Friday, November 30, 2012

microREVIEW: Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper Salsa

This is the best, super-hot salsa on the market. It is fruity, spicy, and roasty. Many salsa and sauce manufacturers are willing to sacrifice flavor in the quest to make something as hot as possible. The products end up tasting like fiery-hot butt. This tastes like good salsa, just hotter than 95% of the population can handle. It is hot enough to trigger spontaneous nausea. A truly great product for the adventurous.

Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper Salsa: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

QUICKVIEW: Ralph's Bull & Claw - +++

Ralp's Bull & Claw is your standard sort of local haunt with a massive menu. It's very Rhode Island, very local, and very good.

The location isn't the best place, but it's not bad, either. Ralph's is situated along Charles Street in North Providence, right along the Pawtucket line. It's north enough to not be in the increasingly bad areas farther south, but not north enough to be part of the more expensive locations into Lincoln. The atmosphere and clientele is precisely what one would expect from the location: a sitcom cliche. I was sat next to a group of people that seemed like family members from the movie Moonstruck.

The interior is nice enough. Standard family restaurant designs. The building is much larger than the small frontage indicates. There's lots of natural light. Essentially, nothing about which I could complain.

Service was a bit slow since they were busy for reasons that I will explain. Our waiter was friendly, attentive, and at ease in her job.

The food was very good. Frequently, local haunts have a tendency to serve bland food. I think that it's just a side effect of running a business that isn't interested in delivering gourmet experimentation, and is instead focused on delivering good food to people that simply want good food.

And that's the important thing. Everything was good. The dinner bread is one of the best presentations that I've ever seen: two, big boules of Italian bread, freshly baked. No pretensiousness. No nothing. Just good bread with butter on the side. They say, and by they I mean Janeane Garofalo's character from the film Ratatouille, that you can tell good bread by its sound. Well this bread sounded great. Many gourmet restaurants would do well to take a page from this no-nonsense approach. Don't give me weird breads filled with nuts and currants. Or some strange, house-made sourdough. Just give me bread, baked, with butter.

The soup was loaded with vegetables and pasta, and had good punch to it. Not in the slightest bit bland. The baked stuffed sole was super-sweet and a table favorite, but it was a bit overwhelmed by its butter sauce. I would have liked a much lighter drizzle. The seafood casserole was well-balanced, without being swamped in stuffing, cheese, or sauce as many places do. And the gorgonzola sauce on top of a steak was mellow and not too pungent.

There were a few things to pick on. The steak wasn't the best cut, but it was still good, flavorful, and well-prepared. The vegetable wasn't much of one, simply being some steamed kale and olives next to mashed potatoes. But these things, insofar as being negative, aren't much worthy of note. Especially when you consider their ace in the hole: half-price Sundays.

Every second and last Sunday of the month, everything on the menu, and I mean everything, is half priced. A $30 steak drops to $15. My baked stuffed sole was only $9. Gorgonzola steak: $11. When you think about the mark-up generally required to keep a restaurant churning, they're probably reducing their price down to around, or maybe even below, the break-even point, so it's a good attention-getter for them, while costing only a little.

Now you understand why service was a bit slow. The dining room wasn't swamped, but I'm sure that they handle waves of people coming in throughout the day, which does much to diminish pre-prepared supplies.

This promotion makes Ralph's perhaps the single best deal in all of Rhode Island. I don't consider that an exaggeration. I can't think of any other restaurants with prices like this for a menu like this. Good for great prices is, in my mind, better than great food for good prices.

With a menu for everyone, the best deal in Rhode Island, a friendly personality, and good service, Ralph's is the kind of place that I would default to when I don't know what else to get. There are few restaurants that I would describe as an excellent place to bring the family, but Ralph's is one of them. Now all I have to do is find a family.

Ralph's Bull & Claw: +++

1027 Charles Street
North Providence, RI 02904

View Larger Map

Friday, November 23, 2012

QUICKVIEW: LJ'S Barbeque- +++/$$

Barbeque: the only truly American form of cooking.

I'm not joking. Barbeque is the only form of cooking unique to the New World. It's believed to have originated in the Carribean islands and then migrated out onto the mainland, and eventually into the culture of European explorers and, ultimately, people in Rhode Island.

