Sunday, July 18, 2010

Eating Out My Esteem for Mangosteen

Holy shit! A restaurant review? Here? On Eating Out Fresno? Pshaw! But it’s true! I somehow got out of the house and let some other poor schmuck do the cooking in exchange for hard earned shekels. And as always, it’s a crap shoot on whether or not I’m going to feel like a dumbass for parting with the greenbacks to get something I probably could have ruined better in my own kitchen.

Case in point, Mangosteen, the cute bistro that took over the old Lyon’s building that Kim’s Vietnamese once occupied. I’ve read a fair stack of eater reviews and seen tons and tons of positive feedback on the various restaurant review sites that actually are aware that Fresno exists and has places to eat. So, on a hot summer’s Sunday, it made sense to finally stop in and see if this moderately priced eatery was actually all it had been cracked up to be.

On first impression, it’s quite nice. I can still totally see the old Lyon’s layout, but somehow the architects had subliminally added in Asian elements. Like the main supports of the dining room in the rough shape of the pillars of heaven. Pretty cool. And the mural work on the side and back walls is quite beautiful. And another big plus for a sweltering Fresno day is good air conditioning. Too bad the customers were cooler than the produce in the back, but more on that later.

We’re seated promptly and strangely, before seeing a menu, we’re asked what we would like to drink. Since I’m interested in what unique beverage items they might have, we opt for waters. Odd that I would have to establish that, since it’s pretty much the universal constant of a sit down restaurant. I’ve got that sinking feeling in my guts. Like I’m going to have one of those, “Oh yeah! THIS is why I blog!” moments. Damn it, I really wanted to like this place.

With menus in hand, we peruse their offerings. It’s a decent little menu, reasonably priced and as usual, should have been spell checked before going to the printers. And then it happens. The first little domino is tipped, flips the man into the pan which cuts the string on the iron hovering over the open tube of toothpaste…well you get the idea. Mrs. EOF orders a Thai iced tea and I notice that they have whole young coconuts on the menu. If you’ve never had a young coconut all to yourself, you are missing a piece of the grand puzzle of decadence. Sweet, thin coconut milk is just the side benefit. What makes them so amazing is their tender, young, gelatin textured flesh. It’s like it’s insides are coated with an astoundingly light and airy coconut custard of delightfulness.

And so the death knell came. “Well, our freezer went out, so let me check and see if we have any.” Wait, what? Your fucking freezer is down? Isn’t that where all restaurants keep the lion’s share of their perishables, only to be thawed for use on the same day? Shit! Half the menu is seafood! And why in the hell are the coconuts in the damn freezer? This does not bode well for our intrepid eaters.

They discovered that they do indeed have some left as the server brings out our appetizer (to be enjoyed with our waters) of Roti Prata. As it arrives, I understand why he seemed perplexed at us only ordering one. For $2 you get one piece of a weird naan-crepe like affair with a coconut curry dipping sauce. For all I know, the bread could have been a poorly mixed tortilla thrown on a flat top. A little flaky, kinda chewy, but not terribly impressive. Really, the appetizer is all about the coconut curry sauce. That stuff is tasty enough to make a straight man happily gobble down a cock and ask for seconds. But great sauce does not, a great appetizer make. All it did was harden my resolve to learn curries so as to avoid this shade of ridiculous in the future.

Dick in the ear #2: The drinks arrive. The Thai iced tea is pretty straight forward and what I expect. Chai tea extract mixed with some soy milk over ice. Not exactly innovative, but whatever. The real embarrassment was the young coconut. It comes with it’s little baby dome chopped off and a straw tossed into it’s depths. Not exactly the Jaques Pepin school of plating, but again, whatever. I’m giddy with anticipation. And so, I lift it’s little lid and scoop out the first bit of…hey! This shit is hard as hell to get off the shell! And it’s…it’s fucking hard! What is this crap?? Maybe the milk will…taste like the fry cook was soaking his toes in it! Mother. Fucker.

You know what enters into a kitchen refugee’s mind when they hear the freezer is out? Oh shit, what is the manager going to try and save, despite the loss of quality and potential risk to the customer? Most often, the contents of a restaurant’s freezer is worth over ten times more than what they have in their safe. And so, if it looks like that stuff is going to have to be trashed, whoever is doing the books will do their damndest to make full use of whatever they think they can squeeze past their customer’s blunted palates. Well Mr. Mangosteen Manager, you picked the wrong dude to try and slip shoddy coconuts past. And your sins are only compounded by the remainder of the meal.

Somewhat foolishly, despite a strong gut feeling and some fairly strong proof that this is going to all go to shit, we order fairly robustly. Her, going with their Daddy-in-Law’s Fried Rice (beef basil fried rice) and the Laksa (coconut curry soup with shrimp, ramen and surimi) and myself with the sambal udang (prawns in chili sauce) and the Hot Hot oelek tofu. And we wait…and wait… Then I hear bellowed from the kitchen “I NEED LAKSA!”. Nothing like a well behaved kitchen enhancing the eating experience by making sure I hear every call and every plate up. I especially liked how they would double their volume if the lone server didn’t immediately abandon the customers they were helping.

So they’re down soup and we’ve got 3 sautee dishes. Do you think that they either waited to make the sautee’d food or remade it if it had been sitting too long? If you do, then you have a poor sense of foreshadowing and likely should seek out some reading comprehension classes. But wait we did, after we had been given soup bowls 20 minutes before it was prepared. It, however, was fairly tasty. The base of the soup is the same curry that we had with the mutant naan bread.  So as aforementioned, it could make penises taste good enough to fill up on. Hell, it was tasty enough that I didn’t get TOO depressed at the sight of krab (surimi fish paste, flavored and formed into crab shape) in the soup. Though again, looking at the components, once I learn how to make the curry, I’m sure I can toss a couple shrimp, some scallops and a block of ramen into the broth at home. The basil fried rice wasn’t awful, but I’ve had much better. The basil flavor was getting lost in the mushy rice and what little beef there was, didn’t bring much flavor to the party. And those were the best 2 dishes.

