Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eating Out a Mad Duck

So recently I’ve been reading up on the local restaurant news and this new spot called The Mad Duck came to my attention. Since they’re still in the building stage, I can’t really review the place. But I can go on a non-sequetarian rant about the menu. Join us won’t you?

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m quite the curmudgeon. So my first inclination was to look at tearing apart their cookie cutter menu. The Duck is a burger and sandwich joint, in function not much different from a Red Robin. So naturally I’m digging through looking for the same old same old. And there are some commonly found plates. Caesar and Cobb salads, hot wings, bleu cheese burgers and the like. But I also found some interesting and even intriguing dishes surrounding them.

First off there was a beet salad. I don’t know if it will sell since most people put beets alongside brussel sprouts as fiberous culinary poison. But it’s certainly a bold choice for a very picky town. There’s a duck prosciutto salad that looks interesting, if for no other reason than it’s hard as hell to find many dishes in town that use it. Their appetizers vary between the familiar, the gimmicky, the bizarre and the hopefully awesome. Wings, sweet potato fries, familiar. Fried pickles and buffalo chicken dip, gimmicky. Warm soft pretzel…bizarre. Wait, what’s this? Baked brie, pulled pork sliders and devilled eggs. Wait, DEVILLED EGGS? Hell yes! I know they’re simple to make at home, but talk about comfort food. I don’t know if it’s a bold, maverick choice. Or, if it’s a brilliant stroke of marketing to reach out to the common man and say “Heck man, we ain’t no dang ole high falutin’ snooty type ‘Beestro’! We’s just like y’all. Devilled egg?”.

Burgers are burgers. In my opinion the most avant garde thing a cook can do with a burger is cook it properly. The lulu burger is somewhat interesting since it incorporates lamb. But hardly a new item for Fresno. But the sandwiches again diverge from the usual fare. Sure, there’s a steak sandwich and a pulled pork. Then you see the spicy shrimp stuffed baguette, the fried egg and bacon sandwich and a grilled brie and ham sandwich. Grilled brie and ham?? I’m getting fatter just thinking about it. I like this. Dessert is pleasantly simple. Bread pudding or cupcakes. Obviously dessert isn’t going to be their stock and trade. And I think that’s a very good thing for their entr√©es.

So, naturally I expect the prices to be through the roof at this point. The prices on their online menu are small and really difficult to read. Missing in a couple categories as well. But when my poor old eyes finally focus enough to find them, I was outright shocked! They were reasonable. There’s no dollar menu, but their prices are well below what I expected for the food they are offering. Salads between $5 and $10. Appetizers between $4 and $10 (fries only $2!). Burgers run between $6 to $9, which is in general, a lot for a hamburger. But, heck Carl’s Jr.’s prices have crept into that range. The prices for their sandwiches and premium burgers are still yet to be published on their website, but I daresay that I’m thinking that they will be reasonable as well.

Overall, I’m cautiously hopeful about The Mad Duck serving good food and if so, having a good shot at making it in Fresno. We will of course forgive them for having the audacity to be north of Shaw and the general poor taste to be located in Clovis. Being in Old Town off of Pollasky and 5th Street (that’s Bullard to us Fresnans) is, I suppose, an adequate concession.

And so we wish you luck you psychotic canard, you unbalanced mallard, you cracked up quacker. Expect Eating Out Fresno to beat a path to your door when you open. Here’s a prayer that your food can live up to my vastly overblown expectations. I really don’t want it to turn out like that one time I played ping pong with a porn star. High expectations, with a dreadfully painful letdown at the end. Who would have thought that Ron Jeremy was that good at ping pong?


Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Tale of Cinnamon Buns and Spooge

I swear I have been trying to get into a position where I can have something non-snarky to say about local Fresno food. There IS great food out there. I’ve just been luckless and lazy in my culinary pursuits. And drunk. Very, very drunk.

And that brings us to The Cinnamon Roll Shoppe. Another long standing Fresno institution. They have been at their location on Fresno and Gettysburg as long as I can remember. Easily 30 years. And I have some very wonderful memories of stumbling into their lobby after a 10 or 12 hour drinking marathon to grab a hot nut-roll to stagger home with and devour before passing out, upright in my chair, with a nutty cinnamon sugar cascade running down my chin, like I died from a baker’s heroin overdose. Good memories of what was a great pastry.

