Before I tell my story, I'm going to take a moment and, as the king of rash generalizations, divide the restaurant world into three categories: fast food, casual dining, and fine dining. Fast food involves places like Wendy's, Arbys and McEvil. If you order before you sit down, or from a window in the side of a building, we'll call it fast food. If you sit down, and then you order, from a real life waitor/waitress that expects a tip, then you've moved up to casual dining. When the kids' menu disappears, you have to make reservations, and the chef either has a TV show or cookbook out, or hangs out with chefs that do, then you've moved up to fine dining. Why am I tell you this? So that you don't try and rate Red Lobster and The Chef's Table on the same scale, or assume that I am doing so.
That said, my wife and I went to Red Lobster last night. Unless my parents know something I don't, I have never been there before, ever. The waitor was shocked. Shocked! I think my wife was a little surprised too. But it was a special occassion for her, and I wanted to take her someplace that I knew she would enjoy, even if it was seafood. It was an interesting experience.
When I was in cooking school, my fellow students had a certain disdain for restaurant chains. I'm not talking Wendys or McEvil, here. In fact, one guy was an assistant manager at McEvil for most of his school experience. I'm not sure of the logic here, but I'm going to take a stab at it. Fast food is fast food. They don't try to pretend to be anything else. I'm going to guess that my fellow cheflings see casual dining as trying to be fine dining, without really fooling anybody. These people were comparing Chile's to Blue Ginger, and Olive Garden to Babbo. Of course Blue Ginger is better than Chile's. Most appetizers at Blue Ginger cost more than most entrées at Chile's. And the chef at Blue Ginger has been on Food Network for years. It's not a fair comparison.
Red Lobter has seafood. They have a lot of seafood. A good bit of it is breaded and deep fried. I don't care for most seafood, but I do know that a deep fryer can make just about anything taste good. In my case, it made 3 different kinds of shrimp taste really good. And of course, they had cocktail sauce standing by to make sure that it didn't taste too good. Let's face it, only once have I had cocktail sauce that wasn't absolutely wretched, and that was from a fellow chefling in cooking school that quite honestly, had a gift. If I can manage to wrestle his recipe from him, I'll post it here sometime. The stuff I had lasted two whole seconds before making its way to the other side of the table, to be ignored indefinitely. However, they did give me some kind of piña colada sauce that was actually pretty stellar. It was meant for the coconut shrimp, but it went well with everything else too.
Our dinners came with salads. We had a choice between a Ceasar salad and a house salad. My wife went with a little Ceasar, and I went for the house. Almost every time I order a salad, I am reminded of why I have hated salads for a good majority of my life, and why so many guys also hate salads. My salad consisted of a lump of iceberg lettuce, scattered with the occasional carrot or red cabbage sliver, topped with two slices of tomato, two slices of cucumber, a couple of rings of red onion, and a few croutons. There is no imagination at work here. There's barely even flavor. In the consumer's quest for actual flavor, salads like these are what fuel the salad dressing industry. In culinary terms alone, iceberg lettuce has only one thing going for it: crunch. You can't crunch into spinach. You can't crunch into leaf lettuce, unless you leave the stem in. But, by golly, you can crunch into iceberg lettuce! Bonus for restaurants: it's cheap, easy to work with, and that's what everybody expects. Scatter in some carrot and red cabbage slivers, and suddenly you can pretend you're gourmet! It's sad, really.
We also got some kind of cheesy New England biscuits. I'm not even going to try and think of anything bad to say about these. There isn't anything. They're soft, crumbly, cheesy, flavorful. In the unlikely event that they last long enough to get hard, I'm sure you could play hockey with them. And I like hockey, gosh darn it!
Our waitor was cool. He was on time with everything. He didn't pester us, but he catered to our needs. He was pretty friendly too, even if he probably did forget us the moment we left. The waitress I saw working our area as well looked like she was no different. Kudos to the wait staff! Let's face it, Red Lobster isn't going to be competing with Emeril anytime soon. But if you're looking for good service and above-average seafood (and below-average salad), and don't mind paying a little extra, I think you could certainly do much worse.