I am ambivalent about directly discussing my living arrangements in Amrika, including my general location; and perhaps irrationally so, as I have obliquely revealed it from time to time, and many of my regular readers already know. This occasionally leads me to a certain amount of consternation, because one of my hobbies---and the only one that costs me any serious money---is fine and/or interesting dining. And living in the general vicinity of a major American metropolis, I try to take advantage of the culinary options when I can. So I have an urge to write reviews of the places I eat, but I suppress them because of my policy of no direct allusion to my living arrangements. It's a loss because I suspect I could increase my hits by writing about it.
Nevertheless, I have finally found a restaurant which I can write about, and that's because it's a megachainrestaurant, the Olive Garden, where I have eaten for the first time in my life.
Now, I have read all over teh internets and with considerable frequency a large number of criticisms of the Olive Garden, especially from the American liberal blogosphere. It usually happens that occasionally, American liberal bloggers and blog commentators decide to play out a stereotype. Some effete liberal bigcityslicker decides to mock the podunk ignorant rednecks by observing that they do not eat at the authentic Italian family restaurant but instead display an immense lack of taste by eating at a prole restaurant like the Olive Garden, displaying their addiction to prepackaged American mass culture from which liberal sophisticates are wholly exempt. For some reason, I see this a lot from New Yorkers talking about tourists.
I realize that this may merely be effete liberal bigcityslicker practice going on, but I can't help but imagine there's a huge dollop of fat-phobia involved.
So, without further ado, I am here to inform you, after my first attempt, that the Olive Garden is---wait for it---not that bad.
Why did I go to the Olive Garden? Well, one happened to be closeby, and after seeing a lot of criticism of it, I at first avoided it. But then I became suspicious about the criticism, that there was a certain amount of holiness and snobbery about it. Now, I actually don't mind the snobbery so much, but I was also curious to know whether the food being snobbed about actually tasted bad. And it didn't.
Here's what I got:
- Freshly baked breadsticks
- Their house salad with Italian vinaigrette
- Braised beef ribs with cheese tortelloni in an portobello mushroom marsala sauce.
- Chocolate mousse cake/cheesecake.
The baked breadsticks were pretty good---they were fresh and warm, and the crusts were slightly flaky. Would have liked more butter with them, but they did fine. There were unlimited refills of them, in true chain-restaurant style, and I used them to wipe up the sauce at the end of the entreé.
The house salad was definitely the weakest part of the performance. It too was an unlimited refill deal. But the reason for this showed: it was clearly made from the same storebought prepared salad you get from the grocery store, the kind with the slices of red cabbage and carrot julienne. The vinaigrette was too strong, and I prefer creamy dressings anyway, usually. The be-feta-ed tomatoes were pretty good, though. But it was a decided "meh", and I didn't order a refill of it.
The entrée, that being the beef and tortelloni, was honestly quite good---as you may have noticed, I even wiped up the sauce. While it clearly is not "authentic Italian", even American Italian, to set the tortelloni swimming in excessive sauce, of course the Olive Garden does so, and I more than forgive them for this, because as a South Asian, the concept of something swimming in curry/sauce does not bother me one whit. In fact, the habit of sneering at excessive sauce is one of the reasons why Western restaurants frequently bore me. (I feel that they are trying to be cheap, and the pretentious amateur critics who tell me these things are letting them get away with it.)
The beef was tender, perhaps too tender, as I actually like to chew a little bit, but nevertheless quite tasty. The tortelloni were filled with unadorned ricotta, which is a tad boring, but the sauce more than made up for it with its strong flavour. (Did I tell you that I'm also somewhat unimpressed by excessive claims of subtlety in flavour such as that made by certain types of Japanese cuisine? The Indo/Paki in me. I still like sushi, however.) The quantity was pretty large, which is normal for American restaurant, but it was practically my first meal of the day, aside from a bowl of enraisinated bran flakes, so I was hungry enough for it.
The chocolate cake at the end was a large slice of a 3-layer cake. The bottom layer was a moist chocolate "bread" cake. The middle layer was the chocolate mousse, and the top layer was cheesecake. It was covered in a soft chocolate icing with a chocolate chip backing. I cannot say no to this sort of thing, although I was almost at the point where I would maybe have liked some help from a friend to finish it. But it was good enough that I decided I wanted to finish it.
The service: fine, no objections. Not an Italian in sight, of course. The whole meal cost a little bit more than $20, miserly 15% tip included. Not bad value for the price. I had a piece of tiramisu at a non-chain Italian restaurant a few weeks ago that cost $8 alone. Admittedly it was a good piece of tiramisu.
Actually, all-in-all, I cannot say that a "family-owned" Italian restaurant would give me necessarily any more than I got, comparing on quality alone, not quantity. I have had tedious meals at authentic Italian restaurants, much worse or more boring than what I had at the Olive Garden. I have had good meals at such places, far better. Either way, it's usually more expensive than the Olive Garden, although the ambiance is naturally less like an extremely fancy sit-down Macdonald's---meaning prepackaged. I will say one thing for the "local"/non-chain restaurants: they typically have far more interesting appetizer selections. The Olive Garden's appetizer menu looked boring, and I didn't order anything from it. By contrast, a family-owned Italian restaurants gave me, for the first time, a good introduction to eating grownup artichokes.
So: do not take me for endorsing ditching your local expensive Italian restaurant in favour of the Olive Garden. The snobs are correct: the Olive Garden, by dint of its chainness, will never have the ambiance and cachet of your independent Italian kitchen. It will never be an *adventure* to eat there. And yes: you probably are more holy for eating local and independent, rather than Evil Corporate. But the quality and taste of the food, for the most part, surpasses the justification for snobbery. Which is never a reason not to be a snob, but as laudable a vice as it may be, snobbery is also not a reason to think that you're above liking the besnobbed.