Thursday, November 29, 2007

RANT - "Do You Want Me To Bring You Your Change?"

Please, servers of St. Louis, stop asking me if I want my change. Asking if I want my change implies that you're getting a tip, and while you're basically correct -- I always tip -- you know what happens when you ass-u-me, don't you? Right.

I've worked in the service industry for more years than I haven't, so I know what it's like to have a tip-based income. Because I've served my time (and occasionally still do), I never plan on tipping less than 20%. Ever. That's the jumping-off point. If you suck a little or I didn't like the food, you're still getting that amount. If you're freaking awesome, I'll go to 25 or 30% (let's be reasonable, I'm not made of money).

Look, we both know that tipping is a part of going out, and we know how we treat people who tip like assholes. (Note to anyone who read the above paragraph and has realized that they are crap tippers -- if you can't afford to tip decently, you can't afford to go out.) But the amount I give you is dependent on everything you do up to and including the check. An otherwise great server taking the bill and asking if I want my change makes me feel like I've been tricked. And being tricked makes me feel stingy.

I understand that sometimes, the amount of change given is about the same as you'd expect for a tip. I don't care how much I deserve that tip, I don't care what's considered correct in the customer-server relationship, I never ask if someone wants change. It's rude and presumptuous and I can't believe people still do it.

Want the polite solution?

"I'll be right back with your change."

That's it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

REVIEW - Rotten Apple Ciderhouse

Rotten Apple Ciderhouse
220 Main Street
Grafton, IL 62037
(618) 786-2798

If you're reading my blog, you're probably one of those people who knows what it's like to experience a moment of magic, of serendipity, of honest-to-god PERFECT while sitting on a barstool. One of those "kill me now" moments that doesn't necessarily require ecstasy, but that most certainly involves a sense of knowing that, in at least one place, this one, at this exact moment, right now, things are right with the world. Maybe there's a smooth pint of nut brown ale before you, a bartender generous with the samples and the flattery at the helm, and a purely unobtrusive (seriously) guitarist playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" (again, seriously) in the background.

My moment of goodness came earlier this evening when I decided to take a short trip along the Great River Road to the Rotten Apple Ciderhouse in Grafton, IL. Now, I'm not into antiquing, watching bald eagles, riding ferries, or the other sundry exploits common in historic Illinois river towns. But luckily for me, the enterprising people of ye olde days who decided to eke out an existence on the Mississippi also liked to drink. This is how Main Street establishments like Rotten Apple got their start. Luckily for me, I've got friends who discovered Rotten Apple about a year ago and have been bugging me to visit ever since.

Almost immediately after taking a seat at the bar, I felt comfortable. The bar itself is pretty small, and you feel as though you're in a cabin. I was told that there was a larger restaurant (non-smoking) upstairs, but I don't see the point in drinking if people around you don't get to kill themselves with cigarettes. I immediately noticed that the beer selection at Rotten Apple wasn't typical of the Midwest. Sure, they had Stag on tap, but the bar draught lines also housed Hobgoblin, Founders Centennial IPA, and Avery White Rascal Wit. True to the place's name, there was a cider available, but I'm not in it for the fruit, my friend.

Another thing Rotten Apple has to its credit is Steve, a truly amazing barkeep (bartender is simply not a suitably-fitting term for him). Steve had been described to me as a man who knew almost everything about beer. Normally, people who know almost everything about beer also know everything about being snotty, combative bastards. Have you ever encountered a beer snob? If you think wine snobs are bad, you've no clue. Wine snobs can at least agree with one another every now and then. Beer snobs hate themselves. Anyway, although Steve is very knowledgeable about beer, he's no snob. He's helpful, he's encouraging, and he gets what nearly all other beer snobs don't -- it's beer. It's fun. It's tasty. It's the perfect beverage to enjoy when you're sitting at the bar with your friends.

