Golden Corral - Ogden, Utah

Golden Corral Family Steakhouse
1624 Heritage Park Blvd.
Layton, UT 84041
(Ogden area)

Date of Visit: Sunday, May 25, 2008
Time: Lunch - 12:30 PM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: ~30

Food Quality: 3
Service: 2
Ambiance: 3*

*Spilled food and screaming children in abundance

Certainly a departure from my normal class of restaurant, it will serve a purpose in testing the lower ranges of the rating scales!

Golden Corral is a buffet style family restaurant. We attended a group function to bid farewell to a person moving out of state. The fellowship was great. Everything else was not. Hopefully our friend will return to visit us anyway.

The Menu...
No printed menu, but a vast array of items laid out in a byzantine buffet.

The room is enormous with tables everywhere, and a couple of private banquet rooms. You come into a large queue where your drink order is filled and placed on a cafeteria tray with a pile of plates. You pay in advance: $9.49 per person, plus $1.89 per drink, plus tax. No alcoholic beverages available, which is too bad - a stiff drink might have taken the edge off the experience.

In our banquet room there was an even larger pile of plates and about 20 tables. A service person brought a big bowl of shiny yeast rolls fresh from the oven with a tray of paper souffle cups with honey butter. She also cleared plates and refilled drinks. While a nice attempt at service, allowing us to serve ourselves would have been adequate and we would have been better served without the need to leave additional gratuity.

What I had with descriptions...

If you love fried starch and protein, this is the place for you. The yeast rolls were light and messy, and it went downhill from there. There were four large buffet stations. One was the cold buffet, dedicated to salad, cold meats, nachos, 4 soups of undetermined origin, tacos, potatoes and fixings. The middle two "hot buffets" and contained troughs of soft vegetables, starches, and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried hush puppies, fried potatoes, fried and breaded veggies of several stripes, fried potatoes, fried crab cakes, and a number of other starches mixed with cream sauces and fried selections. The fourth was a dessert bar. There was no shortage of choices, many of which were marked, and most of which were scattered liberally on the floor, making traction a mix of spongy and slick.

From the website, here were the purported hot choices: Awesome Pot Roast, Bourbon Street Chicken, Broccoli & Rice, Brown Gravy, Buttered Noodles, Chicken & Pastry Noodles, Chicken Tenders, Country Fried Steak, Creamy Chicken & Pasta, Fresh Fried Chicken, Grilled Pork Chop, Macaroni & Beef, Macaroni & Cheese, Mashed Potatoes (Scratch), Meatloaf, Pizza, Potato Casserole, Roast Beef, Sirloin Steak, Spaghetti Pasta, Spaghetti Sauce, Tortillas, White Rice, Battered Pollock Fish Fillet, Breaded Butterflied Shrimp, Breaded Jumbo Shrimp, Breaded Shrimp, Cajun Style Fish Fillet, Cracker Crumb Fish Fillet, Asian Beans, Black-eyed Peas, Brussels Sprouts, Cheddar Cheese Sauce, Corn-on-the-Cob, Creamed Corn, Creamed Spinach, Fresh Steamed Broccoli, Fresh Steamed Cabbage, Fresh Steamed Carrots, Fresh Steamed Cauliflower, Fresh Vegetable Trio, Glazed Sesame Carrots, Green & Yellow Beans, Green Beans, Green Peas, Squash Medley, Steamed Zucchini, Yams & Apples, etc. Some of these may not have been available, and other things may have been, but it was too overwhelming to tell.

To go with my iced tea (unsweetened) I hazarded a green salad with almond slices, dried cranberries, green olives, blue cheese, crumbled bacon, and thousand island dressing. The ingredients were fresh and nice, and the dressing was soupy and depressing. Complemented with two slices of pizza (medium crust and lots of over-sweet sauce), one slice had leftover breakfast sausage and the other had leftover breakfast bacon. It was... edible. Barely.

Next I ventured forth to seek non-fried alternatives and found bourbon chicken (too sweet and salty), sliced sausage in an over-sweet BBQ sauce, a taco, scratch mashed potatoes (not good) with white sausage gravy (not bad). I'm told I missed a bet by passing on the steak, for which the place is legendary. These were seven-bone beef steaks tossed onto a gas grill with great showmanship, cooked to and sliced to order. Each table had a bottle of Golden Corral steak sauce in an A-1 shaped bottle.

Dessert was a piece of gelatinous and doughy blueberry pie. The vanilla soft-serve machine was empty, so I opted for the sugar-free vanilla, which quickly dispensed a liberal helping of orange sherbet. Added a chocolate-topped rice crispie treat and some jellied orange candies to round out the nutritional disaster.

The place was convenient for our purpose - to pack in 30 assorted people with noisy and messy kids into a room, get fed, and roast our friend in public before he moved to Colorado. Everybody paid their own way, and we left extra tips for the mess made by the children. But you would never go there for the food.

Golden Corral - NOT RECOMMENDED unless you need to gain a weight class in an hour or two.

