Thursday, May 01, 2008

*gin, say.

Ah, restaurant food. Why must you tempt me with your made-by-other-people-ness and your expensivity? As I'm sure all of you who know me are aware, I am a person with simple needs. A glass of wine, a warm dog, and two strong hands for doing all my vacuuming.

Seriously, why do I like that guy so much?

Oh yeah. Twitter!

Anyhoo. Restaurants. I really think the formula for a great dining experience, whether it's The Cheesecake Factory or The French Laundry (HAR! Like I've eaten there.) comes down to four basic ingredients.*

MENU: I'm inappropriately obsessed with menus. I'm the Goldilocks of menus. I abhor the enormous ones that act like the dividers they used to make you use in elementary school to keep you from cheating. I hate to see some awkward couple cowering behind giant placards, squinting at the tiny type and murmuring, "Oh, I don't know, it ALL sounds so good ... What'd you say? I can't hear you from behind this piece of POSTERBOARD."

Then, should they want to put their menus down and have an actual conversation about the coworker they're both disappointed with for setting them up in the first place, there's no place to put the damn things, because the size of the table is inversely related to the size of the menu. Go to Brio some day and count the number of people with menus in their laps. Or precariously balanced on the corner of the table, with the silverware as anchor, creating the perfect setup for hitting the overhanging edge of the menu and catapulting forks across the restaurant. Unsightly and dangerous.

And too big isn't the half of it. There's too light (If I'm eating outside and you're going to give me a menu with the heft of loose leaf, at least have the courtesy to provide a paperweight), too many choices—and its corollary, spiral-bound—(If I want a burrito, I'll go to a Mexican restaurant. If I want pizza, I'll go to a pizza joint. No, I do not feel giddily enthusiastic at the prospect of a twice-baked potato with my California roll), and too much information—and its corollary, inane description—(I can see that it's a chicken Caesar salad. I don't need you to explain that that means "a classic Caesar salad topped with chicken").

As a personal aside, I've always wanted to get restaurants to adopt some version of this, wherein the fabric between the seat and the floor is a pocket. I want to keep my menu—maybe I'll need to choose another wine, or think about dessert—but not if it's the size of a road map. I think diners should get to HAVE their menus, but be able to keep them out of sight.

SERVICE: Service is a dance of sorts, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Bring me what I order, and have a sense of humor. That's all I ask. You can be a little slow, or a little busy—you're working, I get it. I want my meal to be a leisurely affair, so I'm not too worried about it. If you have to explain what's going on, don't blame the kitchen or the bar. They're not my problem. Just assure me it's on its way and I'll be fine. See how easygoing?

At the same time, know that there is a general pace to a meal. Don't bring the appetizers out before the bread, or bring out the soup with the entrees. And don't be a snot about substitutions. There is a place for the thin-lipped terseness when someone wants eggplant parmigiano without the eggplant. But if I order a double-decker burger and ask if I can get it as a single-decker? It's LESS food. For the same amount of money. And I'm certain the kitchen can do two minus one. I know you'd like people to order directly from the menu without complaint, but ... I don't know. Maybe your menu is annoying. I don't want two veggie patties, OK, and I know it's not a big deal to change. So stop looking at me like I asked for the Magna Carta.

ATMOSPHERE: Simple and private. Not too many TVs. The decor signifies what the food is going to be like, so if you're garish and loud and overrun with children, I'm going to assume the back of the house is harried and loud and heavy-handed with the sauces. No gimmicks or bad art, please. And if your bathroom isn't clean, I'm not coming back.

PRICE: I don't mind paying for good stuff. That having been said, I know portion sizes are making us fat, but they also give us the impression we're getting our money's worth. Serving a sandwich the size of my head is particularly useful if your food isn't terribly good. I'll be all, "Ew, there's a hair in there. But it has a year's worth of calories for only $4.50!" The flip side is that I'll give you my paycheck for something tiny and delicious.

FOOD: Well, der.

*Trust me on this; I come with excellent credentials. I graduated cum laude from the University of Unsolicited and Unqualified Opinion. Go Fighting Trumps!

OK. End Manifesto.

JLB took my broke ass to Jinsei, which happens to be my favorite restaurant in the Woodside's municipality. The sushi will ruin you forever. When I see the rolls in the plastic cases at the Publix now, I cry.

We started with the tempura green beans:

They were perfectly crispy on the outside and hot like molten lava inside, which sounds dangerous but is delicious. It comes with a low-level spicy sauce that is sort of superfluous but keeps you dipping with its seductive mayonnaiseyness.

After that healthy vegetable course, we had the rock shrimp tempura (that's an errant shiitake mushroom mucking up the shot):

They're tasty, but not my favorite (and by "not my favorite" I mean I only ate 14% more than my share). JB always orders them with the sauce on the side, which helps because it keeps the tempura from going chewy.

Six seconds later, when we'd devoured the popcorn shrimp, we ordered JLB's favorite: the Kadoma tuna ("Cut into small pieces," natch. The wedges are pretty big, which is never a problem for someone with a mouth the size of mine, but JLB is dainty. And likes to make things difficult for the kitchen. Hi JLB!)

