Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Treatise on the current state of culinary affairs in Davis

During the past few weeks I have had a long string of bad eating experiences in Davis. I haven’t written about them before now because I don’t want to just trash restaurants and I don’t want to be the author of a whole string of negative blogs. I have no problem being brutally honest; I just like to avoid being a negative person in general. After my dining experience on Saturday night, I can no longer contain myself. It seems that there has been a conspiracy against me lately. Therefore I will attempt to purge myself of all of my negativity, climaxing with the worst.

It all started at Kabul, not the city which that Dumbo-eared fool George W. decided to bomb into the stone age, it’s also an Afghan restaurant in Davis. The reception was great. We were promptly seated in the area where you get to take off your shoes and sit on pillows on the floor. This is where I met the first beer that I didn’t like (I can usually find at least one good quality of a beer). Its name was “Karma.” I am an experienced fermentation scientist and I still have no idea how they made this beer. After pondering where the “liquid smoke” flavor might have come from, Kristen had an epiphany; it tasted exactly like cold carbonated miso soup! I like miso soup, but this was the most unrefreshing beer I have ever had. I actually needed another beer to quench my thirst after every sip of Karma. Needless to say, I still drank the whole beer. I don’t waste beer, I consider that alcohol abuse.

At this point we were graced by the presence of a bellydancer named Mychelle. I generally don’t enjoy being confronted by bellydancers when I am trying to eat. I just find that it is an uncomfortable situation to deal with while trying to eat and chat. Mychelle is a great dancer though. Now for the food…. I ordered Mantoo – “Steamed dumplings filled with seasoned ground beef and onions topped with homemade yogurt and special beans-pea sauce.” When this plate appeared in front of me the first thing that I noticed was the offensive odor of dried mint. I love fresh mint, so much so, that I try to make my mouth smell like it all day long. For some reason I have a particularly strong aversion to the smell of dried mint, and it was blanketing the surface of my food. I recognize the aversion to dried mint may be particular to me, but why are they using dried herbs anyway? Besides the mint, the rest of the dish was pretty ordinary, not terrible, but “blah.” I was able to force three out of seven of the dumplings down my throat. Kristen tried them and commented “there is a reason why dumplings start with “dump.” Another one of Kristen’s epiphanies. Unfortunately I could only wash it down with my cold sparkling miso beverage. I also noted that the “special” beans and pea sauce was clearly made with canned green beans, peas, and carrots drowning in some sort of light orange matrix. Maybe I am just ignorant and the Afghani word for “canned” is “special.” Why are they using canned vegetables??? I really hate to cheapen our blog with the juvenile dialogue that you are about to behold, but the special sauce and vegetables looked like initially fresh beans, peas, and carrots that had been eaten and subsequently vomited directly onto my plate. I apologize, I just don’t know how else to describe it. I took a picture on my friend Sean's cell phone to document it, but he is a Chico grad and can’t figure out how to send it to me. I emailed him again, pleading him to figure out how to send me the picture and I just received the following reply only minutes ago: “DUDE…..WTF, Barf and take a picture of it... it will look the same.” Sean's colorful reply negates any need for photographic evidence. Kristen and Sean's food was unremarkable so I won’t describe it further

The second bad experience was at Bistro 33 in Davis. I have been to “Bistro” many times and will happily return many more in the future, but only for the drinks and atmosphere. I love the ambiance of bistro; they are located in a beautiful historical building and have a spacious patio complete with owls and a gas bonfire (the fire contributes to the ambiance but you have to be rotated on a spit above the flames to actually feel any heat) I could write volumes about my numerous dining experiences, but the food is generally unremarkable. There are a few dishes that I can count on when I do dine at Bistro. On Wednesday, Kristen and I dropped by Bistro for a late afternoon beer and appetizer on the patio before we prepared the chicken adobo. We ordered calamari and a couple brews and sat on the patio. The beer was great, as beer has a tendency to be. When the calamari arrived our attention was immediately drawn to the accompanying aioli type sauces. Judging by the gelatinous skin that had formed on the surface, they had likely been sitting in the serving vessels since lunch. Maybe we are too persnickety, but we don’t like off-color oxidized skins on our sauces. As for the calamari, I don’t know what they use to make the breading, but I am sure it would be an incredibly useful material for cleaning up a beach after an oil spill. The breading was soggy and completely saturated with oil. Kristen has ordered calamari at Bistro several times in the past and it has been great. The inferior quality this time may have been due to poor attention to complete breading, not frying at a high enough temperature, or not shaking enough oil off when it came out of the fryer. The odd thing about fried food is that one feels compelled to eat it even if it isn’t good, (like Pringles, I hate Pringles, but once I “pop” I can’t stop because MSG is powerfully addictive) so we kept eating. We returned to my place to experiment with the chicken adobo, but our grease-laden stomachs quenched any motivation to prepare a fatty chicken dish. I’m confident that the chicken adobo might have turned out better had we not been ambivalent about our cooking after apps at Bistro.

