Sunday, July 7, 2019

Still There, Still So-So

Blanco Cafe
1720 Blanco
just north of the Fulton Street circle

I've never really been a fan of the Blanco Cafe. It has a loyal following, people who presumably enjoy something about it, but I've never been among their number. To me, there were only two reasons to ever go there; one was its location, which is convenient to my house; the other was a neighbour who had some kind of personal relationship with the family that started the local chain.

Well, there are plenty of restaurants convenient to my house; and that neighbour died some years ago. I never went back to Blanco Cafe after that ... until last week. My immediate reason was the desire to get some exercise, something I don't do nearly enough of. My secondary reason was curiosity: had it improved at all in the years since I'd last been? In that time, one generation of owners had given way to successors, and I've been told that still others are now in charge there.

I've been back twice now, and have decided that twice is plenty.

The first time, I sat at the lunch counter on a stool that was so low I felt like a grown-up visiting a kindergarten. It was uncomfortable enough that, for my second visit, I resolved to take a table, even if that meant having to wait (though I would probably have just left and tried again later). But there were several open tables, and I took one in the back. I'm never comfortable occupying a table for four when I'm alone in a crowded restaurant -- a table for two, sure, but anything larger and you're taking food out of the servers' children's mouths. Fortunately at that moment, the place was busy but not crowded, and yes, it helped that about half the tables were occupied by people dining alone. That shouldn't matter, but it does.

Last city inspection, January; score: 84
These are the things I like about Blanco Cafe: they have a good menu, they have good coffee, and they have good prices. They also have a comfortable atmosphere, a true neighbourhood family-friendly feel, and just enough noise to be a warmly pleasant sanctuary. (Most of the time, anyway; at one point someone in the kitchen felt that something important needed saying in emphatic Spanish that was too loud for me to ignore but too rapid for me to follow.) And there is nothing trendy about the place. (That's probably part of the whole "neighbourhood feel" thing.)

And these are the things I don't like: the service is mediocre, the staff is unhappy, and the food is so-so. On both visits, it took too long for someone to wait on me. That might be understandable when I'm at a table in the back, though I know they saw me come in and sit down; there's no excuse for it when I'm at the lunch counter. Coffee refills were slow in coming, too. The waitress on my second visit spoke to me in what I can only describe in a murmur delivered through an etched frown. The cashier acted, on both visits, as though she had just that moment learned that her favourite soap opera had been cancelled, and she didn't want to talk about it. The staff I encountered on both visits were an effective counterpoint to the ambience of the place.

All my memory could conjure of the food at Blanco Cafe was the image of grease on a plate. That, at least, seems to no longer be the case. I ordered machacado tacos both times. Both times I got eggs with shreds of dried beef, scrambled with peppers and onions and wrapped in cold, dry flour tortillas. On the first visit, they didn't ask if I wanted corn or flour and I didn't specify; on the second visit, I specified corn but got flour anyway. They were not good tortillas. On the first visit, the eggs méjicana were done the way I like them, the way I think they should be; on the second visit, someone in the kitchen decided salt was a good thing for scrambled eggs. (I strongly disagree). Both times, though, they were scrambled to a very good consistency, without too much butter or oil, and had they been tucked into a nice, soft, pillowy warm corn tortilla they might have been enough to tempt me to come back to Blanco Cafe again and again. But being, as they were, stuffed into a couple of rigid old flour tortillas will ensure that, when I need an excuse to take a walk, I'll go to one of the many other taquerías near my house.
 Blanco Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

New to the Neighbourhood

Plaza Guadalajara
1626 McCullough Avenue
(at Myrtle Street)

Which is better for the neighbourhood, a derelict vacant building or yet another Tex-Mex restaurant? Well, that's an easy one. Clearly we're better off having that fourth or fifth Tex-Mex restaurant, especially since the proud owners of the place have done such a nice job rehabilitating an old commercial space. What they've put in has a nice coat of terra-cotta paint and a large parking lot on the outside; on the inside, they've given us a traditional San Anto space, brightly lit with natural and artificial light, and with hard floor and nothing to dull the sound from other tables. I noticed that particularly this morning because of a crying baby across the large-ish dining room. But you get used to the noise and it doesn't really intrude; still, the place could really use something -- a few wall hangings, a half-wall; something to deaden some of the ambient sound.

