Saturday, September 29, 2007

REVIEW: Mediterraneo- ** / $$$$

I was monumentally disappointed in Mediterraneo. Entering, I was generally pleased. It's a very pretty restaurant with all the architecture and design I'd expect from a supposed 4-Diamond eatery. The architecure was classy, the tables looked well-dressed, and the overall feeling was of subdued trendyness.

We had called ahead for our table and were greeted by a maître d' who was brusque at best. We were shooed upstairs where we waited around for five minutes. The upstairs was cold. Like, really cold. Sixty-degrees kind of cold. I found it acceptable, but my partner was shivering. After this random wait for a table that was supposedly set, we were sat and given water.

It took them over ten minutes to bring us our bread which was so tough that my partner had to stop halfway through her second piece because her jaw hurt. We were about to order our appetizers when we were informed we must order all at once. I'm unsure of as to why, but so be it. Another ten minutes pass before our server returns. It's now almost 30 minutes in and we have only bread. Finally, the server returns to take our orders. Our appetizer comes out, mozzarella en carozza. For $9 we got a single piece of glorified fried mozzarella. I've had its equal at places not much better than Olive Garden. It was good, certainly, but for $9 we got $.89 worth of food. It came with some random mixed greens as to seemingly say, sorry for the overpriced piece of cheese you've ordered, so have this cheap salad to help explain the cost.

Our entrees arrive. My partner's Filetto di Maialo pork loin is truly excellent. At $25, it's a bargain. The pork was tender and juicy, the breading and horseradish sauce were perfectly seasoned, and the potatoes on the side were wonderfully done. In fact, it was so good I wish I had gotten it. My ravioli all' aragosta is technically perfect, but is nothing special for $25. Yes, it comes with lobster and shrimp, but I can have similar foods for $5, maybe $8 cheaper at a number of places. At least here, the sauce is excellent. As I say, Italian food lives and dies by its sauce, and this sauce was very good.

Our desserts arrive. My molten lava cake is bad. Very bad. It's dry, luke-warm, with what could be gelato or ice cream on top. Either way, it's bad gelato/ice cream. The house-made whipped cream is good, if that makes up for anything. My partners gnutella mousse is very good, though. Rich and flavorful, it's a success, but kind of expensive. But it's got nothing on mine. Over $10 for bad cake. BAD CAKE. I can nary think of a greater crime.

All the while, an army of seemingly confused servants wander about ignoring us. I was never given water without directly asking. The tables had butchers' paper on them. You may think that picking a nit, but for such a trendy, expensive place as this, there better be a God-damned table cloth on my table. Another detail that just chapped my ass the entire night was the windows. The windows were dirty. Dirty as though they hadn't been cleaned in days, perhaps weeks. A nice thing about the upstairs is the aerial view of Atwells, where you can watch all the mid-life crisis men driving by in their Ferraris. To have that view sullied by handprints is unacceptable. The windows should be cleaned nightly.

The night finished nicely enough. Our waitress, freed from some mysterious obligations somewhere in the depths of restaurant, suddenly was aware of our existence and we received some attention. I ordered a cappuccino, which was very strong and well-brewed. Our night concluded with a complimentary shot of house-made Limoncello for a digestif. It was very good, and ice cold. Just the way it should be. Still, the good entrees and free drink can only do so much. AAA's Four-Diamond means a place of dining nirvana, not this train wreck. If AAA were to review Mediterraneo that night, their award would be stripped away, no questions asked. I expected a lot from Mediterraneo, and got very little.

I originally wrote this review for Since then, their Four-Diamond review has indeed been revoked, reduced to a Three-Diamond. Also of interest, at 11:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays it turns into some latin dance club where the bleary-eyed night-lifers of Providence swarm. I recommend avoiding it like the plague.

