Fine Dining

Restaurant Review Dredge Harbor Café, Delran, NJ

Of the many adjectives that come to mind when describing fine dining, the word dredge doesn’t make the top hundred.  I found the seating even less appealing. The white plastic chairs and long rectangular tables reminded me of a high school cafeteria. The building resembled a trailer one would see at a construction site. To express this as politely as possible, upon entering, the tide in the harbor reached higher than my expectations for a good meal. For that matter, I wondered if some of the ducks floating in the water were part of the menu.

I’ve never been so surprised. The Dredge Harbor Café treated me to the best dinner I can recall in recent memory.

I ordered the flounder. (I don’t have a copy of the menu, so I don’t know the precise cost.) It came with a choice of soup or salad. While I normally select the salad, I read “Ham and Cabbage” soup on the list. What an unusual offering. I never do enough to commemorate my Irish ancestry, so I opted for that.

The café served me the best soup I’ve ever had. It tasted very flavorful; that’s an accomplishment with cabbage. I could clearly discern both ingredients in the broth. They loaded an abundance of both them into the cup, as well. A bowl would’ve been adequate for a meal in itself.

Our server mistakenly brought over an extra salad for our group. Nonetheless, she placed it on the table and said we would keep it. Since no one else shared my passion for greens, I decided to treat myself. The quality of the lettuce and tomatoes impressed me. I eat a lot of salad, but it’s rare I have one as savory as this. I give the Dredge Harbor Café a lot of credit: the food they served in preparation for the main dish would’ve made for a quality dining experience in itself.

Then dinner came. I figured the main course would be a bit of a let-down after the soup and salad. Again, the Dredge Harbor Café astonished me. The flounder’s texture allowed me to cut it with a fork. It tasted delicious. The baked potato and broccoli I had with it were excellent as well. The skin on the potato had the same texture as the French fries. I sampled one of the latter from one of my dining companions. They tasted more like potatoes than any other French fry I’ve ever tried. I’ve eaten at several places that make their own. I give the kitchen staff credit for outstanding food preparation.

I also liked the deceptively large portions. When I received my plate I thought it smaller than those used by comparable eateries. Again, the café shocked me. I couldn’t complete the entire meal. Thanks to the people in my party, we had plenty of leftovers for my dog, Cinnamon. Now I need to put her on a diet.

I criticized the décor earlier. To be fair, the establishment treats patrons sitting outside to a view of the harbor. One gets to watch the boats leaving and returning with the waning light of the summer sun in the background; at least during the evening.

Everyone’s familiar with the business axiom, “location, location, location.” The Dredger Harbor Café is easy to miss for first time diners. One has to take a long, meandering road off of River Road in Delran to get to the building. As I wrote above, the facility’s appearance isn’t, well, eye catching.

Another unusual feature of the restaurant is its restrooms. One has to get a key from inside and then walk across the street to the facilities. Needing a “pass” for the washroom made me feel like I was still in high school. At my age, that might not be a bad thing, though.

I remember as a kid going to Dredge Harbor for ice cream. I’d eat it while watching the boats along the water. I’ve grown up and so has the Dredge Harbor Café. They treated me to a phenomenal fine dining experience. Even though duck didn’t appear on the menu, I’d strongly recommend to fellow gastronomes.

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Restaurant Review – The Pub in Pennsauken, NJ (Redux)

This past weekend my Dad celebrated his 39th birthday. Yes, the man fathered and raised me and yet he’s younger than I am…so he claims. Maybe he’s got some Benjamin Button thing going on. At any rate, he invited me along with a group of friends to celebrate at The Pub in Pennsauken. I’ve had numerous great dining experiences there. How could I possibly resist? Oh, and it was his birthday.

Diners received unlimited access to the salad bar with dinner, in addition to complimentary bread. For those into salad bars: The Pub set the gold standard. In addition to a delicious Caesar Salad, I added some cottage cheese and carrots to my plate. They prepared the later with raisins. I never would’ve thought to combine a fruit and a vegetable in this way. It tasted outstanding. I would’ve returned for more, but we also ordered appetizers.

Since our party consisted of six people, we ordered two of them. We got the French Fried Zucchini and the Fried Fresh Mushrooms. (The both cost $5.50 respectively.) They could’ve served as meals in themselves. I’ve had Fried Mushrooms at various pizza places over the years. I’d rank The Pub’s as the best. The mushrooms tasted unexpectedly fresh. I even ate them without the sauce and found them savory. I give the chef a lot of credit: he made something as bland as mushrooms flavorful. I had seconds on the zucchini. My dining companions raved about their quality, also.

