Post # 26 A Bad Bad Restaurant Experience

July 30, 2012 at 10:35 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Ever had one of those?  You go to a restaurant expecting, hoping to have a pleasant evening, a good time, and for whatever reason, it all goes south and you vow never to return to that restaurant ever again?  It doesn’t happen to me very often so when it does it sticks out in my memory.  Usually when I recall the experience, I wish I had done something more than I did at the time.  This is one of those times where I think I handled the situation well, but wish I had done more.

It was the time period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve one year.  A good friend had just returned from a trip to Florida and I picked him up from the airport.  It was later in the evening and I asked him if he wanted to stop for something to eat.  We stopped at a good restaurant near his house, part of a chain that we had been to before, though not this specific restaurant.

The place was humming, but not crowded.  There weren’t any tables available immediately so we opted to sit in the bar area and order food from there.  My friend ordered a pretty strong drink since he wasn’t driving, while I ordered a glass of wine.  I really like wine, but you may have heard that before in one of these posts.  We did the whole appetizer, entree, dessert thing at once since we knew the waiter would be a little rushed serving the bar by himself.  He brought us our water and bread right away.

Then some friends of my friend came by, and they proceeded to talk about mutual interests and work, effectively leaving me out of the conversation.  While they were talking, the waiter brought our drinks to us.  My friend’s drink was in a tumbler sized glass and full to the brim and looked really good.  He thanked the waiter and smiled at me in apology, then turned back to his friends.  I wasn’t perturbed or anything, and reached for my glass of wine.  I’d orderd a chardonnay, and the bartender had chosen to serve it in a huge balloon-style glass.  There was probably about 2 ounces of wine in the glass, and since I was paying top dollar for it, I hesitated.

“Excuse me.” I said to the waiter.  “Could you ask the bartender to put a little more wine in there?  It looks very skimpy.”

“It only looks that way because it’s in such a large glass, sir.” he explained.  “There’s really four ounces in there.”

I looked closely at it, trying to reconcile what he said to what my eyes were telling me. “No, there really isn’t.  Could you ask him or her to put a little more in?”

The waiter heaved a large sigh and grabbed the glass with attitude.  He started to turn away when I said, “Tell you what.  Never mind the wine.  Just bring me a glass of water.”

“That’s okay, sir.” he replied.  “I’ll have the bartender put more in.”

I shook my head.  “No, I’d really rather just have water if it’s too much trouble to bring me a fair amount of wine.  And since I’m driving, I probably shouldn’t be having any wine anyways.  The water will be fine.”

He slumped his shoulders just a bit and took the wine away and brought back a glass of water with a lemon wedge.  My friend finished his conversation and turned back to me.

“I’m sorry about that.  Where’s your wine?”

“No worries.” I said.  “I changed my mind.  Too little wine in too big a glass.”

He looked puzzled but didn’t press it.  A few minutes later, another man showed up at our table.

“I’m sorry to trouble you, sir.  I’m the bar manager.  Was there a problem with the wine?”  he seemd very concerned.

“No.” I replied.  “I believe I was short changed on the amount, and when I asked for a larger amount I got an argument and attitude.  Since I didn’t need to be drinking and driving, I changed my mind and went with water instead.”

“Well, sir, all our white wine glasses were being cleaned and rather than make you wait, we chose to use a larger glass.  You were given the correct amount, but it probably just looked like less to you in the larger glass.”

“No,” I replied.  “It looked like less because there was less in it.  But it doesn’t really matter since I’d rather have the water.”

“We’ll be happy to bring you the correct amount of wine, sir.”

“No, it’s not necessary.  The water is fine.  Thank you.”

He left, but didn’t look very happy.  My friend said I was being needlessly stubborn, but I just smiled and shrugged.

Very shortly, the bar manager showed up at our table carrying a glass similar to the one pictured here:

Same size, same style, different color.  This glass holds exactly 9 ounces of liquid.  It was filled to brim to the point where the only thing keeping it from flowing over the edge was water tension.   If I had actually attempted to drink from it, a good portion would have gone down the front of my shirt.  (Well, not really because I seldom allow any wine to be wasted like that.)   He set it on the table next to me without spilling a drop.