Mediterraneo: **
Price range for two: $50-$100

134 Atwells Ave
Providence, RI 02903

Winter Hours: October - May
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Friday 11:30 am to 10:00pm
Saturday 11:30am to 11:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm to 9:00pm

Summer Hours: June - September
Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 10:00pm
Friday 11:30am to 11:00pm
Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm
Sunday 5:00pm to 10:00pm

Thursday, September 27, 2007

REVIEW: Don Jose Tequila's- * / $$

I arrived at Don Jose Tequilas with great expectations. I had read good reviews, and been told the same by friends, and after living for so long with nothing but bad Tex-Mex at local restaurants, I relished the chance to eat real food.

It was a sad day.

The dining area was well decorated. The ambiance was cozy, warm, and not too tight. Service was quick and friendly. The margaritas ordered by the table were good, but not great. I would have called them a little weak, although everyone else seemed happy.

For our appetizers we got the Macho Nachos and Don Jose's platter. The nachos were bland, uninventive, and bland. Did I mention bland? Who the hell makes nachos without any kind of spice. They're nachos! This isn't a gas station nacho dispenser. Give me some cayenne pepper. The refried beans were luke warm and dry, the salsa was as hot as an episode of Full House, and the cheese was, for the most part, missing in action. The Platter wasn't much better. The quesadillas weren't fully cooked, the chicken was tough and over-cooked, and whatever they spiced it with tasted burnt.

For dinner, we got steak fajitas, chimichangas, and a stuffed burrito. Across the board, the meat was tough, over-cooked, and flavorless. My tortillas for my fajita were cold. The chimichanga seemed to not have been fried at all. The tortilla had no crispness, and again the spices were bland and muted. The burrito was a similar story. None of them were finished.

I was sad because there was a lot to like. It seemed like their heart was in the right place, but in the real world, you don't get an A for effort. And even then, I'm not sure what kind of effort was actually expressed. The problems were all the mistakes of either someone who doesn't care or has no skills whatsoever in the kitchen. Overcooked meat, terrible seasonings, poorly timed preparations causing some hot and some cold foods. These are transgressions of the highest caliber because a restaurateur should be long past these errors before ever opening a place.

Don Jose's may have earned two stars earlier, but after my discovery of El Tapatio, which is so vastly superior as to be almost comical, the poor haunt on Federal Hill gets tagged with the only one-star review I've written. I would not recommend this restaurant to anyone.

Don Jose Tequila's: *
Price range for two: $25-$50

Don Jose Tequila's
351 Atwells Avenue
Providence, RI. 02903

Sunday through Thursday 3:00pm to 10:00pm
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 11:00pm

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

REVIEW: Pastiche- **** / $$$

Nestled along a back road of Federal Hill, Pastiche has been serving up some of the best desserts in all of Rhode Island since 1983, and the state has been all the better for it. Combing a good selection of some of the best coffee available, unmatched desserts, a bustling and friendly staff, and perfect atmosphere, Pastiche is a total gem.

Pastiche is so perfectly decorated. The outside, the sign, everything about it would allow it to just as easily sell drapes and knitting supplies as be a cafe. It's so friendly that you expect Meg Ryan to own it. Inside is cozy and can get pretty cramped during busy hours. The table density also makes any walkable areas rather treacherous what with wait staff flying around at Mach 4 with loaded platters.

Seating is first-come-first-serve, so if you show up on a Friday at 6pm, you may have a serious wait ahead of you. I've never waited much more than fifteen minutes for a table, which highlights the quick sojourns of most patrons. Everything is comfy and welcoming. While you're waiting, you can gaze upon their large selection of cakes, tortes, custards, pies, and other girth-enhancing items so by the time you sit down you're so freaking hungry you'd just as soon eat your waiter as order something.

Once settling in, and getting a new waiter, the coffee menu is generally whelming. It's got all the usuals --mocha, latte, etc.-- but nothing that really shows the hand of an inventive barista. The coffee is some of the strongest I've ever had, if not the strongest. As if when roasting the beans, they just set them directly on fire. The deep, powerful coffee flavor is something that will probably overwhelm Americans weaned on the weak concoctions of Starbucks (nothing against Starbucks, though). They seem to hand-make their espresso, since the varying strength of the drinks betrays the absence of an automated machine. Not really a bad thing, but sometimes the coffee is masterful, and other times it's just good. The only real Baristatic (Webster! I got a new word for you!) snafu is coffee that is sometimes not just strong, but burnt. If you have complaints, though, the friendly staff will happily replace your cup.

