Tag Archives: Restaurants

What is a Chophouse?

This post will make more sense when combined with one that will be published later this week. But I do have to set some measure of  groundwork, at least from a historical perspective.

When doing a quick search on the Internet, it quickly becomes apparent that the idea of a “chophouse” is seen as the exact same way as a “steakhouse”. This may be true from a modern, current-day perspective. However, historically speaking the two are not the same. Similar, yes. The same? Not quite.

Before we get much further, let me pull out an old definition of chophouse, from The Royal English dictionary, published in 1763:

..a kind of cook’s shop, where meat is ready dressed, so called from their dealing mostly in mutton chops.

So, yes, it was, at it’s heart, a meat shop, and yes, it was a distinctly British idea. But remember, the idea of a restaurant was still about twenty years away by this point. So the question becomes – what makes a chophouse not a restaurant?

Two things, primarily. For one, the menu – it never changed, and it rarely expanded beyond a cook cut of meat or two. Yes, sides of bread, cheese,broth,  and other similar products could and would be sold, and a drink might be available. But for the most part, the chophouse was known to serve meat and only meat. Think of it as a “restaurant” who only had one item on the menu. one that was served one way and one way only. There would be no option to order it rare one day, and well-done the next.

Secondly, the chophouse was a first-come, first-served type of place, where the customer would sit on a bench next to complete strangers.

All of this is a broad definition, and it needs to be considered that, as with any similar business, the quality varied from the respected to the disgusting.

This is quite different from the idea of the restaurant, where a person would sit at their own table, could choose from a variety of options on the menu, have that meal cooked for them specifically, and be attended to by an individual.

So, how does a “steakhouse” fit into this equation? A steakhouse, in today’s parlance, is the old chophouse ideal mixed with the serving philosophy of the restaurant. Historically speaking, a steakhouse is not the same thing as a chophouse, but can trace its roots to the chophouse tradition.  Or, to put it another way: (chophouse)+(restaurant)=steakhouse.

What do you recommend?

In reading Frank Bruni’s article on patronizing restaurantspeak, I was reminded of my own little verbal dances with wait staffs across the country.

Unlike Mr. Bruni, I have no issue with company policy disguised as formal etiquette. The job of the wait staff is difficult enough without someone playing a game of semantics over the use of the word “enjoy” or parsing the phrase “pardon my reach”.

No, what waiters and waitresses around the country have feared from me is when I have asked the following question:

“What do you recommend?”

It’s a simple question, but it is often misinterpreted. When I ask the question, I’m not asking them to choose my food for me. I honestly want to hear their opinion about the menu, and making this inquiry may give me an insight into what is good, and what is on the menu as a placeholder.

The problem with this is that it forces the waiter or waitress to briefly leave the formality of the restauant/customer relationship, and puts them in a precarious position. Do they put a higher value on their opinion to that of the needs of the restaurant? Or do they side with the restaurant owners and upsell the dishes that have the widest profit margins, or the dishes that will get rid of the excessive product in the back?

From my role as a consumer, I want them to be on my side. I want them to tell me that a certain dish is an often over-looked treasure on the menu, and worthy of my attention.

I know that there are some places that require their staff to push a specific entrée, drink, or dessert. A restaurant is a business after all, and money must be made. But I’ve had folks answer my question of “What do you recommend?” with a disinterested “Anything from the specials.”

The best waiters and waitresses will upsell items without us common folk even knowing it. This past Saturday, Tara and I were out and about, and we found ourselves enjoying a meal at Blackbird. When the dessert menu came out, we asked our server “What do you recommend?”

She responded with “Oh my God! You have to try the Zucchini Bread!! It’s the dessert I love the most and I can’t seem to convince people that it’s better than the chocolate cake!”

For all I know, this is her scripted response way every time someone asks for a dessert recommendation. But her response sounded immediate and authentic. For that moment, both Tara and I believed that she loved this dessert. It sold us and we purchased the Zuchinni Bread.

Another Article on the Evil Food Blogs

Jeez, talk about your overblown title -

Restaurants vs. Bloggers: Rage Against the Machine
In the 21st Century, High-Powered Chefs Are Forced to Listen to the Little Guy — as Long as He Has a Keyboard

Ugh. There’s so much wrong here that I’m not sure where to start.

First and foremost – Yelp and Chowhound are not food blogs. Please oh please stop confusing the mediums.

Secondly, not all food blogs deal in restaurant reviews, for every Adam, there’s a Clotilde; for every Pim, there’s a Heidi. The difference between them is that Adam and Pim write about restaurants, and Heidi and Clotilde do not.

I find this above comparison striking, because while the publishing world lauds Clotilde and Heidi for their writing and their food knowledge, chefs and restaurateurs dismiss Pim, Adam and others for the lack of food knowledge. Where’s the logic? A food blog is only as good, only as knowledgeable, and only as trustworthy as the people running it. Passionate people tend to know a lot about the items they are passionate about.

Finally, are food blogs really that much of a threat? The biggest criticism I hear about food blogs is the lack of knowledge and understanding the blog writers have in discerning a restaurant’s intent.

Let’s ignore the premise for the moment that anyone who dines needs to know who Escoffier and This are in order to “get” food. Instead let’s focus on communicating the food’s “intent” (whatever that means).

If I’m served a dish that has what I believe to be too much butter in the sauce, but the recipe for the sauce was a traditional one used in Cuisine classique,  am I at fault for not getting the subtle tastes of lemon or whatnot in the sauce, and how it complimented the dish it was presented with? Or is the chef at fault for not effectively communicating the the sauce used goes well with fish or that the dish was an attempt to play with ideas of balancing the delicate with the bold? Whether I have an educated palate or not, I’m still going to think that the sauce has too much butter.

Because taste is subjective, there is no right or wrong answer to the above questions. And because restaurants are first and foremost a place of business, it’s up to a chef and restaurateur to create a place the keeps customers coming into the front door. Customers which include food bloggers who can afford meals with price tags of forty dollars per plate or more.

What I think it comes down to is this: Restaurant reviews from Food Blogs offer a reflection upon a momentary experience. And if that moment carries an unfortunate event, that event is either an indication of something systemic going on within the restaurant, or an anomaly. If it’s an anomaly, there’s little a chef or owner can do about it except apologize. If it’s something systemic, then the chef or owner should already know about it and be working on fixing it, or realize it is a problem…and then work on fixing it.

Because let me tell you restaurant owners out there something that should be readily apparent – 100% of your clientele are food critics. It’s just that only .001% (give or take) get paid for it.

(Note to self: Must remember that “Uneducated Palate” would make a great punk bank name.)

Rock and Roll and Restaurants

There’s a deleted scene in Almost Famous, where the lead guitarist for the band Stillwater talks about why he loves music. I’m paraphrasing here, but the jist of the monologue was that it was the tiniest of imperfections of an otherwise perfect song that made rock and roll such a joy to behold.

I have the same feeling towards restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a great deal of respect to the chefs, owners and staffs of the various three and four star restaurants I’ve been to in my life. I’ve enjoyed food that I couldn’t recreate in my lifetime, and I’ve been the recipient of customer service so precise that I would have sworn that there was a Marine drill sergeant masquarading as a floor manager. In my mind, I equate these places to classical music – highly talented artisans and craftsmans working in concert to provide the consumer the most technically proficient product that can be had.

But my heart? My heart belongs to the rock and rollers of the food world. These are the people who know only three or four chords, and only know how to keep tempo in 4/4 time, yet can bring thousands of people to their feet, light their lighters, bang their heads and get their asses out on the dance floor or into a mosh pit.

These are the folks who make Philly Cheesesteaks, bowls of Tex-Mex Chili, and Barbeque in it’s many iterations. These are people who wouldn’t know mirepoix from soffritto, and don’t give a damn about this gap in their knowledge. It’s the folks who run the pho houses, teriyaki joints, and Indian buffets that get their followings by word of mouth. It’s the restaurants that I go to on a regular basis as opposed to the restaurants I go to on special occaissions.

Or to put it another way, I recognize the artistry and influence of the Haydens, Bachs and Copelands of the world, and even click on them in my iPod from time to time. But when push comes to shove, I’m more likely to listen to The Clash, Husker Du, or The Who.

So when I see things such as chefs trying to make a foie gras hot dog, or sell haute hamburgers, I chuckle a bit inside. To me, this sounds as odd as Yo-Yo Ma covering The Killers. Yeah it may sound interesting, and certainly they’ll be a proficiency to it which cannot be denied, but it’s still not rock and roll.

Technorati Tags: Food,

Seattle represented in Gourmet’s Top 50 Restaurants

Congratulations to both Canlis and Cafe Juanita, two very fine Seattle-area eating establishments, for being named in Gourmet’s list of top 50 restaurants.

Technorati Tags: Gourmet Magazine, Top 50 Restaurants, Seattle Restaurants

The Pre-History of Restaurants

In writing about the French restaurants, I came to question just exactly where the idea of “restaurants” comes from. As per usual, I’ve discovered something that I have previously did not know.

The word itself provides a fair amount of clues…restaurant comes from the Old French term restaurateur, which meant someone who provides (i.e. sells) restaurer. Restauarer means “to restore”. In other words – a “restorative”.

If one were to look back in the history books for the word “restaurant”, the first appearance shows up in the 15th century as a recipe. In this recipe, a capon is rendered in a glass kettle along with gold or gems. This itself also help evolve into the idea that chicken soup can cures what ails.

Over the course of years, restaurants evolved from gold laden rendered chicken, into soups and broths which were sold to the public by specific people. Much like other food producers, restaurateurs had their own guild and were able to sell the broth, much like charcutiers sold sausages and rotisseurs sold fresh game.

It was this collection of different vendors and sellers of food that allowed restaurateurs to flourish. The French Revolution helped take down, not just a monarchy, but the economic system of guilds that sometimes prevented one food producer from selling products that were typically the “responsibility” of another. Additionally the bourgeoisie became a viable economic force as tradesmen and artisans started to travel to other areas of France to find new markets for their wares. These traveling businessmen looked for places to eat which offered a variety of foods in a comforting atmosphere that reflected their own station in life. These were variables that inns and taverns (the initial purveyors of food to travelers) could not meet on a regular basis.

Restaurants filled this void nicely, first by selling varieties of bouillon. Then, as the guikld system slowly dissolved away, they started offering other foodstuffs, such as soups, meats and pastries. This eventually (and quickly) evolved into businesses that resemble the restaurants we know of today.

Who would have thought that the creation of restaurants was so involved?

Technorati Tags: Restaurants, Food, Food+History

Van Loi – Restaurant Review

It’s been a long while since I’ve written a restaurant review here at the Hedonist. This was originally written for The Stranger, but they’ve decided to pass on it, for reasons I quite understand. I now find myself with a review and no place to put it.

At any rate, this review will mean nothing to any one not living in the Seattle area.

* * * * * *

From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, I knew this place was going to be trouble. The sky was gray and the rain helped form little psychedelic puddles of motor oil and water upon the pavement. Looking up for the sign of the restaurant, the color within the name Van Loi seemed to have partially drained upon the rusting aluminum backdrop. I was half expecting a flash of lightening and a clap of thunder to help complete this visual cliché.

Van Loi is the kind of place that often gets missed by the various food guides and newspaper reviews. Instead, it is a place that caters almost exclusively to the Vietnamese community. The popularity of Van Loi is best described by the vast swathes of empty chairs that greeted Tara and myself during the Saturday dinner rush. Out of the 40 some-odd chairs within the room, two were occupied by two gentleman finishing up their Café Den Da (French Iced coffee), while in the back of the room three gentleman were involved in a game of Chinese chess.

One of the chess gentlemen was the host and waiter for the Van Loi, and he quickly sat us down at a table next to a row of mirrors that looked as if they were last washed back in 1997. He handed us menus and quickly departed to get us some ice water.

The cleanliness of a restaurant can often be determined simply by looking at two items: the restrooms and the menus. At Van Loi the menus complimented the décor of the place quite well, as each were sticky, unwashed, and carried a dull, yellow tinge about them. I decided then and there to not take a look at the washroom.

When the waiter came back, we ordered some Café Sua Da ($2.00) and waited for our food. The sweetened dark coffee was palatable enough, but failed to keep my interest. Perhaps I was missing the ritual of watching the fresh coffee drip into the condensed milk, as the coffee had arrived pre-mixed.

We started with an appetizer of Banh Beo Bi ($3,00), a collection of shredded pork and chopped green onions scattered atop of a bed of steamed rice cakes. The rice cakes were okay, and it was clear that they were made on site, but the pork was dry and coated with what I presumed was a dusting of rice flour, which made the dish unnervingly gritty. While fish sauce had covered up some of the dryness of the dish, no amount of flavor could get rid of the grit.

The Bahn Thit Nuon ($5.25), with its rice noodles , cucumbers, roasted peanuts and barbecued pork on a stick was marginally better. With the rice noodles carrying little or no flavor, it contrasted the sweetness of the pork fairly well, although it was difficult to ignore the fact that pork itself was dry.

While waiting for the various dishes to arrive, we noted that although we were the only diners in the place, they did do a fairly steady take out business. With the fresh rice noodles and cakes shoved delicately in the display counter, it looked like they make the vast majority of their money outside of the dining room. Perhaps the regular patrons of the place knew something that I had only just learned – the food is good enough to eat, just as long as you don’t stay in the restaurant for too long.

By the time the final dish showed up, I was hoping that things would get better. The Banh Cuon Thit Nuong ($5.50) didn’t make me love the place, but it did allow me to see the possibilities. The rice flour crepes, with the barbecued pork rolled up like a jelly roll convinced me to not to hate the place. But even this dish had a bit of the grit which gave this dish an odd mouthfeel. What pushed the restaurant out of the dregs and into the “mehˮ column was their use of mint in their side salad that came with this dish. Outside of their ubiquitous use of green onions , Van Loi was notable in it’s lack of use of herbs or foliage for flavoring, making the mint all the more striking upon its discovery. It was a nice touch, but if the best thing I can say about a place is that their side salads are “not badˮ, then there are clearly problems with the place.

Not that I think that the regulars mind. As we were leaving, I counted three cars pull up to the restaurant, the drivers having that “I must get dinnerˮ look in their eyes. As long as they were planning on take-out, I foresaw little problem.

Van Loi
3226 Rainier Ave S,
7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Wed.,
6 a.m.-7 p.m. Thu.,
6 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri.-Sun.