Thursday, April 14, 2011

Peet's Coffee WTF?!

I just went to Peet's Coffee for the very first time. I read a lot about coffee, go to a lot of cafes, and drink more than his healthy. I can say pretty definitively that Starbucks is the target of buttloads of animosity and is referenced derisively as Charbucks more often than not, while the other major chain, Peet's, is always spoken of in not-so-quiet reverence. The phrasing of this criticism is usually how only idiots go to Starbucks, and those who really know coffee will always go to Peet's instead.

Well all I can say to that is WTFUCK?! Their food selection was quite good. Better than Starbucks' currently is, even though the selection at the 'Bucks is a bit wider. If Peet's food has always been this good, then yes, their food was much better than Starbucks before they changed all of their recipes and food selections.

But it's the coffee that matters at a coffee shop, and it's here that had me shocked. For one, I was blown away, literally blown away! It was Boston. I was shot while waiting in line. But after getting out of the hospital a couple of months later, I returned and picked up the latte that I had ordered. It was a bit old, so I ordered a new one.

First off, Starbucks is lampooned by those in the know for using what are known as super-auto machines. These are the machines that grind, tamp, espress, and almost automatically steam milk. The problem with these machines is that while they can be operated by a trained chimp, the espresso is never as good as from a traditional grinder/machine setup, and the milk foam is never anywhere close. So color me surprised when I walked up to the counter and saw two super-auto machines pumping away behind the counter.

It was a Schaerer, a brand of which I know, but have never seen one in actual use. At least it's not the Frankes that Panera Breads use. Panera has some truly awful espresso. The espresso itself tasted alright. The machine was obviously well-calibrated and clean. The problem, though, is that a latte from Starbucks, when (...when) their machines are well-calibrated, they taste just as good. Worse still, just like Starbucks rather frequently, the milk foam was atrocious. Look at it!

That's terrible foam! I don't get commercial super-auto machines. I owned a Jura Capresso Z5 for years, and while it took a little tweaking, I was able to squeeze out some really good milk foam and espresso. These are commercial machines that frequently cost eight times as much and the product is either only comparable or inferior. Just compare that Peet's latte to this one, made with the $3,000 Jura Capresso Z5, and the next one, which was made with a $2,000 semi-auto espresso machine.

Peet's coffee is so far behind those two examples as to be akin to putting Jessie Owens in the Special Olympics. If Peet's Coffee is like this at every location, then I can safely say that those who mock Starbucks and espouse Peet's are the ones who actually know nothing about coffee. You can work yourself into a self-important, anti-corporate rage all you want; Starbucks isn't too bad.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

QUICKVIEW: Church- +++ / $$

I don't like Boston. It's a nightmare to navigate, everything costs a fortune, and parking is insane on every day of the week. At least in Providence, weekends provide some degree of reprieve, and in the summers, the city is damned near empty. Boston has none of these advantages. So it was with great distaste that I traveled to Beantown for a photography show in which my sister was participating. Both girlfriend and parents were in attendance, and we planned dinner after the show, before the driver arrived to pick us up.

First off, Boston is actually quite nice when one is walking. Granted, I was in a state of ninja-like heightened awareness the entire time since I assumed that every person we passed was, in fact, a mugger. But other than my urine-soaked underpants, the day went off well. A high point was Dinner, which didn't fulfill any of my fears about inner city life. My sister's apartment was less than a five minute walk from an entire street of restaurants, driving home how great it is to be able to walk to everything, and one that stood out was Church.

It's website was urban and hip, menu was good, and prices were amazingly reasonable. The bar selection was excellent for such a small bar, and the wine list was commendable if unremarkable. The interior was, again, hip and modern. It was romantically lit, but not too bad. Unlike other "romantic" restaurants, you could actually see your food. I liked the modern style, deep reds and browns, and candles littering the walls. If I have a criticism of the interior design, it's semantic. Why is this place called Church when there isn't even the slightest homage to a church in the place? At least nail someone to the wall.

Service was excellent. Attentive, but not too. Polite, fast, and trained in all of the professional flourishes that evince a highly polished management team. The selection is primarily comfort food with an acceptable amount of innovation. What really stands out, though, is how affordable everything is. Only two items break the $20 barrier, with most in the mid-teens. It seems that much of the menu is meant as an accompaniment to drinks, providing nibbles in between attempts at getting laid. The music venue attached to the restaurant supports this assumption.

The margherita flatbread was good and fairly priced at $5. The bread itself was soft and chewy on the inside, with good texture, but was good and crispy on the outside. The sauce was a very simple and extremely flavorful tomato sauce. I like my sauce with more complexity, but I can't fault the quality. Mozarella was fresh and mild, and the basil had acceptable kick.

