Aug 27, 2008

The Keg - Vancouver, Canada

On the Road...

The Keg has been a Vancouver institution for over 20 years and it is encouraging to see a Vancouver restaurant chain that has lasted this long and is still doing well.

On one occasion, after work on a payday, the Critic and several co-workers of the now defunct-Sheraton Villa Inn in Burnaby visited the Keg and spent practically the whole paycheck on dinner, shots, and wine... the days of youth and irresponsibility!

The Critic hadn't visited the Keg for the same amount of time and it was a pleasant surprise to find the food still good, the ambiance friendly and a little more sophisticated than the rustic Canadiana of yore and the food was just as the Critic remembered it.

Mushrooms Neptune are STILL on the menu, as are the scallops wrapped in bacon, a perennial Keg favorite and classic. Stuffed with cream cheese and seafood, the mushroom caps are good in that comfort food kind of way and the scallops are tender morsels with the bacon giving them the needed kick, flavor wise. The Spinach and Crab dip was also tasty, again featuring cream cheese and the baked Goat Cheese was excellent, served with a cooked salsa that had just a little bit of picante.

Also (the Critic was accompanied by the MiniCritic) the Caesar Salad was ordered and a French Onion soup. The salad was so good that the MiniCritic, who detests salads, devoured half of it in record time - would that the Trotters could try it! The soup was hot, savory and covered in crouton and swiss cheese.

Good food, albeit a little heavy on the cheesy-creamy-thick side, with decent service and relaxed surroundings including several fireplaces along with a glass of Merlot made for a pleasant cool Vancouver evening.

Pappadeaux - Houston Airport

On the Road...

If you have a layover at the airport in Houston, as the Critic did just a little while ago, of any considerable time, one option besides sitting around in those uncomfortable chairs with your eyes glazed over is to have a meal at Pappadeaux, the seafood restaurant owned by the Pappas people who also run a great steakhouse and a Greek restaurant as well if the Critic is not mistaken.

The service is fine, in that chirpy I'm Ricardo and I'll be your server today kind of way and the food while expensive is very good especially when one considers the myriad and mediocre fast food options available.

The Critic had the Blackened Redfish which came smothered with a shrimpy creamy sauce and was absolutely delicious and a very large portion too. Coconut shrimp were simply alright - you can get better at La Pigua in Campeche or Merida and the lobster bisque was satisfyingly rich but you wouldnt write home about it anytime soon.

There was no room for dessert, although they all looked delicious.

A good way to spend an hour or more in a pleasant setting enjoying some good food before getting on the plane and having to eat a tasteless microwaved sandwich, if you are lucky enough to get even that these days.

Aug 19, 2008

Regarding Service

In response to the long comment on the Carreta Cubana II post, the Casual Restaurant Critic thinks it may be pertinent to answer this in 'post' form.

Service in Merida's restaurants is alright; it's just not professional in the gran mayoria de los casos and often a result of no one training anyone - there is no waiter's training program anywhere that the Critic is aware of. Too often personnel is hired with only minimum requirements: that they live close by, that they have a white shirt or something similar. Niggling details like not sticking your arm and the inevitable armpit in front of a restaurant patron while serving a plate (with the inevitable whiff of BO - really a horrible thing to have happen to you - or their Mennen Speed Stick - equally disagreeable) are rarely passed on to service personnel.

How do locals handle it? Well, in many cases people are not particularly concerned and have become accustomed to lackluster service. Merida is not Barcelona or Manhattan, so the dining options as well as the patrons do not have that level of sophistication or neuroses. Go with the flow is definitely the way to go.

