Monday, March 31, 2014

Concord Grill

11427 Concord Village Ave.
Affton, Mo.
On the Interwebs
On Facebook

It is impossible to answer the question "Why this place?" without discussing my car. My new(er) car.
For the last epoch or two I've been driving small, cheap, disposable cars. I don't invest much into them and as soon as they became too much cost/trouble, I get rid of them and get another one. My commute (80 miles per day) is brutal on cars, especially small, cheap, disposable ones.
This, the third year of my unimpressive Chevy coupe's term of service, was to be its last. I'd put sixty-plus thousand miles on it in that time, and recently had to pour lots of hard earned ducats into it just to get it to pass the safety and emissions inspections. So for the last couple of months, I've been thinking about a replacement. This is new. In the past I never really thought about cars until it was too late. Then I'd just go grab whatever was available on the lots for the price I had budgeted. That's harder to do than you might think, I'm somewhat of a tightwad. Sure, I sometimes imagine myself tooling around in a pricey, flashy engineering and aesthetic marvel, but when it comes to contemplating the $$$, I run away, shrieking.
As I was researching this time though, a process that largely consisted of noticing other cars, on the road or in the parking lot, I found myself most pleased with only two or three options. Not just appearance, that's just paint and metal bending, but to a great degree, reliability, ruggedness and MPG's. I spend a lot of money on gas doing this commute. I also decided to up my budget a little, that opened up a new line of possibilities. One of those came available, at a reasonable price at a reputable dealership (another requirement) and I went for it. This process was expedited by the fact that Adam was finally in the market, had saved some money, and was looking for a small, cheap and perhaps disposable car.  So I sold him my Chevy. He offered a little more than I would have earned on a trade-in, but less than reputable dealerships would even have something in their inventory to match.
A win/win.
So what was the question?
Oh yeah.
Knowing all week that I would be going to a particular dealership, probably on Saturday, and knowing that buying a car can easily turn into an all-day event, I looked at online maps around the dealership and located places to eat that we'd not been to before.
Sure enough, though I had concluded the business aspects of the deal earlier in the day, they needed to prep it for delivery and that would take a while. So I told them "I'll stop in  later." and drove home in what would be probably the last highway run for me and my unimpressive Chevy. No sappy emotionalism, my relationship to cars is roughly the same as my relationship with computers. I like them just fine, to the point of not even thinking about them when they work, but seriously hate them when they are broken. Kind of like marriage.
This review is about the place I'd found within a mile or so of the dealership.
Another aside:
As I was researching the Concord Grill, I came across the following from their web page:
"We have grown from 6 burgers to 40.  My goal is to have 50 different burgers including our burger of the month and we are very close to that.  If you ever have an idea for a burger please email me and we will give it a try!"
I couldn't resist. I looked over the online menu at the huge selection of sometimes bizarre burgers and tried to think of something that they hadn't thought of, also making sure that I would actually eat the thing if necessary. Thus, after minutes of thought, I came up with one:
Shrimp Alfredo Burger.
So I sent an email to Deb, the owner, as she requested. I also mentioned that I'd never actually been to her place but likely would soon.
I received this reply later that evening:
"Well, that does sound interesting.  We could run that for a special and see how it sells.  Thanks for the idea and we hope you come see us soon."
And you believe that one mere, mortal man cannot make a real difference in this crazy old world.
The Place:  (finally)
On Concord Village Avenue, just a hop and a skip west of  Highway 21, (Tesson Ferry) just off Lindbergh.
I'd picked up my new(er) black beauty, the German engineered and Mexican assembled VW Jetta, and led Angel and Adam, in the family truckster, to the place. The front lot was full, it's not a very large place. There were exactly two parking spaces available in the back though. Popular place.
Sure enough it was nearly full as we entered. It was also a little loud, like sports-bar loud. An older building, low ceilings, probably under a thousand square feet. (just guessing).
The lighting was dim, like a bar, and in the back, there was, sure enough, a nice oak-topped bar. The walls were nearly covered in beer-logo mirrors, most I'd heard of, a few I hadn't. There was an empty four-top near the bar, we were led to that one.
The table was, as all the tables were, covered with an inexpensive green vinyl tablecloth, the chairs were simple as well. There was absolutely nothing on the table but the silverware(knife and fork only), wrapped in dark blue hand towels, and one each, salt and pepper shaker. No candles, condiments, flowers, dessert cards, nothing. I liked this. I'd just that morning had a modest breakfast at The Farmer's Kitchen in Hillsboro, sat at a two-top, and had trouble moving the various containers and cards out of the way to make room for my meal and my book. I've noticed the same thing at the other breakfast House's, Waffle and Huddle. Too much clutter for me.
We were greeted by our server, a nice young man whose name I regrettably did not get, but the receipt says he is 'Server ID  17.' He handed us menus and asked about drinks. Tea, Dr Pepper (no ice) and Pepsi.
Sure enough the burgers by themselves filled an entire page. I didn't expect my creation to be listed, or even offered, it had only been two days since I'd sent the email. At best the Concord Grill's research and development labs were still working on a functional prototype.
I was not disappointed though, there were plenty of fine sounding burgers listed, along with a few that made me gag a little at the very thought.
Everyone at the table wanted a burger, sure, why not. The place boasted about the 'Best Burgers in Town', right there in the menu. That's a hell of a claim. Challenge, accepted. I'd already, from my earlier research, decided on a couple that would be good. Angel and Adam took a little more time, but also decided that we needed to try the toasted (fried) ravioli, because, as their menu said:

