Monday, August 27, 2012

The Courthouse Grill

250 1st Street
Hillsboro, Mo.

 We've been waiting for quite a while for this place to open up. We pass by this spot several times a week as it sits right in the middle of town. Finally this past week Angel and Adam saw people actually dining there.
I looked them up online to find out about hours, meal choices, etc. Nada. 
No web site, no Facebook page, nothing. Some of the auto-populating directories had a phone number and street address, and nothing else, so Friday night I called and was told the hours were Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M until 10 P.M. Good enough.
The Place:
As I said we’d been watching. Weeks, maybe even a couple of months of construction. This appeared to be a complete renovation off the old building just of the main drag, across from the courthouse. It has its own designated parking area, a necessity being that close to the county court. Downtown parking is, like every other county seat, tricky during weekdays.
We parked and stepped right in, passing by the patio and the half dozen or so patrons seated there. Though the temperature was pleasant enough, the skies were clouding up and the breeze was a little gusty. That and the fact that we don’t especially like eating outdoors made the decision to dine inside rather easy.
We stepped in, the place was much bigger on the inside than any of us expected. There was plenty of available seating in the longer than wide dining area.  We glanced around and saw no obvious hostess, no one coming toward us. From the back a young lady finally emerged and advised us to sit anywhere we liked.
We picked a spot near the front, by the window. It afforded a view of the entire place.
The young lady handed us menus and wrote down our drink order, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and unsweetened tea. 
About three minutes later another lady stopped by and offered to take our drink orders. We told her that it had already been taken and she asked by whom. “A younger lady” was all I could come up with and that didn’t help much since there were three or more younger lady waitresses scattered about. She said she’d figure it out.
The drinks did arrive, all in St. Louis Rams beer glasses.
St. Louis has a professional football team called the Rams. I don’t hear much about it since A. I’m not into football, and B. The Rams belong in Los Angeles as God intended. I blame the Arizona Cardinals football team for this mess. St. Louis is very much a baseball town, overwhelmingly so. Football, eh, not so much.
The place looked new. The mostly undecorated walls were painted a curious shade of light green that I can only describe as ‘pickle juice’. The only things on those walls were four or five beer signs, all touting  Anheuser-Busch-Inbev products, don’t get me started on that crime. In the back, over the bar was a large TV tuned in to a baseball game. Also over the bar there was one more AB/Inbev related neon sign.
The carpet was industrial and unnoticeably brown on lighter brown. The tables and chairs were noticeable, new, dark wood and modern.
All in all it was fresh, clean and modern. Sparse maybe, but not barren-sparse, more Scandinavian sparse.
The Food.
The menus were also fresh, clean and uncluttered, Burgers, sandwiches, specialties, seafood and steaks. Classic American cuisine.
Some of the burgers and sandwiches had court-related names like The Defender, The Judge and The Prosecutor. Cute. I was tempted by the simple BLT but decided to forgo my intuition and appetite and to instead try what I assumed to be a signature dish, the Courthouse Burger. They offered two different kinds of fries, shoestring and steak. My preference is somewhere in between, but I asked for the shoestring.
Adam asked for the Defender, a hand-cut ribeye steak served on grilled Texas toast. He asked for the steak fries, I was glad, I wanted to compare them against mine.
Cheese, bacon, mushrooms and grilled onions are considered options here. At one dollar per. I added cheddar cheese to mine and the waitress worked to up-sell the onions or mushrooms. I told her I might want the onions but the dollar would come out of her tip. She grinned and shrugged her shoulders, "Fine with me” she said.
Angel asked for the Gulf Shrimp Scampi and two sides, a baked potato and vegetables. Today’s veggie was ‘a medley’ according to the waitress, it sounded like Veg-All to me.
I noticed that the waitress wrote none of this down. As I’ve said before, this is a neat trick if you can pull it off 100% of the time, error free. Otherwise its just a stupid, pointless trick that is more nuisance than impressive. I’ve never been annoyed by a waitress writing down details of an order. I have been annoyed, more often than not, when they get something this simple, wrong.
The Defender
But we’d wait and see. And wait we did. The place was busy, busier than I could figure out a reason for it to be that busy. Hillsboro has a population of only sixteen hundred or so, and this was certainly a local-centric place being located behind the courthouse. It was Saturday evening, no court, no county business at all, even the nearby county jail wasn’t doing a booming business (yet). The patrons seemed local-like, no suits, mostly jeans and boots. Several young cowboy types including two rather large groups. Tight jeans, snakeskin boots, camouflage ball caps, Skoal rings in the hip pockets. I was trying to figure out what the draw to a brand new place was until one of the cowboys answered his country-music ring-toned phone. After the initial hello’s he said “We’re up here in Hillsboro.”
That told me a lot. He and his gang were not locals at all, they were in from the southern, more rural parts of the county, thus the ’up here in Hillsboro.’ I suspected there might be an event at the fairgrounds or something like that.*
I watched, waited, Adam and Angel poked at their phones.
Our drinks needed refills before the food ever arrived. The wait wasn’t terrible but it was noticeable. The waitresses appeared to be in a rush, dashing about more with  hurry than efficiency.  Several other patrons arrived and were told to sit wherever they liked. This would be a problem later. I’ll explain when I get to the sermon portion of this review.
Gulf Shrimp Scampi
The food did arrive, and it looked good. Filled plates, sizzling meat, melting cheese. I had enough grilled onions to choke a unicorn, they were piled high on the burger and falling off the sides. There was a pale tomato slice, some slightly wilted lettuce and an entire slice of raw onion on the side  The fries were not exactly what I would call ‘shoestring’ but they looked toasty and crispy. Also on the plate was a large dill wedge. The bun was obviously not a grocery store generic bun. I appreciated the touch. Adam’s Texas toast looked very good, and Angel’s plate certainly seemed colorful. The waitress stepped away quickly and I noticed as I was photographing the plates, Adam’s first, he’s the most impatient about that sort of thing, that his fries were the same size as mine. The waitress had gotten the order wrong, so much for the ‘I can remember all this without writing it down’ party trick. Fail.
Adam wasn’t too concerned about it so we didn’t ask for a correction.
We dug in after the waitress returned with some ketchup and cocktail sauce. She asked if I’d like mustard. Duh. It’s a burger. “Yes Please.” is how it actually came out of my mouth.
The burger was quite good, cheesy, smoky, just enough char. The fries were nice, but it kind of seemed they were pulled from the bottom of the bag, more ends and short pieces than whole strips.
The Courthouse burger
Adam struggled with his ribeye, pulling globs of chewy fat out of it, one glob about half the size of the steak.
Angel handed me a shrimp, I tried it. It seemed a bit overcooked, rubbery, but the taste was dead-on scampi.
I asked her about the veggies. They looked kind of pale, limp and lifeless to me, almost . . . “Frozen” Angel said, interrupting my train of thought. Yeah, that was it, they looked frozen.
Don’t take this all the wrong way, as far as food goes it was all pretty good. Not great, but good enough to go back for and maybe try something else. They’ve got good recipes, the tastes were there, with a little fine tuning and fresher/better quality ingredients the problems can all be fixed easily enough. But then there’s. . .