And speaking of Rhode Island, we have a surprisingly robust selection of BBQ considering our distance from the food's genesis. Along with the subject of this article, we have Wes's Rib House, Smokey Bones, Rick's Roadhouse, Ribs & Company, and the various bbq-ish options at the various chain restaurants in various towns.

I had previously been completely satisfied going to Smokey Bones whenever the urge for ribs and pulled pork struck me, but after its recent purchase and transformation into a "fire grille," the mind-numbingly overt sexism has soured me to the place. Women are used exclusively as decoration and they all but declare that men are beer-swilling, sports and sex-obsessed, humanoid buffalo.

Oh yes. I love being made to feel like a cro-magnon when eating my ribs.

Smokey Bones' homepage currently features a "hot babe" serving beer. If you click on their "About Us" section, you have another hot babe serving beer. Look!

The Smokey Bones Home Page. Yes. Please. Take a look around at all of our beer and breasts.

The About Us page that says everything about them that matters.
Let's break down and analyze their About Us page.
At Smokey Bones, we specialize in three things: good food, good drinks and good times.
That's it? As a restaurant, you should specialize in a few more things than just that. Like organization and operation, cleaning, refrigeration, and other such important things for running a place that serves food like knowing how to use a goddamned Oxford comma. And also, what is this? Cheers?
We are a bar and fire grill, but not necessarily in that order.
Oh good! I was worried for a moment. This "fire grille" garbage has been positively shoe-horned into everything they make, as though the marketing guys think that by taking a stupid idea and simply making it omnipresent somehow negates its stupidity.
We are grill masters who respect the power of the open flame. We like simple, yet flavorful recipes and believe marinating is not to be taken lightly. We know medium-rare isn’t the only way to cook a steak, but believe it should be.
This is completely acceptable marketing speak.
We believe pork should be slow smoked and pulled often.
I think this may be a masturbation reference.
Slow, as in 11 hours over hickory logs every night, and often, as in every day at every restaurant.
This is an excellent sentence. It makes me want to visit the restaurant.
We know it’s our bartenders that make our drinks great, not the liquor. Although the liquor doesn’t hurt. We think beer should be ice cold and consumed regularly.
Because obviously, the more attractive the woman, the better the beer from the tap. And doesn't Smokey Bones think that encouraging alcoholism is a bad idea?
We know our servers bring much more than food to the table.
Indeed. They also bring boobs. I'm not kidding. I cannot think of a single restaurant where a greater percentage of the servers are female aside from Hooters.
We are big fans of sports, loud music and surprises.
Why in the bloody blue fuck would I want surprises at a restaurant? I want food as expected. If I order a burger, and get a bowl of fruit, I'll damn well be surprised. I'll also be angry.
And we believe in laughing often, especially at ourselves.
This is good, because you are laughable.

You can understand why the atmosphere has become intolerable over time.

So it was with great relief that I found LJ's to have the air of a local joint, populated by locals from the surrounding neighborhoods, without any insultingly stupid marketing statement defining the restaurant's character. Do you know what's on LJ's website? Pictures of food. How novel.

The interior is simple. The place settings are utilitarian, with whole rolls of rough paper towels at every table. They provide squeeze bottles with house-made BBQ sauce, and a wider variety of hot sauces than is likely necessary. The closest thing that I can think of as a competitor is The Oak Hill Tavern in South County.

The wait staff was friendly and decently fast. The menu is very large and priced well. They offer a prix fixe option for $20 that includes an appetizer, two sides, corn bread, dessert, and a beer. Platters are usually in the $10-$20 range and offer an enormous amount of food for little money. Even if the food was merely adequate, LJ's would be a good deal.

And the food is much more than adequate. This is the real deal. This is not the crap "BBQ" that you get at places like Chile's. Their babyback ribs were just fatty enough and just firm enough to provide some satisfaction in biting while still falling off the bone. Their spice rub is muted and austere, perhaps a bit too, but when combined with a light drizzle of their sweet house cause becomes an excellent representation of the meal. Their pulled pork is on the fatty side, but is soft and flavorful as a result. And holy crap, do they give you a lot of pulled pork. Two mounds of it took up over half of the plate. You will consume a significant percentage of a pig with this meal. And again, all of these choices come with two sides and cornbread for the price.

