Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Maggiano's, Chain Restaurants, and Blogging

I have certainly thought about being a great food writer. In these dreams, I would endlessly opine about the latest high-end restaurant to open. Being able to recognize every spice in every mouthful and determine its appropriateness in the dish, I would be ruthless but fair in my evaluations. I'd know how every vegetable should be chopped and how the chef varied from classical cookery to achieve a particular effect. My days would be spent writing about my experiences. For variety, I'd research how feasible the slow food movement really is and whether the farm bill really expands the nutritional gap between the rich and the poor.

Back in reality, however, I have a full-time job that occupies much of my energy and has nothing to do with food. Unless you count memorizing the Marathon Grill menu, which every Philadelphia lawyer has down cold. I like to cook, but mostly elaborate things and as a result, I don't cook that often. I like to eat out, but lately, it's been more about comfortable restaurants -- predictable, fulfilling, and offering lots of booths.

Which brings me to my topic: chain restaurants. When I looked back on what the first restaurant I wanted to review was, I thought of the last place I ate out. On purpose, not as an afterthought, quickly after work (although quick props to the reliable Square on Square and the awesome Tequila's). And that place was Maggiano's.

And it was good. Maybe even great. From the uber-professional host to the chatty but nice waitress, I really enjoyed it. We were seated in a great booth by the window, and the wine list featured one of my favorite cabernets by Sterling. I giddily ordered "zucchini fritti" and their shrimp appetizer special that night, which featured jumbo shrimp not just deep fried, but deep fried with asiago. That's right, breading and cheese. Yet with dipping sauces that ended in the word "aoli," I didn't feel like I was contributing to the downfall of the American palate. The "fritti" preparation lent itself to its subject in the precise way one wants from fried food -- it made it better, more reliable, more comforting.

Then my entree arrived -- strip steak "al forno," which apparently means baked. It apparently also means a thick, but not tough, outer layer, and a perfectly grilled center. It was perfect. I mean, it was better than non-chain restaurants. That's how tasty it was.

All of this good cheer led to ordering dessert, although we were sober enough to agree to split it. It was tartufo and it was great. It involved bits of chocolate and cherry frozen into vanilla ice cream and covered again with a chocolate shell. I have never been trained in the art of desserts, nor anything culinary actually, but the mix of chocolate, cherry and ice cream was somehow perfect.

The valet was even wearing a branded shirt, which was oddly comforting. Heck, the bar even looked good. I'd go back. Which perhaps summarizes the explanation of the popularity of the successful chain restaurant: its predictability. And its booths. I'm a sucker for a good booth.

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