Monsieur Haeringer, I Will Miss You

Francois Haeringer

Francois Haeringer

I note with sadness the passing of François Haeringer. He introduced me, through his restaurant L’Auberge Chez François, to what a really good meal can mean. There is an obituary in The Washington Post that’s worth reading.

I first ate at his restaurant in the late Eighties, at a time in my life when sitting down to dinner was an event purely about eating. I grumbled when I had to put on a suit and tie, muttered various synonyms for quaint when I first glimpsed the place and panicked when I saw the menu. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I do recall that it had the element of randomness to it. The effect was immediate. I walked in as Saul and left converted to the total experience that a meal should be. The man himself said:

Listen, when people go to the restaurant, what do they want? A good time. A nice atmosphere. A good meal. It’s simple.

Frequently at home, when remembering a place, we’ll recall a great meal we had there or, just as likely, when making a dish at home, we’ll reminisce about eating it on vacation somewhere. The sensual experience that is a meal – flavor, aroma, the sights and sounds, the very feel of it – all work to tightly bind your memories.

I have not dined at L’Auberg Chez François for a while now. Twenty years ago, it was practically the only place of its kind. Now, however, someone looking for a high-end experience has many options. I moved on. I feel really guilty about that. I am happy to see that his sons will continue to run the place. I shall make a reservation soon.

Thank you François Haeringer, you made the world a better place.

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Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Olive Garden with a Side of Proper Expectations

Olive Garden: Not Bad for What It Is

Not Bad for What It Is

I plead guilty to yucking other people’s yums. To wit: I have mercilessly mocked Olive Garden and those who think it fine dining. I realize now that it was wrong of me to do so. I committed the sin of expressing subjective opinion as objective fact. Olive Garden just couldn’t be good food, but who am I to tell you what is or is not good? More to the point, though, how can I pass judgement on the place if I have not eaten there?

Clearly, I have never had the desire to eat at Olive Garden. I like real Italian food and felt that this place would be an abomination. The only reason why I went was the $50 gift card I had won in a raffle and a guilty sense that I should know that of which I rant. Now, any restaurant can be a good restaurant (supposing it’s run with a modicum of skill and a desire to do a good job). The key is to set the right expectations. I prepared myself for this meal by repeating the mantra: “This is not an Italian restaurant, it is Corporate American cuisine made in the Italian idiom.” Oh, and I promised I would not complain about over-cooked pasta.

Long story short, it wasn’t that bad. The four of us ordered:

  • For an appetizer, we chose to create our own sampler and selected stuffed mushrooms, toasted raviolis and the calamari. Surprisingly, the squid was well cooked, with only a hint of rubberiness. The mushrooms were a tad on the greasy side, but edible. Nobody else seemed to like the raviolis, but I noshed big time.
  • We cycled 3 bowls of soup and an overly large serving of salad amongst us. The soups weren’t bad, if a tad salty. The salad was an uninspired assembly of greens headlined by iceberg lettuce.
  • My youngest and I both ordered the special: 4 cheese stuffed pansotti (hers with chicken, mine Italian sausage). The pasta was (tss, tss!), er, um, drenched in a tomato-y cream sauce that actually went well with the sausage. The stuffed pasta seemed almost an afterthought that I wouldn’t have missed.
  • My wife and eldest went with items from the appetizer menu. I questioned their selection of steamed mussels, but was proven wrong. The liquid was half way decent, even if overly salty (alas, this was turning into a theme here). They also ordered the Lasagna fritta, which was a disappointment. It looked nothing like the picture on the menu.

As I waddled out, I felt like we got our money’s worth (the additional $40 it cost us), but don’t think we’ll be coming back. For that amount of money (or just a little more), we can get better food elsewhere. The place is not cheap unless you stick to water and the unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks.

One conclusion I reached, though, is that it’s no wonder we’re an obese nation:

  1. Portion sizes are gigantic. Those weren’t plates, they were platters!
  2. Everything is drenched in cream and/or cheese. Why? Perhaps to cover up the fact that the pasta is (Dude! NO!), um, not the best.
  3. There is way too much salt. Telling sign that the dishes weren’t made in house, but somewhere else and shipped here.

I felt miserable for the rest of the day, like I had swallowed an indigestible rock. I then made the mistake of looking up the nutritional value of the meal we just ate.

  • We consumed enough calories for the whole day for all four of us.
  • We ingested over 350 grams of fat! The equivalent to 7 Big Macs and 7 large orders of fries.
  • The salt intake was equivalent to the recommend daily amount for nearly 7 people.

I’m still in shock over witnessing a women who had to have been half my size who had ordered something that looked to be twice the size of my meal and she was furiously shaking salt on to it.

Now, I can rationalize crappy nutrition if the food is really good (bypassing for the moment the argument that good food doesn’t need so much salt or fat) and I had a good time. This was not the case for me, yet others seem to truly enjoy the place. I won’t try to talk them out of it. I would suggest, though, that they might try other places.

