Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Firehouse Bar & Grill

I'm heading towards the Heights. I've been up since 5 am and the only thing I've eaten are a few of the little sausage stick pieces our kiosk person put out for samples today. Where to eat? I come to Forest Park Drive and think of Firehouse, so down the hill I went. When I was cheffing it at the IVY Club, occasionally a few of us would go there after work when it was a place called Captain Z's. Big improvement over Z. As the name suggests, the decor is all firefighter related and about 10 video games of different sorts. I sit at the bar and am fairly quickly greeted by the bartendress and order a Michelob draft. Ok, I know about half of you are now continuing your reading after getting up off the floor in a stunned state of being. Yeah, yeah..I didn't have a Sam Adams. Looking over the menu, basic bar chow. So, it's going to be a ribeye steak sandwich and for the $1.50 more the fresh cut fries instead of the "free" chips that usually accompany the sandwiches. The bartendress asked how I wanted the steak prepared. I'm thinking "warmed up" as I know it's not an easy thing to do to get one of those wafer thin ribeyes used for steak sandwiches to come out medium rare, but I say medium rare anyway. About 15 minutes later, it's food time. Why do I go against my better judgement? Why when I talk to myself I don't listen? Am I tired of listening to myself nag myself, so I shut myself out? Well done. Oh, well. I was raised on well done. Other than that, it was a tasty sandwich...steak was tender, had a nice seasoning on it, relatively juicy for well done and a perfectly toasty bun. The fries did have that fresh cut look to them and were fresh out of the fryer. Now how in the name of Auguste Escoffier (gotta look him up, huh?) do you tell if they are fresh cut? Well, skin on fries out of the bag from your favorite food service vendor are usually pre-blanched and the skins do not overly wrinkle up and curl...fresh ones do. Fresh cut fries usually don't brown very evenly either and usually have a bit more bite to them. And these are pretty tasty. While I'm giving my teeth something to do, I overhear a conversation that Firehouse is open Sat. & Sun. morning at 6 AM for breakfast.

So, in closing, I think if this place was on my way home, I would probably patronize it a bit more. Good bar food, friendly staff, not overly smoky (but then again I was one of 8 people in the place). However, being out of my way and it being more of a destination eating joint for me, I'll have to be in the near vicinity to go back only because there are closer places that are as equally good.

See you around the table......

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Dining in Peoria

Does anyone really dine in Peoria?? I guess I have to provide you with my definition of dining. Dining, to me, is a few to several hour culinary journey. It is at a relaxed, leisurely pace. It may start with a cocktail while overlooking the menu, picking out several courses...the appetizer, the soup, the salad, the main course, the cheese course (if there is one) and dessert. Discussing with your dinner partner your choices and picking out a few bottles of wine or by the glass selections. Letting your server know that you are in no rush...that you are here to relax and enjoy.

You can't really dine at McDonald's. I'll start with the new fruit-walnut salad, a Big Mac, large fries, a large root beer and an apple "pie" for dessert. Doesn't quite cut it. In an earlier blog, I mentioned decor..gotta have reasonably nice, relaxing decor. Good Atmosphere. A server who uses proper English that doesn't sound like you know like you guys howdja like da chowder?

There are some places in Peoria where one can dine. You probably know where these places are. They have fancy, creative names. They have some entrees prices that are four digits and start with a 2. The menu may be ala carte and no "all you can eat" section of the menu.

The last time I "properly" dined in Peoria, was with my friend Abbie. We went to French Toast (her choice). We were there maybe 3 hours. No rush to get to the theater, ballet, WWE wrestling, Spin Doctor's Comeback Tour Concert or some riverfront event. Our evening was just dinner (even though we did end up at the Wine Experience to catch the musical repertoire of Joe Metzka and his snazzy red guitar - OK, Joe, I know it's a classic Gibson 335). There were other diners there, too. There was a table of non-diners. They may have been diners at one time, but now intoxicated and letting f-bombs drop loudly and frequently. I think they were asked to leave. Unfortunately, I didn't have Tim Simpson's (the biggest strongest guy I probably know) phone number handy to have him come over and throw these people out in such a timely fashion that they would have got smeared on Prospect by the No. 12 bus. We had several courses, a bottle of wine, and an after dinner wine. We had conversations concerning several topics. We were our own entertainment and it was a very pleasant and relaxing evening.