Highs: Fellowship with friends, space for rowdy kids
Lows: Fried foods, mushy vegetables, too much starch, fat, sugar, and salt - I was still thirsty 5 hours later

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

MiniReview: Roma Ristorante - Salt Lake City, Utah

Roma Ristorante
5468 S 900 E
Murray, UT 84117
(801) 268-1017
No Web Page

This is a MiniReview - we had a special meal service with wine pairings for a local wine club, Les Amis du Vin Utah, so we can rate the restaurant, but the food, price, service, and ambiance are not typical of a normal restaurant visit. Servers brought out each course to every table in platoon fashion, so there was not much possibility of personal service for this type of event. Wine prices listed are what is charged by Utah State Liquor Stores, the only available source to law-abiding citizens in this backward state, and of interest only to them...

Date of Visit: Sunday, May 18, 2008
Time: Early Dinner - 4:30 PM
Waitpersons - entire staff
Number of Diners: 8 - 75

Food Quality: 8.5+
Service: 6*
Ambiance: 6

+The wine pairings elevated the food beyond it's native level.
*The banquet-style service precluded a true rating of the front-of-house staff.

What We had with menu descriptions...

Mediterranean Feast
Your hosts, Aida and LJ Ljubicic have prepared a delightful 5 course menu, with touches of Italy and their native Croatia, paired with wines, mostly from Italy... with a few surprises.

Starter: Bruschetta
With LD's unique style - you'll not soon forget it
2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Villa Maria, Marlborough, New Zealand ($14)

Salad: Spring Mix Organic Salad
Served with Pears and Pecorino-Romano cheese - Fresh, simple and delicious!
2006 Pinot Gris, King Estate, Oregon ($17.49)

First Course: Poached Salmon
Served with side Risotto - Subtle and full of flavor
2005 "Rafael" Valpolicella Classico, Tommasi, Italy ($13)

Main Course: Pork Tenderloin
Wrapped in Proscuiutto and served with Roasted Red Pepper potatoes - an outstanding combination!
2005 "Ruvei" Barbera d'Alba, Marchesi di Barolo, Piedmont, Italy ($17)

Dolci: Lemoncello Torta
With Berry Sauce... and a surprising wine pairing
NV Prosecco di Conegliano, (I did not get the Winemaker), Veneto, Italy ($16.69)

Members' cost for this event was $72 per person, all inclusive.

Roma is tucked away inside a suburban South Salt Lake City (Murray-area) strip mall, in the center of the block. (For trivia buffs the town of Murray is best known for being the home of American Idol finalist David Archuleta.) We arrived and quickly connected with three other couples in our mini-party, making 8 total. We all wasted no time diving into the first wine, Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, which was plentiful and flowed freely. It was cool, crisp, extremely green-grassy, and very tart. The grass and high acid content blended well with the Balsamic vinegar in the Bruschetta, making for a smashing pairing. Unusual to see such care taken for an appetizer and wine pairing! The Bruschetta was on thick, whole grain toast, with cubed tomato, basil, garlic, olive oil, and Balsamic. The whole grain toast provided a nice, meaty texture base for the very garlicky topping. Very good indeed. Most of our party were able to snag a second one from the roving waitstaff, who were busily trying to be fair to all 75 or so wine club members!

Salad - Simple and delicious was the promise, and Roma delivered. Fresh, organic greens were lightly dressed and accompanied by VERY thin slices of Bartlett pear and Pecorino-Romano cheese. The color and visual texture of the pears and cheese were nearly identical - deliberately so, deceiving some into thinking they were cheese-deprived! The combination of sweet pear, salty cheese, crispy greens, and light dressing was refreshing and delicious. The wine pairing of Pinot Gris amped up the flavor to the next level. This wine was fruit-forward, off dry sweetness, with a fresh finish reminiscent of a crisp Thompson seedless green grape.

First Course - The salmon appeared atop a slightly dry risotto, surrounded by a vivid neon-green oil, accompanied by a caper berry. Unfamiliar to most in our party, this olive-sized fruit results when caper buds are allowed to blossom into flowers with stalks that fruit into individual berries. Pickled, their flavor is somewhat less intense than the buds, and the texture is delightfully crunchy. The salt provided contrast to the relatively strong flavor of the salmon, and the risotto added to the trio of textures. The very green oil turned out to be an infusion of parsley and spinach into olive oil, made fresh on the premises. This aromatic garnish completed the dish into something quite special, transcending the fish alone. The Valpolicella had a phenomenal dry, fruity bouquet. The pairing was surprisingly not overpowering, and the slight salt of the dish mellowed the boldness and enhanced the sweet notes of the ruby red wine. A leftover sip of the sweetish Pinot Gris paired well with the risotto, but did nothing special for the fish.

Main Course - Like the fish, the pork was perched on a starchy base - this time mashed potatoes mixed with roasted red bell peppers. The slightly sweet tenderloin was wrapped in salty Prosciutto, cooked the minimum amount and very moist. The salty-sweet potato mixture was surrounded by more of the fragrant, neon-green infused oil. Taken individually and as a whole, it was all good, though not as special together as what had come before. The Barbera had a nice, musty nose, dry then sweet start on the tip of the tongue, lusciously smooth and delicious as it worked its way across the palate, finishing with a long, green maraschino cherry finish. Stunning alone, it was less successful as a pairing. Not bad, but not as brilliant as the previous pairings.

