Restaurants

Panera

My Panera PaniniWhat is it about Panera?
If you think you’re going for good food–fuggedaboutit!
Ditto an Internet connection.
Seriously, why does anyone eat at Panera?
The food is terrible.
The service is thoughtless.
It’s drab, if not dirty.
And the promised wifi is more of a concept than a reality.
Could I be the only person in America that’s never had a good experience at Panera?
The first time we went, it was in Connecticut for breakfast. I don’t even remember what I had, but Frank ordered a bagel with lox and cream cheese and got something that was unlike any bagel he’d ever seen (and not in a good way).
More recently, I met my partner in HudsonValleyEATS.com in the one in Poughkeepsie near Adams. There were three people standing behind the counter. One man helping a customer, the other two chatting.
I waited.
When the man was finished, I went up and asked for an iced tea. “$2.91.” I handed him the money, he handed me an empty plastic cup.
“It’s down on the end.”
“Nice profit margin.”
Took a walk down to the end, found the iced tea, ice, lemon and sugar. Grabbed a lid and a straw, did all the work. Took a sip.
Not happy.

Yesterday, I got suckered into another Panera rendezvous, this time at a different Poughkeepsie location.
The place is crowded and none of the vacant tables have been wiped down. Ugh.
Grab some napkins, wipe down a table, get in line to order food (none of which sounded appealing, but I’m really hungry).
The guy behind the register has to look up the Frontega Chicken panini I asked about.
Smoked chicken, mozzarella, tomatoes, onions, chipotle mayo, basil. This is from the photo on Panera’s site:
Sounded about as interesting as the others so I ordered it, “no onions,” and a cup for a drink (see, I’m learning).
The top photo is what I got.
A mud-grey plastic plate with cheese glued to a piece of corrugated paper, LOTS of onions and a couple pallid bits of chicken.
There were black stripes on the bread to make it look like it had been put in a panini press, but the corrugated paper made me think the panini press was more like a microwave…
Because I was hungry, I ate the half-sandwich, hating myself for putting this absolute junk in my mouth.
And the so-called wifi? The whole time I was trying to eat the sandwich, we could not pull up a single page from the web.
We left totally disgusted. The place was dirty. The food was inedible but I was starving. The iced tea once again needed a return trip for more ice, but I just dumped it.
Never again!
“Food as it should be.”
Please, let’s hope not!
If you are a Panera fan, please tell me what it is that you like about it. It won’t bring me back, but I am really curious.
Update: Found this in my bag afterwards:
Accidental Locavore Panera Check So sad that I missed my free treat…

The Amsterdam Restaurant Rhinebeck

Amsterdam restaurant interiorDoesn’t everyone look forward to a new restaurant opening?

The thrill of the chase (am I the first of my friends?).

The anticipation of something new and different (will we have another place to add to our list of favorites—or the old standbys as my mother would say?).

What will we love and look forward to on the menu?

Those are big shoes to fill and the Amsterdam burst into the Rhinebeck dining scene ready to take them on.

Currently it’s open for dinner (but open 7 days a week) with lunch and brunch “coming soon.”

Menu item are seasonal and locally sourced, but thankfully the restaurant doesn’t feel the need to spell out the latitude and longitude of the radishes mixing it up with the pork chop special.

Accidental Locavore Smoked Salmon at the Amsterdam RestaurantWe started out sharing the house-smoked salmon with a big potato pancake (described on the menu as “hash brown”), a dollop of crème fraîche, a few fried capers and some micro-greens for décor. The salmon was delicious, silky with a nice punch of smoke and the hash brown was nicely crisped on the edges and creamy inside.

Accidental Locavore Rabbit Pate at the Amsterdam RestaurantThe house sent over a plate of rabbit pâté with bourbon-soaked cherries. It was terrific and the trio of pickled fennel, shallots and pickles were fun to mix and match with it (note to the squeamish, I can guarantee that you would never guess it was rabbit, so just order it and enjoy).

Accidental Locavore Gnocchi at the Amsterdam RestaurantI’m a sucker for gnocchi, so I had to try the farmer’s cheese gnocchi with mushrooms, asparagus and a nettle pesto. It was a big, hearty serving of tender gnocchi. I’m not sure exactly what a nettle is supposed to taste like but the pesto was good and worked well with the mushrooms and asparagus.

