Monday, January 27, 2014

Poppy's Ristorante

2000 N. Truman Blvd.
Crystal City, Mo
On the Interwebs
On Facebook
We like Poppy's. It's a deceivingly classy and beautiful eatery, next to a bowling alley.
The Place:
The interior is gorgeous. Hardwood floors, heavy wood furnishings, and the walls are decorated with nice, tasteful and well thought out art. Even the lamps are tasteful and classy. I encourage you to got there and see for yourself. If you can't, please got to their web site to see the photos.
It was about half full when we got there, the day had been blustery, but temperatures in the forties beat the snot out of those we had experienced earlier in the week.
Angel picked it, no one objected. They make really good dishes, and plenty on them. They serve seafood, pasta, steaks and chicken all various ways. The bar is very well appointed. Angel said she wanted something less filling than the huge pasta plates we usually get. That sounded like a plan.
We were seated immediately at a four-top in the back room. Next to us were three heavy oak, pew-like booths. One held a young dad and his two pre-teen boys. I knew that story without even knowing them.
We ordered our drinks, tea, sweet tea and Pepsi. Sharp, professional, black shirted staff members bustled about. A senior citizen one of a of a foursome at the next table started singing "Jesus Loves Me", all smiles.
Which I have to say was better than the slightly too-loud music from the overhead. It just didn't fit. I suppose it was supposed to be adult contemporary, and they weren't actually bad songs, it just didn't fit with the general ambiance. Something soft and classical, Bach's Well Tempered Clavier or some piano sonatas would be better, or maybe some 50's classic trumpet and piano jazz. The stuff playing was like old late night FM (when nobody was listening) or Muzak.
The Food:
Angel decided rather quickly. I was still perusing, as was Adam. She ordered an appetizer, the St. Louis favorite, toasted ravioli. We'd seen an episode of "Restaurant Impossible" this week where Chef Robert Irvine ripped up the dish made at the St. Louis restaurant that supposedly invented the stuff. Though Mama's "On the Hill" Is reputedly the actual location of origin, the ownership of the place has changed a few times since the original dish came about in the 1940's. Irvine said the stuff there was just frozen ravioli. Which it might have been. Anyway, by episode's end they'd fixed that.
It's not complicated. You make ravioli, let it dry a bit, bread it (Panko please) and slam it into a deep fryer. The composition of the ravioli is key, as is the quality of the marinara sauce you dip it in.
The ravioli at Poppy's was pretty good, better than some places, mostly bars, that I've had it. Not too dry, crisp, yet with a moist, cheesy filling. The marinara was house made and quite good.
The tea was simply excellent. It's as if they knew I was coming. Clear, dark, fresh, a respectable 4 1/2 on the PJTea scale. We ordered.
Como salad
Me: NY Strip steak (medium rare), a baked potato and the combination salad with house dresing. Angel sure enough didn't order pasta, she asked for the lighter grilled salmon, a greek salad, then she blew the go-light plan by adding a baked potato. Adam ordered the Chicken Capri, described as "Charbroiled or lightly breaded,chicken, fried, prepared in a white wine, cheese and butter sauce, with broccoli, freshly sliced mushrooms, bits of prosciutto ham, and a touch of garlic." He asked for it without the mushrooms. He sided it with potato and bacon soup and mostaccoli in marinara sauce.
Greek Salad
We munched happily on the ravioli and the fat warm buns we'd been served. The place started to fill up even more.
The salads and soup arrived shortly. I'd had Angel's Greek before. It's good but I wanted something more American. The Combo salad is just lettuce, onions, carrots, and cherry tomatoes, a pretty basic salad, but what made this salad pop was the dressing. Sweet and creamy, absolutely delightful.