Dolci - I must confess that I am a big fan of lemon and no fan at all of sparkling wines. Our hosts surprised us with their choice of Prosecco, which the Italians drink like (or instead of) water. Meant to be a refreshing counterpoint to the silky, sweet cake, I found it to be an unpleasant rush of effervescent foam. Alone in my distaste for it, I was able to quickly give my glass away to a table-mate. While it reminded most of their summer visits to Northern Italy and Venice, I was more impressed with the Barbera as a complement for the lemon torte, contrasted well with tart strawberry/blackberry syrup - the sweetness of the cake revealing the previously hidden tannins in the wine. The Prosecco disappointed me, and I have to characterize it as an unpleasant, fizzy "alka-spumonte."

We were able to discover through the evening that LJ and his mother were the force behind the cooking in the kitchen, while Aida was responsible for the genius of the wine pairings. She was also the most extroverted, and visited nearly every diner at every table. I chided her a bit for omitting even one wine from her native Croatia. She had one chosen, but it exceeded the club's budget. Eager to please, she offered to cook anything we wanted, menu be damned. We speculated for a while about meals she could produce to pair with her favorite Croatian wines, rare and underappreciated. We shall have to return soon and put her skills to the test!

Roma Ristorante served up top quality Italian food elevated by Aida's excellent wine parings. The club event gave us good exposure at a great price. My favorites with pairings were the appetizer, salad, and fish courses, though my favorite wine alone was the Barbera. Roma is definitely worth a return visit and a full review.

Be aware that not all of these wines are available at the restaurant, and none of them are available at the prices listed. In Utah the restaurants must buy their wines from the same source at the same price as private citizens - no trade or volume discounts for anyone. So expect to pay at least 2.2 times the prices listed above if you buy in the restaurant.

Highs: Smashing food combinations, transcendent wine pairings, great value
Lows: For me alone... Prosecco-seltzer

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Hodad's - Ocean Beach, California

5010 Newport Avenue
Ocean Beach, CA 92107

Date of Visit: Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Server: Entire Staff
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 7
Service: 7
Ambiance: 5*

*Unique place - Clean enough, Eclectic Funky Decor, and LOUD!

My co-worker, the very thin Mike S., and I decided to hit what is arguably the most famous burger joint in Southern California. It should be noted that Hodad's is about a block from the beach, not in San Diego "proper," but in the town of Ocean Beach, California. "The OB" is a pretty interesting place, catering to the hippie fringe of SoCal society. On this Wednesday we were surprised to find a street festival in full swing on the main street, featuring organic whatever fried in organic grease or grilled on organic wood, and served on recycled toilet paper (or something). There were also hundreds of hemp and macramé wares mixed in with some herbal and organic products for both internal and external use. Dozens of 2-3 person acoustic bands and dreadlocks were everywhere. Most of the people smelled very... organic!

The presence of all the street food was good news, as the feeding frenzy in the street depleted the starving crowds at this infamous burger joint. The sign outside proudly proclaimed "Less than 99 billion served!" When we arrived the place was full, with about half a dozen waiting in line outside. We queued up and waited on the street, the SoCal midwinter weather being about 55 degrees and beachy-humid, really not bad at all. In no time we were accosted by a hostess/waitress and ushered in. The place is bright and very noisy. They support local live music, so it COULD have been even noisier - hard to conceive! Our helpful hostess asked, "Would you guys mind sitting in the van?" Of course not! So here was our table...

I took the driver's seat and Mike took the passenger's side. Once inside, even though the windows were all missing in action, the noise factor was greatly reduced, and we had an awesome ringside seat for the night's activities. The steering wheel and column were long gone, but the dash and instruments were there, indicating 40MPH, and the odometer reading HODAD. The fresh air vent at the top for the heating system was fully functional, too! A helpful waitress took a beer order, quickly filled by another young lady. There were at least 5 different servers working - all young, attractive, and in better shape than either of us, and all of them visited us more than once - we never went wanting for attention, food, or drinks!

The Menu and what we had...
We sipped from excellent California micro brews as we perused the menu. Having had a late lunch, I opted for the single cheeseburger with bacon, while Mike, who had joined me for lunch, decided to go for the gusto and ordered the double cheeseburger with bacon. We were debating fries or onion rings, both having been described as legendary, when the server suggested "Frings" a half and half basket. Perfect!

The room is medium sized, with about a two dozen high tables, a long dining hall picnic table, and a counter on the window - seats inside, facing outside, where the servers would go to take orders and bring food. Those were primo seats for watching the fun on the Avenue outside! There's a large L-shaped counter protecting the grill and many chalkboards jammed with menu information and clever sayings.

