Sunday, September 27, 2009

From the Archives: Three Restaurant Reviews


I hope you enjoyed reading about the food of London ( Here, from my archives, are three companion pieces: reviews of American restaurants, from the high-end to the low-brow to the cutting edge of obscurely ethnic. I wrote the Sizzler review on October 2, 1990; the La Folie review on October 29, 1995; and the Adélie review on August 30, 2004. (A few of you might have read one or more of these in e-mail form at some point. Albertnet regrets this redundancy.)

Sizzler Steakhouse, 665 San Pablo Ave, Albany

Brett, my roommate, met Toru in the Japan-town in San Francisco. Naturally, they hit it off well, because Brett is trying to learn as much about the Japanese language and culture as possible, and Toru arrived here from Tokyo three weeks ago and seeks the same knowledge about America. I guess it isn’t surprising that Toru wanted to go to a steakhouse, but it caught Brett and me off guard.

Who really goes out for steak anymore, least of all in California? Our yellow pages has these sub-listings under restaurants: African, Brazilian, Cambodian, Cantonese, Creole-Cajun, Fast Food, Filipino, Hawaiian, Hofbrau, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Iranian-Persian, Jewish Style, Mandarin, Moroccan, Soul Food, Sushi Bars, Thai, Turkish, Vegetarian, and Vietnamese, among others. Steakhouse is nowhere to be found. What would someone from Nebraska say? “Hungarian, Indian, Moroccan ‑‑ what the hell is this? I'm in America, dammit, I want American food. I want Black Angus!” We couldn't find anything. Then, with a creeping feeling of uneasiness, we remembered the hideous old stand‑by: Sizzler.

Sizzler is not an old stand‑by for people who occasionally require a steakhouse. It is a stand‑by for bike racers who are on the road and need to make sure they’ll get enough to eat. We never eat steak there; if we did, maybe we wouldn't hate it so much. Our torment comes at the hands of the salad bar. Actually, only once was it a salad bar; then it became a soup-and-salad bar, then a soup-salad-taco bar, then a soup-salad-taco-pasta bar, then a soup-salad-taco-pasta-dessert bar. Since the last time I’d been there (sometime last spring), they’ve added a hot-appetizer bar, and rather than buying up the rest of the world's supply of neon, they’ve changed the name of this monstrous freak of cuisine to “The Buffet Court.”

Upon entering a Sizzler, be it as far north as Salinas or as far south as Thousand Oaks, the feeling is always the same. It’s the same gut-wrenching nervous anticipation you get at the top of a roller‑coaster, right before plunging down—that moment when the hot dogs and cotton candy are festering in your stomach and beginning to crawl up your throat. But instead of the back‑ of-your-mind knowledge that nobody ever dies on roller coasters, the only comfort you can offer yourself at Sizzler is this: “I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to. I can make it out of here if I just stick to the basics—salad, plain pasta, fruit.” But you know it’s hopeless. Walking down the aisle between the Hot Appetizer bar and the Salad Bar, all you can see to one side is french fries, fried zucchini, chicken nuggets; all you can see down the other is macaroni salad, potato salad, whipped chocolate pudding. (Why the pudding is considered a salad-bar item and not a dessert-bar item is beyond me. Maybe it’s classified like Jell-O—and believe me, this salad bar has plenty of Jell-O.)

Service, of course, is horrible at Sizzler. Since the two types of people that eat there (bike racers and senior citizens) always get the Buffet Court, the waiters can all but ignore them and get away with it. Once I complained about an earwig in my strawberries, and the waitress replied, “Well, I guess you got lucky.” In my fury, I cleared the restaurant by projectile-vomiting all over the pasta bar. (Okay, I didn’t really, but the part about the earwig is true.) The main job of a Sizzler waiter is to bring out water and the legendary Sizzler cheese-toast. If they forget the water, I am always one to complain because certain Sizzler items, like Tex-Mex Taco Meat, absolutely require something to wash them down. I’m more lenient on the cheese-toast, although I still like to gripe to Brett, “I hate Sizzler. They never bring me my cheese-toast. Never.”