“Sir, we’d like you to have a complimentary glass of wine.” he said with a smirk.

I get angry very quickly and this was one of those times.  I was in the middle of a nice salmon dinner with a friend who had been gone for two weeks, and this guy was trying to make me feel like an ass simply for requesting what I felt was correct.

“No, thank you.” I said.  “I told you I didn’t want any wine tonight.”

He faltered for a second.  “But it’s on the house.”

I looked him right in the eyes letting him see the anger in mine.  “You are trying to insult me and I won’t allow it.  You will remove that glass of wine or not, but I won’t be drinking any of it.”

He managed to take the glass away without spilling any.  As I was paying for our dinners, I asked the waiter if there was a restaurant manager available.  A woman about my age showed up quickly and I explained what had happened.  It wasn’t the fact that I felt short changed by the original wine glass, but the behavior of the bar manager that had angered me.  I told her that the likelihood of my returning to the restaurant was small.  She wanted to comp our dinners but I said that wasn’t fair since we ate our fill.

I never did go back to that restaurant, although I did patronized the chain a couple more times.  I have no idea whatever happened to the guy, if anything.  Probably not, but who can say?  I really think bringing me that glass so full it was guaranteed to spill on me was over the top on his part.

So!  Anyone else have any tales they’d like to share?  Feel free!

Post # 25 Travels Abroad #1

July 27, 2012 at 12:27 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

You may be aware if you’ve read this blog for any length of time that I was incredibly fortunate to be able to travel all over the world for my job.  I’ve been to all the continents except Antarctica, and so many countries I don’t remember them all.  Some of those countries and cities, I worked at; some of them, I visited or passed through.  Regardless of the length of time I spent in each place, I was able to get a real sense of the food, and food’s place in the culture.  I recently reconnected with a friend that I hadn’t talked to in over 25 years and she asked me a very thought provoking question.  What was my favorite country or city?  I liked them all (well, except one, but that’s another story) and I liked them for different reasons.  This post is about one of those places.

I visited Sri Lanka back in the late ’90s.  For those who don’t know, Sri Lanka is south and east off the tip of India and is deep in the Indian Ocean.  It’s a place of deep cultural roots, and civil struggle that continues sporadically even today although “peace” has been declared.  The people are friendly, polite, and smile big smiles that seem to wrap around their faces.  They are influenced quite heavily by India and its culture, but still maintains a unique vibe that resonates throughout their lives.

It was amazingly hot when we arrived.  The country is close to the equator so heat is a fact of life.  I was there nearly 14 years ago, but people still wear clothes designed for the heat, saris for the women and sarongs for the men.  There was a lot of hope and high expectation for the future while I was there.  There was a lot of building going on, urban renewal, that kind of thing, and the hotel we were staying at boasted the first indoor modern shopping mall and food court.  We did a lot of the touristy kind of stuff, and at one point we visited an elephant orphanage, a tea plantation, and a famous statue of a smiling buddha.  One evening, I was walking along the sea wall with one of my coworkers and two little boys asked if we were the Back Street Boys who were touring in Asia at the time.  I had to explain to my coworker who they were and I couldn’t tell what bothered me more: the fact that at nearly 40 I knew who the Back Street Boys were, or that I knew their touring schedule well enough to understand the little boys’ confusion.  Chalk it up to very few televsion options beyong MTV.

The food was excellent, as food anywhere usually is.  There was a tremendous Indian influence since we were so close.  Curry dominated, a very spicy, hotly flavored curry that was delicious.  It was always served over a bed of rice and it was the fluffiest, best prepared rice I’d ever had up to that point.  After a few days, though, I got a little tired of my mouth being on fire, so I started asking for sandwiches.  The cafeteria at our workplace was very accomodating, so I was able to get lettuce, tomato, and cheese on toast every day.  It was good, too.

One of my coworkers and I decided to go to a “fancy” restaurant one Saturday and walked into the hotel’s fanciest place in our shorts and t-shirts.  They were very happy to see us and sat us promptly.  There was a minor scuffle as they put our napkins in our laps.  My coworker was less than a year out of the marines and didn’t know what they were reaching for.  We both had some un-named meat which was probably beef but better not to ask, and was meticulously prepared and tasted wonderful!  It was tender and succulent, and expensive!!!  However, curry did not feature in the dish at all and we were both happy for that.