A crunchy rice crust surrounds spicy tuna, topped with avocado, jalapeño, and a smattering of roe. I adore spicy, but I'm not a huge jalapeño fan. I prefer fill-your-head spicy to burn-your-taste-buds spicy. Here, though, it's ideal. It offsets the sweet sauce and gets cooled by the avocado. JLB turns into a 3-year-old when it hits the table. She just stares at it reverently and whispers, "It's my fayvritt."

After that, JLB decided she wanted "some of those cone thingies." For unknown reasons, the chef wasn't quite clear on that apt description, so he sent out the nikko roll:

I can't really remember what's in there, but I know there was cream cheese and that the white sauce tasted suspiciously of mayo. I wouldn't order it again, but the worst menu item at Jinsei is better than the best menu item at a lot of places.

JLB proceeded to gesticulate wildly enough to communicate what she had been trying to conjure:

To her credit, it does have a complicated name: "hand roll." I'd never had them before, and they were transcendent. The fish was amazing, and that leathery fruit-roll-up texture you usually get from the seaweed wrap? Totally nonexistent here. I didn't so much eat mine as I gobbled it. Which is attractive, let me tell you.

Jesus, ladies, aren't you full yet?

What's full?

I had to save the best for last. We finished with hamachi nigiri:

That yellowtail, my friends, tastes like heaven. Like someone teaching you how to French kiss (thanks, Pelham!). Not that I've done that, of course. Hi Grandma!

There's a perfect layer of wasabi holding that fish to the rice like Polydent. Ruth Reichl says the Japanese never dip their rice in the soy sauce—it should go into the dish fish-side first. I follow their mandate, because I'm pretentious like that. And trust me when I say you do not want excessive brininess assaulting this fish. It is unlike anything I've ever eaten.

Sigh. This is an exercise in futility. Anyone want to go to Jinsei and buy me dinner?


MENU: Not ideal. Two small pieces of wood hold the pages in (sometimes), connected by bolts. The clunkiness makes it hard to turn the pages, but the tininess makes it unobtrusive on the table. Which helps when you're hanging on to your menu and ordering item by item. Most dishes come with no description at all. It can seem intimidating, but ... well, see below.

SERVICE: So. Nice. And helpful. I'm sure when you're answering the same questions night after night it can get old, but you'd never know it by the waitstaff. Management makes a point to visit tables and check in without pecking on your shoulder and shouting "HOW IS EVERYTHING TONIGHT?" every four and a half minutes (peeve!).

ATMOSPHERE: Vibey. The restaurant is small, and things are close together, but the food makes people so happy that you won't hate your table neighbors. Except when they stop talking for 48 minutes because they're listening to your conversation and oh my god it's so obvious you're eavesdropping get your own lives. Ahem.

Know that the bathrooms sport pocket doors, or you may find yourself mortified. Unlike other things I deny on this site, that did NOT happen to me. But it has happened, so be aware! Your netherregions and your pride will thank you. My only complaint is that the banquettes are too low. Grab a chair, or you may have to sit with your chin on the table.

PRICE: So massive, and so worth it. Start kissing up to cranky rich people, STAT. The cocktails are inventive and tasty, but if you're a wine drinker, start at home. You'll double your tab fast in alcohol alone. Or you could be less of a lush, geesh.

FOOD: The best.

1830 29th Avenue South
Suite 125
Homewood, AL 35209


at: 4:38 PM said...

Sigh ..... that was a good night. Now I'm hungry. Get the weekend wedding festivities over with and I'll meet you there!!!

at: 10:07 PM said...

I really look forward to these blog posts, even though my only real food passions all involve BBQ sauce.

I enjoyed the movie clip-it reminded me that Ben affleck is, without a doubt, the worst actor of his generation. I had also forgotten that the Matt Damon character quotes Gordon Wood, who happens to be my favorite author of the Colonial/REvolutionary period.

Your restaurant peeves amused me, although I did not understand the reference to anti-cheating dividers in elementary school. Physical barriers were not necessary at my school-the omnipresent fear of a nun's sudden and violent yardstick attack still sends a shiver down my back.

Speaking of restaurant peeves, my number one complaint is lack of illumination. I understand (and dimly recall) the romantic benefits of candlelight during an evening "a due". What annoys me is that I usually eat lunch alone during which I typically enjoy reading a magazine (or at least looking at all of the cartoons). In order to do this I need a modicum of light. I often find myself quoting the character Murray in the movie, "A Thousand Clowns" who, in response to the waiter's request for his order says " Yes, I'll have a hamburger and a flashlight".

In any event, please keep these blogs coming. They make me smile.


PS. What are "pocket doors"?

K. says:
at: 11:21 PM said...

aw, jeannieb, you're such a good sport! i loves ya.

DWG: once you have the hamburger, do you need a flashlight? re: ben affleck—AGREED. i'm not telling you what pocket doors are, because hilarity could ensue should you ever visit jinsei. and never, but NEVER underestimate the power of bbq sauce.

i promise to try to write more. if only because i know you're reading!



my foodgawker gallery



I am a work in progress. I perpetually need a hair cut. I'm totally devoted to my remarkable nieces and nephew. I am an elementary home cook and a magazine worker bee. (Please criticize my syntax and spelling in the comments.) I think my dog is hilarious. I like chicken and spicy things. I have difficulty being a grown-up. Left to my own devices, I will eat enormous amounts of cheese snacks of all kinds.