last city inspection, 10/18: score 84

The menu is extensive and features all the expected Tex-Mex dishes for lunch and dinner; the breakfast menu is less extensive, but still indicates that all the traditional Tex-Mex dishes are available. For comparison purposes, I chose the machacado plate, priced at $8.  It came with papas fritas and refritos. The potatoes were cut in thick chunks and were slightly undercooked, despite having a nice bit of crunch about the edges. The beans had an odd reddish colour, and there was something unusual about the flavour, but I couldn't place the source of the variance. I won't say it was bad in any way, just different, which made the beans interesting without making them better than usual.

The machacado itself was plentiful and nicely cooked, with lots of onion and pepper and beef in the egg mix. Unfortunately, the cook was equally liberal with the salt, to the point where it was almost unbearably salty. The tortillas (I chose corn) were made in-house and had excellent texture, holding together well even when loaded with filling.  Their flavour was good.

Service was slightly above average overall.
Plaza Guadalajara Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Nice, I Guess, But Not For Me

2512 North Main Street
(just south of Woodlawn)

New upscale restaurants often pretend to be more glamourous than they really are. They strive for that delicate balancing point between snobbish exclusiveness and welcoming inclusiveness. This little bistro hits the mark, or at least very close to it. It's in an attractive small strip-center that was built when Monte Vista was near the edge of town. The windows are tinted so dark that, from the outside, it looks to be closed; only the "open" sign indicates otherwise. The room is small, probably not ten tables, with three or four more on the side patio. The decor tends toward minimalist, except for a rack of shelves toward the back of the room with a clutter of objets and a sign with a glib saying. Lights are kept at a level that exudes discretion and comfort, and allows for the suggestion of romance. A copy of the New York Times lies folded on the bar, in case you can't tell what kind of ambience they're aiming at. It all works.

We came without a reservation, because we couldn't remember the name of the place and a few cursory searches for restaurants in the area didn't bring it up; so we took our chances. There were several empty tables, one of them set for a party of four, the others clear; but the man who greeted us cheerfully at the door apologetically offered us seats at the bar, which we accepted. The bar is a semicircle of copper tones and high-end bottles, with about eight comfortable stools lining it. (My wife wondered, at the end of the evening, if we'd been too quick to accept his seating suggestion, since not a one of the other, presumably reserved tables was called into service while we were there.) We were given glasses of ice water, menus, and a wine list. 

The menu, I reckon, changes often, because it's printed on simple yet elegant card stock. The computer used to produce it has no capacity for capital letters and lacks a dollar sign. Slashes are used where the word "and" belongs, as if the character's actual meaning was irrelevant. (Does the roast chicken come with either lemon jus or honey jus? Surely not.) (The pedant in me required that little hissy fit.) Or perhaps these are just affectations that, in the mind of the writer, make everything feel classy. Well, all these fatuous fashionable departures from custom and meaning still make my eyes roll, but silently; and since I'm writing a review I feel obliged to mention what I would not point out were I engaged in polite conversation. And further, though they are irksome, they are trivial things, on a par with a presidential tweet, but with more substance, if less moment.

More important is the content of the menu. Everything is à la carte. The carte offers half a dozen interesting-sounding appetizers, ranging from buttermilk cornbread to polenta-crusted pimento cheese; half a dozen main dishes covering a full range: vegetarian, poultry, beef, fish, pork. (I'm honestly surprised, and a little disappointed, that there was no wild game meat offered. I understand wild boar is quite fashionable these days, as is eating local; I hear there are lots of wild pigs running around just outside Loop 410.) And a handful of side-dishes: one particularly downscale-upscale green vegetable, mashed sweet potatoes, and two preparations of peas, with descriptions that will send you to Wikipedia to find out what all is in 'em. None of this is surprising, once you know that the mind behind Periphery is that of Mark Weaver, the former chef at Tre Trattoria, a really good place on Broadway that I haven't been to in years. I assume it's still there, and that its offerings have suffered from Chef Weaver's departure.