Adam's soup was thick and hot. chunks of potato and bacon filled his spoon, it disappeared pretty quick.
Just as we were finished with these, the entrees arrived.
The plates were clean, not cluttered with garnish. The foil-wrapped baked potatoes came on separate small plates. On my steak plate there was the steak, nothing else, on Angel's just the salmon. Adam's was gloppier, thick chunky sauce covered the plate, the chicken barely visible. In his separate plate was a pretty big pile of tubular pasta, covered in red sauce.
I cut into the steak, perfectly cooked, juicy, bloody, hot. I prepared my potato, slashing into it like a mad man, until it was practically mashed, then I added the sour cream and attacked it again. Butter and cream melted together soaking decadently into the ground up meat of the potato. I was looking forward to this, I hadn't had a baked potato in a long time, maybe months. Angel nodded her head after her first taste of her salmon. She picked off a small chunk of the fish and slid it onto my plate. I had some potato to clear my pallet, then another bite because it was so yummy, then tasted the salmon. It had a nice smoky taste and was quite flaky.
My steak was perfect. They hadn't tried to add flavors to it, just a good, honest, salt and peppered steak. I had cut the steak in half, it was a big boy, and I imagined I would take about half of it home. I had plans for it. Sunday morning scrambled eggs and steak plans.
The tea filler came around every time our glasses got down to half, the food went down smoothly and quickly, especially the potato. It was perfectly cooked, tender, warm and buttery.
Adam barely picked at his pasta, Angel tried it and winced a little. I thought about trying it but...potato.
Finally finished, I asked for a box. Meanwhile Angel said that though the fish was  very good, it would have enjoyed some sort of sauce, as it was "kind of dry after awhile." Adam said that the pasta sauce wasn't very good. Angel said that it tasted like someone had heated a can of diced tomatoes and poured it on straight, no depth to the taste. I thought this was odd, since everything else indicated that the kitchen knew how to deliver flavors.
Adam also said that the chicken sauce was a little strong on the wine taste. Adam's not a wine drinker. In fact he doesn't seem to ingest alcohol of any kind. I can't say that his assessment of the sauce counts as a bad note since he doesn't like wine.
I filled the little Styrofoam box with the half steak. A manager came by and asked how everything was, I remarked honestly that I thought it quite good.
The bill arrived, a not surprising sixty seven dollars and change. We were told that the appetizer discount would be applied at the check-out. They'd told us earlier that for some reason or another, appetizers were half-off this evening. That would bring the tab down about three dollars.
As we were getting up, a server was talking to the man with the two boys. She said he looked familiar.
"Yeah, we used to come here a lot when we lived here . . .  (awkward pause) We're divorced now and I only come to town once in a while."  I felt a little sad for him. I knew the drill, I had recognized the situation when I first saw them, but not because of some psychology class or documentary on the subject. No, I learned this from the school they call life.
We grabbed our stuff and headed up front. You pay at the cash register at Poppy's.
The service was excellent, at every point, absolutely no criticisms here. The food was mostly excellent, just minor points, like some sauce for the fish and they might want to rethink the sauce on the pasta.
Angel was griping. Her plan for going for a light meal had been quickly spoiled by that potato. For me it was quite different. My life had been rejuvenated by it.
I highly recommend Poppy's. If I had to give up my lucrative restaurant reviewing gig, Poppy's would still find a solid place on my short list of  favorites.