As a former restauranteur, please let me give you some advice before you go rushing out to attempt this new craze called "dining". There is a thing called etiquette, and I'm not talking about waving down your wait person, belching and making loud toasts (even though you shouldn't do those things). Guys, women know how to dress up, look good and smell good to go out. Dining could be done in your Levis and 1986 Motley Crue T-shirt. But for heaven's sake, go to Famous Barr, find a knowledgeable sales clerk, drop a couple of Ben Franklins and look good. And at the end of the night, don't forget your server. If you are going to take up a table for three hours due to leisurely dining, your waitperson is probably going to miss a table turn (which means after you leave, he\she gets the next customer, thusly more tips) and you need to tip accordingly. If you are there over 1 1/2 hours (on your own accord, not because the cooks and waitstaff are doing shots of tequila in the storeroom), you better dig deep. If I've received very good service, food, etc., I'm good for 20-25% of the bill - minus bottles of wine..I'll tip about 15% of the wine's price. If I'm there over 1 1/2 hours, I'm leaving about an extra 10 bucks an hour. Think that's a lot? See how much your lawyer charges you an hour to keep the IRS off you. Compare $200 an hour for a negative experience to $20 for a pleasurable one and which is the better value? Oh, and turn off your cell phone.

See you around the table....

What Is Around Me

Decor, especially decor in a restaurant. How important is it? Do you need lots of it? Don't care as long as not offensive? Does "Pomp & Circumstance" need to be played loudly as you are ushered to your table?

If I'm just going for a quick bite somewhere, I'm not too concerned about decor. If I'm there to ensure my weight doesn't fall below 200 (but it really needs to) am I concerned if there are no $200 a yard tapestries hanging from the wall or a shrine to Van Gough or lush carpeting, big poofy armchairs and crisply folded napkins? Not really. Oh, sure, my formal training suggests that I should want or appreciate those things when I go out to eat. If the place is clean, the chair and table do not wobble and you see the waitperson from time to time, I'm happy. I'm happy if I'm there to eat.

Now if I go out to DINE (which happens rarely in Peoria and is going to be my next rant) I want those things. I want decor, I want atmosphere, I want pomp and circumstance, I want one of my jazz playing friends providing some smooth tunes, I want a big fluffy chair, I want Reidel or Speigelau wine glasses, I want, I want, I want. (I don't want to hear "What can I gitch ya guys tonight? Wanna see the wine list?" Comp, chomp chomp on the big pink blob of Bazooka gum lodged in her mouth..have you washed that apron this month?)

I guess there should be a term that is somewhere in-between. Enjoying? I have no clue. My friend Cherie is pretty creative, maybe I'll pass this along to her. You know what I'm talking about. Someplace you, your S.O. and two other couples or a group of friends go, have an appetizer, a few bottles of wine, dinner, good conversation..nothing fancy or formal...something you may do before or after an event, like catcing one of my aforementioned musician friends at a 9-1 gig. What do you call this (besides just having a good time with friends)? Going to dinner (or lunch) perhaps? What are you and (insert significant other's name here) going to do tonight? We're going out to casually dine. Well, that sounds a bit silly, doesn't it? What the hell does THAT mean? Do you casually drive your car, casually mow the yard and casually brush your teeth, too? How do you formally re-grout your bathtub? Or uncasually use the paper shredder at work? Oh, you can tell I don't like that one, huh? Naw, just being a bit sarcastic. I guess it works; it just sounds ridiculous if you use the word casual compared to other daily functions. (I casually painted the living room today..does that mean you slopped up the woodwork, but missed the ceiling?)

Anyway, I bring all this up because of the reviews I'm doing. Unless I'm dining, I'm not too concerned about decor, I'm concerned about having to spend more money on smaller pants if I lose weight from not eating. If it is shocking, alarming, very unique or has other attributes worthy of mention, well, I'll mention it. Otherwise, it works for where I'm at.

See you around the table....

The Smo-King Pit

So, I went here about two weeks ago, but it's current enough.