None of the items on the brief menu appealed to me; I won't bother going through my reasons, as none of them are likely to apply to you, reader. Indeed, they're unlikely to apply to me, should I ever go back to this restaurant. Let's just say I wasn't in the mood for anything on the menu. (I will say that I wasn't really up for going here for dinner in the first place, but my wife had suggested trying it several times since it opened a little over a year ago, so I pretty much had to go. I try to factor that in to my evaluation.) After going back and forth in my mind, I decided I didn't really want anything. Neither did I want to sit there with nothing while my wife ate (she ordered smoked pork meatballs), so I ordered an appetizer of polenta-crusted pimento cheese with bacon jam.

I will say this: Periphery does polenta much better than I do. (Still, my grandmother did it better. I suppose every Italian grandmother did, at least to those who dined at her table.) This had a good, slightly crispy texture but was edged with a burned flavour that I didn't care for. Worse, the combination of flavours -- that burned taste of the polenta, the glass-jar childhood memory of pimento cheese, and the odd sweetness of bacon jam (!) -- produced an overall taste that, frankly, I found unpleasant. This is a risk of so-called New American cooking, I suppose, the combining of ingredients in new and imaginative ways to create what is hopefully a novel and successful experience. This example, to my taste, failed at that, and though I applaud the idea, the attractive presentation, and the effort that went into thinking it up and getting it made, I sent it back.

Last city inspection, Jan '18: 99/100
I have a similar problem with the meatballs that my wife ordered. They were carefully presented, in a pond of ... ahem ... green-tomato sauce called marinara, sprinkled with queso fresco. (According to the menu, it was also served with "calabrese." "Calabrese" is a person from Calabria, and though the sauce was the colour of Soylent Green, I doubt that there was people-meat in it. I'm betting they used a second, southern-Italian style cheese but didn't want to just come out and say it. Eyes a-rolling again.) The meat was tender, flavourful and fully cooked, but the combination of flavours, again, I found jarring. Just a taste was enough.

The prices were about what you'd expect in this type of bistro. Two people can expect to pay around a hundred and ten dollars for a meal here, with a couple of glasses of wine. If you like the food (and by the way, I wasn't charged for the polenta), it's not a bad price.

Periphery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Friday, May 4, 2018

New Turkish Restaurant

Basil Mediterranean Kitchen
9955 Interstate 10 West
(in the Colonnade)
This new Turkish restaurant occupies the space recently filled by Zaytune, one of the better Middle Eastern restaurants to fail in this sometimes unappreciative town. But the quality of cuisine I found on this first visit to Basil goes a long way toward assuaging my grief.

The ambience here is suburban-nice. There are a few tables in the shaded area out front, though the noise from I-10 makes me suspect that the pleasure of dining al fresco here might be somewhat curtailed, even on a pleasant day. We chose to sit indoors, where twenty or so tables occupy a bright dining room.

The service was prompt (until it was time for the check) and professional. The menu is reasonably comprehensive, and includes several mix-and-match lunch specials. I chose Doner kebab, because I always like to have a known dish on a first visit to any restaurant; my friend ordered chicken kebab, because she likes chicken ... I guess. She always orders chicken in one form or another.

First we were served bread and a plate of oil for dipping. Normally I'm uninterested in this: bread at Mediterranean and middle-Eastern restaurants is unremarkable (with one notable exception), and the oil is just oil with a few herbs thrown in. But this ... this was utterly fabulous. The bread here is an expertly crafted focaccia, cut in small cubes, and the oil mix ("it doesn't have a name; we just call it chef's special sauce") was beyond a doubt the high point of the entire meal. A pretty good meal, at that.

Health Dept. score:
87 (Apr. 2018)

As part of the lunch special, you have a choice of accompaniments. I chose the Greek salad and hummus; my friend chose the lentil soup and baba ganoush. She liked my salad better than her soup; I liked her soup better than my salad. We both liked the hummus and the baba ganoush, but by the time we got to that, neither of us could finish it. (See the bread paragraph, above.)

My friend's chicken kebab was juicy and well seasoned. It was served with a small roasted pepper and tomato, and about a cup of rice seasoned in the Turkish manner. My Doner kebab was also well made, nicely seasoned and served with the same accompaniments, and a piece of flatbread that looked like a burrito-sized tortilla; I was so full I didn't even try it.
Basil Mediterranean Kitchen  Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato