Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Frustration with Downtown Hours (Or lack thereof)

I love to eat in downtown Frederick, but I often get the sense that the business owners take a somewhat lackadaisical approach to their hours.

For instance, we were looking for a lunch spot just this past Sunday – a gorgeous warm sunny afternoon. There were tons (Tons!) of people strolling through town. Yes, you could certainly see that Frederick definitely is a destination town on the weekend. There were locals and tourists alike – all shopping and dining.

What a perfect opportunity for a restaurant or sweet boutique to expand its customer base. But – what’s this? So many shops and restaurants were just plain closed. Closed to all the business that was passing by their doors. Why? Yeah, I know everybody likes a day off. But come on folks – this is Retail – no surprise that the hours are pretty miserable. But – not being open on a gorgeous touristy day? That's just plain unwise. My family worked retail for generations. And, there is a rule you have to heed: You need to be OPEN when your customers are around!

Wags? Closed. The Orchard? Closed. And the list goes on....

I expressed my frustration with the closings last October in a letter to the editor. In case you're interested, here's what I wrote back then:

I’m all in favor of keeping the historic flavor and independent flair of downtown Frederick in abundance. However, the merchants need to make some adjustments if they want our support in keeping the interlopers away.

This past Friday night, (it was Light the Night - the precursor celebration to In The Streets) downtown was teeming with music lovers enjoying Deanna Bogart in full boogie mode. Just a few blocks away, a sell-out crowd was streaming to the Weinberg Center to bask in the outrageous humor of David Sedaris. Lots of folks, us included, started the evening tapping our toes to the blues on the creek before heading over to the Weinberg.

I know there were lots of folks, because I saw them. Couples and small groups all pretty much following the same route. Wandering hopefully along Market and Patrick Streets trying to find a quick bite to eat before the Sedaris show began. A sandwich would have done the trick.

So, one after the other, in we went to the nearest bagel shop. “No sandwiches after 7”. Up to Patrick Street and into “Proof” where we were also told “No sandwiches after 7”. I can understand that philosophy on a Tuesday. But, on a wildly busy Friday night where thousands were celebrating the 25th anniversary of In the Streets? This wasn’t a surprise evening – this major event had been heavily promoted for months. And really, is 7 that unreasonable a dining hour on a weekend?

What were these food purveyors thinking? Surely they knew that there would be throngs of hungry roaming the streets in search of tasty treats more substantial than a cookie. I've heard much rumbling about the high cost of doing business in downtown. I can only imagine the cost they incurred by instituting a no real food after 7 policy in a restaurant located in the midst of the revelry.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that evening, we were actually wishing that our beautiful historic district had a Quizno’s or Subway. They would surely be open for business on a busy Friday night.

I'm not writing this to complain about being hungry(which I was). Rather, I am writing to suggest that a change in philosophy is in order if we want to maintain the character of our historic district.

If the local merchants Downtown Frederick Partnership want to keep Patrick & Market Street free of the dime-a-dozen chains and franchises, then they are going to have to do more than disparage the idea of their arrival. Instead, may I suggest that they vigorously encourage the local shops to make adjustments and quickly adapt to changing market conditions in order to better serve the public.

Monday, June 2, 2008

We need a REAL Food Critic in our Paper

I've been suggesting (complaining?) for quite some time about the dearth of true restaurant reviews in our town. Frederick News Post, Frederick Magazine - each of them seems petrified of the possibility of a non-glowing review impacting their bottom line.

Balderdash. I get the importance of watching the P&L statements - but they also have certain responsiblities to give their readers credible information.

In that light, here's a letter I sent to the newspaper a while back illuminating my opinion on this topic:

To the Editors:

Now that Frederick has become a more cosmopolitan city, I think that the moment has arrived for the Frederick News Post and Frederick Magazine to initiate a true Dining Review.

The time has passed when commentary on tablecloth colors and wall pictures are enough to enlighten your readers. It's really not important whether "Mary" came right over and handed us a menu. Or if her uniform was blue or red. We want to know more! We deserve to know more!

Here are just a few things we would like to know:

Are the offerings processed or fresh? Are they buying food at Costco and reheating? Is the fish fresh or frozen? Are the salad dressings bottled or home-made? Do they use canned or fresh mushrooms on the pizza? Is it really goat cheese or are they cutting it with cream cheese? Is the wait staff knowledgeable? Is service speedy or slow? Is the food any good?

With this information, we can make an informed choice on whether to spend our money at a particular restaurant.

Here are a few things we do NOT need to know - they add virtually nothing to our knowledge base: Who the reviewer ate with. How full they were before they started eating. How full they were when they finished. How many pages are in the menu. We don't need a review of Pizza Hut. We need to know whether we should spend our money at the new joint in town.

Please consider hiring a real foodie to give us the scoop on restaurants.