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Curse of Boneless, Skinless, All White Meat Chicken

Coming from the south, I figured I knew fried chicken. Then I had my eyes opened on a visit to Asia. The whole eastern reaches of that continent knows chicken. From a high-end Chinese restaurant in Singapore to a local chain outside of Seoul, I was never disappointed.

I am heartened that this style is making it to the US. The Korean chain Cheogajip Chicken has a location in the Centreville, VA area. There is also BBQ Chicken and Beer, which widens the typically narrow Korean menu with more options. Even the local Grand Mart had an excellent spicy fried chicken.

Note that I used the past tense on that last sentence. Apparently, customers have been complaining about the bones, so the curse that is boneless, skinless, all-white meat (BSAWM) chicken has claimed another victim.

I don’t understand this. When you strip out the skin and bones, and limit yourself to only the breast meat, you’re stripping out all of the flavor. All a whole chicken really needs is salt and pepper. A sauce is never a bad thing, but you don’t need too much. I can no longer eat the spicy fried chicken at Grand Mart. The meat is rather dry and there is way too much sauce which, I assume, is to compensate for the lack of flavor normally supplied by the skin, bones and dark meat.

This is what’s wrong with BSAWM-ness:

  1. First of all, it lack’s flavor. Try eating a chicken breast prepared with nothing but salt and pepper. Sure, if you brine it first, it will be moist, but it will still be flavorless. Look at how this is prepared in most restaurants: This type of dish is usually swimming in sauce or served with a side dish that has an intense flavor.
  2. Because of point 1, it’s not as healthy. What do you think is in that sauce? I’ll bet half a paycheck that it’s loaded in sugar and salt.
  3. It encourages unhealthy eating habits. You eat boneless chicken much faster than a bird with bones. It’s better to eat slowly. Your body will feel full with less food in your belly. I find it interesting that the BSAWM version of Grand Mart’s spicy fried chicken had about twice the meat of the original dish.
  4. BSAWM encourages animal cruelty. A natural chicken does not have enough white meat to make for an economically viable business producing only BSAWM. The factory bird with large breasts cannot move, even if it was given a free range opportunity. It is a freak of the industrial process.

BSAWM is a lie perpetrated on a gullible public. I am angered and saddened that my yum has been yucked.

The Search for Meaningful Words: Baja Fresh Signage

I may be naïve, but is it truly asking too much of restaurants to provide me with information that actually helps in making decisions? Yes, I know the answer to that. They’re out to make money, so why would they risk sending me to somewhere else? This post, then, reflects yet another windmill I’ll charge.

The source of this rant is this sign at my local Baja Fresh:

Baja Fresh Sign

I don’t mean to pick on Baja Fresh. I do like the place (though not as much as Chipotle). It’s just a convenient example of restaurant speak: It’s not meant to provide you with real information in order to make up your mind; but rather to convince you that you’ve made the right decision. Let’s take a look at these statements:

Our salsas are made fresh daily using only top quality produce.

“Made fresh daily,” that’s useful information that differentiates Baja Fresh from others. “Using only top quality produce,” oops, this violates a rule of mine. Descriptions should have plausible alternatives and make a meaningful distinction. Top quality? Would anyone say they are using low quality ingredients? And produce? How else would you make salsa? They should have stuck with just the first half of the sentence.

We use only boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated and charbroiled.

Boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken is evidence of the depths to which American cuisine has sunk. And these guys are bragging about it! Of course you’re going to have to marinate the stuff; otherwise, there would be no flavor in the meat. You might was well be using cardboard. At least then you could brag about the fiber. And that’s just the point. They’re trying to convince you of how healthy their food is in a way that’s easy to demonstrate, but then they overcompensate in other areas they don’t tell you about, like the fact that any entree with that chicken has nearly a whole day’s recommended allowance of sodium. Just what is in that marinade?

Our lean steak is trimmed and charbroiled.

Again with bragging about the removal of the flavorful parts of the meat. Maybe if you left the fat in, you wouldn’t have to load your burrito up with cheese, sour cream and guacamole. I’d be that you’d wind up consuming less fat that way. Go to any street food vendor in Mexico and order a taco. All you’ll get, in general, is nicely cooked meat in a tortilla. No toppings are needed.

Our special recipe beans are made fresh daily using no lard.

OK, we have something moderately useful here. It’s good to know they make the beans daily. I’d like to know more about their special recipe, but that’s probably too much information for a sign. However, the “using no lard” is a non sequitur since lard would only be used in making refried beans, which Baja Fresh does not do. Now, I could get into an argument with you about why you should use lard in that case (dang, they taste so much better that way), but that’s not the point. Again, they’re trying to make you feel good about your choice for lunch regardless of how healthy the meal actually is.

Our fresh chips are made in 100% cholesterol free canola oil.

