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Protein, Starch and Veg

January 26, 2010

When a three-course meal costs $18.03 it is hard to complain, especially if the identical meal would usually cost almost twice that amount.

It wasn’t too long ago when I wrote about my sliding scale.  This is another perfect example.  Last night was the kickoff of Guilderland’s third annual restaurant week.

After careful consideration of all the menus, I finally decided upon Athos.  While I think it might be interesting to clue you all into my decision process, I fear there is no way of getting that post past the filters of Mrs. Fussy.  So should we meet, you will just have to ask me in person.

For $18.03 the meal at Athos was fine. I’d go so far as to say it was a bargain.

One of the biggest problems of the meal was not specific to Athos.  I have seen it in other well regarded restaurants around town.  And every time I see this on a “fancy” restaurant menu in my newly adopted home, a little piece of me dies:

Served with Rice and Vegetable

Last night that meant rice pilaf scooped into a cup and unmolded to form a “fancy” rice dome beside the protein, and a pile of soft, starchy, bitter broccoli tossed with some sliced carrots for color.

It was the same accompaniment for my baked white fish as it was for Mrs. Fussy’s beef stew.  And that’s fine if you are in a diner or a tavern.  It is not fine if you are in a place that fancies itself part of a higher class of dining.

This isn’t a single isolated incident.  The problem seems to be widespread.  How many dishes at Creo are served with their ubiquitous green beans in sesame oil and a big heap of mashed red potatoes with a waffle chip sticking out of the mound?

Someone told me this was a carryover from the chef’s tenure at McGuire’s.  I haven’t been there yet, so I cannot say if they still engage in this practice or if they have moved on.

A common starch and vegetable on several plates betrays a lack of imagination, effort and passion. They are signs that a restaurant is trying to simply feed people and not impress them.  I can be fed anywhere, but if I am out for a nice meal, I want to be impressed.

Chefs!  Please, if you are charging high-end prices for your food, consider taking some more time and effort into crafting plates, not proteins.

Provence got one step closer to getting it right with its Pan Roasted Heritage Hog Pork Medallions with Sage Gnocchi.  The gnocchi are integrated into the dish and not just thrown on the plate as an afterthought or as an offering to the gods of starches.  Yet still the dish comes with the Vegetable du Jour.

A Vegetable du Jour tells me one of two unflattering things about your kitchen:
1) You can only source one quality fresh vegetable at a time.
2) You can only be bothered to prepare one vegetable a night.

There is a reason this practice ended in most upscale restaurants many years ago. Why on Earth is this still going on?  I don’t get it.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2010 9:59 am

    You know who is notorious for this? Jack’s Oyster House. I fully support you in your feelings regarding this.

  2. Tonia permalink
    January 26, 2010 10:56 am

    I totally agree.

  3. kerosena permalink
    January 26, 2010 11:47 am

    There is no reason a restauant like Athos should be serving a timbale of hotel-pan rice and an overcooked veg. I have a bit more patience for the Creo style of sides that at least looks and tastes like something I might want to eat, but it’s true that very few restaurants locally do sides with great care.

    As for Provence, I think veg du jour is ok, because it’s hopefully something different each day, and the integrated starch shows some attention to detail. I don’t think Provence gets the play it deserves, and I’m not sure why. Prices, maybe? I personally know a few members of the kitchen crew there (past and present). They tend to stay there longer than the crews at many other restaurants, and it is run like a teaching kitchen. There is always more to learn, regardless of your previous training. They really care about what they’re putting out.

  4. Raf permalink
    January 26, 2010 1:51 pm

    Agree. I hate when restaurants treat the starch and (especially) the veg as a throwaway item. I think this issue speaks to a lot of what you discuss on the blog in terms of value and quality. In fact, I think it’s a good measure of a restaurant.

    I’ve never worked in a restaurant, so I have no idea about sourcing, but I can’t imagine that sourcing quality vegetables is a ton of work (i’m not talking sf bay area quality here, just reasonably fresh). The main thing is that with some skills, serving properly cooked flavorful veggies can be a revelation to people (and I think that’s a lot of people) who have never had them prepared that way.

