Sunday, August 31, 2008

Seldom Blues Gospel Brunch, Detroit Michigan

Sure I can eat a lot and sure I love food....I mean, I used to be 280lbs....but still, buffet tends to mean low quality and I'm not a low quality kinda guy. The last buffet I dined at? Either Bellagio or Paris in Las Vegas. With that said, when I heard that there was an upscale, white-tablecloth soulfood brunch buffet with included Gospel/Jazz performance at Seldom Blues, I had to check it out.

Arriving at the beautiful Renaissance center in the midst of Detroit's Jazz fest was quite interesting despite the continued I-75 construction disaster....I've honestly not seen Detroit so busy since the Superbowl was in town. The riverfront was beautiful and the vibe was great while parking was ample despite the huge numbers of people in town.

Finding our way to Seldom Blues we were quickly seated at an excellent table off to the corner of the stage by the incredibly gracious staff and after a quick trip to the restroom to wash up (A restroom attendant? Stylin!) the food-fest began. Southern Chicken, Cornbread, Sweet Potato Muffins, a Southern Waffle station, Bread Pudding, Cornmeal Oysters, Mac n' Cheese....there was no doubt I was going to leave stuffed.

Before getting into the food, I must say the music was fantastic as the Michael McDonald lookalike played everything from Miles Davis to Luther Vandross flawlessly on the Sax and managed to sound Bluesy with his vocals without sounding cheesy. Twice he left the stage to personally serenade Birthday parties and an elder couple enjoying their anniversary stood to dance. The restaurant itself is equally impressive with a great view of the river, multiple
divided rooms for private parties (there was a group there mourning the loss of a loved one in one room and a wedding party in another,) and the buffet layed out in sections of mains + sides, salads + breads, desserts, and the waffle station in the kitchen. Now onward to the food.

First off, everything was beautiful, fresh, and high quality....better than even the best Vegas buffets in quality and presentation. Skipping over the salads (I eat 2-3lbs of veggies daily, a day off is okay) I grabbed a cornbread and sweet potato muffin, two southern fried chicken breasts, and a scoop of 4-cheese macaroni. The chicken was juicy, crispy, and tender with a perfect good as any fried chicken I've ever tasted and definitely on par with Roscoe's "famous" version in LA. The cornbread was relatively standard, perhaps a little too finely ground, while the sweet potato muffin was wonderful with a lot of density and even more flavor. The showstealer of the plate, however, was the Mac n' cheese with its thick cheesy topping and perfect creaminess. No oily residue from any of the items was noted, a great indicator
that the ingredients used were of good quality.

Plate number two was a trip to the waffle station....or should I say sundae station? Hand poured buttermilk waffles were made to order and toppings included three butters (plain, banana walnut, and mixed berry), 5 types of fresh fruit (apples, bananas, blueberry, raspberry, strawberries), whipped cream, walnuts, and Michigan Maple syrup. Feeling gluttonous I opted for the berry butter, whipped cream, nuts, syrup, and blueberries, raspberries, and
strawberries. Perfect. The butter was fantastic and should be served everywhere, the berries were fresh, and the waffle....lets just avoid the Roscoe comparison and say its was better, and vastly superior in flavor and consistency to the ones served at Detroit Breakfast House as well.

Plate three entailed handmade garlic creamed corn, more mac n' cheese, cornmeal oysters, roasted fingerling potatoes, another cornbread, and a biscuit with country gravy. The corn was a tad garlicky, even for myself while the potatoes were excellent in taste, texture, and saltiness. The oysters were appropriately briney yet perfect in texture and not overtaken by the batter. Finally, the gravy was decent and thankfully light on the pepper, but
that biscuit was transcendent.

Plate four, not yet full enough for dessert, I opted for another piece of chicken and 1/2 a waffle, this time with the almond banana butter, whipped cream, walnuts and syrup. Another hit. In addition I tried the jalapeno cheddar grits which, while good, were a little too runny for my taste. Again, however, looking at my plates, no grease at all.

Plate five was two small plates of desserts from which I ate 1/2 of a peanut butter macadamia nut cookie, a thin slice of carrot cake, and a sizeable scoop of bread pudding. While the carrot cake was delicious and the frosting perfect, I'm not a big carrot cake guy and gave most of the slice to my dining companions while focusing my attention first on the remarkably crisp yet buttery cookie and the remarkable bread pudding. Normally buffet bread pudding is pretty mediocre, but this stuff was better than any I've found at a restaurant menu in the midwest. Cubed brioche, cherries, cranberries, raisins, butter, bourbon, and cinnamon all melded to form a very complex flavor that bested any cinnamon roll and despite being kept in a serving tray, no aspect of the pudding was too dry or too wet. Wonderful execution, worthy of a menu anywhere.