Janet went with the pork chop special. It was a great tasting chop, perfectly seasoned and cooked and according to her “the best pork chop I ever ate!” The chickpea tart that came with it was interesting and unexpected. The only downside was that as much as pork fat is great, this particular chop was incredibly fatty, making the serving only about 6 meaty bites (and we wanted more—a good thing).

We skipped dessert. 4 selections on the menu, three of which had nuts so not for me. You can also opt for some nice cheeses from the area.

Accidental Locavore Spring Cassoulet The Amsterdam RestaurantThe service is young and friendly and if you’re there on a Friday night like we were, the crowd is eclectic with a lot of people looking like they just escaped BK.  For summer, the restaurant opened up the outside space, so you can dine under the stars and toss a few boules in the court between courses.

A second, weeknight dinner, showed a more confident kitchen, consistently turning out really good dishes and according to a friend, a perfectly made Whisky Sour. For me, a small morsel of cheese made a perfect dessert, but it still seems IMHO to be the weak link on the restaurant’s menu.

If you go, let me know in the comments what you think. Enjoy!

 

 

Brunch at the Roundhouse

Accidental Locavore Gazpacho BrunchBrunch re-imagined as a serious meal.

When was the last time you had a great meal at a restaurant with a view, or in a picturesque location?

I would have said the same thing until we had the best brunch ever at a restaurant with a beautiful view.

The Roundhouse in Beacon.

It was a risky pick, for part of our monthly brunch group is made up of chef instructors from the CIA.

We’d been there before and while the view of the falls was lovely, the food generally wasn’t.

Accidental Locavore Beacon Falls BrunchBut…there’s a new executive chef there. Terrance Brennan from Artisanal and other restaurants in the city.

It seemed worth a shot.

And it was.

It really was!

Brunch is often the ugly step-sister of restaurants and if that was the case at the Roundhouse, OMG, I can’t wait to try dinner! As a matter of fact, we were almost tempted to linger at our table until dinner.

But we behaved (and will go back).

Our group on this Sunday was tiny. Everyone bailed and we were just a threesome. They’ll be sorry.

We decided to go with the prix fixe brunch—three courses at $28.

Accidental Locavore Eggs Benedict BrunchThere were lots of interesting choices on both sides (prix fixe or a la carte) of the menu. Two of us decided on the cucumber “gazpacho” to start and Frank went with the “sausage and eggs”.

A ladle of pale green gazpacho was poured over a nice-sized mound of peekytoe crab salad. It was cool and delicious, with the sweetness of the crab offsetting the slightly spiced cucumber “gazpacho.” Pickled stems, very thinly sliced croutons and dill made this a dish to remember.

It was something that was repeated throughout the meal—a contrast of tastes and textures, enhancing and elevating even the most common brunch dishes.

I’m not generally a runny egg person, so I picked around Frank’s 65° egg (perfectly poached) and went for the sausage—a nice house-made chorizo and the shards of toast. All good.

For a main course, Frank went with more eggs, this time eggs Benedict, served with a thick slab of pork belly on a slice of their sourdough bread.  It was about as perfect a Hollandaise sauce as I’ve ever had in a restaurant!

Accidental Locavore Rice Bowl BrunchI had the Vietnamese rice bowl, a mélange of grilled chicken thighs with baby bok choy, shitake mushrooms, cilantro and Thai basil served in a bowl of jasmine rice with a slightly spicy sauce. Delicious and just what I felt like eating!

Lynne had the brioche French toast with roasted honeycrisp apples, maple syrup and a delicious blob of what turned out to be cinnamon-maple crème fraîche . Even Frank, not generally a French toast guy, thought it was great!

Accidental Locavore French Toast BrunchBelieve it or not, we managed to find room for dessert.

Frank had the apple gateau, which was made of at least twenty thin slices of apples cooked together and formed into a slab. With it was an amazing whey caramel ice cream and a walnut crumble for crunch.