I don't know what they eat in Japan, but Toru really seems to like the food here. Or maybe he’s being polite. I begin to ponder the message this restaurant must be giving him about America. The endless rows of food, routinely replaced and all for the taking, promote gluttony, for not only do they suggest an inexhaustible cornucopia, but appeal to our business sense; our own subconscious cost-benefit-analyses will not let us leave until we are completely full. Which at Sizzler, of course, means completely sick as well. It is an orgy of food, complete with uncomfortable diseases.

On only my seventh trip back to the Buffet Court, this time in search of anything bland that will calm my frantic stomach, I run into Brett. He must sense my pain, and his ghostly pallor suggests he feels it too, for he offers what he thinks will be an encouraging word: “Hey, guess what? The waiter just styled us out hard on the cheese-toast.” He looks confused when I roll my eyes. “I hate cheese-toast,” I tell him. Looking for something kinder to my stomach, I spy the melons. Actually, something else has drawn my attention to them: an old lady lacks the reach, the strength, and the salad-bar-tong dexterity to successfully pick up a slice of melon from the inner row of the salad bar. In fierce determination, she has pressed her right cheek against the protective glass canopy, onto which steam collects from her frantic breathing, along with an occasional drop of spittle flung from her lips by her incensed muttering. Partly out of sympathy and partly to get her out of the way, I help her to both kinds of melon (honeydew as well as . . . something else looking remarkably like honeydew but which she assures me is not). Then I help myself.

I figure the melon should really impress Toru, because I have learned from Brett that a melon in Japan costs anywhere from $30 to $100. I figure once Toru sees my melon wedges, he’ll flip out and forget his steak altogether. He seems unimpressed, though, which confuses me. I ask about the cost of melons in Japan, and he replies, “Yes, the melons are very, very expensive, but they are not something you buy. They are something to give to somebody, as a gift.” Now I have a sinking feeling about my measly wedges. In Japan, food is a ceremony, and means something beyond that which satisfies a glutton’s oral fixation and lust for grease. Here at Sizzler, food has even dropped below that level of sustenance; it represents something that will make you sick, every time.

Most items here seem like a good idea and even look appetizing, until you get them to the table. The cheese-toast, on the other hand, doesn't even look good: uniform slices of dry bread topped with an uncanny orange powder. As with everything, I eat it out of guilt. There are starving people in this world, I tell myself, and although I wish I were one of them right now, I can’t help the fact that I’ve committed myself to this meal and there’s no turning back. To rid my mouth of the horrible orange taste, I make one final trip, this one to the dessert bar. Here it is, ice cream on tap: chocolate, vanilla, or of course the disgusting hybrid (which has oozed into one brownish mass), with chocolate syrup in the ubiquitous recessed-stainless-steel-salad- bar-bucket. Syrup would turn my already-runny chocolate ice cream to soup, so I bite the bullet and top it with green Jell-O. When I finish eating, I am utterly ruined. Never again, I vow. Of course, I said that last time, and the time before. Toru, astonishingly, is happy with his meal. He explains that the steak alone would have cost $25 in Japan. All the same, the next time I want a steakhouse, I'm going over there.

La Folie, 2316 Polk Street, San Francisco

La Folie is a really fancy French restaurant just down the street from our apartment. Erin and I have walked by it many times, but never really thought about going in.

Well, on Friday night, we were both sitting, dazed, trying to recover from the grueling work week, when Erin said, Let's go out to eat. Well, in return for spending a month in Pasadena, my company had given me a TOP Certificate, which is a $100 bonus that must be spent on dinner for two. (It can be at any restaurant; the company simply pays me back.) Thing was, we didn’t want to waste it on a cheap restaurant where we could never run up that kind of bill, so Erin called La Folie for reservations. When she called it was about 6:30; they said the earliest they could get us in would be 9:30, unless we could get there within two or three minutes. Well, we made it.

I cannot offer any valuable comments about the decor, since I am still well within the cave of Plato’s Allegory. I was immediately impressed, however, by the staff. The waiter took his role far beyond that required by his profession. If normal waiters are well-mannered prostitutes, he was a lover. Even waiters at fine restaurants are often guilty of rolling their eyes while rattling off a list of specials memorized by rote; you can hardly blame them, since they have so much to remember anyway. But this fellow was different. Naturally we had all kinds of questions about the food, being culinary Philistines by the standards of this restaurant; as he answered our questions, he stared into our eyes, passionately delivering a gripping narrative of the splendor of each offering. I cannot recount his exact words, or even a vague summary of them, so specialized was his language. It included such things as cooking times, geographical origins of the components of the food, arrangement on the plate . . . his testimony was as heartfelt as if he had personally created every dish. At any moment I thought he might sink into a swoon. Needless to say, we ordered with confidence.