The Service:
First off, this place is brand new. I always cut some slack for new places as it takes time for the staff to find its rhythm and timing. So my sermon here should not be taken as harsh criticism, but rather as constructive comments since I want this place to do well. Hillsboro needs a place just like this.
I mentioned earlier the ‘seat yourself’ policy. Epic fail. (we debated over the modifier ‘epic’ and I won with this one bit of observation:
An elderly couple came in and found a seat, not too far from the front door. I’d noticed them out of the corner of my eye for no real reason other than they were taking up space in the corner of my eye. Nicely dressed, quiet, peaceful folk, not at all like the cowboys and their halter-topped lady friends.  Several minutes later, maybe ten or fifteen, I noticed movement in that same eye corner. It was the old couple leaving. I noticed their table had no plates, glasses or even menus. They’d gone completely unnoticed by the wait staff. That’s an epic fail.  Lost business, lost positive word of mouth. Ouch. I’m as laissez faire as the next guy, but this free-range seating policy means customers will slip through the cracks. It is actually counter-productive and counter-profit. The solution is simple. Either assign a hostess to seat people so they get immediate welcome and attention, or failing that, assign a floor supervisor/expediter whose primary job it is to keep an eye peeled on the entire dining area to look for things like impatience, empty glasses, etc. This is how every other restaurant in the world handles front-of-the-house service.  Someone needs to keep an eye open, a designated person, not just the waitresses, they’re busy enough with their own table issues. Someone like, I don’t know, maybe the lady behind the bar that watched the couple leave. She noticed them as they left, I could tell.
This ‘seat yourself’ policy also meant lopsided service areas for the waitresses. Most people don’t really have a firm seating preference, they’ll go where you take them. This allows balance in the dining area, waitresses given grids, specific areas to serve on a balanced, level playing field.  This also explains the issue with twice being asked for our drink order, inefficiency, counter-productivity, disorganization. Not very professional. But so easily fixed. It’s a new place, when we go back in a couple of months we will be looking for this to have been resolved. Seat yourself works in a tiny, ten table diner, not in a full-floor dining area. Also, make the wait staff writes down orders, nobody minds this, but they do mind when their order gets screwed up.
Now the food. Like I said it was pretty good and the problems are easily enough resolved. Trim the excess fat off of steaks, even steak sandwiches. It was simply gross. “Not very satisfying” Is how Adam put it. And seriously guys, the vegetable of the day was frozen? Really? There ought to be a law.
Once again this is a brand new place. The food was for the most part good, the selections were attractive and in theory all good ideas. This is not a greasy spoon nor fast food joint, it is expected that the food will be of better quality than those places. It is expected that the service as well will be better. All this place needs to do is fix these little problems and this could be upgraded to a very good place rather quickly.
The bill came to a respectable thirty six dollars and change, including the dollar for the two cents worth of grilled onions. Though not as expensive as some franchise sports bars, or even Munzert’s right up the road, this is about fifty percent more than a diner or fast food place. For this extra cost the service and food quality needs to make it seem worth it.
They’re off to a good start, you’ve got a great location and the city needs a place just like this, but it will not suffer bad service for very long.

*As it turned out there was a tractor pull at the fairgrounds. This explained the unexpected busyness of the restaurants, the traffic jam on main street, and the much greater than normal number of big, black-smoke-belching diesel pickup trucks in town. Yee- haw.