Poppy's Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lam's Garden

  510 Bailey Rd.
Crystal City, Mo.

A do-it-yourself buffet. Yet another review of a place I didn't actually go to.
We like Lam's, some of the best Chinese food in mid-Jefferson County.
The only problem with it is that it's not a buffet. I've said it a hundred times, I prefer my Chinese buffet-style. I'm not that way with American, Mexican, Italian, or any other cuisine that pops to mind, but for some reason, when it comes to Chinese I want a little of several things, not just a big plate of one or two.
There's a way around this if you order several things and bring it all home. Then you pop open the cartons and go family style.
So we did.
Angel and Adam browsed the menu online and pre-selected a variety, wrote it down without even letting me see it. No worries, they know what I like. I was busy with my manly weekend chores, which Angel calls 'napping'.  So the boy donned his cap, grabbed his keys and took off, list in hand.
It would take less than an hour, the round trip, so I prepared by making a batch of tea.
The Place:
It's a little hard to find since it's behind a few Main Street buildings, sort of a small industrial road. Turn on your GPS and you'll be fine.
I suppose it looks the same as the last couple of times I've been there. The atmosphere is friendly, even jovial. Many online reviews mention this. It's not stuffy or formal, nor is it anonymous. The people that work there will chat with you before, during and after the meal.
The Food:
Sesame Chicken
Angel had ordered four main entrees, pepper steak, sesame chicken, cashew chicken, and beef with broccoli. She added some egg rolls and two kinds of rice, fried and plain. With the order came the sweet hole-less donuts popular among Asian restaurants, and of course, fortune cookies. The food came in the stereotypical Chinese food cartons, except for the chicken, which arrived in a Styrofoam takeout box. My tea finished brewing, so I poured it into a tall glass crammed to the rim with ice cubes. It was beautiful, it was perfect.
Adam hilariously dumped a box of white rice onto his plate. It hilariously maintained the shape of the box. We all laughed at the sheer hilarity of it. Which really points out something important, we are, all three of us, very, very easily amused.
We filled up our plates, Adam and Angel took some beef and broccoli, I didn't since I find broccoli completely disgusting, especially cooked. I piled on the pepper beef with its huge chunks of onion and bell pepper, a few chunks of sesame chicken, some of the fried rice and an egg roll.
Hilarious, right?
My Plate, no broccoli.
I propped open my book. When I eat at the table, as I do almost every night, I read. Another George Pelecanos novel this time. I mostly read crime/detective fiction, usually starting with an author's series from the beginning, through the latest offering. In case I run out I have a  couple of large reads, one a complete Sherlock Holmes anthology, the other a thousand page monster, "Sacred Games" by Vikram Chandra, that follows a police detective in Mumbai, India.  Both are beautifully written, very detailed, but quite long.
Adam or Angel's plate, because - broccoli.
The rice was pretty good, about as good as it gets outside of Springfield, Mo. (undeniably, the best in the world) The peppers and onions were large and thick, but slightly overcooked. That's the problem when you cook in large batches then let it steam for a couple of hours. The beef was a problem though. It too was presented in large, thick chunks and was hard to casually cut with a fork. The taste, the sauce, was savory and pretty good. The egg roll was pretty good, still crispy on the outside and not too cabbage-y on the inside. The sesame chicken as well was too large. I like Chinese chicken in bite sized chunks. This fare was, in many cases, golf ball sized and had to be cut up. The taste though was very good, sweet but not sickeningly so. I didn't try the cashew chicken, I don't mind it, but I do find it generally too salty. Angel said hers wasn't. It was also large-chunked. She also said the beef in the broccoli (blech) beef was not as thick as I was experiencing and that it was quite tender. I'll take her word for that.
Fried ice, Chinese donut.
Cashew chicken, if you look it up on Wikipedia is quick to mention the Springfield, Mo. connection that I go on and on about. Take that, doubters.
Unlike at a real buffet, I only filled my plate once. We had plenty leftover to serve up for Sunday lunches.
All in all, quite good, except for the fuss of cutting it up, but that was not a huge problem, just an annoyance.

Like I said at the beginning, Lam's is currently the best Chinese food in mid-Jefferson County. They may have a capable challenger soon though. We are eagerly awaiting the opening of the new Hibachi Buffet in Festus, that may be a game-changer.
The price for our faux-buffet was nearly forty dollars. More, by half, than we would spend at a real buffet, but we did have enough food for more than one meal each. Even that price wasn't bad for that much good food though. And it was pretty good.
I didn't crack open a fortune cookie, I never do. If I want some stranger's dubious and vague advice, I'll listen to my boss and co-workers more often. As for the lucky numbers printed on the back of the fortune, forget it. How many Chinese people do you know of that have ever won a lottery?
The tea? Since I made it myself, it rates a perfect '5' on the PJTea scale.

Lam's Garden Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 13, 2014


Hillsboro, Mo.

