Mar 25, 2008

Trotters Revisited

The Casual Restaurant Critic has reviewed Trotter before (in 2005 and 2006) and so it's about time for an update.

Last night the CRC and his BH (you should know what the initials stand for by now) had a late, after work dinner at Trotters.

Turns out that Mondays are pretty quiet and you can get a table quickly and the waiters aren't rushed and... there is a wine special on. You get a discount of $200 pesos on any bottle of wine on their 'regular' list, which has some good ones, and $500 off per bottle on their short 'Gran Cava' wine list, which contains names like Chateau Jenesaisrien and others that are completely unfamiliar to the uneducated palate of the Critic.

In a nutshell, dinner was very good. A bottle of shiraz; cooked-to-perfection Steak au Poivre with hot, seasoned pommes frites; a refreshing watercress salad; steak medallions with an espresso crust (interesting but not as good as the steak au poivre) with creamy broccoli and roasted asparagus.

Desserts were of the oversized, cakey, heavy variety and after a steak dinner, it would have been just too much, so no desserts this time. Besides, on the one occasion when the desserts were sampled, they were not at all up to par with the rest of the menu.

A great night out in a spectacular room for $90.00 Not cheap, but a very agradable way to spend a couple of hours with someone you enjoy being with.

Mar 24, 2008

El Fogoncito - Altabrisa Mall, second (and third) visit

Friends called up and said 'hey let's meet at Altabrisa mall for dinner and gossip - we can have dinner at Chili's'. With much trepidation, hesitation and consternation (considering the Critic's only-too-recent frozen experience with Chili's Liverpool) the Casual Restaurant Critic accepted, only for the chance to catch up with friends he hadn't seen in a while.

Lo and behold, upon arriving, the gods smiled on the group in the form of a darkened Chilis! But then the Critic realized that the gods have a sense of humor and that the smile was sarcastic, because directly in front of Chili's, the Fogoncito was all lights.

The Critic had been to the Fogoncito on a previous occasion or two and was still willing to give them the benefit of the opening-blues doubt. On this visit, the group of 7 was looked after in a timely fashion by a friendly waiter who seemed earnest, as did one of the managers who inquired as to how was the service, were orders taken, that kind of thing.

The food at the Fogoncito, as the Casual Restaurant Critic's 17 readers know by now, is in the Mexican taco genre, with meats, melted cheeses and red and green tomato salsas. Try the Sopa Azteca, which is a thick, savory, tomato-y broth with melted cheese, sliced avocado, crispy fried tortilla strips and a poblano chile floating on top. Bite into this chile at your own risk. It is by no means a challenger to the King of Chiles, el habanero yucateco, but it can be spicy. The Fogoncito's guacamole has been consistently excellent; fresh, green and chunky - the only caveat is the freshness of the tortilla chips that accompany the guacamole. There are always two (or more) chips that are noticeably soft and as the Mayans would say, sat's. Again, for a taco restaurant, soft tortilla chips that are supposedly crispycrunchy is unforgivable. The Critic had, on this occasion, something whose name escapes him at this writing but was a tortilla made of fried cheese, wrapped around a chopped pork chop with bacon. After eating this the Critic popped a vein and had to be taken to the Star Médica hospital nearby for a thorough artery cleansing. Kidding.

The margarita - on the rocks, not frozen - came in a highball glass, about two thirds full but was extremely heavy on the sweet syrup and the Critic couldn't finish more than a swallow or two. A Michelada (Sol, Tecate etc . no Coronas at the Fogoncito) was ordered instead, and that was very refreshing. Their horchata, with a dash of cinammon on top, is also the best in town.

So far so good. And it was. There was nothing to bitch about on this visit and the Fogoncito seemed well on the path to redemption in the Casual Critic's aging eyes.

* * * * * * *

But alas, all is not well in the land of the soft tortilla chip and the excellent horchata.

Another visit, a few nights later after a hard days' labor, resulted in a backslide for the Fogoncito, the Critic and his better half decided on a quick taco there. The table was greeted with a half-covered yawn by an exhausted waiter who commented that he was working a double shift. Nice of him to share that tidbit of information. The service went downhill from there. The food came out in shifts, with the arrachera accompaniments served along with the other people's main dishes, with the actual meat appearing several minutes later. Salsas were running low at one point and another waiter took the entire salsa structure (the multiple little bowls contraption), never to return. After much hand waving and trying to get the attention of a hearing-deficient head waiter (you can tell the difference by the color of their shirts) another, different waiter was convinced to provide fresh salsas, all the while the food waited since you can't enjoy a taco without salsas, right? Terrible service and again, the Fogoncito slipped down a couple of notches in the Casual Critic's humble opinion.

Mar 12, 2008

Speaking of Refried Beans

The Onion, that online newspaper, had a funny headline the other day. You can read it here.

