Monday, February 23, 2009

Why Anonymity Pays

In this town, at least, most of the mainstream food critics are highly recognizable sorts who make no attempt to hide their identities from restaurant managers and staff. This is a problem. By simply being recognized they compromise the integrity of their reviews.

Having knowingly served multiple food critics (one I didn't even have to recognize myself as it was on the reservation that he worked for a national publication), I know that servers and kitchen staff are on their best behavior and like to put on a show for the special guest. At the best places, admittedly, this makes little to no difference as kitchen and service are always on their best behavior. However, at the overpriced and under-good restaurants of the world, knowledge like this can make the average-at-best staff scramble to devise something worthy of the price tag.

The best way I have found to illustrate this is to imagine a conversation with a new friend versus one with a reporter. These are very different exchanges. Once you know that your words will be rebroadcast, your words change. The same holds true for a restaurant that knows a critic is in the house. The menu may even change for this omnipotent pen-bearer. An amuse bouche suddenly flies out of the kitchen, and the executive chef oversees every dish going to that table rather than remaining in his office.

The other thing is that these critics, independent or otherwise, often get extras or freebies from restaurants in the know. This clouds their view further. Frankly, if someone gives me something for free I am much more apt to have a positive view of the item than if I am constantly evaluating whether the item provides value for the price.

All of this comes down to why I will do my absolute best to keep my face detached from my reviews. My anonymity is beneficial to my readers, and, although it may cost me more, to my credibility as a critic.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Yes, I really did eat that

Everybody has seen something on TV or the internet that they just can't believe. A new entry in this category for me is the current Pizza Hut campaign for their Tuscani pastas and lasagna. I saw the commercials (often in fast forward thanks to DVR) and just couldn't fathom any Italian enjoying anything from Pizza Hut. (If you somehow haven't seen them, click here.) So I tried some. We ordered the lasagna and the chicken alfredo.

First impression of the lasagna: As visually appealing as the lasagna in my elementary school cafeteria. Even if a perfect piece was cut for me it would still look slightly inferior to Stouffer's frozen version. I'm not Italian, but have spent a little time in Tuscany and throughout Italy (and my dad makes the most robust and flavorful lasagna around), and I know that no Italian would ever be fooled into thinking this was authentic Tuscan cuisine, nor Italian of any kind for that matter. That's just from the look of it. I haven't even taken a bite yet.

One rule of thumb for food: If it doesn't look tasty it probably isn't. In this case that rule definitely held true. The lasagna was an amorphous mass of tomato sauce and limp noodles with a bland (even for ricotta) ricotta. The vaguely burned mozzarella on top made me regret ever thinking that I had been wrong, and maybe Italians actually went into a restaurant called "Tuscani" and felt this was a fair representation of lasagna. It also left me with a dry salty taste in my mouth which made me think preservatives.

The chicken alfredo (featured in an earlier commercial shot in New York) doesn't even warrant mention. But I will anyway. It was just plain bad. Bland sauce on floppy spiral noodles and maybe six ounces of chicken in the whole huge tray. Oh, and the same salty, parched sensation.

The commercials are clever in using the term "real people." This ambiguous statement makes you believe they aren't actors, while never stating either way.

Just another example of great advertising. Hey, it got me to try it.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

En Sushi and Robata Grill

Italian food here in Henderson is mediocre, Chinese is more of the same, Mexican tends to be just plain bad, French cuisine is not readily available, and the ubiquitous gaming bar/restaurant, well, we all know how that conversation goes. So that pretty much leaves one particular Mediterranean place, a few select Japanese, and one particular pizza place for me to eat at regularly. I just found what looks like it will become my favorite in the Japanese segment locally. En Sushi and Robata Grill just off Eastern on Anthem Village Drive has provided me with some of the better quality fish I've ever had and also throws in the "Robata" style grill which allows for smaller bites of grilled meats and veggies.

This is not the Henderson answer to Las Vegas' Raku. While it does offer some quality ingredients like homemade tofu, Kobe beef, and foie gras along with similar cooking styles, the menu is nowhere near the adventure you take at Raku. The grill selections are not the standouts that I wanted them to be at En, but they are tasty and certainly good enough considering it is the only thing like it in this part of the valley.

What this place does have, that Raku doesn't, is sushi; and that, for me, is a big plus. Especially with the quality of the sushi they put out here. The knife skills and composition on display reflect first-hand Japanese training rather than the second-rate second-hand training many "sushi chefs" receive here in the States. Or, at the very least, these men got much more out of their training than most I have sat in front of.

Each staff member individually speaks more english than the entirety of the staff at Raku, which is either a hit to En's authenticity or a huge benefit for those of us who don't speak Japanese. You choose. The service is friendly and accommodating and I hope this place lasts through the current economy with its not-so-good location. I'll do my part to keep it around.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.


En Sushi & Robata Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My Birthday Dinner

Sunset Station is usually not the place I think of when I want a killer meal. Sonoma Cellar Steakhouse is starting to change my mind in that regard. As a steakhouse it provides some excellent classic choices for much, much less money than a similar meal on the Strip. As a place that features sustainable seafood it spares no expense in bringing in the freshest and the best and then doesn't pass that cost on to you as much as it could.

The best restaurants use the best ingredients and then stay out of the way. That is very much how the kitchen at Sonoma Cellar does business. From a shishito pepper appetizer (decidedly not a steakhouse staple) which is very simply, but to great effect, fried and salted, to the fish offerings which can be done grilled, poached, or meuniere, this place chooses to accentuate the flavors of the main part of a dish rather than drown them out. They have two dry aged steak options, both bone-in, a rib-eye and a New York. These are both marinated in such a way that brings out the beefiness and doesn't overpower the beauty of the dry-aged meat.

In the interest of full disclosure, Executive Chef Schuyler Schultz is a friend of mine, but I only admit to that, or even allow him to be called such, because he is an outstanding chef (I only hope I am deserving of the same moniker with him). So, on my visit for my birthday dinner there were a few off the menu treats including an amuse of marcona almond "soup" which only needed a bigger spoon, and some tempura asparagus which, in the chefs own estimation, weren't as good as at Raku but were still very good, although I did feel that the spears were unevenly tossed in their post-frying seasoning.

I will be returning on February 12th for a special beer paired dinner. It's open to the public and the menu and more info can be found here. Hope to see you all there.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.

Sonoma Cellar (Sunset Station) on Urbanspoon

Momo Sushi

Momo Sushi is a pretty good place for sushi. With atmosphere, staff, and fish better than many local sushi places, I'm glad Momo is ridiculously close (on Stephanie just south of Sunset Station in the Babies R Us Center) to my house. I've made numerous trips, and the fish is always fresh, and the speciality rolls are among the best I've had.

On my last visit I finally got some "regular" food. Their tempura is very good, and their teriyaki salmon is perfectly cooked with a more balanced teriyaki sauce than you usually see at this level. The miso soup and the salad were fairly typical and unexciting. But, I don't go to a sushi place for miso soup and salad. That's the good news here. The stuff that most people would come here for is solid, if not a cut above the norm.

I recommend looking at the specials on the wall behind the sushi bar, often there are rare items available for the more adventurous diner. I don't recommend speaking Japanese to the staff though, as most are not Japanese.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.

Momo Sushi on Urbanspoon