Monday, July 16, 2007

Eatin' Bad In The Neighbourhood

As my wife is wont to point out, "There are times when you have to eat at a restaurant just to remind yourself of why you don't eat there". This has never been proven more true than during the return journey from our recent vacation to the Outer Banks. We pulled off the road reasonably early in order to secure a nice room and relax after a long day of traveling and chose Beckley, West Virginia as our stopping point. We acquired our room and then went in search of dinner. Now, Beckley doesn't really have much to offer in the way of fine dining, or even mediocre dining for that matter. What they do have are lots of "off ramp" restaurants, like Outback, Cracker Barrel, Chili's and Applebee's. Unfortunately, we chose Applebee's, a place we had not graced with our presence in well over a decade.

Now, for those of you who have failed to see the many commercials for Applebee's, I'll clue you in on what they are doing. Currently, they are offering a menu based around the cuisine of celebrity Chef Tyler Florence. I imagine this is a lucrative side business for Chef Tyler. Unfortunately, the recipes leave a great deal to be desired. My wife and I both had "Tyler's New Yorker"- "A juicy strip steak with garlic butter and thick steakhouse-style onion rings served with a Hearts of Romaine appetizer salad."

We should have known what we were in for when the service started going bad and our waitron disappeared. After an interminable wait and multiple excuses our "food" did finally arrive and I wasn't overly impressed, to say the least. The salad was mediocre, at best. (Hint: Croutons should be crunchy, not hard.) Then came the moment of truth . The Select grade New York Strip Steaks arrived. While they were cooked close to the requested degree of doneness, the "aroma" which wafted from the food was a precursor of the horror to come.

The onion rings were not the best I have had by a long shot. They actually had a hard crust, rather than a crispy exterior. And having only 3 of them was a sure sign of stinginess on the part of the restaurant. The steak was slathered with a ball of "garlic butter" that managed to do to that steak what should never be done to meat. It changed the flavour completely from grilled beef to something that approximated a garlic sausage. The steaks literally tasted like a sausage. It was disgusting, to say the least. They were not finished, as they were nigh on inedible. I would be ashamed to serve such a dish to someone.

Applebee's and Chef Florence are pushing the envelope...of inedibility and bad service. Tyler Florence's recipe for a NY Strip steak leaves a great deal to be desired. Taking a mediocre Select grade steak and making it taste like sausage might be a great feat for some, Chef Florence and Applebee's do it with great ease. Frankly, I could have had a better tasting meal if we'd killed a cat and roasted it over a flaming turd. That's just how bad it was.

Perhaps, in another decade we will return to Applebee's to remind ourselves of what we haven't been missing. Then again, as bad as this meal was it's doubtful that the passage of ten years will suffice.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sam And Omie's - Finest Kind

Just off the main drag in Nag's Head, North Carolina is a small joint called Sam and Omie's. It has a 70 year history in Nag's Head, so the folks there must be doing something right. We stopped in for a quick brunch on our way to Avon, in the Outer Banks and got there just in time for the beginning of lunch. Perfect timing, since it switched us from a breakfast mood to a lunch mode. The waitress was nice and friendly and was right on the spot when we needed her.

As is my usual M.O. when I get to eat out in the OBX I started with a cup of chowder. No disappointments here. That cup was brimming with clams, potatoes, carrot, onion and bacon. The broth was slightly salty, so it needed nothing other than a touch of pepper and it had an nice herbal flavour to it. Pretty yummy stuff and I'll be sure to get it again when I go back.

I treated myself to a combination seafood platter that had fried Shrimp, Scallops, Flounder, Onion Rings and Slaw. The Flounder and Shrimp were excellent and well seasoned. The Scallops were OK. Not great, just OK. A little too moist and the batter coating had no crunch to it. The Cole Slaw was not the best I've had (or made), but it wasn't the worst by any means. Sam and Omie's does have a decent Onion Ring, tho. That goes a long way. Their sauces (Tartar and Cocktail) are a wonder, too and have a nice homemade taste to them. If these are commercial I'd love to know the brand, they taste homemade.