Since he had the apple, I went for the lemon diplomat. Two thin disks of cookie held a lemon puree. Three meringue dots added some sweetness, while candied bits of black olives and a basil oil added a savory contrast. A lovely mix of savory and sweet, tartness and texture.

Lynne opted for vanilla ice cream, creamy and resting on a cookie disk. Definitely not plain vanilla.

Accidental Locavore Pineapple Panna Cotta BrunchThe house sent over a pineapple panna cotta which may have been a special as it wasn’t on any of the menus we saw. Thin ribbons of pineapple (note to self, next time serving pineapple, hit it with a peeler) mixed with the panna cotta, some pomegranate and a cookie crunch. A great surprise were three leaves of cilantro that had been candied—a lovely touch.

While all the food was just amazing  and we lingered, not wanting it to end, the service was terrific. Our server, Sarah, had answers to all our questions and made great recommendations. Kate, the manager, filled us in on why the servers were so knowledgeable—her sixty-one-point menu questionnaire!

Oh, and yes, the view is still spectacular, but this time not as spectacular as the food.

We can’t wait to go back!

 

 

An Extraordinary Dessert Experience

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House First DessertDessert, the grand finale of the Chef’s Table at Mohonk Mountain House is truly spectacular and at some point in your life, you deserve it.

After polishing off ten amazing savory courses, including a cheese course with “carbonated” grapes—yup, they distract you by making a preview dessert–little ice cream magic with homemade mini ice cream cones and liquid nitrogen, which essentially turns anything creamy into ice cream in a flash.

While you’re enjoying the cones, two giant strips of matting cover the table. The head pastry chef, Audrey Billups starts the dessert by coming along with a glass full of chocolate sauce which she artistically blobs and smears the length of the surface

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House Dessert BeginningBehind her, another chef with a vial of mango puree, dashing and dribbling alongside the chocolate.

They repeat this, building the dessert by adding crème fraiche, pistachio cream, bits of frozen raspberries, and squares of Amaretto jelly.

Over that are dustings of brown butter crumbs, oatmeal crumble, cocoa, the thinnest sheets of blueberry,  and and and…

When it’s decided that the table is properly decorated (or more likely they’ve run out of space), meringues, gilded and filled with white chocolate and strawberries are placed in front of each diner.

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House Dessert DesignedThat’s followed by a small hockey puck of dark chocolate cake and just when you think they’ve run out of stuff – a blob of frozen chocolate mousse is plopped down and smashed, sending the shards through all the different flavors.

The idea of this dessert extravaganza is to do exactly what your mother told you never to do—play with your food!

Smear the chocolate cake through the mango and chocolate purees and hope to pick up a bit of frozen raspberry on the journey.

Try sticking the meringue with some of the blueberry paper and hmm, maybe the crème fraiche.

Or, what turned out to be my favorite, the brown butter crumbs on almost anything, but especially the frozen chocolate mousse fragments and the chocolate sauce.

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House Dessert DesignedThere’s no one, even in my group of chefs, who isn’t smiling.

And, even after the ten or so previous courses, there’s no one who didn’t clean their place.

Okay, so we do still listen to our mothers.

Chef’s Tasting Table at Mohonk Mountain House

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House Fois GrasMohonk Mountain House is one of the Hudson Valley’s iconic hotels and has been a favorite place to stay for almost 150 years.

There’s plenty to do to build up an appetite and a massive dining room to enjoy a meal.

But everyone knows that.

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House OysterWhat you don’t know is that there’s a secret staircase in the back of the dining room leading to the massive kitchen that regularly puts out 500-600 meals every evening.

In the middle of that, is the space that only puts out 10 very special meals.

I was one of those lucky diners recently and was invited to experience the eleven-course Chef’s Tasting Table menu with wines, designed by Executive Chef Jim Palmeri.

It’s offered on Friday and Saturday nights at 6:30 with a six-person minimum. You can take your chances on an available spot (or two), or be a big spender and reserve the whole table for a very special occasion.  If you like wine, you might want to consider spending the night – the wines are lovely and well matched to the food, and the road home from Mohonk is not one you want to mess with.