I apparently, struck out. Given my recent obsession with all things spicy, I wanted to line up for the hottest stuff they had. And (according to the menu) they had dishes that use my absolute favorite Asian chili sauce, sambal oelek. It’s hot, but not the type of spicy that makes you dive for the milk or hate your best friend forever for letting you take a bite. It’s got that wonderful pungent punch without the overly vinegar taste that most hot sauces have. Great on pizza, great on steak, great on burritos.

But not great in the hands of whatever chef was on shift at Mangosteen. First disappointment was the Hot Hot oelek tofu. It should have been called, Bitter Bitter plate of crap. The “crispy” tofu was already soggy and it’s just awash in onions. Nothing else, just onions. Probably 8-1 onion to tofu ratio. And the “hot” part was a joke! A child wouldn’t have been intimidated by the spice in this. And the flavor was downright crap. Here I’m expecting some nice pungent pepper flavor and all I get is a washed out sweetened burnt soy sauce. The coconut curry was hotter!

And the prawns? What image is conjured in your mind when you hear prawns? Big, meaty shrimp as big around as a working man’s thumb? Me too! But apparently whoever is buying for the restaurant seems to think that they’re more along the size of salad shrimp. You get bigger tails in a shrimp cocktail ring! Prawns my left nut. These sad little lumps of food borne illness waiting to happen had been languishing at an unsafe temperature for god knows how long, were rinsed off and sautee’d in the exact same wretched sauce and with the same lame ass accompaniment. And to add insult to flavor injury, they cooked the dog shit out of the poor things in hopes of not killing me and then left it to languish under whatever heat lamp they have hidden in the back, until the lost Laksa soup had at last been cobbled together from extract and canned goods. They were bland bits of flaky rubber that I would have been embarrassed to serve myself, much less look a customer in the eye and say “Yes, that is worth money.”

But Pook, you say, it can’t possibly get worse can it? Oh yes dear reader, yes it can. You see, having already sent back 1 item and finding myself with another 2 unpalatable messes, rather than send them back as well and have a pout, I simply asked for some plain sambal oelek to dip my food in. Such is it’s powers, that straight from the bottle it can overpower the flavor of shitty food. And I get…coconut curry sauce… What in the motherfuck? I’m not some rubeish redneck using imaginary Tennessee Thai terms for what I want. I asked for what was supposedly the main flavor component of my dish. For fuck’s sake, it comes in a JAR! It’s not like they had to make it fresh. So, try number 2. MORE OF THE SAME SHITTY SAUCE ON THE SHRIMP THAT I’VE ALREADY STATED WAS CRAP! Okay, now I’m wondering if I’m on another planet. If I go to a damn Italian restaurant and ask for more parmesan for my eggplant parmesan, I don’t get a look of constipated confusion.

Right when I think I must be mad or the label on the jar has been lying to me. Suddenly, amazingly…they fucking figure out that they offer it as a goddamn dip for their spring rolls!! Finally, I can grimace my way through potential food poisoning with something resembling some aplomb. At the very least, it was able to cover the semi-rotten flavor of the tofu and gave me something more interesting to chew than the old pencil erasers that were the shrimp.

Man, where do I start on the wrap up? If I had filmed dinner tonight from start to finish, I could make the perfect training video of how not to operate a restaurant. While I personally appreciate candor, telling a customer that the freezer is busted is a fast track to making a smart (smarter than me) eater run out the door and never come back. An even faster track though is for the kitchen to fulfill every nightmarish scenario running through my head. Seriously, trying to salvage bad shrimp? The chef should be fined and horse whipped. Just for ruining my coconut moment alone, they have earned my eternal nutritional enmity.

There is one tiny speck of light in all of this though. The server. Honesty may not be the best policy for a server with most customers. But with me it’s golden. It may have been a bad idea to mention to me that the freezer was out from a professional point of view. However, had I been wandering into that wretched coconut and pathetic shrimp without forewarning, my sense of disdain would have rapidly morphed into indignant rage. Probably accompanied by calls to the health department. They did their best to give me the hints that would have lead me to more pleasant experience. But I was more interested if the kitchen was so stupid as to sell inferior product. The poor thing was mortified, as I sat staring at the kitchen, politely waiting for them to figure out how to put jarred sauce into a bowl so I could cover their mistakes for them. They even offered to comp us a desert. Which would have been fine if they had forgotten our appetizer or something. But, since it would likely come from their own pocket, I wouldn’t hear of it. Then they upped the ante by offering us 10% off the meal. Again, I’m not down with that. My meal wasn’t 10% awful. It was 85% awful. And the restaurant shouldn’t feel that it’s ok in my book because I got a White Sale discount. (It’s a Labor Day thing) Plus, I hate the idea that folks might feel I’m pulling the ole scumbag scam to eat on the cheap. I’d rather leave with my dignity and pay full price and vow never to go back. But the pro pulled rank on me at the credit card machine and gave us the discount anyways. That’s a pretty stylish move in my book. If they ever quit, I’ll be overjoyed to have them as a server anytime. I hear there are openings down in the Tower District . So, by their magnanimous gesture we ended on a high note. And for that I’m thankful. Well, for that and the fact that I immediately ran across the parking lot and bought myself my very own mega-jar of sambal oelek. Now to learn curry!


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