The Courthouse Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fountain City Grille

At the Arlington
DeSoto, Mo.
On Facebook

The Place:
'Fountain City' is a nickname for DeSoto. It is called that due to the large number of artesian wells in the area, the water from which was shipped to the famous 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The Fountain City Grille is located in the landmark Arlington Hotel alongside the railroad tracks. The Hotel was built in the 1860's and has a storied history itself. It is  now a bed and breakfast (without the breakfast, so I am told.)
In June of this year the Fountain City Grille opened. Freshly redecorated and up-scaled, the idea was to be something a cut above local fast-food and pizzeria fare. 
The old hotel, with it's expansive first floor and high ceilings are a welcome break from modern, cookie cutter construction and utilitarian design. The dining area is surprisingly classy with flat black walls and bright white trim. Were the ceilings low, and the trim thin, this would be more like a darkroom. But with the century-old heavy trim and high ceiling this actually works very nicely. A few nice, but not gaudy chandeliers provide just enough light.
The tables were covered in white, plastic covered cloth and topped with small black votive lanterns. The staff uniforms as well picked up on the black and white decor. On the walls along with some black acoustic dampeners were poster sized B&W photos of various fountains in the city.  Artesian wells are positive pressure, meaning the water is under pressure in the ground, so to make a fountain one need not use a pump, just let the natural pressure make the water flow. A local photographer, Matt O'Harver, took the excellent pictures and enlarged them for the Grille.
The entrance is a long hallway, decorated tastefully with large, elaborate vintage furnishings.
Mary, the delightful hostesss showed us to a table and introduced our server. You'll hear more about Mary later.

The Food:
The menu was simple and straight forward. A few well defined entrees, a small selection of appetizers, and a wine list on the back. Selection was difficult, most of it looked pretty appetizing. I had no idea going in what they served, so my mind was pretty open. We ordered our drinks, tea, unsweetened with lemon, Dr. Pepper for Angel and Pepsi for Adam. The drinks and basket of rolls arrived almost immediately.  The rolls were small and firm, but not very warm. Fortunately the butter wasn't frozen, so it spread nicely anyhow.
We started with an appetizer, the ubiquitous St. Louis area specialty, fried ravioli. Adam got most of those because Angel and I ordered big food.
Me: 8 Oz Sirloin, baked potato and corn.
Angel: Haddock with shrimp etouffee, baked potato and asparagus (gag, spit).
Adam: Buffalo chicken strips and steak fries.
Angel took the soup, cream of mushroom, I opted for the salad, with the sweet vinaigrette.
Now here's the  first home run for the restaurant's service. The salad and soup were delivered in just a couple of minutes after our order was taken. This is the way it should be. Salads and soups are made in batch ahead of time and occupy a diner while the main courses are prepared. There's no reason to wait ten or fifteen minutes for simple soups and salads. Angel said the soup was a little unremarkable, indistinguishable from canned, but that's not a condemnation in itself, Angel eats a lot of canned soup.
Second point, the main courses arrived shortly after the soup and salad were finished, just a scant few minutes of foodlessness was all there was. The management of this place should stand as a model for other upscale dining establishments, the timing of all the courses was dead-on perfect.
8 Oz Sirloin
Between the soup/salad and the main course, Mary rushed by between duties of setting out silverware and greeting guests. The guest greeting was made complicated because people kept coming in the side door. I'd almost done the same thing but noticed a small sign on it saying this was the handicapped entrance. (Maybe a bigger sign is needed?) On one of the trips through the dining area Mary dropped something, a salt shaker maybe, it hit the hardwood floor and the sound was louder than the surrounding din. When she bent to pick it up something else slipped from her grip, repeating the thud and causing Mary to do an acrobatic double bend and catch. She apologized to us, I told her it wan't a problem and that I had assumed this was the evening's floor show, quite entertaining. She'd already chatted with us a little earlier as she'd stepped in front of my 'waiting for the flash to fire' camera was trying to catch a picture of the room.
Haddock and shrimp etouffee
She also told us about the photos of the fountains and added that she was the grandmother of the restaurant's owners. A sweet lady indeed, probably overworked and underpaid. Her grand-kids should probably pitch in a little more for her efforts.
In pretty good time the entrees arrived. Simple, clean plating, no frills or superfluous garnish, just good looking food.
The potato was cut open and a dollop of butter was starting to melt inside it, Angel said her butter was still a little frozen, not a gross violation since the potato was still pretty hot. She'd asked for some sour cream, and it arrived in a clear plastic ramekin. We shared it, making the potato perfect.
My steak sliced open to perfect done-ness, medium rare. It gave up some juices which I used as a gravy for the corn and potato. Mmmmm. The steak was more firm than some I've had recently, it held up to the slicing without going mushy. The char on it was perfect, and the seasoning was there, but not overpowering.
The corn was fresh and sweet, not canned.
Buffalo chicken strips
There were no surprises or disappointments on our plates, we ate quietly and at our usual brisk pace. It was during this time that  I really noticed the music. It was all piano-based coming from speakers at the back of the dining area. Something bugged me about it. Floyd Cramer? No I don't think so, but like that. All the tunes were 70's and earlier pop music making it sound, well, I'll be honest, a little cheap. Like a compilation CD that you might  find in discount bins of a drug store. If I could make a recommendation on this note, I'd say go for something a little more classical.
Almost all the way through her fish Angel noted that it was indeed spicy but the thick breading was starting to come off as too salty. She finished it anyhow.
Adam's food disappeared pretty quick, without complaint. "It was good." was all I actually got from him though.
We thought about dessert, but when the waitress told us there was only one piece of cheesecake left, we decided to forgo the fight for it. With the three of us and only one slice of cheesecake, the 'sharing' would more resemble vicious and bloody mob carnage. Had they had more than one piece there would definitely been an order for each of us and perhaps a couple of cups of coffee. I'm just sayin'.
Mary, stepping out the front door.
The bill came to fifty three dollars and change. This is no fast food franchise. Locally it's more on par with Munzert's in Hillsboro or Bistro at the Square, north of DeSoto. It's a nice, but not-quite-formal dining experience. The setting and decor in the old Arlington adds significant value to the experience. If I could make a few suggestions, not as an expert in the business, but as an active observer, I'd say change the music, mark the doors better, back off on the salt in the fish breading, pay close attention to the quality of the ingredients in the food, use fresh only or not at all. Most importantly, step up the web presence. Word of mouth is great, but it is only responsible for about half the new customers. They have a Facebook site, but the pictures of the food offerings are not very good, and there is no online menu. Yes the building is lovely, and the decor is excellent, but when it gets right down to it, it's the food. An online menu will help potential  browsers determine what kind of place it is. Also, entries in the many restaurant search sites, Yelp, Google, Yahoo, Urbanspoon*, etc. will steer a few more people toward the restaurant. An absence of a presence in these guides cannot help the business.
And last but not least, pay Mary more. She was an absolute delight and worth a million bucks in goodwill and friendliness. She made us feel like valued customers. She even wanted my opinion of the steak, since she can't eat steak but heard that it was supposed to be the place's specialty.
Seriously though, Fountain City Grille is rather new, open only since June, which means that they are still learning the business and making their spot on the culinary map. Even as it is now it is a fine place to eat, great atmosphere, excellent food, and a cozy, comfortable experience. If it can keep it's goals in focus, concentrate on the food, it can't help but be a success.