To the Casual Restaurant Critic it is part of the charm of living in the Yucatan. You don't expect professional Smith and Wollensky service for the most part. (You do however expect professional service at Joe's Stone Crab and when they treat you like crap you let 'em have it and they try to make nice). Here waiters try, and usually do, a passable job. What is most upsetting to the admittedly neurotic foreigner is when hundreds of thousand of real dollars are invested in lighting, landscaping, architecture, menu printing, table linens, glassware, cutlery, kitchen equipment and advertising; and the owner hires a mediocre manager who hires even more mediocre service staff, some apparently culled from the garden staff, who have absolutely NO knowledge of gastronomy, what a Caesar salad might be, the difference between a salad and a dinner fork, white and red wine glasses, etc etc. And they don't train them either! That is unforgivable, in those particular cases.

As a foreigner thinking of moving to Mexico, one should definitely go with the flow, reduce expectations and learn to relax. It's not that important in the general scheme of things. And certainly not worth getting one's panties in a bunch.

Aug 13, 2008

La Carreta Cubana II

From the sublime to the ridiculous might be the title of this post, in which the Casual Restaurant Critic, after visiting La Recova the other day, along with the BH and the MC dropped by La Carreta Cubana II for some Yucatecan food in the form of botanas which are served (as they are in Heladios and a million other cantina crossover restaurants in Merida) along with a drink order.

This local hangout, kind of run down and a little on the dirty side is tucked away in a neighborhood between Plaza Fiesta area and Prolongación Paseo de Montejo and is not worth seeking out. It may be a local favorite (at least for some locals) and it is cheap, but the food is nothing to write home about, the service is mediocre at best and the ambience is nil, a few notches below the point where charming becomes just plain ugly.

A round of beers means that you get a sampling of botana (snacks or tapas) which consisted of the following (more or less):
  • pickled beets
  • runny sikil pak (pumpkin seed and roasted tomato dip; it's not supposed to be THIS runny)
  • salsa
  • sliced white bread aka 'frances'
  • a mayonnaise-y dip
  • boiled and possibly pickled pigs ear, chopped
  • cold tortillas
  • other mysterious little plates of things
Are you smacking your lips yet? OK, admittedly this is not Nectar but still, the whole experience was less than satisfying. The plates are the beig colored plastic ones, some with cracks and chips along with a few porcelain cup saucers.

An order of relleno negro and cochinita came but it was completely un-exceptional and the cold machine made or store bought or whatever tortillas were a complete turn-off.

There are a billion places like this in Merida where the biggest draw is how cheap it is. This lunch was about $100 pesos. Cheap doesn't have to be synonymous with this however. Look at La Susana in Kanasin. It's ridiculously cheap but is nowhere near the dumpiness of this place.

If you want to try this traditional Yucatecan lunch, go to Heladios or Los Henequenes.

On a scale of one to five, this place rates a solid 1.

Aug 5, 2008

La Recova - Argentina Meets Montejo

La Recova is a new Argentinian restaurant on Mérida's Prolongación de Montejo, smack dab in the middle of what the Casual Restaurant calls Taco Alley. You know, that part of street where you can find the taquerias El Cacique, Gabbos, Tacos PM, as well as the Yucatecan hold-outs in all their flourescent 75 watt tubular lighting splendor La Rosita and La Terracita Azul and where on a Friday or Saturday night when it's not temporada time, you can't find a parking space and traffic is crazy.

However, it is - at present - not temporada time for the Casual Restaurant Critic, since he cannot get away for 2 months just because the weather and tradition dictates it. Neither was it Friday or Saturday night and the destination was not tacos but to sample the new La Recova restaurant which looks quite modern and inviting from the outside in that new, taking-Merida-by-storm, minimalist way.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the Critic was accompanied by the ever-lovely Better Half and of course the MiniCritic as well and although the mission was to reach Trotters for their Steak Au Poivre, it was decided - as La Recova appeared on the left - that you can't really go wrong with Argentinian beef.

If you, dear reader aka querido lector are saying "shut the hell up and get on with it!" you will have to be patient because the CRC woke up this morning feeling all inspired to write something and this is the result.

There is valet parking available for those too lazy to look for a spot themselves or to walk the distance necessary once they have found that spot. Or it's really busy and there really is not anywhere to park. Or you drive a pink Hummer and have to make an entrance.

