Saturday, January 26, 2008

REVIEW: Chipotle Mexican Grill- *** / $

Chipotle Mexican Grill is one of those major chains invading our precious state. If only they could all be as good. Taking the place of the old Bickford's RT 2 location, Chipotle has completely renovated the old place, oddly, shrinking the dining area to less than half its original size. While I vaguely miss the Bickford's, its existence always seemed a bit strange, what with two more Bickford's within ten minutes drive from the spot.

The whole place is compact and extremely austere in decor. Lots of metal and bare wood give it an industrial look that's, well, different. I like it well enough, but it's far from cozy and could hardly be described as inviting. It's appropriate, since this is what can be best seen as the modern evolution of fast food.

I don't mean that to sound bad. It is fast food, for sure. If you define fast food as food that is cooked in advance and stored for quick, assembly line-like delivery, that's what this is. The business model of storing the specific bits of food along an assembly line that the customer can travel with the server is a model that's just exploding. Chipotle is certainly far from unique. Another example is the nearby Fresh City. They all even have similar resource models; using as many local ingredients as possible and then advertising that fact.

Chipotle does this model well, though. It doesn't have anywhere near the great selection at Fresh City, but it does its whole Tex-mex thang suitably well. They've got tacos, burritos, fajitas, and salads. It's all made with the same basic ingredients, namely two beefs, chicken, pork, lettuce, sauces, rice, and beans. It's not much, but that's not the point of Chipotle. It's to deliver a quick burrito or taco that actually tastes good. To be sure, Chipotle has Taco Bell square in its sights. This is an edible Taco Bell. You're in, you order, and can be out in less than five minutes. All options cost less than $6, and every one will fill you up.

So, now, I can actually say that I do eat fast food. This is fast food and the old guard of the institution had damn well better be afraid. Because unlike them, this isn't just some cheap crap to fill you up. This is good food in its own right, and the dawning of a new era in what you eat while stuck in rush hour.

Chipotle: ***
Price range for two: $10-15

969 Bald Hill Road
Warwick, RI 02886

All week 11:00am to 10:00pm

REVIEW: Caffe Bon Ami- ***1/2 / $

I'm going to start reviewing cafes. Good places to get more than a cup of joe are pretty lean outside of the Providence area, and I figured it was time to start seeking them out. While I've reviewed a few non-restaurant places in the past, they all had the common thread of food service. In my cafe reviews, I'll check out places that serve primarily coffee.

After a big, hearty dinner at Feast or Famine, we decided we wanted coffee. Feast or Famine's espresso machine has been broken pretty much since the beginning of time, and even before then the espresso was only OK. I wanted a big, hearty cappuccino.

On the way up, I had spotted a cafe just before which looked very well-appointed and just screaming for a visit. And who am I to deny a talking building? Caffe Bon Ami is wonderfully appointed indeed. The chairs and tables look fabulous, there's a variety of plants in the corners, and the usual array of Italian-ish pictures purchased at Wal*Mart adorn the walls. Luckily, the rest of the place is well done enough where the few smatterings of tack don't ruin it. Overall, the place is very Euro-chic. Humorously, as of this writing, one of the key words on Google Maps for Caffe Bon Ami was "pretentious." A little bit, but I've seen much worse. *Cough*Mediterraneo!*Cough*

Large doors in the front of the building open up during warm summer nights to allow the front stone porch to fill with caffeinated coffee-swillers and some nice speakers provide enough music for atmosphere. They have a variety of Big Train Chai for some pretty standard prices, and a selection of random coffee and tea-related goodies (Like a nice-looking cast iron teapot). On one side of the cafe they have a selection of bean coffees for bagging and selling. While this looks really nice and adds an air of gourmet-chic, any coffee lover will tell you that open-air beans is the worst way to store coffee.

Service was very friendly and looked suitably bohemian. One of the women there was apparently a family member, perhaps the mother of the owner, judging from the picture on the shelf. Overall service is as quick as can be and produces some very good espresso. They have a wonderful-looking and well-worn semi-automatic machine (sorry for all the hyphens) in the back, and a large selection of teas, Big Train chai, coffee, espresso, and juices. They also have a good-looking selection of brownies, something with caramel in it, and other such gut-busting "immondizia delizioso." Nothing amazing, but a good selection to compliment the coffee.

The selection of drinks is one of the better ones I've come across. Since this is a cafe and not much else, this is a good thing. I don't understand cafes that serve primarily coffee and have such small menus. Diversify, for Pete's sake! Prices are competitive across the board. Three drinks came to about $10, very reasonable,♦ and they have an adorable selection of mugs and cups if you drink it there.

Tea, mocha, and chai were all ordered. The chai was... chai. It was Big Train. Very good, but it's very good everywhere. The tea was also excellent. The mocha was very well-prepared, with a good heap of dense, light foam on top. I requested whole milk, which is harder to steam than 2% or less, which means the barista actually knew what she was doing. Shocker!

Their cinnamon on top was sweet and not very strong. I think it may be a sugar/cinnamon mix, or it may just be sweet cinnamon. I'm not sure. Nevertheless, it was good. The espresso had a good, strong coffee flavor. Tasted Columbian to me, but in a mocha it's hard to tell. Big kudos goes to them for not dumping half a barrel of cocoa into the mocha. I find that lots of places think "the more chocolate, the better!", a crime even the venerable White Electric Coffee and Pastiche are guilty of, which completely ruins the taste of the coffee. Coffee and chocolate compliment each other very well and a mocha is designed to express that.