To start with, Erin had quail stuffed with paté de foie gras (duck liver) and I had roasted sea scallops. The scallops were arranged in a circle around the plate, alternated boy-girl-boy-girl with roast potatoes cut to exactly the same dimension as the scallops. In the middle was a smooth dome of pinkish salmon mousse, and there was a thin, dark, very tasty sauce around the whole thing. Absolutely exquisite. I can’t remember much about the presentation of Erin’s appetizer, since by the time we traded, the presentation had been severely altered. But it was also exquisite.

Then, we moved onto the soup. Erin had a butternut squash soup, very nice, and I had a bouillabaisse, which I’d say is the French version of cioppino, which in turn, I gather, is the Italian word for “fancy fish soup. Highlights included a scallop the size of Manhattan, some other fish, and a lovely broth. Jutting proudly out of the bowl was a 10-inch crouton, with a large bulb of roasted garlic perched on the end. To my amazement, when I went to spread the garlic down the length of the crouton with my knife, it spread more smoothly than butter. Turns out it wasn't a bulb of garlic at all; it was mustard! I shouldn't have been surprised; I was in a French restaurant, after all, and this was a trompe l'oeil. (I feel the need here to throw around some fancy French terms. I hope you’re impressed.)

I should point out that I was not in the least disappointed to get mustard instead of garlic. It was not an overbearingly strong mustard like Grey Poupon (which is designed to stimulate the deadened taste buds of chain-smokers, such as you find in Paris), but a very mild yet distinctive mustard. The finest mustard, in fact, that I have ever had. The scallop in my soup, meanwhile, was not only the finest scallop I have ever had, but the finest thing I have ever put in my mouth. In fact, the experience of eating half of that scallop (the act of saving the other half being one of the most arduous trials my marriage has ever seen) was perhaps the most concentrated moment of pleasure I have ever experienced. Although acutely aware of the elegance of my surroundings, I could not suppress a whimper of sheer delight. Again, I can’t remember Erins soup as well as mine, except to say that it was buttery and nutty and very fine indeed.

Then we had a sorbet. It was served in something like a martini glass, although after a brief discussion we concluded that it must have been a special glass specially designed for sorbet. I thought about testing to see if the glass was crystal, which is done by flicking it in much the same fashion as you flick a schoolmate’s cold, red ear right after recess on a cold winter morning. However, I feared that if the glass were indeed crystal, I would know because I would send shards of it flying in Erin’s face, and we’d owe the restaurant gobs of money for a replacement.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the sorbet. It was not sherbert, or even sherbet. It had basically the composition of a snow cone. The flavor, however, put it on the opposite end of the spectrum from its oversweet cousin. It was the most vivid, pronounced grapefruit flavor I have ever encountered. Basically, they’d managed to compress the total collective flavor of a crate of grapefruits into about a tablespoon of crushed ice. My palette was instantly purged of a lifetime of accumulated flavors; indeed, I suddenly knew the inside of my mouth more intimately than I had since birth.

The entrees? I had the black sea bass. By the black sea bass, I mean that this was the only black sea bass that has ever lived. (As soon as I ordered it, they took it off the menu.) Well, actually, perhaps it wasn’t that unique, but it was still something special. As soon as I ordered it, the waiter gave instructions to an expert fisherman, who went out in a small skiff to the deep waters of the Pacific to catch the fish. (As I began the soup course, I envisioned him arriving, out of breath, at the back of the kitchen with a giant pail of water, having brought back his bounty alive. Naturally, the restaurant knew that storing an exotic fish in other than its natural environment would spoil the flavor.)