The Food:
Server 17 returned, we were ready:
Me: Concord Burger. Cheddar cheese sauce and bacon topped with onion straws.
Angel: Smothered Burger. Grilled onions, mushrooms and beef gravy. (Because, Gravy!)
Adam; and this surprised and impressed me a little:
Hawaiian Burger. Sweet and sour sauce, bacon and pineapple.
Hmm. Whatever floats your Mālia, I guess. (A Hawaiian boat)
The drinks had arrived and I was surprised. A place that serves scores of different beers usually can't be expected to make a good glass of tea. This wasn't really bad at all. A +3 at least.
  The ravioli came soon. It didn't look as elegant as some we've had recently, a little flatter, probably frozen rather than house-made and the sauce was pretty basic as well. But it was good enough. Maybe the rangoons next time.
As we munched on the fried pasta we pulled out our electronic devices as we tend to do a lot. Well, Adam and I pulled ours out, Angel had left hers in the car, and the car was way out back. So we laughed at her mistake and then ignored her plight.
I did pause and look around a little, She'd interrupted my important work by saying "This is a diverse crowd."
Sure enough it was. A table of loud, working class guys, a table of three generations of a family, a few elderly couples, even a college aged couple, dressed like Seattle in the mid 90's, quietly eating salads.
And the place was full, it stayed full. Several new arrivals were greeted by name by some other table full. this meant this was probably a neighborhood joint, a lot of the people knew each other. The din was palpable, especially the beer-drinkers at that one table, but somehow it didn't seem too bad. The laughter and conversations was sort of familial, like you'd expect in a neighborhood pub. Because of this we didn't mind it too much.
The burgers arrived, and boy they looked good.
Thick style burgers served up on kaiser buns. Along side the burgers was an entire slice of onion, a little shard of lettuce and a few home-style pickle slices. To me and entire slice of onion is a but much, so I broke up a couple of the outer rings and discarded the rest. The fries were big and crispy, seasoned with what appeared to be salt and pepper, though I thought I detected a little something else, garlic maybe.
I assembled my burger, then squished it to make it small enough to fit into my mouth, they were indeed thick burgers. Oh yeah, they'd asked how we wanted them cooked, I took mine medium rare. Sure enough a nice pink center.
When I squished it, hot, melty cheese erupted out the sides, Mmmm, melty cheese.
It tasted great. This was good quality meat, cooked expertly. The burger was a bit messy, and I loved that. the heavier than normal bun held up just fine.
 Angel examined hers and looked a little disappointed. Not enough gravy for her tastes. "I wish they'd served it with a dipping dish with more gravy, that's the only complaint I have though." She said. Have I mentioned that Angel likes gravy? I'm sure I've brought that up somewhere before.
Adam's looked like a Hawaiian burger, a big slice of grilled pineapple topping it off. I was happy to hear that there was no Spam on it though, Hawaiians love Spam.
 They were too big for us though. We're sort of small as far as people go. We're certainly smarter and more sensible that most people, but just a slightly smaller size.
It wasn't until later as I started this review that I noticed the burger page offered a smaller version of any burger for $1 less. That would have been about perfect. No problem though, we just ate as much as we could.
A truly, truly enjoyable meal. every aspect of it, the food, the service, the cheerful, familial ambiance, everything was exceptional. Sure, as I said earlier, it was a little noisy, but that didn't seem to matter much. Even halfway through gorging ourselves we were talking about 'the next time'. Already thinking about what else we'd like to try there, maybe even some of the desserts, like the Twinkies, (I assume, fried) topped with Reese's Peanut Butter and Chocolate or honey and powdered sugar.... er, maybe not. But still the burgers were excellent, perhaps the best thick burger I've had around town.
Oh, and about that. This place is located in Affton, which is one of the scores of towns that make up suburban St. Louis County. (St. Louis itself is not in St. Louis county, it is its own county.) So the claim of the biggest and best burgers in town, (Affton, pop. 20,000) is certainly possible. As for the entirety of the Metro St. Louis area, I'm not so sure, I haven't even tried most of the burgers offered in that vast landscape. But I think the claim is certainly solid for Affton itself.
The closest Metro rival in my mind, in the admittedly meager number of places I've eaten, would be the Train Wreck up north in Westport Plaza. The burger I get there is very, very similar to the one I'd had at the Concord Grill.  So a comparison is only fair. I'd say the Concord burger was at least as good, every bit as good. At worst, a tie. As for biggest, well like I said, I can't finish a huge burger, so that really doesn't score many points for me.
An exceptional meal though, Server 17 took good care of us and was on the spot with servings, refills and the check.
The bill came in at forty eight bucks, about normal for a big burger pub, that covered the ten buck (average) burgers, the fries and the appetizer. Certainly a lot of food for the money, though next time we'll probably go with the smaller burgers, especially if they offer a 'Shrimp Alfredo Burger'. Mmmm.
(I'll send Deb an email asking her to let me know when/if it is ever offered. It seems only fair that I get a chance to rate my own idea.)