What's this, a cop-out? No pictures? You didn't even go there?
Well, sort of a cop-out, but not really.
I was puny. While out doing my obligatory, responsible adult chores earlier in the day,  I stopped into the Desoto branch of Hardee's and sat and enjoyed a cup of coffee and a breakfast biscuit. I wanted to go to Huddle House, but their parking lot was completely full. I understand why, HH is really, really good.
But Hardee's makes a pretty good biscuit (from scratch) and fresh, dark coffee.  I dragged along my George Pelecanos novel, to just chill for a while. Chill I didn't.
I started feeling suddenly awful. After a few minutes I felt just well enough to get into the car and drive home. I dived into bed and passed out for a couple of hours.
When I got up I was still weak and woozy. By dinnertime, I was a little hungry, but didn't want to go out into public until I either healed or died, lest I poison the entire county with whatever the heck I had. Dysentery, malaria, rickets, scurvy, lupus (it's never lupus) I couldn't tell. Angel said it might be the flu, but I try not to succumb to such pedestrian diseases.
Angel offered to run somewhere and drag something home. Sure, whatever. Probably my last meal anyhow, go for  it.
The Place:
I don't need to describe it, it's a Hardee's. A plasticized, generic, ubiquitous fast food joint. There are nearly two thousand locations and Hardee's is a sister franchise to Carl's Junior. The company is headquartered right up the road in mighty St. Louis. Together, Hardee's and CJ's form the fifth largest fast food chain in the U.S. Of that top five, Subway, McDonald's Burger King and Wendy's, Hardees makes, without a doubt, the best tasting burger of the lot. Okay, Subway doesn't even make a burger, but still. Your argument to the contrary is invalid.
I've been to the Hillsboro location quite often, it is on one of the most prominent corners of the small town. On weekends, locals, farmers or whatever, congregate there like an old country store. Fractured families use it as a neutral zone to swap out the kids, we've transferred dogs there since it is such a visible and convenient place for outsiders to find. I even saved a dog's life there once as is chronicled in my essay "We all Shine On" in the anthology "Not Your Mother's Book On Dogs"   (Gratuitous self promotion, one of the perks of having your own blog)
During the week, it is not unusual to see suited lawyers and their nervous clients lingering over a table with laptops and piles of papers. Hillsboro is small, around two thousand people, but it is the county seat, home to the courthouse and jail for the sixth most populous county in the state. (County pop. 218,000 in 2010).
There are other places to get coffee and breakfast in the town, but the store's prime, highly visible location makes it easily the most popular. A better cup of coffee and sandwich can be had at Cool Beans, just a block away, but it's a little harder to find. (though well worth it) Cool Beans serves a maple sausage sandwich on pretzel bread that is simply to die for.
The Food:
I left the choice to Angel. She knows what I like, mostly. Plus I was puny and grouchy and not in the mood for deciding much of anything.
She nailed it.
A Bacon Thickburger with curly fries and a tall tea.The same thing she got for herself. The boy, or Adam, as we like to call him, picked out the 6$ Philly cheese-steak burger. That looked pretty good too.
The burgers are pretty big, 1/3 pound (pre-cooked). He had a Coke and his mom, a Diet Coke.
We'd actually had Hardee's on the short list for a while. Even though we're no strangers to the place, we'd heard that they were now serving their burgers on fresh baked buns. This is what we were focusing on.
Hardee's indeed makes the buns, in-store, fresh daily. Sure the dough is delivered to them frozen, but even that's arms and legs better than the other burger-joints can claim.
I looked over our buns. Angel's, Adam's and mine looked the same; round, firm, dense and not as flabby as others. Then I looked at the bread on my sandwich. (Pause for raucous laughter.)
It was indeed noticeably different. It was big enough to contain the entire sandwich. It was not disintegrating, nor did it throughout the meal. The taste was a bit denser and sweeter than a traditional bun, like fresh baked bread, quite good.
Add to that the burger patty itself, better than the other places by a noticeable measure. We've recently been to the other places, I still think Hardee's burgers, even without the clearly superior bun, is the best tasting among them.
The lettuce and tomato were fresh and ample, the bacon was decent and crisp, not soggy.
The curly fries, lightly seasoned, were pretty good as well, I prefer the fries from here, even above McD's.
Even while on my death bed, I ate the whole damn thing. I should not have, at least not while in my recliner. I developed a pretty hefty case of heartburn a couple of hours earlier. Of course I did. The burger itself is nearly a thousand calories, Add fries to that  and you've got 1360 calories, over seven hundred of those from fat, it's also loaded down with sodium, carbs and cholesterol. Yeah, this ain't anybody's diet food.
But boy howdy, it's tasty.
Twenty five bucks. Slightly higher than you might spend at Micky D's, but you're getting a much, much tastier burger. If you're going off the counting calories wagon anyhow, you might as well get some better tasting coffin nails.
In my mind, and my experienced, professional opinion, McD's obviously and unashamedly, goes for the lowest possible costs, Wendy's and BK are trying, but missing the mark completely, like J.C. Penny's and Sears. Subway doesn't really cook anything so I can't to compare them in this review.
Though I'm lauding Hardee's here, keep in mind that there are plenty of places, mostly local or regional, that make a better burger. Browse through past reviews and you'll find them, Gordon's Stoplight comes to mind immediately.
But if you have to have a chain burger, drive right past those other places and pull into Hardee's. You'll thank yourself later.
Oh yeah, the tea? Forgettable. Dead even with Pizza Junction.