And, really - if someone is going to review an ethnic restaurant - make sure they know how the food SHOULD taste! Someone who isn't well versed in , say, Indian food, shouldn't be reviewing a new Indian establishment!

Find someone knowledgeable - and let them share the information with us!

Now… All together, Joan Rivers 3 favorite little words: Let’s Eat Out!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Really? Giant Eagle?

Normally, I like to post about places that I have eaten and fill you in on my own personal opinion – not necessarily shared by everyone. However, today I have opted to instead talk about grocery shopping.

I am not a terribly efficient grocery shopper. I don’t clip coupons, wait for sales, or scour the paper for deals. I don’t plan the family meals a week in advance and then collect all the necessary ingredients so that I don’t have to keep running back and forth to the store.

Rather, I’m the one who ,mid-afternoon, is hit by the realization that two hungry teenagers will actually be expecting dinner at some point. So, I open the fridge and take a gander. 12 types of mustard, 8 jars of miscellaneous Indian concoctions, Thai chili sauce, hoi sin, sesame oil, nuoc nam, sambal oelek, sweet pickles, sour pickles, gherkins…oh you get the gist. There’s no food in there – only condiments.

Anyway…..the kids are expecting some kind of chewable food-type item for dinner – not just a selection of condiments. So, I ponder the options. More often than I care to admit, this particular need is satisfied by the culinary delights offered at Costco. Not terribly healthful, but so completely convenient.

Sadly, we cannot live on fat and sodium forever – so I gird up my loins and head to the grocery store. I have a fairly large Weis right in my neighborhood. And I do shop there on occasion. Although it has improved over the years by adding new items and brightening up the place - shopping there is less than thrilling.

And then there’s my sweet little find. It looks like a complete dump from the outside. Plopped on the Olden Mile, outwardly it is as inviting as Fredericktowne Mall. It’s in that kind of rundown looking strip center that has a pet store, a dollar store, a diner and some other non-descript storefronts.

I’m not sure why I ever stopped there in the first place. I think that maybe I was in desperate need of dog food and so just kind of ran in on my way home from visiting the shoe repair guy in the mall.

Anyway, in I went. What???? Are you kidding me??? Where the heck am I? 10 different types of lettuce, 6 types of greens, 8 types of peppers – and they are all beautiful! Not the wrinkly skinned soft types I often find in my store – but beautiful, enticing oblongs of poblanos and jalapenos. Every single vegetable or fruit I wanted was not only available, but was presented in a clean, accessible and enticing manner.

So, I loaded up the cart. As I left the citrus behind, I lifted my head. There before me was the cheese department. Not just an unattended oblong display case with the same cheeses I can normally find at Costco (only more expensive) Oh no – this was a REAL cheese department. 400 types of cheese, fig jams, company- ready spreads . And….a real person working behind the counter! You want to try the smoked eggplant dip? No problem…here ya go. You want to taste how the fig jam works with the manchego….here, take a taste. I was completely impressed.

And could the cheese girl been any nicer? No she could not not. So I bought a bunch of cheese to go with all the peppers and arugula in the cart.

Next up: the “ethnic” aisle. Unlike other grocers I visit – the ethnic aisle in this Giant Eagle is an entire aisle. Not just a few feet tucked away at the end of canned beans. But the whole darned aisle (even though they do take some liberties with some of the so-called “ethnic” Italian items) . You want Mexican? No problem, there are a multitude of different salsas to peruse – and not just Pace and Old El Paso either. Plenty of flavors and options I’d never heard of. (Note to self: sometime this summer, I HAVE to do a jarred salsa tasting. I don’t have high hopes that I will like ANY of them – but I can dream). They’ve got Indian and Hispanic and Italian and British and Kosher. British is ethnic?

After adding 80 pounds of condiments to the cart, I was about done shopping. My three major food group needs were fulfilled: produce, cheese , condiments. Before I left though, I did take a gander at the meat and seafood departments as well. Nice. Not Trouts …. But nice…

Oh, and by the way....for all of you busy guardians of children - they have an on-site child care area where your kids can frolic while you shop. And... you can earn "Fuel Perks" that are good for a discount on your gas purchases at the Get 'N Go on Rt 40.

At the end of my excursion, I was just delighted with my “find” of a grocery store in Frederick. And I hope you find it a “find” as well. Now, if I could only find room amidst the condiments to put all the groceries away…..

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Shamrock - My Luck Runs Out

It was a perfect evening weather wise – so down the convertible top went and up the highway we went. Thurmont was our destination, the Shamrock our dining choice. It was my father’s suggestion to give this old Irish standby a try – and so we did. (In general, you should always listen to your father)

I actually liked the ambience – it was kind of old-fashioned, cozy with lots of clover decorations. It was kind of like your grandmother’s house if she were the nurturing, cooking, apron-wearing, chintz-covered sofa kind of grandma. (Mine was more the kreplach making, oy-gevalting, “No, you don’t need to change the lightbulb, Dark is Good” kind of grandma - so this was new to me!)

