At least the company was good

Tim and I had a double-blind date on Saturday night. A few months ago, through the miracles of internets, blogospheres, and tweets, I landed on the blog of a girl here in Indianapolis, Angie Six. Many things about her life seemed somewhat parallel to mine: she and her husband had moved to the area from Tennessee; she enjoys food; she blogs; and her husband is a professional poker player (only parallel to my husband’s fantasy life). On a whim one afternoon, I sent her an email. Two months later, we finally met the Sixes, for dinner at a place neither of us had ever been.

It’s a strange feeling, going to a restaurant to meet people whom you’ve never seen. Angie and I had a general idea of each other’s appearance, through blog pics. It wasn’t until we got to the restaurant that I wondered if we should have come up with a secret phrase (i.e., the bird that flies west is hunting the hare), or if I should’ve told them what I’d be wearing. Tim and I had made a reservation, but of course didn’t let the Sixes in on this information (that would be entirely too logical and well-thought out). We sat in the entryway of the restaurant, and when the hostess asked to seat us, we told her we were waiting on another couple. Oh, don’t worry, she said, I’ll just bring them to your table. We told her their names, and went to our seats. About five minutes later, I saw a couple walking through the restaurant, and the woman looked suspiciously familiar in profile. They were seated in another room. Tim and I begin whispering: Hey — I think that was them. Maybe they made a reservation too? What do we do? Go ask the hostess what their name is.  So Tim gets up to go ask, and just about simultaneously, my phone rings. I was being called by Angie, who’d also noticed us in passing, and figured that unless she took appropriate action, we’d spend the evening in the same restaurant but never actually meet.

After the necessary acknowledgments of the aforementioned scene, we sat down to begin more lengthy introductions, simultaneously flipping through the menu. The restaurant we’d chosen was a place called Zest. None of us had been there, but had heard things about it good enough to warrant curiosity. An initial scan of the menu didn’t quite leave me salivating; it just seemed all over the place; everything from fish tacos to sesame ahi tuna with wasabi cream. In my limited experience, when a restaurant attempts to do all things, it doesn’t do much of anything really well (an Athens restaurant, called East-West Bistro, usually left me feeling the same way). Angie said she’d heard great things about their fish tacos, and since she’d been looking for a good fish taco ever since leaving Nashville, that was going to be her choice. Tim had heard the pommes frittes praised, so we decided on the Loaf and Straw, described as “Mama’s Amazing Meatloaf, homemade sundried tomato marmalade & white cheddar, open-faced on sourdough toast with our pommes frites & grilled pineapple ketchup heaped on top.” Since we planned to split the meatloaf, we also ordered two appetizers: Date Rumaki (“dates stuffed with goat cheese and a whole almond, then wound with cherry-smoked bacon and served with a green olive relish”) and Australian Lamb Lollipops (“char-grilled frenched lambchops with our ohhh-so-yummy chimichurri” [should this have been a clue? I’m suspicious when I have to be told that something is yummy]). Angie’s husband Mike ordered a burger, which has (according to the Zest website) won local awards.

About ten minutes after ordering, Angie’s bowl of soup came. About 10 minutes after that, Tim and I began to wonder where our appetizers were. Angie’s soup had been long-finished when we finally saw our server to inquire. She gave us a wide-eyed, naive look, and said, “I’m not sure — I put the order in,” and shrugged, as if it was just our bad luck. I believe I’ve mentioned before that Tim and I have both been servers — and while we are really good tippers, we have little patience for bad service. It’s really quite easy to apologize for a delay, and assure your customer that you are taking the matter into your hands. And from what we received to eat, I’m doubting that our delay was caused by the chef putting finishing touches on the lambchops; our apps had quite obviously been sitting under a heat lamp, alone and without purpose, for quite a turn before they landed on our table.

Two lamb lollipops is what $9 will get you at Zest. Which would be fine, if they were cooked well, with thoughtful presentation and noteworthy flavors. But they were overdone, and chewy, with little to define them. My two bites were hardly worth $1, much less four and a half times that. Our date rolls were much better, though still lacking in presentation. They had become an amalgamated mass of brown, but the cheese, sweet dates and bacon were probably the best thing I tasted all night. Angie had said her soup was good, but it didn’t seem to leave her with much more to praise than we had with our appetizers, so while we continued our conversations about kids, football, blogging, and poker, I silently hoped for a kitchen miracle to take place between courses.

The kitchen muse had apparently and sadly left the building (had she ever been there?). When our entrées arrived, I was immediately struck by their size; it was clear that Tim and I together would not finish the pound of meatloaf on our plate. And Angie was given a giant bowl of 3 or 4 very large fish tacos, with piles of slaw scattered overtop. I know that many Americans find extreme portions satisfying and praiseworthy; but they just make me nervous, especially in restaurants that seem to be attempting a step-up from family-style soul food. On our plate were three 2″ slabs of meatloaf. On top were the famous pommes frites, which looked about like McDonald’s french fries. It looked like someone took a squirt bottle of ketchup and attacked the top (this, we supposed, was the grilled pineapple ketchup). From just the first look, we were hesitant to dig in. A few bites later, we had nothing good to say. Underneath those pounds of meat was a wimpy slice of toast spread with a thin layer of what I suppose was the homemade marmalade — overwhelmed in defeat by the mountain of meat and potato piled like something you’d see at a speed-eating contest on top. The meatloaf was moist, but it was just your basic straight-forward meatloaf. With fries and candy-like “ketchup” on top. A thrown-together meal utilizing leftovers at home on a Wednesday night? Sure. But paying someone to make it, at the same restaurant that sells ahi tuna with wasabi cream sauce? It just didn’t sit well.

