Thursday, April 23, 2009

Restaurant deadly sin #1: industrial condiments

[If you missed the intro to this series, peruse it here.]

I think we're all born optimists. And sometimes small shreds of that primal optimism actually survive into adulthood.

That's why we go back to bad restaurants after they hang up the "under new management" banner. It's almost always a mistake. A mistake bad enough to put that infantile optimism where it belongs: under a large, heavy rock.

There's one such sewage treatment plant in our hometown. I'll patronize it every 10 years or so. After which I plead with my dining compatriots to remind me never to go there again, ever.

On one such foray, this time with my young son, I innocently reached for the bottle of ketchup to slather my fries.

At least it looked suspiciously like ketchup. Clear glass bottle. Smooth, long neck. White metal cap. With a keystone-shaped label emblazoned with the moniker "Heinz." (Can you blame me for thinking it was ketchup?)

I upended the bottle over my plate and what poured out could only be described as thin fingerpaint. Orange, the consistency of maple syrup. Half the bottle had slipped out before I detected their evil duplicity. Fortunately I am a fry-dipper, not a true fry-slatherer, so most of my fries were left untainted.

Even I, the ever cynical, ever astute restaurant-goer was embarrassed by the near success of this condiment confidence trick. Son of a bitch. They slipped me a mickey, the bastards.

Seeing red stars in my field of view, I managed to keep my composure with the waitress. She was as much a victim as I, so there would have been no point scolding her.

I asked for real ketchup. Cute as a button and dumb as a rock, she stared blankly. I explained, slowly.

"OK. See this? It's not ketchup. It's industrial waste, masquerading as ketchup."

Then came her key testimony.

"Oh, yeah. We refill the bottles back in the kitchen."

"Yeah. I get that. Can you fetch me a new bottle, please, one that has not yet been tampered with?"


Ya gotta love bad restaurants with clueless employees. Rule 1: if your boss is doing evil deeds in the kitchen, like filling Heinz ketchup bottles with GlobalChemCo Ketchup Substitute #13, it might be best if you kept that information to yourself.

Somebody remind me never to go back there, ever again, please.


The restaurant's deadliest sins

You could write tomes about the stupid, stupid, stupid stunts restaurateurs pull to antagonize their patrons. But if you really want to research that multi-volume work, you need to take a trip to a place with a tourist economy, like the New Jersey seashore.

In a free enterprise system, competition trumps all. If your restaurant sucks, it won't last. In a tourist economy the free enterprise system means nothing. If you build it, they come. Smart people don't go back to bad restaurants. But we're all keen to fall victim to a bad restaurant at least once. In a tourist economy, you just need to con enough hapless vacationers to patronize your craphole once to keep it in the black.

Thanks to this convenient flouting of the food biz bible, tourist destinations are dotted with crappy, sub-par, mediocre, swill-shilling feeding troughs that would have been run out of town on a rail after five minutes in a market with bona fide restaurant competition.

Before my Jersey Shore booster club readers get their knickers in knots, let me assure you that I am not for one minute suggesting that the beach is without good restaurants. Of course we have good restaurants! The point of this screed is that the upside-down economics of the tourist economy spawns more restaurant buggeries than a proper, year-round economy.

So that's the setup, dear reader. In later installments, we'll outline the offenses committed by these pseudo-gourmet establishments of doom, one by one.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Equal quantities of diced vegetables, herbs and sometimes cured meat, sautéed as a flavor foundation for soups, stocks and sauces. Among the most common blends is simply carrot, celery and onion.

Soup on the floor!

I jostled the soup bowl. A little spilled. So I set the bowl on the counter to wipe the floor. Unfortunately, I placed the full bowl too close to the edge and it upended and tumbled in a slow-motion ballet of impending disaster.

Splat. Soup and china shards, spread wide over the floor.

Naturally, the paper towel dispenser was empty. Life's funny, especially when you're in the middle of a "Three Stooges" short.

Floor mopped. Replacement bowl mail-ordered. Now I have an excuse to share the recipe for my quick, almost-homemade chicken soup. It's so fast and so good - and if your kids are anything like mine, you won't be opening cans of soup anytime in the near future. They prefer this over cans, hands down.

The secret weapons are a mirepoix of carrots, celery and onion, fresh herbs, off-the-shelf soup stock and boneless chicken breast. Sautéeing the mirepoix in oil softens the vegetables, trimming time off the total recipe. Serves four. About 20 minutes prep time.


2 carrots
2 ribs celery
1 small onion*
1 clove garlic*
Fresh thyme and parsley
1 quart low-sodium chicken stock
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast pieces
Wide egg noodles
Olive oil


In a saucepan or Dutch oven, sauté in about a tablespoon of olive oil
1 carrot, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 small onion, diced

Turn the heat down low, cover pot and let them cook without browning.

1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
A bundle of fresh thyme stalks and parsley sprigs OR 1/2 tsp. dry thyme.

Saute briefly, then increase heat and add 1 quart low-sodium stock. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Set timer for 15 minutes.

Slice the chicken breast into bite-size pieces and season well with salt and pepper. Set aside.

When 15 minutes have passed, add the seasoned chicken pieces and simmer one minute longer.

1 1/2 cups wide egg noodles
2 tsp. fresh parsley, chopped or 1 tsp. dry

Turn off heat and cover pot. Let stand five minutes. Adjust salt and pepper and serve with crusty bread.