Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chain of Fools

Like many of us, I generally avoid chain restaurants in the same way I avoid poisonous snakes, grizzly bears and people who haven’t bathed lately. Last night, in the midst of some other drama that has contributed to my relative silence on this blog and that I may or may not detail at some later date, I had the occasion to visit an outpost of a regional chain of seafood restaurants.

They used to be owned by a Portland company and were called Newport Bay before they and their siblings were acquired by a Seattle oufit a couple of years ago. The new owners have remodeled, gussied up the décor, renamed them Newport Seafood Grille and made the menu more frou-frou.

What they haven’t done is improve the execution in the 8 or 9 years since I’ve been there. If anything, it has taken a step backward. The quality of the preparation seems to have an inverse correlation to the complexity of the recipe, a common theme at chains and certainly one that I mention to Portland visitors who want to visit one of the McCormick and Schmick’s stores that are touted by almost every guide to Portland restaurants imaginable. "Just don't order anything with a sauce. Stick with simple preparations," is my usual mantra.

I wasn’t hungry enough for a full meal but I was hungry, so I plopped myself in the bar, ordered a beer and perused the Happy Hour appetizer menu - items from two dollars to five dollars. Given that my life has been so hectic lately and my eating habits have been reduced to a lot of cheeseburgers, I decided I needed something green. I figured my digestive system, which has been severely out of whack and protesting for the past week in ways you don’t want to know about, would appreciate the effort. What to have?

Well, it was simple, at least at first. They offered an iceberg wedge with tomatoes, red onion and blue cheese dressing. Perfect! Retro as it is, it’s something I love and it’s almost impossible to screw up. Amazingly enough, they almost managed the task. 

Tomatoes? Hah! It's January, so I certainly wasn't expecting a big, juicy slice of Brandywine or Cherokee Purple, but c'mon. I didn't even get a decent chunk of Roma, having to settle for a few measly dice of what looked like Roma, and "dice" is being kind. Picture four or five little 1/4-inch squares interspersed among the wisps of thinly-sliced red onion that had probably been sliced and oxidizing since Sunday, judging by the pungent aroma. But hey, the iceberg was cold and crispy and the blue cheese dressing was pretty good, so what did I want for a lousy three bucks? So far so good.

Next up? Something a bit more challenging, the "red crab and seafood cakes". I've heard of blue crab, stone crab, Dungeness crab, rock crab, snow crab, king crab, "the crabs" and fake crab (surimi), but "red crab" isn't something with which I'm familiar. And "seafood"? What exactly is that? Could be anything from perch to pollock to plankton. So I asked my server who, in a surly fashion, replied "Red crab is like Dungeness and seafood means fish." 

Oh, sure. I get it. Either you don't have a clue or you're trying to blow smoke up my nether regions. Fine. They're four bucks, I'll roll with it. Mind you, a larger portion with a fancier presentation (one hopes) is on the regular menu for $8.50, so it's not like this is some special item they thought up just for Happy Hour. 

I should have ordered the sliders, even though they're burgers. They couldn't have been as bad as these patties of mush. Although crab cakes are generally browned in hot fat (oil or butter) these things were not brown, though someone had made an effort. In fact, I've seen Brits in January with better tans. They were greasy, they were tasteless and the only texture they had was delivered by the large chunks of under-cooked celery interspersed among the puree of miscellaneous, unidentified seafood and bread crumbs. In fact, oddly for a restaurant meal, they were severely lacking in salt, but I don't like to salt food at  the table (it's disgusting) so I didn't bother. 

Worse, they sat on a big, gloppy pool of what was supposed to be a roasted red pepper sauce of sorts. Pale pink, cold and almost tasteless, it only added to the sensation of greasiness in the cakes, caused mostly by the sautéing fat congealing as it hit the cold sauce. Accompanied by a slim wedge of lemon and not even a sprinkling of parsley to make them at least look good, they had all the appeal of a couple of hockey pucks. Still, I was hungry enough that I ate them, but if I'd made them at home I think the cat - the one I don't have - would have turned her nose up at them. 

Okay . . . dessert. Let's keep this short and put it this way: By scraping the frosting off a Hostess chocolate cupcake, inverting it and spreading some Smucker's raspberry jam and Hershey's syrup around the plate, I could make something that tastes just as good. If I were to put the jam and syrup in squeeze bottles it would look just as good. Just sayin'. 

So, dear peeps, todays lesson is that only fools go to chain restaurants if they're expecting food beyond what they can get at Mickey D's or BK. Stay away, stay very far away.

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