The pastries and cakes, which change seasonally, are the real stars. Everything is made in-house, and there are so many items to try it's pointless to try and list them. The standouts are the fruit tart, which is the best in Rhode Island, a chocolate mousse cake that leaves you always wanting more, and the airy Italian mascarpone torte. Their chocolate layer cake and chocolate torte have also, on occasion, been very dry. But don't think I'm saying it was bad, because it was still fantastic, but it was a simple mistake that shouldn't have been made.

Still, no errors can really detract from the ineffable charm of this quaint, Federal Hill haunt. Fabulous coffee combined with mostly amazing desserts gives Pastiche the honor of being one of the Rhode Island's best cafes and bakeries. I make a trip at least once a month, where you'll find me, nursing my latte and notching my belt seemingly forever outward. I may grow, but at Pastiche, I grow with a smile.

All orders and pickups must be made before 7pm. Oh, and don't get the large fruit tart. Believe me, you won't finish it.

UPDATE 9/6/2008: After a number of visits, I think it should be mentioned that Pastiche has a pretty dodgey record when it comes to the espresso drinks. Drip coffee is fine, but as I mentioned in my review, the espresso was very dark. Well, I've had more than a few drinks that aren't just dark, they're burnt, really burnt. Burnt, bitter, sour, with poor milk on top. I've had some drinks that were basically unacceptable. I feel that what I wrote didn't drive the point home.

I can find no pattern, as in the drinks are only bad on weekends, so it's a crap shoot if you're going to get a well-made drink or a slapdash. I'm not going to amend my review since when the drinks are good, they're good, and the atmosphere and baked goods overcome sporadic weakness... for now. So be forewarned. If you demand the best in espresso, you may want to stick with tea.

Pastiche: ****
Price range for two: $10-$25

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Pastiche Fine Desserts
92 Spruce St
Providence, RI. 02903

Tuesday through Thursday 8:30am to 11:00pm
Friday and Saturday 8:30am to 11:30pm
Sunday 10:00am to 10:00pm

Freedom for Myanmar

As the rise of dissent continues in Myanmar, I would like to express my hope that the military does not again repress these calls for freedom with violence. I value nothing more intently than freedom and I deeply feel for those who don't have it. I really, truly hope this leads to change in the poor little country.

Three killed as Myanmar troops battle protests (Via Reuters)

REVIEW: Al Forno: **** / $$$$

Al Forno is a difficult place to review. The hype is so thick that you could almost eat it instead of the food. Much praise from a historical perspective has been lavished, seeing as it pretty much ignited the Providence dining scene, which up to that point hadn't exactly been world-class. Al Forno also remains the only Providence dining area to have two recipes used nationwide to its name: Clams Al Forno and grilled pizza. Seeing as no other restaurant in Rhode Island can claim this, that kind of makes Al Forno our de facto foody flagship.

Still, a quick check on the various restaurant review websites shows that there are many, many unhappy customers at Al Forno. Even if you assume that a happy customer tells no one and an unhappy customer tells ten, I read an awfully large number of bad reviews. After reading others’ horror stories, and experiencing a little of it myself, I’m hesitant to say 'thumbs up!', but since I can only go on myself, I must. Al Forno is one of Rhode Island’s best restaurants and certainly worthy of hype, but not as much as it gets.

The place itself is isn't exactly dressed for success. It's in some cramped little armpit of Providence with such illustrious neighbors as The Fish Company, so a constant flow of drunk 20-somethings into the street will keep your exit interesting. The area is filled with large cement blocks, overgrown weeds, trucks from a nearby truck-related-something, and a glorious view of... the hurricane barriers. During the summer a romantic after-dinner walk is also made impossible because of the ceaseless flow of derelicts fishing. I'm not kidding. Dozens of people, ALL fishing. Some of them appear decent, but unfortunately decided to bring their seventy-three children. Others look like they belong in the Star Wars Cantina. While still others may be nice people, but I can't tell because none of them speak English.