Then our server brought out our dinners. All the food on the table reminded me of the Feast of Trimalchio scene in Fellini’s Satyricon.  Several in my group ordered the Prime Rib. While it came in at a hefty $29.99, both the portion and quality justified the price. When placed on the table it reminded me of the Ol’ 96er in the John Candy/Dan Aykroyd film The Great Outdoors. Unlike Candy’s character, no one finished this hunk of meat. For the record, my dog did finish off the leftovers. She’s a fussy eater, too.

There’s an old saw that whenever you dine at a steakhouse, someone always orders seafood. That person is usually me. So why buck tradition? I ordered the Hot Seafood Platter. The menu described it as, “Golden brown fried gulf shrimp, seafood salad, broiled fish of the day, deviled clam, tender bay scallops and shrimp stuffed with crabmeat.” It also come with a steep price tag at $29.99. Still, the only word that adequately described this meal was awesome.  When looking at the plate I worried that the population of the world’s oceans must have dipped a few per cent since I ordered it. The portions and quality, again, were phenomenal. I thought the seafood salad a nice addition. I’ve never had a seafood combo that included one. I give The Pub kudos for creativity on this one, also.

I’ve often written that I like it when customers can view the kitchen. The Pub took this to another level. They kept the lights low in the dining area. As one would expect, they illuminated the kitchen is more brightly. In spite of the main dining room’s size, one’s eyes became drawn to the kitchen. The management wanted customers to watch their food prepared. I thought that a very nice touch.

The Pub’s website reads, “Everything extravagant except the prices.” While I do find their prices higher than most, the quality and the portions justify them. Thanks to the quantities even my dog got to share in the quality fare: and she’s a tougher critic than I am. After my latest experience at The Pub, I can’t wait until my Dad’s 40th birthday party.

Restaurant Review – Firebirds Wood Fired Grill in Moorestown, NJ

I thought very hard about how to spend my birthday this past April 19th. After much contemplation I decided to commemorate it the same way I pass most evenings these days. I opted for dinner at a fine dining establishment. Afterwards, I’d conclude my evening by blogging about how the restaurant failed to meet my expectations. (Before anyone asks: the answer is no. John Belushi did not pattern his ‘party animal’ character in the movie Animal House after me. I understand that is a common misconception.) On this occasion I learned the meaning of irony. I was disappointed by not being disappointed.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill delivered an outstanding dining experience. The place made a great first impression. The ambiance impressed me. They arranged the glasses in the racks behind the bar by color. The bartender placed the reds together, the blues in the same spot, then the golden ones, and so on. While I’m color blind, I still enjoyed the visual effect.

The hostess seated my party between the bar and the kitchen. Talk about the perfect location! I always applaud a restaurant that allows patrons a clear view into the kitchen. A recent issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs focused on global food security. It’s a clear indication the staff earned the management’s confidence to let the public watch them prepare meals. That’s a good thing.

My dining companions and I commenced our dining experience with an appetizer. We ordered the Lobster Spinach Queso. The menu described it as, “lobster, baby spinach, tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, tortilla chips. For $12.25 all three of the people in my party ate good portions of it. We all found the dip and the chips savory. The latter came in three varieties: a red one, a black one and a traditional style. There are only so many ways to flavor tortilla chips, but I did detect subtle differences in the variety.

Then came the main course. As this evening marked my reaching the quarter century mark (again), I thought about my mortality. What better time to leave my comfort zone and try something I’d never had before? While not exactly on my ‘bucket list’ I opted for the Braised Tenderloin Pasta. The menu described it as, “cavatappi, fresh spinach, red peppers, and sic green chile cheese sauce.” The menu also included a “limited availability” disclaimer next to the name. On the evening I dined at Firebirds, they had it.

I’m not a big meat eater, but I really liked this dish. The combination of the steak and the pasta created a very distinct taste. I’ve never feasted on anything like it before. While pricey at $17.95, I received a great portion. I even took some home with me. I can’t remember dining out and not finishing a meal in recent months. I give Firebirds a lot of credit: they give customers their money’s worth.