Concord Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cafe Arnold

3946 Jeffco Blvd
Arnold, Mo.
On Facebook

There was an article in the county weekly paper that said that Cafe Arnold was reopening this week with new ownership. We'd not been there under the previous ownership, so we thought we'd give the new owners a fresh perspective. I know, I've told you countless times that I don't like going to Arnold, too busy, wind-y roads, traffic lights, lots and lots of traffic. I looked this address up though and found out it was on the southern edge of Arnold, out of the way of all that mess.
The Place:
In a shopping center that also holds a Chinese restaurant, a nutrition store, and across the parking lot, a McDonalds. Sort of hard to see from the road, the sign is large, but it is sort of hidden amongst several others.
We went in and were immediately greeted by two or three staff members at the reception counter. They asked whether we wanted bar side or dining side. Dining. They led us to a booth in the back.
The place was dimly lit, dark carpets, dark wainscoting and subdued wall colors. This was not slapped together cheaply, it looked substantial and like it had been around for a while. Not grimy, at all, just lived in.
In the dining area there were seven flat screen TV's all muted and showing basketball. Some sort of tournament of some kind, I think I saw a NCAAP logo or something like that. No one was watching it though, not  even in the bar area. A box was playing music, 90's stuff, Angel said that back in the day it would have been called 'Alternative'. As she was saying this I was trying to wrap my head around the notion of the 90's being 'back in the day'.  It was loud enough to hear the lyrics, but not enough to drown out conversation. Plus, I kind of liked most of it. Beck, Cake, etc.
Amanda, a young, friendly and energetic pony-tailed girl (lady) introduced herself, handed out menus and asked about drinks. Tea, Diet Coke (no ice) and root beer. "We serve root beer in a bottle, is that okay?" She asked Adam. Of course it was okay.
Amanda listed off a couple of specials, neither of which appealed to me, I'd done some research ahead of time and knew pretty much what I wanted.
Angel asked for the toasted ravioli as an appetizer. We're sort of comparing them with other places apparently, since everyone offers them.
The Food:
The menu was several pages, but not too complicated. It was mostly (more later), well arranged. I glanced over it knowing that the on-line menu I had seen, I think from the previous ownership, would be different than the new one in front of me.
On the online menu I had seen a 'slider' plate. Four mini sandwiches, barbecue pork, ground sirloin, chicken, etc. I looked on the 'Sandwiches' page on my menu, couldn't find them. Well, I knew there would be changes. Hey, a BLT!
Sounded pretty good. I love BLT's. Unfortunately it is very hard to review a restaurant based on that. Bacon, lettuce tomato, mayo, bread. The problem is that the restaurant adds no flavors to this, nor is much technique involved. Some places use thick bacon, some thin, a lot of bacon, or just a little, but it is really hard to screw up a BLT.(though it has been done)
Angel leaned over to me and asked if I was going to get the sliders as I had said I would. "I didn't see them." I told her. She shoved her menu in front of me, the 'sides' page I believe it was. There they were. Hmm, odd. Whatever, sounds good. Three kinds, mix or match.
Amanda brought our drinks, the tea looked dark and clear, always a good sign. It wasn't strong on flavor, but definitely better than most places serve up We'll call it a +3 or +4.
We'd all  made up our minds, Angel surprised me.
"Fish Tacos." She said, adding some some sick side dish of cauliflower and broccoli (blech!).
I couldn't recall Angel ever ordering fish tacos, ever. I knew I hadn't, this seems to be a rather recent offering, at least to the places we frequent. I've heard lots of people talk about them for quite a while, it just was never something I craved. Loyal fans will recall that I am pretty picky about fish, just see last week's O'Charley's review. I have several specific preferences for fish and 'taco' has just never appealed to me. No, I have never tried one. If you think this is finally, absolute proof that I am closed-minded, you haven't been reading this journal very long. I know I am, I've never tried to hide that fact. So yes indeed, like every child ever created, I can dislike something just fine without ever having tried it.
Adam ordered the sliders as well, one of each, pork, beef, chicken. I asked for two pork, one beef, we both asked for fries with that.
Amanda had also brought the ravioli along with three saucers and a big pile of paper napkins.  The marinara looked thick and chunky, almost salsa-like. I dipped one, turned it ninety degrees and dipped it again, a method I invented to avoid the need for double-dipping a two bite treat. The sauce was indeed flavorful. The pasta was thick-filled, the filling was pretty good, meaty and cheesy. The pasta itself was a little doughy, but overall I liked it. Angel and Adam disagreed about it, Angel liking it, Adam, less so.   I'll call it a draw. Not the best in every way, but better than some, not as good as others. Mostly, the sauce was the best component.
Amanda took off, we all pulled out our electronic devices. This is something we do, because we live in the 21st century. We finished off the ravioli rather quickly, Amanda stopped by and interrupted our e-stares. "Can I take that away for you?" she asked, pointing to the empty dish.
"Can't you see we're busy?" I scolded. Fortunately she laughed, as Angel thrust her elbow into my side.
The place was starting to fill up, I mean, really fill up. I looked up and saw that all the tables were occupied. I overheard a waitress explaining to some other diners some of the 'different' menu choices, meaning these were people that were regulars during the previous ownership.
Angel looked up as well. "Oh, my. I guess 'dining side' also means senior citizen side." I looked around. Sure enough of the twenty or more tables, we were nearly the youngest group there.
"I think that has more to do with the time of day than anything else." I told her. We do eat out early, starting around five P.M. further perpetuating stereotype that older people eat dinner earlier than youngsters. We do it, not because we're old, it's because of the rigid dog schedule. The dogs dine at 4:30, and while they are sleeping off their meal, we sneak out.
Soon enough the plates arrived. My eyes popped open when I saw Angel's. There were four, count 'em four big thick tacos, served on a metal taco rack. (yes, there apparently is such a thing)
