Sunday, August 3, 2008

Edible Briefs

In late June, I made my first visit to Restaurant Dot Com. This is a site where you can choose from a list of restaurants in your area and purchase gift certificates at a discount, enabling you to eat affordably at a place you might not have tried (at least for a first outing) at full price.

Well, I've used up all but one of my first batch of gift certificates. Here are some brief notes from my experiences.

Chimichanga. The first place I tried was the Chimichanga Mexican Restaurant at 5425 S. Grand in St. Louis. I was a little uncertain about the procedure for dining out with a gift certificate, but the lady who seemed to be in charge of the restaurant put me at ease. She was very helpful and friendly. It also turned out to be a mistake to go there alone, because I had to spend at least $20, and their menu is so affordable that it was hard to find any way to put $20 worth of food down my throat in one meal.

Ultimately this proved an opportunity to get things I would otherwise have been too stingy to try. I had a huge order of fajitas (including both chicken and beef), a margarita in a tall mug, gobs of chips and housemade salsa, and flan for desert. Who eats dessert at a restaurant? I started to find out that with a gift certificate (requiring you to spend so much), it was often not only possible but necessary. The fajitas were good, the margarita went down well, and though I can't compare their flan to any past experience, I thought it was an interesting dessert: kind of a wobbly, off-white, custard-gelatin with caramely drizzles all over itself and the plate; too light and airy to be confused with cheesecake, too smooth and perfectly-formed to be described as poached egg-white. It was science-fiction-movie food, brought down to earth by south-of-the-border sweetness.

Johnny Gitto's. My second stop was 6997 Chippewa St., the last sign of civilization on the north side of Chippewa before the River Des Peres. In past years, when I worked in the neighborhood, I had walked by that place nearly every day during my lunch break. I don't recall it ever looking busy. The first time I went to Johnny Gitto's it was to find out that the place was closed. I couldn't find any signage listing restaurant hours. Later I called and asked when the restaurant was going to be open, and had a frustrating conversation with someone in the adjacent bar (which has different business hours), a person who kept telling me when it was closed even though I was pointedly asking when it was open. I finally figured out that the restaurant opens, at least for dinner, from Tuesday through Friday (or perhaps Saturday). So I planned my next stop accordingly.

I showed up at Johnny Gitto's, I believe, on a Wednesday in good time for dinner. My car was the only car in the parking lot. From my table in the restaurant I couldn't see into the bar, so I can't categorically say that they had no other customers, but I didn't see any. I saw evidence that live music was performed in the restaurant at other times of the week. I checked out the decor. I ate my food and got the heck out of there. For in the end, I realized that there is something creepy about being the only customer in a fairly large restaurant.

I can't say exactly why business at Johnny Gitto's is so slow. Perhaps it's a lousy location. Perhaps they need to do more advertising, or make it easier for people to find out when they are and aren't open. The food was OK, not spectacular. I ordered a rack of ribs: huge, reasonably tasty, not exactly fall-off-the-bone tender but not inedibly tough either. It came with some pasta that had a nice texture, but the sauce didn't thrill me. As a forerunner to prepare the way for the ribs, I had some potato soup that tasted really good - flavorwise, the most impressive dish of the meal - but it was not heated all the way through. When it first arrived at my table, parts of it were scalding hot and other parts were ice-cold. I ate it gamely, recognizing that it would have tasted equally good whether served hot or chilled, but wishing that it would make up its mind. The waitress seemed shocked when I told her about this problem. I would have liked to be a fly on the kitchen wall when she told the cook about it. I'll bet it wasn't a pretty scene.

Mimi's. Somewhere around this time, I also visited Mimi's Cafe in Chesterfield Valley (17240 Chesterfield Airport Rd.) and had their ribs, sort of as a control group for my test of the ribs at Johnny Gitto's. Now those were some ribs! They really did, literally, fall off the bone. With every bite of tender, caramelized, perfectly seasoned meat, my taste buds thought they had died and gone to heaven. The cole slaw was no slouch either. I am already on record saying the best ribs money can buy live at the Texas Roadhouse, but Mimi's has either stolen the recipe or independently discovered it.

