Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bracco: WTF*

Bracco on Urbanspoon

WTF = What The Fork??!! I know what you thought it meant, but decorum demands otherwise. For the purposes of this blog, WTF is going to denote some unexpected screw up that I feel a need to air.

So, on a Tuesday evening in the not-so-distant past a friend and I head to Bracco for a little dinner. Tuesday is "Neighborhood Night" at Bracco which means burgers and some other sandwich are half-price. Actually, anyone who knows anything about dining in Sioux Falls should know that Tuesday night half-price burgers is almost a mandatory feature at most eateries around town. The place is busy. Dining room full, people standing around waiting for tables full. We're told the wait is like 40 minutes- that's a long time, but they serve alcohol at Bracco, so this is only a 2 to 3 beer wait in reality. Off to the bar with the little remote control buzzer in hand.

All tables in the bar are full. Fortunately, there are three barstools available. Unfortunately, they are randomly dispersed. Come on, people, when a bar is busy you don't need an empty seat buffer zone. Squeeze together so other people can sit down. We finally get some barstools rounded up. That was nice. What wasn't so nice was a wait of about 10 minutes to place a drink order. I am pretty understanding about brief delays in getting a drink when a place is busy, but I cannot abide a lack of acknowledgement. I also won't yell at wait staff to serve me. I prefer to look desparate in an effort to make them feel guilty- which usually works.

With the drink order, we ordered a flat bread, figuring we were going to be waitng another 30 minutes for a table. The flat bread rocketed out of the kitchen and was good- as expected. We decide to go ahead and eat at the bar and relinquish our spot in line for a table. No problem there. Because the bar at Bracco is so nice and because the place is smoke free, I actually prefer the bar to a table in the dining room. Bracco is an interesting place in that respect. In my opinion, Bracco is not a restaurant that happens to have a nifty bar area- vis a vis Spezia or Minervas. Bracco is a phenomenal bar that just happens to have a dining area.

We placed an order- burgers. Why not? It was Tuesday and those are the special. What wasn't special was the wait and what eventually arrived. My burger seemed fine. My friend ordered a Mushroom Cheddar burger. That's something relatively new to the menu. It consists of a burger served open-faced on what appeared to be a slice of wheat bread straight out of a plastic sack from the grocery store and covered in mushroom gravy. Underneath that gravy was a cold burger. Hardly worth the long wait. The bartender graciously took it back and offered to bring out a fresh one. I was thinking: You betcha. That sucker is going into the jukebox (microwave oven) because it took 30 minutes to get out here.

The new burger came out pretty fast though and it didn't appear to be the old one freshened up by the miracles of radio wave energy. I could tell that for sure because the musrooms in the gravy appeared to be barely cooked.

Granted my burger seemed fine- I got one that came on a bun and with fries. No gravy. But I got to thinking, "Hey, you don't suppose those meatheads in the kitchen have a bunch of pre-cooked burgers laying around that they are slapping together for the special." That shouldn't have been the case because it took too long to get them out in the first place.

Curiously, in the time we were there- maybe about an hour, the crowd had subsided substantially. The dining room was starting to empty out and the crowd in the bar was disappating. Considering it was a Tuesday, people probably mob the place for dinner and then rush back home. Weenies. Tuesday is as good a night as any to sit around and drink beer.

This recent trip to Bracco highlighted several things about what a dining experience at any decent place should be and what it should not be.

  • If a restaurant cannot manage decent service at a peak time, it probably needs to re-think its operation. People don't open a place to be constantly half-ass busy. Snappy service turns tables and that sells covers. Get it moving.
  • Get the food right for crying out loud. Those burgers should be great and spot on. Hot. Fresh. Juicy. You're slipping. Get on it.
  • Don't copy other place's food. That mushroom cheddar burger is a failed copy cat of similar burgers at Tinner's, Spezia and Minerva's. You really cannot put an "island twist" on the Tinner's pub burger mainly because you cannot really screw with a hot burger under a mound of hot gravy and mashed potatoes- so why try?

Don't get me wrong. Bracco is a great joint and I will definitely be back, but probably not on a Tuesday.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sioux Falls Grocery Scene: In-Store Bakeries

Okay, so back to the ranting and raving about our local food stores.  The subject today is the bakery department with a particular focus on breads.  But first, an acknowledgment: We are really lucky to have places like Breadsmith,  Panera, and Queen City available to fulfill our needs for well-made artisanal breads and baked goods.  Anyone who has ever tried to bake really good breads or attempted to turn out a batch of puff pastry at home should recognize that the skill set for baking is entirely different than that for cooking.  One of the very few intelligent things I heard Emeril Lagasse utter between "Bams!" on Emeril Live when it used to be on Food Network was that baking requires the use of formulas instead of the recipes used for cooking. Producing a good crusty baguette requires time, skill, and  a proper appreciation for exactly how much protein ought to be in the flour.  Oh, and an oven that intermittently injects steam into the baking chamber doesn't hurt either.  It's fun to play with this stuff at home, but for the time and trouble, you can probably buy a superior loaf of brioche, ciabatta, or a baguette at Breadsmith or Panera.