The funniest thing happened after we’d been there about a month.  My coworker, the ex-marine, just had enough of curry and wanted something from home.  He asked if anyone was up for pizza at the mall’s food court, but I was the only taker.  We discovered that the pizza place only sold pizza by the slice.  We finally managed to convince the guy that if he made the whole pizza, we’d buy every slice.  My coworker, however, was insistent that he wanted sausage pizza.  I was happy with plain cheese or pepperoni, but he wanted sausage.  I wasn’t very optomistic about his chances, but let him argue the point until finally the bewildered young man at the counter said, “Sauce?”  My coworker was delighted, thinking he’d finally got through the language barrier.  After a few more minutes we sat and waited and waited and waited.  Finally, the pizza was ready, sliced, and packed into individual slice-sized boxes.  We took them all back to our table with our drinks and happily opened our first box.  We took identical huge bites and sat back in horror.  Rather than use pizza sauce, they had heard “sauce” which they translated as curry sauce.  Curry sauce with cheese on pizza dough.  My coworker almost cried.  But he ate every bite, complaining bitterly with each mouthful.

I wonder if they put curry pizza on the menu after that.

Enjoy!

Post # 24 Good and Wet!

July 25, 2012 at 9:33 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I like cake.  I believe I’ve mentioned that before.  I think cake is some of the best things on Earth.  I’ve eaten cakes made from box mixes.  I’ve eaten cake made from scratch.  I’ve eaten cakes created by artisans.  I’ve eaten cake made by professionals.  I’ve eaten cake made by the rankest of amateurs.  I’ve eaten cakes that looked so spectacular that it was a total shame to cut into them.  I’ve eaten cakes where my name featured in the frosting.  It sounds like I’ve eaten a lot of cake.  I have.

I also make cake.  I’ve already told you about the first cake I made in post # 11.  I’ve gotten a lot better since then.  My trouble is that I never seem to make cake consistently.  I’ve made cakes that were so light you could breathe on them and they’d float away.  I’ve also made cakes that were so heavy they broke the plate I put them on.  I’ve had really successful cakes and cakes that were absolute disasters.  Once, I had a coworker tell me that I made my frosting too sweet, that I used too much sugar.  That puzzled me since cake frosting is basically nothing but sugar suspended in butter or some reasonable facsimile.

I think my struggle for consistency may lie in the mixing process, and also in the recipes I’m using.  I’ve found that making a cake by hand tends to have better results, possibly because the batter isn’t being overworked.   And one recipe will always taste different from another.  I volunteered to make a birthday cake for my brother-in-law once and he chose a yellow cake with chocolate frosting.  Said it was his favorite.  Mine too.  But I couldn’t leave it at that so I researched and found a recipe called The Best Yellow Cake Ever.  It was fairly complicated, but it really was the best ever.  I ate a spoonful of the batter when it was done and had to concentrate on not eating the whole bowl.

I think the best compliment I ever got was from one of my sister-in-law’s clients.  My sister-in-law works part time in a group home for adults with Down’s Syndrome.  They were always struggling a bit to keep everyone clothed and fed, so we donated clothes, etc.  However, one year she asked if I’d make a birthday cake for one of her clients.  It was her birthday and her family couldn’t get a party together.  There was no room in the home’s budget for a party, so my sister-in-law was trying to put something together.  I was happy to contribute.

I decided on a sheet cake since it would be easiest to transport.  I made my Boiled Chocolate Cake (see recipe on the right), and a chocolate butter cream frosting.   I wanted everything to be perfect so I fussed over it all and made it the day I was delivering it so it would be as fresh as possible.  I followed the recipe to the letter and mixed it all up by hand.  I watched the baking process closely and made certain that the cake didn’t burn or get too dry.  It turned out perfectly.