If I’ve said it once, I’m now probably saying it a hundred times: it’s not as much the food, as what you get for what you’re paying. The meatloaf was $13 — not very expensive by dinner entree standards, but also not what I would like to pay for what we ate. We ate somewhat-homely comfort food with poor presentation: in my mind, a $7 dish from a soul-food joint down South (where you might expect it to taste like leftovers on a Wednesday night). Angie wasn’t too wowed by her tacos — said they were ok, but not what she was hoping for. She graciously gave us a bite, and we couldn’t improve on her analysis — they were fried fish, with cheese and slaw. None of the tangy, spicy sauce that usually makes a fish taco. Outside of the aforementioned date appetizer, the best thing I tasted was Mike’s side of mac-n-cheese. It was rich, with a breadcrumb topping; pretty much exactly what you want from mac-n-cheese.

Here’s the thing: the place is called Zest. That name intones intense and bright flavors, a festive and kicky palette. They even claim as much on their web address: Zest Exciting Food dot com. Problem was, it just wasn’t exciting. Well, from a food standpoint; we had a great time with our blind date(s), and closed the place down (have I mentioned that we don’t get out much?).

We came home, and getting ready for bed, Tim was getting more and more angry at the poor quality of food. At one point, I just had to say, “You gotta stop talking about this.” Why? Because I wanted to sleep that night, and this is precisely the type of thing that will keep me awake. I’ll wake up at 4 am, and lie in bed for three hours, fuming, over money spent on bad food.

Thankfully that didn’t happen. Why? Because at some point, I remembered that I write a food blog. And reviewing restaurants — even bad ones — is part of that gig. So next time someone asks me why I blog, I’ll be able to answer honestly, “Because it helps me sleep at night.”

14 thoughts on “At least the company was good

  1. 4am sleepless nights fuming about money poorly spent (and a variety of other items): oh, do I know! I’m glad to know I’m not alone in that. Kenton and I have a rule to try and not talk about anything distressing or even remotely, potentially upsetting in the hour before bedtime, for that very reason. I totally would have told him to stop talking about the food, too!

    Sad about the restaurant experience. I really wonder what kind of reviews any of our Blacksburg restaurants would get from you. Or maybe you’d find the secret, hidden place of fantastic cuisine in the area! Perhaps you should come visit and snoop around for us . . .

  2. I loved this posting! My thoughts are exactly the same about East West, and I am now left with the bad taste in my mouth as to why I never got the opportunity to eat dinner out with you.

  3. Rebecca, I know — I’m ruthless. Sometimes I wonder if I should tone it down; I think it must go back to spending 7 years in art school, sitting through critiques. In undergrad, it was really hard to be honest — but by grad school, something in me had changed. I figured that if students were expecting payment for what they did, they needed to be really good — so I got used to telling them when their work wasn’t good. That ability has transferred easily to restaurants.

    I think, too, that nothing gets me fired up more than a place that is trying to be something it’s not. If you want to be soul/comfort food (think Cracker Barrel), then that’s great — just make it cheap like CB. Otherwise, you must face the wrath of an obscure food blogger! (THAT will show them!)

  4. Katherine — if I get to visit Athens this spring, you and I and available BC girls should go get apps at 5&10 or National.

  5. What a great post and review. I am glad I am not the only food snob around, I have high expectations when dining out, only to be let down the majority of the time.

  6. Michelle, when we moved to Athens, we ate at a lot of mediocre restaurants. When we finally found our favorite, it was expensive — too expensive to eat every month. So we stopped eating out, and saved all that money so we could afford our fantastic place once a quarter. It was totally worth it, and we stopped fuming about bad purchased food.

  7. Nana, it is quite possible we caught them on a bad night — although our server, I believe, was just caught in her natural state. We have friends who love it, but they’ve only been for breakfast — so maybe that’s the difference?

  8. I’m right there with you – we had a great time, too. Best blind date I ever had! I’m so glad you wrote this post. I left kind of flummoxed by Zest as well. I enjoyed the soup (roasted red pepper with feta), but the fish tacos didn’t quite live up to the hype they’re given on twitter (as in TO DIE FOR!!!). Then again, I’m a fry-em-up in batter kind of girl, not a cornmeal-crusted kind of girl.

    My beef with the meal was the same as yours. I’m all for paying the price for great quality food with flavor. We’re not cheap – we love Peterson’s and rarely walk out of there without spending less than $100. But we walk out of there with our palates on cloud nine. Mike can get a great burger at half the price of Zest’s at any number of local establishments in Indy. My holy grail of fish tacos in Nashville puts me out $8. What did we get for the extra money spent at Zest? Certainly not extra attention to detail in our service.

    I say we unleash your critiquing skills on a whole slew of Indy restaurants until we find the ones we love. Here’s to another evening of closing someplace down!

  9. Angie, I’m totally with you. I will pay lots of money for food that leaves me filled with amazement and joy that food can taste that good. On the flip side, I also eat at Cracker Barrel when we’re on the road — but that usually costs us $25 for the whole family. It’s always the mismatch of quality and cost that gets me — like dealing with a slick used car salesman.

    Consider the search on! (er, budget allowing…)

  10. We’ve always felt that way about East-West; just read this week that chef Lamar Thomas is leaving there, and the whole place is going to be re-positioned as a more casual, affordable dining experience.

    Count me as another Five Points/Athens reader who is sorry we didn’t meet while you were here!

  11. Thanks Julie! Just promise me you’ll spend as much time as budget allows eating great food from Hugh, Peter, and company… don’t take them for granted!!! (Absence makes the heart grown unbearably fonder.)

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