Accidental Locavore Mohonk Mountain House RisottoThe menu changes depending on the season and what’s good locally. While Chef Palmeri and his team use local ingredients wherever possible, they do stretch the boundaries to include luxuries like black truffles and, for our dinner, mainly French wines.

If you think eleven courses sounds daunting, most of them are just a mouthful or two. The exceptions are the entrée (the only choice you have to make for the evening) and the dessert – so extraordinary it deserves and is getting its own post.

Mohonk Mountain House SashimiOne of the big treats for me as a diner has always been those meals where you just sit back and let the chefs do what they do best – cook. I love the combination of not having to make a choice and the surprise that each course and every mouthful brings!

To have something to refer to, I was given a menu at the beginning, but it got folded it up and hidden in my purse so as not to ruin the surprises to come.

Mohonk Mountain House DuckAnd, to not ruin your surprise, because you truly need to go there (I know you’ve got a birthday coming up), I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite bites and let you drool over the photos.

To book your own dining adventure (and don’t forget about a room) call: 845-883-3798.

My thanks to Chef Jim Palmeri, Executive Sous Chef Steve Anson, Robert Leduc and the amazing staff at the Mohonk Mountain House for a memorable dinner!

For more photos, check out HudsonValleyEats.com. Mohonk Mountain House Cheese Course

 

 

 

 

Pete Wells and Restaurant Reviews

  1. Accidental Locavore Restaurant Reviewer

The Accidental Locavore was reading about the restaurant reviewer for The NY Times, Pete Wells, in The New Yorker (check it out if you haven’t seen it).

According to the piece, before he writes a review he goes to a restaurant at least three times.

While it makes sense to give you a broader overview of the restaurant, does it work that way in real life?

No.

Maybe.

It depends.

Here’s why:

Pete Wells or his counterparts can be recognized.

And a chef friend told me that it’s pretty common for a restaurant that gets a good write-up from a prestigious paper to fire the chef and the team that got them the four stars since they think they can now live off that review.

“You only get one shot to make a first impression.”

Accidental Locavore Bad WaitersIf you like a place, you’ll go back even if it’s far away or a big splurge.

You’ll always tell your friends.

In glowing dish-by-dish descriptions.

You might post it on Instagram.

If the restaurant isn’t up to expectations, you’ll go once and cross it off your list forever.

You’ll always tell your friends. You’ll tell anyone who will listen.

In glowering dish-by-dish descriptions.

You won’t post it on Instagram. You might post it on Yelp.

Do any regular diners go back another two times?

Don’t think so.

Hey, our dinners aren’t being paid for by the NY Times, so we’re going to be pickier about how we spend our money.

Even when we’ve spoken to management (or they’ve seen the Yelp review) and been invited back so they can “make it up to us” we have never taken them up on the offer.

Prime example: Frank and I went to celebrate our anniversary. Friends had raved about the Red Onion in Saugerties and we decided to forgo our favorite, Les Baux.

Mistake.

Big mistake.

It started when I got out of the car and stepped in a mud puddle.

The rack of lamb (a house specialty we were told) was overcooked and under seasoned (unlike mine in the photo).

Accidental Locavore Rack of LambPeas straight out of a big plastic bag.

A mountain of mashed potatoes that could have come from a box.

Two hockey pucks that were reputed to be onions.

Even if it wasn’t a 45-minute drive (in each direction), we won’t be back.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a blog where you can vent.

What’s been your most disappointing meal?

And no, that’s not a photo of Pete Wells, but who knows?

 

 

The Best Burger in America

accidental-locavore-best-burgerYou know you’d better watch it before you start tossing out superlatives like “the best burger in America.”

But, according to Forbes (and reaching my desk via Rural Intelligence) the best burger in America is in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Kismet.

The Accidental Locavore was heading there for lunch with a friend who is always interested in a good burger, so we quickly changed plans and met at Camp Fire.

Everyone has their own criteria for best burger – well, best anything.

A best burger to me has to have great fries.

There are a lot of good burgers out there that would be great with better fries.

And both the fries and the burger have to be hot.

There needs to be good pickles.

A toasted bun.

That’s my line in the sand(wich).

As for condiments, lettuce, tomato, even cheese–a really good burger should just be enhanced by them, not need them.

