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Not-So-Extreme Makeover: Olive Garden Edition

Og Just as Red Lobster is gradually transforming restaurants into a Bar Harbor, Maine pastiche, Olive Garden is remodeling more locations into that Tuscan farmhouse style you only see in the suburbs and that branch in Starrett City. How will the classy, understated Chelsea branch handle the change?

The thing is, that this American Italian fantasy look was introduced in 2000. Can you really call something 11 years old a “new model?”

Fir Sure, Fir Sure

165676!1161-15247  I was about to scoff at Packaged Facts new trend report, “Extreme and Edgy Flavors” until I clicked through (reading helps sometimes). No, yuzu, wasabi and tamarind aren’t particularly edgy.

Sea buckthorn and Douglas Fir, though? The Noma effect has begun and as you may (though probably don’t) know, I really, really don’t like the idea of pine-flavored food. I’m very resistant (I still haven’t given in to jeggings or watched that Rebecca Black video, so I know how to be strong) and refuse to believe conifer cuisine will go mainstream. Though if it takes hold anywhere it will be Portland–the Douglas Fir, is the Oregon state tree, after all.

Let’s talk when pine needles trickle down into Denny’s sundaes, bacon-style.

Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir photo from Clear Creek Distillery


Write about a restaurant within one month of opening and it’s too soon, full of kinks, unfair. Wait more than a year and it’s irrelevant. All the initial wows will either be forgotten or discovered to be not quite as amazing as originally thought. Who knows whether the food has actually gone downhill or if everyone has simply lost interest and moved onto newer thrills.

(And then there are the true jaded cynics. I’ve joked about finally going to San Sebastian now that Scandinavia is the culinary hotness, but it’s still a big deal for me. Last night I was reading a message board where a poster basically posited that all of the Michelin-starry Basque restaurants are now crap, empty during the week and subsist on drooling camera-wielding late-to-the-game food bloggers and that yes, those who think they’re tastemakers are being shepherded to Denmark and environs. Even a total naysayer, dream-crusher like myself felt bummed, after that. I may as well stick to Dallas BBQ.)

Early last year the chatter was all “crab and uni spaghetti,” “octopus and bone marrow.” This year, everyone is taken by nuovo red sauce (no matter how many times I hear raves about Torrisi and Rubirosa, I remain thick-headed and unconvinced) so obviously it was time to try Marea, my idea of a birthday dinner treat for a boyfriend. La Grenouille almost won out for untrendy as possible pick, but that will have to wait until another occasion.

My concern about choosing a wine (Italian styles aren’t my strength) was allayed when a bottle of champagne was sent to our table by my company’s COO, who happened to be dining nearby the same evening. Fortuitous, though not unlike running into your teacher at the grocery store when you're a kid.

Marea crudo trio

Choosing one crudo was impossible so I upped the prix fixe ante $6 for a selection of three.  Left to right are razor clams with fennel and peperoncino, geoduck draped with mini rings of hearts of palm and also spiced up with a touch of chiles and Spanish mackerel—my favorite because the slices were substantial enough to really experience the fish’s texture—hit with tangerine, almonds and tarragon.

Marea fusilli red wine braised octopus, bone marrow

The tangled ropes of fusilli changed my usual indifference to pasta. Chewy in the best substantial way and similar to the curled octopus legs, they hid nuggets of bone marrow that added unctuousness to the already concentrated tomato sauce. Toasted breadcrumbs mixed with garlic and parsley lent crunch. The portion was just right with the other courses, though I would’ve been happy with an Olive Garden-sized serving and a square of focaccia.

Marea cuttlefish, braised escarole, taggia olives, livornese sauce, wild oregano

Maybe I was influenced by what I’d read, but I came in thinking the secondi di pesce would be lackluster and true enough, I wasn’t jumping to order any of my choices. Neither fish nor scallops were what I wanted and James was ordering the seafood soup ($8 supplement). Ok, why not the cuttlefish? How would they handle the potentially tough little bodies?

When I asked for the seppia, our server remarked, “You know that’s squid?” Er, generally I read the menu before ordering an item…so yeah. I wasn’t questioned on the geoduck, which would seem like the more unfamiliar sea dweller.