Al Forno is like a different world. The parking lot is full of luxury cars, lights glimmer from the outside dining area, and the faint sound of music and dinner chatter stand in stark contrast to the screaming of children from the seaside and the thundering of hip-hop from the bars. The inside is well appointed, well decorated, and generally very chic. It is a perfectly classic dining area and one of my local favorites. Tables are well dressed, but the chairs need a serious upgrade in the comfort department. Old window-side benches left behind from the building's original purpose are recycled as seats that have charm but no back support. I'd rather have back support.

The service I had was basically perfect. Water and wine flowed, frequent attention, and pleasant demeanor made us feel welcome. The wait was terrible, and some of the employees seemed not arrogant, as other reviews have said, but annoyed. The ceaseless flow of pretentious(!) customers could explain that. Still, it’s unacceptable. Lapses in decorum such as that just don't happen when your patrons, assholes or not, are paying well over $100 for just two people.

Also, a major, nay, ENORMOUS, knock against Al Forno is its insistence to not take reservations. When you have one of the hottest tickets in town, you take some bloody reservations. I was lucky on my most recent trips to never have a wait over thirty minutes, but waits of two hours are not uncommon. This is not TGI-Friday's. You do not have some weird philosophy about the equality of all. You are a restaurant, so take a god-damned name over the phone.

Now, on to the important stuff.

Julia Child ate here every time she was in the area, and I can certainly understand why she did so. The food is stellar. House specialties, such as Clams Al Forno and the grilled pizza margarita, are delectable. Dishes are served simple and perfectly cooked. Sometimes, too simple. The bruschetta costs a fair amount and is TRUE bruschetta, namely, toast. Put something on it!

As far as I’m concerned, their baked pasta with five cheeses is the only dish you should ever get. But, if you must deviate, the oven roasted lemon chicken breast is a treat for the mouth. Delicate, tender, slightly tangy, it’s just ab-fab. Their specials are almost always brilliant and delicious (albeit sometimes pricey) and a real reason to come back. Surprisingly, an exception is a house specialty, the Dirty Steak. It's a steak cooked directly on the hot coals of the fire. Tasty, gimmicky, and not at all worth it for over $40.

The wine list is a surprising disappointment. It was well chosen with a good selection of affordable wines. The sommelier was well trained, but the lack of breadth left the list somewhat lacking. Considering Al Forno's fame, I expected one of the best wine lists in New England. Instead, I got a merely good one.

The dessert menu, on the other hand, is one of the best, if not the best. Filled with great, inventive desserts that can be had nowhere else, I would go back for just the desserts until I weighed half a ton. They cost a pretty penny, though, ranging from $9 to $18. But believe me, they are definitely worth it. Their creme anglaise is perfect, a surprisingly rare feat. Their croque Mademoiselle is just freaking mouth-watering. The Mascarpone Sorbetto? Illegal!

Whether you think the sometimes absurd wait is worth it or not is up to you. Frankly, I’ve never eaten anywhere worth a two-hour wait and Al Forno is no different. But a one-hour wait? Now we’re talking. And this is precisely the wait you'll get in the middle of the week or during the summer when the city empties out. Al Forno is generally perfection in what it does and, flaws or not, I love it and think everyone should try.

Al Forno: ****
Price range for two: $60-$130

Al Forno
577 S Main St
Providence, RI 02903
401-273-9767 (Reservations not accepted)

Tuesday through Friday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Saturday 4:00pm to 10:00pm

Sunday, September 16, 2007

TASTE TEST: Peanut Butter

In this first of a new feature, the taste test, I'll be testing and rating various brands of something to determine a winner. In this case, I'll be testing peanut butter. My rating scale is slightly different in taste tests. I'll be dispensing with the star rating in favor of a 0-100 scale to better gauge the differences in quality and to accommodate a dynamic scale. Notes will be provided on every product tested. So on with the test!