* I've taken care of creating a presence on Urbanspoon, I've got a good relationship with that group, as you might have noticed.

Fountain City Grille on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jack In The Box

899 Veterans Blvd
Festus, Mo.

Please take notice of the new and improved images!*

It was my turn to pick a place. I had several in my head, but I just couldn’t seem to wrap my tummy around any of them. So I decided to pay a return visit to a place that I’d liked before, and one that had an outstanding issue. Time to clear this up.
The Place:
Festus, above the interstate, blah, blah, blah, by now you’ll recognize that Festus has dozens of places to eat and most of them are within a small area right along Highway A above I-55.
Once again, hardly anyone there. Strange.
I’d been seeing commercials on TV for an ‘All-American Burger.' I decided to go with that before we even got there.
We stepped in and I noticed an improvement right away. In my last couple of reviews of this place I’d made note of the littered floors and tables and that how a place that wasn’t anywhere near really busy should be able to manage that basic function better. I’d even sent a note to management and they responded that they’d look into it.
It was spotless, the floor anyhow. A couple of the tables were not bussed, but only a couple, it could have been that the people that had used them had only recently left.
We stepped up to the line. Angel and Adam took a few minutes, I just stood there, bored with their sloth.
The Food:
Clean floor!
Angel finally decided, oddly enough, a salad. The Chicken Club salad to be exact, along with two of those nasty tacos that her and the boy like so well. Adam stepped up and ordered the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger, which, as if made specifically for him, comes with no onions and no tomatoes. He added curly fries and two of those nasty tacos that he and his mother rave about. I tossed in my order, adding curly fries, and none of the nasty, deep-fried tacos.
We filled our drinks, Adam, root beer, Angel, a Diet Dr Pepper (because regular Dr. Pepper isn’t awful enough) and for a change, I bypassed the tea and poured a Coke. I had noticed the tea was that prefabricated, catered stuff a lot of local restaurants offer, and I knew it wouldn’t be very good. We found a table near the back.
Across from us was a young family, a young father and mother, and four young kids. The father in very good shape, high and tight haircut, strong, well maintained upper body, sleeveless workout shirt and long, baggy shorts. He stood most of the time when he talked, like an ambitious executive in a business meeting. The kids, aged between three and ten, three boys and a girl, sat dutifully. The youngest boy, the comedian, sat dunking his pancakes into his sticky syrup, making faces and odd noises. It’s the curse of being the youngest, you have to go for the slapstick laughs to get attention. The boys all had tight, short haircuts. When the food had first arrived the father stood and led them in a prayer. I was somewhat jealous; I’d never had my family in such obliging control. When I did occasionally take my own young kids out it was indistinguishable from complete chaos.
Our food took just a few minutes longer than seemed necessary, though we didn’t think much of it at the time. Angel played with her phone, as did Adam, I sat and watched the perfect family, growing angrier and more jealous by the moment. I wanted to punch the guy.
The young man that delivered our tray apologized. “Sorry for the wait, there was an accident in the kitchen.” He said, adding: “Here’s a couple of coupons for free tacos since you had to wait.”
“Oh.” I responded indignantly, as if I knew what he was talking about.
We separated things out, I started peeling back the wrapper on my burger.
Chicken Club Salad
“Weren’t there supposed to be two tacos each?” Adam asked his mother. I looked down, sure enough there were only two of the nasty, flat things on the tray.
“I’ll take care of it!” I stood and took charge, I could handle this, I could take care of my family just like that young father. I hoped he noticed.
The man behind the counter, older and in-charge looking, took my concern seriously and immediately started barking out that he need two more tacos ‘on the fly’ which I took to be Jack-speech for ‘not as part of an order.’
“We’ll get those right out to you sir.” He assured me. I felt in control, commanding, and somewhat manly.
Bacon Ultimate.
We dug in, it was pretty quiet. My burger was exactly what I expected. Excellent meat patties with just the right condiments. The curly fries were seasoned, a little stronger than I’d remembered them. I wished I’d had the regular ones instead.
Everyone grunted and snorted as the food was devoured. Angel broke apart one of the tacos and dispersed it on the  salad, like croutons. "The way to make tacos healthy, put them on a salad!" She said, I couldn't disagree. Well actually I could, I just didn't bother.We avoid a lot of fights by simply ignoring each others' outrageously stupid remarks.  Meanwhile, the perfect family was wrapping up, dad was wiping up spilled pancake syrup around the youngest boy's area. The little tyke was now in his mom’s generous lap making spitting noises at the others, they giggled in delight. They were making me sick.