This sentence seems to have the highest density of helpful data: fresh chips, cholesterol free and canola oil. OK, that last might not be a meaningful distinction since I’m not sure why canola would be better than any other vegetable oil. However, what is important here is the word that they do not use. How are chips made? They fry those suckers! Can’t have that word up there, I guess, since it would shoot to hell any health credibility they might have garnered in the 4 previous sentences.

Don’t let this stop you, though, from enjoying their fried fish taco. They’re quite tasty. And 3 of them have fewer calories, less sodium and about as much fat as any of their burritos. This is the point I’m making: If you’re primary concern when eating is health, then you shouldn’t be relying on the health claims made by the person selling you the food.

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Cerrito’s Pupuseria: A Quick Bite (4½ Stars)

Cerritos Pupuseria

Just a non-desrcript build on the side of the road

I drive by this place frequently, every time thinking I should give it a shot. I finally got around to it and am kicking myself for not doing so sooner.

This place is small, no more than 4 or 5 tables. Folks looked at me like I was lost. No, truly, I want to eat here! At first I was disheartened by the menu, which is populated with typical Mexican/Salvadoran fare that you’ll see in any number of places through out DC, none of which is particularly adventurous. Then I noticed the white board. That’s where the real food is listed.

Taco, Tamale and Pupusa

Taco, Tamale and Pupusa

I ordered a pork pupusa, beef tongue taco and a chicken tamale. This is, by far, the best pupusa I have ever had: lightly crispy on the outside while the contents had a creamy consistency. The flavors worked well with the slaw and salsa to make the sum of the whole greater than the parts. This alone was worth the trip.

When I mention tongue tacos to most people, they recoil in horror. They should not. There’s nothing funky in the taste like, say, liver. It’s just a lean piece of beef. And this taco is an excellent example of what can be done. With the pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime, I was in heaven. Yet again, this alone was worth the trip.

As for the tamale, I admit to some trepidation. It is really hard to find a well made tamale. Cerrito’s does theirs well. The filing was more than just the single note of chicken, it included chunks of potato and green beans. One was just enough, any more and I would have been filled to bursting.

I will definitely make a return visit, and so should you. They are on Rt. 50, about 4 miles west of the intersection with Rt. 28.

Cerrito’s Pupuseria
43137 John Mosby Hwy
Chantilly, VA 20152
(703) 327-0052

Published in: on August 10, 2009 at 11:23 am  Comments (6)  
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Dave’s Seafood and Subs

Dave's Seafood and Subs

Dave's Seafood and Subs

I have moved this review to This is Centreville since it better fits that theme.

Published in: on July 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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Tale of Two Guapos: Rotisserie (5 Stars) vs. Restaurant (2 ½ Stars)

Guapo's Fried Yucca

Guapo's Fried Yucca

How about lunch at Guapo’s? That used to be an easy yes for me. I could eat their rotisserie chicken and fried yucca on a regular basis. The perfectly roasted chicken is juicy with a nicely seasoned, salty skin. The yucca, right out of the fryer, almost too hot to handle, is what a french fry yearns to be. This alone makes the trip worthwhile, but the menu is packed with excellent dishes. Their steak and pork ribs are tasty. They have a half way decent huevos rancheros, which is hard to find around here, especially as a non-breakfast item. Heck, even their steak and cheese sandwich is excellent.

Guapos Rotisserie Chicken

Guapos Rotisserie Chicken

I have been to their two locations in Manassass, both serve equally good food, but I find the ambiance at their Sudley road place to be calmer, not as elbow-to-elbow. It’s a tad pricey for a place where you order and pick up your food from the counter, but, truly, this is worth it.

While up in the Rockville area, looking for a place to eat lunch during my work day, I stumble upon another Guapo’s location. Goaded on by the ravenous growling of my stomach, my head filled with visions of poultry-flavored paradise, I open the door. I don’t see a counter to place my order. A hostess offers to seat me. Confusedly, I follow her, slightly worried that I’m not smelling any chicken roasting. I flip through the menu, confirming my fears. They don’t have chicken, steak or even yucca fries!! My only options are generic Tex-Mex with the requisite beans and cheese. Nothing you can’t get at any number of chain restaurants in the region.

WTF? I look on their website, guaposrestaurant.com and learn that, indeed, there are two types of Guapos. Some marketing genius decided that, though they are different, they should be branded the same. Doesn’t help that the naming of the types is confusing, too. The Tex-Mex Grills restaurants are the rotisserie locations, while the Fine Mexican Cuisine Restaurants serve Tex-Mex food. It also doesn’t help that each location’s signage uses a different vocabulary.

Long story short:

  1. Rotisserie (Herndon, Manassass and Woordbridge):
    Definitely worth a visit. Every item on the menu is good.
  2. Fine Mexican Cuisine (Maryland, DC and Arlington):
    I suppose, if you’re a big fan of Tex-Mex and you have no other place to try.

How about lunch at Guapo’s? Which one?

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 5:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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