Alas, my memories were to be betrayed in a most foul fashion. It was 8 in the morning and I was dragged unhappily out of my booze cocoon for an early morning adventure. In the midst of this, I realize that I’m actually awake and outside during the short period the Cinnamon Roll Shoppe is open and serving! Mmmm, hot buttery cinnamon roll with nuts baby! And so we duck in, that I might purchase my heart’s delight. And alas, he says that they’re out of nut rolls… How the hell? Do you have walnuts? Then throw some of the damn things on a regular cinnamon roll! Normally I’d say it, but this poor, portly, baker had that aura of praying for just the right excuse to throw himself into a running mixer, ending his cinnamon pain forever.

So, I settle for a regular non-nutty roll and proceed to drag it back to the cave to be devoured with extreme prejudice. It’s a good thing too. If I had tried to eat what I found in the box, in front of this semi-suicidal chef de patisserie, I’d have sent him into the bathroom to smother himself to death with the very dough that has destroyed his will to live. I didn’t want to be an accessory or anything.

I have eaten many cinnamon rolls from many sources. Sealed plastic bags from vending machines, kiosks in malls operated by slope browed teenagers, fabulously fresh baked at the county fair. But never in my life has a roll been this gut churningly disgusting.

How in the hell did they make the cinnamon and butter filling have the honest to god consistency of male ejaculate? And I mean for real real. This isn’t allegory. If you went to the sperm bank and picked up a six pack, then mixed it with sugar and cinnamon, you would have the quivering, gelatinous, stringy substance that drenched this poor piece of pastry. Still, I paid 3 dollars for this damn thing. I’ve got to try to get something in my roiling booze soaked guts. So I’ve little choice but to dive in, subconsciously hearing dozens of old gay friends laughing their asses off. It’s after two bites, when my friend can no longer hold in his howls of laughter, loudly declaring that, with my mustache a-drape with stringy, quivering brown goo, I appear like the victim of an unfortunate felching accident.

Ok, forget this. This isn’t food, this a gag. Like rubber dog doo. Or that god awful scene in Van Wilder with the √©clairs. Barring the unlikely, but possible option that the baker was slathering the dough with his hate paste, that due to rising prices and falling profits, The Cinnamon Roll Shoppe has had to alter their recipe to include corn syrup or other, cheaper sweetener. Maybe even taking butter right out of the filling. It’s outright gross.

The bakery fresh cinnamon roll is supposed to be a little bready, with the wonderfully caramelized tops and hot, buttery, cinnamon sugar melted around the bottom. They’re not gooey, not covered in cream cheese frosting. Nuts. Pecans or walnuts. That’s the only allowable topping. When cinnamon rolls are ALL that you do, you simply must put out the best possible product. And believe me, I love the Cinnamon Roll Shoppe! That’s the very reason for my shock and disgust. I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they know how to put out a higher quality product. If times are hard, I would rather pay more for a superlative product than pay the same for awful quality.

So take a note from the Pillsbury Dough Boy and cheer up fatty! Go to the store, buy some butter and some sugar and some cinnamon. Dig around in the back, find the old recipe, the old pans and if required, the old owner. But whatever you do, stop serving food that is awash in a slimy, viscous fluid that cannot be discerned from sperm in any way but odor. If you must bow to convention, then just make some damn icing and sell it on the side. But I beg you, for the health of your business and my own general wish to be able to say something nice about a beloved Fresno institution, get your shit together!


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fresno Eats Out Your Town

Felicitations intrepid readers!  Eating Out Fresno has been on the road, deviously dodging the banality of Valentines Day.

I felt after the scathing review of Irene's eggs benedict, that I needed to look again at my source material.  Afterall, sometimes you have a randomly over exuberant reaction to a breakfast.  Like when you were a kid and stayed over at a friend's house.  For breakfast his mom gave you both bowls of Smurf Berries cereal.  And it was amazing!  I never knew until then what Blue tasted like.  And of course, I bugged and begged my mother to get some of this magical breakfast manna, only to discover the next morning that Blue tastes like playdough that had been teabagged by a coked out and flop-sweat covered Cookie Monster.