Choosy moms choose Jif. Or so we've been told. But Skippy fuels the fun. We certainly want to have fun. And Peter Pan has repeatedly been portrayed by a woman, so I assume his peanut butter is made from avocados. All the brands have some shtick by which to lure us into their web, but who's really selling what they say? It's something I had never thought about before. When I bought peanut butter, I did just that. Good ol' pee-bee never garnered much criticism from me, just so long as my PB&J sandwiches didn't taste like gasoline, or avocados.

That changes today. I recently made a trip to the local grocery store and purchased every variety of peanut butter they had the shelves. I avoided the organic ones that I suspect hippies use as a face cream and any varieties that were pure, natural peanut butter. I only rated the sweetened, whose group includes the arch nemeses Jif and Skippy. So, the big question, which is better?

Well, as I discovered, it's not that easy. I found that Jif and Skippy were both excellent products with different takes on the same concept. They tasted different, but better or worse? I'm not so sure. Some surprises included me not liking Peter Pan and the store brands, in this case IGA, Stop & Shop, and Wal*Mart.I also disliked Skippy's Honey Nut variety. I was also surprised when I found no brand to harness all positive characteristics into a whole. I rated each variety on texture, primary taste, secondary taste, and aroma. Testing was done in the ideal environment of my kitchen counter.

Skippy Natural90
Peter Pan80
Skippy Roasted Honey Nut70
Stop & Shop60
Fun Cuisine Spongebob Squarepants55
Wal*Mart Great Value45

Skippy Natural: 90
I liked Skippy Natural's toned-down sweetness compared to ordinary Skippy. It's a much more natural flavor. As far as strength goes, this one was average for both the primary and the secondary taste. There was little aftertaste to speak of. The flavor of the peanuts is allowed to come out nicely with the limited ingredients. It's nice and smooth, but not quite as creamy as ordinary Skippy. It's still creamier than Jif, though, and much more creamy than the cement-like IGA and Wal*Mart. Skippy Natural also gets huge props for tasting better than other brands while not using any hydrogenated oils.

Skippy: 85
Skippy is very good. A good peanut flavor that's somewhat overpowered by its sweetness. It's easy to see why this brand is so loved by children; because they need everything to be at the very least 1/3rd sugar. While this isn't that sweet, it's the closest to that mark than any of the others save for the atrociously sweet Honey Nut Skippy.

Jif: 85
Jif is also very good. It's similar to Skippy, but has a darker, more mellow flavor that speaks of peanuts longer roasted. This is also the only variety to use molasses as a sweetener and that adds a distinct depth in flavor that the others lack. That dark flavor gets big props, but it's not as creamy and satisfying on the tongue. Jif is also the highest in calories, at 190 per serving. It's got the most protein, though, with a startling 8g per serving.

Peter Pan: 79
Peter Pan is a difficult rating for me. It's a bit lighter and more astringent than Skippy or Jif. It's got a stronger flavor than Jif or Skippy, but it's very light and doesn't stick around too long. It also has a smokey bite in the aftertaste indicating a dark roast to the nuts that's balanced with more sugar. Still, it's not as sweet as Skippy. I liked it well enough, but found that aftertaste to be less pleasing than Jif or Skippy.

Skippy Honey Nut: 70
The initial flavor of this was like a punch to the face. The honey over-powers the peanuts right through the palate. It's all you can taste initially, subsides a bit while chewing, and then again dominates over the peanuts in the finish. I found it cloying and unpleasant at first blush, and it just doesn't recover. I want peanut butter to taste like peanut butter, not dark honey. The very end is pleasant, though, with a wonderfully mellow flavor of darkly roasted peanuts brought out by the honey, which is the way the entire experience should have been. It's so startlingly sweet, I'm sure your kids will freaking love it.

Stop & Shop: 60
The varieties take a nose-dive after the big brands. Most of the time, I don't notice a difference between name and store brands. Apparently, in peanut butter, there is a difference. A HUGE difference. Stop & Shop is the best of the discount brands. It's flavor isn't as good as Fun Cuisine's Spongebob variety, but its texture is way better, although it's still not creamy enough to prevent surface breakage when you pull some out with your finger. The fact that this is sweetened with corn syrup and not sugar is quite apparent, but at least not to the degree as IGA.