    From the diner’s perspective, it’s so nice to really enjoy everything on the plate and not just the protein.

  5. January 26, 2010 1:58 pm


  6. RealFoodMom permalink
    January 26, 2010 3:37 pm

    I get frustrated that the “starches” in restaurants are almost universally either potato, white rice or white pasta. Ho hum. There are so many other wonderful, tasty, healthful forms of carbohydrates out there: kasha, quinoa, sweet potatoes, parsnips, polenta, and millet, just to name a few. These can be prepared in myriad ways, many of which are very simple but nonetheless fabulous. Chefs, read a few vegetarian or natural foods cookbooks, and you will find endless, inexpensive, workable ideas. Timid patrons can always have the option of a more “standard” starch, if they wish.

    One thing I loved about the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, is that every day they offered (and maybe still do; I haven’t been there in years) a “Grazer’s Plate” entree, which was a compilation of several of their grain, bean, root and vegetable side dishes from other (animal-protein based) entrees. I am not a vegetarian, but I sometimes ordered it because the sides were so sublime.

    As for vegetables, I agree that mostly we are served insulting yuck. When our family wants/needs veggies in a restaurant, we head for Chinese food. I so long for a lovely, ample side dish of braised red cabbage (cheap, and holds well in the kitchen) or collards/kale/turnip greens, etc.

    Also, I almost always wish that the portion of (good) vegetables was larger. At home, when we follow the protein/starch/vegetable model, our plates are 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch, and 1/2 vegetable(s). For our children, as well. It’s what they expect, and when it’s different, they notice it’s “off-balance”and sometimes even complain.

  7. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    January 26, 2010 3:55 pm

    I absolutely dread the inevitable yellow squash and zucchini mess on the side, seemingly ubiquitous in Saratoga.

  8. MiMi permalink
    January 26, 2010 3:58 pm

    Totally agree on this. Beef Stew from a Greek restaurant??? Why didn’t they feature some of their greek specialties in an attempt to get people back. I understand you are not going to get their best dishes at the price, but still.

  9. January 26, 2010 11:04 pm

    You have not been to McGuire’s yet? From your Yelp reviews (just read your Prinzo’s one in preparation for a Prinzo’s post) it seems to me that you have been almost everywhere! I have been to McGuire’s on several occasions and I will say this: I have seen them handle meat beautifully. I had a 3 figure ($) strip steak that was fitting of the price, as well as a lamb loin that was memorable (both dishes were specials). On the other hand, I had a black bean/shrimp starter that was nothing short of a disaster (I will say though, both my mom and wife liked it). The place falls victim to some bad culinary trends on occasion, but can also execute a wonderful meal. I haven’t been disappointed yet.

    By the by, I don’t care what anyone says, Provence has a soft spot in my heart. If I had to pick a restaurant in the area that I truly enjoy, she would be it. Never had a truly disappointing meal (I will leave a certain Valentines day prix fixe menu out of the discussion, everyone gets one mistake). Incidentally, it is also one of my favorite places to do a good lunch. Try them for lunch if you haven’t, it is pleasant. Also, don’t be an American, have a glass of wine at noon with lunch, I won’t tell your boss.

  10. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    January 27, 2010 8:57 am

    I agree completely with Mr. Dave about the excellent restaurants McGuire’s and Provence. But, Mimi, Greek cuisine features a spectacular beef stew called stephato (have no idea how it’s spelled) with cinnamon and other spices!

  11. beck permalink
    January 27, 2010 2:25 pm

    Daniel, I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’ve been known to order a dish at a restaurant based on the sides.

    More annoying than the same vegetable for every plate, however, is no vegetable, or simply the vegetable as garnish.

  12. MiMi permalink
    January 27, 2010 3:40 pm

    Mr. Sunshine – learn something new every day. I’ve been to Athos several times, but don’t remember seeing that item. I’ll look into it next time. I tend to think Greek = lemon, garlic, lamb, etc. And yes I know better than to stereotype!

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