But, on this Saturday afternoon with everyone at the beach working on their crowd management skills there was room nearby on Montejo and since the Critic as a rule does not employ the services of 'valet parkings' this time was no exception; it should be pointed out though that the guys at the valet parking stand actually acknowledged the presence of the Critic's party which was a hopeful sign being as it was the very first contact with the restaurant.

The hostesses (there were two) dressed in black were welcoming and friendly and quickly showed us to our table. Air conditioning was cold and welcome since it was extremely hot outside.

Drinks were ordered; nothing exotic or alcoholic and the Critic quickly ordered grilled asparagus with Parmesan cheese and Fontina cheese, melted. There are two options for the Fontina appetizer; smoked and regular, the Critic had the regular. These were very good; the Critic thought the asparagus was a little bitter but the melted cheese, served on a tomato slice and topped with a sweet red pepper, was outstanding.

The steaks, which was the whole purpose of the venture were ordered. There is a selection of Argentinian cuts on the menu that is actually quite extensive and incomprehensible but the waiter does a fine job of explaining everything. The Better Half was concerned that the waiter emphasized that her selection of steak had a lot of grasa, but the Critic thought he was friendly and courteous about it and it was a good idea since one can imagine the typical diner getting his or her steak and then exclaiming 'but it has FAT' like fat in beef was a bad thing. What did the Better Half order: Tira de Asado. The Critc will attempt to upload photos from a new phone. The Critic had the Bife - the quintessential Argentinian cut - while the MiniCritic ordered a pasta, the raviolis stuffed with goat cheese.

So how was the food? The Tira de Asado, besides being so huge that it lounges self-confidently on the plate like Tony Soprano in a bathtub with a cigar and scotch, is in the Critic's opinion a little chewy but that is the nature of that particular cut and there isn't a whole lot to be done about it. The Better Half was in heaven as were the dogs back home when the bone arrived! The Bife was outstanding, extremely tender and cooked perfectly. Accompanying both steaks was a garnish consisting of a zucchini slice, grilled, topped with some mashed potato, a cherry tomato and a sprig of romero. The raviolis came in a large bowl, in a generous portion that would make the Trotters blush and the sauce was so very delectable that the Critic had to savour it to the last drop it after the MiniCritic had devoured her pasta.

In spite of better judgement, desserts were offered and two were chosen, all in the name of research for this blog. Tiramisu, a gigantic cheesy concoction (made with real mascarpone cheese, the party was informed) that would have easily fed an entire refugee camp in the Sudan; and Flan Napolitano. There are photos of these two desserts, hopefully you are seeing them and not reading this! The Tiramisu lacked ladyfingers which the Critic believes are part of the original recipe and was just toooooooo much. Mascarpone or no, the cheese was too cheesy and the party of three soon had their arteries screaming in protest and could not be brought to finish it. The Flan was excellent and received a warmer reception from the party's cardiovascular systems. After dinner, the manager, whom the Critic knows, offered a dessert wine which was sweet, chilled and refreshing; much like a German Eiswein. Excellent.

Other notes: Service throughout is friendly (without being overly familiar - ie: Nectar where the waiter unfortunately feels the need to talk about how your business is coming along) and attentive (think Campay on those occasions when the waiter feels the need to prove his efficiency by pulling the plate from under your chopsticks as you pick up the last piece of sashimi).

Bread on the tables is warm and made in-house. Crisp white tablecloths throughout. Great air conditioning.

Large spaces set off by smaller spaces for groups and a great bar featuring a zillion types of alcoholic concoctions, a view of Montejo (the view is nothing to write home about but the Critic suspects that the idea is to be seen, rather than to see anything) and Mercer cigars as well as an ozone machine that sucks up the cigar smoke for those who just have to be there but are allergic to smoke... (hellooo?)

All in all, the Critic gives this place a solid 4.5. It could become a new all-time favorite!

Link: if you read Spanish, this will explain about Argentinian cuts of beef