The Smo-King Pit is in the Northwoods Mall. A great place to be in 99 degree heat compared to wandering around Grand Prairie trying to figure out how to avoid heat stroke. Anyway, it's in the upper level...after you exit Sears take the first right. Now Micheal (the owner) has a pretty darn good rep for his cheesecakes, so I wonder what made him think he could do a rib joint. It's like saying "Oh, I make great cream of broccoli soup, so now I'm going to start making lobster tacos". Well, Mike does great things with ribs, too. He did, afterall, win second place in the Commercial division of the Peoria Rib cook-off last year.

When you walk in, it doesn't have the atmosphere of an old BBQ pit restaurant. Doesn't even smell like smoke. I guess this could be good as if you are wearing $100 an ounce perfume or cologne as it would be wasted by smelling like charred hickory all day after you left. (However, there are some perfumes\colognes out there that to me smell like bug spray and the hickory smoke would be a vast improvement.) But that aside, it's a neat little comfortable place with two levels. It has a bar looking area (I believe this was a bar at one time) and this is where I plopped it down. The waitress came over, but Mike recognized me from work and rushed over to say "Hey". Looking at the menu, usual BBQ fare and some neat looking salads. I'm in a "Q" joint..screw salads. So, I had the 1/2 rib dinner. Now Mike told me he uses 3.5 and down ribs. For you rib lay people, it's a big (but not the biggest) rib you can buy for ribs. They will be meatier, but if you aren't careful or know what you are doing, they will be tough as they usually come from an older 'snoot. Obviously, Mike knows what he's doing. Fall off the bone tender and a great flavor. Mike also makes (and commercially bottles) his own sauce. Reminiscent of Sweet Baby Rays, but not quite as sweet or sticky nor were the ribs in need of a life preserver drowning in the stuff..you could taste the ribs. The fries were fries but obviously made to order. The slaw...I'm guessing here. I'll say its homemade...might buy the cabbage already shredded, but that's a smart man. The dressing was neither the overly creamy style nor a German vinegar & oil style ma makes...somewhere inbetween. Very good, not great, but I ate it all, not out of curiousity of whether he makes it or not, because it was tasty. Now, if I had one of his BBQ sandwiches, I would definitely plop this one on the top of the "Q"...it's a southern thang..put the slaw on the "Q". There were a couple of other "Q" eaters in the place plus some call-in, carryout orders happening and it took about 15 minutes for my food.

I'm full. Mike's trying to get me to eat cheesecake. 'Nother time. Which means, I will most definitely be back.

See you around the table....

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Hi Ho Mongolian Grill

As one who is always searching out a new culinary experience, I decided to try the new HI HO Mongolian Grill today. HHMG is in Sheridan Village on the corner between Baskin Robbins & Ponte Vecchio. HHMG works on the same concept as The Flat Top Grill. There are some differences.

1. There are fewer ingredients than at FTG...maybe 20-25 choices. There are also far fewer sauces. That's the only down side I see...unless you need decor. Oh, no bar. Just go to Panache and suck down $2.00 Budweisers until you can barely stagger across the lot. Have to ask for chopstix if you want them, which I guess makes more sense than having to ask for a fork as we are in Peoria.

2. They have 4 options..a one trip small bowl, one trip medium bowl and a one trip large bowl. These are all priced differently. There is the "all you can shove down your throat" option too, which oddly enough is the same price as the big bowl. The medium bowl at lunch was $6.75 plus I sprung for a $1.25 iced tea. Dinner prices were a dollar more than the lunch prices. It was a good portion...just right for lunch. The food was extremely hot (not spicy)..none of this luke warm Chinese buffet stuff.

3. Each meal comes with soup of the day and white rice, if you want it (it's free with the meal)which they bring to you. The rice on the side is a nice touch instead of being "stir fried" into the rest of the dinner. If you want, they have a variety of noodles you can have stir fried in. As stated they have fewer sauces, but after talking to the owner\manager, they don't put the overly hot ones out so there is no chance of killing someone. Just ask the fellows cooking and they can add some fire if you feel the need to torture your tastebuds.

4. Now, instead of of going back to the table, you wait for them to cook your meal. It doesn't take long and they put on a bit of a show. When it started to get busy, another guy (maybe the prep cook?) came out and they had three guys cooking...looked like it moved pretty quick.