I remarked to Steve that I saw a Hobgoblin tap. He replied that they also had a beer called Big Bad Dog, a nut brown ale brewed by Blue Cat Brewing in Rock Island, IL. The photos here are kind of wonky, but you can see Big Bad Dog in the background of the very first pic up's a warm, mahogany-colored beer that doesn't hit the caramel malt note too heavily, and doesn't kick your tastebuds with hops that don't really belong. And points to Steve for serving it perfectly -- the glass wasn't super-cold, and the head was a glorious 1.5 inches thick.

One of the reasons Steve's an excellent barkeep is because he's generous with the samples. My first sample (provided without asking, prompting, anything besides a hint from one beer lover to another) was Blushing Monk raspberry ale, a Belgian-style beer made by Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Blushing Monk runs about $15 a bottle, and contains nearly 12.3% alcohol by volume. Unlike many lambics, Blushing Monk doesn't have the puckery wallop of Sweet Tarts, nor does it have a cloying sweetness that makes a person like they're drinking candy. Instead, Blushing Monk is very much a beer, and it's tartness is well-balanced with a sherbet-like nose and a mellow carbonation. The bottle says it's fermented with "pure raspberries," so I can't say if it's brewed with whole fruit or extract. (Which, let's be honest, most beers's cheaper, it's easily available, and it really doesn't diminish the taste. Another example to try is New Belgium's Frambozen.)

After trying Blushing Monk, I mentioned how I was a huge fan of Young's Double Chocolate Stout. Steve smiled and disappeared into a small back room. He re-emerged with a glass filled with a very dark beer topped with a ruby-and-coffee-colored head. "Is this....." I asked.

"Chocolate stout and Blushing Monk," Steve answered.

Oh god. Ohhhh god. No disrespect to Graham -- my boyfriend whom I love -- but if I were single, a continuous supply of Young's Double Chocolate and Blushing Monk would be enough to make me decide that not having someone to sleep with regularly might not be a terrible thing. It's the alcoholic equivalent to one of my favorite breakfasts of all time (Eggo waffle sandwich made with raspberry jam and Nutella). It is heaven in a glass.

While enjoying a few more Big Bad Dogs, I was encouraged to take a look around. Apparently, in addition to having what I'm convinced (without really investigating, but whatever) is one of the best beer selections in Grafton, Rotten Apple is also the only Grafton bar with a nearly full set of human remains on display. Everyone, meet "Peg, formerly known as Elaine." I have no idea what that means, but she's a great broad:

Grafton's a bit of a hike for me, and I was there early enough to desire a bit of sustenance. The menu relies heavily on Cajun-influenced foods, but I wasn't in the mood for anything as heavy as dirty rice, grillades and grits, or etoufee. Brad ordered the jalapeno poppers and was gracious enough to let me try a few. Instead of being the chile relleno-style popper you'd assume they would be, Rotten Apple slices jalapeno peppers thinly, coats them in batter, and fries the quarter-sized disks. The pieces are served with a house-made ranch dressing that reminded me of onion and dill dip whisked with buttermilk.

But I had fried catfish and hush puppies for breakfast (I was hungover and Graham loves the Shrimp Shack), and I didn't want something like jalapeno poppers. On a hint from another barkeep, Claire, I ordered the blackened chicken salad.

Meh. I wish I could say that Rotten Apple has great food, because that's what I've been told. I'm sure I just ordered the wrong thing. The salad wasn't terrible, but it was pretty heavy on the iceberg (I think I counted three pieces of the advertised romaine) and pretty light on the roasted red peppers (also advertised). I will say that the smoky, peppery chicken was nicely countered by the sweet corn, though I don't know if that was actually roasted, either (um, again, as advertised).

You know -- I'm not too upset. I was at Rotten Apple to drink, not to eat, and the drinking was good. It's an ideal place for beer enthusiasts and Stag fans (or maybe Miller Lite, if you're into that sort of thing), and it's got just enough kitsch to feel welcoming instead of hokey. After you've visited with Peg, formerly known as Elaine, you can check out the velvet Elvis painting and the collection of dollar bills signed by happy patrons.