One other acknowledgement:  The selection of baked goods at the Sioux Falls chain grocery stores is much better than it used to be.  Remember when bagels were a novelty?  Remember when the only place to get a decent baguette was the Minerva's 26th Street Market?

I tend to be very particular about breads.  Although I don't care what pre-sliced, in the plastic sack sort of bread we have around the house for the Secret Teaspoon to make toast or to use for the occasional quick peanut butter sandwich for lunch, breads for other things must meet certain requirements.  For instance, French bread should have a decent crust- not one that might chip a tooth- but one that requires a little effort to chomp into.  Rolls for grilled sausages (generally either Italian sausage or bratwurst) should be a bit chewy, but not crusty like a good baguette.  It's also nice to be able to get things like ciabatta rolls for grilled burgers or fancy sandwiches.  

To get to the point about the grocery stores: You are not going to find these sorts of things there.  Hy Vee produces various sizes and shapes of baked rolls and breads- little dinner rolls, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, brat buns, etc.  Unfortunately, all those sizes and shapes are produced from the same ubiquitous, generally soft and un-crusty white or wheat bread dough.  The white bread dough also seems to form the backbone for the loaves of French bread (in long, fat and twin-loaf sizes) and its identical twin sibling Italian bread.

For the most part, the same thing seems to be true at Sunshine and that other place, Wal-something-or-other.  The various store-baked breads are just the same dough in different shapes. 

The same thing is pretty much true of the other baked goods, particularly the pastries.  Sure the doughnuts are pretty good, but try to get a good danish made with puff pastry.  You're probably not going to find them.

The unavailability of some of these items in Sioux Falls is indeed puzzling.  If you find yourself out in the West River Country- particularly in Rapid City or Spearfish visit a Safeway store.  Safeway manages to turn out very decent loaves of French breads with nice crusts.  Safeway also offers interesting selections of bagels and pastries.  So, I know it's doable, but for whatever reason the grocers here in Sioux Falls refuse to kick up the quality.

In an effort to sell breads that the groceries are either unwilling or unable to make you can pick up breads like French baguettes or ciabatta rolls that are sealed in cellophane plastic and require a heat-and-eat treatment.  Nice to have this option, especially when a trip to Breadsmith or Panera is not possible, but those breads are relatively expensive and where do they come from, anyway?

Don't get me wrong, the soft breads from the groceries have their place and all.  If you want the really good stuff, however, you are going to have to do a little planning and a little driving.  For breads, no one in Sioux Falls can compete with Breadsmith and Panera.  In terms of other baked goods (cakes, scones, quiche) no one can give these treats the magic treatment like the folks at Queen City Bakery at 8th and Weber.

I've also managed to find a reasonable substitute for the kind of bread needed for a good sausage.  Jimmy Johns.  No kidding.  For 50 cents, you can buy "day old" loaves of the French bread they make in-store for their sandwiches.  If they don't have any of those, you can buy a "fresh" loaf for about 2 bucks.  A little steep for what you get, especially considering that you probably cannot discern that much difference between the "day old" bread and the fresh stuff.  Anyway, the bread at Jimmy Johns makes a pretty decent vessel for getting spicy grilled Italian sausages, grilled peppers and onions, and a heaping few spoonfuls of oily, spicy giardinera from plate to face.  It's just the right width- just slice into the required lengths and pluck out a little of the soft innards.

P.S.  If you want to gain a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to make a really good artisanal bread, go find a copy of the masterpiece written by Julia Child and Simone Beck- Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  As I sit here I cannot remember if it is volume one or two that you will need.  At any rate, over the course of something like eleven pages Julia sets forth a method for making French bread at home.  Considering the only ingredients for this bread are flour, water, yeast, and salt you'll get a good idea of the process and care required to develop the flavor, crust, and shapes of good French bread.  

You might also look for a copy of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum.  As I recall, Rose was a chemistry major in college and she applies the same level of precision and understanding of the process to baking that a researcher for duPont would employ to develop better Teflon. The woman doesn't simply measure ingredients, she weighs them- including water and eggs.  Rose also authored The Cake Bible and the Pie and Pastry Bible.  You'll learn a lot from these books, although you may never be brave enough, patient enough, or OCD enough to attempt some of the recipes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Activity at 26th and Western

I drove by the old Spezia location at 26th and Western recently and noticed a sign on the building Grille 26, or maybe it's 26 Grille.  There goes my hope for a nice little French place.  Looks like I have some intel to gather.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liquor Sales Update: The Fork Told Ya

I said this would happen.

Anyone been to Hy Vee on 26th and Sycamore lately?  Walk back to the corner where the beer is- right by the eggs and yogurt.  Then walk up to the register going down the aisle where you stop to see if any of those good organic/health food nut sunflower nut cookies are out to sample.  On your way, look to your left and you will see the new in-store liquor department.  It's right about where bath gel or toothpaste used to be.  I didn't swing in there.  Pretty small and probably only a small hold over until the new super duper liquor area like the one at 37th Street and on Louise Ave can be opened where Boomers used to be.

Speaking of that remodeling, I wonder what's taking so long.  Maybe they are just waiting for that Boomer's smell to dissipate before they can start construction.

Anyone want to take a whack at the over/under on how long Gregor's stays open?