The missing tacos were delivered, four of them. “Here’s a couple of extra for your inconvenience.” The young man said. Tacos are apparently the goodwill currency at Jack in the Box. Like tickets and tokens at Chuck E Cheese, only of real value within their own doors.
As the eating slowed down, I polled the family. “Real bacon, lots of tomatoes and cucumbers, and good, crispy chicken.” She said of her salad.
Adam nodded his head.
“Use your words!” I scolded him.
“I like a burger that doesn’t taste like a fast-food burger.” He mumbled, finally. “How was your all American burger?” He asked.
"As promised, not a hint of foreign influences.” I replied. It was indeed a good burger. The curly fries, well, I’ll just get regular fries next time. They were fine, just too flavory for the subtle burger.
Adam added more, surprisingly. “Top rung of the fast food chains.” He said of the overall experience.
I’d expected the food to be good, it always is. I was impressed that the floor was near-spotless, but noticed a half-hour in that the table that was messy when we got there had still not been cleaned, arriving customers just avoided it. So there’s still an issue with cleaning the dining area. There was a noticeable improvement, but other chains I like don’t seem to have this problem so consistently.
The bill was twenty one and change, about right for a fast food place, even with the extra/missing tacos.
I’m not sure what the ‘accident’ was, but there were certainly a couple of service errors this visit. I won’t judge that too harshly, as it seems to be typical of fast-food places, sometimes orders get messed up, things are misplaced. I only hope they work harder to cut down on these though, so they really can stand out and above, to maintain the status of ‘top rung’.


* New, improved photos!
I’ve had it with dimly lit restaurants. Rather, I’ve had it with trying to take photos in dimly lit restaurants with my overpriced/underpowered cell phone. It has no flash and pretty low resolution.
As I jealously scanned other food blogs this past couple of weeks I realized that other people’s blogs had nice, rich, colorful photography, whereas on this site the images were third rate at best. I could do better. I trained as a photographer as far back as in high school and have always prided myself on using good equipment and good technique to make good pictures. Some of my photos are even hanging in the local hospital. Life saving and comforting pictures, I’m capable of that.
Nikon Coolpix L3 with 'advanced'
flash suppression feature.
The problem was this. I have a good camera, a Nikon DSLR. Unfortunately it’s a bit large, expensive and bulky to be packing in and out of dives and fast food chains. Then I remembered my other camera, one I hadn’t used since I got the DSLR. It’s also a Nikon, but it’s a point and shoot, about six years old. I bought it as we were in the process of moving from Maryland to St. Louis. My good digital camera at that time, an awesome Olympus, had broken, suddenly and irreparably.  As luck would have it, as a going away gift, my co-workers in Maryland gave me a gift certificate for Ritz Camera. I used it to buy this little Nikon to serve me during the transition and until I could free up some bigger funds toward a DSLR.
It served well enough, as much as a point and shoot can, the delay between pushing the shutter button and the picture actually snapping was constantly frustrating. Taking action pictures of the dogs was damn near impossible. So when, a couple of years later, I bought the big one, the little Coolpix  unceremoniously went into a drawer. 
I remembered it this weekend. Then it took a while to find it, clean it up and get it going. I took some dimly lit room photos to test out its capability for its new job.
The big, bad D40
A point and shoot is rather middle-of-the-road. It lacks the precision of a more expensive camera. The lenses are smaller and not as crisp. The focus mechanism makes a few broad assumptions, and there are very few manual override capabilities. It’s made for snapshots, not art. The flash is tiny and hot. By hot, I mean it assumes you’re using the flash to take a picture of a room full of people. This is not what I’d be doing. I’d be focusing pretty close-up on a small area.I needed to cool off the flash, to keep it from looking like a full-assault, flash-bang grenade in small, dimly lit restaurants.
This is where old-fashioned, low tech solutions become handy.
If you look at the flash area of the camera, you’ll notice what looks like transparent tape holding a layer or two of white paper towel over the flash. That’s because that is what it is, a low-tech flash diffuser.
I tested various materials and shots, and this was the result. I tried it out for real Saturday night at Jack in the Box. The results were quite pleasing.
My hope is to continue to improve the quality of reporting to you, my loyal fans. Let me know what you think!

