Special feature for all the local folk who might be reading, now that I've joined (or at least asked to join*) a local webring. See the right-hand column for all your local blogging needs. If you're local. OK, you're all
local--I mean local to me.
Dang, how did I get so sidetracked already?
Review. Right. So a number of my cow-orkers and I decided, as is our custom on Fridays, to go out to lunch en masse. Since we're smack dab in the middle of a burgeoning suburban renewal/stripmall culture installation, we often have brand new places** to try out, and today was no different. Today's gustatory adventure-zone was Romano's Macaroni Grill
--we put the "aaaaah!" in "ta daaaaaah!"
How could you pass on a place with a name like that? Who doesn't remember Granny's recipe, brought from the Old Country before the war, for Grilled Macaroni? Sure, Grandma mostly did it in the broiler since Grampa died, but just hearing the name again conjures up memories of not only the Grilled Macaroni, but also Nacho-flavored Velveeta-n-Hormel Chili Con Carne dip and Ritz Cracker Mock Apple Pie with nonfat Borden Ice Milk. Yum. I couldn't stay away.
I knew our adventure was off to a great start when Stephen, one of the ringleaders of the Friday Lunch Bunch (I just made that up--we don't call ourselves that or anything. How fucking lame do you think we are?), told me that he'd already been to Macaroni Grill last week with his Mom. He pronounced it to be, "eh." With a ringing endorsement like that, on a par with "probably non-toxic," and "I didn't puke," I was getting itchy feet to get out of the office and on the road to dining pleasure. Unfortunately, I'd already committed to the goddamn Macaroni Grill.
So what's the place like? First off, it's a chain sit-down-dining restaurant in the Italian vein, so you may not need to read any further--I'm only going to confirm your prejudices/predilections. It looks pretty good--more like a proper restaurant than not, and if there was a bunch of "fun" stuff like old crew shells, megaphones or flapper dresses festooning the rafters, it's understated enough that I didn't notice it. The staff wears ties, but don't appear to be too strongly encouraged to be wacky with tie selection. The tables have real tablecloths on them, cleverly and originally surmounted by a square of white butcher paper and a handful of crayons (real Crayolas, but with food-type colors, like Roasted Red Pepper and Chef Spit in Your Potato Leek Soup). If that weren't classy enough, there was a supermercado-style (like right off the shelf--I looked for a pricetag) half-gallon bottle of olive oil smack in the middle of the table. If you like the chains, you're sold by now. If not, well...
Food-wise, things started out a bit rocky. Our waitress showed up at our table with a colossal pepper grinder and a grim-looking 1.5 liter bottle of Macaroni Grill "Chianti." You know the rule about pepper grinders--the larger the grinder they bring to crank over your salad, the worse the restaurant. We hadn't even ordered salads yet. Oy. Anyway, in an apparent attempt to out-Olive Garden the Olive Garden, this place brings a big bottle of wine to the table, and says something about the honor system, and something about nine-ounce tumblers of their house "chianti," and "we trust you like you trust us to prepare your food." Uh-oh, Spaghettio--they must have thought I was going to run out with the till if they don't trust me more than that. I didn't get the whole deal--our waitron was not the clearest presenter in the world--but I think it was akin to a never-ending-salad-bowl or something. Since we had to come back to work after, and I figured I'd be too tempted to mix the "chianti" and olive oil to make a nice salad dressing, we got sodas. At least we could still be assured of the "bread without end, amen," to make it a chain restaurant gorge-fest.
I wish I could be specific about the menu, but after seeing the first item, featured on its own page in glorious full-color, I pretty much headed straight for the 6-10 item lunch menu. What was this culinary tour-de-force? Fucking Italian Nachos. I shit you not. If there was previously any doubt about how far from the lowest common denominator we were gonna end up, that pretty much squashed it. The chips were some kind of fried pasta, and the cheeses were Italian-esque, and the toppings were the things I knew I could expect to find in or on every single item on the menu***, but still. Nachos. I was stunned to the point that I didn't even bother to look for the Italian Potato Skins with parmagiano and pancetta. I'm sure they were there. I settled on a pizza, not wanting to be served a mighty trencher of pasta with one of the six key ingredients.