As you can see from the photos the walls are covered with license plates from all over, and we spent our time with beer and Frings trying to decipher some of the more clever ones. 2NICAGY took us some time. Either it was "Too Nice A Guy" or "Tunica Gay." The Frings came with both ketchup and ranch dressing - and this was the full time Mike had ever tasted real ranch dressing, as opposed to low fat. Ultimately the burgers, ordered "with everything" came. Mine was enormous - Pile of bacon topped by 2 slabs of cheesy beef topped by tomatoes, lettuce, pickle, rings of fresh white onion (thick) and mustard. The bacon deserves some comment. There is a lot of it, and it tastes very good, but it is unusual - about a quarter pound of bacon is parboiled, globbed together, then grilled next to the burger. So the taste is there, but the bacon is not at all the crispy breakfast treat that Americans are used to - much more like a semi-greasy glob of Canadian bacon. Closest I've seen to it is real Irish bacon.
My burger, like all at Hodad's, was served in a generous wrapper described by the owner as a "burger trough." It was way too big to bite into. Trying to compress the thing to mouth sized was not at all possible. You pretty much just have to nibble around the edges, taking what you get in each mouthful. And as big as mine was, Mike's was TWICE AS BIG!!

We each gathered our thoughts and our burgers and literally dove in. "Good bread, bacon, and mustard," says Mike. I got bacon, lettuce, bread and mustard in my mouth, along with beef and cheese in my nose, so I could not immediately comment. Silence reigned inside the van as we each attacked the giant burgers from a variety of angles. Each bite was different, with different components. Every bite was damn good. About halfway through Mike ordered another round of beers, the consumption of which was hampered by the need for two hands on each of the burgers. We moved the beer glasses to the dash, hoping that the indicated 40MPH was not in violation of any California open container laws. After an extended consumption time, I managed to finish mine and resume on the Frings. Mike, surrounded by several heaps of used napkins, pressed on. I was stuffed, leaving 2 onion rings in the aftermath. Mike finished the meat and cheese and showed me the results. "I'd call it victory," was my comment. "No way!" says Mike who proceeded to eat the salad and bun, leaving nothing. Satiated, stuffed, and feeling a beery-protein high, we just relaxed in the van and watched the show in the dining room.

We had previously discussed whether a milkshake might be in order, but opted for the beers to enjoy a rare respite from the draconian laws found in Utah. But the folks at the next table obliged by ordering one. Words cannot describe this thing, so just try to comprehend the photo...

Our tab with 4 beers, a split basket of Frings, and one single and one double was $31 with tax. All of it was toxic and quite delicious. A sign by the register informed us, "If this isn't the best burger you've ever had, we really don't want to hear about it!" I can't say it was the best, or even the biggest, but I can say it was right up there. And the experience and the friendliness of the folks from "The OB" made a good thing even better. Two thumbs-up and highly recommended!

Highs: Friendly service, funky decor, al fresco dining in perfect San Diego weather, The Van, the OB experience
Lows: We were too full to try the milkshake

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cafe Madrid - Salt Lake City, Utah

Cafe Madrid
2080 East 3900 South
Salt Lake City, UT 84124
(Murray/Holladay area)

Date of Visit: Saturday, May 10, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Server: Raul R.
Number of Diners: 6

Food Quality: 8
Service: 6*
Ambiance: 7

*Average of 7 and 5 - see below for details

Cafe Madrid is a Spanish restaurant, and they serve full entrees in addition to the appetizers/tapas for which Spanish cuisine has become known. Tapas are derived from a mid-afternoon snack with wine taken by the king, and subsequently by field workers. Originally a small meal to sustain you through the afternoon, it has evolved into a style of dining on many small plates.

The Menu...
While only limited to two pages, the menu has quite a few choices. At top there's a notice that genuine Seafood Paella or Tortilla Espanola require 24 hours notice, and should be considered for your next visit. There are a couple of soups and salads, and about 10 each cold and hot appetizers or Tapas, with about half a dozen entrees at the end. Prices for Tapas ranged between $8.50 and $12.50, while entrees were $26 - $29. The wine list is long and impressive, covering all price points, and is full of Spanish wines with several choices by the glass. At the bottom of the menu was a rather strange notice: "Parties with checks split more than twice will have a 16% service fee added." This seemed odd to me, that they would charge a flat gratuity under these circumstances. But since our three couples would split the bill twice (into three equal parts), I figured we would not be affected. More on this later...

The room is quite small, with about a dozen tables - half of which could seat 6 or more. There was also a handful of tables outside. We had arrived about 15 minutes early, and took a seat outside to await our friends. After about 30 seconds a young man (nametag Raul) came out of the back and noticed us. "Did you talk to the people inside?" he inquired. We explained that we were early and awaiting friends. He suggested that we should come inside, led the way, found the registration, and seated us immediately. Soon all 6 water glasses were filled and six menus were distributed. We passed the time drinking water and studying the menu while our friends joined us.

At some point during the evening you must decide whether to do all Tapas, or do a few Tapas and entrees. Raul, who turned out to be our waiter, suggested that certain groups of Tapas go well together and provided a couple of examples. After studying the menu and the wine list, we decided that he knew more about it than we did. So we placed our meal in his hands. He wanted to know if we wanted all Tapas or some entrees. "When do we have to decide?" I asked. He went with it and said we would start small and go from there.

What we had with menu descriptions...