Jack in the Box on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ruby Tuesday's

Festus Mo.

Ruby T’s is in large part responsible for this whole review effort. Three years ago my little family was in a rut. When we went out to eat it was always to the same few places. Ruby T’s hurt me, made me angry. In the span of one month, while celebrating some minor event or another, we treated ourselves to steak dinners there.
The first was simply perfect. Even the tea was crisp and tasty. The mashed potatoes and grilled green beans topped with onion straws complimented the small thick rare steak perfectly. The next time though, same meal, nearly nothing was right. No huge mistakes, just an avalanche of small annoyances, the onion straws had been omitted, the potatoes were too salty, the steak overcooked and rubbery, even the tea was cloudy.
My nit-picking at these screw-ups motivated me to write a letter to the management. As I wrote it, what I read back was very much a restaurant review, not wholly unlike you see in magazines, newspapers and on TV.
Having been disappointed with a favorite place, we decided to see what else was out there, find new places to try and to compare them against our old favorites and each other. Thus, Eat and Critique was born.
Now, three years in, we’ve found several new places, added some to our favorites and discarded some of our old haunts in favor of newer, better places.
The Place:
Below Lowes overlooking the interstate. Right next to the big-box store’s parking lot, which was built atop a family cemetery. The graves were not relocated as no remaining relatives of that family could be located. SO if you are the superstitious type, be aware that the Lowes parking lot may be haunted. Some say that the wandering spirits of those interred there have been know to shove shopping carts into late model luxury SUV’s parked there to spite the intruders. (I just made up that last part )
Ruby T’s is like the other places of that type, Applebees, Chili’s, Outback, a steakhouse/sports bar.
Unlike the other places, Ruby decided to take all that kitschy sports crap off the walls, it recently remodeled itself. The bar remains, but the dining area is nearly sports-free. For that I say 'thank you Ruby T.' There’s too much sports around anyhow. You can barely order a pizza, enjoy a burger or sip a cup of coffee without being inundated with sports.
So the place is now muted dark walls, large, nondescript artwork and bland music, recent covers of 70’s ballads mostly, playing too loudly throughout the non-sports dining area.
The small, friendly hostess made note of our arrival and handed us off to another young lady to find us a seat. We took a large booth by a window. Yet another lady, Kimberly I believe, was to be our caretaker. We were greeted and offered something unintelligible, though it sounded like some sort of mixed drink, I just couldn’t make out exactly what it was called. She handed us menus, mentioned some specials, then took our drink orders. Tea, of course, Adam’s Coke, then Angel threw in a wrench, asking “What kind of lemonades do you offer?”
I only knew of two kinds of lemonade, pink and non-pink. Apparently other options have been invented. Kimberly rattled off a list of fruits, some familiar, some I believe she was just making up. “Raspberry sounds good.” Angel declared declaratively.
Raspberries are fairly common and have been around for the entire six thousand years of the world’s existence. Remnants of the berry can be found in primitive cave dwellings, and recorded ancient history even remarks on them. In Germany, raspberry was used to tame bewitched horses by tying a bit of the cane to the horse's body.* Knowing this, I didn’t see any problem with Angel’s lemonade choice, she can sometimes use a little taming of her own bewitched-ness.
The Food:
I had announced earlier that I wasn’t really in the mood for steak. I would eat those words later since I didn’t really see anything else as good. I’ve tried other things at Ruby T’s, but by far my favorite is the petit sirloin. And here’s why.  It’s the salad bar.
My salad, and a biscuit
in the background.
We like salad. I prefer a multiple component blend, lots of ingredients, piled high. This is tough at home since salad ingredients don’t have a long shelf life. Since there’s so few of us the bulk of produce always goes bad before we get halfway through it. So we have good salads a day or two after grocery day, then that’s about it.
Ruby T’s keeps their salad bar stocked, fresh, and  ample. I told Angel that it was a good thing that they made you order your entire meal before your trip to the salad bar, else you’d really not want much more. Ruby T’s has the best stocked salad bar this side of Potosi.
So the petit sirloin is almost an obvious choice. It’s a thick juicy steak, just not a very big one. I ordered mine with the salad bar and a side of mashed potatoes. I could have ordered a baked potato, but once again, salad bar.
Angel chose my second choice, the shellfish trio. Crab cake, lobster tail and shrimp. Adam went for the Buffalo chicken minis, and fries.
We dived into the luscious salad bar. I remembered to not grab so much lettuce, better to make room for the peppers, cucumbers tomatoes, beans, mushrooms, onions, potato salad and apple salad. Angel and Adam had their own blends, topped with those nasty dark, rubbery croutons they love so much.
Petit Sirloin
While we were acting like drunken pigs at the bar, our table had been served with a platter of small cheesy biscuits. Tasty, warm, no butter required.
We went at our salads like sailors at a discount brothel. The plates were cleaned up pretty quick, unlike sailors at a discount brothel, and then, almost as if on cue, the main courses arrived.
A small, thick, juicy steak, a small dollop of mashed potatoes. Angel asked for more biscuits, Kimberly was happy to comply.
The steak peeled apart easily. Juices swirled out and moistened the potatoes. Excellent, simply excellent. Angel gave me a taste of her crab cake, it was crabby, not bread-y.  As a light side she’d opted for the spaghetti squash, which she didn’t finish because “It was too much like everything at the salad bar, and I’d had enough salad.” I tasted it. I didn’t spit it out, nor did I write home about it.
Shellfish Trio, Spaghetti Squash
Adam made quick time of his minis, which were “Not too spicy.”
I didn’t quite finish my steak, too much salad bar, there were perhaps a couple of bites left. Angel was disappointed that there were only three shrimp, she really liked the spice rub on them. The lobster was overcooked, she said, adding that she’d expected as much. I’ve yet to eat at a Midwestern restaurant that didn’t overcook their lobster.
Kimberly came by, offered us dessert, we laughed. I asked her about whatever it was that she’s originally offered us, “. . . something in honor of the Olympics.” 
Buffalo Chicken Minis
“Oh, the Star Spangled Rita!” She cheerfully recalled. “Can I get you one?”
“No thanks, I’m not a fan of margaritas, I was just trying to figure out what you’d said.”
“Well, there not really like a traditional margarita, more like a ‘bomb-pop margarita’.”
I gagged at the very thought of the hyper-sweetness of such a thing.
“Thanks, but no thanks.” 