Entrees included the macaroni and cheese, which was... macaroni and cheese. The cheese was rich, and it certainly wasn't the bland, creamy, mouth-filling "blah" that many mac-&-cheeses are, and the churizo added acceptable bite, so thumbs up. The artisan pasta was disappointing. It was expensive for a small serving and didn't stand alone as an entree. The pasta was perfectly cooked, and the large dollop of delicious goat cheese on top was well-placed, but that was it. Spinach, cheese, and some noodles for $16? That's rough. The steak sandwich, on the other hand, was a good deal for $12 with flavorful-yet-tender meat and being well-prepared. Steak tips were a mixed bag. The tips themselves were tender enough but not very flavorful, and they would have been well-served by a spicy sauce alongside them. This disappointment was eased by the excellent Parmesan and truffle french fries and perfectly prepared asparagus which were served beside the tips. The Buttermilk fried chicken and waffle was a great take on some rich comfort food. It was a small serving but still well-priced at $8. It would make a great appetizer for two people.

The size of the menu and the fact that some of their items are homeruns (appropriate considering their proximity to Fenway) outweighs some of their stumbles. I suspect that if I lived in Boston, I would find myself at Church regularly. It's affordable, with good food, and a very enjoyable dining area. Moreover, as I mentioned, it's one part of a duo with its counterpart being a music venue that looks suitably like a wanna-be, but not quite as dirty, CBGB.

As the Church website so subtly puts it, they provide "music. food. booze." I guess it's best to be direct about these things. So if that three word mission statement sounds good to you, give Church a shot. I'm sure that you'll be satisfied.

Church: +++

69 Kilmarnock Street
Boston, MA 02215-4821
(617) 236-7600

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Monday through Friday 5:00pm to 12:00am
Saturday & Sunday 11:00am to 12:00am
Every day 5:00pm to 2:00am

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Starbucks' Mini Cupcake

I had one of Starbucks' mini cupcakes. It was pretty good. Still too heavy on the icing, but I'm getting used to that from mass-market cupcakes. It's better than anything I've ever had from a supermarket, so that's something, but at $1.50 for one, $2.50 for two, it's a little pricy. The whoopie pie isn't terribly good, the brownie was decent, and the cake "popsicles" are just stupid ideas, even if they taste alright.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

REVIEW: Five Guys Burger and Fries- ***1/2 / $

Oh frabjous day, callooh callay, I chortled as I ate. I have lived to see a time when fast food is legitimately good! That day has been here for years, in some areas of the country, but around Rhode Island, we've been wallowing in fast food hell. In-N-Out, Sonic, Carl's Jr.; none of these venerable restaurants are anywhere near us. When Chipotle arrived, we finally had a taste of what really great fast food could taste like, and the wait for a burger joint of equal quality was just freaking interminable.

We have Beef Barn in Cumberland, which is just as good as the best fast food, and even cheaper(!), but it's out in the middle of nowhere. I want something that's on every street corner like McDonald's... but good, unlike McDonald's. Well, Rhode Island might not have one on every corner yet, but we finally have two locations of a brand that could, conceivably, one day, have a whole bunch of locations peppering New England: Five Guys.

I have no idea why it's called Five Guys; it was started by two guys, and one of them was a woman (UPDATE: I have since found out why. The five guys were the husband and his four sons, even though the actual owners were the husband/wife team). Truly, the branding was so terrible that I assumed that it was some crappy local joint destined for failure when the location on Route 2 in Warwick opened up. But no, it's actually a large franchise with over 600 locations in North America, with more undoubtedly on the way. Even better, they've been winning awards with their burgers, even topping the legendary In-N-Out in a recent Zagat survey.

After hearing this, I set about to try them. A grueling journey of nearly twelve minutes exhausted all of our resources, and we were half-dead upon arriving. Thankfully, free peanuts that are available by the front door provided succor. Oh, and about the free peanuts, it's nice that they've chosen to provide sanitary, clean, easy-to-use paper baskets to load up. The only other place that I know of to provide free peanuts is Texas Road House, which serves them up as part of some grotesque schtick where you shell the nut and throw the remnants on the ground. It's just like a local bar, h'yuk! Fuck you. No it's not. It's disgusting. Give me a trash can.

It was a Saturday at about 5:00pm, so I'm assuming that this isn't always the case, but the place was bedlam. There was a long line, and the dining area was about 75% full. The sheer size of the kitchen staff blew my mind. They must have had ten people grinding away behind the counter, with perhaps more in reserve. The crew size paid off, though, with lots of orders coming out with great speed. It was slightly slower than, say, a McDonald's, but not by much, and faster than a Johnny Rockets.