5. There is no seafood on the "build your own" line, but it is available.

Now here is a good laugh. As I'm eating (wouldn't call it dining) Dianne Bischoff came in...Dianne is one of the most feared Peoria County Heath Department Inspectors. I like Dianne, but back in the day she would give you an F+ just for looking at her wrong. Brad, another PCHDI, then followed, and then another woman I didn't know. Before long there were six PCHDIs!!! Oh, they were going to have lunch. Knowing who these people are, if I had a new restaurant open for 4 days and these people walked in (they had briefcases, etc...musta been a working lunch) I would have been soiled.

Now, my thoughts. If I'm up for this type of eating, I'm going to go here. For me, it's closer, it's as cheap or cheaper and the waitstaff definitely more attentive (my only real bitch about FTG) and the food is as good. As for the iced tea. Most Asian restaurants don't have very good iced tea..usually pretty watery. This was pretty good iced tea compared to anybodys and they were quick to refill...which since I was trying to remove my tastebuds via hot chili sauce, was appreciative. It's hard to explain the food since you make it yourself...the meat was cooked, the veggies (except the onions) crunchy and enough sauce. The rice was typical short grained slightly sticky white Asian style rice. The soup of the day was hot & sour and it had some large chunks of pork in it which I thought unusual, but tasty nonetheless. Definitely does not have FTG atmosphere or decor, but I can live with it.

Thusly, I recommend this place and will likely go back soon.

See you around the table....

Read this FIRST!!

This is important. If you fail to read this, you will probably not understand my reviews, which may cause you to post something in response that might make you look silly and then I can't help you.

First, I'm going to be a bit out of the norm. Whereas other restaurant critics have to be politically correct so it can be printed, I do not. I may use another restaurant as a comparison. I may make insulting remarks. I may poke fun of (fill in the blank). I may make more stupid remarks than Phil Luciano.

Next, I will incorporate my opinions from both a diners and food operators point of view. Example: Let's say there are two other tables besides yours. It takes 45 minutes to get your food. Most people will say, "Where's our waitperson?" "The service is horrible". "If she was any slower, she'd get run over by a glacier" Well, it isn't your server. What has happened is the owner isn't around, the manager is flirting with some hottie at the bar, the cooks know this and are out back smoking weed by the dumpster knowing the "manager" is "occupied" and don't give a rat's backside about your chicken parmesan. So, the waitperson is hiding in the waitstation because he\she is tired of being asked and tired of making excuses to where your food is (or in this case, is not). Of course, the waitperson could interrupt the manager, risking being run through the dishmachine later that night by "butt chewed" line cooks looking to get revenge on the snitch. Of course, their butts weren't chewed because of your chicken parm...They were chewed because he\she was taken away from interrupting "later in the evening opportunities" at the bar. So, while most people would assume their waitperson is stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits, I have a pretty good idea it's a kitchen problem.

Furthermore, I'm not going to break things down for you like the usual critic. Why? Usually, several categories are lumped together. I'm going to explain things as I go . All critic reviews get rated by service, decor, atmosphere, blah, blah. Let's say I go to restaurant X. The salad comes out and is the size of a garnish. The main course comes and it's more food than nine people can eat. The dessert comes and it's still frozen..Straight from the box from US Foodservice (who is a competitor of mine, so thusly I shall make fun of them). So, one star for the salad, 5 for the main course (because more is better in Peoria) and 2 for the chesecake...so 2 1/2 stars is about the average there for food. I'm just going to explain things as they happen and give a brief synopsis at the end. No stars, smiley faces, wine glasses, etc. I've never understood those "star" ratings anyway. Two stars...is that two stars in comparison to what you expected, two stars compared to all the other meals you've ever eaten in your life or two stars compared to all of the exact same items you've eaten elsewhere? It may be the best meatloaf a critic has ever eaten and gives it 5 stars, but is it better than a perfectly prepared 8 oz. USDA Prime filet mignon from St. Elmo's in Indianapolis (it's probably CHEAPER)? So, I hope you see my point about star rating systems.

My plan is that I'm going to try to hit about a place a week. If you care to join me, give me a shout. Be forewarned that most of the time I usually eat pretty late...sometimes even when I get out of work at 9 PM. No, I'm not paying.

See you around the table....