As I’d said earlier, sometimes, but not all the time, Ruby gets it right. This was definitely one of those nights. The steak, salad, side, biscuits, even the tea were fresh and perfectly served. Kimberly was exceptional, friendly and dutiful, the music was a bit too loud, but other than that the meal was spot-on.
The bill came in at just over fifty dollars, more than a fast food place but absolutely better quality food and service. If Ruby Tuesday’s can remain consistent, I’ll keep them on top of my list of places to eat.



Ruby Tuesday on Urbanspoon 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Patrick’s Restaurant and Sports Bar

(Formerly 'Pujols 5' and 'St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame Bar and Grill')
342 Westport Plaza
Maryland Heights
On Facebook

Back in February, when Cardinals legend Albert Pujols announced he was picking up stakes and heading to California, this restaurant changed its name to ‘St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame Bar and Grill.’ A few weeks ago, the place changed its name again to 'Patrick’s', as it was known for many years prior to being called Pujols  5.
According to ‘The Sporting News’: “Pujols did not have an ownership stake in the restaurant but was paid for making appearances and allowing his name to be used.”
That’s fine, I was never a big fan of sports, any sports, except for women’s beach volleyball for some completely inexplicable reason.
But that’s beside the point.
This was a work thing. Traditionally when our team gets a new member, our lovely and wise boss, Larry (not his real name), pulls a few people from the team to take the n00b to lunch.
Naga joined us on Monday. Larry rounded up a small group, including yours truly, and we headed out.
The Team:
All names you may remember. Doug, of course, Larry, the boss,  and Swami, whose adorable young wife is from an actual city in India, not a ‘village’ as I’ve previously reported, (because I’m just a stupid, geographically illiterate American that presumes to know more about foreign places and cultures than he really does.)  Naga, the new guy (also from some village in India), and Keith, who you will recall from that same Thai Kitchen review where I insulted Swami’s wife. I meant no ill by calling her city a village, but if they want to call it a city, fine we'll call it a city, whatever. I'm no idiot though, I studied up on India a while back, it's situated between Ohio and Illinois, and is primarily rural, so forgive me for just assuming that most people from there lived in villages.
 We took two cars, Larry drove his shiny, polished and well-deserved Mercedes and took Swami, Naga and Keith. I jumped into the passenger side of Doug’s little tiny '88 Toyota, but only after he assured me that the exhaust was no longer leaking into the passenger compartment. Doug’s little car is easy to spot, it’s about the oldest one in the parking lot, formerly bright red, and it sports a slightly scary bumper sticker that reads: “Tried to fight stupid, ran out of ammo.”  He had the sticker custom-made. 
His Toyota reminded me a lot of the 1984 Mazda RX-7 I used to have when I lived in Maryland. It smelled of burnt oil, sat about an inch off the ground, ran a little dirty, and would neither shift nor shut down without complaint. The Mazda, much like Doug's car, wasn't very dependable, but it sure was uncomfortable.
The Place:
As I said, this place has been around for quite a while, mostly as Patrick’s but recently notable as Pujols 5. Inside the large place were racks and wall-loads of sports memorabilia, though I saw nothing from the world of women’s beach volleyball so it didn’t really hold my attention. Jerseys, helmets, bats and balls. . . yawn.
The interior was very big, but there were not a lot of people on this day. The waitress said it was because it was Monday, I just assumed it was because they didn't have any actual beach volleyball memorabilia.
We were escorted to a large table already set up for six. I sat myself in the corner, once again so I could scan the entire operation.
The place was bar-dark, the walls were lined with sports-related posters, paintings and paraphernalia. TV’s were bolted to the walls, and as this was during the Olympics, there were several sports being aired. I recall no music in the background, and the TV’s were muted, so other than the occasional cackling coming from our table it was pretty quiet. We sat in padded metal chairs that were not as uncomfortable as they looked. Each chair’s back had a stencil-style ‘5’ cut into the back, reminiscent of the Pujols days.
The Food:
There were several items on the menu that looked quite good. I decided to keep it simple. The only BLT they had also contained a slab of chicken, I knew better than to fall for that since chicken sandwiches are either a sinister part of the vast right wing conspiracy, or the last bastion of American values standing between us and the inevitable showdown at Armageddon. I didn't really want to pick a side in that silly fight and I was in no mood to make a strong political statement while sitting next to my boss. (sarcastic Chick-Fil-A reference.)