At Raul's suggestion, we opened with:

Calamares Fritos – “Rabas” $9
Juicy and inviting, our Calamari is unlike any you have tasted before
(2 orders) Pimientos Piquillo Rellenos de Pescado $12.50
Authentic Piquillo Peppers, oven roasted with tempting white wine & Seafood Stuffing
Meat Paella - a special appetizer (price not disclosed) $19
Described as paella with sausage, mussels, calamari, chicken, and pork

We also asked Raul to recommend a wine. He chose for us a Spanish white, which he described as "Summer in a bottle." Pazo Pondal 2005 Albarino $34

After the Tapas we decided to go for entrees. Raul had several recommendations, including an Osso Buco (literally "bone hole") not on the menu, and his favorite was the Chilean Sea Bass. In our party of six, two chose the beef tenderloin, and the rest all chose Sea Bass.

Solomillo de Buey al Queso Picon de Tresviso $ 29
Grilled Beef Tenderloin generously topped with an authentic Roquefort Cheese Sauce
Lubina en Salsa de Gambas $29
Fresh Sea Bass served with Caramelized Onions in a creamy Shrimp Sauce

All entrees are served with salad and your choice of: Fried Potatoes, Baby Red Potatoes, or Rice with Pine Nuts and Raisins. Our party was diverse enough to order all three, of which the thin, fried potatoes were the most interesting.

Starting from the top, the Albarino white wine was very nice - crisp, cool, unoaked, tasting of light fruit, slightly tart, with an off-dry finish. It went well with all the foods. The Piquillo peppers were delicious, four portions to each plate, and smothered in a tomato cream sauce. Raul brought us extra bread and encouraged us not to be shy about soaking up the sauce. We weren't shy at all. The Calamari rings were lightly fried, served with fresh lemon and mayonnaise, and were delicate and delicious. The Paella came in a generous portion. Seasoned rice with hidden gems of meat, sausage, and seafood - everyone was delighted with it. The wine paired especially well with the Paella.

Given our dinner choices, a second bottle of Albarino was ordered, and we turned again to Raul to recommend a red for the beef eaters. He asked discreetly about how much we were willing to pay, suggesting $50 and acquiescing to $40. He returned with a bottle of Marqués de Cáceres Crianza Rioja $32. If you have ever had Spanish wine, it was likely this one, and you'll certainly recognize the label pictured here. I have consumed many bottles of it, and it is a fine, midrange wine, well balanced and smoothly finished. Made from 85% Temperanillo grapes, it's a restaurant standard and a very safe recommendation. And, like a decent Merlot, it's also a bit - unexciting. I asked Raul if he had a more interesting Temperanillo, and he reappeared instantly with a bottle of 2003 Loriñon Rioja Crianza $32. It was also 85% Temperanillo with 5% each of Granacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo. It was also delightfully unrefined with a big cherry nose - aged in American oak for 14 months to take the edge off, it was lush, dark as ink, fruity, smoky, and sweet - with a dark cherry, dry finish. It was an excellent, complex pairing for the beef.

The beef tenderloin was generous, tender, and wonderfully balanced by the Roquefort sauce. It should be noted that real Roquefort cheese is made from sheep's milk, and has a flavor character unlike the more common blue cheeses. It is also much more expensive and a delight to encounter as an ingredient in a beef dish. The tenderloins were perched upon two disks of potato and garnished with squash, asparagus, and carrots. All were cooked to perfection and devoured by our beef-eaters, though one allowed others to sample hers...

The Chilean Sea Bass was also a taste treat, served on a bed of mashed potato with a generous portion of tomato cream sauce, two tender shrimp, sweet caramelized onions, and a short sprig of rosemary. The sides of potatoes or rice were served in separate dishes, and we made good use of them to soak up the excess sauce. The Albarino continued to serve us well in complementing the dish.

Feeling satiated and not over-full, we perused the dessert menu. To coffee all around we added flan, lemon mousse, and rice pudding. The flan was cool, firm, and excellent, as was the rice pudding dusted with cinnamon. The lemon mousse was topped with walnuts, and was much thicker than expected. It reminded one diner of her mother's home-made lemon ice-box pie filling made with fresh lemons. It was a veritable explosion of lemon, and quite delightful.

Given the prompt and attentive service Raul was providing, you may be surprised at the reduced service scoring above. The problems started when the bill arrived. For our party of six it came to a very reasonable $348 but it had a gratuity pre-included of $64.60, or 18.55%. Very odd because the service was better than 18% worth, and it's unusual to see service added for parties of six. It had 22 lines of itemized expenses and seemed at a glance to be complete. One of my eagle-eyed dining companions noted that we had only been charged for one bottle of white. Raul quickly made the modification and returned with the new bill: $385 with $71.40 (18.55%) again pre-added. We each tossed a credit card in (3 total) and Raul became visibly upset. He explained that the menu clearly stated there would be a service fee charged should the bill be split more than two ways - an interesting interpretation of the actual language, but understandable. I pointed to the "Gratuity Added" line and said, "It's already there."

