Friday, October 15, 2010


A fellow foodie recently raised the question of how to approach a restaurant you love to let them know they're slipping. The brief conversation jogged something I've thought about a lot in the past and wanted to tackle here. What is that intangible moment when you recognize — and finally note — that one of your favorites has gone off its game? At what point, do you realize it's not just an off-night or two but a real slip in quality?

When your favorite neighborhood joint messes up too many meals or loses the servers who helped give it a bit of extra charm, do you say something? Or do you just stop going? Become that regular who no longer eats there every Thursday? What responsibility do we have as customers — and sometimes friends — to let a place know that it is off its game?

A few years ago, the kid and I had a regular meal at one of the Richmond Fan favorites. Many weeks, we'd be there twice. The servers knew us; we were treated well. Then the quality started to slip a little bit. A couple of our favorite servers left; some orders came out wrong; the quality of ingredients seemed to go off a bit. Ultimately, though, it was managerial indifference, a shrug when a server added a tip to my card when I'd left cash for a tip, that got us to stop going to the place.

As a loyal person, I recognize our willingness to put up with some of the mistakes was a direct result of my love for the restaurant. The managerial shrug — and a fiver handed back to me — put us off for months, until the kid wanted to go back one day and we got word that one of our favorite servers had been looking for us. And the food? It was just okay, and I realized that I'd been lulled into accepting what was at best middling food made with fair ingredients for years. When I could have taken my business elsewhere, I kept going because it was just easy and it was what we expected.

The place in question is busy enough that the loss of our business probably didn't hurt them. Likewise, they do enough business that my complaint about quality would probably have fallen on ears made deaf by the ring of the cash register. That said, there have been moments when I've been willing to step up — commenting on a change in the quality of bread made by one of our local shining stars, mentioning a side dish that is clearly overdone from a kitchen that knows better — and in most cases, the comments were greeted with thanks.

The truth is that the Richmond dining scene is big enough that restaurants should guard against resting on their laurels. But because it is also a dining scene in which a few luminaries carry a lot of weight, many customers put up with more paint-by-numbers food than they should.

Keeping that in mind, I would push everyone who loves food and who develops relationships with restaurants to let joints know when they're off their game. Even if it's a matter of asking questions about why something seems different, resist the urge to be obnoxious, but let the chef or server know if something isn't as good as it was before.


UPDATE: Guess I should add that I have specifically avoided naming names. There are a number of places that I've simply stopped going to because they've either decided to rest on their laurels or haven't kept up their game as new competition has hit the streets. Feel free to name names in the comments, however.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Welcoming Fall

This weekend, we needed to use up our CSA share. With nearly fifty bucks left, we binged on a bushel of heirloom variety apples and whatever veggies were still left at the market. (Word to the wise: sleeping in feels good when you don't have the kid but works against getting the best Saturday market variety.) Among the things I picked up was a bag of small to medium sweet potatoes. I've never been a huge fan of sweet potatoes — the Yankee in me comes out sometimes — but I've been trying to expand my cooking horizons this year.

Richmond was finally graced with real fall weather this week. Last week's rains brought a change in the air, and we've been downright chilly at night. On my way to pick up the kid at her mom's class, I decided it was time to welcome fall properly and how better to do that than with soup — Sweet Potato Bisque. And lamb chops.

The kid has apparently lost her taste for sweet potatoes; she would have pesto pasta, the standby. Since she'd finished her homework, I drafted her help. She helped me put together the stock from TJ's concentrate and hot water. She rinsed the apple and the sweet potatoes, peeled the garlic, and added the apples and sweet potatoes to the sweated onions and garlic, stirring all the time. I did the chopping, and she helped with adding the spices as well. Next time, I will be sure to get pictures to have the events recorded for posterity. In the end, it was too bad that she didn't want to try the soup, but truth be told I was glad to be able to up the heat factor to balance out the sweet potatoes and apple.

The sides were pan-seared lamb chops simply dusted with coarse salt and pepper, a cucumber and pepper salad, and a couscous/lentil mix for L. Serve it with a red wine dry enough to counter the sweetness and full enough to stand up to the spice, or better yet get a nice saison to complement the flavors. In any case, here's the improvised recipe...


Keep in mind that this is all based on improvisation. It's largely a bisque because of consistency, and I opted for bourbon because we were out of sherry. With a good bourbon, it worked nicely.

1/2 stick butter
1 small onion
4 cloves garlic
1 apple
6 small to medium sweet potatoes
5 cups vegetable broth
1 roasted poblano pepper
Spices: cumin, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, fresh ginger, sweet and hot paprika, and saffron
Bourbon (approximately 1/2 cup)
Plain yogurt

1. Dice apples and sweet potatoes into 1 inch or smaller pieces
2. Chop onion and garlic coarsely.
3. Heat butter in large stock pot on medium heat and add onion and garlic. When sweated to shimmering, add the apple and a few mills of salt and pepper. Allow to sweat for five minutes and begin to add sweet potatoes. Add a dash of each spice and sweat a few minutes until the mixture becomes aromatic.
4. Add 4 cups of vegetable broth.
5. Bring mixture to boil for five minutes and reduce to simmer for 25 minutes or until the potatoes and apples are soft and break up easily.
6. Use immersion blender to puree mixture. Add additional stock and bourbon while blending. If you want a thinner soup, add extra stock.
7. Bring to boil again and drop to simmer for as long as needed.
8. Taste and add spice to balance. Should have a good bite that gives way to the sweet flavors and saffron mid-palate.
9. Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt, a pinch of fleur de sel and a rosemary sprig.

Will serve at least six.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The little things...

I can't stop watching this video. I don't know if it's because I know how much I've been through and how possible it was a couple of times for me to end up holding every small thing together by the smallest thread or if it's because I like the damn song so much. Regardless, this video really hits a spot in my throat.