Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Greenhouse Tavern: Revisited

Crispy Hominy
Back in July I visited The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland and absolutely LOVED my dining experience. It was one of the most incredible-tastiest, most-satisfying, so-happy-to-eat-in-Cleveland experiences I've had to date.

So I figured when I took FD there for his special birthday dinner it was going to be the same mind-blowing, mouth orgy again. That doesn't seem an unreasonable assumption, does it?

Chef Sawyer is known for his seasonl spin on contemporary comfort food. And I firmly believe in his Green mission and the restaurant's farm-to-table mentality. There's no doubt in my mind that my food values are completely aligned with The Greenhouse Tavern's; we're totally on the same page.

But FD's birthday meal has left me frustrated and reconsidering going to The Greenhouse Tavern again. At least for anything else other than Animal Style Frites.

Chilled Sweet Potato & Cabbage Soup
I want to be clear that the opinions I express are as an honest food critic and paying customer. It is not my intention to slander any restaurant. It is only my intention to share my dining experiences as an average-Jane diner with no strings attached.

Let it be known that I think the good at The Greenhouse Tavern is definitely worth experiencing, but the customer service is something, I feel, needs much improvement.

Let it be known that the intoxicating, primitive experience event of eating Animal Style Frites is something every food lover MUST experience. However, I must warn any diner that the sassy-and-not-in-a-good-way attitude from a few of the servers and runners at The Greenhouse Tavern might disrupt that experience and turn it into something not-so-much-fun.

Animal Style Frites
Because I am a detail-oriented person who believes arguments should have ample credible support, I feel the following examples will illustrate how lack luster the customer service at The Greenhouse Tavern is.  First of all, when we were seated we were not approached immediately, and once the server approached our table, he did not announce the beers on tap or show us the beer and wine menu. For an establishment that has tavern in its title, I feel is imperative that every server share this information before asking diners what drinks they want. It's helpful and it makes diners feel comfortable in additional to a little of booze and a few recommendations mean a bigger tip usually. Also, the The four course chef's tasting menu used to be $39; now it's $44. If you do the math, it's a rip off; you can order food from each section and usually pay less than $44. I understand this doesn't have to do with servers, but it has to do with customer service and not taking customers (who are in a city that is having hard economic times!) for a ride. Next, our first and second courses were served at the same time. Our table ordered the four course chef's tasting menu because we wanted to have a long dinner; serving both courses not only screwed up the timing and our experience, but also it upset the taste of each course. I have no interest eating chilled soup with hominy or even better hominy with lardo speck gnocchi, which is what we did in much of a rage. Our server's response to the matter: "First and second courses are small tonight; we're serving them together." However, all the surrounding tables were receiving them separately and our portions were huge. The runners had to be asked to box leftovers, and during dessert when a decaf cup of coffee served to our table was cold, the runner deliberated aloud the time it would take to make a fresh pot, which was really rude and destroyed the flow of our table's conversation. Finally, the server forgot one of our guest's desserts and overcharged that same guest by two desserts, even though dessert was included in their four course chef's tasting menu. Needless to say, I didn't leave feeling satisfied this time.

Strip Steak with Pomme Frites
Dear reader, I'm not happy to report these examples of rude, unorganized, and sloppy service. It breaks my heart quite frankly. But I feel the need to share because as food lovers and paying customers we expect a meaningful dining experience, and we, as paying customers, are shelling out a lot of hard-earned money to get that experience, especially in times like these. I have a huge problem with celebrity chef restaurants and talked-up restaurants not delivering on customer service. Restaurants are part of the service industry. That means meeting the expectations of customers and making those customers happy. In this case and in other cases, such as Michael Symon's Bar Symon, I feel the servers are hired because they need jobs and look indy enough to work there. But the servers and runners should know about the food, about serving a table, about the etiquette of dining, and about who actually is paying their paycheck, which are the customers, essentially. If I drop $200 at a restaurant, like I did at The Greenhouse Tavern, I expect the server to be respectful, knowledgeable, and competent. That's not much to ask. And as diners that's all we want. I understand some servers are flirty, some friendly, some hands-off-but-aware, or some funny. A little personality is great. But there must be smarts to match it. And that training MUST come from the owner, the manager, and the executive chef. I can't justify spending that amount of money on a meal when half my experience is spent frustrated at a server who looks and acts like he just did ten lines of coke and is saying his allergies are bad today.

Gravy Frites
With that said, the lardo speck gnocchi was to die for. The halibut was absolutely perfectly cooked, even though the garnish was useless. The kick of hit at the end of a taste of the Ratatouille Vegetables Involtini was divine. The texture of the sweet potato and cabbage chilled soup was so silky it was like sexy satin sheets. The strip steak had a flawless sear and was faultlessly cooked to medium. And the Gravy Frites and Animal Style Frites--I live for them. Period.

Alas, I'm sad this review isn't more about the food. But it replicates my turmoil during this meal. I would have one moment of ecstasy which would be clouded by an unnatural desire to throw a punch.

What's the balance of food and service? Which is more important? Or are both equally important? Is a small dining room like at Revolver or Lucky's Cafe--where service is ALWAYS good--the key? I don't have any answers. But I sure wish I did.  

Pure coolness. The Greenhouse Tavern serves Black Label in a can for under $2.
The Greenhouse Tavern on Urbanspoon

Goodbye Summer & Picnics at the Quarry

Tomorrow  the semester starts and summer ends.

While I really excited to get back in the classroom with my students, I'm a little sad too. It means I'm going to have a lot less time to cook.

One of my favorite summer activities has been going to the Portage Quarry with our friends N & I. They are as food obsessed as me.