Two plump chargrilled creatures, resembling cartoon ghosts (Japanese, not American) rested atop escarole and a brothy livornese sauce of crushed tomatoes, petite olives and more prominent oregano than basil. A blast of summer in March. I almost wanted to eat a few bites, freak out and then ask my server why I’d been brought cuttlefish.

Marea nocciola pralinato

Even though rationally, I knew the green gelee sitting inside of the nocciola pralinato, a firm ring of chocolate mousse, was going to be minty, I kept waiting to taste bell pepper on my tongue. Though I can’t remember where, I’m certain I have experienced a green pepper dessert even though the greeness wasn't overt. Oh, at Sergi Arola Gastro.

Marea mignardises

Mignardises. I don’t even remember which ones I ate—it must’ve been that dessert glass of manzanilla.

Marea * 240 Central Park S., New York, NY

Chain Links: Chuck E. Queso

Pardos-chicken-survey-22-march Subway in India serves sandwiches I would actually consider eating (and mint and eggless mayo are offered). The Chicken Seekh uses ground meat, mint and chiles.  I wonder if they have Otis Spunkmeyer cookies spiked with rose water or cardamom?

McDonald’s has never been a slouch in the localized menu department. They too, are appealing to Indians with a new Spicy Delights range.

A blogger in Peru happened to recognize the wife of the Pardo’s founder during a tai chi class and interviewed her. Pardo’s is kind of like the KFC of Peru, but the chicken is rotisseried, not fried. We briefly had one in the West Village that surprisingly kept anticuchos (grilled beef hearts) on the menu. In an informal poll, Pardo’s beat out competitors by a wide margin. I want to eat a place called Norky's, based on name alone.

Once you let in a Chili’s, the franchises will follow. Moscow now has a Pinkberry. Doesn’t $11 (even for a large) seem like a lot of money for frozen yogurt?

Nothing seems more American than Chuck E. Cheese’s, so it’s strange to see the pizza and playtime chain crossing borders. Northeastern Mexico will be receiving ten stores. Internationally, the restaurant already exists in Chile, Guatemala, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Zambia now has a KFC. I’m kind of more interested in the related post, “Lightning kills clergyman, man kills woman over chicken debt.”

Red Lobster will be arriving in Dubai and Kuwait City. No alcohol is no surprise and the bacon-wrapped scallop appetizer will have to go, as well.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: The Steak Fry Scourge

Oreida_steak_fries The Irish Punt: If there’s anything I’ve learned from this recent recapping exercise, it’s that I eat pub food way more often than I had realized. Ham and cheese panini, side salad and a club soda. Pubs always prompt me to bring up my distaste for steak fries even when no one has asked me my opinion on styles of fried potatoes.

Pearl Street Diner: Cobb salad while the person sitting across from me ordered steak fries and a bunless turkey burger a.k.a. a dry, gray, naked patty on purpose. I’ve decided that there is no more telling a personality indicator than fry preference. Mealy.

The Mermaid Inn: Strange that this is where I ate Friday night (it’s a Lent thing) considering I had a BlackboardEats discount that I’d let expire only five days earlier. My full-priced skate with capers and brown butter and shared oyster, ceviche and clams platter and two glasses of Torrontes were fine. And the freebie chocolate pudding is a nice touch. The odd thing is that I’m using Mermaid Inn for a story I’m working on—their trademark fortune teller fish plays a role—yet, we weren’t presented with the little toy at the end of the meal.

Shady Requests


At first I thought someone might be playing a joke on me and I was appreciating their cruel sense of humor. What are the odds that mere days after talking about a stranger asking me where to buy the Lilliputian sunglasses worn by Cheeseburger in Paradise’s garnimals, I receive another such request? And from someone with a ratfanclub email address (my hopes were dashed when I realized there was only one T—I was imagining an aged Stephen Pearcy groupie) no less?

Clearly, there is a need for people to get their hands on miniature sunglasses even if it means pet rodents will have to wear them. Perhaps I am being told something and there is a not-very-lucrative side job for me wheeling and dealing tiny eyewear.

This time my desire to help procure shrunken shades got me “God blessed.” Good deed of 2011 taken care of. I can cruise unhelpfully through the next nine months now.