Back to Camp Fire and the best burger in America.

It’s a big open farm/rural looking restaurant. Nothing fancy, just clean looking with a lot of hard surfaces.

There’s a lot of interesting looking stuff on the menu, but we were there on a mission.

We got distracted.

By the mushroom soup.

A rich blend of wild mushrooms with a small dollop of sour cream and just enough truffle oil, it was the perfect starter on a raw afternoon.

accidental-locavore-best-burger-soupThen, the burgers.

Because we were afraid it would be too much food after the soup, we both opted for the Mini Meat, a quarter pound burger (the regular one is a half-pound) which comes on a potato roll with cheddar, pickles, aioli and fries

The verdict?

Great fries! Twice-fried (always a good thing), hand-cut and good-sized, piping hot, maybe a slight hint of rosemary.

I think I ate half of them before turning to the burger.

The burger was good.

Not the best burger in America.

What I didn’t like about it was that it was a thin patty that didn’t seem to have been hand-made. It was cooked the way I like it (rare) but it wasn’t very juicy.

The pickles were good, but the cheese and the aioli didn’t have a lot of flavor. The bun was fine, warm and I don’t remember whether it was toasted or not.

Here’s why I think Camp Fire could still have the best burger in America.

We ordered the wrong one.

Our waitress told us that both versions (mini and regular) were the “best burger” but everything that I was finding fault with may have just been because it was the mini version.

So, we’ll have to go back.

Great Northern Food Hall at Grand Central

Accidental Locavore Great Northern Food HallHo.

Hum.

Sadly, truth in advertising doesn’t apply to venues.

Or the Great Northern Food Hall would be in danger of being busted.

It’s not great.

It’s actually at the southern end of Grand Central.

There is food. It appears to be Scandinavian inspired.

There are drinks (and cocktails). They come in bottles and are (mostly) not Scandinavian.

Accidental Locavore Food Hall PorridgeThere are Danishes and croissants, neither of which originated from where you think they did and Denmark (where Claus Meyer the entrepreneur behind GNH hailed from) never comes into the story.

There is a porridge bar, because you never know when you’ll be on 42nd Street craving porridge. And not to be kvetching too much, but once again is Denmark the first country that comes to mind when you hear the word porridge?

Didn’t think so.

There are smørrebrødens, which, phew, are Danish open-faced sandwiches and each is a little work of art (and priced accordingly). Maybe it was my imagination but as I passed a pre-made smørrebrød it seemed to me that the corners of the bread were curling up as it’s prone to do when you make smaller versions (hors d’œuvres) before a party. Because they’re topless it may not be the best on-the-run or balancing on your lap snack.

Accidental Locavore Food Hall SandwichesTide stick anyone?

There is coffee. Known to be a big cash crop in Scandinavia.

Ha.

This is from Brownsville Coffee in Brownsville Brooklyn (which isn’t even in the northern part of Brooklyn).

There is a bar. You might need a drink.

This is a project seven months in construction. Like Vanderbilt Hall, a food hall highly anticipated by those of us who pass through Grand Central, hungry and on the move.

Like Vanderbilt Hall, a letdown.

The Accidental Locavore isn’t sure why the owners of Grand Central (and no, you can’t blame this on Metro North, tempting as it might be) thought that turning it into a Nordic theme park was a brilliant idea.

Besides Great Northern, there’s a hot dog sausage bar and a very fancy restaurant with $100-$125 tasting menus. If spending that much on sunflower seeds and more of that porridge seems like a better deal than a cheap seat to Hamilton, be my guest.

My bet is that Hamilton will be around much longer than smørrebrød at Grand Central.

 

Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish Restaurant

Accidental Locavore Farmer & Fish & FrankThe Accidental Locavore thinks that what goes on in the city should stay in the city, especially when it comes to the useless policy of not seating “incomplete” parties at restaurants. A recent trip to a Westchester restaurant, Farmer and the Fish, highlighted the inanity of this policy. We got there early, had drinks and oysters at the bar and were enjoying ourselves. The hostess came up to us and told us that our friends had called and said they were stuck in traffic and would be there as soon as they could.

