October 10, 2004

Amateur Gourmet Survivor: I, Critic, I

Thursday morning, I read the Amateur Gourmet's challenge for this week, then promptly forgot it. The days between then and now held a myriad of distractions, such a dabbling in single parenting, driving to Philadelphia and back again, and bridal showering. Then, today, I suddenly remembered that I had an assignment due. I was pensive.

My options in fine dining have been seriously limited in recent years, for reasons that are, I'm sure, obvious to everyone. Also, I hereby disclaim any responsibility for this child's fashion choices. They are not mine, they are her own.

Family-friendly dining anyone? Our criteria: Not very expensive, not very far, not artery-busting, able to accomodate a large range of dietary specifications, able to cope well with childedness, and not a place that you'd be afraid to bring your in-laws, because, well, they were meeting us for lunch.

Traveling into Manhattan to check out the Union Square Cafe was right out. So, too, was Burger King. We settled on... Chili's.

Chili's markets itself as fresh, healthy family dining. The cuisine is primarily Tex-Mex and American traditional. You may have heard some of their advertising, including quite possibly the most horrifying piece of product placement of all time.

When we arrived, we were seated promptly, and even provided some interim entertainment.

Chili's is one of those rare restaurants that offers fresh crayons. As the parent of a peanut-allergic child, this is something I appreciate very, very deeply (Sasha has broken into hives from playing with crayons that another child, who had been eating a peanut butter sandwich, had earlier touched.) The children's menu is in the form of a monthly magazine with puzzles and activities for a wide age range. Better, the options on the children's menu go further than your classic chicken fingers, fries, and pizza. They actually have child-size portions of grilled chicken with vegetables! Imagine that!

The noise level of the restaurant hovered in the narrow zone between too-loud-for-conversation and so-quiet-we-can't-let-the-baby-in-here. (Again, as parents, we try to stick to restaurants where normal toddler behavior isn't out of place. If she kicks up a fuss, even in a family-friendly restaurant, we pull her outside until she can calm down. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often, or for very long.)

Our server, Jimm, was friendly, prompt, and accomodated all of our special requests with grace and without eye-rolling. He did not give us the feeling that he was talking smack about us to the chef. It was heartening. But he was not invasively friendly, avoiding such tactics as pulling up a seat to join us at the table, such as you might find at some of the competition.

We ordered the Classic Nachos to begin with.

Each nacho is a corn tortilla chip, spread with bean dip and chili queso, topped with unnamed cheese (I suspect cheddar and Monterey Jack), and broiled. The plating for this is as exquisite as you are ever likely to see in a plate of nachos: they fan out before you like the petals of a flower. A flower filled with jalapeno peppers, guacamole, and chili queso. In this case, the cheese was too thickly applied, and so it did not melt evenly under the broiler. The chips were still quite tasty; the flavors of Tex-Mex have been tested by time and experience, and let's face it, it's hard to really screw up nachos.

Let me diverge here for one moment to sing the praises of guacamole. I love guacamole. The avocado is a fine and noble fruit, and I wish only that I lived in sunny California, where the avocados drop off the trees into your palm, warm and fresh and creamy. Chili's is not California, but the guacamole maintains a consistent above-mediocre level that quite pleases me. It contains actual chunks ! of avocado, plus tomato, lending the substance a heft and authenticity you don't find everywhere. If I wanted puree, I would buy baby food. In general, this guacamole is a bit bland for me; it could use some zing of lime, of cayenne, whatever; but as the days grow colder, and avocados at the market are all brown and mushy on the inside, I become ever more grateful for the guacamole at Chili's.

I ordered the Margarita Grilled Chicken as my main dish, substituting the rice with grilled vegetables. Wedding. Bridesmaid's dress. Mere weeks.

I squirted the lime wedge over my chicken, and as far as I can tell, this is the only "marinating" that happened to it. The chicken was somehow more wet than juicy, probably from being prefrozen; the salsa on top did not add much more flavor.