Their platters represent a small portion of the menu, though. They have sandwiches, burgers, grilled pizza, and soups/salads. Their burgers were a good representation of the difference between this place and other restaurants and the subtle value that is available. At Smokey Bones, they have long since ditched providing a side with their burgers. They still aren't a bad deal, mind you, but this is what I mean when I talk about the fundamental difference between a local restaurant and a chain. At Smokey Bones, with dozens of locations, not including a side dish with their burgers could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra annual revenue. At LJ's, it may equal a couple hundred. There is little motivation to skimp, and thus they don't. For the same price, at LJ's, you get a side. To me, that matters.

And about those sides, their french fries were surprisingly good. Crispy and light and tasting like they were made from fresh potatoes, which I'm assuming they were. Their house beans were a little thin — I like my baked beans thick with bacon, beans, and fillings — but sweet and good. Their candied yams were candied and yammy. Basically, all good on the Western front.

Everything we had was good. The atmosphere was good. The service was good. The food was everything I could have hoped for, and even a bit more. And that is what LJ's is about: the food. It's not about sports, or idiotic slogans, or puns, or packaging. It's about food, made with skill, and served up for a fair price. I will be returning to LJ's soon, with slow-cooked pig on my mind.

LJ's Barbeque: +++

727 East Avenue
Pawtucket, RI 02860
Delivery: 401-353-4121

View Larger Map

Monday, November 19, 2012

Recommended Desserts For Thanksgiving And Beyond

Every year, I make sure to mention the best places to get pies for the holidays. Pies are a special thing. You can't simply mix up ingredients, put it in an oven, and have it be fine. You have to choose your ingredients carefully, prepare them correctly, then add them all together for baking.

For example, I so rarely find an apple pie that has the apple pieces cut up into small, thin slices. This is important because it increases the surface area on which the cinnamon, sugar, and acid interact, providing that rich, tart flavor. Go buy an apple pie at your local grocery store: huge chunks of apple.

Obviously, your best course of action is to make the pies yourself and get it just right. But if you don't have the time, and during the holidays time is at a premium, you want to get the best.

#1: The Village Hearth, Jamestown
I haven't been to The Village Hearth in some time, but it doesn't matter. I know the kind of person who runs it: dedicated, passionate, skilled. Their dough is house-made, their ingredients of the utmost freshness, and their preparation flawless.

Their prices aren't out in la-la land, either. Everything they sell is competitively priced, and when you consider the quality of their food, it becomes an absolute bargain. The only problem is their capacity, meaning that they sell out pretty early. To guarantee your pie, make sure to order early.

For your holiday pies, I cannot recommend The Village Hearth enough.

#2: Pastiche, Providence
I think everyone saw this one coming. Pastiche has been a fixture in the Providence dessert scene for nearly three decades. Much like The Village Hearth, they know how to prepare their fruit before.

In comparison to The Village Hearth, Pastiche's recipes fall a bit short. They aren't as rich or delicately prepared. It's as though everything is taken down by a notch. This may be a philosophical issue, where Pastiche feels that they should leave everything slightly more mellow. All I can say is that I don't agree with that philosophy. I like subtlety in many things, but I prefer my desserts to be punchy.

The most important thing is for desserts to be complex. There is a penchant for businesses to prepare desserts with a single-minded drive to deliver a particular flavor. Cake must be cake. Pie must be pie. No! Because desserts are so sweet, which can easily be overpowering, it is all the more critical for their design and preparation to provide a wealth of flavors and textures to prevent the palate from becoming bored.

In this regard, both Pastiche and The Village Hearth deliver. If The Village Hearth is too much of a drive, Pastiche is delicious. But if you're willing to take a journey, you won't regret what you get in Jamestown.

#3: Trader Joe's, Warwick
Obviously, Trader Joe's pies and treats do not compare to what you will get at Pastiche and The Village Hearth. But when it comes to grocery stores baked goods, no other store even comes close. These are the only acceptable baked goods that I have received from a grocery store. Stop & Shop and Shaws are disgusting. Dave's is only slightly better. When these things are the competition, one wouldn't think it hard to compete, but apparently it is.

