Two restaurants, two meals, one day

July 1, 1993

Two restaurants, two meals, one day

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

I have to make a small work-related trip out of town, and I decide to turn it into a pleasure trip. I call my friend Jon Agustsson to see if he is available to ride along. He tells me he can, and I finish my work and then drive over to the old stone mansion to pick him up. My out-of-town work only requires a few minutes, and then we journey on to the restaurant I have selected for us to try.

I have been hearing about this restaurant from a number of people, and I want to go there for myself to see what it is all about. It is billed as a high-ticket “gourmet” type of restaurant. I am always a little doubtful when I hear about this kind of thing in the Midwest unless it is in the city of Chicago, and, even then, there is less than a 50-50 chance of it bearing out.

We like the look of the place. Aside from a heavy use of a Formica-type material on the host area and wait station, the decor is pretty classy. Jon, who pays attention to these kinds of things, notices the use of expensive materials and top-quality tables and chairs. There are, however, some unfinished looking areas; there could have been more attention to detail, but we came to eat, not to review or criticize, and we order martinis. (I order a traditional gin and vermouth and Jon a vodka, but both straight up—shaken, not stirred).

While we are on that subject, a martini is gin and vermouth (with the possible substitution of vodka). What it is not, is anything to do with chocolate, cranberry juice, or any other countless number of things that hopelessly food-uneducated people are calling a martini these days. At the Irish Rose, I received promotional material from some company of underwhelming intellect, that the Appeltini was the largest-selling martini. No, it isn’t, nor will it ever be. Just like the cigar nonsense, this stupid phase will pass, and the dictionary definition of a martini will survive: gin and vermouth.

Along similar lines, I am getting really tired of seeing an item on menus called chicken bruschetta. This is usually some kind of grilled chicken covered with a chopped tomato salad. THE BRUSCHETTA IS THE TOAST, NOT THE SALAD. You make bruschetta by anointing bread with olive oil and garlic and toasting it, preferably over a natural fire. You can put lots of things on it besides tomato salad. Call the dish chicken with tomato chutney, or call it anything that doesn’t make you look so stupid. By the way, the ch is hard like a k, (Broosketta).

The martinis come and they are great. But that is where the good stuff ends. This supposedly cutting-edge restaurant is all talk and no go. The menu items described in glowing terms turn out to be mass-market foodstuffs from some bulk distributor. There is very little cooking here, only assembly. What is worse, the place is filled with people flocking to this nonsense. Stylish-looking trendy people drawn like a moth to flame by the words on the menu, not knowing whether the food on the plate is real or not.

After dinner, our waiter tells us that lunch is on the house because it took so long to get our meals. We protest, but he insists. A manager stops by to affirm his decision; they will accept no money. (They should have comped it because it was lousy commercial food, not because it took too long to get. Really, we were not disturbed by the time element at all.)

Unfortunately, God blessed me with an acute sense of taste and smell. I say unfortunately because it makes it difficult for me to eat out. I am totally aware of commercial tastes in food, and I do not like them. Most of the American public has grown up eating highly-processed food out of grocery freezer cases or delivered from chain restaurant commissaries. They have become accustomed to these flavors. They no longer know what real food tastes like because they don’t cook at home. Unfortunately, as in the case at hand, they sometimes go on to open restaurants.

Most of these restaurants are pretty successful. The snooty patrons get to exercise their prejudices; they get the juvenile taste they are looking for, and they get to spend a lot of money, which validates their original choice. (It must be good if it costs that much.) Well, guess again. Good food is not a matter of how much you spend. On the way home, Jon remarks that it was paint by numbers in a fancy frame. I tell him I am going to steal that phrase.

Later that evening, I am hungry again. I drive down to the Taco Loco on South Main Street. I order tongue in green sauce with refried beans and rice, and I am knocked out at how much better this little restaurant is than the supposedly gourmet purveyor of lunch. The tongue is cooked to perfection, tender, giving up some of its essence to the Tomatillo sauce. The beans are properly caramelized, the pilaf is fluffy and light, real food, by real people who know how to cook. I reflect on the fact that there are 20 or 30 items you can buy here that are equal in cooking skill, each one subtly different, each one delicious. Homemade salsas adorn the table along with homemade pickled carrots. All of this is way over the head of the supposedly gourmet restaurant of the earlier day. Most of the trendy people wouldn’t like it; it has too much flavor.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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