Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Introduction to Eating Across Bloomington

I am a foodie. I always have been and I always will be. I blame long hours of baking with my mother every Christmas season for this affliction. I happen to live in a little city in south central Indiana with a highly developed food culture. Strangely there isn't a major restaurant reviewer in this town. So I have decided with my extreme food snobbery and limited experience in the food service industry as qualifications to fill this great void.

First a little bit about my food tastes and biases:

I love food, and I love having a fun interesting environment to consume it in with loved ones. (The term friends and loved ones really seems to short how one feels about one's friends doesn't it?) I have gone into a lot of very high end establishments with excellent reputations and experienced a lot of very amateur food mistakes. Watery pasta sauces in "gourmet" Italian cafes, dry brownies in standard brownie ice cream desserts in exclusive downtown bistros. I have also had some of the most amazing food of my life while sitting in dives drinking soda out of styrofoam cups. The end result is I judge food in all establishments based on the final quality in my mouth. Originality doesn't count for nearly as much as quality, and "exclusive" ambiance is only a benefit if the food lives up to the mood. If I walk into a high end establishment and wish I'd gotten a burger at the local pub when I'm done eating then the high end ambiance becomes a liability in it's own right because it's obviously being used to cover mediocre cooking skill.

Now for a little bit about my "review" goals:

I really feel like a lot of online reviews of eateries leave a lot to be desired. There are several points I want to hit in all of my reviews.

Food Quality: This is paramount. I will discuss apparent ingredient quality as well as how those ingredients are treated. There are two aspects of this, general quality of food (crisp fried edges, tender meats, properly salted, decent textures on sauces etc.) and quality of flavor elements. I have eaten a lot of expertly prepared food with less than exciting flavors. If you can make a delicate perfectly crispy fritter that just doesn't pop in my mouth I'm going to give credit where credit is due. Not everyone wants the same kind of seasoning pop, so a careful description of flavor profiles is an important part of any decent food review.

Service: While not as important as food quality, service comes in a close second. I for one do not believe I set a very high bar for service. Take my drink orders promptly, ask if I'm ready to order food when the drinks come out, clear appetizer dishes when you bring out the entrees and clear entree dishes when you take dessert orders or when you bring out the dessert depending on preference. Check to make sure the food is ok once (god I hate overbearing waiters) and come with water whenever the glasses look empty from across the room. Assume anyone in your establishment for lunch has no more than an hour to eat and get them their check in according time frame. If they choose to sit with the check for a while then that's fine. It's not complicated, and so many waiters get it WRONG! I am not picky about food orders going in wrong as long as it's fixed promptly. I've waited tables and half this time this is the waiter and half the time it's the kitchen. Mistakes are par for the course, being ignored is not. People go out to eat to be served. Truth be told most of the true foodies in the world can make better food at home for considerably less money. We go out because we don't always have the energy to tackle that task. We pay sometimes a 3-400% markup for the service that is included in a restaurant experience. It had better be worth it.

Ambiance: This is an interesting piece of the restaurant puzzle, and an important one. Some people think of ambiance as only being important in an upscale eatery. I couldn't disagree more. A few weeks ago I was in San Francisco and the most memorable eating experience I had was in a dingy hole in the wall in a Latin neighborhood walking distance from the friend we were staying with. He took us there and the food was out of this world, and affordable. Everything about the decoration said that it was a Mexican restaurant, and that everything was authentic. No silly decorations for tourists, no fancy plates and presentation. Everything was streamlined, and you could see the line cooks making your food, and it was fast, efficient, in out food stand style eating. There was more ambiance than I could shake a stick at, and the ambiance was appropriate to the food being served. It wasn't "high class", it wasn't really intentional, it was just incredibly authentic. Nothing is more unsettling than going into a high class establishment and getting service or food that seems less stellar than your surroundings, because you know a hunk of your bill is going to the wrong things. I judge ambiance on how comfortable, appropriate and quite honestly invisible the ambiance of a restaurant is. If nothing in the experience feels out of place, then a good job was done by all, including the interior decorators.

Price: This is also all about appropriateness and overall value. A nice hole in the wall that serves good food on disposable plates could easily be one of my top picks for lunch if the price is right. I might even suggest them as a quick after work dinner with a friend just because it's a different kind of funky environment. Meanwhile a swank sitdown dinner place that charges $20-$40 a plate could easily get 5 stars on price if everything is truly perfect. I will say if you break $20 a plate in Bloomington I'll have no tolerance for steak that isn't cooked quite like it was ordered, or risotto that isn't really al dente on the inside and a touch wet on the outside when it comes to my table. I demand a lot at that price tag. Meanwhile a restaurant with fun friendly service, and dynamic flavors charging $10 a plate will likely get a great value from me as long as the food tastes good on my palette and the menu isn't the same ole same ole. This really comes down to the complex question of "Did I get what I paid for or not?"