On to the experiment!  To keep the conditions as similar as possible, I replicated the environment of the previous experience by  drinking 12 beers before bed, getting less than 5 hours sleep, farting around for an hour by assaulting a pussy cat, then taking a nice and leisurely drive down from the Los Gatos Hills.

We arrived and parked.  Gilley's was naturally, busy with the Sunday breakfast crowd.  But we were seated before I could even finish having a smoke while we waited.  So far, so good.  I definately remember this as being the most coveted type of breakfast joint.  The one that is cozy, tight and efficient.  When you look at your waitress, you know that this is what she does.  Period.  This isn't where she is cooling her heels waiting for Hollywood to come calling or for her next play to make it big on Broadway.  She is the rarest of the rare.  She knows the menu firsthand and can read you well enough to make a sound recommendation that you'll most likely love rather that be satisfied with.  She can joke with you with a familiarity that refreshing and sometimes shocking.  Maybe 45 seconds tops of banter that makes you feel welcome and attended to.  An indispensible aspect of a superior dining experience.

With my steaming mug of life-juice I perused the menu, almost afraid that my beloved avocado benedict would have been rotated off.  But another beloved aspect of the perfect coffee shop is that their specials do change, but not often.  Maybe with the seasons of the food or with waning popularity of a dish.  If you love it, it will be there for you.  And when things seems to be a little routine, a new gem will pop onto the menu.  That wonderful mix of the unchangingly familiar and a little hint of chaotic newness.  Sometimes even a regular gets to make a sound suggestion for a dish that will almost always bear their name even 20 years later.  As delicious as some of the options look, I'm here on a voyage of self exploration.  So avocado eggs benedict and hash browns again for me!

We had a fairly diverse selection of orders amongst us.  Chicken and apple sausage skillet, omlet, ground beef scramble, a regular eggs benedict and my order.  The timing is good.  It's the kind of timing that speaks of a kitchen that knows what they're doing and are able to smoothly integrate their actions into a unified culinary gestalt.  The grill cook knows if the fry guy is struggling by instinct and is able to help him get back into the rhythm of bringing all of the parts of the dishes together at the right time, at the same time and done right the first time.  Exhibited by our five plates all coming out simulatenously and each one piping hot.  Nothing sat waiting around for anyone.  The fry station was ready to pull at the same time that the eggs were done poaching and the muffins were toasted, etc, etc.  And our very busy server was right there, with a loyal compatriot ready to ferry out our food as soon as it hit ceramic.  A hard assed drill seargent would be hard pressed to find fault in their effciency and esprit de corps.

So here we are at the magic moment.  The eyes are happy!  The sauce is gorgeous.  A pastel yellow blanket draping down from the poached eggs.  It's hard to describe properly how the hollandaise looked to me.  Can the color alone of a sauce look fluffy?  I don't know, but thats what I would call that shade of yellow.  Also, I was informed by our rightly prooud waitress that they make their hollandaise from scratch.  It is smooth, unbroken by spices or herbs or crumbs.  Almost like the sugar crust of a creme brulee thats just too beautiful to crack with your spoon.

The hell with that!  I'm stabbing into this baby!  Afterall, my main complaint above Irene's tacky bottled hollandaise, was the pathetic state of their poached eggs.  These had fluffy but well set whites.  I was happy with them, but using a standard of absolute perfection, they were maybe 5-10 seconds overdone.  Wah.  I then popped open the yolks to see what Santa left me.  Sure enough, hot golden yolk began to well out of the fork wound.  Once again on the nit-picking side, maybe 5 seconds over perfect.  There was a little solidifying around the edge of the yolk.  Double wah.  There was only one actual cosmetic gripe on my part.  The avocados at some point been allowed to oxidize a little bit.  One of the downsides of pre-prepping some ingredients.  And it might have grossed out a different person.  But I've been eating avocados since before Howard Hughes died naked, unshaven and surronded by milk bottles of his own urine of a massive codeine overdose.  A little cosmetic oxidation isn't going to affect the flavor.

And it didn't!  Despite their visual faults, the fruit was nicely ripe and still a little toothy.  And just like with the kitchen and the waitresses, the whole team was working together to create a dynamite flavor.  Everything came together in a crunchy, creamy, buttery, chewy and lighty smokey bite.  Each flavor stood out on it's own and blended together.  The ham that stands in the for usual Canadian bacon is a far better choice in my egotistical opinion.  Absolutely just as stellar as my memory told it would be.

So in light of that data, we're about ready to close out the experiment.  The prices at both were comparable.  Right around $10.  Their ambience is rather different, one being an honest to Jeebus coffee shop, the other a former cafe turned schizophrenic ice cream/sandwich shoppe/bistro/breakfast cafe.  Still, I think you can smoke outside, although the lack of ashtrays makes me dubious.  Comparing the wait staffs is no contest.  Still, I don't have anything bad to say about Irene's waitresses.  I got nothing but polite and attentive service from them.  However, it's like comparing a Jr. BMX champ to Matt Hoffman doing a rocket assisted 720 backflip jump onto an aircraft carrier from a landing jet fighter.  The ladies at Irene's plan to be doing a good job somewhere else in a year.  And good luck to them on their future endeavors.  But an experienced professional waitress, happy where she works and appreciative of her customers is a treasure.  If your entree is $5 or $50, it will get to your table cooked and assembled properly.  She will bitch at the kitchen long before your feelings have to get involved.  Those ladies are always tipped well by me.  And any other thinking person who likes to eat.  Thats why on their good days they can make $40/hr.  Because it's more than slinging slop for slobs.  Not that we're not all slobs bellying up to the trough to shovel poorly or ignorantly chosen grub into our ungrateful maws.  But she is a professional and is able to overlook that common truth in her vocation.  To her, feeding jackasses is no more offputting than pouring a glass of water.  Because she's gansta like that.

So, in conclusion to our experiment we see that all of the data points at the kitchen at Irene's being shit.  Cooking with it, on it, cooked by it.  In my mind's eye I picture 5 of those turd demons from Dogma with aprons and chef's hats squatting over plates and like evil magical peanut butter factories, the components of your dish slithering out of their benighted bowels.  Over or undercooked.  Extra of what you asked to be left out, none of what you asked for double.  Wrong meat, just enough of whatever you're allergic to, so that you must ruin your evening to dash home for the epipen.  Roaring and sputtering at purile potty humor and failed sexual innuendo.  Creatures that honestly believe that Waiting should be a mandatory training film and that Dane Cook's wit shall one day sunder the heavens, lifting them up and away from the drudgery of their jobs to a place where every day is a Raiders tailgate party.  These are the type of assholes that should have fire taken away from them.  There should be a brand of the back of their right hand, liken to the mark of the beast, so that all will know: This person is only allowed to operate a microwave and only if it is for their own consumption.  You would be shocked how many people work in kitchens and can't cook their way out of a lipton soup box.  But the worst danger are the ones who believe that they can.  Pity their friends and family, for they must eat hot wings that taste like burning diesel.  At both ends.

So dear friends, as we come to a close.  It is my wish for you all to find your own Gilley's.  An eatery, ANY eatery staffed by professionals.  Cheap or expensive or in between.  If you eat where people like their jobs, you will love your food.  It might be busy, but pros know how to get 'em in and get 'em out and keep them happy the whole way through.

Instead of wishing you good eating out, I shall wish you all professional eating out.  And I promise, I will soon get off my fat ass and find something nice to say about yummying down at some actual local Fresno locations.


PS-  I almost forgot about Gilley's tomatillo salsa!  Man oh man was that stuff tasty.  And bizarre.  It's almost got the consistancy of hummus, it's bright BRIGHT green, and it tastes really strongly of cumin.  I think there might be a little mint snuck in with the cilantro as well.  It's got a nice mellow heat.  You get a nice mellow mouth burn that is almost self extinguishing.  A little tangy too.  I could easily see myself slathering some home made tacos in that and nothing else.  Well, maybe a little queso fresco.  It's so good that they even sell jars of it to go.  Next trip I'm bringin me a jar home.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Disappointment of Breakfast Infidelity

Irene's Cafe. It's a Tower anomaly. They've been there for years. Closing long before theres anything resembling a bar rush. Their prices are high and the menu isn't exactly what I'd call imaginative. And yet, Irene's has withstood the fickle eddies of time to remain open much longer than their original forebears Cafe Intermezzo.