Fun Cuisine Spongebob Squarepants: 55
Spongebob should keep his day job, because he sucks at cooking. It has a smoother flavor than Stop & Shop, something I credit to the molasses and sugar, but it's got the same paste-like consistency of IGA and Wal*Mart.

IGA: 49
What terrible peanut butter! It's edible, and it's cheaper than the others, but I'd nevereverever buy it. It's creaminess was far and away the lowest of the bunch. Its consistency was somewhere just above dried concrete. Flavor was serviceable, but the fact that IGA was sweetened with corn syrup shone through loud and clear. Its sweetness was cloying and unpleasantly fake. Its primary flavor was decent, but the closing flavor was weak. Overall peanut flavor was inadequate.

Wal*Mart Great Value: 45
Wal*Mart was even worse. It was sweetened with sugar, but I don't know what the hell happened to it. Its color is the palest of the lot. Were peanuts actually involved? I don't know! What's strange is that both this and Peter Pan are manufactured in the EXACT same facility by ConAgra foods. I guess they use the waste from Peter Pan manufacture to make this. They at least managed to make it non-poisonous, so I guess they deserve kudos for that. Just bad. Very bad.

Happy Play Doh Day!

For all of you who made fake food with Play Doh that you wanted to eat, I hope you have a happy National Play Doh Day!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

REVIEW: Spice Thai- ***1/2 / $

Nestled in a strip mall with such illustrious neighbors as an empty front, a Christian ministry, a bad pizza joint, and a nail salon lies some of Rhode Island's best Thai food. Spice Thai remains true to its heritage and its name with some serious spice on the menu.

Spice Thai is primarily a take-out place, which means that the dining area consists of three to four tables with meager table dress. If you're on your way through town and you want someplace to grab a bite, it's an adequate eating environment. The rest of the walk-in area is pretty basic, with a few paintings hung on the walls and some dividers cordoning off the back part of the restaurant.

The service is lighting-quick and very friendly. Much credit to them goes for offering delivery; something that has been a stand-by of Asian cuisine in other places but has yet to catch on in Rhode Island. Delivery is dependent on whether they actually have the person there to do so or not.

Spice Thai's menu is headlined, whether they like it or not, by the most well-known Thai dish in America, pad thai. Well, they've got nothing to worry about. It's some of the best I've had on the road. Well spiced, well cooked, well everythinged. I was impressed with first taste and have remained impressed with each of the many times I've eaten it since. It's not as complex as the pad thai I've gotten some places else, and it's not as rich as the recipe I like to make for myself, but it's better than nearby Seven Moons. Unlike their more famous competition, Spice Thai is not at all shy about pouring on the spicy flavors. If you want it hot, they will give it hot. I liked this very much.

The menu is quite large. Not as big as your average 4,000-item Chinese menu, but still containing a few dozen options. Every single one of their appetizers is very well done. Salads and soups are larger than their prices would indicate, and if you get one of them and an appetizer, forget an entree. You'll probably be full. Their noodle and rice dishes are quite excellent.

Some of their dishes are hot as hell, but a bit watery in their texture. The Volcano Chicken will knock you down, but the texture is not wholly satisfying. Entrees, like the noodle dishes, are all offered with meat, seafood, of vegetarian. I have yet to eat one I didn't enjoy. Their Sweet & Sour was especially tasty, since its texture and presentation is entirely different from the style popularized in Chinese cuisine. It was a breath of fresh air, as it were.

There are no surprises with the food. It's all basic, well-tread territory. Spice Thai does it all very well and is willing to maybe scare you a little with the spice. They will cater to a duller palate, but they'll make it hot if you want. The fact that they deliver is also utterly fantastic. I'm not sure if that will be enough to guarantee success in the face of Seven Moons and Pagoda Inn, but I certainly hope so.