My ex-wife and I delivered the cake to the group home and stayed to watch the party.  The birthday lady was thrilled, so much attention being paid to her, and all this was for her alone!  I can still see the excitement in her eyes as the cake was brought to the table with the candles lit and everyone singing.  The cake was cut and she got the first piece.  She took that first bite and her whole face lit up.

She gave me the best compliment she could.  “This cake is good and wet!” she exclaimed.

We all laughed and I thanked her, telling her that I was happy that she liked it.  She ate that cake with gusto, as did all the other members of the house.

To this day, I think that is the best compliment I’ve ever received for my cooking.

Post # 23 Thai Beef Jerky

July 23, 2012 at 9:32 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Partner/Spouse and I like to go to restaurants and have their appetizers for dinner.  We’ll order one and our drinks, then when that appetizer is done, we’ll order another.  Most of the time, since appetizers are so highly marked up, we have no trouble from the wait staff.  Occassionally, someone will ask if we can order all at the same time.  That doesn’t happen often.

What this does is give us time to relax, enjoy good food (hopefully), experience a restaurant over time, and basically just have a good time.  Most of the time, the appetizers are just smaller bites of the larger menu.  We’ve had some truly memorable meals this way.

Several times, we’ve enjoyed an appetizer so much that we’ve ordered it every time we went to that restaurant.  Once, we even saved an appetizer from being taken off a menu.  One time, we got an appetizer so bad that it was removed from a menu.

We’d seen a place in our meandering that was attached to a hotel around the corner from where we were living at the time.  We’d only been dating for a couple of weeks at this point and were still trying to impress each other, and still trying to get to know each other.  I suggested this particular place because I’d heard good things about it.  And it had a live band.

We showed up and were shown to a table and all was fine.  I noticed that they had a hot crab and artichoke dip appetizer so I ordered that while partner/spouse ordered bbq chicken wings.  When the apps arrived, I took a toasted pita wedge and spooned up a healthy bite.  Hmmm, I wasn’t too impressed yet, but hoped it would get better toward the center.  After a couple of bites, I looked at partner/spouse who already had bbq sauce on his fingers and face.  He tried it as well, but the flavor hadn’t improved at all.  It tasted like a really really bad tuna casserole.  The waitress came by to ask how everything was and I asked her to take the dip away and bring me some chicken wings.  She explained that nobody ever liked the dip and mostly the wings were popular.  I asked her why she hadn’t told me that, but she didn’t really have an explanation.  I told her that if no one liked it, it shouldn’t be on the menu.  She agreed.  We spent the rest of the evening eating chicken wings of various types.  The next time we went, the dip wasn’t on the menu.  Several other things were missing, as well.

There was a nice Thai restaurant nearby that we liked, but one day we went and it was boarded up.  No explanation or anything.  Just gone.  We boo-hooed for a while and went somewhere else.  However, the closed store was near where we normally shopped anyway, and very soon another Thai food place opened in the same spot.  We went soon after the opening, and as is our habit we started ordering appetizers.  One of those was called Thai Beef Jerky (see recipe on the right.)  It was wonderful!  We had two while we waited for our meals to arrive.  I probably chose my regular Chicken Pad Thai.  It’s a good dish to test a new restaurant with.  We went to the restaurant every couple of weeks for a while but after a couple of months, they changed their menu.  No Thai Beef Jerky!  We asked about it, and expressed our disappointment.  Within minutes, there was a plate of beef jerky at our table free of charge!  The next time we went to the restaurant, it was back on the menu.

When we moved to our current city and brand new in town, we decided to go to an old standby, chain restuarant since we knew what to expect.  But when we got there, we were surprised.  First, it was dinnertime on a Sunday and the place was nearly empty.  Found out later that most people were in church, so we learned when to go out to eat.  Second, the menu had changed and there were several new items being tested nationally.  We got the tastiest asian tacos we’d ever had.  And I got to have some of the best citrus marinated calamari.

Enjoy!

Post # 22 Rice Rice Baby!

