilaf with a side of fries. He got the fries as a safety in case he didn't care much for rice with actual flavor infused in it. Angel asked for the lobster and parmesan shrimp scampi. I laid down the gauntlet by ordering the surf and turf, lobster and steak.
The meals all included a salad, either Caesar or garden. Angel took the former, I the latter. Adam opted for potato and bacon soup. Angel and I were told that our meals included red potatoes and broccoli. I of course, being of sound mind cannot stand broccoli, so I asked for alternatives. The response was fries, or mashed potatoes. That’s all, no beans or corn, just more potatoes. I instructed the waitress to bring me the steak and lobster and the red potatoes and just to skip the extra potatoes.
It was only then that Angel remembered her favorite thing about RL, the cheesy garlic biscuits. Sure enough a warm basket of them was delivered the three of us attacked them with a ravenous passion.
The salads arrived and were okay, nothing special. I had asked for blue cheese dressing since they didn’t offer a combination ( I like two or three different dressings in small amounts.) They had ladled it on too thickly; the last third of the salad swam in a pool of it, uneaten.
A second basket of biscuits was delivered just before the meals arrived. We each picked at a couple of them, saving the rest for the take-home boxes.
They asked me to cut into my steak to make sure it was rare like I’d ordered. It was. I thought it odd that they didn’t ask me if the lobster had been overcooked as well. It had been. I’ve had worse but it was still clear to me that they were either not paying attention or didn’t care, or that they were just not aware of the proper way to cook it. It was pretty, buttered and butter-flied, but it was overdone. The last thin couple of bites were like rubber bands.
The red potatoes were not all that good. Too starchy and thick, not cooked through. I abandoned them after a couple of bites and had another garlic-cheesy biscuit instead. Adam finished his soup and chicken, which were okay but nothing special, the fries were small and limp. Angel’s shrimp was good, though the roasted parmesan cheese on the shrimp didn’t age well on the plate and became too salty near the end. Her lobster was smaller, and also overcooked.
Angel and Adam asked for incredibly rich chocolate cake, to go. I got into a debate with the waitress as to whether to box up the ala mode or not. She insisted that it wouldn’t melt in the forty minute drive to the house. I suggested that she should be responsible if it did by cleaning the mess it would make in the car. She boxed it in a foam cup with a tight lid. I declined dessert for myself, and called out dibs on the remaining biscuits.
As far as meals go, we’ve certainly had worse. My steak was actually quite good. The biscuits are to die for, and even overcooked lobster is better than no lobster. (but not by much)
However, I cannot be gentle. The name of the joint is Red freaking Lobster! You’d think with a name like that they might actually know how to prepare lobster. I know this is the middle of the country and that lobsters are not exactly freshly plucked from a nearby ocean but they CHOSE to call themselves Red freaking Lobster! It’s like Angel suggesting that that awful hot dog place we went to might actually make decent hamburgers. What sense does that make? If you are going to put an ingredient or meal title in your restaurant’s name, you might oughta figure out how to prepare it!
And then there was the tab. OMG! This meal as described above came to eighty six dollars before the tip, a hundred after. We knew we ordered pricey stuff, we knew the lobster meals would cost more than a Roly Poly, as I said before I don’t mind paying for a good meal. I do very much mind paying too much for a mediocre one, and all things considered, that’s all this was. The premiere, titular offering was simply not prepared properly. What more can I say? I shall not return!

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