* I'm feeling better now, thanks for pretending to care.

Hardee's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cracker Barrel

1193 Scenic Drive
Herculaneum, Mo.

We were going to Chipotle Mexican Grill, but Angel looked at their online menu and said it looked like fast food, just with fresher ingredients and that she wanted something a little more substantial. I'd mentioned earlier in the week that CB had added a low impact section to their menu and that some of it looked interesting.
So off we went.
The conversation topic was, of course, the impending winter storm and deep freeze predicted to follow it. It was estimated that the real ugliness would start around midnight. By the time we left, around 5:00 P.M. though it was still somewhat pleasant, temps in the low forties, though the clouds had started to move in.
We got to the place and it appeared not too busy.
We had to walk through the country-folk-kitsch storefront to get to the dining area. A stack of metal chickens caught my eye, I don't know why.

The Place:
The dining area walls were lined with more old, useless junk than my mother's attic. Pictures, ads, old sports equipment, tools, and firearms. Too much if you ask me, it was like saturation decorating, far more quaint junk than necessary to make the point. I did appreciate the fire in the large fireplace though. It made the place smell hickory smoked, like the tobacco barns of my youth.
We were led to a table and offered menus. Erica stopped by and asked about drinks. She was a young, tall, rail thin girl with an easy smile and a sweet voice. Tea, sweet tea with no ice and Coke. She left us alone with our enormous and flimsy paper menus. Adam played the silly little golf tee game, solved it first try.
The Food:
I hadn't firmly decided on the lighter fare. There was pecan crusted catfish, Corn Flake oven baked chicken, a nice looking pork chop and a pepper grilled sirloin. The thing that made these items qualify as lighter fare was the lack of grain products. The offered sides were things like a cucumber, onion and tomato salad, green beans, broccoli, a baked sweet potato and mixed veggies. The light meals didn't even come with the customary corn bread or biscuits, and there was no gravy anywhere in sight. This is the kind of stuff I eat during the week. Lots of veggies, very little bread, breading, pasta or potatoes. I'm not saying it works for everyone, I'm not a diet snob, but it works for me and I can stick with it.
The drinks arrived and I have to say that appearance-wise the tea looked fresh and bright. the taste wasn't bad, I'll give it a score later.
Erica returned in good time and we ordered.
Me: Catfish, the cucumber salad and green beans. Angel surprised me and ordered from the lite side as well, the oven baked chicken, the baked sweet potato and the salad. Adam scoffed at us and stuck with the more traditional chicken fried chicken, broccoli. mashed potatoes and cornbread.
Once Erica left, out came the smart phones and tablet. Angel complained about no signal, I'd already scanned for wifi and found none, at all. Adam played a game.
They have smart phones, I have the tablet. A heavily researched 7" Asus ME173x, in case you are interested.  It was my Christmas present. I've been using it to take notes and pictures for these outings since I got it. I've created a simple little database entry form for critique notes, and the rear camera (it has one on the front side as well, for my vast and rapidly growing collection of selfies) is a 5MP device that takes excellent low light photos. All the pictures in this post came from the thing, no flash required. Adam hates the flash part of our outings, so this helps soothe family tensions.
The food arrived pretty quickly. I noticed a problem with my plate right away. More on that later, as well. The little salad was gorgeous. Bright green and red, fresh looking. The catfish filet looked crispy-breaded, the green beans were cooked southern-style. By that I mean way overcooked, to the  point of complete flaccidity. I don't know why we southerners do this to a perfectly good vegetable, but we do. My mother did it, her mother did it, and my two other grandmothers cooked this way as well.*  At least CB, like my grandmothers, cooked them in bacon fat. Sort of a country risotto, infuse the timid tasting article with slow cooked  flavor. Still, the beans were as limp and lifeless as the skin on a drowned person.