Overall, I was impressed with Caffe Bon Ami. It doesn't break any ground, but it does everything it sets out to do very well. The selection is wide, the atmosphere is excellent, service is excellent, and it makes no errors in its coffee offerings. They don't do anything amazing to really set it apart, but doing everything well is an achievement in and of itself, which raises Caffe Bon Ami to an above-average status that's totally worthy of your time and dime.

Caffe Bon Ami: ***1/2
Price range for two: $5-$15

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Caffe Bon Ami
1082 Park Ave
Cranston, RI. 02910

Monday through Wednesday 7:00am to 5:00pm
Thursday 7:00am to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 7:00am to 11:00pm
Sunday 8:00am to 1:00pm

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fifty best, Bah!

Everyone loves French food!

You love it! I love it! And most importantly, food critics the world over freaking LOVE IT! Evidence to support this is in the most recent S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants List. Restaurants in France, not counting Le Louis XV in Monaco, won an entirely unmatched 12 positions on the top 50, with 18 in the top 100. In the top fifty, that was the same number as the USA, Australia, Belgium, and Denmark combined. Canada, Japan, and China didn't even make the list at all. You're trying to tell me that a country with a population of 64 million, less than one percent of the global population, is producing over ten percent of the best food. Please! The entire country would have to be involved in cooking! And I know France. They spend far too much time smoking to do that.

Now don't get me wrong. I love French food. Some of my best times have been in restaurants that serve French or have a French skew to their food. What annoys me is that French food is seen as the ultimate cuisine. I think French food is so amazingly popular because the French managed to make something that moms the world over were doing for free, really, REALLY expensive. I can only assume there is a sense of elitism going on.

If you surveyed a random assortment of, say, New Yorkers (Because NY has the widest array of flavors I can think of), to list their favorite restaurants, French food would show up as would be expected based on the number of French restaurants in New York. Ask your average food critic, and her list would be overflowing with French cuisine. There's a disconnect here that the food critic's "finely tuned palate" does not explain. And if you want evidence of this, look no further than While it's a subsidiary of a French guide, it is, as far as I know, fully American-staffed. Their Top-40 in America list reads like a French shopping list. Ten of the names are in French.

I don't think this obsession is on the part of the chefs. Every great chef who is born does not automatically gravitate towards French cooking. They branch out. They expand. They work on what they knew and loved as a child or they explode into new, unexplored areas. I think the scattering of great chefs would be even throughout the cuisines. That can only mean the published adoration of French food is on the side of critic and some bias there. And bias is ALL over this idiotic 50-Best list.

Granted, this may also be a symptom of the Michelin Guide. Up until very recently, the Michelin guide only rated Europe, and most heavily documented France. And being, rightfully, as respected as it is, food critics would wander according to the guide. But come ON! Don't food critics read the interwebpipes? Don't they watch The Travel Channel or The Food Channel. Read a book by Anthony Bourdain, for God's sake. Japan is a gourmands dream! They are just as obsessive with food as any restaurant in any other part of the world.

And I hope that the Michelin Guide's newest releases, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Tokyo begin to eliminate this absurd French bent. Tokyo was awarded 117 one-star awards, 25 two-star awards, and an astounding 8 three-star awards. This is three times New York's star-count and nearly twice Paris. Yes! Recognition that French food isn't all there is!

Now, while it sounds like I accept this list as credible at least from an opinion standpoint, I actually don't. It's worse than opinion. It's uninformed, forced opinion. If you read the procedure for the formation of the list, you'll find that people cast a vote for their list of five best. They cannot vote for their own and they can only vote for two in their own region. And, finally, any restaurant they vote for must have been visited within the past 18 months. Now, coming at this from a perspective of experimental design, this is a nightmare! Any data collected would be useless!

What if the person actually thinks that four of the best restaurants on Earth are in her region? Forcing people to vote outside does not eliminate bias, it introduces it by forcing people to vote for places that they have recently visited, or can lie about recently visiting and just read about. And if we're dealing with restaurant owners, where will they have gone in the past 18 months? They're too busy running their restaurant.

This leads to the aforementioned Michelin Bias. These reviewers are likely not super-wealthy. They cannot afford to go from Tokyo, to Paris, to New York, to Sao Paulo, all the while blowing huge amounts of money at the world's most expensive restaurants. To get anywhere near votes of any merit the panel would need to consist of globe-trotting rich people and professional critics who get paid a lot more than me. As such, places rated by major guides will get all the attention, vis a vis, France.

But this is terrible! It draws attention away from other places, be it international like Tokyo, or local like that dynamite sushi place down the street from Le Réstaurânt Expênsïve, other places that deserve the attention because they're producing great food for half the price, the pomp, or both.

Now a list by Anthony Bourdain, there's a list I'd read.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Asia Grille- +++ / $

Asia Grille was a treat during some wanderings up north-ways. Another sign of how the quality of Chinese food is increasing in Rhode Island. The inside is sparsely decorated and well designed. It's very airy and large. Service is quick and friendly and the bar always seems hopping. The menu is as large as you would expect of a Chinese place, with the usual suspects: sweet & sour, shrimp, pork, General Tso's, etc. Everything is very well made and easily the match of my favorite place down south-ways, Pagoda Inn. In fact, the consistency of the quality exceeds them. I'm not as big a fan of the crab rangoons, here, as I am at Pagoda, but other things are better, like the beef teriyaki. Take-out is fast and servings are large. Asia Grille is the best Chinese I've had in the northern part of the state.

Asia Grille: +++
Price range for two: $15-$30

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Asia Grille
622 George Washington Hwy (Lincoln Mall Plaza)
Lincoln, RI 02865