Mar 10, 2008

Chilis - Galería Liverpool Mall

Oh what fun, it is to find, such a lousy place to trash!

Chili's with the Mini-Critic. She was hungry, the Critic was not. The Critic asked for a Margarita, not a regular one mind you, but a "Top Shelf Margarita". The photo showed a frosty glass mug, salt rimmed and the margarita with ice. Perfect for thirst quenching after a nice MSG-infused lunch at Win Fa in the Gran Plaza!

The waiter came back after an eternity with the naranjada for the Mini-Critic. A while later, the margarita appeared, slushy as a 7-11 Slurpy. Not what he ordered, the Critic took one sip and then called the waiter. You can't quench your thirst with a slushy, thick Slurpee.

The Critic waved his arm to get the attention of the waiter who was busy talking to one of the eight other waiters and waitresses in the barely-occupied restaurant. "I wanted this on the rocks, like in the photo. Not 'frozen'"

A puzzled look came across the waiter's face. "Asi vienen" he said. (this is how we make them). No, the photo indicates otherwise and the description reads 'frozen or on the rocks'. So he took the drink and was gone for a while before he came back, with the same drink and said that that was how they were made (yes, already said that) and if the Critic wanted another one, he - the waiter - would have to pay for that one.

So whatever. The Critic, still thirsty ordered another one, on the rocks, and said to charge him or not, whatever. "Can I take this one then?". "Yes, please do." A long while later, another margarita appeared, this one on the rocks and delicious.

More hand waving to get the order for food.

The Mini-Critic's sandwich arrived; unfortunately the fries were from earlier as demonstrated by their soft texture and luke warm temperature. The Critic had already given up on Chili's by this point, so no further complaining was in store for the absent minded, nervous and completely clueless person masquerading as a waiter.

He then had a flash of inspiration gleaned perhaps from a moment when he was paying attention during the training process and came to the table to ask "Is everything alright with your sandwich, Miss?". This was so contrived that the Mini-Critic almost lost her mouthful of food, trying not to laugh outright.

More hand waving for the bill. The bill one gets at the table has a space for adding the tip, before they take one's credit card and that bill to run it into the cash register. This is different and since the letters are so small, the blind Critic can no longer read and so was told by the waiter that if he wanted to leave a tip then that was the time and the place to put it was on the bottom of that little bill. He waited patiently at the Critic's side while a 10% amount was filled in. On this bill is a note regarding comments and an email address. Great! The Critic can write to someone about the wonderful service!

Off he went and soon the receipt was on the table and the ordeal was over. On the receipt that they leave you, there is mention of comments and no email address, that bill stays in the restaurant. They must really be interested in your opinion, so be sure to whip out your laptop in the time you have between them taking that bill and you getting your other receipt.

And yes, they charged the Critic BOTH margaritas, although they did take the frozen one away.

Clueless waiters (they can however, spin menus and bill holders on one finger, always impressive), formulaic gringo food that is served lukewarm and a terrific policy on handling waiter's screwups (charge the client!!) makes Chili's a place to avoid. The Critic gives it a solid 1.

Mar 9, 2008

Casa de Piedra restaurant - Hacienda Xcanatun

After a long hiatus, the Casual Restaurant Critic had the opportunity to re-visit the restaurant at the luxurious Hacienda Xcanatun, located in the village of, you guessed it, Xcanatun, just off the Merida-Progreso highway.

The restaurant is still beautiful, the chef is relatively new (at least since the last visit by this Critic many moons ago) the food is both exciting in it's combinations of flavors and textures, and the service is still hugely deficient, taking into consideration the quality of the room and the cuisine.

Why is the Critic such a rag on service? Because it seems that it is that one elusive detail that restaurants in Merida just can not get right. The owners of many a Merida restaurant spend good money on decorating, menu-planning, lighting, getting a great chef, even hiring valet parking in some cases. Then, when it comes to probably the most important (ok for some neurotic people like the Critic) detail, the human interaction between everything just mentioned and the guest, there is little or not enough effort made to ensure that the concept comes full circle.

In the case of this visit to Xcanatun, the Critic's lovely better half had arranged a reservation asking for a nice table. Upon arrival, one of the wait staff consulted with the reservation book at the entrance and there was indeed a reservation; however, no table was offered. Instead, the waiter asked 'where would you like to sit?' which, when the table was chosen, turned out to be a table that was not ready and so the party stood around the table as the waiters changed tablecloths and set the table. Imagine this happening in a good restaurant someplace else? You make a reservation and then are told to sit wherever you like? The Critic doesn't think so.

Service throughout the meal was adequate, but the lack of professionalism was further highlighted by the truly spectacular food promised by the menu and delivered by the chef and kitchen staff. On the one hand you have food truly worthy of accolades and groans of satisfied pleasure, while on the other you have to suffer the distraction of inferior service; service that could be found in any where in Merida, from Friday's to El Fogoncito.

