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Name That Chain

According to Brownstoner, yesterday it was revealed at a Brooklyn Real Estate Roundtable that two “nationally known” restaurant will be coming to downtown Brooklyn, 345 Adams Street, specifically.

Fast food? Casual dining? I don’t picture any upscale chains fitting in. The Morton’s in the nearby Marriott is about as much as the immediate area can handle. I predict a Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Nothing radical. I definitely don’t anticipate a Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s—those are way too massive and Vegas-y suburban.

Then again, I didn’t imagine an Arby’s on Fulton Street either.

Legal Sea Foods

Did I love it? Eh, it’s purely a platonic relationship.

Legal seafood interior

Not that I make a habit of frequenting higher end seafood chains, but my recent experiences at McCormick & Schmick's and now at Legal Sea Foods (not so much Bonefish Grill—I’m sad that I didn’t have time to use my $10 ten-year [dating] anniversary gift card before it expired. If you don’t mind giving out personal information, you can get promotional gift cards on your birthday and anniversary for registering on their site. I get off on crap like this) have felt a little desolate and dreary. I’m not sure if it’s the economy or that I dine too late and the room has emptied out by the time I’m hungry (that’s what eating sliders for lunch at 4pm will do to you). At 9:30pm on this particular Saturday, there were only five or so other tables occupied while on my previous visit in 2004 there was a solid 45-minute-wait.

Legal seafood wontons

The shrimp dumplings–or rather wontons as they called them–were preferable to P.F. Chang’s version. The shrimp tasted like shrimp and the wakame salad was refreshing for a chain appetizer.

Legal seafood mahi mahi

Bizarrely, I liked everything about this special except the fish. The mahi mahi was overcooked and a bit lifeless, but I liked the Spanish-meets-fall flavors of kale, raisins and sweet potatoes. I’m not sure where the cashew crust fits in to all of that. I probably would’ve used pecans because that seemed more logical.

I’ve never been to a restaurant, chain or otherwise, so aggressive in talking up its wine. I don’t need any prompting, as I’m one of those oddballs who always requires an alcoholic beverage with my chain dinners because I’m classy (one of the reasons why I don’t gravitate toward fast food unless it’s the daytime or super late night). But our server must’ve just attended a pep talk on promoting their Chilean wine, also boldly announced in an insert in the drink list. I think the Olive Garden servers are also supposed to highlight wine, but at least in the city they don’t even make an effort.

We appeased him by ordering a glass of Cono Sur Pinot Noir, then he went into a spiel about how you can now take unfinished bottles or wine home due to changes in the law. (I was just going to say that I’ve never seen anyone actually take advantage of this, but the other night two women at Bocca Lupo ordered a second bottle between them. I admired their moxie. They did take a majority of that bottle to go, though.) Eh, I started with a cocktail so one glass was fine.

Speaking of wine, the next time I’m at the Garden State Plaza I’m totally eating at the Napa Valley Grille. There’s something very twisted about attempting to emulate West Coast wine country inside a New Jersey mall. Even better though, would be eating at the Napa Valley Grille in Yountville. French Laundry? Never heard of it.

Legal Sea Foods * 1 Garden State Plaza, Paramus, NJ

Chain Links: Hipster Black Shirts

Ruby tuesday

Slate asks why Arby's is struggling more than other fast food chains. Moneybox columnist Daniel Gross thinks it's the low quality meat, lack of healthy options and "killer non-meat app." Hey, what do you call that Jamocha shake?

Meanwhile, Brooklynites who don't care about taste and fast food salads will soon be treated to the borough's first Arby's in the historically landmarked Gage & Tollner space.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ruby Tuesday has spent around $100 million in efforts to create more upmarket food, service and decor, pretty gutsy in this economy. Will servers "clad in hipster black shirts and black pants," lobster tails and wine suggestions work for a chain best known for its burgers?

Tidbits I didn't previously know: Ruby Tuesday owns an inn called RT Lodge that used to only be for managers but is now open to the public (road trip?). Also, Peter Glander, Ruby Tuesday's executive chef (pictured above with the chain's founder) used to be a sous-chef at The Modern.

Mercat Negre

3/4 I’ve only been to Mercat on Bond Street once when they were having one of their visiting Catalonian chefs cooking a special menu. I liked the few things I ate well enough. How would the restaurant translate to Williamsburg?

It hasn’t exactly. The menu is much smaller, no cured meats or cheeses at all, though the room is airy, high ceilings, lots of wood and white brick. The service was typically Williamsburg—amiable, though harried and forgetful no matter how empty or busy—which I always mentally prep myself for and am rarely proven wrong.

Sure, it’s new and quickly became bustling. When I first entered there was only one other couple in the then cavernous, nearly Medieval looking room, The Boy With the Arab Strap played in entirety. Soon enough, though, the bar stools filled, the din rose and two large parties had descended, one in the private second floor space and another group of fifteen inches from us at a long row of cobbled together two-tops.