The noise level in the dining area was "intense" according to my girlfriend, Danielle. People in the kitchen were yelling information to each other, people were yelling at each other in the dining room. The line waiting for orders to come out was squeezed in with the condiments and soda. As Danielle put it, "I think I have shell shock from what just happened." The energy level is much higher than any other fast food place at which I've eaten, even Chipotle during the rush. It's something that I can certainly deal with, but it's also something that I would avoid if possible.

Prices are excellent. I came into the place and, coming from a restaurant management perspective, the amount of money that they're spending on labor must be enormous. Well, it's easy to see how this works. They are selling in bulk, and they don't really give you an option to not buy in bulk. It's in this way that their prices are not that much higher than McDonald's. Five Guys' cheese burger is $4.99, which includes two patties by default, and ALL toppings are included in the price. McDonald's Angus burger is $3.99, with a similar level of toppings, and only one patty. You can opt to buy single-patty burgers, which are called, ahem, little hamburgers. This is still a huge hunk of food, and further illustrates their business model of forcing bulk on you. They further default to bulk delivery with the french fries, where even a small overflows from their serving cup and partially fills the bag in which they're stored. A large fry is honestly the equivalent of two whole potatoes.

When I ate the Angus burger from McDonald's, it didn't taste half-bad. The problem was that it tasted like the best McDonald's burger that I had ever eaten. The bread still had this odd sweetness that McDonald's bread has, the cheese was still crap, and the burger tasted like a McDonald's burger, just better. Five Guys tastes like a burger. Their patty is very beefy, with very little seasoning (which I would have kinda' liked). It's tender, juicy but not too, and not at all greasy. I ran across a single hard bit in the beef, but that did little to detract from the impression of quality. The toppings were crispy and fresh, and there are OH so many of them, and the bacon was delicious. It tasted like real, fresh, hot bacon. Not rubbery strips that have been sitting in an oven for hours. The only disappointment was the cheese, which was crappy American cheese, with no option for any other kind. I guess fast food has to have its calling card somewhere. Make no mistake, though, these are, without doubt, the best fast food burgers available.

The french fries offered a similar impression of quality. It's obvious that fries are a popular item, since their supply of potatoes has overflowed into the dining area. Bags of the little spuds were everywhere. They're a bit soft for my taste, but perfectly seasoned, popping with fresh potato flavor, and hot, hot, hot. I very much enjoyed the Cajun seasoned fries, which tasted like real Cajun spices, like, paprika! Spicy! I'd ditch the ordinary fries for Cajun on every visit.

By the end, I was done with my burger, and not even halfway through my small fries. Danielle couldn't finish either, and a girl next to me at the counter couldn't finish her single-patty burger. These are large, hearty burgers for very little money. I was not as impressed here as I was with Chipotle, which really blew me away with the incredible quality of every item, but at the same time, Chipotle is significantly more expensive, with all menu items at $6 or more. Still, I see them both standing in the same vanguard of quality fast food that is sweeping the nation.

All of this makes me ponder the state of fast food in the United States. McDonald's, Burger King, and all of the old guard have built up large numbers of locations, extremely advanced logistics, and an almost unreal level of quality control. But at the same time, they've built up reputations as fast food, and that means crappy quality.

We first saw market segmentation with the emergence of so-called casual dining restaurants like TGI Fridays, which upped the price and service, but not so high as to be competing with expensive, singular restaurants. This pressure in the middle of the market caused many, if not most, of previously expensive restaurants to adapt some of the trappings of casual dining, such as no dress codes.

McDonald's and the rest of the fast food industry, instead of increasing quality or selection, doubled down on price to compete. Prices either dropped or stayed the same regardless of inflation, and we saw the emergence of dollar menus. What this threatens to do, though, is amplify the market and demographic segmentation, creating the dietary haves and have-nots. Those that can afford to spend a little more will continue to do so, forcing fast food to drop prices and quality even further in an effort to spur growth. But this will drive more of their demographic up-market, and the feed-back loop continues. We'll eventually end up with casual dining and high-end fast food like Chipotle serving the middle class, and traditional fast food serving the bottom 10% increasingly bad food, thus further relegating this demographic to an eternity in the lowest echelons of society.

I think that McDonald's was aware of this destiny way back in the 1990's when they introduced the Arch Deluxe. It was a disaster for them, but that insight into the direction of the market is probably why they're doing gangbusters business while Wendy's and Burger King fight for small growth numbers (McD's is about three times the size of BK, but does TEN TIMES the revenue). They absolutely don't want to be the company that's shoveling slop into the mouths of the lowest of the low demographic.

Perhaps this is too complex a subject for a simple restaurant review, but sitting in Five Guys, eating a legitimately good hamburger, and leaving with a stomach bursting at the seams for less than $6, I realize that McDonald's has problems on the horizon, and it's only going to get worse.

Five Guys Burger and Fries: ***1/2

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Most locations open daily from 11:00am to 10:00pm