Mangia Italiano. I had already visited this restaurant-pub at 3145 S. Grand, close to Tower Grove Park. I knew they had good beer and a pizza worth crawling a mile for. When I spotted their gift certificate on Restaurant Dot Com, I snickered with evil glee. The value of that gift certificate, all for me! Mmmm, I thought, surveying the menu. With what shall we treat ourself? We treated ourself to an appetizer (some triangular pasta pouches stuffed with goat cheese), a beer (a yummy Belgian brew called Hoegaarden), and a dessert (a chocolate torte so sinful that I'm glad I'm not Catholic, because I would never get out of purgatory after this). And for the main course, an order of spinach manicotti, which turned out to be so staggeringly huge - four or five plump tubes filled with soft cheese and spinach, swimming in zesty marinara sauce and melted cheese - that I had to take away most of it and (sob!) suffer through a second helping of it later. Usually you get two manicotti, not four.

So the Mangia Italiano experience is a good deal all around...except...well, there has to be a "con" to go with all the "pros," right? Otherwise, I can't pretend to be a critic! I would just like to vent about the cute little plate of olive oil they serve with their basket of bread. That's just stupid. You know what olive oil tastes like when you dip bread in it? It tastes like oil. It adds nothing to the flavor of the bread, capisce? 10 out of 10 times, butter would be better. Even browning the oil a little, with maybe some garlic and a sliver of anchovy paste, would be an improvement over fresh oil out of the bottle. This "Italian butter" fad is a cultural weed that simply needs to be pulled up, because it serves no constructive purpose. As a complimentary service, nobody is paying for it; nobody is eating it; and regardless of whose pocket the cost ultimately comes out of, it adds nothing positive to the dining experience. Sermon over.

McLozzi Deli. I must have been insane when I picked this place. Either that, or I was mistaken about where it was located. It turns out to be named after the intersection where it stands: the corner of McNair and Pestalozzi, three blocks east of Jefferson and two blocks north of Arsenal, in the part of town where most of the streets are named after states of the union. I don't know about you, but my reflex response when I start seeing signs for "Texas Ave." and "Minnesota Ave." is to roll my windows up and lock the doors. The first time I arrived in this neighborhood, where it looks like the grime is just starting to be washed off the old brick buildings, I was disgusted to find out that my trip was for nothing; it was a Monday, the day McLozzi Deli is closed. (Monday is a popular day for closing privately-owned restaurants in the city, especially Italian ones.) I had only my own stupidity to blame for this, so I didn't hold it against them. And anyway, it gave me a chance to eat another meal at Mangia Italiano (their Athena pizza, as I recall).

The second time I sought out McLozzi Deli, I took a less stressful route - rather than driving straight down Arsenal, which is like viewing an exhibit of urban evolution in reverse, I took I-44 to Jefferson and was there within a couple minutes of getting off the highway. That's when I had my second surprise, for inside the dusty brick building with its tinted windows so dark that you aren't sure whether the place is open or closed, I found a beautifully restored building with hardwood floors, tastefully painted walls, and a panini-sandwich deli manned by a very cultured-looking couple. Again, I didn't know how to spend the minimum purchase without buying more food than I could possibly eat. This time, I didn't worry about it. I bought an Italian (similar to a muffuletta) and a chicken cordon bleu sandwich, eating the one for supper and the other for lunch the next day. Both were excellent, but I was particularly delighted by the chicken. Finally, to use up the last of my gift certificate, I bought yet another slice of chocolate cake - a huge, extremely chocolatey slice that also lasted through more than one meal.

I won't bore you with all of my away-from-home dining experiences. Since I moved to a four-day work week - working 10 hours a day, plus 2+ hours commuting - it has been harder to resist the temptation to dine out. Basically, by the time I get out of work, I feel like I could eat a horse. So more and more often, I stop to refuel on the way home. I might mention that the burgers at O'Charley's (17276 Chesterfield Airport Rd.) are delicious, the lasagna at Mike Duffy's (6662 Clayton Rd.) makes a capital midnight snack, and the brunch buffet at Ari's (3101 S. Hampton) is a terrific deal. And you might have walked right past Emack & Bolio's, the grunge-rock ice cream shop on the corner of Arsenal and Grand - they don't have much of a sign - but you should stop in some time. Their pomegranate ice cream totally made my day. Other than that, I commend you to Restaurant Dot Com and your own journey of edible exploration.

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