July 20, 2012 at 10:15 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Several years ago, I was in a rather poor island nation working for a few weeks.  One night, my coworkers and I decided to have dinner at a nicer restaurant, rather than street food, or hotel food.  The restaurant was at the top of a tall building so the view of the sunset and ocean were fantastic.  The food was delicious, served quickly and professionally, and plentiful.  I had ordered mine with rice, but had the choice of potatoes or flat bread.  We had an enjoyable time and as the evening neared its close, I was chasing a few stray grains of rice around my plate with my fork.  One of my coworkers said, “Joe, I’m sure they’ll bring you more rice if you just ask.”  I looked at my plate at the two grains of rice still sitting there and chuckled.  “No, it’s more that I really like rice than I’m hungry for more.”  I still laugh when I think about how he thought I was chasing two grains of rice because I was hungry.

The history of rice is based on human hunger.  It accounts for nearly a quarter of the calories consumed world-wide, with most of those calories being consumed in third world countries, or emerging countries.  The only grain that’s more heavily grown is corn, or maize, and the majority of that goes to stock keeping rather than human consumption.  There are literally hundreds of varieties of rice grown around the planet, but the human consumption is based on three varieties – Long Grain, Medium Grain, and Short Grain.  There are many many varieties of each of them, and use of each variety is determined by the dish being made.

Long grain rice is more flavorful, drier, less sticky, more prone to individual grains.  This is the preferred rice of Indian cuisine.  My personal favorite is basmati.  Short grain rice is more glutinous, sticky to a point of being pasty, and rather bland.  It gets most of its flavor from the spices and liquids it’s cooked in.  It’s the preferred rice for gruel, puddings, risottos, etc.  Medium grain rice falls in the middle.  It’s used in sushi and the like.  Instant rice is usually medium grain white rice that’s been fully cooked, then dehydrated.  It loses consistency and taste, but is convenient.  With a little planning, it’s easy to have fresh, flavorful, nutritious rice rather than having to resort to instant.  Rice is also differentiated between white and brown.  White rice is just rice that has had the husk and bran removed in the milling process, while brown rice has the bran still intact.  Brown rice needs to cook longer and has more nutrients due to the bran.

When I talk about the differences in rice, and the relative merits between one type of rice and another people look at me like I’m crazy.  However, Jasmine rice and Basmati rice have two distinctive flavors to me, and two entirely separate uses.  Arborrio rice is used for a risotto.  Sticky rice is a treat to itself.

Most Americans were raised on rice kits or instant rice.  The convenience of these are immense.  Throw water and rice kit in a pan, and thirty minutes later you have a complete side dish without the fuss.  However, you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer as to how it’s going to taste.  If the kit is too salty, or the instant too bland, there’s not much you can do about it.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are some amazing rice kits out there.  My two personal favorites are Goya Yellow Rice, and Near East Rice Pilaf.  But making rice is so easy and so inexpensive that it really should be mastered.

First, understand that rice picks up the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with.  Any spices and seasonings you use are going to be intensified in the cooking process.  Second, the way you prepare the rice and the kind of rice being used has an impact on the final process.  We’re going to talk about a basic cooked rice that can be thrown together in about a half hour and is essentially foolproof.

The proportions are 2 to 1.  Two cups of liquid to one cup of rice.  This will yield three cups of cooked rice.  Plain water can be used, but results in bland tasting rice.  I typically use chicken broth because it gives the rice a great flavor that goes well with any meal.  Vegetables, meats, etc can be added during the cooking process to make the rice dish a heartier meal, but that’s a discussion for another day.

In a medium sized pan with a tight fitting lid, heat 1 Tbls of oil and add 1 cup of uncooked rice.  Heat rice thoroughly stirring frequently until it starts to brown.  Allow the rice to brown to a nice color of your preference.  The rice will begin cooking at this point, but that is fine.  Do not allow the rice to burn.  Add two cups of liquid of choice.  Bring the liquid to a boil, place lid on pan, reduce the heat to very low.  Simmer for twenty minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.  Remove pan from heat and allow to sit for five minutes.  Fluff rice before serving.

Easy peasy!  I’ve never had this method fail on me.  You can saute onions before adding the rice to give it a nice flavor.  You can mix liquids, such as chicken broth and white wine.  You can add sesame seeds at the fluff stage to give it a nuttier flavor.  It’s all good.

You may find yourself chasing the last two grains of rice around your plate!

Enjoy!

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