The vegetables, though, were terrific: Perfectly cooked to that point that is tender and yet still toothsome; sauteed, but not swimming in a bath of oil or butter. The black beans were a bit more soupy than I would choose, but actually had a bit of a kick to them. The individual beans were all cooked thoroughly, but hadn't been overcooked to the point of popping and losing their individuality. The chunks of cool, fresh tomato added a nice splash of texture.

Another of my companions ordered the turkey sandwich, with fries. Ho, hum.

Although he quite enjoyed the sandwich, there was really nothing exceptional about it. The turkey appears to be pressed lunchmeat, not fresh slices; the bread is basic white; there are no surprises here in presentation or flavor. However, considering this diner was Matt P., my picky eater from last week, this is probably for the best.

The French fries were... well... overdone. At the best of times, these fries tend to be a little brown. The restuarant applies a heavy hand with the seasoned salt, as well, which can be unpleasant if you are unprepared for it. Perfect fries are elusive, admittedly, but the ones we had today were subpar for practically anyplace. Still crisp, mind you, and still pleasantly mealy on the inside, but the flavor was too smoky. Tsk, tsk, fries should be easy.

The third dish was the chicken fajita quesadilla, with no butter or onions, and fries in place of the black beans (unwise decision though that turned out to be!).

This quesadilla is typically served in a lightly buttered tortilla. I find the taste of butter in Southwest-style food to be out of place, a jarringly heavy and salty note among the freshness of peppers and tomatoes and onions. Without it, the tortilla is crisper and less prone to sogginess. Today, the quesadilla performed up to spec. It's basically grilled chicken and onions, melted with jack cheese, sandwiched between wheat tortillas. It is pretty much exactly what you would imagine, from hearing the description. This one had no onions.

The rice served here is mixed with a small amount of vegetables, and seasoned in a way that I found really, really gross. I think it's the cilantro, but have never investigated thoroughly. Other people, such as my daughter, enjoy the rice very much, so I guess it can't be as bad as I say it is.

In all, our food was satisfying, though nothing extraordinary. Our service was absolutely as good as I have received, and even better than at some far finer establishments; I felt I didn't need to prove my merit or good taste to the waitstaff. I was accepted just as I am. The ambience was relaxed without feeling dirty; friendly, but not like that creepy art teacher. For a casual lunch, with a family including a small child, it was really just about perfect.

Posted by andrea at October 10, 2004 09:01 PM

I've always kind of liked Chili's. Lately though, I've been ordering myriads of suspiciously salad like foods at Max N Erma's. Hrmmm. It's about time for me to go make dinner, and I am having a keen desire for fake mashed potatoes.
Oh, and for a good laugh:

Posted by: SSJones on October 11, 2004 07:13 PM

email me and i will tell u who i will be voting for...hint. it wont be u. ill be checking my email in about two hours or so....

Posted by: harry on October 12, 2004 01:35 PM

Thanks for this write-up, because in Hannah's 17 months on this planet, my husband and I have yet to take her out to dinner. In our pre-baby world, we'd enjoy yellowtail and green river rolls (eerily named, when you consider the serial killer with the same moniker) at Fuji Mountain in Bryn Mawr, PA or tornado rolls at Nara in Philly. (Ohh, how I pine for eel!)

I was thinking about a Fridays-type joint, and my fear is the long wait. Hannah would not tolerate milling about for 45 minutes while we wait for an open table. Our daughter is notoriously cranky at dinner, but I am hoping the noise of the crowds and having interesting faces to look at would keep her from having a breakdown. This is something we must try, mostly because I love potato skins and miss them. A lot.

P.S. I love love love your shirt in the first pic. All I have is a lousy bumpersticker.

Posted by: Kelly on October 12, 2004 03:11 PM

Gee, I wonder who Harry's voting for. At least I can feel less guilty now. :)

Posted by: michelle on October 12, 2004 06:40 PM
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