Not quite stuffed I opted to try the cherry cheesecake in addition to another helping of bread pudding and a small lemon meringue. The cheesecake was excellent with a good balance of density and flavor, but being stuffed I only ate a very small part of what I took. The meringue was quite good, albeit too dense for my level of satiety. The bread pudding? Well, I was willing to feel stuffed for that.

All told, the meal was quite delicious and everything was of the utmost quality. The flaws of Seldom Blues Gospel Brunch, however, are twofold. One correctable, the other perhaps me being cheap. First of all, the price is not cheap. While we were quoted $34 on the phone, the actual price was $38 per person. Taking into account the quality of the food served its not a "bad"
deal, especially with the live (and excellent) entertainment and great view, but a $38 buffet in Vegas usually entails a variety of seafood (yet certainly not the best quality.)

The bigger issue was the service. While everyone was quite cordial, it took my sister nearly 45 minutes to receive hot tea and my mother almost 30 to get cold tea....and refills were scant. There was the excuse of "being busy," which is certainly true, but like Breakfast House the management needs to have more servers if this is the case. In addition to this gripe, I must admit I was a tad annoyed (despite being quite full) that despite saying they serve from
11:00-4:00, they began titrating down the dessert table at 2:00. When we arrived, a fine looking white cake, chocolate cake, and Turtle Cheesecake were all available, yet by 2:00 none of these were around and the dessert table looked like it had been ravaged by a tornado. For the price and quality of the food, more attention to detail would be a vast benefit.

All told, I had a great time and the food was stellar, but likely not worth the price for a repeat visit. Browsing the evening menu, perhaps adding the crabcakes and froglegs, salmon, calamari, etc would make the price more fitting, or perhaps simply hiring a few more servers would make things run a bit more smoothly. I realize this buffet is a new concept for the restaurant so clearly it will need a little fine tuning, but for now I'd say it is good with room to
be great.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lola, Cleveland Ohio

I've enjoyed Flay and been blown away by Batali, thus when Clevelander Michael Symon was named the new Iron Chef I knew it was only a matter of time before I made the trip to Lola. Having seen Chef Symon on Food Network a number of times over the past few months I admit I like his attitude and personality.....alas, his flagship restaurant and food didn't live up to the hype.

With my sister returning to Cleveland for her final year of school we'd spent a long day moving boxed and arranging furniture prior to our 5:15 Saturday reservations. Early? Yes. Strangely so considering the hostess on the phone told me this was "the only time available," yet the restaurant was nowhere near full when we completed the meal at 7:20. On entering the restaurant I will admit I was duly impressed with the dark wooks, hypnotic acrylic bar, beautiful chandaliers, and wide open (Momofuku style) kitchen. Admittedlly the place was VERY dark, but eating so early provided plenty of ambient outdoor light through the gorgeous front windows looking out onto the interesting 4th Street district of Cleveland.

The hostess was pleasant and we were seated promptly at a great seat with full view of the kitchen. Chairs were relatively uncomfortable, albeit pretty, and the table setting was visually quite impressive. Servers were dressed "cool casual" with jeans and poorly tied ties while kitchen staff wore Symon's mechanic-esque buttondowns.

With regard to service, there were hits and misses. Our server, a cocky fella named Tony K, definitely knew the notably short menu well and sold each dish adequately, but vastly overstepped his role when I attempted to place an appetizer order for the group (myself and 3 ladies) and he bluntly told me "we'll let the ladies order first." This move essentially led to ordering mains before appetizers and the table accidentally forgetting to order a couple side dishes until after appetizers were consumed. Awkward. Water was filled quickly and repeatedly, but the table bread was anemic and a total afterthought....white bread, plain butter, five 3/4" thick slices from what I presume was a baguette. Yawn.

Watching the kitchen was actually quite interesting and a novelty here in Ohio. Each dish was constructed via chefs, sous-chefs, and servers in a stylish and fresh manner, yet the kitchen was very quiet and pristine, much like Momofuku in NYC.

Appetizers arrived in short order and were beautiful and tasty, albeit quite petite in portions. Crispy Veal Sweetbreads w/ leeks, blue cheese, mushrooms were perfectly seared, crisp, and well textured with a great balance of of the better presentations I've encountered. Crispy Shrimp w/ soft cheesy polenta, chilies, cilantro were less impressive with a relatively basic fried shrimp that my mother enjoyed vastly more than I - I will admit the polenta was fantastic, however.