The highlight of the meal was when I got a taste of my wife's Crab Cake. Folks, this may well be the best danged Crab Cake in America. The outside is crisp and the inside is a juicy, crab filled culinary wonder. Every bite is a delightful taste of crab goodness, with little interference from any filler that might be there. It's simply the best Crab Cake I can remember ever eating and I have yet to find another Crab Cake that is its equal. The only drawback to my meal was that their Sweet Tea wasn't quite strong enough or sweet enough for my taste and that's not reason enough to keep me from returning.
We will certainly make Sam and Omie's a stop on our future excursions to the Outer Banks and I highly recommend them to anyone who likes a good Crab Cake.

The rest of the family enjoyed their fare, as well. Club Sandwiches for the kids were a big hit and my wife's Flounder was also well received. Good eats all around!

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not So Hot Hot Shotz

The family and I decided to try out a new place in Indianapolis this past week. Hot Shotz, a beer and food restaurant much admired by the local home brewing and beer connoisseur community. They do sport an admirable selection of micro brewed beers, both bottled and on tap. My wife, the home brewer and connoisseur of beers in the family, was suitably impressed and delighted by their list of draft and bottled beverages. I contented myself with a bubbly lemon lime soda, like the kids.

It was a rainy Friday and the place wasn't crowded at all, so the service was really good and our waiter was right there. No abandonment issues ever arose during our dinner. We ordered our drinks and appetisers (my wife had a card for a complimentary appetiser). We ordered their smoked Hot Wings and I treated myself to a pair of Virginia Oysters on the half shall, (the manager brought an additional oyster to me at no charge. A truly nice gesture). The oysters were what you would expect, being as far inland as we are. They were nice, but not ocean fresh.

The wings....well, the wings were a different story. I like Hot Wings and the flavour in these wings was good. They are smoked for awhile then fried and drenched in a Frank's based hot wing sauce that is kicked up by adding additional heat via jalapeño sauce, according to our waiter. These wings have a unique flavour and a sneaky kind of heat that would make these a winner in any category. But....there was one problem. They were underdone. Still showing some pink at the bone. When I mentioned this to our waiter I was told that it was the result of the smoking. Perhaps some people might buy that. I'm not one of them. As someone who enjoys smoking their own meats I can tell you one fact, vis a vis the smoke rings. Smoke penetrates and colours from the outside in, not from the bone outward. If you order the wings, at Hot Shotz, check for doneness.

As an entree I ordered the Chili and Cheese Pie, a casserole of chili, topped with a cornmeal and three cheese topping. The chili is made from smoked brisket pieces with dark red kidney beans. There was no true spiciness to this dish and no heat to speak of. The overriding taste was one of sweetness that really didn't do a lot for me. I spent most of my time picking out pieces of brisket to eat and avoided the overabundant cap of cheese and the way too sweet chili. Even adding a good dollop of tasty jalapeño sauce couldn't save this dish. The Chili and Cheese Pie gets crossed off my list as too sweet and too overladen with cheese.

My son made a slightly wiser food choice in ordering the Pulled Pork Sandwich. This smoky pork sandwich was really quite tasty, (thanks for letting Dad have a taste!). While it's certainly not a BBQ joint style sandwich it was better than I expected. Sadly, Cole Slaw is an additional side and not the standard which we Southerners use in place of the lettuce, tomato and pickle Hot Shotz uses as condiments. The BBQ Sauce was a bit of a disappointment. It was just a small container of K.C. Masterpiece and not a signature house sauce. That's something they should definitely work on. The thick cut Brew Fries they serve with their sandwiches are thick wedges of potato goodness. Quite nice.

My wife had the Monster Burger and was happy with it. I didn't taste it so I cannot comment on it. Hot Shotz also offers a variety of hot sauces for those who like something a bit spicier in a condiment. They even have a sauce that's almost pure capsaicin at 1 million Scovile units for the truly brave. I'd love to see a larger selection of hot sauces on their rack, tho. Given the numbers of sauces out there I expect that selection to grow.

Even given the quality issues we experienced I would likely be willing to give Hot Shotz another chance. Of course I'd be choosing different menu items and avoiding the wings.

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