Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I ate at Carrabba's Italian Grill, and survived, just barely

I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants because, as I see it, you are playing to the lowest common denominator.  It has to taste the same in Alabama as well as Connecticut. It also doesn’t allow for regional tastes or the creativity of the chefs.  You are locked into a finite set of ingredients and menu items.  The “specials” are whatever the corporate office deems special.  So it was with much trepidation that my wife and I went to Carrabba’s Italian Grill   Well Barr, why did you go in the first place?  Good question.  My wonderful niece and nephew gave us a restaurant gift card.  It had a fish place, The Salty Bonefish or some such nonsense that didn’t have a place near us.  The Outback and Fleming Steakhouse were out because I had made an amazing T-Bone with Bleu Cheese sauce two nights before.  That left Italian. 

I Googled Carrabba’s for some reviews and they were written by a bunch of crybabies!  Too salty(boo-hoo!), raw garlic in my pasta (wah!) and my favorite, not a good vegetarian place.   Really, pasta is not vegetarian?  What world do you live in?   I found a half-dozen veggie dishes without even breaking a sweat.  Anyway, off we went. 

We got there late-ish and the place was packed.  They seem to be set up for larger parties, as the booths for two were limited.  The décor was what you would expect of Tuscany.  Tuscany, New Jersey that is.  Faux plaster accented with shades of soft orange and ochre along with dark accented wood beams.  After waiting about twenty minutes we were seated in the bar area.  Not ideal, because there was this VERY shrill, VERY drunk girl loudly laughing at the next table.  Mercifully they soon left.  More annoying than that was that neither TV had the Bruins game on.  I was checking the score throughout the night much to the displeasure of my wife.  Anyway on to the food.

The waiter introduced himself and asked us if we had ever been here, NO, what the specials are, NOT INTERESTED, and they had a scratch kitchen.  That piqued my interest. Fresh, local food versus frozen corporate pap.  I’m in!  He took our drink orders and returned with some fresh bread.  He took about a tablespoon of mixed herbs and spices, dropped them on a dish and added some olive oil.  The bread was to die for, hot, crusty and fresh.  The herb mixture was excellent.   Lots of garlic, basil, oregano and I might have caught a whiff of lavender to boot.  So far so good.  For appetizers we ordered the Fried Calamari with both the marinara and spicy Italian pepper and lemon butter sauces.  For entrees my wife ordered the Mezzaluna; which is half moon shaped ravioli with chicken, ricotta and spinach in tomato cream sauce.  I go for the Seafood Cannelloni; which is lobster, shrimp and scallops, blended with roasted garlic and chives, topped with a light tomato cream sauce and crabmeat (taken word for word from the menu). We both ordered the Caesar salad.

After crushing the bread and dip, and having a nice conversation with my wife, while checking on the Bruins game, the appetizer arrives.  Big disappointment.  The coating was excellent, the sauces were good but the calamari itself was too chewy.  Way too overcooked. All right, maybe they can make it up on the entrees.   A few minutes later our salads arrive.  Good creamy dressing, freshly shaved Parmigianino, and fresh croutons atop crisp lettuce.  Very good.

We are waiting and waiting and finally the waiter comes to our table and apologizes that the kitchen is backed up and our meals will be out in a couple of minutes.  Not a problem because I cannot stand when you are not even finished with one course and the other one is put on your table.  I like to wait a while between courses.  But I am puzzled by the fact that if the kitchen is too busy, how in the world can they OVERCOOK the calamari?  Hold that thought.

Finally our meals arrive.  By current American standards of the food falling off of the plate, these entrees were a little on the skimpy side.  I took one look at mine and knew I was in trouble.  There were burn marks on the pasta and crabmeat.  Mine was overcooked, in a kitchen that was busy.  Go figure.  I couldn’t detect the individual pieces of seafood, it more of a puree.  The sauce was pretty good, but nothing that would stand out.  There also wasn’t that much; perhaps the light cream sauce referred to the amount.  I would have sent it back, but it was getting late and I was very hungry.  I gazed longingly at my wife’s entrée. She kindly gave me a few pieces, which I eagerly ate.  It was delicious.  The pasta was cooked perfectly.  The filling was delicious.  A ton of flavor.

The bill wasn’t that bad, more so because I had a gift card.  I made the waiter’s night by accidentally over tipping him.   That’s okay, he was just a kid trying to make a buck.  On the way home we were toying with the idea of going back.  We decided not to.  There are way too many good Italian places in the area to waste our money on a standardized, one size fits all restaurant.  

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