The highlight of the appetizers, by far, was the Fresh Berkshire Bacon w/ fruit slaw and BBQ sauce.....on par with anything David Chang is doing in NYC, perfectly textured, and an amazing contrast of the salty fatty pork with the crispy sweet fruit - a MUST order if you visit.

Timing for the mains was delayed for unknown reasons (40 minutes and a few plates of mediocre bread between apps and mains,) but when they arrived everything was once again attractive. Portions of the fish dishes were small while meats were substantially larger.

Halibut w/ Morels, Beans, Herbs, Gnocchi was poorly seasoned and bland overall, but the herb sauce was quite tasty with a complex blend of cilantro and rosemary. Being a huge fan of gnocchi I was disappointed that only 8 small pieces were presented, though the texture was quite good.

Black Bass w/ Clams, Mussels, Saffron Potatoes, Olives was well cooked and well textured, but suffered somewhat from an overly salty broth and far too few Mussels and Clams (2 of each if I counted correctly.) The potatoes were excellent.

Beef Hanger Steak w/ pickle sauce, chilies, lola fries I did not taste as I don't particularly favor beef, but the pickle sauce was (once again) on par with Momofuku and the fries (double basted in lard with rosemary and sea salt) were excellent.

The highlight of the mains, like the apps, was the pork. Smoked Berkshire Pork Chop w/ Chilies, cheesy polenta, bbq onions was large, flawlessly fatty yet perfectly textured, salty yet clean, and served with a perfect contrast of smooth cheesy polenta and sweet/spicy chilies/bbq onions. As good as any pork I've ever encountered and the highlight of the menu by far.

A side of butter sautéed mushrooms was substantial and delicious, shared by the table.

Desserts.....desserts were underwhelming, undersized, and overpriced. $9/ea and incredibly small in portions, none were truly mindblowing although one was certainly unique and another had promise that fell far short.
The much hyped 6am special - French toast w/ maple bacon ice cream, carmelized apples was tiny, tasty, and unique, but in reality only a slice of bread drowned in butter and syrup, less than 10 grams of apples, and a tiny scoop of vanilla icecream with berkshire bacon bits embedded.

Savannah Summer - Cornbread, Butter ice cream Peach jam, candied pecan was also quite small and while the butter icecream was quite impressive and tasty, the cornbread was dry and flavorless with a tiny smear of jam that tasted no better than Smuckers. The highlight of the dish was actually the caramel cookie decoration.

Sangria berry Sundae - Blueberry sorbet, chantilly cream, black pepper crumble was another unimpressive dish, though the sorbet was delicious....if there was any black pepper crumble, it was undetectable and somewhere buried in the mildly flavored cream.

Strawberry Short Cake - Mascarpone mousse, strawberry sorbet, lemon curd, almond was possibly the least impressive with only the lemon curd tasting truly inspiring and the cake so small that once everyone had a sliver there was only ~2 inches left.

Coffee was a relatively full bodied English peaberry served from a standard coffee the bread this aspect of the meal appeared to be an afterthought, like Chef Symon said "Oh yeah, people might want, just call the distributor and see what they've got in stock"

After dinner we were served Key Lime and Black Pepper jellies along with the bill....these freebies were better than any of the desserts.....and only slightly smaller.

At $58/pp after tax and tip without any drinks, this certainly wasn't a "break the bank" kind of meal, but I've spent less at "Iron Chef" restaurants (Babbo, Otto, Mesa Grill) and been vastly more impressed. I've also spent less at M@Miranova, Rosendales, Rigsby's, Lindey's, and Worthington Inn in Columbus and been vastly more impressed. All told, Michael Symon does two things extremely well - Pork and Polenta - while doing a number of other things adequately, but at far too high a pricepoint for the quality or experience. Sure, he has a great TV personality that many chefs may lack, but for such a celebrated name/restaurant, Lola likely isn't in my top 10 for Ohio let alone all time. More attention to detail, more intuitive servers, more appropriate pricing.....Lola just isn't enough.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Z Cucina di Spirito, Columbus Ohio

Quite frankly, the raw number of 5/5 reviews of this place speaks to two facts: #1) Too many people think of Olive Garden and Buca as 'good Italian' and simply haven't been to enough quality Italian restaurants and #2) the Columbus Italian scene is severely lacking. With that said, Z Cucina is a good restaurant with some standout items, but the whole experience can be summed up in a single word: "Uneven."

Although reservations were suggested they certainly weren't required for 4 people on a Saturday night at 7:00pm in early August. Valet parking was a deal at $4 and we were seated promptly, yet unforunately half underneath a vent blowing cold air quite briskly...being that Z Cucina is actually an old fish store (the fantastic Byerley's...RIP) there is a lot of unevenness to the room, ventilation, and layout. Water was served promptly and refilled rapidly....almost annoyingly, as the juvenile water boy bobbed and weaved around me like a young boxer...I eventually moved my glass to my non-dominant side to avoid this annoyance. Equally rapid and more annoying was our server, Chris, whose pseudo-Italianisms and meth-like delivery of the specials was akin to the micro-machine man moreso than to an experienced waiter. Certainly he knew the menu, but pace is the trick. Those issues aside, the food was pretty good....but once again suffered from unevenness.
First off, the bread, although served in 5 varieties from olive to rosemary to white to wheat was good but suffered from too much surface area (crisp) and not enough center (soft,) while the garlic butter was overpowering. Next up, the Z Tasting Plate with Bluefin Crudo, Ricotta Spinach Spread, Orange-Arugala-Fennel Salad, Calamari Fritti, Parmigiano Risotta Fritters, House Made Mozzarella. A ton of options for a mere $19, no item was bad, but the only one that truly stood out was the incredibly fresh crudo with melt-in-your-mouth bluefin tuna as fine as any high end sushi shop....the rest were relatively standard fare and the squid was tough/gummy.

For mains we selected:
1) Garganelle con Langostina with artisanal pasta, langoustines, sundried tomatoes, spinach, and seafood cream sauce -- Decent with well done al dente pasta and great tomatoes, but notably shredded langoustine clearly from the body and not the claw. The cream sauce, noted to be light, was significantly briney and actually hindered the dish even for a seafood lover like myself.

2) Tortellini Gamberi with cheese, jumbo shrimp, asparagus, prosciutto di parma, lemon and butter -- Great shirmp, delicious sauce, but poorly cooked Tortellini that was simply too tough for my palate, though my mother enjoyed it.

3) Cappesante al Forno Roasted scallops, grilled corn polenta, pickled pear tomatoes, red onions, and fennel -- Incredible Scallops, well seared, and a deliciously creamy yet textured Polenta....yet completely offset by sour and acidic pickled tomatoes. This dish could have been amazing were it not for the tomatoes which unbalanced all aspects of the dish.

4) House Made Gnocchi with Pesto, shrimp, sweet tomatoes -- The pesto was stellar, the shrimp plump, and the tomatoes delicious (the kind of tomatoes that could have made the Cappesante)....but as I've noted in the past, gnocchi is either done right or done wrong and this was UNEVENNESS at the max. Some pieces soft and perfect, others tough and gummy...and considering the griddle marks on the noodles I get the idea the chef was aware (grilling to firm up overcooked gnocchi gone soft is a 'technique' of sorts.) Disappointing.

For dessert, like many other Columbus staples, Jeni made an appearance in nearly every dish. Selections included:
1) Lavender Peach Tarte Tatin with Salty Caramel Ice Cream -- Delicious and large with wonderful peaches and a crispy crust yet a perfect air of Lavender that greeted both the tastebuds and nostrils, this dish was further complemented by the wonderful dip of salty caramel at its center. A standout for sure amongst the choices, but not as good as that at Rigsby's the night before.

2) Chocolate Crespelle with Black Currant Syrup, Hazelnuts, Basil -- Interesting, like a baked crepe with 72% dark cocoa in the middle, but nothing special and neither the syrup nor basil were notable over the dominant chocolate tones.

3) Panettone Bread Pudding with Cherry Lambic Sorbetto -- Undoubtedly better than the poor versions served at Lindey's and Deepwood, this dessert was actually quite tasty. Then again, when you take a world famous bread, douse it in cream, and top it with award winning icecream, how can you go wrong?

4) Butterscotch Panna Cotta with Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti -- Their trademark dessert, this one was a glimpse of flawless evenness and wonderful taste. A thick top layer of butterscotch flan over a base of gooey caramel, the only thing that could have made this dish better was some beignets for dunking a la Michael Mina.

Coffee was Staufs and as Staufs always is, underwhelming, but refilled rapidly and at no extra charge.
All told, Z Cucina is a good restaurant in a trendy neighborhood, but needs some work. A four or five star Italian establishment should be elegant yet unpretentious, refined yet whimsical, and most importantly flawless in delivery of an experience. In my opinion, this Z seems like the sort of place where good and not-so-good flow minute-to-minute and that just isn't the kind of place that breeds repeat business. Better overall experience and better dessert than Tucci's or Trattoria la Tavola, but the food at Trattoria is slightly better overall. None of them are even remotely close to Rigsby's, however.