I cannot describe how the fish was prepared because the chef had worked some kind of magic on it. Magnificent. It was served with this special rice that was so inexplicably good that I must compare it to Mom’s stuffing: how could anything so simple be so delicious? (I don't want to hear any answers from dieticians, either). Sprawling lazily across the plate were several stalks of the Platonic ideal of asparagus. The plate was also festooned with these large, thick slabs of space-alien mushrooms--shitakes and portobellos and other bizarre varieties more savory than meat. These, I now recall, had also been part of the apotheosis of the appetizers.

Erin, meanwhile, had the duck. Oh, it was magnificent. Thin slices, rather rare (by which I mean to describe how they were cooked and how seldom anybody gets such fine duck). She also had an amazing rice, along with carrots and an unidentifiable vegetable that we think might have been hearts of palm. I ate half her entree myself (we had made this arrangement early on, and held to it through all five courses, even though upon tasting each course, I was tempted to call off the deal, since nothing, I reasoned, could be better than what I was eating; still, I managed to take the gamble each time, and it was always worth it).

I really liked the duck. I mean, I know that's not profound or anything; I mean, heck, we all love duck. But this went much more beyond that. Part of my love of eating duck comes from the very concept of eating such irritating birds. I remember the ones who lived at Viele Lake who turned the sidewalk green all the way from the Rec Center to Fairview High School with their feces. I also remember how they used to charge me, hissing, just for trespassing on “their land, and how they almost refused to cower when I chased them across the lawn on my mountain bike. But my general hatred of living ducks can be discounted in this case, for this was obviously a more refined breed of duck. I imagine it was a more serene, less bilious duck, who grew up in an Eddie Bauer catalog, eating a balanced diet of gourmet croutons and polenta. I’m sure it died in peace, in full knowledge of the gourmet afterlife that is every prize duck’s mortal dream.

After finishing the main course, we were feeling great. So great, in fact, that we were pushing the edge of the envelope for feeling great and I, anyway, feared that dessert might push me over the edge. It seems that every time I stay for dessert at a nice restaurant, I end up ordering the Great Ungodly Godlike Sinfully Rich Chocolate Blasphemy. It’s always good, but it’s always too much of a good thing. But of course this menu was more original and creative than that. It offered an assortment of exotic things; I almost ordered a dessert based on figs, for the sake of being outlandish. But the waiter swayed me towards the pear strudel. (Again, I marvelled at the waiter’s passion for the food; he lovingly described the desserts with the same zest I would have in recommending Simplex Retrofriction shifters.) Erin ordered the apple Charlotte.

Only when the strudel arrived did it hit me: this is a French restaurant, and nobody does pastry like the French. It was warm, of course, but not that death-warmed-over-in-the-microwave warm you get at diners. It must have been baked to order. Twin wedges met to form a tower; powdered sugar was sprinkled lightly over the rim of the plate. A star graced the plate, composed of varicolored petals of some exotic sauce. Erin’s dessert, too, was graced with pretty droplets. I expected these to be mainly cosmetic touches, like different colors of frosting on a cake. This misconception, however, was brought to my attention when Erin tasted one of her droplets and absolutely squealed with delight. Her droplet had been caramel: not like Brachs, but like La Folie had just invented caramel. Another droplet was some kind of lemon cream. I began tasting my drops, and was elated to discover that each had, condensed magically within it, the entire flavor of a mortal dessert. It became immediately obvious to me that Willy Wonka was back there in the kitchen, having found his true calling. My dessert only got more amazing from there. The pastry was so perfect and flaky and light, the filling so honest and unsweetened, that I almost broke down and cried for sheer joy.

Naturally, such a meal came at a price. But, partially because my work bonus covered more than half of it, I was not in the least disgruntled by the bill. After all, think of how much sacrifice the French people have made over the centuries, eschewing convenience and doggedly pursuing great cuisine, just to develop the kinds of delicacies we had just eaten. It is a wonderful thing that we can stroll into a restaurant, mere blocks from our home, and suddenly experience the culmination of centuries of passionate devotion to fine food.

Adélie, 1109 Fillmore Street, San Francisco

You can have all the charms of your run-of-the-mill restaurants in downtown San Francisco or the Mission District, but wouldn't you love to eat at Adélie Restaurant and watch the lively action—complete with a sidewalk scuffle—in the Western Addition?

Don't be scared to visit. Adélie (named after the Adélie Coast, a region of Antarctica near George V Coast, under French sovereignty since 1938) offers an affordable meal. The prices are all over the place—anywhere from a $1.99 ice taco to a $10.25 frozen entrée. It strikes me as a new place that’s still working out the kinks. The ambiance is sparse, yet kind of endearing (and I’m not a big ambiance guy anyway). There are black and white photocopies of Antarctic landscapes on the wall, and other photocopies are embedded in the glass dining tables. And while the fluorescent lighting and images of bleak tundra are depressing, there are handmade needle work and ceramic displays that do warm up the place a bit.

I think the waiter is also the owner, the cashier, the busboy, the chef, and possibly even the sous-chef. He explained that the restaurant was an integration of his Antarctic background with his wife’s Eskimo heritage. He was emphatic about this “hybrid project” not being fusion. Rather, he said, the dishes reflect “flavors of the old family recipes that shouldn't be altered.” Whatever, dude.

The Coats Land Snow Mixto for $9.25 completely floored me. The mix of meat and seafood including seal, penguin, walrus, and tern was nicely chilled and flavored with tart snow and fresh ice. I warn you, it might be a bit cold for the faint-hearted. If steaming biscuits are more your scene, this might turn you off a bit. Myself, I thought it was great, but then I once ate “roll mops” after being caught in the snow on a bike ride up Mount Diablo. (What, you haven't heard of a roll mop? It’s raw herring wrapped around a dill pickle, a Dutch delicacy.)

The Antarctic Pabellon for $10.25 is shredded gull brined with slush and served with pickled gull eggs, steamed ice, black gravel and a little pile of yellow snow. The presentation of the dish was simple and the aroma was enticing without being overwhelming. The gull was tender and smoky, but I began to lose interest after a few bites. Nothing about the ice or gravel really stood out either. The entrée felt like, well, discomfort food, and I had the vague feeling that someone's grandmother does a better version.

I can't vouch for the authenticity of Adélie (since I don't know squat about Antarctic cuisine) but I was pretty impressed that they have seven varieties of imported blubber, listed on their own section of the menu with a little blurb about each one. The blubbers come from various Antarctic regions, from Bellinghausen Sea to Coats Land to Australian Arctic Territory. I was tempted to try one or two, but since Erin and the kids had stuffed themselves on waffles and bacon at breakfast, I knew I wouldn’t get any help from them, and I wasn't going to tackle a whole plate of blubber on my own. (I flew solo with chicken feet at Dim Sum back in the day and I’m not making that mistake again.)

Overall, Adélie did hold its own as a nice place to grab a bite. The service was caring and the food was decent, if a bit uncomfortable. The neighborhood is a bit on the spotty side—there was a fistfight right outside our window during the meal, which set a bad example for my bored children—but who cares? Just mind your own business and enjoy the experience. Or, if you just can’t relax in that environment, get your meal to go—Adélie is one of the few restaurants I’ve seen that still sends meals out in Styrofoam containers (though I can’t imagine why, since the food is all stone cold to begin with).

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post quite a lot, especially since I haven't eaten anything but olives all day. Your post is making me hungry! I've never been to a Sizzlers (and am quite sure I won't ever get to one), though Jean did work at Mr. Steak for a season while we were courting. I ate two taco salads there during that time as I was too poh for steak. They were fine, as I recall, but surely my recollection was biased by my dining partner—Jean in her cute Mr. Steak outfit. She was there for the decline of steak houses in Boulder, either because the populace was becoming more refined or because the steak eaters were dying off from heart disease and other steak-related illnesses. In a bid to attract fresh customers, the skirts on the Mr. Steak outfits got shorter and shorter... Eventually Mr. Steak was succeeded by Chez Thuy, a Vietnamese restaurant, a sure sign of the times.

    The closest I ever came to that fine sort of French dining you describe was my stint at the Flagstaff House in Boulder, as a dishwasher. Some of those rich, anorexic ladies hardly ate anything, so we sometimes got to partake in some of the finest second-hand dining in Boulder—when the waiters didn't beat us to it. Sometimes a tray of the Intermezzos, served in tall, narrow flutes, would come back from a table, hardly or untouched. We'd grab a fist full of them, one between each finger on one hand, and scoop the contents out with our tongues. Talk about a quick brain freeze! They sure were good though.