Tim and I had a double-blind date on Saturday night. A few months ago, through the miracles of internets, blogospheres, and tweets, I landed on the blog of a girl here in Indianapolis, Angie Six. Many things about her life seemed somewhat parallel to mine: she and her husband had moved to the area from Tennessee; she enjoys food; she blogs; and her husband is a professional poker player (only parallel to my husband’s fantasy life). On a whim one afternoon, I sent her an email. Two months later, we finally met the Sixes, for dinner at a place neither of us had ever been.
It’s a strange feeling, going to a restaurant to meet people whom you’ve never seen. Angie and I had a general idea of each other’s appearance, through blog pics. It wasn’t until we got to the restaurant that I wondered if we should have come up with a secret phrase (i.e., the bird that flies west is hunting the hare), or if I should’ve told them what I’d be wearing. Tim and I had made a reservation, but of course didn’t let the Sixes in on this information (that would be entirely too logical and well-thought out). We sat in the entryway of the restaurant, and when the hostess asked to seat us, we told her we were waiting on another couple. Oh, don’t worry, she said, I’ll just bring them to your table. We told her their names, and went to our seats. About five minutes later, I saw a couple walking through the restaurant, and the woman looked suspiciously familiar in profile. They were seated in another room. Tim and I begin whispering: Hey — I think that was them. Maybe they made a reservation too? What do we do? Go ask the hostess what their name is. So Tim gets up to go ask, and just about simultaneously, my phone rings. I was being called by Angie, who’d also noticed us in passing, and figured that unless she took appropriate action, we’d spend the evening in the same restaurant but never actually meet.
After the necessary acknowledgments of the aforementioned scene, we sat down to begin more lengthy introductions, simultaneously flipping through the menu. The restaurant we’d chosen was a place called Zest. None of us had been there, but had heard things about it good enough to warrant curiosity. An initial scan of the menu didn’t quite leave me salivating; it just seemed all over the place; everything from fish tacos to sesame ahi tuna with wasabi cream. In my limited experience, when a restaurant attempts to do all things, it doesn’t do much of anything really well (an Athens restaurant, called East-West Bistro, usually left me feeling the same way). Angie said she’d heard great things about their fish tacos, and since she’d been looking for a good fish taco ever since leaving Nashville, that was going to be her choice. Tim had heard the pommes frittes praised, so we decided on the Loaf and Straw, described as “Mama’s Amazing Meatloaf, homemade sundried tomato marmalade & white cheddar, open-faced on sourdough toast with our pommes frites & grilled pineapple ketchup heaped on top.” Since we planned to split the meatloaf, we also ordered two appetizers: Date Rumaki (“dates stuffed with goat cheese and a whole almond, then wound with cherry-smoked bacon and served with a green olive relish”) and Australian Lamb Lollipops (“char-grilled frenched lambchops with our ohhh-so-yummy chimichurri” [should this have been a clue? I’m suspicious when I have to be told that something is yummy]). Angie’s husband Mike ordered a burger, which has (according to the Zest website) won local awards.
About ten minutes after ordering, Angie’s bowl of soup came. About 10 minutes after that, Tim and I began to wonder where our appetizers were. Angie’s soup had been long-finished when we finally saw our server to inquire. She gave us a wide-eyed, naive look, and said, “I’m not sure — I put the order in,” and shrugged, as if it was just our bad luck. I believe I’ve mentioned before that Tim and I have both been servers — and while we are really good tippers, we have little patience for bad service. It’s really quite easy to apologize for a delay, and assure your customer that you are taking the matter into your hands. And from what we received to eat, I’m doubting that our delay was caused by the chef putting finishing touches on the lambchops; our apps had quite obviously been sitting under a heat lamp, alone and without purpose, for quite a turn before they landed on our table.
Two lamb lollipops is what $9 will get you at Zest. Which would be fine, if they were cooked well, with thoughtful presentation and noteworthy flavors. But they were overdone, and chewy, with little to define them. My two bites were hardly worth $1, much less four and a half times that. Our date rolls were much better, though still lacking in presentation. They had become an amalgamated mass of brown, but the cheese, sweet dates and bacon were probably the best thing I tasted all night. Angie had said her soup was good, but it didn’t seem to leave her with much more to praise than we had with our appetizers, so while we continued our conversations about kids, football, blogging, and poker, I silently hoped for a kitchen miracle to take place between courses.
The kitchen muse had apparently and sadly left the building (had she ever been there?). When our entrées arrived, I was immediately struck by their size; it was clear that Tim and I together would not finish the pound of meatloaf on our plate. And Angie was given a giant bowl of 3 or 4 very large fish tacos, with piles of slaw scattered overtop. I know that many Americans find extreme portions satisfying and praiseworthy; but they just make me nervous, especially in restaurants that seem to be attempting a step-up from family-style soul food. On our plate were three 2″ slabs of meatloaf. On top were the famous pommes frites, which looked about like McDonald’s french fries. It looked like someone took a squirt bottle of ketchup and attacked the top (this, we supposed, was the grilled pineapple ketchup). From just the first look, we were hesitant to dig in. A few bites later, we had nothing good to say. Underneath those pounds of meat was a wimpy slice of toast spread with a thin layer of what I suppose was the homemade marmalade — overwhelmed in defeat by the mountain of meat and potato piled like something you’d see at a speed-eating contest on top. The meatloaf was moist, but it was just your basic straight-forward meatloaf. With fries and candy-like “ketchup” on top. A thrown-together meal utilizing leftovers at home on a Wednesday night? Sure. But paying someone to make it, at the same restaurant that sells ahi tuna with wasabi cream sauce? It just didn’t sit well.
If I’ve said it once, I’m now probably saying it a hundred times: it’s not as much the food, as what you get for what you’re paying. The meatloaf was $13 — not very expensive by dinner entree standards, but also not what I would like to pay for what we ate. We ate somewhat-homely comfort food with poor presentation: in my mind, a $7 dish from a soul-food joint down South (where you might expect it to taste like leftovers on a Wednesday night). Angie wasn’t too wowed by her tacos — said they were ok, but not what she was hoping for. She graciously gave us a bite, and we couldn’t improve on her analysis — they were fried fish, with cheese and slaw. None of the tangy, spicy sauce that usually makes a fish taco. Outside of the aforementioned date appetizer, the best thing I tasted was Mike’s side of mac-n-cheese. It was rich, with a breadcrumb topping; pretty much exactly what you want from mac-n-cheese.
Here’s the thing: the place is called Zest. That name intones intense and bright flavors, a festive and kicky palette. They even claim as much on their web address: Zest Exciting Food dot com. Problem was, it just wasn’t exciting. Well, from a food standpoint; we had a great time with our blind date(s), and closed the place down (have I mentioned that we don’t get out much?).
We came home, and getting ready for bed, Tim was getting more and more angry at the poor quality of food. At one point, I just had to say, “You gotta stop talking about this.” Why? Because I wanted to sleep that night, and this is precisely the type of thing that will keep me awake. I’ll wake up at 4 am, and lie in bed for three hours, fuming, over money spent on bad food.
Thankfully that didn’t happen. Why? Because at some point, I remembered that I write a food blog. And reviewing restaurants — even bad ones — is part of that gig. So next time someone asks me why I blog, I’ll be able to answer honestly, “Because it helps me sleep at night.”