Sign your own. I decided to grab ahold of my own piece of permanent decor during my second glass of Avery Brewing Company's White Rascal Wit. The kiss marks are Kat's, but The Rocket Queen signature is all me. If you'd like to see my contribution, check out the door to the bathrooms. I figured most people would be waiting there, anyway.

So, beer snobs of the world, relax. Beer is good. So is the Rotten Apple Ciderhouse. Take a hint from Steve and the pleased customer who penned the note below....

Saturday, November 10, 2007

REVIEW - Slingers at Courtesy Diner

Courtesy Diner
3153 S Kingshighway
St. Louis, MO 63139
(314) 776-9059

As you may have gathered by now, I am not a fan of most traditional St. Louis foods. Toasted ravioli is a gummy mess that's not even toasted. Gooey butter cake is a gummy mess that does wonders for the whole "Most Obese Nation" stat. But there's one St. Louis food institution that truly holds a place in my heart. The Slinger.

I had my first Slinger sometime in elementary school. No, I wasn't drinking back then, but Courtesy was a regular destination for my grandfather and I. I wasn't incredibly daring at the time, but after reading the list of ingredients, I figured it was something I could handle. To this day, the mere appearance of the Slinger is a shot of comfort straight to my amygdala (nostalgia part of the brain, I asked a scientist).

Tell a non-native about the Slinger and you'll almost always be met with an expression of revulsion. And really, you can't blame them. Even among lifelong St. Louisans, the Slinger is a sort of litmus test for just how local you're willing to be. I never ask the high school question (seriously, people, did you peak that long ago?), but I'm usually down for a 3am meal.

The origin of the Slinger is disputed, with Courtesy, Tiffany's, Eat Rite, and (for some reason) O.T. Hodges commonly cited as the inventor. I'm not so much concerned with the patent rights, but due to distance, convenience, and greasy spoon-ishness, I choose Courtesy on Kingshighway.

Courtesy's Slinger has the above base ingredients: meat, hash browns, eggs, chili, cheese, and onions. There are variations, but my preference is as follows...

Meat - Hamburger is the standard, though sausage can be substituted. I'm not a fan of on-the-siders, so for me, it's two hamburger patties slapped on the plate.

Hash Browns - One of the reasons I prefer the Kingshighway Courtesy (aside from the fact that Hampton is just too clean) is because their hash browns are usually well-done. This is especially helpful when it comes to Slingers, as there are enough tricky textures to deal with, already.

Eggs - Over-easy is about the only way to go. If you're getting a Slinger, you want a certain level of silken, gooey protein to marry everything together.

Chili - Slopped over the meat and eggs, and enough to cover the entire plate.

Cheese - Regular ol' shredded cheddar is the default at Courtesy. Thrown on top of the chili, it's almost mesmerizing to watch it melt into the plate (give me a break, I don't order Slingers when I'm sober).

Onions - Meh. I'm not a fan of onions in the wee hours of the morning, but I'd never dispute their place on Slinger plates. If you'd rather not have them, speak up. It's a bitch to fish the fine dice out of the mess.

Slingers automatically come with toast. You might think "as if I need more carbs," but depending on your level of inebriation, you're probably going to want something dry alongside your Slinger. I prefer a soft drink or iced tea to coffee, and again, it's to help with digestion.

Getting a Slinger placed in front of you is a lot like getting a Death By Chocolate. You know you want it, but you're a little bit anxious of exactly how it works. My advice is to immediately take your fork and stab everything. Break up the hamburger, puncture those yolks, and mingle everything around into a melty, tasty, artery-clogging adventure.

Now take that first bite.

For all the warnings and legends surrounding the Slinger, you'll be surprised to find that it's actually delicious. The hamburger is nothing to write home about, but we're talking about diner-version patties. If anything, it's the texture that anchors the Slinger's sloppiness. The hash browns are crispy, starchy, and excellent for retaining chili. The eggs are runny and smooth. The chili is not at all spicy, but smoky and tomato-y enough to be something you could totally eat a bowl of under other, less intoxicated circumstances. The mouthfeel starts out weird but winds up being exactly what your drink-addled tongue needs.