On this dining excursion I did something else I don’t usually do. I ordered desert. As I’m health conscious–not because I’m getting old, mind you—I settled on the Flourless Chocolate Cake. I’ve had flourless pastries before and liked them. This cake was no exception. It didn’t taste as sweet as traditional fare, but it suits my tastes. I thought it a bit pricey at $7.75, but since it was my birthday, they gave it to me for free. I liked the personal customer service touch.  I’ll have to find out when my next birthday is so I can get more free stuff.

I didn’t like the lack of complimentary bread with dinner. I’ve noticed this at other places I’ve dined recently, also. I understand that to conserve water, servers only provide it upon request. Is there some kind of wheat crisis I’m unaware of? It seems odd to me that suddenly few places give customers bread with dinner.

I’d also point out to readers that Firebirds meals are rather pricey. I’d recommend reviewing the menu on-line prior to dining there. As I wrote above, I felt the quality and the portions I received justified the cost. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that my Dad and stepmom treated me for my birthday. If I had paid out of my own pocket, I’m sure my comments would be the same. I did want to let readers know, though.

My dining experience at Firebirds made for the best 25th birthday I’ve had in years. I enjoyed their delicious offerings. I’ve attended some infamous dinner outings over the last several months. I’m very thankful to Firebird’s Wood Fired Grill for providing an excellent one on my birthday. That wish I made when I blew out the candle last year finally came true.

Restaurant Review – The Robin’s Nest in Mount Holly, NJ

Nestled a few blocks away from Mount Holly’s historic district, the Robin’s Nest treats patrons to an outstanding dining experience. In addition to the food, customers have the option of feasting on a breathtaking outdoor view of the creek. This establishment got the complete dining experience right.

While a beautiful spring day, I opted to dine inside. From the cozy layout I suspected the building rather old. I read a historical marker on the edifice next to the main dining area indicating it served as a jail in the early 1900s. I suspected someone constructed the building where I ate at least that long ago. I didn’t count, but there couldn’t have been more than 15 seats at the bar. I did volunteer work in an ‘historic’ home for several years. Due to the age of the various edifices in the area, the compactness didn’t bother me.

After perusing the menu an interesting dish stood out. The Robin’s Nest offered a lasagna entrée made with goat cheese. I’ve had many Italian dishes, but never that. As one only lives once, and with the knowledge of a hospital located a few blocks away, I ordered it. Much to my chagrin my server returned from the kitchen to inform me they didn’t have any more. Readers of this column know: not receiving what I order really strains the limits of my patience.

My love of visiting historical places may have alleviated my temper. I’d been to the county court house in Mount Holly, but never to any of the historic sections. I’d had the pleasure of seeing the oldest fire house in the U. S. on this trip. Taking a sense of pride from my surroundings, I opted for the town’s namesake. This time I ordered the Mount Holly Melt.

Had I not read the other meal on the menu I would’ve requested it, anyway. The menu described it as, “Chicken Salad with Celery, Onion and Mandarin Oranges in a Creamy Dill Mayonnaise Dressing topped with Melted Cheddar Cheese, served on Toasted Fresh Baked Sourdough Bread with a Side Salad.”

What the server delivered surprised me. The salad came with the meal. The preparer placed it on the plate to the left of the sandwich. The latter only had one slice of bread on the bottom. This forced me to cut it with a fork. After my initial misgivings, I tried and enjoyed it. I liked both the leafy salad and the chicken salad sections of the meal. The sizable portion made for an excellent lunch. I didn’t see the bottom of the plate until I finished eating.

I liked the price even more. The on-line menu advertises the Mount Holly Melt as $9.50. They charged me $8.95 for it as a “lunch special.” That’s a very economical cost for the quantity served.

I mentioned before that ambiance defines this establishment’s core competency. Even the rest room impressed me. The series of men’s ties adorning the gilded colored walls gave it the air of an old time washroom. The series of aphorisms that appeared throughout also added to its uniqueness. I’ll quote the most memorable.

“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” Sir Francis Bacon

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Ambition is the last refuge of failure.” Oscar Wilde

At first I thought this an odd place for philosophical ruminations. Then I realized: a rest room is one of the few places in today’s world where a person is alone to think. I guess the management strives to expand consumers’ intellectual horizons as well as their waist lines.

The sign over the commode made for the most striking feature, though. It read, “Please be seated. Waitress will serve you.” I normally don’t applaud ‘bathroom humor’ at a fine dining establishment, but I did chuckle while reading it.

It’s rare to see a unique combination of good food, great scenery and wit. There’s a lot of history in the Mount Holly area. I hope that the Robin’s Nest remains part of its present for a long time to come.

Restaurant Review – Catelli Duo in Voorhees, NJ

For the first time in months I sampled “fine dining” fare not seasoned by my tears. While feeling adventurous this past weekend I took a trip to Voorhees and dined at Catelli Duo. Their website reads that they “do Italian differently.” I feasted on a quality meal in an elegant setting. When compared to my other dining experiences over the last few months that alone made it “different”.

Upon entering the building a sophisticated interior greeted me. Wine racks adorned the dining area. Lights located underneath the bar top added to the elegance. The bar also featured cushioned seats that maximized patrons’ comfort. An opening to the kitchen allowed diners to watch the chefs working. That feature always impresses me. It shows that the people preparing food don’t have anything to hide. The restroom featured hands-free faucets that emptied into large transparent bowls. Of course, all this luxury came at a price.

I began my meal with a Lobster Bisque soup. The menu described it as including “jumbo lump crabmeat.” At first I thought it a bit watery, but after stirring, the broth thickened and became rather tasty. I thought the price a bit high at $6.00, but for the portion and the quality of the meal, it didn’t bother me.

As I enjoy both seafood and Italian, one choice really caught my attention. Catelli Duo billed the Seafood Ravioli as “house-made seafood ravioli stuffed with shrimp, crab, lobster cream”. When I read that, I knew exactly what to have for lunch. The chef prepared the dish in a creamy white wine sauce.  Once again I had to stir it to get the flavor right. After doing so the meal mesmerized me. I’d call the quality of the seafood superlative. The sauce tasted rather sweet. I’m not a big wine drinker, but the libation they used gave the meal the perfect seasoning. While a bit pricey at $16.00, the quality justified it.

Catelli Duo’s website claims, “We’re not just doing Italian differently—we’re reinventing it.” That’s a bold assertion, but the superiority of the food verified it. My trip to Catelli doesn’t need a “do-over”, but I plan on dining there again.

Restaurant Review – The Farm and Fisherman Tavern, Cherry Hill, NJ

The Farm and Fisherman Tavern advertises several seafood dishes on its menu. I ordered the Reuben. I knew an unforgettable evening awaited me. With entrees to choose from I opted for a lunch sandwich. Not that this establishment had an extensive variety of options. Based on all my server’s tattoos, I read more ink on her than on the menu. That’s not good.

Speaking of the service, I observed opportunities for improvement. For one I didn’t receive what I ordered. I requested the Minestrone Soup for an appetizer. As I’m writing this a day later I’m still waiting for it. It made me wonder: do I look fat? Granted, I have put on a few pounds over the winter months. That’s no excuse not to serve a paying customer what he requested.

One of my fans recently asked me to “go easy” with my review of this establishment. Regrettably, this is the kind version of my observations. Since I promised to be more positive, I shall honor my commitment. Let me say that the Farm and Fisherman Tavern saved me $7.00 on soup.

On the subject of appetizers, the ones at this establishment were anything but. I sampled the Calamari. For those who’d like to save themselves a trip to Cherry Hill I’ll describe it. It reminded me of drinking Tequilla. I felt like I chugged a mouthful of vinegar and then chased it with a few pieces of shrimp.

And then I split an order of the Caramelized Cauliflower with someone. To be fair, I eat cauliflower from time to time. Prior to trying this appetizer I knew their flavor doesn’t explode in one’s mouth. They’re the leafy equivalent of mushrooms. I get that. I figured that the special sauce would enhance and add more zest. It didn’t. Why not? Upon reviewing the menu more closely, they described the sauce as a “curried mushroom cream.” What a great idea. Take something that has no flavor and douse it in a sauce made from something else that has no flavor.

I’ve brought up the ridiculously high price of vegetables in previous columns. To spare readers another harangue I’ll limit my observations to this. The $8.00s the management gouges customers for this is almost as tasteless as the appetizer.

In spite of these set-backs I decided to stick it out and stay for “dinner”. When they served my meal ($12.00), one gentleman in my group observed, “That’s an interesting looking Reuben.” That’s about the only word in the English language that adequately described it. Imagine throwing a salad in the middle of a garden. That’s how my plate appeared. I would’ve taken a picture, but people may have thought I staged it. I saw it in real time and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it. I had the option of French fries or salad as a side dish. I never would’ve thought they’d bury the sandwich in the salad.

And there’s more. I don’t know what process they use to slaughter turkeys for human consumption. The one I had must’ve died from dehydration. I’ve never tasted anything this desiccated. Did I mention the Reuben didn’t come with Russian Dressing? The presentation on the plate confused me so much I accidentally put my salad dressing on the sandwich. You know what? It still tasted really dry.

I’d had enough at this point. I passed on desert. Not that it would’ve mattered, anyway. They billed one of the items as a “Bacon Ice Cream.” (Before people send me e-mails: I know. I’ve never seen those words arranged in that combination, either.) This establishment was just bursting with great ideas. Why not take a breakfast food and turn it into a desert? What’s next? Scrapple Sherbert, anyone?

So far 2015 is turning into a rebuilding year for fine dining. My dog, Cinnamon, shares my displeasure. Whenever my dad and stepmom return from eating out, they give her their leftovers. I’ve seen Cinnamon walk away from “fine cuisine” in favor of her chew stick. My birthday’s coming up in a few weeks. People ask me where I’d like to go out to dinner for it. With some of the places I’ve been to lately, I’ll take one of the dog’s left over chew sticks.

Restaurant Review – Il Villaggio in Cherry Hill, NJ

I felt leery dining at Il Villaggio. As the name included a homonym of the word ill, I didn’t enter the building with high hopes. The again, with the advent of Obamacare in America, I thought I’d give it a try. Who knows? The way things are going maybe I could even get taxpayers to pick-up the bill. Upon looking at the prices, I realized the impossibility of this. As the Federal Budget is a paltry 14 billion dollars, the government wouldn’t be able to afford it. While pricey, Il Villaggio delivered a decent dining experience.

I found the ambiance inviting. Upon entering, the site of an elegant chandelier and spacious gilded dining area greeted me. Then the hostess led my group into a more ‘cozy’ setting. This room had three long tables. They seated my party (of 26) at two of them. Another group came in later and sat at the third. With the frigid January temperatures outside, all the people crammed together did help to warm things up.

I opted to take the vegetarian route once again. As readers of this column will no doubt recall, I did this once before at another restaurant I reviewed. As they will also remember, the results didn’t please me. I’m not one to ever give up on a bad idea, so I went for a vegetarian evening again.

On the occasion I dined at Il Villaggio, they offered Cream of Asparagus as one of the soups of the day. I like soup, I like vegetables and I like asparagus. What could go wrong? What they served didn’t quite meet my definition of soup. Asparagus Gespacho may have been a more fitting appellation for this appetizer. It was rather tepid, even cool. Due to the cramped quarters, the temperature of the room exceeded that of the soup. It’s never good when that happens. I discerned a sweetness to the broth. It also lacked a certain ingredient. Unfortunately, its namesake turned to be the missing element. I found very few stalks in the broth, though. They also tasted very crunchy. I’m not used to crispy vegetables. Maybe it’s an Italian thing.

As I resolved to lose weight for the new year, I ordered another vegetable based dish for my main course. I went for the Zucchini Parmesan. I’ve had Eggplant Parmesan many times, but I’ve never heard of this meal. The menu described it as, “lightly fried layers of zucchini topped with melted mozzarella cheese, over rigatoni pasta marinara sauce.” I liked it, but I can understand it isn’t for everybody. The texture reminded me of a cross somewhere between eggplant and mushrooms; both of which I’m fond. I did enjoy it and thought the portion proportional to the price. The chef got all the spices right to make it a good quality Italian meal. I can’t recollect dining at a place that offered rigatoni as a choice of pasta. It made the meal unique and complimented the main course well.

In spite of liking the entrée, I didn’t think the cost justified, though. As I mentioned before, I went with a group. The organizer informed us how much we owed at the end of the evening. I don’t know what the soup cost, but the entrée came in at $16.00. For comparison’s sake, the Veal Parmesan cost $19.00. They priced the Chicken Parm at $17.00. While the Zucchini Parm was rightly cheaper than the meats, I still thought the price high. After all, the main ingredient was only a vegetable.

I need to go off for a moment. I’ve encountered this before in the form of an $11.00 can of spinach at a restaurant. What’s with the high cost of vegetables these days? Does their cost vary inversely with fuel prices? I’m just wondering. This seems silly to me.

I didn’t partake in desert. While no one in my group complained about the quality, this time I really thought the prices ridiculously high. Everything on the desert menu cost somewhere in the seven dollar range. The gentleman seated next to me ordered a bowl of berries with two scoops of pistachio ice cream. I could’ve gone to Yogurtland and had a larger portion of Pistachio Yogurt with some fruit toppings for less money than that.

The staff conducted themselves extremely well. Our main server did an outstanding job of presenting all the specials. The speed with which they delivered our dinner impressed me. I also applaud their professionalism in serving everyone in our large party at the same time.

Some people say that eating a high quality meal is the purpose of fine dining: not receiving large portions. After all, not every establishment can be The Pub (in Pennsauken) where one receives enough food that obviates the need to grocery shop for a week. I understand and respect their point. I do think that Il Villaggio’s prices a bit out of the norm even for quality dining. For readers okay with that, I think Il Villaggio definitely worth a visit.

The Year of the Rabbit

For some reason, rabbits have been hopping into my life lately. Pun intended. They’ve been running around my yard, I‘ve read about them in stories and I even had one for dinner; that’s as a meal: not a guest. The Year of the Rabbit ended back in January of 2012. The next one won’t begin until January of 2023. What’s going on?

I’ll start with the dining thing. While in Arkansas on a business trip my group and I ended up at an upscale restaurant. I’d say not to tell the boss, but he owns the bistro, too. So much for putting that one on the expense report. * Rabbit appeared on the menu. Someone told me that they’re a delicacy. My grandfather ate rabbit while fighting in Europe during the Second World War. He’s not the person who told me that. I decided to try it. After all, we only live once. At the time the possibility that eating rabbits could have something to do with that didn’t enter my mind.

They say that everything tastes like chicken. Rabbit turned out to be the exception. It wasn’t bad. I’d describe it as a combination of scallops only with a meatier taste. I like seafood and I need protein to live. It was a win-win situation.

For some reason I had the impression rabbits were smart. While dining on one I thought, if they really are smart, wouldn’t this one be eating me? I wondered why I thought them intelligent. It must have come from Hugh Hefner, of all people. Initially, he wanted to call Playboy ™ magazine Stag Party™. At the time, a hunting magazine called Stag™ claimed trademark infringement. Hef changed the name. I’ve always believed that a brilliant move on his part. Beautiful women dressed in bunny costumes are much more appealing than ladies dressed as elk. The brand wouldn’t have been quite the same. That’s not to say I spend a lot of time “studying” Playboy Bunnies as far as anyone knows. That story doesn’t have much to do with rabbits, though.

A large cotton tail became a frequent guest in my backyard this summer. Most evenings around seven she’d hop to the center of the yard. This rabbit would sit there for several minutes and then lay down. I’d watch her bask in waning light of the summer sun. Unfortunately for her, so would my dog, Cinnamon.

“Cinny” is a shorke. She’s very friendly: except to non-human visitors that intrude on her territory. One evening she noticed the rabbit. She growled, barked and scraped the sliding glass door. Not realizing how delicious rabbits were, I picked her up and took her to the back door. Since bunnies have long ears, I figured the rabbit would hear me and scamper off. I rattled the screen expecting it to leave. It simply sat up. I hit the door again as the dog barked. The rabbit didn’t move. I opened the door, figuring the thing would run. It didn’t. The rabbit just backed away a few steps.

By now I couldn’t control the dog. Cinny flailed all four of her appendages so fast she reminded me of Keith Moon during a drum solo. Much like a madman pounding the skins, she became difficult to control. I set her down. She bolted after the rabbit. It hesitated for a second before hopping off. That pause could’ve been costly. Cinny came within a hare’s length of catching her. Pun intended. I figured the rabbit dithered because of a long history outrunning predators. The more I thought about this I realized something: when it comes to avoiding its enemies, it’s only going to be wrong once. Even with a 99.9% success rate, I still wouldn’t like that average.

Maybe rabbits aren’t as smart as I thought. I re-read the old saw about the tortoise and the hare. This time I picked up Lord Dunsany’s version. It included the usual part about the rabbit going to sleep since he knew he’d beat the tortoise. (Sorry if this is a spoiler, folks.) The author did add some minor variations. At the end, he explained the reason. Very few animals survived a massive forest fire shortly after the race. Why didn’t very many escape? When the creatures noticed the blazing conflagration they sent the fastest among them to warn the others: the tortoise.

Rabbits may not be the most intelligent animal I find in my back yard. At least I hope they’re not the smartest mammal on the property while I’m standing there. They still make things interesting. I checked the Chinese calendar. This is the Year of the Horse. I hope I don’t have as many run-ins with them. At the very least, I don’t want to see them on the menus anywhere I eat.

* For the record: my employer did reimburse me for the meal. In fact, the management encouraged my group to dine there. After much deliberation I chose not to review this particular establishment as part of my Restaurant Review series. PLEASE DO NOT INTERPRET THAT NEGATIVELY. I didn’t feel I could review it objectively due to my personal ties with the management. That’s the ONLY reason I didn’t write about it on my blog.

Restaurant Review – Flint Creek Steak House in West Siloam Springs, OK

I get a little nervous when someone says the words gambling and fine dining in the same sentence. At any rate, I decided to “throw the dice”, if you will, and dine out at the Flint Creek Steak House. This establishment is located at the Cherokee Hotel and Casino in West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma. I should have known I’d be pressing my luck with this place. When my group showed up on Monday night we discovered it was closed. They’re only open Wednesday through Sunday. That makes sense. It’s not like they’re in a CASINO where A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL BE HANGING AROUND. At any rate, on that evening we dined at the buffet. I’ll have more to say about that later.

When Thursday came around, my entire group decided to go to back to the Steak House. This time, we called ahead to make sure they were open. They told us we needed reservations. Why? They were very busy. I’ll have more to say about that later, too.

*

Upon entering the Flint Creek Steak House the dining room ambiance impressed me. I found it spacious and rather elegant. I liked the blue color of the walls and the drapes in front of the window to the casino. It gave the establishment an air of sophistication. It had the appearance that a fine dining establishment should have.

It’s a harbinger of bad things when something like ordering an iced tea raises red flags. The menu listed it at $2.50. Before Starbucks customers tell me what a deal that is, I should point out that the casino had a “free” soda fountain. I helped myself to an iced tea while waiting to go to dinner. The brand the restaurant served tasted exactly the same. So, when I drank it while walking around the casino, it was free. When I ordered it with dinner they charged me for it. Hmmmmm.

I ordered the Seafood Chowder as an appetizer. I liked it, but not to the point of justifying the $6.00 price tag. That’s an awful lot to pay for a small bowl of soup. For that kind of money, I could stop off at the supermarket and buy enough to last me a week.

As readers can guess from my choice of appetizer, I’m a big sea food fan. Even though the place billed itself as a steak house, I decided on the Seafood Lafayette. The menu described it as, “Shrimp, Scallops, Sausage and Spicy Cajun Cream Sauce.” I like my meals with some zest to them. I licked my lips in preparation for the perfect dinner.

Here’s where I started losing my temper. It’s never good when that happens in a “fine dining” setting. The Steak House’s web site clearly reads, “At Flint Creek, you’ll be pampered by our accommodating staff…” Yeah. I’m not sure how long my group waited for dinner. The server took our orders at 6:17 PM. My best estimate is that we didn’t receive our meals until sometime around 7:20 PM. I dined with a group and enjoyed the opportunity to converse with everybody. Still, that’s a long time to wait for food when you’re hungry. After we finished eating, we had to wait a while for the bill, as well.

Remember earlier, I wrote that we needed reservations because the place was “very busy”? While I sat there, most of the tables in the dining room were empty. To irritate me even more, I witnessed two staff members standing around talking to each other most of the night. At least one other server worked the dining room, as well. For these reasons, I found the lengthy waits completely inexcusable. The fact that the establishment added the gratuity to the bill was even more intolerable. We practically had to hunt down our server to pay her. This did not meet my criteria for fine dining.

With respect to the meal, I thought my dinner good, but ridiculously overpriced. They charged $22.00 for something that fit in a medium sized bowl. Once again, while I thought the food decent, I didn’t think the quality or size justified the high cost.

