Sunday, October 27, 2013

WTF: Is it just me or is Granite City really starting to suck?

I have to say, my last several outings to Granite City have left me seriously unimpressed.  When the place was first open, it was sparkly, new, had things on the menu that were at least twists on the same-old-same-old fare of other locations, and they brewed their own beer.  On premises.  I really liked some of the things on the menu, such as the roast beef sandwich, the London broil sandwich, the chicken burrito, and the soups.

Despite a couple remodels, time has not exactly been kind to GC.  If you ask me, the place is getting a tad threadbare, and worse yet, the food is changing.

I think it all started going wrong when they stopped brewing on premises.  Granted in today's beer snob world, GC doesn't have the bestest beers, but I always appreciated the effort and almost always have one of their beers when I visit.  I believe I heard or was told at one point that the reason for off-premises brewing was the need to somehow standardize product across the franchise chain.  God forbid someone get a Duke in St. Cloud that tastes different than the same offering in Omaha.

Unfortunately, some of the best things GC has ever had on the menu are gone, or worse yet, altered for the worse.  Two examples jump to mind.

First example.  Several years ago, GC introduced a new burger, the Napa Valley Burger.  I don't know what screamed "wine country" about it, but it was good.  As a matter of fact, it shared many of the finest qualities of the legendary lamb burger that McNally's had years ago.  (Another great item that is now as dead as the dinosaurs.)  The Napa Valley Burger was topped with grilled prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, avocado spread, and greens cooked with some balsamic reduction. It was served on focaccia.  Really, a nice offering and a tasty departure from burger boredom.  I used to have it almost every time I visited GC.

Second example.  Granite City changed it's barbecue sauce formula.  This may seem relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things, but as I have tried to point out ad nauseam, little details can make big differences in food.  The barbecue sauce is used on a couple of items, such as a burger known as the Bedda Chedda Burger and an open-faced meatloaf sandwich.  The former iteration of the sauce was pretty much straight up old school barbecue sauce- sweet and tangy.  The new and "improved" sauce boasts a "coffee bean" component.  It's too sweet.  I had it on an open faced meatloaf sandwich, that had I known included the sauce, I would have asked that it be left off.  I think the folks at GC have their doubts about the new barbecue sauce, too.  One of their recent special chef's features menus included the Bedda Chedda Burger with the OLD sauce.  (Also a pretty good burger, by the way.  Cheddar cheese, bacon, barbecue sauce and an onion ring.)

My Midwestern passive aggression can get me around the other things I don't care for at Granite City, such as the relentless efforts of the staff to up-sell everything.  I.E. "Would you like to substitute waffle fries?"  If so, "Would you like to add our Granite City Dip for those waffle fries?"  I can also get past the regular as clockwork visit from the manager on duty and first name introductions from the bartenders.  I know I can get snootier brew elsewhere, but a big mug of Benny and Duke mixed together is often very nice.  But, irrespective, good food needs to be the foundation of any restaurant experience.  Stellar service doesn't fix slipping food.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nutty's No More! Where will all the nuts hang out?

Nutty's at it's original location at 49th and Westport is no more.  During the last couple of weeks, it has undergone a huge transformation and is now BB's.  It's a big change.

Nutty's was an interesting place.  For a long time, it was pretty much the anchor of the small shopping center there.  Places like Sun & Fun, Balloons, Bears & Bouquets, and TCBY have come and gone, but Nutty's stayed the course.  Nutty's always intrigued me, primarily because the place was physically kind of like a kid's tree house or fort that was continually upgraded and added onto.  When the place first opened, it occupied only the corner of the building.  I do not recall if there was a deck at that point. (It's been a long, long time.)  I recall a pool table or two, but the real stand out feature was a shuffleboard game.  And, of course, there were plenty of peanuts to enjoy with a cold beverage.

As the years rolled by, every once in a while, there would be an addition to the place.  At it's peak, Nutty's featured a sunroom, a three-season screened-in porch, a deck, and a built-in bird sanctuary.  They also featured frozen concoctions (boozie slurpies a/k/a brunch of choice in Las Vegas or New Orleans) and an impressive row of beer taps.

A few weeks ago, I met a friend for a beer at Nutty's while they were mid-transition.  What a change!  The entrance is on the east side of the building off the deck.  Gone were the bird cages and cobbled together elements of the old location.  It's now a much more unified sort of space, but with enough of the old to remind you of the building's past.

I must say, the menu looks pretty good, and I am looking forward to giving a few things a try.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Defensive Ordering

If you have to travel for work, or kid activities, or even travel for fun, there are going to be times you end up in food deserts.  These are the sorts of places where you desperately want to get a good meal, but it just ain't going to happen.  You could be stuck at a hotel that has kind of a crummy restaurant for a conference, and even though you know there are other decent places around, you aren't going to be visiting them.  At times like this, one has to employ defensive ordering techniques.

1.  Set your expectations accordingly.  That doesn't mean to set them to "abysmally low" or "without any hope whatsoever."  Really low expectations will only jade you and pretty much guarantee the whole experience is going to suck.  I suggest you train you mind to be guardedly optimistic.  Besides, how well this works out is going to depend on your ordering skills.

2.  Be observant and ask questions.  There is probably something on the menu that someone in the kitchen is pretty good at making.  It's you're job to figure out what.  Are people at other tables eating pasta dishes and enjoying them?  Is no one in the whole house eating fish?  Is there a special?  As the server what the joint is best known for or what the best-selling items are.  Ask if the chef has any favorites.  These are usually safe bets.

3.  Don't order funky stuff.  What's funky stuff? Well, if you're in say Aberdeen or Watertown at the local Ramkota/Minerva's-lite branch office, just how fresh do you think a fish selection is?  Chances are you saw it at Sam's Club.  You can also pretty much bet that very few, if any, of the pasta sauces are being made in-house.

4.  Stick to the straight-forward.  If you're at one of these places in South Dakota, your best bet is probably a steak.  Theoretically pretty hard to screw up.  Be careful with adding funky toppings and sauces.  If you want to try one, best to ask for them on the side so you can control your dosage.  Chicken dishes are probably good choices.  Unless you know the soups are made in-house and look good, stick with the dumb house salad.

5.  Never, never, never take out a bad experience on the servers.  One thing I tend to see in some of these outpost locations is that the veteran servers are not so polished themselves, yet they have trainees in tow.  Around me I usually observe lots of mistakes and people sending items back to the kitchen.  I've ordered good wine off the list and when the staff presents the nicest Reidel glasses in the joint, they are covered with water spots.  This goes back to expectations.  Deal with it.  If something rises to the level of needing fixing, be polite and get it fixed, but don't be a total jackass about it.

If you survive the whole experience, reward yourself by finding something local and good to enjoy and wash the taste of bitter resentment right out of your mouth.