It's scary. It's strange. It's so freaking good.

Eating a Slinger isn't especially conducive to polite conversation, so just play like the other Courtesy patrons and tuck into it. Enjoy the Elvis on the jukebox. Pick up a ratty RFT if you'd like. Don't try to finish the whole thing. This is no time for heroic measures.

Once finished with this no-longer-terrifying St. Louis diner staple, pick up the check for your designated driver and stumble back to the car....sated, sleepy, and gosh-darned impressed with yourself.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Next Iron Chef America (Episode 5)

Wouldn't it suck to be friends with Andrew Knowlton? How could you ever hang out with this guy? How could you ever just go out and enjoy a meal? I'm not a subscriber to Bon Appetit (I prefer Food & Wine) and I've never read Lingua Franca, but judging from his comments on The Next Iron Chef America, Knowlton seems to be one of the most persnickety, pissy, slightly sadistic little bitches on TV.

I especially like someone who has taken a "culinary class here and there" and "worked in a few restaurants in NYC" asking Donatella Arpaia, a woman with successful restaurants of her own, if she even knows what she's talking about.

Makes me want to tie him down, mess with that frou-frou hair, and shove a Slinger down his throat.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Next Iron Chef America (Episode 4) and Comment Responses

Michael Symon has survived -- nay, WON -- Episode 4 of The Next Iron Chef America! I mentioned before that I'd been pulling for him all along, but considering my recent choices in presidential elections, it's good to pick a winner for a change.

For anyone who didn't pay a whole lot of attention, the prospective chefs had to cook airline food (to steal a line from the show, "think of all the airline meals you've ever had"). Lufthansa's corporate chef took a few moments to brief Symon, Cosentino, Besh, and Sanchez on what can make airline food taste so bad. Altitude equals loss of palate, reheating equals loss of desired texture, etc. The chefs were then told to have at prepping, cooking, transporting, and re-heating.

I'd suspected that Aaron Sanchez was going to be leaving, but I was disappointed in the judges' evaluation of his dishes. The judges seemed to think that Sanchez hadn't listened to the airline food briefing, when in fact, I thought he took it completely to heart. Sanchez's skin-on fish may have tasted terrible, but he did leave it on to coax a bit of moisture out of the nuked entree. His execution was flawed, sure, but don't accuse the man of not listening.

Chris Cosentino is a lot like Aaron Sanchez, at least how the latter had been in previous episodes. He wants to cook his way or no way. It's how he likes it or not at all. This is why he wound up serving al dente cauliflower (was it Knowlton or Brown who suggested he had called it crudite? Clever, either way). It's also why, in an effort to combat the altitude-battered palate, he overseasoned the garnish of his asparagus salad, rather than the asparagus itself. I did experience a moment of Cosentino pride, however, when he threatened to burn the camera crew. Personally, I'd have bludgeoned someone with a heavy stockpot.

John Besh would make a terrific Iron Chef. He's technically relevant, he's got a personality, and he knows how to market his food (no matter what Michael Ruhlman had to say about loosely defining "consomme"). Were it not for Michael Symon, Besh would be my pick.

And Michael Symon. God, that guy is cool. His food is good, his laugh is psychotic, and he'd make a great addition to Kitchen Stadium. But what happens to Lola (and the lesser-known but charcuterie-stocked Lolita) if he wins?

And now onto the comments (oh, how I love moderating these)....

This blog has been coming out in fits and spurts, dependent entirely on my disposable income and ability to search out WiFi access. I'm glad I was finally able to knock out another review and check out the comments left by an LtSmooth and (of course!) another Anonymous.

Thanks, LtSmooth.

And to Anonymous, who thought I provided a "very American" view of Vietnamese food and that my "description of pho was quite a bit off": I know I haven't posted any full photos of myself here, but based on the hair/lips/skin combo at the top right, have you noticed that I' Or did you perhaps notice my "I've never been to Vietnam" disclaimer? And as for the description of pho, I call it as I eat it.