Thursday, April 17, 2008

Carrabba's Italian Grill

Ok, in the interest of full disclosure, I must state this at the beginning. I was contacted by someone who works on behalf of Carrabba's and offered a gift certificate to try Carrabba's and write this review (cool huh?). But I wanted to state that up front. And the fact that I told that person that I would happy to try it but that my review would be nothing but honest, which it is.

Here goes.

First of all, I would like to thank Carrabba's for giving me the certificate as we had a very enjoyable overall experience. And second, since one of my goals in life is to eat out as much as possible and not pay for it, I would like to invite any other restaurants to follow suit! :)

Ok, now normally chain restaurants are not really my thing, unless I am with my kids, in which case we sometimes must break such rules, especially in this town where you can't spit without hitting one. But I am willing to eat anything (just about) once, and especially if it is free, so I happily accepted their invitation.

One of the first positive things I noticed was how friendly all the people working there were. The host and hostess, as well as the servers and even several managers who visited our table seemed genuinely happy. We had a trainee server who was with a more experienced one, and while obviously the service was not super polished under those circumstances, it was very friendly.

The second positive thing I noticed was the bread. It was simply delicious, some of the best I have had in this city. It is flaky and warm and soft in the middle and tastes great with the dipping sauce made up of olive oil and various spices and dried herbs. So, so far we are off to a good start, even with my initial doubts about chain restaurants, and even more so, chain Italian restaurants. I should say I generally find Italian restaurants, in the Midwest particularly, overwhelming in their richness and overuse of butter and Alfredo sauce and lack of originality.

We decided to try several items to give a fair review and started with the bruschette and the mussels with Pernod, white wine, lemon butter, and basil. I was happy to find I really really liked both of these. The bruschette was toasted bread (more of that yummy bread just cooked differently) with a mix of tomatoes, red onions, kalamata olives, basil and a healthy flavor of vinegar and oil. It was refreshing and bright and even the tomatoes were good (and it isn't exactly tomato season, now is it?) The flavor of the mussels was quite good as well. And I appreciated the server informing me that the serving size was quite large and since we were having 2 appetizers (something you don't need to do due to the size of them) maybe we would like a 1/2 order. THAT was superb. If only more restaurants (Hey, you, Oceanaire!) did this or just offered them that way on the menu. My only knock on the mussels were that they were a little big for my taste (as in, each mussel was quite large) and I prefer smaller ones (to be fair, I asked this question before ordering and was told they were pretty big.) Again, so far so good.

The salads were where things started to go south a bit. I had the Italian salad which had a decent vinaigrette, but was way too heavily dressed and all I could really taste was the vinegar in the dressing. I was puckering by my 3rd or 4th bite. The salad was romaine with carrots, celery, olives and croutons. Hubby had the Caesar which I also tried and could have been good, but had the opposite problem, it was under dressed. Not sure if this was just a kitchen issue on the night or if this is just the way they're served. On the whole though, I would definitely skip the salad next time.

Hubby had veal (which I don't eat) and he stated it was good, but didn't eat it all which always tells me he didn't REALLY like it as if he REALLY likes something he will almost always finish it. The garlic mashed potatoes served with were tasty and you could really taste the roasted garlic (which is how it should be) but really the portion of them was obscene (2 big ice cream scoops). I tried one of their wood-fired pizzas just to get a well rounded idea of the food. The bread part (i.e. crust) was outstanding. The rest of it, just ok. Here, because I ordered the Margherita pizza, it suffered with the tomatoes not being so good. It was ok because of the crust, but the rest just sort of bland.

We did try the "chocolate dream" dessert, which is a brownie coated with Kahlua, chocolate mousse and whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce and sitting in more chocolate sauce. I actually really liked this, although by this time I was pretty full. Mostly from the bread I think! :)

So I want to say also that the woman who contacted me initially told me that Carrabbas are all individually owned and operated and that the food is all made fresh daily. In a lot of cases that seemed true. However, when I asked the server about the bread and if they sold it, she told me yes, they do, and in fact you can buy the frozen loaves and cook them at home. So I guess not everything is made fresh on premises, but I will let that slide since the bread was so good. I came home with two frozen loaves.

All in all, I might go back to Carrabba's, and if I do, I will stick to only bread, wine and antipasti, as that is where they excel. Next time I would like to try the shrimp scampi appetizer too, it sounded good. And it came with grilled bread. (Did I mention I liked the bread??) :)

Again, the people were very friendly, and I liked the way they tried to incorporate things from Italy that you don't always see around here. Like pitchers of house wines and olive oil on the table. I told hubby, clearly someone has actually been to Italy and is trying to incorporate things that are authentic.


Carrabba's Italian Grill
1235 Keystone Ave
Carmel, IN 46032
317/575-2200
http://www.carrabbas.com/

Thursday, April 10, 2008

R Bistro

Well, another fabulous dinner at R Bistro. As I think I have mentioned before, you can get on R Bistro's email list and they send out their new menu each week. This is a much anticipated event in my house (sad, huh?). Basically, every week we have one nice dinner out and we take turns choosing where. We usually have made up our mind in advance with our constant caveat, "unless there's a good R Bistro menu." You see, what we love there, we really love. Unfortunately, often the menu isn't up our alley. But this week, 2 or 3 very appealing appetizer choices and skate for a main! I love love love skate and why it isn't on more menus I don't know. (In case you don't know, skate is a type of fish, really the wing of a ray, it is delicate and flavorful, and has a sort of layered texture.) If you see if on a menu, try it.

I first had it probably 10 years ago in San Francisco and it was on menus occasionally. When we lived in England a few years back, you could get it in any grocery store and it was on lots of menus and we cooked it quite a bit at home--a favorite of Jamie Oliver and for several months, that was our only cookbook until our sea shipment arrived from the US. After moving back to San Francisco, my fishmonger would order it for me and it was becoming even more popular. Here, I have only seen it R Bistro and Oceanaire.

A funny side story, recently, I thought I would ask my fish guy at Marsh and see if he could order it, as he has special ordered other things for me in the past. He had no clue what is was, which was fine, except he got a little aggravated with me, I think because he didn't know what it was, asked me some questions and when I told him, he informed me, if it is a ray, no one should be eating it and furthermore, I specifically shouldn't eat it since I am "of childbearing age" and it probably contained mercury. Thank you Big Brother.

OK, back to R Bistro. I had a broiled shrimp appetizer on scallion pancakes with a wonderful cilantro cream. It was awesome. Hubby had the mushroom crostada which was good, but nowhere near as good as mine (I always love it when I out-order him). What the mushroom crostada lacked in brightness (really could have used a dollop of goat or blue cheese for some tang) the shrimp made up for with the tangy creme fraiche like sauce. Yum.

The skate was lightly coated and sauteed with corn meal (I actually prefer it just lightly dusted with flour, but who's asking?) and served over mashed potatoes with a bacon and I believe apple sort of vinaigrette sauce over it. The sauce had the requisite brightness to keep the dish from being too heavy or rich. Oh! Also, there was some cooked cabbage on the side which was tasty as well. For some reason, cabbage seems to be the natural accompaniment to skate. I am not sure how this pairing came to be, but it works really well.

It was nice that the chef served our entrees as well, I always like seeing the chef involved in their restaurant.

And you will never believe it, WE HAD A GOOD DESSERT. Just when I had given up hope that is was possible at R Bistro (the few I have tried have been anywhere from unmemorable to not very good), they did it! I basically stopped ordering it here (and it is generally not the highlight of any meal for me anyway). For some reason, though, ok, the waiter convinced us, we tried the rhubarb and lemon cream tart and it was quite good. Not the best dessert I have had in this city (hmmm...that may currently go to Bugg's Temple's banana tart) but very tasty.

I definitely think R Bistro is in the top 5 restaurants in our fair city. It stands out as a modern- feeling place with a menu that doesn't cater exclusively to the steak and potato crowd. It reminds me of a restaurant in San Francisco, and I think if it were there, it would do just fine, which is a mighty compliment since SF is a city of such amazing restaurants.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

L'Explorateur

***This restaurant is closed as of January 2009****

Has always been one of my favorite restaurants in this city simply because it is always different. And they really try to mix it up, not just with the menus, but with each item as well. They have those "layered" flavors that my hubby claims I am partial to. On a recent visit, we decided we would try several of the smaller courses and it was quite enjoyable. I had the scallop ceviche, which was DELICIOUS. It is a traditional ceviche preparation (with Mexican flavors and authentic Mexican tortilla chips, clearly handmade) with avocado, cilantro and lots of lime. I will definitely get this again next time I go if it is still on the menu.

I also had the salad with mushrooms and chopped egg, which I ordered because I love wild mushrooms and truffles (which are in the vinaigrette that comes on it) and was a little disappointed. I was actually a little freaked out by the wild mushrooms which did not appear to be cooked, and I have always thought that they must be cooked if they are foraged. Anyway, I ate it and enjoyed it (and nothing terrible happened) but I probably won't get it again... I had the goat cheese and onion tart this time (which I have had before). It was really good (and better than the first time) and all in all was a very enjoyable meal. I look forward to my next meal which I hope has a slightly larger nod toward Spring which is my favorite food season of them all...

The wine choices are always good here and even though it was a Wednesday, not a historically busy night for restaurants as we can see, they had a fair crowd. The ambiance is still a bit stark, but with each visit, there seems to be a bit more art, and feels a little warmer.

Also, if you do upromise, (and if you have kids, you should be) they give 8% back on your bill which is awesome!

If you like to see something a little unique on the menu, go here, and go now. I love this place.