UPDATE 11/20/2009: It's getting a bit confusing, but Spice Thai has changed ownership again. It passed from the original owner/founder to a local affiliated with another thai restaurant. Apparently, the founder was associated with another place in Connecticut and didn't want the trouble of two businesses.

It has since passed back to the original family, with a sister running Spice Thai. The recipes are all different, but the pad thai tasted much closer to the original than the last recipe. If you disliked what happened after the first owners left, you would be well-served to give it another shot.

UPDATE 5/13/2010: It's been this way for awhile, but I just got around to updating the page; Spice Thai is gone. Kaput. Never to return. So very, very sad. Some of the best all-around basic Thai that I've ever eaten is now gone. Well, I wish the owners the best of luck with their other operation in Connecticut. I think it's Thai One, in Branford. Not Thai One On.

Spice Thai: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30

Spice Thai
7661 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI. 02852
401-294-9888 (Delivery available over $15)

Monday through Saturday 11:00am to 10:00pm
Sunday 12:00pm to 10:00pm

Friday, September 7, 2007

REVIEW: Maharaja Buffet- ***1/2 / $

Maharaja is a buffet and most likely Montreal's best deal. As Indian cuisine goes, it's not all that inventive, and it's of bad-to-excellent quality, but there's just so much of it that you can't help but find something you like, and the price is beyond unbeatable. At $15 Canadian, this is, without doubt, the best deal in all of Montreal. It's best on weekdays, for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday cost $17, and lunch is $12, instead of $11.

The dining area is huge, so there's rarely a wait. And even if there is a wait, they get people in and out very quickly, so it's short. The dining area is well decorated. They have some nice touches, even though many of them are Wal*Mart chic, such as the paintings on the wall. I especially liked the giant, golden hookah.

The selection is so large it's pointless to to try and pick standouts. Most importantly, who cares? It's a buffet! Here, you can try everything and I recommend you do. Some of it is dodgey. Some of the chicken is very dry, and the cuts of meat aren't the best, but the recipes are all very good. Very importantly, they are not timid. There is no shortage of spice in these dishes and I loved it. Still, if you want grander presentation and higher quality ingredients, you may want to try Gandhi or Le Taj. Especially Le Taj, which doesn't up the evening's cost too much but provides better food in almost equally large amounts.

But complaining about the quality of certain foods is irrelevant. This is a buffet and you don't come here to be a gourmet. You come here to eat and to do so cheaply. And as buffets go, this is one of the best. When in Montreal, a trip to Maharaja is a must. It's dirt cheap and the food is very good. Selection is amazing. And the satisfaction of stuffing yourself silly with naan and tandoori chicken is something that will stay with you for some time.

Majaraja Buffet: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$20

1481 René-Lévesque Bld. West,
Montréal, QC H3G 1T8

Daily 11:00am to 11:00pm

REVIEW: Carlos & Pepe's- ***1/2 / $$

I love living in the United States. I love it because pretty much nowhere else on Earth are you going to find the mind boggling selection of foods available as we have them here. Even Montreal, a city I love, and also a city in very close proximity to the US, does not have the wide selection of foods available even in a small, and generally crappy, city like Providence. What Montreal needs is a little dash of spice.

Thankfully, Carlos and Pepe's delivers that spice. They sell themselves as Montreal's number one Mexican restaurant and bar. They should probably just say Montreal's ONLY Mexican restaurant and bar. Ok, it's not that bad. Montreal actually has a handful of them. Some of them are pretty good, and one of them may even be better than Carlos & Pepe's, but we'll discuss that later.

Carlos & Pepe's has a fantastic interior. It's like they went back in time and kidnapped a very tacky interior decorator from Tenochtitlan. It's great. It's so tacky, it works. The service is a well-oiled machine, and it damn well better be. Almost every night they're pushed to the breaking point by a constant stream of people. The waits can sometimes be pretty nasty, so I'd recommend just avoiding it altogether on Friday and Saturday. They also have the best specials on weekdays.