Somewhere along the line I decided a bacon-cheeseburger would be fine, since I couldn’t recall burgers being directly tied to any particular extremist cause. Our drinks were delivered and after three more returns by the waitress, we were finally all ready to order.
Larry: Buffalo Chicken Salad
Naga: Blackened Swordfish
Swami: Buffalo Chicken Wrap
Doug: Bleu Burger
Keith: Mahi Mahi Sandwich
She also delivered a bowl of hot cheesy biscuits, which were passed around.
We sat and interrogated Naga, two kids, 11 and 3. Lives in St. Charles, been a road warrior for several years, glad to find a good job closer to home. His wife works in a bank. His kids are very happy to have him home more often, not sure if his wife is. He seemed to be a nice guy, talkative, funny, smart.
The guys started talking sports, so I drifted and made notes. Someone explained to Naga what I was doing and Swami started trying to tell me what I could and could not write about. For example, he told me specifically not to write about him eating his biscuit with a fork. I don’t know why, I thought it was simply adorable.
Keith sat across from me, carefully guarding his words. He’s a nice guy, perhaps not as handsome, interesting or witty as his brother Kevin, (whom I’ve never actually met, just heard about) but for a co-worker Keith is not completely intolerable.
The biscuit was good at first, the butter was not frozen, so it melted nicely. Somewhere along the line though the biscuit took on a doughy texture. Not the worst I’ve had by far, but not the best either.
Bacon Burger
The food finally arrived, all of it looked pretty. This place pays attention to plating, feeding the eyes first. Larry asked me to make sure to take a picture of his salad, it was indeed quite photogenic, the bright orange spice and the caramelized pecans. I also snapped a photo of my plate, then Naga asked if I’d like to take a picture of his. He didn't seem to be too concerned about the potential slanderous things I might say about him later. Keith remarked that Naga’s blackened fish didn't seem all that blackened. Naga would later concur with that assessment.
Buffalo Chicken Salad
Keith commented on his fries, that he really liked them. Swami said they were okay, but not as good as those at Penn Station. I had to look that up later. I recalled going to a Penn Station once , but didn’t recall the fries.
“The fries were made on site, fresh to order from real potatoes, skin intact. Dirty fries, awesome. They were well cooked, brown and crispy, the way a frozen fry just can’t be.” is what I’d actually said about them, confirming that Swami is more than just one of the world’s most handsome and capable DBA’s, he’s also a discerning diner.
Blackened Swordfish
I found Patrick’s fries to be thin, crispy and golden brown, but a little on the greasy side, though not as bad as some of the limp, tasteless ones I’ve found many other places.
My burger looked nice, the bun was not the cheap, pale grocery-store kind, there was a heft to the buns, good for containing a sloppy burger, but also a little rubbery and thick. The meat itself was virtually tasteless. The bacon was okay but nothing special. I only ate about half of the burger since it really wasn’t that great, and I decided it was better to leave it than to stuff myself into a coma with sub-excellent food. Across the plaza sits the Train Wreck, whose Cheddar burger is about the best burger I’ve ever had. I’d gladly go into a caloric coma for one of those, but not this one.
Larry and Swami, since they had basically the same thing, had similar comments about the buffalo chicken offerings, the slightly sweet pecans offset the spiciness of the chicken quite well. Doug mentioned  that his Bleu Burger had a bit too much barbecue sauce, but the bleu cheese was not overpowering. I don't know how fast he ate it, I wasn't watching that closely. And finally, Keith said his Mahi Mahi was not too fishy, I couldn't tell if that was a complaint or a compliment.
 What' missing here is someone saying how great their meal was. No real complaints per se, just no home runs either. For the price, and this place is pricier than others in the area, you kind of expect something to be outstanding, or at least stand out.
The atmosphere of the place is well suited for sports fans and large groups, it would probably be a good place to hang out with a bunch of friends and watch a sporting even together, just not women's beach volleyball. That is a sport that is best watched in the privacy of your own home, preferably while your wife and kids are out shopping, training dogs, or whatever else you can find them to do. So for football, or soccer, or NASCAR, if driving around in circles is actually a sport, this would be a fine place, if the price isn't too high for you. It might even be okay for watching women's MMA, (Mixed Martial Arts) a sport my boss kept going on and on about, to an almost creepy degree. He yammered (handsomely and intelligently) on and on about an upcoming bout between 'Rowdy' Ronda Rousey and Sarah Kaufman. I tried really hard to fake interest, he is my boss, but I fear I failed to get the least bit charged up about it.
Anyway, there's nothing really wrong with Patrick's. There just wasn't a lot to get excited about. Between the two, Patrick's and it's very near neighbor, Train Wreck, I'll take the train next time.

Patrick's Restaurant and Sports Bar on Urbanspoon