Sunday, February 7, 2010

A restaurant review

The Mediterranean Cruise Cafe:

First, let me point out that although I'm not a professional cook or restaurateur, I do enjoy a lifelong passion for Greek, Italian, and Mediterranean food. I've been eating and enjoying it since my early teens; I've had good and bad. I like to think I know what I'm talking about. That being said...

Last Saturday, my lovely lady took me to the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe in Burnsville, Minnesota for a special occasion. We had high hopes that we'd enjoy a novel experience, with good food, live dancers, and a comfortable atmosphere. Despite the fact that a genuinely fine restaurant pokes through here and there, the overall experience was somewhat disappointing.

First of all, let me say that I'm not sure I'm the true target demographic for this sort of eatery. Guessing from the crowd, the atmosphere seems firmly pointed towards an aging, upper-middle-class, suburban crowd. Quite likely, a sociological analysis of this demographic would suggest that this crowd is looking for a reliable dining experience, with few surprises and few pushes outside the comfort zone. Sadly, our dining experience reflected that.

Things went bad quickly. Despite the fact that the two of us had prior reservations, the two of us were asked to wait in the chilly lobby area. The restaurant's primary dining area is a large, open room. The dining area melds into a bar at one side, and a lobby area at the front door, only slightly offset by a number of pillars. Despite having a foyer with two sets of glass doors (a logical layout for the upper Midwest), and despite the winter weather, the inside set of doors were puzzlingly propped open. This allowed a chill breeze in any time the front doors were opened.

Our table was placed, almost as an afterthought, right next to the receptionist's desk near the front of the building. Traffic on all sides of the table was heavy, with frequent backups along the main transit way between the dining area and the bar that caused various servers and patrons to cut in between our table and our neighbors. A very poor layout that left us feeling alienated and isolated.

The menu, as expected, differed from the online version. Unfortunately, the discrepancy included a number of dishes that were initially attractive to my companion. In its favor, the menu did include a mix of traditional Eastern Mediterranean dishes and more comfortably familiar Euro-American ones. Those who aren't ready to enjoy ethnic cuisine choices will have a decent number of options here. However, as an aspiring eclectic sophisticate, I would have preferred to see less shying away from the terminology. Americans seem to have figured out what "salsa" means, why assume that they can't figure out "tzatziki"? I understand if you want to add a parenthetical remark explaining that it's a cucumber/yogurt sauce,

First out were a pair of Greek salads. These were decent, if uninspired. Lettuce, with tomato, feta cheese, banana pepper, and kalamata olives with a non-descript vinaigrette dressing. Nothing challenging here, but nothing inspiring, either.

The appetizer we chose came next, named in the menu as a "feta cheese plate". A more accurate description would be "stuff we have in jars and in the refrigerator, thrown on a plate, with hummus". The hummus was actually pretty good - a good balance of tahini and chickpeas, under fresh olive oil and paprika. Smooth without being pasty. But the rest of the plate was disappointing.

The rest of the plate consisted of anemic, pale tomatoes, better cucumbers, feta cheese out of a plastic package, and kalmata olives and banana peppers straight out of a jar. Now, I recognize that it's hard to get fresh produce in Minnesota in the middle of January. I also recognize that appetizers aren't the center of a dining experience, and busy cooks would rather not spend much time on them. Still, this vegetable plate isn't cooked; it has no dressing or sauce; there is no way to cover up anything less than fresh, high-quality ingredients. A vegetable platter really ought to show off the best stuff the buyer can get.

Now, a word about cheese. True Greek-style feta cheese is made half from sheep's milk, half from goat's milk. It's slightly sour, salty, and fairly strongly flavoured. It should have a certain musty-acidy tang to it. Such cheese exists in the metro area. I have bought it, tasted it, eaten it, exulted in it. This cheese was not it. This cheese was a pale shadow of feta cheese - the kind that comes from a plastic package in a grocery store. Which is fine as a snack at home on the cheap, along with your mass produced cheddar and colby; but an eatery aspiring to Greek cuisine, especially on a dish labelled "feta cheese plate" really ought to aspire to more.

As an entree, I picked the lamb platter which promised at least two different lamb dishes. The result was a perfect exemplar of the divided personality of the entire establishment. One dish, lamb shank roasted in a marinade of lemon and herbs was very good. This is often a tough cut of meat, and hard to cook correctly. Whoever prepared this recipe knew what they were doing: the tough meat was properly tender, the seasoning done in such a way to permeate and compliment the strength of the lamb flavour. This was done right by someone who understood this dish, what it could do and what had to be watched out for.

On the other manipulator, the other lamb dish tried to be as inoffensive as possible. French-cut (i.e. thin strips of) lamb rack. Lamb Rack is one of the tenderest cuts of lamb, and easy to do a lot with. Unfortunately, the MCC decided that lamb should be beefsteak. This rack of lamb was cooked with sauteed onions and mushrooms, and served with a creamy garlic sauce. Not out of the question for prime rib at a steakhouse. Sadly, it found its way to a Mediterranean restaurant instead.

These two entree pieces were joined by a truncated cone of Spanish rice. This came right out of a box, dry, flavorless, and mundane. I felt repelled at the first forkful. C'mon - there's so much more one could do with this! In fact, working with the same box at home, I've added butter or olive oil for weight and smoothness, herbs and spices for flavor, and fowl or meat stock for firmness and body. Even adding a little of the juices and fat from the overperforming lamb shank could really rescue this pathetic little number.

In short, this place could really be something. It just needs an infusion of heart and courage. Really good cooking is roughly50% ingredients, 30% recipe, 15% technique, and 5% presentation. At $20 - $25 a plate, an establishment really shouldn't be cutting corners on ingredients like this. If I can do as well as they can straight out of a box, something is wrong here. Give me something I can't do on a Wednesday night at home.

Googlebombing for a cause: 


phaedrus said...

I started reading this and thought I should email it to you. Then I looked back at the URL and realized you'd written it.


Lord Carnifex said...

Isaac Asimov used to tell the story of needing to fact-check some information about light in an encyclopedia. Perusing the article on electromagnetic radiation, he found what he needed. The article also impressed him with how lucid and well-written it was. As he read it further, he decided that he ought to look up the author, so he could send him a letter of commendation. He flipped to the end of the article to get the writer's credentials...

and found the author's name was "Isaac Asimov".

I'm not there yet, but we'll see what happens.

phaedrus said...