The third and most egregious dining experience took place Saturday night at Little Prague in Davis. I wanted to go to Little Prague because they have a great outdoor patio area and breakfast has been good in the past. We were seated promptly outside and ordered beers (Hoegaarden), apps, and entrees. Upon tasting the appetizer we believed that we were surely in for a treat with this meal. The appetizer was breaded deep fried duck. We didn’t have particularly high expectations, but it was surprisingly good. The breading was very crisp and dry (impractical for oil spill clean up) and the duck contained within was moist and flavorful. It was served with a light fresh tasting homemade BBQ sauce. Though we were pleasantly surprised with the duck, the experience spiraled precipitously downhill from there. For my entrée I ordered venison with strawberry/blackberry reduction (If only I had listened to the little voice in my head that was suspicious of this sauce….) and some sort of fried potato-spinach croquettes. Kristen ordered a Smoked Grilled Pork Chop with Czech Potato Pancake (with several other items but they were irrelevant and inedible so they won’t be mentioned). We don’t have much to say about the actual flavor of Kristen’s dish as only 5% of the dish was consumed. This was the saltiest dish I have ever encountered. All of the components of this dish burnt our taste buds. The pork was the worst, Kristen said it was really salty but I had no idea until I tasted it. I was speechless after tasting the pork, mostly because the salt wiped all of the moisture out of my mouth and instantly crystallized, obstructing the ducts of my salivary glands. I had to drink half of a beer just to re-dissolve the salt crystals and get my saliva flowing again. Between the two of us we could only eat one cubic inch of the pork. The potato pancakes were as salty as the other elements and were like disks of rubber. It is uncanny how tough they were. Kristen gave up and pushed the plate to the middle of the table after five minutes. Kristen’s food may have been good with less salt but mine was just plain bad. I actually added salt to mine in a vain attempt to make it taste better. I don’t know what the Croquettes were specifically, but I was more interested in knowing how they managed to extract every last bit of flavor before serving. They were tough, had no flavor, and an unpleasant texture. How does one make something fried taste bad? I thought that frying usually improves texture and flavor. The venison had an off flavor (not gamey) and the texture was soft and mushy. I wish I had asked what animal this “venison” came from since this term can refer to any animal of the Cervidae family. I’ll have to see if Opossum is part of this family because this “venison” tasted like something that folks in the Ozarks named Cletus eat. As for the strawberry-blackberry reduction: I don’t know what to say because Kristen suggests that I refrain from saying what I really want to say.

The manager finally came to the table and inquired as to the problem and Kristen replied that everything was over salted. The manager proceeded to defend his restaurant, retorting that they get the pork like this from the store and they don’t add any extra salt. A restaurant should be responsible for what ends up in front of the customer; after all they are charging you for it. I understand if their supplier of brined pork had over-brined it, but in that case I would expect to be thanked for bringing it to their attention. I also think its odd that they don’t brine the pork in-house, but to each their own. At least own up to the food you’re serving. I was dying to ask him why he is serving us some poor thirsty pig that had obviously died of dehydration, but I got the feeling that the manager had the sense of humor of a brick. He did however say that the dish would be removed from the bill. As he was removing the plate of Sodium from the table he turned to me and asked if I would like to take it home to which I replied with a laugh: “No…. the salt actually burned my mouth.” Needless to say, I was definitely more amused with myself than was the manager.

Finally the bill came. I was happy to see that the salt disguised as pork had been removed from the ticket, but my jaw dropped when I saw a charge for Kristen’s salad. Though they removed the pork entrée from the bill, they felt the need to nickel and dime us for the cost of the ordinary salad that was included with the meal. I guess the fact that the “soup or salad” question was even asked should have been a red herring to the “classiness” of this joint. As my eyes scan down the bill I see something that causes my other jaw to drop; my inedible Ozark meat cost $29.99! Venison may be expensive but the portion size, presentation, and flavor did not warrant that price. This is not fine dining in San Francisco, this is down-home peasant food in Yolo County! In my opinion, the only restaurant in Davis that might be justified in commanding $30 for an entrée is Tuco’s, and that is even a stretch. We begrudgingly paid the bill and left a moderate tip since the service, though slow, was acceptable (they are Europeans so I don’t expect the same speediness). The servers were friendly and promptly moved us inside when we decided that it was too cold to sit outside. As we ambled out of the restaurant the manager says, “come again!” Sure thing…. I’ll be back to eat you pork-encrusted salt if I ever start developing a goiter.

I feel much better after that purge and I sincerely hope that I don’t have to do this again. Now that my rant is over, it just occurred to me that these three meals were all accompanied by beer, which is rare for us. I think I will focus on eating “wine food” in the future and see if my luck changes. The last agreeable dining experience that I can remember was at Woodstock’s pizza. It was great, but that’s rather sad. I just want to eat good food. Davis, why hath you forsaken me?


fezoca said...

I heard stories of people being mistreated by the rude owner of Little Prague. I went there once, and don't plan going back. It's a shame that we have such poor choices for eating out here in Davis. The best option is still cooking at home. :-)

Kraig said...

There is nothing "wrong" with pointing out the fact that there are little to no choices for having a nice, reasonably priced meal in Davis. I've had similar experiences at all three of the places mentioned in the post. I can't even think of one mid-priced place in Davis that has outstanding food. Many have ambiance, patios, drinks - but it consistently amazes me that there is not a single place with great, or even good food for under $25 pp.

jackerypyro said...

Haven't you checked out Bodega yet? It's by the Amtrak station. It pleases my pallete more than anything else in Davis. Their tortilla is great, you can't go wrong with the rabbit or the chicken, and the seared skirt steak is great (if you like raw beef). It's a little pricey though. I should also mention that I've had excellent food at Little Prague. I guess you just ordered the wrong thing (-: Their cakes are very skillfully assembled and designed and their specials (venison, duck, etc.) are divine. I too have had bad dining experiences there but it is possible to have a bad dining experience anywhere. As for Vas, the owner, you just have to get to know him! I can't for the life of me recreate that marzipan covered cake.