So really, while swimming was totally fun, what was even more fun were our picnics. All of us brought A game to every meal. We're talking spreads that would shame wedding buffets. And what a better way to use up all that fresh produce that was overtaking our refrigerators' crisper drawers?

Also, what picnic days taught me was how to think outside the box of what was picnic food, and they forced me to experiment more with grains, chilled salads, and sides, most of which could easily become main dishes.

I had a blast spending the whole day before our outings scouring through online and magazine and cookbook recipes, creating various flavor simple syrups, testing adult lemonades, finding plastic containers with tight fitting lids, and cooking.

Thanks to our picnics I've learned to love lentils even more, and I feel much closer to N & I (and our friend J who joined us once too!), who were rad to begin with but who are even more rad after I got a chance to chill, swim, and eat with them.

As homage to the last of our picnic days (and summer, in general), here are photos from our summer of good eating, good swimming, and good friends.

Homemade grape leaves, homemade hummus, egg salad, chicken salad, coleslaw with beets, beet salad, etc.
N & I made their own pickles. True love at first bite.
A lot of our produce came from the community garden and farmers markets.
N's baking is divine. This is her cupcake with mint (or basil?) frosting. It's hard to remember everything...
Lentil wraps, fried chicken, bbq chicken & tofu, pasta salad, kale salad, roasted potatoes, peach crisp, etc.
Green bean and cherry tomato salad with onion--produce from my friend Sarah's garden.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Birthday Love Made From Scratch

A good birthday includes great food.

At least that's how I was brought up.

You should choose your own meal or pick your favorite restaurant. And, without a doubt, the day should end with a special cake. (Or pie or cupcakes or cheese platter--whatever you prefer.)

When it's a family member or friend's birthday I always want to make sure their food wishes come true along with his/her birthday wishes.

A great birthday dessert  is a sign that you're loved. Take, for instance, my Hello Kitty cake from SEM.

This past weekend it was her birthday, so I wanted to share the love and ensure her food wishes came true.

But that I meant I had to get over my fear of baking...

Ever since I've started cooking seriously I've proclaimed to be the worst baker ever.

Baking is a combo of science and genetics. You're good at it or not.

At least that's what I used to think until I made a two layer white cake with orange whipped cream and fresh strawberry filling with orange butter cream frosting. Let me rephrase: I made all of that from scratch, even the whipped cream.

I think that wins me some bragging rights, especially when every batch of sugar cookies I make come out of the oven charred and smoking.

I do have to give Alice Waters props. She's the one who walked me through my first made-from-scratch cake. Her 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe in The Art of Simple Food is so easy to follow it make Easy Oven look difficult. Her variation suggestions are spot on and her whipped cream and frosting recipes were a snap.  The cake came out perfectly moist and crumbly. The frosting wasn't too sweet or too hard. And the filling didn't drench the cake. It was such a breeze, I could hardly believe it.

The most difficult part was making the sprinkle turtle look like a turtle. That took a little work on mine and FD's behalves.

Thank you, Alice Waters, for giving me some baking confidence.

More importantly, Happy Birthday, McGuire! If I didn't love you so much and want to make you something special, I would have never known that I can bake.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This Week at BG Community Gardens

BG Community Garden at First United Methodist
Sweet carrots
Melon hiding

Baby watermelon

A row of crisp cukes
Cabbage Patch Kid in the making

Squash still growing

Monday, August 2, 2010

Avocado Kick

I love avocados. Their shape. Their color. Their creamy texture. Their light fruity flavor.

Everything about them makes me happy.

And when I eat them, I'm even happier.

After having a raw kale salad with avocados at a dinner party, I had to make it at home so I could eat the whole thing myself. (Okay, I did share with FD, but I finished the salad the next day by myself.) And I'm thinking I might make it again for dinner tonight. It's my new fav, as if you couldn't tell.

While reading Local Flavors by Deborah Madison I found yet another recipe with my silky green addition. The Tomato and Avocado Salad with Lime-Herb Dressing is one of the best summer salads I've made this year. Probably because I used my first batch of the heirloom tomatoes I've waited all year to taste again. (I just can't bring myself to buy fresh grocery store tomatoes, so when summer comes I overeat real fresh tomatoes.)

Bleu begging for the Tomato and Avocado Salad
This Tomato and Avocado Salad has crunch from the lettuce and peppers, creaminess from the avocados, juiciness from the plump tomatoes, and heat and spice from the dressing. I adore it. What follows is an adaptation from Madison's recipe:

Lime-Herb Dressing
1 T chopped mint
1 T chopped basil
1/2 c chopped cilantro
4 T olive oil
1 jalapeno chile, finely diced
3 T fresh lime juice
1/4 t sea salt

The Salad
1 1/2 lbs tomatoes (use a variety of cherry, slicers, or paste tomatoes), cubed into bite size pieces
1 large avocado, peeled and cubed
1 cucumber, peeled and cubed
1 sweet pepper, cubed
1 small red candy onion, finely diced
2 cups lettuce, shredded (I used a mix of Red Amaranth, tri-color Amaranth, Oracle, Wild Spinach, Malabar Spinach, and Romaine.)
sea salt
2 oz feta cheese, crumbled

1.) Combine all the dressing ingredients in a bowl. Taste to make sure there is enough acid.

2.) Put bite size pieces of tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, and pepper into a large bowl with the onion. Add the lettuce and a few pinches of salt. Toss, add the dressing, toss again. Add feta cheese before serving.

For any salad with avocado, I usually add it individually to bowls. This way if any salad is left over, the avocado won't brown in the salad. If I have any avocado left over, I wrap it tightly in cling wrap and keep it in the fridge. It usually lasts one day. I cut away any brown spots before eating.

What are your favorite avocado recipes? I need more!