Mercat negre croquetas The food is hit and miss. Stick with the fried snackier items and you’ll be fine. The croquetas, here spinach, pinenut and raisin in oblongs and shrimp in balls, were the highlight. Nearly greaseless, their crusts were perfectly golden with a arm oozy interior. I even liked the croquetas at chain restaurants in Spain, though, so maybe I’m easily impressed. 

Mercat negre bomba

The bomba wasn’t what I expected at all. Described as a chicken and pork meatball, I still wasn’t picturing one large ground meat orb coated in mashed potato and fried. Minus the aioli, there was something almost British about this. All it needed was a scattering of green peas. That’s a sobrassada and cheese empanada hiding in the background. I will say that the prices are fair. Empanadas, though tiny, were only $1 a pop, croquetas $2 each, same with the bomba.

Mercat negre patatas bravas

The patatas bravas were done in a thick handcut potato chip style rather than in more traditional cubes. I did see huevos rotos served like this in Madrid earlier this year so it’s not a completely un-Spanish thing to do. I like tasting more of the potato’s softness, but these were still enjoyable.

Mercat negre coca topped with escalivada & sardines

Cocas are thin, cracker-like flatbrads treated like pizzas. This one was minuscule—it’s not even visible in the photo—and overwhelmed by the topping of vinegary sardines and escalivada, a.k.a. red peppers and onions grilled to sweet softness and dressed with olive oil.

Mercat negre arros cacador There are two rice dishes: one seafood, one meat, available in two sizes. This is the smaller one, which contained rabbit and pork. The grains weren’t fully cooked, some mostly scattered on the surface were completely white and still opaque, and the meat was a little greasy yet not in a way that moistened the rice. This was the dud of the batch.

Taste is subjective, though. James ordered a Ward Eight, which I’ve never had before so it’s hard to compare. After a sip I did comment that it wasn’t very sweet, meant in a positive way. I’m not crazy about sugary beverages, alcoholic or not. The woman sitting next to us later ordered this same drink and a few minutes afterward asked the server for more simple syrup, which they brought to the table no problem. It’s never even occurred to me that you could or would doctor a cocktail. Then again, other than fries, I never salt or pepper my food at restaurants either. And I didn’t say anything about the crunchy rice.

Mercat negre interiorNow that I look deeper, though, a Ward Eight doesn’t typically contain sugar, just a touch of grenadine, and Mercat Negre’s version goes primal with straight pomegranate juice. My conclusion: the cocktail isn’t meant to be particularly sweet. The customer’s always right?

While assessing our meal–James thought this was a one-shovel restaurant while I thought it was more two-shovel with kinks to work out–he commented, “I liked that tapas place by the BQE better.”

What tapas place by the BQE? Zipe Zape? That was just a few blocks from this place and it’s gone. “Do you mean Allioli?! Grandpa, you do realize how long ago that was?”

I had a vague idea just how long ago that truly was because I remembered debating whether or not I should watch the Daniel Pearl decapitation video a few days before this dinner (nay won over yay) then got squeamish about eating a baby octopus’ head at Allioli when normally I’m not troubled by such things.

And that is one beauty of blogging about food before food blogging was such a thing, I have a record of practically everywhere I’ve dined since the dawn of the millennium (as well as non-dining at Zipe Zape in its previous incarnation, Kokie’s). I can also concede that caving and buying a smartphone does have benefits, primarily being able to look up crap from the past on the spot. What was at 291 Grand Street now, anyway?

We strolled down Grand on our way to the G train, and it turns out that the space is now that Caracas Arepa Bar offshoot. Yet another indie chain.

Mercat Negre * 65 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY

Frontline Fare

Have you ever wondered what people eat on battlefields? I must admit that I’ve never thought about it. Yet that’s the premise of Cooking History, a documentary that has European cooks recreate military meals they served during 20th century wars. 

This film is showing as part of the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival at The American Museum of Natural History that runs from November 12-15, 2009.

Henry Public

1/2 Henry public eagle's dream I was, and still am, more interested in the edibles at recently opened Henry Public. Cocktails are great too, but it's not as if we're suffering from a shortage of old-timey libations in this corner of Brooklyn.

But 11pm on a Friday is no time for sampling bone marrow and these so-called Wilkinsons I keep reading about (not so much the turkey leg sandwich). Too new, too crowded. Instead, I bolstered myself with some Italian salumi and cheeses at Bocca Lupo down the street first.

Almost closer in style to an early 20th century ice cream parlor than saloon, the booths—or at least the bench closer to the entrance—are also bygone era in size. James and I side-by-side were smooshed tighter than when an ample bottomed commuter wedges their way into the subway's middle seat during rush hour. 

This is an Eagle's Dream (gin, lemon juice, sugar, egg white and Creme de Violette). I always order a cocktail that uses Creme de Violette, especially if it's not an Aviation (nothing wrong with the latter—I just like seeing what they can do beyond the classic). True to form, this drink was more silver-gray than the lavender I always crave based on the royal purple liqueur in the bottle. I can't wait for the new Creme d'Yvette in the works (obviously, because I just mentioned it last week).

The drink was like a muted Sweet Tart candy even down to the chalky finish, attributable to the egg white. Pleasant and breezy enough, though I switched to a more straight ahead sweet-tart option, the whisky sour, for my second glass. I do love the small, dark homemade maraschino cherries I've been encountering lately.

