Friday, October 2, 2009

A Palette for the Palate

Ambiance is one of three major factors that, for me, determine the overall quality of my dining experience. I’m not equating ambiance with elegance, at least not for the places I’ve visited so far. The look and feel of a restaurant has to be consistent with the food being served and with the management, by the staff, of the experience. When these factors are aligned, I usually walk away feeling pretty good about my experience. But if even one of those elements is out of whack, the experience will surely suffer.

Case in point: Philip and I were visiting Saugatuck over the summer. It’s a great little Arts community on Lake Michigan with a beautiful beach, and some pretty awesome restaurants. We made a reservation for dinner at The Everyday People Café, an upscale eatery in downtown Douglas. It was written up in the New York Times Food Review as one of the best bistros in the country. Seven different reviews were posted in the hallway by the restrooms, and all of them were glowing.

The ambiance was simple and elegant: White linen tablecloths, minimal and tasteful art on the walls, a crisp clean feel about the dining room. I actually felt like the owners were intentional about matching the décor with the restaurant’s name. Nice touch. The food, too, was outstanding. I can’t remember what I had, but I do remember being impressed with unusual and very successful combinations of flavors, textures, and colors. And then came the service. Well actually, it didn’t come for a very long time. We sat there, two everyday people, for almost ten minutes before our waiter even approached us. Before he even opened his mouth, I knew we were in trouble.

His body language said, “You’re not worth my time. I hate my mother. Somebody stab me in the eye with a corkscrew.” And guess what? His body language was consistent with everything else about him. Nice touch. I guess I should have known not to ask for French and Ranch on my salad, but the super snotty way in which he scolded me for even asking such a stupid question didn’t sit very well with me. In fact, it ruined my whole experience.

Let me be clear that the restaurant Stephanie and I visited this week did not suffer from this kind of imbalance. Quite the opposite. The ambiance turned out to be the one factor that tied everything else together and made for a pleasant experience. I had never heard of Alejandro’s before yesterday morning when someone in my office recommended it.

Located in a strip mall on Elms Road between Corunna and Calkins, Alejandro’s is a happy little restaurant with a happy little staff and a happy little menu. (If you’ve been following my other posts, you’ll find this interesting: they moved from a previous location. We’re batting a thousand in this park! ) The walls at Alejandro’s are painted a Southwestern yellow—not too bright, not too pastel, not at all dingy looking. Paired with a charcoal colored ceramic floor, it sets a warm, comfortable tone that immediately sets me at ease. Unlike the over-the-top color schemes of other Mexican restaurants, Alejandro’s applies a more conservative palette with the use of solid colored table cloths instead of splattering the place with shades of gaudy. It’s amazing how such a simple detail can create such a profound effect.

I find the servers to be neither intrusive nor scarce. Their low-key presence allows me to focus on the surroundings and on the food. And, of course, on Stephanie. As soon as the waitress offers us chips and salsa, Stephanie shoots me that look: “Who’s going to ask if they have a hotter version of the house salsa?” We almost high-five each other when we learn that, yes, there is a hot salsa. And it’s pretty good. The house salsa is more in the sauce family than in the chunky-like salsa camp which, for me, is a sign that this is the real deal and not some Tex-mex imposter. It’s a little heavy-handed on the back pepper but otherwise a good blend of flavors. The mild version is also the base for the hot one, which is bolstered by minced jalapeno peppers and even more black pepper. At his point, I’m scratching my head about the black pepper because it’s competing for dominance, and it shouldn’t be.

The menu is great because it doesn’t overwhelm me with choices but gives me clear direction on what those choices are. The entrees are a bit pricey, but I’m ok with that as long as the food is worthy of the price tag. Steph orders the triple enchilada platter: one beef, one cheese, and one chicken enchilada, with the obligatory beans and rice—probably to justify the cost. My golden taco platter is made with freshly deep-fried flour shells and also comes with beans and rice.
My pleasant little lunch in this pleasant little place is briefly threatened when I see from the menu that cheese on my tacos is $1.00 extra. What? Isn’t cheese one of the key ingredients in this dish? I get grumpy enough as it is that sour cream has somehow become its own taxable item, but cheese? COME ON!

After a short stare at the pretty yellow walls, my blood pressure returns to normal and I get over it. Really? The cheese?

The collective happiness at our table returns when our food arrives and we get our first taste. The enchiladas are great, according to Stephanie, though the chicken is a bit wet from the liquid it had been soaking in; this makes the corn tortilla soggier than it should be, but all in all the dish gets good marks. My golden tacos are also pretty good. I’ve made these many times at home, and I know how easy it is to undercook or overcook the shells. The perfect shell is not too crispy, not too soft. You know you’re in the zone when you see a small puddle of grease under your taco. My Alejandro’s tacos had that puddle of grease.

The obligatory beans are also quite good. Not quite a TTC Award contender, but they are creamy with a slight sweetness to them and topped with melted cheese. Wait a minute. No charge for the bean cheese, but a dollar for the taco cheese? Really? (Serenity now. Serenity now.) The obligatory rice is another story. The black pepper that overwhelmed my salsa is even more intrusive in the rice. Few restaurants in Flint make great Mexican style rice, and it’s never been outstanding at any place I’ve been to. It certainly detracts from an otherwise tasty golden taco platter.

As we’re walking back to my truck, I feel an early October sun rubbing my shoulders. I feel good. I feel happy. I feel like Alejandro’s has something to do with that.

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