Trader Joe's is legitimately good. And while the crusts are unimpressive when bought, a light basting with butter and milk and ten minutes in a 400' oven turns Joe's pies into something worth mentioning. It also helps to extend their shelf life in your home, since Joe's uses no preservatives, their baked goods have a penchant for going moldy very quickly.

And one cannot ignore the price, either. Trader Joe's isn't as good, but holy crap are their pies cheap. A full apple pie only costs $7.00. Their pies are smaller, so the comparison isn't quite apples to apples (pie), but even if you add 50% to the price of Trader Joe's pies to account for the size difference, Joe's still comes out cheaper. If you're on a budget, Trader Joe's is a great choice.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

REVIEW: Ruth's Chris- ***/$$$$$

Want steak? Want almost nothing but steak? Ruth's Chris has you covered. Ruth's is the largest luxury steak  chain in the United States with one hundred and thirty five locations in almost all major cities, serving up specially-sourced meats straight from high-end farms managed by the company. Pretty impressive.

At least as far as the Providence location goes, that impressiveness extends to the architecture and decor. Ruth's apparently spent over three million dollars building their Rhode Island operation and it shows. The inside is massive, and it seems to stretch forever from the front of the building to the back, where doors lead to private dining areas for groups. The ceilings are a good twenty-five feet high, with gigantic modern-ish light fixtures that could kill someone if they fell. As far as aesthetic goes, it is modern with a distinctly wealthy bachelor feel to it.

The valet was friendly and helpful, and after he took our car, we entered into what appeared to be the entrance. We stood around for a couple of minutes looking lost before someone at the bar finally realized that we were hoping for dinner, and we were directed to walk past the bar, down some stairs, to a second (hidden from our vantage) desk that actually held the hostess. Of course. The hostess was vegetative, and she lead us to our table in a haze.

After getting to our table, we enjoyed the view out the window of the river. It was very nice and I suspect that dining during Waterfire would be great. Unfortunately, I'm sure that this is precisely the time when the restaurant will be overwhelmed with diners. But even without burning pyres, it was pleasing. The tables are set well and the chairs are decently comfortable. The flatware was nice, and the glasses were spotless.

The waitstaff is a disaster. I'll have more on them later.

Apparently, the restaurant relies on your having an appetizer. We were informed that "going straight to entree," results in a twenty-minute wait for food. Ok. This gave us a chance to take in the sight of the other diners. The masculinity of the decor is not lost on the clientele, with the vast majority of people being male, with many of them talking "business." And by business, I mean congratulating each other on being brilliant. I don't mean to sound like some sort of corporate-hating communist at this point, but it was painful to watch and listen to. We had no less than three groups of white men discussing why Romney lost.

Adding to this absurdity of the scene was the mob family that kept parading by our table to a private dining room. I'm not joking. Seriously. I think it may have been a mob family. Lots of overweight men in nice suits, lots of women with tans. The restaurant manager who asked us about our meal did not help this impression, with hair that was slicked back with shoe polish so fiercely that they could very well have been cutting the meat with it. After he stopped by our table, I commented to my partner that I felt greasy.

"But what about the food?!" you are yelling. Yes. The food. Long story short, it was very good. It was exactly what you would expect for an expensive piece of meat cooked well. Ruth's appears to err on the side of rare, with my medium-rare petite filet being what I would consider rare. Perhaps they do this since they plate on which they serve the meat is heated to 500 degrees, meaning that the meat continues to cook. Regardless, it was a minor quibble, and in fact I think more places should err on the side of rare.

The meat dishes are austere. Very austere. You get meat. On a plate. And that's it. You can appreciate why this business model exploded during the real-estate boom; the profit margins are enormous. Our petite filet, which I suspect was in the neighborhood of 6-8oz, cost $36. I don't consider this wildly out of whack since the meat, in all its austere glory, is excellent: tender, flavorful, and seasoned just right. But that said, it's still a bit pricey.

I can get similar meat for less per ounce at any number of RI steakhouses. Providence Prime, my current favorite, will give you a 10oz filet, with sauce and side for $37. It's a similar, cheaper, story at Ten Prime, Capital Grille, and Fred & Steve's. While other restaurants have brought their competitive A-game in the economic downturn, all Ruth's has done is apparently stop charging for valet. The prices aren't a total deal-breaker — with meat this good, they would have to be much higher — but they are still a knock against Ruth's.