Henry Public * 329 Henry St., Brooklyn, NY

Going Postal

Going_Postal I’ve grown desensitized to the lackadaisical 11231 postal antics. Magazines go missing, mail ends up on the floor instead of in the box. I was left out in the cold when everyone was chattering about the final November issue of Gourmet. Who knows what never turns up.

One inconsequential result of receiving the October 22- 28 and November 5-11, 2009 copies of Time Out New York simultaneously yesterday is that Scott Bridi, lauded as a geographically ”pioneering” chef at Lot 2 in Sunset Park has already moved on.

Maybe this is this a lesson about the ephemeral nature of print. Or maybe an example of what happens when you don’t tip postal worker during the holidays.

Economy Not Driving Anyone to Drink

Except me, perhaps. I almost always order alcohol when dining out (though not at lunch because I don’t work with bon vivants, plus 90% of the time I eat at my desk and only drink water or black coffee when I’m not imbibing) but it appears that I’m in the minority.

Alcohol sales

Overall, Technomic predicts alcohol sales in ”away-from-home venues” to decline 2.5% in 2010. The largest decrease will be in the fine dining channel with a 10.4% drop. The only increase will be seen in the bars and nightclubs segment, though only by 0.6%. Wine sales forecast to shrink 6.7% will suffer more than beer or spirits.

Restaurants & Institutions' "Beverage Census Study" reinforces these finding. 72% of consumers order non-alcholic drinks when dining out (thought this includes all meals and fast food where the option typically doesn’t exist). And bolstering the wine is elite, beer is for regular folks notion, Americans in households earning $75,000+ order wine 3.3 tims per week while those who make less than $20,000 only 0.4 times.

And randomly, more than one-third of Gen Y’ers order root beer.

Feeling Good in More Neighborhoods

Harlemapplebee's  For better or worse, uptown residents can now get their riblets closer to home. The city’s latest Applebee’s recently appeared in the new mall at Bronx Terminal Market and according to this Craigslist ad, the soon-to-open Harlem Applebee’s is hiring.

I’ve been semi-seriously toying with the idea of extricating myself from office work, though I don’t neccessarily see myself as a server, cook, dishwasher, host, bartender or expediter (all available positions). I haven’t worked food service since 1990 when I was a dough maker in a delivery-only Pizza Hut.

Then again, the ad does say, ”experience is a PLUS” not a requirement.

White Manna

Did I love it? Sure. Then again, I love White Castle. No burger snoberry here.

Technically, White Manna isn't a chain because it's not affiliated with the Jersey City location with the missing N, White Mana. Close enough for me, though.

Perhaps to my detriment, I’ve never been one of those single-minded bloggers who can focus clearly on passions like pizza or hating cilantro. In this case, I’m talking about burgers, the everyman foodstuff of the moment.

Recently my attention has been drawn to Nick Solares’ New Jersey slider posts on A Hamburger Today not because I’m slider-crazed but because I’m in this part of that state, specifically Linden, at least once a month if not more getting my share of mall culture and classic late 20th century chains. And I’d never paid any mind to these still thriving (well, some of them—the Linden White Diamond closed right after I read about it) relics I drive by on a regular basis.

White manna exterior

White Rose System in Roselle was a bust because I became inexplicably car sick on the way there and couldn’t appreciate my full-sized ketchup-heavy kaiser roll slider (slider doesn’t equal mini burger, it is specific to the griddle steaming process) and crinkle cut fries, and these places almost always serve crinkle cuts.

The following Saturday on the tail end of an unusally burger-filled week (Thursday I had a cheeseburger at Waterfront Ale House—they’ve always done right by me but on this occasion by medium-rare came out medium-well. Maybe that’s why I forget my uneaten half in the car overnight and didn’t even feel pain when I tossed it in the trash) we decided to try the no-secret-to-anyone (heck, Guy Fieri’s graced the compact red-and-silver diner with his outsize presence) White Manna in Hackensack, a little further north than my usual stomping grounds.

 White manna counter

Two seats opened up at the counter after we arrived so we weren’t relegated to the midget seats in the window. I know Americans have grown since the ’40s, but a whole foot? This was the perfect spot for viewing the cooking procedure, which takes a little longer than you might think. Compared to McDonald’s (I was going to say White Castle to be more apples to apples but a person could go gray waiting for a combo there) this is not really fast food. It can take ten minutes for the naked balls of meat to make it from the right side of the crammed griddle to the left, potato roll on top, cheese melted, steamed through and through.

White manna slider

The finished product is a bit more substantial than a White Castle slider, and the meat’s texture is less baby food mushy. If you order yours to stay you add you own pickles, ketchup and/or mustard. The only off part to me were the onions, which are thinly cut rings instead of chopped bits. There’s no way to take a bite without a strand or two of onions pulling out while you try to gnaw free.

White manna crinkle fries

Every other fry was cooked  a shade beyond golden, which was just right. There’s nothing worse than pale mealy frozen fries.

White Manna * 358 River St., Hackensack, NJ