The salad indeed was crisp and fresh, as tasty as it was pretty. My catfish however, though it originally looked crispy, was not. Huge mistake, huge rookie mistake. The green beans were wet, duh. So wet that they could not hold their own juices. The juice bled all over the plate, turning the crust on the bottom of the fish into an unappetizing mush. The fish itself tasted pretty good, surprisingly so, but the look and feel of that soaked bottom ruined it. It would not have mattered if the fish were traditionally battered or breaded then deep fried, the problem was the bean leakage. A simple ramekin would have solved this. Bottom line, for easily foreseeable and fixable reasons, catfish=fail.
Angel's chicken was pretty, golden brown. this appearance was highly misleading though. The brown was not a result of perfect oven toasting, it was because - Corn Flakes. The chicken itself was a little dry, and from the taste I got, nearly tasteless. It appeared that no other spices were added to the cereal breading. In other words, pretty bland. No discernible pepper, garlic powder, or even salt. The sweet potato was better, so Angel says. I tried a bit and found it positively disgusting, a squashy-sweet flavor and texture, yuck. She liked it though, said it was like pumpkin pie. My point exactly, I hate pumpkin pie. Adam took one bite of his broccoli (which was served in a ramekin) then pushed the little bowl aside. "No flavor." He uttered. He finished his chicken, though he said the gravy tasted like flour and milk. A  recurring theme was emerging. He didn't care for the cornbread either, though I tried a little and found it to be just fine. This was not a sweet cornbread muffin mix, this was cornmeal and flour, milk, eggs and fat. Pretty much just like the simple hoe cake, or skillet cornbread I grew up with. I liked it, he didn't. Oh well. The mashed potatoes were 'okay', he said, but could use something, maybe more butter (flavor).
I rescued my meal though. I was not full, that's what a low carb meal will often do, leave you not-bloated. Which is a good thing once you get used to it. I haven't had heartburn in several months. I had room for something decadent though, so without even polling the family I asked Erica for some apple pie and a cup of coffee.
This, CB can do quite well. I refused the ice cream, since what is the point of making apple pie and then boasting about the 'no added sugar' method of making it if you are just going to drop a hyper-sweet ice cream bomb on top of it. I did forget to tell them about the other part though. So it arrived hot. Call me an idiot, you wouldn't be the first, but I like apple pie a lot, but I like it cold. Refrigerator cold, especially with coffee. But hot wasn't too bad. The taste was good, not overly sweet, the crust was flaky and not dry or burnt on the edges. This pie saved the meal.
My goal was to sample some of the 'healthy' choices. Mission accomplished. These are great ideas, catering to a rising number of health-conscious customers. I like seeing choices like this, especially at places that are traditionally breaded, deep fried and gravy-heavy. However, this meal overall, was not a success. I do not think it was because of any problem unique to the lite-fare menu items though. Even Adam's traditional meal was mostly bland and uninteresting.
That and simple serving issues, like having my fish swimming in bean juice, took a good idea, a potentially great idea and turned it into a completely lackluster affair.
The bill for our meal, including my pie, was a reasonable forty three dollars and change. No complaints there. The service, Erica especially, was quite good. Attentive, friendly, detail oriented, ready to please. At one point a manager of some kind stopped by every table to check up on the customers. In my book, this is always a good thing.
But the food was simply disappointing. Unimaginative, timid, bland.Comfort food does not need to be bland and lifeless. Maybe there's a customer base that likes their food this way. I know that CB was one of my father's favorite places to eat. I don't get it though. It's like a good idea being executed by someone that's never had the original, traditional foods they offer. It looks right, but it just isn't
Oh yeah, the tea. Somewhere between a + 2.5 and + 3. Not bad at all.

The storm hit, you may have heard about it. We got a foot of snow followed by bone-cracking low temperatures. So this time the Henny Penny-like media-meteorologists got it right.

* Yes I did have three grandmothers. Ask me about that sometime.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Urbanspoon