It's the very austerity that they champion that amplifies this issue. Why pay more when I can get meat that is equally prepared and equally austere elsewhere? There is no recipe, no art. All they have is their hot plate gimmick (which is, I'll admit, nice). This stands in contrast to places like Gracie's, who I have criticized for having servings that were too small for the price. At least at Gracie's, their foods are complex creations — pieces of edible art. Most of Ruth's Chris items are little more than high-quality ingredients, prepared well.

The sides, which are intended to be shared, are equally disappointing. When I ordered a la carte sides at Fred & Steve's, they were the size of the table. Sides at Ruth's Chris are borderline one-person servings, further exacerbating the wild prices. Twenty cents worth of broccoli is sold for $8.50. The sweet potato and pecan casserole was a bright spot. It was nearly a dessert, with creamy sweet potatoes under crisp pecans. Other than that, their sides are basically a list of overpriced vegetables.

I mentioned earlier that the service was a disaster, I shall now elaborate on that.

When I am spending a fair amount of money, I expect service. I do not expect to be worshipped, or fawned over, or have dutiful-yet-silent servants float by with water. There is no script for this — no absolute plan. But that is exactly what Ruth's Chris is trying to do, and it blows up in their face.

The strained obsequiousness of our waiter was painful. The absolutely oddball lilt to his way of speech contrasted badly with his tattoos and hair. His bodily positioning bordered on parody, as though he was almost attempting to mimic the waiter from The Triplets of Belleville.

This cartoon is exaggerating and thus mocking the mannerisms of a classically-trained French waiter. Ours wasn't at all classically-trained, so the movie is not directly mocking him. They are related, though. He was a waiter who was following a script, differing from the above video only in that the creators of the movie wrote with mockery in their mind, while the managers of Ruth's Chris did so with insane earnestness in theirs.

Indeed, the waiter acted as a suitable representation of the restaurant's gestalt: a poser, faking the gross elements of behavior of other high-end restaurants. In those cases, the raison d'être of the restaurant is being a restaurant, not being yet another instance of a chain. The wellspring of choice and behavior comes from that. Good restaurants go from that into a business model that allows for profitability. Ruth's Chris reverses this.

There is no fire behind any of it. It is faked high-end. The dining room wants to be like Per Se or Chez La Mere Michel, but without the passion of a singular vision behind it, it's soulless. It's Hewlett-Packard selling a computer that looks like a Mac. This is fine for cheap places like TGI Friday's, or even slightly more expensive chains like Longhorn Steakhouse. But there is a good reason why the majority of high-end restaurants are not chains: we are not simply paying for food when we go to them, we are paying for vision. We are paying for art. We are paying for something more than a mere declaration of conspicuous consumption.

My final issue with the environment wasn't initially noticed by me, but my partner, Danielle. I may have been oblivious, but after she pointed it out, the hair on the back of neck stood on end for the rest of the meal: the waiters were all white, and the busboys and waterboys were all black. 100%. I'm not sure if this was the case over the entire staff — I can't imagine them being that blatant — but for our meal, the 100% measure is accurate.

Interestingly, while doing research on the steakhouse scene for this review, I came across an article posted earlier this year, and while not having anything to do with Ruth's, it did involve their across-the-street competitor, The Capital Grille. The Grille is the focus of a growing, multi-state racial discrimination lawsuit where employees are alleging that "Capital Grille [favored] white workers over people of color for lucrative tipped jobs." Sound familiar? I guess this isn't surprising considering all of the Romney voters in the dining room and stuff like this (start at 3:00).

I will never go back to Ruth's Chris, yet I give it three stars. Why? Many of my problems with Ruth's are my interpretations of things in the environment. If you do not have these interpretations, you will not have many of my problems. Certain things are the very embodiment of food criticism, though, such as the recipes and prices. These problems, combined with the fact that Providence is not at all short on high-end steakhouses, place Ruth's Chris firmly in averageville. Everything is simple, good, and high-priced. Just like everybody else.

Ruth's Chris: ***

10 Memorial Boulevard
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 272-2271
Reservations Recommended

View Larger Map