I wanted to end this review with the line, “If you’re planning on dining at the Flint Creek Steak House, save your money and hit the buffet instead.” I may have pointed out already that the restaurant was closed on Monday. On that night, my group tried the RiverCane Café/Buffet. Once again, I found the food adequate, but I didn’t like the price. If diners sign up for a player’s card (which is free) they save $1.76 on the buffet. Everyone in my group took advantage of this deal and got to eat for $10.70. Obviously, I can’t complain about the portions in this case. The lack of variety did disappoint me, however. They served Italian, Chinese, and Mexican food. I didn’t see any high-end meals, though. (i.e. Steak, fish, etc.) To be fair, they did offer a diverse desert selection.

My point of reference for a “real” buffet is the Hibachi Grill in Cinnaminson, NJ. For $9.99 diners have their pick of Rib-Eye Steak, Salmon, Crabmeat, and a host of other fine foods, in addition to the kinds of things the RiverCane Café/Buffet served. I expected similar quality fare from the casino.

I bet the house that I’d get a good meal, but came up craps. I still can’t believe the prices. Doesn’t the casino want diners to have at least some money left to blow in the machines? The real issue I had involved the poor service. As anyone in business can recite, “you’re five times more likely to lose a customer over bad service than bad quality.” I can personally assure the Flint Creek Steak House just how accurate that is.

Restaurant Review – La Huerta Mexican Restaurant in Siloam Springs, AR

The food makes any sojourn south of the Mason-Dixon Line well worth-while. During a recent business trip to Arkansas, I had the pleasure of sampling some Mexican food prepared there. What an experience!

For those journeying through Northwest Arkansas, La Huerta is conveniently located off of Route 412. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s very tough to locate from the road. The building’s plain white exterior makes it very easy to miss. When I first saw it, I mistook the place for a hotel. It’s located in a small strip mall, as well. Some of the people in my group had dined there before. They almost drive past it.

The interior décor didn’t impress me. Keep in mind that I’m color blind, have absolutely no artistic ability and was very hungry when I walked in the door. The place seemed a bit cluttered. The many customers in the building had something to do with shaping my perception, though. I also didn’t care for the table design. I’m sympathetic that restaurants need to sell advertising space to add additional cash flow. Typically, they put local business ads on placemats. La Huerta sells space on its tables to advertisers. I have to admit: staring at an ad for plumbing supplies didn’t exactly help whet my appetite.

I applaud the gregarious nature of our server. The guy was a born salesman. He informed our group that many people call La Huerta’s sweet tea, “the best in the area.” I’m a big tea drinker, so I had to try. I have to give the guy credit: I had my share of sweet tea during my week in Arkansas, and I would call La Huerta’s the epitome of Northwest Arkansas brew.

In lieu of putting out bread for customers, La Huerta, being a Mexican food establishment, gave us tortilla chips. We (meaning predominantly I) ate so many that our server kept re-filling the bowl. I’ve never been a big tortilla chip fan: until now. These were the best I ever had. They weren’t too heavy or too light. The preparer added just the right amount of corn flavor. They came with the traditional dipping sauce as well as a cheesier one. I’m old-fashioned, so I preferred the standard sauce, although the other tasted just fine. The flavor and texture reminded me of eating a pizza.

For dinner I tried the Enchiladas Razorback. In essence, it was an enchilada that substituted seafood for meat or beans. It had a distinct taste that I enjoyed. The more I ate, the more I noticed just how salty the meal, though. I didn’t mind so much at the beginning, but about half-way through it became very perceptible. Someone else in my group commented about the abundance of salt in her dinner. I wondered if they made the tea so sweet to balance out the brackish meal. While I would dine at La Huerta again, I’d suggest the chef go a little easier on the salt next time.

I received fantastic value for my money. They served my entree on a huge plate that I couldn’t see under all the food. And the part I really liked: my final bill came to a grand total of $11.39. Coming from the Philadelphia area, that’s one phenomenal deal.

I would describe their service as without peer. My group arrived just after 5:30 PM. The place started to fill-up with the dinner crowd. They still sat our group of seven people right away. I couldn’t believe how quickly they delivered our dinners. While I wasn’t watching the clock, I’d estimate between the time we ordered and the time they served, it must have been about ten minutes. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. A large group walked in unexpectedly. They still managed to serve us that fast. That’s an outstanding accomplishment.

The next time I’m in the Northwest Arkansas region I look forward to sampling some of the other dishes La Huerta has to offer. The service and quality of the meal made dinner well worthwhile. They pulled this off without leaving my wallet in a world of huerta.