Over the years, many things have troubled me during visits to area restaurants.
Some are like recurring nightmares I just can’t shake. They just keep happening over and over again.
Some of those nightmares are not so bad, probably like one of those being-at-school-in-your-underwear dreams. But others are scarier than battling Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface all at the same time, armed with just a fork.
So here are the seven deadly sins that restaurants just keep committing and that I wish I could erase from my nightmares:
7. Frozen french fries – They are OK if fried in clean oil and properly salted, so they get the lowest spot on the list. But properly executed fresh-cut fries are not only cheaper, they are so much better.
And don’t even try to pass off these fresh-cut-style fries on me as fresh-cut – yes, I am talking to you, Wendy’s. Just because they have a little skin on them doesn’t mean they are fresh.
I would say fresh is always better than frozen because there are not any preservatives in a freshly cut potato, said Peter Surfus, manager of Buffalo Wings & Ribs on Coldwater Road, where about 2,500 pounds of potatoes are cut for fries weekly. But you can definitely taste the difference in quality.
Frozen fries are a cheaper alternative to fresh, but cheaper isn’t always better.
6. Prepared soups – Like No. 7, they are not terrible, and I do eat them at home. But to serve one at a restaurant is lazy. If you are going to commit this sin, at least use the prepared soup as simply a base and add fresh ingredients to make it somewhat interesting. But really, make your soup from scratch, because who can’t make soup?
Almost everything we make is from scratch, said Lisa Jackson, owner of the Bagel Station, adding that food suppliers have tried many times to sell her their soups. I like to be able to say to my customer that I know exactly what is in there. I don’t care how premium a prepared product is, you will never get it like you can at home.
Now, not all of our soups are healthy, but they are all pretty darn good.
I will second that and add that I love the Bagel Station’s variety of soups and love the fact that, even during the hottest days of summer, there is always a good soup on the specials board.
5. Already cooked, processed, packaged chicken – Dry, flavorless and a joy for lazy restaurant owners. Too many salads, soups and pasta dishes have had this pretty much flavorless form of meat in them.
It resembles real chicken like turkey bacon resembles real bacon, said Joseph Decuis’ executive chef, Aaron Butts. There’s great chicken available all around us, so people shouldn’t have to settle. Real chicken tastes real. Processed factory chicken doesn’t even come close.
4. Salt and pepper – I often harp about foods not being well-seasoned, and when I say this, I mean not treated with the basic salt and pepper in the kitchen during the cooking process.
I don’t crave salty foods, and I understand that some people have food restrictions that may make cutting back on salt necessary, but basic seasoning is a must for any kitchen, especially those serving a lot of meat.
It pretty much brings out the flavor of everything, said Brett Garner, kitchen manager at Cork ’N Cleaver. We just lightly salt and pepper our steaks. It is often overlooked, but it really brings out the flavor.
Salt and pepper shakers are on the tables because you can’t please everyone, but Garner says salting afterward does not have the same effect.
When you use it during cooking, it absorbs into it. When you do it after the fact, you are tasting the raw salt and pepper and not the flavor it brings out in foods.
3. Bagged salad greens – What makes a salad good? For starters, crisp, fresh, vibrant greens are vital. You can put as much bacon, cheese, egg and whatever else you want on top of bagged greens, and your salad is still going to finish second to a pretty basic salad with fresh, crispy leaves.
We cut (salad greens) every day fresh, sometimes two or three times a day, said George Smyrniotis, owner of Liberty Diner. If it is not fresh, it is not good.
Smyrniotis often prepares the salads himself – including his best-in-town Mediterranean – because he is a self-professed salad lover and wants them to be up to his standards.
I always put a lot of pride in them, he said. So many people will say, it’s just a salad’ and not use fresh ingredients. But a salad is not just a salad to me. It is not a secondary item.
2. Canned vegetables – I do buy them and eat them at home occasionally, sure. But I don’t expect the same 59-cent canned corn, beans or peas as a side at a restaurant.
Short of pickling, canned vegetables really have no place in a professional kitchen, said Matthew Nolot, executive chef at Eddie Merlot’s, adding that saving time is not a valid excuse.
So you buy canned vegetables; how do you heat them, on stovetop? Sauté fresh veggies with a pat of butter or bacon grease. It takes the same amount of time.
If you are using a microwave, add a little of said bacon grease to fresh veggies, toss and cover in plastic wrap, and put in microwave. It takes the same time.
1. Instant mashed potatoes – They are never OK. Some places try to fool you by mixing instant with real, but that is almost worse than just serving instant, because if you are going to take the time to boil potatoes, why not just serve the real thing in the first place?
Plus, they are cheap and so easy to make. My kids consider me the king of mashed potatoes, and my recipe is as simple as it gets – boiled potatoes, as much real butter as I have or as much as I can add without feeling criminal, salt, pepper and just a little cream or milk.
And of all of these culinary sins, this has the biggest quality gap. Instant mashed potatoes really do taste like hell compared with heavenly real ones.