So how was the food? Predictable, but acceptable. The olive oil (poured onto a plate with black pepper ground on it and called "Italian butter" for crap sake) was surprisingly good, and I know some good olive oil when I taste it. Likewise the bread, in smallish individual loaves which were lightly scented with rosemary, crusty but not too crusty, and plainly made all day long right there in-house. The pizza? It looked like your standard gourmet pizza--very thin crust, easy on the toppings, sloppily arranged with (absolutely flavorless--maybe they used spinach by accident?) shreds of fresh basil over the top. It was slightly underdone, and arrived way late, along with an extra salad and bowl of soup nobody ordered (for which we were not charged). Inoffensive, and if you haven't had a REAL gourmet pizza out there in Muncie, Indiana, quite a winner. I thought it was "eh." Everything else at the table got pretty much the same review--the house balsamic viniagrette looked more like honey mustard to me, and tasted like the Eyetalian Dressin' you'd get off the salad bar at the Sizzler. The panini-like sandwiches were uninspired, the lentil soup boring and tepid. There was a spinach salad that actually looked damn good--huge, but good. I was supicious though, of the fact that the spinach was torn up--says to me that it was not baby spinach, and likely to be kind of tough and metallic. It got a decent review from the woman who ordered it, though.
Mostly, this place had all the earmarks of not-yet-up-to-speed staff and kitchen. Things came in a strange order, it was hard to keep our unlimited bread supply up, and we could hardly hear, let alone understand, our waitron's obviously-poorly-rehearsed speeches. I'm sure the service will become slicker soon enough, and the place will turn into the fat-assed stripmall patron force-feeding conveyor belt it was born to be.
Bottom line, if you like the Olive Garden, you'll like the Macaroni Grill. It's a little classier, but basically the same non-threatening, extremely plentiful food, for a reasonable price. And the olive oil and bread are actually damn good.
*I'm not sure why there's a queue to get approved to join this blog ring. Not to ruin my chances of getting in or anything (don't joke about the bouncer's clothes when you're outside the velvet rope, pal), but we're talking about blogs here. How selective can you afford to be? Anyway, I hope I get in--I would love to have a little traffic, and I'm sincere in my interest in encouraging locals to do things like this in their free time.
**It's actually kind of horrifying. Our downtown is being completely re-built, thanks to the arrival of Discovery Communications (yes, the TV people). We're getting tons of new restaurants, shops, a megaplex movie theater (it actually calls itself that), office buildings, parking garages, etc. Lamentably, our civic leaders have decided to aim low, and much of what's coming is headed straight for the heartland's appetites. Huge chain restaurants, Motophoto, Starbucks, McChipotle, Eggspectations (yeah, I'm mystified by that one too). There are some upsides to all this, of course--some of the nearly-abandoned shops just off the main drag are likely to become cool places to shop, drink and eat, we're finally getting a book store (new books, not used), and we have the American Film Institute's Silver Theater, where pretty much any evening we can walk over and see some of the best films the world has to offer, often on a really big screen, with lots of legroom, popcorn with real butter, and BEER. And, truth to tell, nobody ever went broke understimating the intelligence, or the tastes, of the American people. Frickin' Red Lobster is the most popular restaurant in the new area, by a mile.
***The big six: Parmesan (not grated, but wide, thin curls--shavings are classier), black olive slices, diced tomatoes, shredded basil, roasted garlic cloves, pine nuts. This is "gourmet Italian" in much of the world, and handled properly they're all nice things. It's when you look around the restaurant, or even around the table, and see nothing but chicken, pasta and the "big six" ingredients that you begin to feel like you're at Taco Bell.