In comparison our sliders and fries looked quite small. Not too small, for my appetite, just about right. In fact I had been pleased that there were only three, not four sliders. The portion of fries was also, pleasantly smaller than expected.
I opened up my sliders. I was a little disappointed. There was not enough pork to cover the small, toasted buns. The same with the beef. It was thick, like made from a ball of beef then flattened a little, but it too was
smaller than the small bun. You can see this in the picture.
However, the taste of both kinds of slider was very, very good. the toasted buns were excellent as well. I just wish they'd filled the buns a little more.
Angel asked Adam about his fries.
"Look!" he said, holding one up horizontally. This was in reference to last week's O'Charley's meal, where the fries were limp. These were able to support their own weight, crisp, as fries should be. Adam really, really didn't like O'Charley's. "Boring and manufactured" He had exclaimed at the time. This reference came up again a couple of times during this meal. "It tastes like they actually made it here." He said of his sliders, instead of the 'manufactured' O'Charley's food.
Angel tore off a juicy chunk of one of her tacos and handed it to me. I tried it.
It was awesome.
Yeah, I mean it, Awesome!  The tortilla was cloud-soft, the fish, and there was plenty of it, was flaky, tender, and delicious. It was perfectly cooked. The sauce and veggies were delightful as well.
Angel pointed out that the fish wasn't breaded and deep fried. "I've seen some of these that looked like fried frozen fish sticks broken up." I had to admit that I had always assumed that's what it was supposed to be. But this, this was something I would actually order. This was something I could look forward to. So yes, Cafe Arnold has changed my life!
However, as I had secretly predicted, Angel could not finish even the third taco, much less the fourth. So she asked Amanda for a box.
Warning: I'm going to go a little long here.
  If you are in a hurry, suffice it to say, for the most part, we loved it. Definitely an A+ for a first week opening.
The bill came in at a very respectable forty six dollars and change. Almost exactly what we paid for a very sub-par meal at O'Charley's the week before.
Since Cafe Arnold is a place we'd never been to, and since it is under new ownership, I'm going to treat Cafe Arnold like a brand new place. I do not know about the history, whatever it was or was not before, to me, is moot.
Loyal fans to this site, yes there are a couple, will know that I tend to give new places a little latitude. I understand that there's a new menu, new staff, new policies and procedures. It also means that we'll visit again in a few weeks/months to see how many of those start-up 'infractions' have been worked through.
Firstly though, the tastes were great. The pork and beef sliders and the fish tacos were simply quite tasty. The service, Amanda especially, was excellent. Well, the service was great throughout the meal.... the end of it, not so much. The wait for the bill and the wait for the receipt were way too long. But like I said, I understand new staff, policies and procedures. The place was very well staffed. I saw at least a dozen staff members just from my vantage point. None were standing around or idle. They all seemed to know what they were doing.
Coverage in the dining area seemed a bit light. Part of the delay at the end was because Amanda was covering a couple of, at least, larger groups. I watched as she patiently explained menu items, etc. to various diners. She was doing her job and doing it quite well. Perhaps spread a little thin though.
Our perspective of her was excellent. She knew the menu, answered our questions, cleared our table, refilled the drinks, all without a problem. I suggest she be given an enormous raise, she was working very, very hard and was not getting noticeably flustered.
The food, as I said, was quite tasty indeed. There were a couple of issues though that could be fairly easily corrected, in my opinion.
1. Fill up the sliders. The meat is not that expensive, the buns are small. The slider plate cost as much as the enormous fish taco plate. There was plenty of meat in those.
2. The menu was a little confusing about the sliders:
"Fresh mini toasted hamburger buns with your choice of cheese, lettuce . . . pickle and French Fries."
I recommend re-writing that part. It sounded to me like the fries were considered a topping instead of a side.
Maybe the sliders are considered a side or an appetizer, I suppose that's possible, but maybe they should be also offered as a 'sandwich' option. That's where I was looking for them, maybe, that's just me. They tasted great though.
3. Enormous taco plate. I'm curious, maybe it's just us, but how many tacos get 'boxed'? That sure was a lot of food. They were very, very good. Angel reheated the fourth one on Sunday afternoon, she said it was still really good.
4. You might likely disagree, but here's another thing I'd really, really like to see. From my seat I could see six of the seven TV's. The only one I couldn't see clearly was the one directly over my head. Could you please, please tune one or two of them to something other than sports?
I understand that sports is/are quite popular. But nobody in the senior citizen's, er, I mean, dining side of the restaurant even looked up at the games very often. I heard no one talking about them. Maybe things were different amongst the younger, hipper, bar side of the house. I understand there are eight TV's in there, but on our side, no one was particularly interested in the games. We probably would be if the Cards were in the pennant race, sure, but Texas vs. Michigan basketball (or whoever it was)? Not so much. How about HGTV, or the Weather Channel, or whatever that channel is that runs those 'How It's Made' marathons on weekends. Have you  ever watched that? The other day I got trapped in my recliner watching them assemble diesel locomotives, followed by a detailed accounting of  producing bronze cabinet door handles. It's simply mesmerizing.
Anyway, I'll  understand if you don't, but I sure would like it if somebody offered alternative options like that.
5. I mentioned this earlier. The meal service was fine, excellent in fact, but the staff seemed to be deployed a little lopsided. I'm pretty sure this will clear up as things become more familiar, but excessive waiting for the bill/receipt can be frustrating.
We really, really liked the food. "Better than expected" is what Angel said, then added "I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was better than that."
Well, I warned you that this would run long. I'm trying to be constructive though, not harsh and pointlessly critical. If we didn't like the place, we wouldn't bother with so much detail.
Good job, new owners, good job!