The menu was short, but the offerings were solid: fish, steak, chicken, crabcakes. On the recommendation of the server, we ordered crabcakes ($22) , the haddock imperial ($22) , and an interesting-on-paper mixed seafood platter ($20 something).

In short, nothing was great. Nothing was really even good. It was all “OK”. The crabcakes were indeed moist – but tasted more like mayo than crab. The tasted-like-it-may have-once-been-frozen haddock was as firm as number 8 on the Serta perfect sleeper, and the mixed platter – yawn.

Dinners were accompanied by a little bowl of green beans. Now, I happen to like green beans. I can eat them prepared in a myriad of ways. But, remember the grandma reference earlier? Well, she would be in luck with these veggies.

Grandma (or maybe even grandma’s grandma) could have eaten these mushy green cylinders even after her teeth were efferdenting-ing in the glass on the bedside table. Gee whiz - did they pick them up at the Golden Corral buffet?

I will now say something nice. The wine offerings were an amazingly excellent value. A full bottle of Kendall Jackson Reserve Chardonnay was about $23. That’s hardly any more than retail – and a fraction of the ridiculous markups that most restaurants embrace. So though the food made me sad...the wine made me glad!

Alas, a not so pleasant dining experience at the Shamrock. The clover didn’t bring us any luck at all.

Lucky Corner - Lucky You!

I have been a huge fan of Vietnamese food ever since my first taste back in the early 80’s. 25 years ago, this branch of Asian cooking was not yet the ubiquitous staple on the scene as it is now. I was duly impressed with the bright flavors and the generous use of herbs and aromatics to boost flavor. Pho and Bun became regular go-to dishes when I was in the mood for Asian.

Over the last 25 years since my first taste, I have had the chance to sample both wonderful and pedestrian versions of my favorites. I have found Lucky Corner at the corner of 7th and Market Street to be a mostly pleasant place to have a meal.

As has happened with much of the ethnic food that is served in the US, the chefs , in an attempt to appeal to the masses, dumb-down their offerings. In Asian restaurants especially, this generally takes the form of dumping mounds of sugar into the dish. Yes, the kids will then love it – but adults with a hankering for authenticity can be thwarted by a sugar rush.

This is the case with some of the dishes at Lucky Corner. In particular, the Black Pepper Shrimp (or sometimes chicken) tastes more like dessert than an entrĂ©e. I know that sugar is a traditional ingredient in this dish – but it is an accent flavor and shouldn’t be the primary taste note.

The summer rolls are insipid – lacking any oomph to stand on their own. The hoisin/peanut/sriracha dipping sauce is an absolute necessity to get any flavor. I’m not sure why these are so pricy – they are mostly noodles topped by an almost transparent sliver of shrimp, a touch of mint and tightly bound in moistened rice paper. I will say that I am always impressed by how tightly they can roll these things. My attempts at home never duplicate their results.

On a brighter note – the pho is very good. A large portion filled with all the usuals – thinly sliced meat, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, noodles, aromatic with star anise. Sometimes the basil & cilantro are missing – but a request to bring an extra plate of them is always fulfilled quickly. The large is more than enough for two to share.

The Cha Gio are tasty – but as is common in restaurants, they aren’t filled with enough of the good stuff that you would expect for the price. I always hope for seasoned ground pork, shitakes, maybe some nice crab. There are just too many fillers in these bites to qualify as a good value. But, as a lover of just about anything fried – they do taste good – especially when wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dunked in the nuoc nam.

The bun dishes are very good – nice and light with plenty of grilled meat (the grilled pork is sweet and carmelized), perched on a bed of lettuce, chilled cucumbers, scallions and rice vermicelli. The nuoc nam is, of course, a bit on the overly sweet side – but is otherwise nice and pungent. It doesn’t have a kick like some do – so you have to add your own heat if you like some spice.

Overall, I do like Lucky Corner. It’s not the most authentic Vietnamese food I’ve ever had – but it’s definitely worth putting on your go-list.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Fajita Grande - Once grand, Now Bland

A note from the Diva, added on July 11th.... Though I used to love it, Fajita Grande has let me down lately. The food has gone from bright and sassy to kind of mushy and muddy. I am still very much enjoying the margaritas - especially if Sam custom blends one for me. But, I'm afraid I'm not the fan I once was..

In fact, the last visit was especially disappointing. The Chile Rellenos were not made from whole chiles - rather, there seemed to be strips of chiles kind of placed haphazardly in the batter. Could barely taste them - mostly tasted like egg & flour. Ugh.

I have been back 2 more times since the chile relleno fiasco. They have not improved. Thus, sadly, I am removing my earlier laudatory posting and review....