Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Local Daily Forks Up Another One

It's been a pretty busy run at the super stressful day job, so I must start by offering my apologies to the small handful of people who read this blog.  I am sorry.  Now back to the regularly scheduled rant.

The local daily here in the Sioux Empire, The Argus Leader, has forked up yet another restaurant review.  Some of you may recall my previous post about the deplorable job the AL and reporter Dorene Weinstein did with a review of Sai Gon Panda.  I swear, they need to start getting it right, or get out of the business of doing this altogether.  

Last Thursday, in the Link section of the AL, Ms. Weinstein turned her untrained yet highly critical eye toward the Minerva's group's new endeavor, 26 Grille.  Here's a link to the story:

Let's start with some background.  26 Grille opened in early March- March 10 according to the AL story- in the location in the Park Ridge Shopping Center formerly occupied by Spezia.  I've been waiting with much anticipation for this new place to open in that old, familiar space.  Word on the street was that the new venue was going to be a neighborhood sort of place to fill the void left by Spezia's departure for more fertile grounds.

Ms. Weinstein stuck a three-pronged fork right in the eye of 26 Grille with her review:
  • The service was a bit lacking
  • The food was "off"
  • The decor sucks
The only bright note was attentive service and a delightful brownie desert (which was actually complimentary to make up for failing to deliver a steak cooked to order.)

Where shall I start?

First of all, since when is it really fair to write a critical review of an establishment that just opened?  Sure, there is a school of thought that says if any place is going to take your money to serve you food and drink they ought to get it right whether it's Day 1 or Day 1001.  But come on, this is Sioux Falls and we're talking about what amounts to yet another neighborhoody burger, wood-oven pizza, pasta, and sandwich joint.  And the very first week of business!  If this was the Sioux Falls branch of The French Laundry or Lutece serving a $250 eight course tasting menu (paired wines extra) that "get it exactly right straight out of the box" argument might fly.  Where was the AL the first week Bracco opened?  How about Spezia in the new location.  You couldn't get a beer before your next birthday when Spezia opened at 57th and Louise.  Regardless how experienced individual staff members might be, it takes a while to knock the kinks out of a new place.  Cut them some slack, you idiots.

Second, while I agree decor is part of the overall dining experience, I don't give a dull steak knife whether the AL reporter doesn't like poppies or the color orange.  I say if you can't find some element of decor almost anywhere that you can carp about, you ain't trying very hard.  What the AL didn't manage to mention is that 26 Grille seems a heck of a lot bigger than Spezia or any of the previous occupants of the space.  I am not kidding.  It seems like they managed to find a couple hundred square feet that were stashed somewhere.

Third, if you are going to write a review, try telling me what I can find on the menu.   I don't care what the dining room manager says is selling- try looking in that thingy the nice waitress gave you when you were seated.  Fortunately, I looked at it and can give you a little idea what you'll find.  It's not a bad menu at all.  It's kind of basic stuff that we see all too much of here in Sioux Falls: wood-oven pizza, burgers, pasta, salads, soups, appetizers, desserts, etc.  But I must say there were some interesting twists.  For instance, on a recent visit with some friends I selected a burger that was topped with bleu cheese, some onions and (get this) some nicely sauteed apples.  Neat twist and pretty tasty, too.  Even more interestingly, the burger was cooked to order.  (Although I'll order a steak medium rare almost anywhere, I usually won't order a burger done any less than medium.  But considering I'll eat beef tendons in pho for lunch, I might just go a little lighter on the doneness next time.)  A friend had chicken risotto.  (Actually it was chicken and risotto- grilled chicken tenders on the side of the rice.)  There's something you won't find on the menu at Champp's.   I had a taste and it was pretty good.  The rice was al dente, which I liked.  The risotto wasn't as good as what I produce at home, but then no one else's in Sioux Falls is, either.

What to drink?  Not booze.  Yet.  Apparently, 26 Grille is going to wait for one of those new restaurant, not bar, liquor licenses.  Still, there is a great selection of beers on the menu and a pretty nice wine list.  I like the fact that the wine list isn't too crazy, but is very respectable.  On the occasion I was there, I opted for the house cabernet sauvignon.  It was good.  Three bucks a glass during happy hour and served in a decent Reidel glass.  Thirteen bucks a bottle regular price.  More expensive wines were available, but between those and the house wines were plenty of decently priced, interesting selections.  Plenty of varietals, too.  Hmmmm, one wouldn't know this from reading the AL.

Fourth, get a clue about food.  Okay, your salmon burger had an "off" taste.  Who orders salmon burgers anyway?  (Dorene must not have been a Catholic kid in the 60's or 70's.  Can you say salmon pattie?)  And what is an "off" taste in a salmon burger?  Bad combination of herbs?  Clearly farm raised salmon with that fish fed with little dog food pellets its whole life kind of flavor?  What?  This is the same woman who ordered chicken, fried wontons and egg rolls at Sai Gon Panda.  Hmmm come to think of it, she ordered stir fry at 26 Grille.    I want to know more about the food than whether it was piping hot or gooey.  What sounds exotic on the menu?  What are they taking a chance on?  A person has to try some standards, but 26 Grille is clearly trying to put some twists on the same sorts of fare that you can find almost anywhere else in this town.  The AL folks fail to take note of that, though.

Look, here's the bottom line, Argus.  If you are going to try to do restaurant reviews, hire some forking foodies to write them.  Dorene Weinstein and Jay "order me a filet mignon every time" Kirschenmann aren't foodies.  Foodies appreciate subtle differences and will gladly overlook a color scheme for a properly roasted chicken any time.  Foodies know when a wine list is a bunch of overpriced trendy crap and when someone has put some real thought and care into making selections that will compliment the menu and provide bargains for the diner.  Foodies know where to eat in town and they know CJ Callaways is not part of a private country club.  Not making this up, Jay Kirschenmann said it.  Foodies write for foodies and they tell foodies what foodies want to know, about food.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I am going to go see how many references I can find to things that are "piping hot", "yummy", or "gooey" in a few dozen copies of Food & Wine or Gourmet.  "Piping hot."  For Pete's sake.