Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Hell's Steakhouse

We typically chose to eat out to celebrate birthdays in our family. Afterwards, we engage in a post mortem of sorts, with each of us by turns reviewing our experience. We feel competent as reviewers, confident in our abilities to judge the worthiness of the restaurants we've chosen. When one of us offers up a suggestion for a new restaurant to try? We do so with gravitas, understanding that we are a particular, experienced, and very opinionated bunch.

Enter stage left the myth currently afloat that the restaurant business is decidedly more treacherous than other enterprises.This myth has become entrenched, doubtlessly enhanced by a crop of reality chef and restaurant shows, most featuring celebrities. While some shows purport to launch young proteges, others feature seasoned professionals attempting to rehab some failing enterprise.

Somehow, somewhere, the idea there is upwards of a 97 percent fail rate for newly opened restaurants before they reach their first anniversary took root. "Knowing" that, as part of my methodology of choosing a new restaurant, I routinely look to see how old a restaurant is and check how long it has been operating in a certain location. I use that as part of my prediction as to whether or not the food served there might be something we'd enjoy.

As part of my vetting process, I routinely look at the online reviews for restaurants. I balance that weight with the knowledge that some folks simply like to post things publicly (aHEM!!, cough). If I can, I ask my friends who eat out a lot if they liked a place (or not) and why. I look at websites and read a place's menus online whenever I can.

However, all those measures utterly failed me as we had a thoroughly awful restaurant experience last night.Relying upon my usual research methodology, in this instance generated by a tip from my son coming off his own past menu review, my family and I enthusiastically bellied up to a new to us local eatery. This establishment claims on their website to be the fruition of a years long journey by an experienced restauranteur to develop an authentic Texas steakhouse. A family enterprise, this couple has been hands on all the way, with the husband serving as contractor for the building and the wife serving as designer.

This restaurant has been open for slightly over two years. Their website was spell checked, and the photos looked reasonable, as did their online menu.They offered live music with the assurance the sound level would not compromise conversation with your table mates, and the online reviews available were mostly quite positive. They claimed locally sourced game with attention to regional preferences. At first blush it all sounded pretty well thought out.

Looking back there were clearly a few early warning signs. A couple of professional reviews cited a side dish too salty to eat, and faulted appetizers that were undercooked or lacking a key ingredient.

The majority of reviews were glowing however, and I overruled the negative notes sounded as potential early missteps that any restaurant can make. I thereby forged ahead with a reservation in my foolish eagerness to get our family together, somewhere, anywhere, to celebrate my birthday.Hindsight wins again. When we walked inside, our eyes were assaulted by a scenario rating 9 out of 10 on the Yikes-o-meter. The decor (and I am insulting the word by applying it in this instance) looked to have been guided by a kitsch-deaf committee of consanguinous cousins.

They'd lost our reservation, which I now realize may have been a last ditch divine intervention to protect us from eating there. But we'd fought traffic, were inside already and they offered us a table. I foolishly accepted.If we would have been able to overlook the abundance of taxidermic and sheet metal cutter's "art" on the walls and if we could only have ignored the pleather crocodile "tablecloths" adding to our discomfort in the barely air conditioned dining room, the food would yet have undone us.

As best we could tell, the appetizer batter's "Shiner Bock" designation indicated what the fry cook was currently drinking. Our Caesar salads were significantly wilted. All the salad dressings, including the Caesar, were cloyingly sweet. This was exacerbated by what appeared to be last night's leftover cutesy cactus shaped sugary cornbread cut up into cubes, dried, and recycled as croutons.

We had to ask - twice- for forks to replace the ones removed once our appetizers were cleared after our entreƩs arrived. The highly anticipated "poblano mashed potatoes" were neither. A large mound of what was apparently reconstituted potato flakes demonstrated scant evidence of poblano proximity.

The chicken fried venison was OK, but people, please. We are talking chicken fried meat. Successfully battering and frying pulverized meat is not enough of an accomplishment to hang a restaurant reputation on, venison or no. A ribeye was gristly and unseasoned. A filet was tender enough, but slightly over cooked and similarly unadulterated by seasoning. A touted Cholula Hollandaise was relatively tasteless. I believe I could stir hot sauce into mayonnaise and come up with something that would give their "hollandaise" a run for it's money.