Raul explained that was a gratuity, and the service fee for the extra credit card would be 16% IN ADDITION TO the pre-added gratuity! He suggested that perhaps one party could pay cash, and he would split the rest between two cards. One couple drained their collective collections of cash to make this happen. Even so entire staff had to fuss with the bill for about 15 minutes afterward. They returned with two bills, evenly split and exactly correct, both pre-charged to the two cards. No opportunity (or inclination on our parts) to increase the gratuity. It's not really fair to blame Raul for this ridiculous hassle dictated by management policy, and he at least thanked us (discreetly) for catching the wine error.

The whole episode became a wet blanket tossed on an otherwise good time for no good reason. It seemed very "un-American" treatment, so perhaps that's a tribute to the restaurant's authenticity. It is also certainly a strong de-motivator for future visits, especially for medium to large groups. There are enough competing places in the region with good food and without such hassles. Perhaps this explains why the restaurant was only three-quarters full at 8PM on a Saturday night?

Highs: Ingredient quality, creative dishes, friendly staff and service, good wine selection and prices, reasonable overall cost for the quality
Lows: Annoying payment policy deflated an otherwise enjoyable experience, undisclosed disproportionate pricing between menu items and specials

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Kappo Seafood - Los Angeles, California

Kappo Seafood
1757 W. Carson Street #S
Torrance, CA 90501

Date of Visit: Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Servers: Entire Staff
Number of Diners: 1

Food Quality: 9
Service: 7.5
Ambiance: 8 (with elements of 2)

This is the best Japanese food at a restaurant you never heard of. Difficult to find, it's hidden in a strip mall in Torrance, California. Ostensibly on Carson Street, the center is at the corner of Carson and Western, on the North side of Carson and West of Western. This restaurant is on the far West (left) side, and is really closest to Abalone Avenue, which intersects Carson on the North side, one block West of Western. Confused yet?

What makes this place so great? How about fish flown in daily from Japan into LAX just 10 miles away? Or fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean even closer than that? It's all about the best seafood you can procure, lovingly prepared by craftsmen following centuries of tradition. It's been stellar every time I've been there, and I'm nearly always the only Gaijin there! Generally when you enter there is a brief scramble to get the best English-speaker to greet you, seat you, and take your order. Notwithstanding that the entire staff always pitches in to help serve and bus your area, cheerfully smiling and addressing you in Japanese.

The Menus...
This place has a standard menu, which you never need to open. The question is what's fresh, and the choices are legion - changing daily. Combination dinners are standardized in a separate, laminated menu of "Sets" with pictures - Japanese on one side and English on the other. And there is a separate sushi menu, a separate special dinner menu, and a separate fresh fish menu. Click on the links to see examples. (Apparently their spell checker failed to catch their "per parson" pricing, or there is a special deal for the clergy!) A separate drinks menu with a great variety of sake and standard spirits rounds out the tableau. I am literally showered in menus!

The place is relatively quiet, decorated in traditional and understated Japanese style. There are 15 tables, 12 seats at the sushi bar, and 2-3 Zashiki rooms off to the side where you can take off your shoes, sit on the floor, and dine at low tables family style. Some of the few reviewers on the net (mostly locals) have complained about the prices vs. other places, but those other places do not take the same care to procure and import the top quality seafood that Kappo has. You pay a little more for the best stuff. That said, you can spend a ton here, or get by quite reasonably. For instance the special dinners price out at: $28, $42, $85, $90, and $120 - plus beverages. The "Set" menu offers the most variety and quantity for the lowest price, and I almost always get the "Sashimi Set." Most Sets can be upgraded for a extra charge. The upgrade gets you some rarer and more expensive fish, but most are not to my taste. Being a single diner, I opted to sit at the sushi bar.

What I had with menu descriptions...

Sashimi Set (no upgrade) Sashimi plate, Today's Salad, Today's Appetizer (cold), Today's Appetizer (hot), Red Miso Soup, Chawanmushi, Japanese Pickles, Steamed Rice, Dessert - $38 ($18 more to upgrade)

Toro (fatty tuna) Nigiri Sushi - 2 pc $18

Unagi (fresh water eel) Nigiri Sushi - 2 pc $9

Kirin Ichiban Beer (draft) $4.50 ea (I had two)

We shall take each item in turn. It should be noted that this place use real (inedible) greens to separate the pieces and decorate the dishes (instead of plastic greenery), plus some intricately carved veggies. Every presentation on every plate was a work of Eastern art. And Kirin is a wonderfully light lager that cleanses the palate perfectly and does not overwhelm the delicate fish.

The Toro order came out quickly. Two generous slabs of light pink fish were perched on sushi rice. Each was too big for one bite - even for my big mouth! I opted to use fingers instead of chopsticks to avoid mishaps with the expensive fish. Some say all sushi is meant to be finger food, but I've never observed Japanese in America using anything but chopsticks. The wasabi that came with the sushi was the real deal - grated wasabi horseradish root. The powders and resulting pastes are usually American horseradish and green food coloring. The real wasabi is less hot and more subtly piquant. I like it a lot! The fish melted in my mouth like butter, complemented by the subtle wasabi and soy mixture. Absolutely first rate.