Photo credit: Ratticchio

So Cultured

03142011-yogurt-by-the-numbers-pg8 For the past few years, I’ve checked the dairy case at Western Beef on every shopping visit waiting for the miraculous day when Greek yogurt appears next to the Yoplait and Tropical (because I'm rich, you know). Even Costco and BJ’s sell it at this point. Only the old-school New Yorky cheddar, mozzarella and pepper jack for cheese selection stores are still holding-out.

My day may be coming soon, though. The harbinger was seeing my first TV commercial for Greek yogurt, Dannon’s entry, the other night. Mainstreaming. According to a recent Ad Age article citing Mintel and SymphonyIRI data, Green yogurt is one of the fastest-growing grocery categories and this style makes up 12% of the total yogurt market.

Then again, Western Beef’s slogan is “We Know the Neighborhood” and I don’t know that the residents of the semi-industrial Ridgewood-Maspeth border are clamoring for thick, unsweetened dairy products…yet. Maybe once the ladies get a load of these ads.

In non-yogurt-related Greek miscellanea, I finally watched Dogtooth last night. Wow, kind of a more incesty, un-Shyamalan-fied The Village.

Foie Gras, Salt Shakers & Silverware


Emirates has been voted the airline with the best meals, according to a survey by Skyscanner. And indeed the comments on are overwhelmingly positive. That's clearly not an economy example above, and it's just one of many courses.

Hopefully, tenth place Air France, will change minds now that Joel Roubuchon is involved with the menu. I actively avoid most food trucks unless they’re serving something unique that can’t be found at a proper restaurant (I hate standing around outside eating) but this falls into the I’m-just-curious-enough camp. I’ll see what’s up when the roving Air France vehicle hits my work neighborhood on Monday.

1. Emirates
2. Lufthansa
3. Singapore Airlines
4. Aeroflot
5. Qatar
6. Malaysia Airlines
7. Thai Airways
8. Etihad
9. KLM
10. Air France

Singapore Airlines is the only one of the top ten that I’ve experienced first-hand, and yes, they’re fairly ritzy even though the only thing I can specifically recall eating was a decent curry on the way to Bangkok the time I lucked out on a massively discounted SARS-related deal.

Foreign airlines can be fun, top ten cuisine or not. Aeromexico only had beer and tequila—poured from full-sized glass bottles—to accompany their enchiladas (yes, I asked for wine). I wonder if I will be getting rioja and paella on Iberia when I fly next month?

Photo of Emriates Airbus A380 meal from Chow Times

Steak Diane On the Go

Tesco Tesco Real Food has found that French is the fastest-growing cuisine in England (at least among prepared grocery store meals). Sales increased 16% last year, followed by Chinese (15%), British (6.7%), Italian (6.6%) and Tex-Mex (3.2%). What? No American? Well, the Tesco Tex Mex Multipack Dips do contain "an American style mayonnaise and soured cream nacho cheese dip."

Apparently, Tesco sells a whole line of French Classics, putting our frozen T.G.I. Friday’s Frozen Loaded Cheddar & Bacon Skins to shame. Chicken Chasseur, the star of this store brand’s line, increased sales 226% over last year. I don’t even know what Chicken Chasseur is exactly other that it involves mushrooms; I’d like to imagine it’s a little like this.

Brits may like to pretend they’re refined with their Gallic groceries, but it seems that 14% of them have dined and dashed. Thirty-nine percent, the largest group, have left a restaurant without paying because no one ever brought them the check. I’ll admit that I was tempted to run out on the bill for this very reason at a Mexican restaurant in Vegas.

But flirting for discounts isn't a crime, right? Exalted research firm,, surveyed 3,000 Brits and it turns out that ladies save nearly 150 pounds ($241) per year “hair tossing, maintaining eye contact, giggling and being overly friendly” to get discounts. More than 56% didn’t have to pay a cent due to their feminine whiles.

And I thought British women were all ugly?

Refine That Palette

I don’t know if these Eater Sound Cheque interviews are conducted via email or transcribed from phone calls or in person (the latter is implied). Either way, we can’t have Beth Ditto saying “We don't have really refined palettes!” even if their palates aren’t really refined.