Our dessert choice, a peach cobbler served in it's own cast iron skillet, required a twenty minute lead time. We were hopeful. Peach season has not completely passed us by yet.The twenty minute time frame held out the promise of this dessert being something the establishment took pride in. We ordered it with ice cream, a privilege we paid extra for. We will forgive a lot in return for a great peach cobbler. Had we at last stumbled upon what would serve as this restaurant's redemption?

Unfortunately, no. The mass of over baked cobble with it's few anemic scraps of peach was a coup de grace, the last nail in an already well sealed coffin. Only the ice cream, a readily available brand in any neighborhood store, was reliably good.

What a complete study in the various ways not to run a good restaurant. I kept a constant eye on the kitchen doors so I wouldn't miss the anticipated momentwhen Gordon Ramsay would burst out tossing around f-bombs and cutlery alike. There was a box of Franzia sitting out in full view of the dining room for pete's sake. Surely this many obvious missteps loaded into one night out had to mean they were filming a Hell's Kitchen episode. Exaggeration in the service of reality TV would have at least made it's own backwards kind of sense.

Sadly, no. The only reality was that we had paid dearly for food that was mediocre at best, overpaid for wine, and done both seated in a barely air conditioned space all while surrounded by screamingly awful pseudo-Western knick knacks.

Now, back to that myth of how hard it is to keep a restaurant open past the first year, a statistic I had naively relied upon as a measure of protection against just such dining experiences in establishments remaining open after two or more years.

A quick check in RestaurantOwner.Com reveals a 2003 study done in the highly competitive Dallas area (6,000 restaurants within a 30 minute drive)predicting only 23 percent of new restaurants will have closed their doors before hitting a first anniversary.

A two year old restaurant is not a reliable measure of quality as demonstrated by a triumph over the odds. A restaurant still open after two years has more to say about the bench depth of the local food industry employee pool than any other factor. One study noted that in the face of working grueling hours with few breaks, rather than most restaurant owners citing financial strain as a reason for closing, it more often involved key personnel quitting for "personal reasons".What about the gushingly positive reviews of this restaurant I'd seen online? Do Texans know good food when they eat it?According to the 2008 Zagat Survey of the Lone Star State, Texans eat out more frequently than anyone else around the country. Local eaters may be outpaced by those in Houston and Dallas, but here in Austin folks reportedly eat out an astounding 3.7 times a week. That number was not broken out further to indicate if it includes as "eating out" trips through the take out lane of some national chain.

I am guessing 3.7 meals out a week has to include a lot of work lunches. Either way, that number represents a lot of eating out, and would seem to support that folks around here know a good restaurant when they eat there.At the same time, there is often no way to identify who has written positive or negative reviews on the internet. Further, taste is totally subjective. I admit I don't like a lot of things that many other reasonable people seem to thoroughly enjoy. Like Nascar for some, or bird watching for others, we each like what we like for our own private reasons.

Bottom line, whether or not we really know what we are doing when we choose where to eat, the figures indicate a gold mine of wealth regularly allocated towards the purchase of restaurant food.

Austin is a great little city where we pride ourselves on fine living and have an abundance of good restaurants to choose from. I still find it hard to believe the scene of last night's culinary crime remains up and running, charging moderately high prices for mediocre to poor food. To me, it defies common sense for this place to be a survivor, even if the restaurant biz is not nearly so cut throat as I'd previously been led to believe.

But in a backwards way, I look at our experience last night as encouraging for the future of my son's dream to eventually open his own place. Like many professionally trained chefs, he has firm ideas about what he will offer patrons when he gets his chance to craft a dining experience.

Knowing that the restaurant we weathered last night has kept it's doors open while similarly buffeting diners for some two to three years, I can't help but figure anything my son would sign off on will not only survive, but will flourish whenever he gets his turn.And as to the name of our "trial by taxidermy" establishment? That I will keep to myself. I am not out to hurt anybody's family business. Several folks came in last night who were warmly greeted as old friends, obvious regulars who can choose to keep that place afloat if they so desire. As long as they are busy eating there, I won't be stuck waiting in line behind them in the places I like to frequent. Happy Trails, Y'all!

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