The seats and table dress are all very good. I was especially impressed by the fantastic lighting. It really sets the mood. There is also a pub upstairs that is... a pub. Basically, it's a good pub to go to since you can get the full menu upstairs as well as down. There drinks are big, colorful, full of booze, and reasonably priced. Definitely a good bar.

The nachos brought to the table are tasty and the salsa is good. No complaints there. The menu is very large and has a wide variety of Tex-Mex foods. It's all pretty basic. Nothing amazing. The prices are all excellent. Tacos are a good standby, as is the burrito. The chimichangas are what I usually get, but that probably says more about my love of chimichangas than the quality.

My major complaint is the lack of spice. I once ordered something that had a chili pepper next to it, denoting hot, and it was rather bland. I don't know if they're playing to the audience in Montreal, but what they call spicy is not what I call spicy. Other problems include tough meats that are sometimes overcooked, and stuff that should be cheesy being almost totally devoid of cheese. Minor complaints, I feel. Still, Carlos & Pepe's needs to step it up if they want to be compared favorably on all levels to Casa de Mateo. The nearby competitor is better in many ways, even though it has less than half the character of C&P's. It's food quality is usually higher, and their recipes take more chances with spice.

Also worth mentioning is La Iguana. There, Semi-traditional Tex-Mex is melded with a sort of Caribbean touch. It's very nice, but I'm not interested in that. I want Tex-Mex and only Tex-Mex. I want it hot as hell and I want steak, and for that, C&P's goes head-to-head with Casa de Mateo for dominance. No other place even compares to these two. C&P's has the larger menu and more character, but Casa de Mateo counters with better recipes and better food. I lean towards C&P's and, when in Montreal, usually found myself eating there if I wanted Tex-Mex. That could be because my Hotel was always closer to C&P's, but proximity aside, Carlos & Pepe's is a great Tex-Mex place in its own right and certainly worthy of a trip. But if it kicked it up a notch, it could be something very special.

Carlos & Pepe's: ***1/2
Price range for two: $25-50

1420 Rue Peel
Montreal, QC H3A 1S8

Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 1am
Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 2:00am
Sunday 11:30am to 12:30am

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

REVIEW: Gillian's Ale House- **1/2 / $

Gillian's Ale House is yet another local haunt where you see people you don't really want to see, so you get drunk to smooth things over. Unlike the nearby Oak Hill Tavern, though, Gillian's doesn't really have a culinary party piece to give it a reason for existing. In fact, as a restaurant, they're not half bad, but they're not half good. As a bar, again, it's a local haunt and as such it's very good at being what it's trying to be. But being that requires no skill, ambition, or endeavor.

Gillian's dining area and bar are quite nice. Warm, welcoming. Pool tables are accounted for, which is never a good sign. The dining area is certainly an afterthought here. I have never been when more than a couple people occupied it, and on a few occasions I was seemingly forgotten. Service is adequate, all in all.

The food is all well and good. Nothing is noticeably bad, and their house-made corned beef is quite excellent. But as with everything at Gillian's, the quality is inconsistent. I've eaten when the corned beef was delicious, and when it was sub-par. I've had the sirloin and it ranges from decent to badly prepared and tough. Their "tradtional Irish entrees" are rendered laughably inadequate by the presence of Fado Irish Pub... 35 miles away. It's that far, and if you actually want something Irish, it would be worth the trip.

Sandwiches are and other bar foods are all good. Nothing special, but still quite good and more than enough to satisfy some hunger pangs. They have both hot and cold and the hot get all the attention, with the selection being three times as large. Always nice are the extremely low prices. Unfortunately, the sandwich selection about eight minutes down the road at Jim's Deli is vastly superior to Gillian's. The recipes are better, the service is quicker, and the prices are, somehow, lower.

Gillian's Ale House could never survive if it wasn't relying on its status as a bar/hangout. The food is decent, but so is the food at every other local hangout nearby. And the old standby, a sandwich, is produced better by Jim's Deli. It's not bad, but there's just no reason to go to Gillian's unless you're nearby.

Gillian's Ale House: **1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30;

Gillian's Ale House
7835 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI 02852

Open Daily 11:00am to 1:00am