Next came the Unagi. This eel is cooked and wrapped onto the rice, then sprinkled with a Teriyaki sauce. These were done to perfection - warm, moist and not overcooked, and with only a hint of the sweet sauce.

Next came Today's Salad which was plate of mixed greens, soy ginger dressing, and two boiled shrimp. Very nice.

Today's Appetizer (cold) was several thin strips of fresh, uncooked mackerel in a thick, mildly sweet sauce. Also very nice.

Today's Appetizer (hot) was a dumpling soup with pea pods, carrots, and a full diakon radish. The dumpling was a purse, tied at the top, and filled with green stalks I could not identify. All of it was delicious.

Red Miso Soup tastes much like normal Miso Soup, but it is red, and there is an extra kick of flavor to it that makes it better, albeit difficult to capture in words!

Japanese Pickles were cucumbers, red cabbage, and white cabbage. All were sweet/sour, and the white cabbage tasted something like a New York half-sour pickle. Nice contrast to the other foods.

The Sashimi Plate is the chef's choice, and usually has a good mix of what's fresh and what's plentiful. I prefer the sashimi to the sushi, as I can limit the high-calorie rice component - the steamed, seasoned white rice is served on the side in a separate bowl. Tonight's plate had 2 good sized portions of FRESH scallop, salmon, yellowtail, mackerel, and something I could not identify. There were three portions of delectable Tuna (tekka), and one portion of something else I didn't identify topped with salmon roe. The Tekka and the last one were the best, really transcending the others, which were all excellent. The sushi chef noticed my rapturous look when I ate the Tekka and smiled broadly. All of it was truly awesome.

It took me a while to eat it all, and I saved the Chawanmushi for last - it's one of my favorite Japanese foods. Lightly seasoned egg custard, served in a small bowl or teacup, with "treasures" at the bottom. My treasures tonight were a small shrimp, shitake mushroom, and a quail's egg yolk. Wonderfully delicious!

The front-of-house team consisted of 4 giggling waitresses in kimono style uniforms, one waiter (the best English speaker), a Hostess, a Host, and one bus-girl. All of them visited me at least once to bring or clear things, and all spoke to me in Japanese with friendly smiles. They might have been saying, "Have a wonderful meal." Or they might have been saying, "Die Yankee scum!" But I decided that the body language was genuinely friendly. For dessert, they had the standard green tea and red bean ice creams. And the waiter said they also had the traditional red bean with sticky rice dessert. I had tried both ice creams before, so I went with the traditional. This choice captured the attention of all the staff, as Gaijins never order this, or they hate it when they do. They brought out a cup of hot green tea and a small bowl with red beans in a sweet sauce (of red beans) with two mochi cakes in it. It's called Ozenzai and is a winter dessert. The sushi chef was eager to see if I liked it, and said the mochi was sweet rice. He also told me that in Japan all the kids love it, then paused and added, "Everybody loves this!" The host also came over to see if I liked it. When I assured him I did, he beamed and said, "Only Japanese like this - it has a long history." When I suggested I should move to Japan, his smile got even broader!

So how was it? The Japanese compare red beans to chocolate - but it's a stretch. They are about half the size of Mexican black beans, and they have exactly the same texture. They are quite sweet, but not overpowering. The mochi were quite resilient - you could not cut them in half with the tiny spoon. They looked, tasted, and chewed like rubbery marshmallows, and they were quite interesting and tasty with the bean sauce. I would not trade in a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream for Ozenzai, but it was a very tasty change of pace.

When the bill came, it was about $80 with tax. With so much attention from so many servers, I added $20 to round it out to $100. Expensive, and totally blowing two days worth of my meals per diem. I could even it up by eating on the cheap for the rest of the trip. I could have easily eaten for less than half of this amount, but the company was buying, and I learned long ago that eating Mickey D to save a few bucks is a game for the young. So I got all the extras, stuffed myself, and had a grand time.

Kappo Seafood - highly recommended!

Highs: Seafood quality, friendly staff, service, quiet room, unusual choices, daily menus
Lows: Expensive, if you are not careful

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

MiniReview: Franck's - Salt Lake City, Utah

6263 Holladay Blvd
Holladay, UT 85712
This is a MiniReview - we had a special meal service with wine pairings for a local wine club, Wasatch Mountain Food and Wine Society, so we can rate the restaurant, but the food, price, service, and ambiance are not typical of a normal restaurant visit. Servers brought out each course to every table in platoon fashion, so there was not much possibility of personal service for this type of event. Wine prices listed are what is charged by Utah State Liquor Stores, the only available source to law-abiding citizens in this backward state, and of interest only to them...

Date of Visit: Sunday, May 4, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Waitpersons - entire staff
Number of Diners: 6 - 50

Food Quality: 8.5
Service: 6*
Ambiance: 7

*The banquet-style service precluded a true rating of the front-of-house staff.

What We had with menu descriptions...

Burgundy Wine Dinner
Award-winning chef Franck Peissel (Salt Lake Best Chef 2007, Taste of the Nation People’s Choice 2007) has prepared an outstanding menu for our group. His cuisine is “American on the surface, but very French on closer inspection." The 2005 Burgundy vintage has received rave reviews and Franck has devised a tasting menu that highly complements the wines from this great region. The combination of great wines and food is assured to make this one of our group’s best events.