Cafe Arnold on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 17, 2014


190 Gravois Bluff Cir.
Fenton, Mo.
On the web

Angel saw an ad, or a commercial, for O'Charley's; A Prime Rib Special. So we went.
The Place:
On the hill known as Gravois Bluffs. Gravois, pronounced, at least by me, 'Gravy', and by everyone else as gra-VOY, refers to nearby Gravois Avenue. The word is of course French and is derived from that awful language's words for 'gravelly creek'. Because there's a gravelly creek nearby. The Bluffs consist of a huge shopping area, anchored by stores like Target, JC Penny and H.H Gregg,  and a whole row of restaurants. O' Charley's is one of them.  There's an Olive Garden, and IHOP, and several others. This O'Charley's  is one of 230 in that franchise, which originated in 1969 in Nashville Tn.
We went there last a couple of years ago and liked it just fine. I didn't know that I wanted prime rib, my last couple of experiences with that meat left me wanting something else.
It's kind of like Applebee's, Ruby Tuesdays, etc. in size, layout, menu style and ambiance. There's a bar and several wall mounted TV's tuned to sports. On a curved wall above the dining area the was a mural centered by the word 'Fenton', painted in script, and surrounded by a large guitar, a guy playing a drum, a corn flower and a smiling, long haired, blonde hippie of some kind. I didn't understand it, but then, I'm not from around here.
We were seated in a booth immediately, even though the place was starting to fill up.
We were greeted by a sharp, handsome young man named Zubair. I don't think he's from around here either. He asked about drinks and handed us menus. Tea, tea without ice and Pepsi.

He came back soon, with drinks and a basket of rolls.
The Food:
These rolls, I remembered. They are light, very, very light. They almost collapse under their own meager weight. You can barely avoid crushing them just by picking them up. Tearing one open to rub in some butter flattens them. They taste very good, but they are so fragile that they are almost a delicate nuisance.
We each studied the menu carefully. I had come in with an open mind, no plan or particular craving. I liked the steak+shrimp, until Angel said she liked that idea as well. So I looked at other offerings.  Then I cracked. Catfish. No, I thought, never order catfish from a place that does not boast about it. Some places are actually proud of their catfish and will say so, stating that it is fresh caught, sustain-ably farmed, whatever. I've never heard O'Charley's boast about their catfish, it is really just another alternative item to their actual specialties. So I quashed that temptation completely, better to stick with what they claim to do best.
Until we ordered. Angel indeed went with the prime rib, I opened my mouth, uttered the words steak and shrimp, but pronounced it 'catfish'. I realized it immediately, but could not make myself correct it. The fact was, I really wanted catfish.
Adam chose the chipotle chicken tenders, sided with fries and a bowl of cheesy potato soup. The catfish plate came with hush puppies, fries and slaw, no need to change that. Angel went for a baked potato and a broccoli (blech!) cheese casserole as sides.

I was concerned at first, Zubair asked about our order but did not have an order pad in his hand. I was worried that he was going to try to place the order from memory, an unnecessary  trick that is impressive if done correctly, but so rarely is. To my relief he pulled out a pad and did some scribbling. It may just have been doodles or obscenities, but it did make me feel better.
He seemed sure of himself though and in the end, my concerns were for naught, the meals were served exactly as ordered.
Adam's soup came first. It looked thick and very cheesy. In fact it looked like overly-creamed mashed potatoes. Which is not in itself a bad thing. Adam pushed it around and took a sip, then another and for a while did not make any comment, one way or another, about it. Angel and I toyed with our electronic devices, neither of us had ordered a soup or salad.
Chipotle Chicken Tenders
About one third of the way through the soup, Adam pushed it away. "More cheese and salt than potato." He said. Too bad, it looked good.
The main courses arrived en masse.
It all looked very pretty. Neat, clean presentations. Adam's tenders looked just like sesame chicken, that sweet Chinese restaurant standard that I occasionally crave. The thing about it though is that it is indeed sickeningly sweet after the first few nuggets. That's what his plate reminded me of though.
Prime Rib
Angel's prime rib looked like ham. Pink and moist. I noticed that it fell apart at the touch, "Very tender." she said. She took a chunk and scooped it onto the corner of my plate.
My fish actually looked very good. Toasty golden brown. Though it was filet style rather than nugget, I could excuse this, if it was cooked right.
And it was. I snapped off a crisp corner, steamy hot and flaky inside. I would have to eat it by hand, not a problem, because a fork would have shattered it, it was that crisp and flaky.
I dunked the corner into the 'Louisiana tartar sauce'. Uh oh, that's not right. There was something wrong with the fish, or the tarter sauce, an unexpected, off-putting flavor or spice. I tried a chunk of the fish without the tartar. Not the fish, it was just fine by itself, near perfect. I tasted the sauce again. Yup, that was it. Whatever the 'Louisiana' was in the tartar sauce, it was wrong, just wrong. I'm assuming Tabasco of some kind, there were also dill seeds apparent. Why, WHY screw with a simple, basic thing?  I dipped sparingly after that. Like I said, the fish itself was pretty good.The slaw was good too, not creamy, not too vinegar-y. The hush puppies were overcooked, dry and pointlessly seasoned with 'sweet and spicy bacon sugar.' Hush puppies are cornbread, isn't that good enough? 
Catfish (sigh)
The fries, mine and Adam's, were made from real potatoes, that, I could tell. They however, were not crispy or even firm. They were, for lack of a better word, flaccid. They tasted fine, but had no 'tooth' to them. Neither Adam nor I finished our fries, and we both love us some fries. At least the ketchup in the bottle hadn't been dinked with, just ketchup. I munched away, a little disappointed, unsatisfied with my poor choice.
Angel was struggling with the prime rib. It wasn't necessarily the texture, it was, as she said, very tender. I had sampled it but struggled with an appraisal, as I didn't really discern much of a taste, good or bad. It seemed to me to be more like deli department ham, moist, tender but low in actual flavor.  She said about the same thing. It lacked taste.
She'd dumped the entire ramekin of au jus on it, and said that this made it a little better. Adam delighted himself by getting her to say 'au jus' several times and each time offering a 'gesundheit'  in return. This always cracks us up.
None of us finished our meals.
Adam said his tenders were too sweet after a while. Hmm. "The potato was good." Angel said, trying to be more positive.
This is tough.
When I polled the family, I got a surprise. Adam actually said more words than he normally does, and they were not exactly nice ones. "Boring and manufactured." Is what he said. We were aghast. He certainly has opinions, he just doesn't verbalize them often. That he did articulate them about this meal was very telling.
Angel was disappointed, completely, with the prime rib, both in taste (or lack thereof) and the texture. "It was like flavorless ham."
I liked my fish, but not the modified tartar sauce, the slaw was quite good, but the fries were limp and a bit doughy. The tea? Well, it looked good, but it too was prettier than it was tasty. A minus two, at best.
The bill came in at a reasonable forty eight dollars and change, less than we usually spend at Ruby T's or other similar places. But for that lower price we got a significantly more disappointing meal. I probably should have gone with the steak and shrimp.
As for the service, Zubair was exceptional. He refilled our drinks frequently and our orders were delivered exactly as requested. He was both polite and professional. The fact that we did not like the food so much is not at all a reflection of the young man's efforts.
We've had good meals at O'Charley's before, when we stuck to the basics. It's mainly on us for going off the beaten path. We'll not do that again.

O'Charley's on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hibachi Buffet

331 North Creek Drive
Festus, MO

 Finally! After Months of waiting, Hibachi Buffet opened it's doors on Friday, March 7. If you follow this blog regularly, which you certainly should, you would know that I think this place is a game changer for Festus.
The Place:
Last year Ryans's Buffet abruptly shut down several locations. Within a very short time there were local news reports indicating that Hibachi was taking over the Ryan's location. It's a big place, perfect for their needs.
There are Hibachi's all over the area, even in Springfield, Mo. However they are not a franchise. Each one is independently owned and operated. They do all dutifully follow a business model, layout and and I believe, recipes. Thus they offer pretty much the same things.
Part of that business model is to go big, and invest heavily in classy decor, at least for the entrance. Mural sized stone engravings, crystal-like lighting that shifts colors, large statues, etc. You can tell that there's a huge initial investment in these places.
The entryway was large, it needed to be. When we got there, there was a line. By the time we finished, there was still a line.
Which I found interesting.
Hibachi has almost zero web presence. I have been checking the local paper for updates every week, nothing. On those occasions that I was in Festus, I would look up at the hill and see a sign, 'Coming Soon.'
It was only because Angel went by on Friday that we knew it had finally opened.
It's a big place, and it was packed, and lined up for more.
We're talking hundreds of people on the second night, just in the hour we spent there, with no advertising in any form, other than a 'Grand Opening March 7.' sign in front of the place, along with colorful pennants, like car lots use.
Other restaurateurs probably drool at that sort of prospect. The geniuses behind Hibachi know this area well.  They know exactly what people around here want and they know that don't have to waste money advertising to draw them in.
You pay up front, there are no options other than drink choice. The line moved pretty well, we stepped up. "How many, two?" the lady asked. "Three." Angel replied.
We ordered our drinks, tea, lemonade and Pepsi and waited at  the 'Wait here to be seated counter." Another lady approached, looked at Angel and asked "Two of you?"
"Three" Angel answered.
"Which one of us can they not see?"  I asked. Angel snickered. "You're invisible this evening."
I get that a lot. People at work constantly tell me I sneak up on them. That's me, Mr. Cellophane.*
The place, as I said, was packed. I did notice that there was plenty of staff on hand though, things moved efficiently.
Six or seven steamer lines, aromatic and colorful, paper lanterns were suspended overhead. We were seated at a table and became one group among dozens of others.
The Food:
I decided to do something a little different this time. I went for the Mongolian Grill. There's a couple of places near work that offer these, I've learned to really like them. Offered are raw ingredients. Onions, peppers, mushrooms, bean sprouts, mushrooms, etc. Then there are three or four kinds of thin sliced frozen meats. You take a bowl and mix and match in any combination you like, add some noodles, grab an egg if you want to, and hand the bowl to one of the three or four cooks. They stand around a large round grill. They pour some oil on the grill then plop the stuff in your bowl straight on it. At this location you name your sauce ahead of the grilling. Warning though, if you don't know which of the sauces you want, you would be wise to go with something you recognize. Unlike other places I've been, this place doesn't explain them. I chose 'Mongolian'. Others included Soy Sauce and Teriyaki.
It only takes a few minutes, these guys are good at what they do. They flip it, stir it and slide it onto a plate. My plate was simple. Noodles, onions, green onions, chicken, and peppers, plus one egg. These are things I like. Thus at this station, all the cooks do is heat up what you hand them. If you can handle this sort of pressure, you control the ingredients, portions and seasoning.
On the way to the table I grabbed a couple of  cheese wontons, the closest thing to a Rangoon that I could find. I needed a little crunch with my noodles. The Mongolian sauce is not spicy or hot, it's mild and savory. They offer hotter versions, but like I said, be careful.
Angel and Adam had gone the more traditional route picking many of their familiar favorites. Chicken, shrimp, pot stickers, among them. Adam had plain rice and some broccoli (blech!) and some sweet and sour chicken.
I ate most of my noodles, they were pretty darn good, but I stopped when I realized I needed to sample some of the line offerings. I got up and went around the lines, picking out very small portions of proteins and what the heck, a couple more of those cheese Rangoons. About five or six forms of chicken, then some shrimp. I picked up a pot sticker as well, Angel said they were good.
There was pineapple chicken, bourbon chicken, pepper chicken, and another, I think. The pineapple was sweet, like pineapple, but it also had some kind of pepper on it, maybe chili, and I didn't find that very pleasing. The pot sticker had too much ginger for my tastes, and the bourbon chicken tasted like formaldehyde. All in all I found no real winners in the lot. None of them were really bad, they were all fresh-cooked, but the sauces and seasonings just didn't score very high with my taste buds.
And yes, everything was fresh cooked, you could tell. That much turnover means the cooks must be machines, constantly turning out fresh batches of everything, especially the battered and fried proteins.
I noticed when I sat down that I didn't have any fried rice. Odd, I always get a little fried rice, must have missed it. I mentioned it to Angel and she looked at her own plate. "Hmm, I didn't see any." She said.
I picked through the meats, and had a little more of my noodles. I was nearly full, but I couldn't imagine going to a Chinese buffet and not having bananas in red sauce.
So I made another round.
No bananas in red sauce. This made me sad.

So instead I looked for the fried rice. Found it, it was labeled 'Veggie Fried Rice.' and it was No.2 pencil-yellow. I scooped some up anyhow, just a tasting. I then went back to the dessert line and grabbed a chocolate chip cookie.
My cube-neighbor, Doug,  the fastest human eater alive, had a big bag of home-made chocolate chip cookies on his desk all week. He offered them to everyone telling us to just come by and grab one. I didn't. I stared at those things, smelled them occasionally all week, but never caved to the temptation. However I did think about them often.
So when I saw chocolate chip cookies available on my cheat meal, yeah, I took one. It was overcooked, a little dry, not moist and gooey like those Doug had at work, but I still enjoyed it.
the rice was well cooked, but underwhelming in taste, it barely had any.
When I polled the family, the answer I got was good to pretty good, but no rave reviews for anything in
particular. I liked the Mongolian noodles, but no more than other places I've had them. I never found a chicken variety that I would want again, but I hadn't tried them all.
The place was very well staffed, our drinks were refilled regularly and empty plates taken away quickly. I have to say the food was not really that much better than other places. But the variety was much greater. It is simply not possible to not find some things that are to your liking.
This place is indeed genius. Some towns absolutely love their huge buffets. Back when it was Ryan's, there was never, ever a shortage of customers. That place failed for other reasons, not for lack of patrons. It is easy to make fun of the piggish qualities of Midwestern, small town people. However, though certainly not true about all of them, or arguably most of them, there is a valid reason for that stereotype. Go to a place like Ryan's or Golden Corral, or Hibachi and yes indeedy, you'll certainly see quite a few people that end up getting photographed later at Walmart. You know what I'm talking about.
I've said it before, Americanized Chinese food is not health food. It is no better for you, in any measure, than pizza or cheeseburgers. So yes, you can overdo it at these all-you-can-eat places, very, very easily.
The tea was mediocre at best, I'll give it a plus one, simply because it wasn't old. A place like this probably has to be constantly making tea as well, so it doesn't have time to grow stale and bitter.
The price was downright dangerous.$10.39 per adult during dinner hours. For that low amount you can easily find enough of something you like and gorge yourself to the point of exploding. A bargain.
So yeah, the people behind this place are brilliant. They know the area, they know what people want and they know how to provide it. This definitely changes the game in Festus.
Oh by the way... HaPpY BiRtHdAy Suzi!!!!


*'Mr. Cellophane' is a song from the musical 'Chicago.' A lament  about being a plain, ordinary man that no one ever seems to notice.

Hibachi Buffet on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 3, 2014

Trattoria Giuseppe

5442 Highway 21
Imperial, Mo
On the Internets


If we're going to TG, we must be celebrating something. Indeed, Angel's birthday. Not actually her birthday, but rather, the weekend before her birthday, which is how busy people like us do things.
The Place:
Hard to find if you are not looking for it. There's not a lot of traffic on this section of Old 21, it's not actually in a town, or even within sight of one. It's an industrial area, body shops, gravel plants, a few older houses and trailers. The only signage for the place is on the bottom of a cluttered and worn marquee. It shares a building with a tavern, one with several Harley's and battered pickups parked outside.
But lots of people do look for it. Reservations are highly recommended. Though oddly and obscurely located, this is not some dingy roadside diner. Walk in and you are met by a full staff, this evening sharply dressed in black pants and shirts, with bright red neckties. No booths here, there is a bar off to the left, but this is not a bar and grill, at least on weekends. Once inside and seated you might as well be in New York City.
It's not fancy, if you bothered looking up the definition of the word Trattoria, you'd know that already.*
The building is old, the floors are a little slanty. No fancy tables or decor, just a comfy, homey place. Italian-American music plays softly in the background, Sinatra-big-band style, mostly. On one wall is a cluster of LP  covers, Pavaratti's Greatest hits, the soundtrack from The Godfather, etc. The tables, four tops, are covered in green textured vinyl. The chairs are simple, wood.
On each table the silverware is wrapped in crisp white linen, a shaker of parm and a cruet of olive oil are filled and ready.
They seated us in the back, one of about twenty or so tables. The menus simple, uncomplicated. Pasta, seafood, steaks and Pollo (chicken). There are some appetizers, including the locally ubiquitous fried ravioli.
Lisa asked about drinks.
The Food:
"Sweet tea" said Angel.
"Is regular tea okay? We don't make sweet tea." Lisa answered.
"Sure, but can I get that without ice?"
"Certainly." Lisa scribbled something.
"And you sir?" She asked me.
"Ice tea, please."
"With ice?" she puzzled.
"Of course, we're not the same person, you know." I answered, nodding my head toward my quirky wife.
Adam asked for his Pepsi, she skittered off.
I was in the mood for steak, Giuseppe knows his meat. He chooses wisely and prepares it expertly.
Angel loves seafood, but wanted to try something different. She drooled at the evening's special as Lisa had recited it to us. Steak Pescatore**.
When Lisa came back with our drinks and complimentary bread basket, we ordered.
Of course we all asked for the salad, the soup of the day had the word 'broccoli' in it, so I dismissed that as a possibility immediately.
I went for the New York Strip, with a baked potato. I could have ordered a small portion of pasta or the day's veggie offering, but the day's offering included the word 'squash', so that possibility as well,  I dismissed immediately. I poured a little oil into my saucer, peppered it and dipped some of the excellent bread. The tea was as near perfect as any I've  had anywhere outside my own home, clear, dark, very fresh.
Angel went with the special, sided with the veggie medley. Adam chose the Pepper Loin Filet with a cream sauce pasta side.
We appetized with the fried ravioli. A few weeks ago we dined at a place that boasted the best fried ravioli in the area. They were wrong, Giuseppe makes it better. Fresh, meaty, dipped in a house-made sauce, rich in texture and depth of flavor. I pre-double-dipped mine, dipping one edge, then turning it ninety degrees and dipping it again. This gave me two bites, each one sauced perfectly. I only had one of the treats, I had a potato coming. Angel and Adam scuffled over the rest of them.

Then came the salad. Most places, you order the 'house salad' and you get some iceberg lettuce, a cherry tomato and maybe a couple of rings of onion, with a packet of industrially manufactured sauce. Not here.
There's lettuce alright, and onion and even a couple of cherry tomatoes. But wait, there's more. Artichoke hearts, real olives, a small pepper (peperoncini) and fresh grated mozzarella cheese. All this mixed with the house-made dressing, slightly sweet and creamy. I don't always make a complex salad for myself, I'm from the midwest/south. However it is possible to take a few ingredients and make a salad worth crowing about. This is perhaps, more than likely, the best house salad of any place in the area. I ate most of mine, but not all of it, I had a potato coming. Sure Adam plucked off just about everything but the lettuce and cheese from his, but it still made a very good salad.
One of the things that frequently sets me off in restaurants is the timing of the courses. In the sports-casual franchises, Chili's, TGI-Friday's, Ruby Tuesday, etc. it often seems like a game of chance, more often getting it wrong, either too fast or too slow. Giuseppe is a professional. The courses are perfectly orchestrated. Just enough time to complete the appetizer, or the salad, then just a brief pause, not an awkward impatient timeout, before the next thing arrives. This is important if you are paying more than franchise chain prices. Service is taken very seriously here.
Sure enough, just as we pushed our plates aside, the food came.
A beautiful steak and a foil wrapped potato. Just a sprinkling of parsley was all that was needed to pretty it up. A big splat of dark butter sat melting on the top of the steak. Butter, pepper, maybe some salt and garlic, that's all. A good cut of meat doesn't need anything else. No need for A1 at Giuseppe's. Of course it was perfectly cooked to spec, medium rare. The potato was blemish free, hot and tender throughout. My thick steak was butter tender,
as was Angel's. The difference being the 'pescatore'. Topped with shrimp, scallops, portabella mushrooms and an amber sauce that looked mighty.

On the side she had that squash-y stuff. It did look pretty and  she said the squash was very good. Sure it was.
Adam's smaller steak was pepper-coated and was sided with a small portion of bow tie pasta in a cream sauce. I asked him how it was after he cleaned his plate. "Awful."
That's called sarcasm, he gets it from his mother.
Neither Angel or I finished our steaks. On my part this was deliberate. I was already planning breakfast, steak and eggs.
Angel wanted some kind of decadent dessert, which is fine, it's her birthday and Giuseppe is well prepared for such demands. I've had the cheesecake before, it was exceptional. Angel went dark, dark chocolate that is. Some kind of nuclear chocolate-chocolate cake that only a woman can really appreciate. She got it to-go. Adam joined in with a slice of cheesecake, I declined. That much sugar would put me in a coma. A nice kind of coma, but still. I've gone so long without sweets it's like mainlining heroin anymore. She had it at home a couple of hours later, with coffee. Coffee at seven or eight in the evening. Another thing I can't seem to do anymore.
The service was, as usual, exceptional. Even the younger members of the staff were courteous, professional and competent. Lisa was cheerful, detail oriented and there when needed.
The bill came to $106.14. Yeah, not cheap. That did include three perfect steaks, two desserts and an
appetizer though. "This is the only reason we don't eat here every day, or week, or month." I explained to Adam, who is now working steadily and is becoming more and more aware of the cost of things.
I knew going in that the meal would cost this much, but it's her birthday, and those don't come around every year anymore. We can't do this very often at all, which is okay, it keeps it special.
For us Trattoria Giuseppe is simply as good as it gets.
I've dined in very fine places in NYC, Chicago, Tokyo, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, D.C., Kansas City, St. Louis and more. Those were some very, very good places indeed. As good as, but not really any better than this modest, hard to find, off the path location.
I've said it before and I'm sticking with it. Trattoria Giuseppe, is by every measure,  the very best restaurant in the area.


* Trattoria is an Italian-style eating establishment, less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria.

** Pescatore is, roughly, Italian for 'fisherman'.

Trattoria Giuseppe on Urbanspoon