The Critic would like to stress that the service is not horrendous, but it is at a a level so much lower than the food that this creates a real clash. Of course, there are people to whom this is not important, but it seems a shame that Merida can not seem to boast at least one completely first-class restaurant. Another great and innovative restaurant, Nectar, suffers the same problem, as does the showy Trotter's, the other night's Casa de Frida, and these, along with Xcanatun, are among Mérida's best culinary experiences.

But the food! Still reeling from the delectable duck with mole sauce at La Casa de Frida, the Critic asked for Magret de Pato, which was a meaty duck breast, crunchy, succulent and sliced and, as a friend would say, to die for. Accompanied by perfectly sauteed onions that still had their bite, a sweet fruity reduction and some shredded meat which the Critic cannot place (was it duck or pork?). Blame it on the wine.

Before that main dish, there were some appetizers ordered, of which the Critic sampled and can highly recommend the deep fried won tons and their accompanying dipping sauce (a special that day), the ceviche de atun with sweet potato chips adding crunchy texture, and the chicharrón soup with a hint of tequila, which was like sipping the delicious gravy of the best roast leg of pork you have ever had; thick, savory and satisfying.

The desserts were also very good, the pay de limón was refreshingly balanced between tart and sweet and the apple pie was delicious.

If you enjoy exquisitely prepared food, and can put aside the distraction of the service, you must try the Casa de Piedra restaurant at Xcanatun.

Mar 6, 2008

Casa de Frida - Mexican Food in Merida´s Centro

The Casual Restaurant Critic has not eaten anywhere in downtown Mérida for eons it seems, and there is mention everywhere about the wonderful-ness of the Casa de Frida restaurant, on 61 between 66 and 66a in the formerly white city, so it was exciting to be able to try this restaurant with some Canadians who wanted to try the "chiles en nogada" that the restaurant is famous for.

After a 15 minute delay trying to find parking - the lot mentioned in Yucatan Today had a large 'Solo Pensionados' sign which the Critic obeyed without question, respectful of authority as he is known to be, and forgetful of the mention of a buzzer - a spot was found on the street, about 2 blocks away, and the Critic and his ever-more-lovely Better Half was seated comfortably under a starlit sky with a boisterous group of Canadians from Quebec. The couple at the next table were assured that their quiet dinner was going to be a bit louder than they had perhaps expected.

The Critic's overall impression of the restaurant was that it is a comfortable, welcoming ambience with details alluding to it's namesake scattered throughout with lots of bright blue and yellow paint everywhere.

There was far too much gossip going on for any inspection of the menu, and when everyone at the table ordered the 'chiles' the Critic just had to try something else. No appetizers were ordered. A quick look at the limited menu items available as main courses, the duck and mole option caught the Critic's eye.

After a few copas of red Chilean wine and much chatter, the dishes arrived, not before several orders of camarones al mojo de ajo (garlic shrimp) made their sizzling and overpoweringly fragrant way past the table, making everyone's tastebuds tickle with anticipation.

The chiles en nogada are exceptional. The Critic's Better Half was in heaven and declared them the best she has ever tried, anywhere, including Puebla, from where the dish originates. The Canadians too were rapturous and cleaned their plates contentedly. Meanwhile, the Critic had before him a breast of duck, covered in rich red/chocolate colored mole sauce, served alongside a small bed of steaming white rice, perfectly cooked. It is hard to describe mole but one could start by pronouncing it correctly (MOH-lay) because when you read it in English, it sounds like a rodent thing. The Critic was blown away by this exquisite home-made mole, it's sweet, spicy, thick smoky flavor - and the portion size was perfect. Of course the Critic shared the duck and managed to obtain in return, a bite size morsel of the chile and it was fabulous.

Afterwards, the out of towners were treated to Xtabentun, an almond tart (the sliced almonds on top were toasted and still warm as they rested atop the smooth, not too sweet tart) and got to meet the chef, Gabriela, who received a round of enthusiastic applause from the table.

As for the rest, the service was, in the Critic's humble opinion, a little slow on the uptake; not keeping their eyes on wineglasses and the table in general. When something was needed - another glass of wine, another Xtabentun, the bill - one had to get the attention of one of the 3 or 4 waiters working the three tables occupied at the time.

The overall experience was very good and the Critic will be back, with more time to actually look at the menu, sample some appetizers and perhaps another main course. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, the Critic gives Frida's Casa a solid 4.5 which is almost perfect. The food certainly is!

Mar 5, 2008

Sushi Itto - Second Visit Confirms First

Whatever doubts the Casual Restaurant Critic had as to the impression received from his first visit, these were dispelled by a recent second attempt. Again, the service was lackluster, the food - salmon sashimi, some rolls - was good but not excellent and the overall experience was, in a word, eeeh.

Or is it ehh. You know the sound you make, lifting up a corner of your mouth and shrugging your shoulder as if to say 'whatever'.

That's it!