Appetizers: Mushroom tart, escargot on a shell
Kir with 2006 Bouzeron Aligote, Domaine de Villaine ($26.75)

First course: Mussels with a beurre blanc sauce
2005 Chablis, Domaine de Vaudon, Joseph Drouhin ($21.70)

Second course: Hawaiian sea bass in an amaretto sauce
2005 Meursault, Matrot ($28.22)

Third course: Short ribs in a mushroom and truffle sauce
2005 Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Nicolas Potel ($18.87)

Fourth course: Medley of quail and duck in a Madeira sauce
2005 Nuits-Saint-George, Nicolas Potel ($46.99)

Dessert: Pear tarten with rosemary ice cream
2002 Chateau Rieussac Sauternes (half bottle $42.79)

Members' cost for this event was $90 per person, all inclusive.

Franck's is not easy to find, located in Holladay and hidden behind the much more famous Tuscany eatery owned by former Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton. On our night out, all of Franck's parking was valet, and most of the nearby streets were marked "No Parking." Franck is much shorter than Mark and arguably more talented. The room was small with maybe 12-15 tables, and 3-4 more outside. There was a big plasma screen on the wall so all diners could see what was happening in the kitchen. Servers platooned to rush each course to each table, and there was little opportunity for interaction. A couple different servers made attempts, but they were unable by logisitcs to follow through on their intentions. I believe that a dining experience would certainly score better service marks than this banquet-style setting permitted. As for the food, we shall take each course and wine in turn, giving much attention to our table consensus on things.

Appetizers - the mushroom tart was delicious, with lightly grilled, well-seasoned mushrooms on a buttery, flaky tart base. The escargot were tender, not at all chewy, and garlicky - but too salty for my taste. The wine pairing was a traditional Kir (NOT a Kir Royale) which mixed Creme de Cassis with a still white wine (rather than a Champagne). The tart wine was supposed to play off the sweet Cassis, but all we could taste was the sweet. It was a nice, light starter, but most in our small group wondered what the wine would have tasted like on its own. We Americans defy tradition, as apparently Kir was the mayor of Dijon around World War II, and he loved these apparatifs so much that they now bear his name.

First Course - Mussels were fresh, sweet, and tender paired well with the burre blanc sauce. Some very nice Pomme Frite came to soak up the sauce, but someone forgot to tell the servers who hustled most of the dishes away. We managed to save one of the two at our table! The wine was an un-oaked Chablis, very crisp, dry, with a mild grapefruit taste and a hint of earthiness. It complemented the mussels very well.

Second Course - Hawaiian sea bass was light and sweet with a mild salty favor. The Amaretto sauce was nicely sweet, complementing the fish with the mildest hint of nutty flavor. The wine was an un-oaked Chardonnay grape, soft, round, tart, and dry with a clean finish and a mildly lemony aftertaste that went well with the fish. The pairing with broccoli stalks and rice provided both contrast and a medium to soak up the sauce.

Third Course - Franck did a nice job with the short ribs, which were boneless and had appropriate texture while still tender and not overly chewy. Scalloped potatoes were present for sauce-soaking. The meat had a slightly salty flavor. The wine had a light mustiness to the nose, great legs, full body of fruit with a dry finish. It erased all the salt in the meat, making a near-perfect pairing.

Fourth Course - Sweet quail with salty duck and a smooth Madeira sauce made for a great variety on the plate. I am not a duck person, though my wife and dinner partners were. But this duck was GREAT duck. I not only liked it, I enjoyed it thoroughly. One table-mate VIG (Very Italian Guy), fancied himself the best duck cook in the west, and he acknowledged Franck's were as good as his. Simply amazing. As was the wine. You could tell from the bouquet that it was something special - delicate with light floral overtones. It was full bodied, mildly astringent with a hint of tannin, rich, complex, with hints of blackberry, tobacco, leather, and currant - with a crisp finsh. It was brilliant alone, and OK with the food - also effectively balancing the salt in the meats.

Dessert - The pear tarten was sweet, flaky, chewy, and wonderful - the cool, fresh rosemary ice cream a great complement. And the Sauterne (one of my favorite wines) was out of this world - Full bodied and not syrupy - thick in the way of authentic maple syrup (not the glycerin thick Log Cabin stuff). It had a slight scent of orange blossom and sweet clover. It was lightly chilled and the taste was delicate, and complex, like liquid honey. The dessert and wine were brilliant alone, but made for a poor combination - the sweet of the dessert overpowered the delicacy of the wine.

All in all a great food and wine experience at a great price. Beware that not all of these wines are available at the restaurant, and none of them are available at the prices listed. In Utah the restaurants must buy their wines from the same source at the same price as private citizens - no trade or volume discounts for anyone. So expect to pay at least 2.2 times the prices listed above if you buy in the restaurant.

Highs: Good food, good friends, great wines, boisterous party, great value
Lows: Banquet service, few wine refills available

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego