Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sayville Seafood Festival

Actually, it's something like "Maritime Musuem Something or Other Festival or Somesuch." We checked it out this past weekend, the third time out of the last four years. Having not been able to go last year, I had been looking forward to it for several weeks. But, either the food has gone drastically down-hill, or over the last two years I forgot how mediocre or bad it was. In any event, the food was, in fact, mediocre at best but awful, overall.

Between the wife and me, we had a soft-shell crab sandwich, mussels, baked claims, fried calimari, and a sausage and peppers sandwich. Of these the crab was the best, but, as long as it's fresh, soft-shell crab is hard to mess up. The baked clams were nothing special, but not terrible. The fried calimari was like a rubber band. But the mussels...

Where should I start? First of all, the beards had not been cleaned off of them. I wonder how many unsuspecting types just ate the whole thing, because they are used to eating the whole thing, because every other place I've had mussels actually cleans the beards off. I don't know what that wirey, coarse bit of beard feels like in the mouth, and I don't want to know. I'm sure it can't be digested, and I don't want to feel it making its way through my digestive tract.

But besides the beards, the sauce had no flavor whatsoever. Of course, the typical or ordinary sauce would be a garlicky white-wine sauce. I tasted neither garlic, nor wine, nor even salt--and they came from the friggin' ocean!

The only reason we got the sausage and pepper sandwich was because the wife saw someone else with one and thought it looked good. I warned her about getting something like that at a seafood festival, but to no avail. It turns out the sausage was that hideous, awful dog-food quality stuff, and the peppers were very mushy.

The wife did have an orange-mango smoothie that she loved. I don't like mango's, so I didn't love it.

Despite the lackluster quality of the food, it was reasonably priced. All the seafood mentioned above came to only $21. The sausage and pepper sandwich was $6 (rip off). The smoothie (medium) was $5. Admission was $5 for everyone 6 and up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

How good can good food really be?

Read enough restaurant reviews or watch Iron Chef (especially the original one) long enough, and you'll see people describe food as "breathless," their meals as "transcedent" or "a religious experience." Barbara Fairchild praised one of Mario Batali's dishes as giving her a "food-gasm." (I still shudder at the thought.) For instance, just read the average review of Per Se or Masa.

Now, by this point, I've been to many of the best restaurants on Long Island, and I haven't had any food-gasms. (I did hump a Twinkie when I was 15, but that's not the kind of food-gasm I want.) I mean, I've had some good meals, with very good individual dishes as part of the meal, but I wouldn't describe any of them as "a religious experience."

Incidentally, I haven't had a complete, truly great meal on Long Island. I've had bits and pieces here and there, but from different restaurants, on different occasions--seared foie gras with a red-wine sauce at Louis XVI; the pot au feu of lobster in a lemon-grass broth at Mirabelle, the duck confit at the Mill River Inn. Now, as good as those dishes were, individually, I would not describe eating them as any kind of religious ("ecstatic" is the proper word to describe such experiences) experience. If the entire meal were as good as any one of those individual dishes, then, maybe, but no restaurant on the island has managed to put together a truly great meal, beginning to end.

So, this leads me to two possibilities: (1) if such transcedent food experiences exist, they are not to be found on Long Island; or (2) the people using such grand superlatives to describe food are idiots and don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Now, I'm well aware that, for whatever reason, the best Long Island restaurants can't compete with the best restaurants in the city. But there are some very talented chefs at the places I've eaten, and as I said, I've had some very good individual dishes. So, I think it's fair to surmise that food doesn't get too much better than it is at Louis XVI, Mirabelle, the Mill River Inn, Panama Hatties, Polo, etc. Therefore, at this point I'm leaning towards possibility #2. I think, while the food on Iron Chef or at Per Se, Masa, Daniel, etc. may be very good, describing it in such exaggerated, exalted terms is idiotic and misleading. But if it really is a religious experience for these people, good for them, I guess. I'm not as easily impressed.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Review: Polo

Polo is the fine-dining option located inside the opulent Garden City Hotel. It comes in at #2 this year for food in Zagat's. (Kotobuki is #1.) And, while I might hesitate to place it so highly, the meal was quite good.

There were two amuses offered. The first was a petite filet mignon, on a small crouton, topped with a bearnaise sauce. This was not offered on a plate. Rather, the waiter was carrying them, and we were invited to take the them directly from his tray. It was cute and tasty. The bearnaise, however, overpowered the meat a bit.

The other amuse was braised (I think) duck lug with a corn salsa. The salsa was all right, but the duck was lovely--tender and flavorful. My only protest was that it was served in a very deep bowl with a recessed, square bottom, so it was difficult to pick up all the goodies with a fork.

For an appetizer I had the potato gnocchi with fava beans, shaved black truffle, and foie gras. This was quite good, though it smacks of the old trick of just throwing luxurious ingredients like truffle and foie gras together to fool people into thinking it's something extraordinary. They were quite generous with the truffle, I must say, which was great. I couldn't quite place the flavors in the sauce, but it was wonderful, and I soaked up the last bit with a piece of bread when the waiters weren't looking.

And about the bread--the waiters come around with a basket of, on that day, four different breads: sour dough, seven-grain, black olive, and a rosemary foccacia. We only tried the black olive and foccacia. They were both quite good, though they used dried rosemary leaves on the foccacia, instead of fresh.

The wife had the "Arugula and Sheep's Milk Ricotta Ravioli, Bacon Wrapped Asparagus and Crispy Artichokes." I quote this in full from the menu because, looking at this before our meal, I kept wondering how the arugula played into it. I had guessed it was wilted down, drained, then maybe placed on top of the cheese. As you can see, the description doesn't really give you any clues. It turns out the arugula was in the pasta itself. This dish was also lovely.

For my entree I had duck, three ways. The first was duck breast in a light sauce. This was perfectly cooked (medium rare, as ordered), and the breast was fairly large--clearly not from a Pekin duck; probably from a Mulard. The second way was duck sausage, supposedly with foie gras somewhere in it. I've had duck sausage three times in my life--twice at Louis XVI, once here. Each time it has turned my stomach. Just what happens to the duck in the sausage-making process that makes the flavor so revolting (and strongly revolting), I'm not sure. (I have to wonder if the only part they use is the rectal cavity?) The third way was confit of the leg and thigh. This was fine, not terribly tender, but, oddly, it looked as if the whole thing had been deep-fried. That's a new one to me. Also on the plate were more yet more fava beans with slivered almonds and a sweet pea puree.

The wife had a chicken breast and a cranberry-stuffing stuffed chicken leg with a walnut jus, and glazed root vegetables. She hated the vegetables, but the breast and stuffed leg were quite good, as was the sauce.

The dessert menu is a bit odd. I think every offering, or thereabouts, involved curious combinations of sweet and savory. For instance, I recall something involving a banana with candied basil leaves. WTF? Anyway, nothing really caught my eye, so I settled for a trio of sorbets. They turned out to be raspberry, coconut, and either passion fruit or mango. I hated the third/undetermined sorbet. I normally hate coconut anything, but the coconut sorbet was pretty mild on, so it was palatable. The raspberry sorbet was delicious. And underneath each one they hid a small sugar cookie for a bit of crispy texture.

My wife had a pyramid chocolate mousse with some godawful, hideous, bizarre goat-cheese monstrocity. The mousse was fine in terms of flavor, but fairly dense. (What's going on--first, Chachama Grill, now Polo?) But the goat-cheese thing, my god. That was an unmitigated disaster. Take it off the menu and bury every remaining one in the kitchen. Yuck.

After dessert they served a fairly large assortment of complimentary cakes, cookies, and truffles. These were fine, but I really don't care about such things.

With tax and tip the meal came to $170, really quite reasonable. The decor itself, for those who care about it (I don't), is nice, almost up there with Louis XVI. Food-wise, I would probably not place Polo ahead of Louis XVI or Mirabelle, or maybe even Panama Hatties. However, you will certainly have a good meal there.

4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Review: St. Elmo's

Yet another non-Long Island restaurant review on a blog about food on Long Island. However, as St. Elmo's is the only famous(ish) restaurant in Indianapolis (Peyton Manning can't be wrong, can he?), I thought I'd include it in a review here. Besides, it's my website, and I can do what I want.

St. Elmo's is a steak house. I haven't been to many steak houses in my time (at least the upscale ones--Peter Luger, Ruth's Chris, etc.), because, for some reason, steak houses are ridiculously overpriced. I've always wondered why I should bother paying $40 for a steak when I can buy the entire tenderloin for $40 and have lots of steaks and make them just as good as, and often better than, steak houses? Well, when we were in Indy, I put that hypothesis to the test. Hypothesis confirmed.

St. Elmo's is somewhat famous for its shrimp cocktail--and, really, only for the cocktail sauce. In fact, shrimp cocktail is the only appetizer on the whole, friggin' menu. Holy shnert, is that stuff hot. Even a piece of shrimp with most of the sauce removed will clear your sinuses like Drain-o through a toilet. I'm not the biggest horseradish fan to begin with, but I don't see why so many people love the St. Elmo's "death" cocktail sauce.

I ordered a Caesar salad for my appetizer. Without question it was the worst Caesar salad I've ever had. Not only was the dressing the mixture of mayo and vinegar you find only at lesser quality restaurants, but it was the worst tasting such mixture that I've had the misfortune of trying. Furthermore, the lettuce was simply cut into little pieces. Tiny pieces with the ribs still attached. I made it about half-way through when I just laid my fork on the bowl and waited for the waiter to take the thing away. "Did you give up?" he said, smirking, when he finally came by (the salad is a bit large). Yeah, I gave up putting my palate through such torture.

For our entrees, my wife ordered a strip steak, and I ordered the ribeye, my favorite. I wasn't impressed with either. The ribeye had more flavor, but, hey, it's ribeye, with all its delicious, melting fat. So, no surprise there. But, really, you pay good money for these steaks, and I can do just as well at home with "choice" cuts. (I can't find "prime" in nearby supermarkets, and I don't really go to butchers, though I think I need to start.) And at home you can put on a nice chili rub (a favorite of ours), marinate the steaks, or, say, add a red-wine sauce. Lots of stuff. There is none of that, of course, at steak houses. But there, where the quality of the meat itself is supposed to be the star, I find it hard to see why I have to pay $40 for a goddamn steak.

For sides we ordered creamed spinach and mushrooms. The mushrooms were average at best (Outback does it better), and the spinach was revolting.

We didn't bother sticking around for dessert. We'd had enough. Dessert we got from good, ol' Dairy Queen for probably $6.00 for both of us, and I'm sure it was better than anything St. Elmo's had to offer.

I'm not completely trashing the place. The steaks were fine, but not fine for the money these upscale steak houses charge. But the sides and salad were terrible. Just terrible. So, I've done the St. Elmo's thing. I won't be going back.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 08, 2005

Food on my trip to Indiana

At this point in my life I actually hate going out to restaurants unless they are very good restaurants. This is because, unless it's a very good restaurant, I can make whatever meal I have much better at home, whether more cheaply or not.

This outlook was only reinforced during my trip to Indiana in July. The drive from Long Island, with two little ones, to Indiana is a two-day affair. And, of course, when we stopped to eat, especially considering we have two kids in tow, it had to be some place kid-food-friendly. That, of course, means many a stop at McDonald's and Wendy's. It wasn't always McDonald's and Wendy's, but it was always some chain restaurant--both there and in Indiana.

One of the few plusses Long Island has over Indiana, in my view, is that the restaurant scene is so much more interesting. Probably 90% of the restaurants in central Indiana are chains--and there is no chain I consider a very good restaurant. We even tried the PF Chang's on the north side of Indianapolis. While it's a chain also, it is fairly fancy-shmancy for a chinese place. But, again, while the lo mein was one of the best I've had, the other dishes were average at best. I wouldn't go back.

I would say that the culinary low-point of the trip was our meal at the Outback in Pittsburgh on our way back home. I had a new dish, some sort of shrimp with two absolutely awful dipping sauces. One (reddish) sauce was possibly the worst thing I've ever eaten. Either the cooks are defecating in the pots and pans or the person who put this thing on the menu lost his taste buds in some industrial accident.

Believe it or not, the culinary highlight of the trip was possibly the room service at the Green Tree Radisson in Pittsburgh. I had a "Pittsburgh" cheese steak, my wife a smoked turkey club, I think. For my three-year-old we got some chicken strips, and for an appetizer we got the "nachos grande." Both sandwiches were decent--and better than anything at Applebee's or Tuesday's or any of those places. But the nachos were really outstanding. The portion was huge and very tasty--again, better than the Applebee's of the world. Far better, in fact. And better than any Mexican place I've tried. The price was decent, too, $55 after tax and tip for a fairly good meal. And it's eating in your hotel room. You can't beat it.

Either that was the culinary highlight of the trip or it was all the cute girls working at the McDonald's near my mom's house, where I got the bacon, egg, and cheese bagel meal every morning. I don't remember McDonald's workers being that cute when I was living in Indiana. What the hell's going on? And I sure as hell don't see workers like that on Long Island.

Should I bother?

I haven't posted anything in a while. This was due to (1) my internet service being kaput at work for a few weeks (yes, weeks); and (2) a week-long trip to Indiana to see the folks. And I didn't really miss it. After all, while I enjoy talking about food, there are so many food blogs out there and many with fancy pictures from restaurants I certainly can't afford. All I have is a picture of some fat guy sitting naked at a computer.

Nevertheless, I'll press on for a little while longer.