And so we flash to an extremely hungover Sunday morning. It is suggested that we might offset the damage we've done to ourselves last night with a nice breakfast. When Irene's is suggested, I'm intrigued. I've been back in town for over 7 years now. And not one single thinking human I know has suggested such a thing. I was to learn that there are traditions for sound reasons.

As we arrive on the patio, my culinary spidey sense began to tingle. There is nothing "wrong" per se. Just an instinctual tingle this this breakfast isn't going to be the simple and yummy affair I'm hoping for. So we're greeted by our server, drink orders taken and promptly served. My hope meter is rising. Maybe I'm just a curmudgeonly grump who is improperly transposing his wounded liver's feelings on the day.

Looking through the menu, its everything I've seen on 100 different menus. Nothing interesting. Nothing unique. Well crap. But the last good breakfast we went out to together, I had a nice avocado eggs benedict. Know that a proper hollandaise sauce is a pain to make, not to mention the difficult of properly poaching eggs. I figure that this should be a nice challenge to test Irene's with. Afterall, it's on their menu, so it can't be that tough for them. Right?

And this friends, is why one should always listen to one's culinary spidey sense. Grinning in anticipation of the buttery, eggy goodness. Our lovely server hands out the plates. Quick taste of the hollandaise. Bottled. Bottled or just made wrong and then held for too long, its chunky and half broken. But hey, this stuff is hard to make, right? At least a nicely poached...hmmm. Last I checked, the poached egg's yoke isn't supposed to come out in one piece on your fork.

I don't know about you guys. But when I'm at a restaurant and I've ordered, it's like Christmas to me. Better than Christmas, since I get to explain exactly what I want. I wait in my seat like a child pretends to be fast asleep on Christmas Eve. Every exit from the kitchen like the prancing of 8 tiny reindeer on the roof, just hoping that the slender elf in the apron is coming to my table with holiday cheer. And when it arrives, you open up your kitchen given gift with your knife and fork. Only to find that Santa fucked up. BIG TIME. You told that jolly fat fucker exactly what you wanted. But no, you don't get what you had your heart set on. What you have spent the last 15-30 minutes fantasizing about. Just imagining you and your dish, hugging and giggling in a sunlit field of daisies. Only to have your idyllic scene snatched away by the hairy knuckled fist of a lazy cook or an inattentive server. Your meal has been soiled by unwashed lackeys who could care less for what you two were to share. They just want you in and out and paying for the heartbreak.

I am now, officially viewing these eggs benedict as if they had cheated on me at another table. Explaining how these poorly prepared ingredients were no longer fitting for my fantasy, I ask the kind and competent server to explain what poaching is to her compatriots in the back of the house. Slightly befuddled at my calling my breakfast a trollop, she promises to return with a rehabilitated, non-whore plate. Alas, I am skeptical.

Soiled doves, never again soar. And so it is with poached eggs in a befuddled kitchen. Same bottled sauce. Stab fork into cheating heart of the eggs....well, I can say this for certain. If one wanted to hide spit in someone's food. Hiding it in clear, raw, runny egg whites would be great camoflage. This leads to much more imaginative pictures running through my mind of other fluids that may be emitted by a cheating ex.

Yup, there goes my appetite.

Embarassed, as all cuckolds are, I sheepishly explain to our server that breakfast has not (much to my chagrin) changed her ways and that I'm breaking up with eggs benedict. She offers me her apologies for hooking us up. I tell her that it was probably all me, as my tablemates are having very functional relationships with their breakfasts.

But hey, at least I've still got that magic memory of a one-morning stand at Gilly's with those gorgeous avocado eggs benedict. Everything about her was fresh, warm and yielding. From her moist and slightly toasted english muffin, to her lightly smoked and fried pork loin. Ripe and velvety avocado. And her egg, oh LORDY her eggs. You can't pay money for eggs like this. These eggs are a product of God's artistry and good breeding. Tenderly cared for. Done to perfection. The outsides firm, but fluffy. Their golden centers, molten with loving sunshine. And lastly, she is draped in a blanket of pastel yellow. Creamy, hot, with an astounding bite of butter than melds into all of her flavors.

That, my dear Irene's eggs benedict, is how you please a man!