As the bar was filling up and getting noisy, we asked to be seated and were told she’d have to check with the manager as it was against policy. Now, she knows that we’re there and our friends are obviously on their way, so it’s not like there’s going to be a no-show. Tim, the manager, refused her and then after a long conversation/disagreement refused us.

Accidental Locavore Farmer & Fish BarBesides being the worst sort of customer service, it’s a big revenue loser. Instead of sitting at the table increasing our check by enjoying a drink and maybe something to nibble, we were in the car fuming and trying to get a cell phone signal to find out how far away our friends were. And the table that they didn’t want to partially fill sat empty for a half an hour. Who does that benefit?

On top of that you know dinner is going to have to be spectacular to appease us. Why make the waitstaff and chefs bear the brunt of a stupid management decision? You only have one chance to make a first impression and my attitude was so abysmal that at this point it would take something like the escargots and chicken from L’Ami Louis (back in the day) to begin to make me smile. But of course, we’re not in Paris, and this is not L’Ami Louis.

Accidental Locavore Farmer and FishOur Empty TableI had a pork chop, which was weirdly salty throughout (probably brined and not rinsed well). Frank had a tuna burger which was much larger than its English muffin bun. Someone had a lobster roll, someone else scallops and there were more oysters for starters. For dessert there was a serviceable apple crisp/tart and an interesting-looking take on a bread pudding that everyone said was good.

The waitstaff was fine, friendly and helpful, but throughout the meal, Tim, the manager, was jovial with our host while subsequently managing to completely ignore us – hard to do, but he’s had practice.

Farmer & the Fish grow a lot of their own produce and source as much as they can locally, which is why our friends thought we would enjoy it and we might have, but sadly, an awful policy led to an evening best forgotten. Interestingly, on CBS This Morning, Saturday, Chef Mike Price was the guest and he said something that made me stop in my tracks. “You can look at people two ways when they walk in the door—like they’re lucky to be there or you’re lucky to have them.” Anyone at Farmer & the Fish listening?

 

Restaurants Cutting Corners: Do Patrons Notice? Oh Yes!

Accidental Locavore Restaurant WorkersDo you notice when restaurants start to cut corners? The Accidental Locavore and my editor started talking about things restaurants do to cut corners, thinking that patrons won’t notice or won’t care. But I don’t think they’ll ever really know, because people simply stop going. It really doesn’t just have to be cutting corners – ask any chef what happens when you change a menu item and you’ll get a quick reaction!

Accidental Locavore Bread BasketThe post in question mentioned that the bread came to the table and was slightly stale, appearing to have been cut before service, so that the waitstaff could just grab it and go. Which makes sense, especially since it was an extremely busy room. As the old saying goes, you only have one chance to make a good first impression and bread is usually that first impression. When your average check is in excess of $100 per person, don’t you think you could hire someone (at $15/hour, please) to slice bread during service? If you needed to monetize that, charge for the bread, like many places are doing. On second thought, don’t!

The restaurant at my golf club is another case in point. When the new owner came in, free refills on soda and iced tea became a thing of the past. Having done financial consulting for a bakery, I know what the costs (and margins) are on drinks, so having to pay an additional $2.00 for another hit of iced tea or  soda is simply ridiculous.

That sort of mean-spiritedness really backfires and shows up in the food. We used to blow through our minimums by the beginning of July and be into the restaurant for a lot of money by the end of the season. Now, we struggle to use it up, because the food is mediocre, and what used to be a pleasant place to hang out loses its charm when the owner is standing around glowering.

A reason that places like Billy Joe’s Ribworks are so successful, is that Jonathan, one of the owners, is always on the prowl. His mission: to give everyone a great time, and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious. You’ll see his staff firing up grills and handing out hot dogs when the spirit moves them. Not that you’d have any room for them since you’ve probably stuffed your face with their great ribs and even better smoked wings! Want a refill on that soda? Not a problem.

Accidental Locavore Billy Joes CrewOwning a restaurant is a tough business, so let’s support local eateries that go the extra mile and don’t try to put one over on their patrons just to save a couple of bucks. It costs them in the long run. What’s your pet peeve about a restaurant’s short cuts?

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