Thursday, December 30, 2010


So much do I love seafood that sometimes I suspect I was born with a few gills. Or, maybe it's because I was born on the cusp between Pisces and Aries and, although the fire sign that officially begins on March 21 wins out overall, I got a healthy dose of the fish as well. Whatever the reason, no matter when or where my husband Jack and I go out to eat, it's likely that my choice will be some kind of seafood. On at least one of our almost annual treks to the North Carolina Outer Banks, for instance, I vowed that every entree I ate on the way, while we were there and on the way home would be seafood -- and I stuck to my guns (we rarely eat breakfast, but I did learn that crab cakes taste pretty good even early in the morning)!

That's one reason we love going anywhere there's lots of water -- and that's where you'll find some of our all-time favorite restaurants: Mulligan's Raw Bar & Grille, Awful Arthur's Oyster Bar and Fisherman's Wharf on the North Carolina Outer Banks, the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, Maryland, The Wharf in Erie, Pa., and Pickle Bill's and Brennan's in Grand River, Ohio.

Of course, nothing beats the freshness that comes from dragging dinner str
aight from the water to the table; back inland, it's a bit more difficult to find anything that remotely compares (especially since most restaurants tend to cook fish way beyond the point at which it tastes best). One of our favorite places -- Red Lobster -- may come as somewhat of a surprise. Chain restaurants aren't typically our favorite places, but over the years we've found that the fish here tends to be properly cooked and consistently delicious.

Most of the time, we visit the restaurant on the U.S. Route 422 "strip" in Niles, although
on occasion we've ventured in to other locations. Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when Jack and I met up with our son Scott, his wife Lilla, and Lilla's mother Sheila at the Red Lobster in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (that's Lilla and Scott in the photo at the left. The first thing we noticed is that the restaurant layout isn't exactly the same as the Niles location -- lots more dark wood and what appears to be a larger main dining room. Although it isn't listed as such on the Web site, we suspect it's been remodeled as part of the company's new "Bar Harbor" design project in which almost all existing restaurants will be getting a facelift by 2014.

Menus can vary from restaurant to restaurant as well; if you go online to check Red Lobster's Web site (see below), you'll be asked to enter a Zip Code to see what's available at the one you're interested in. Besides that, menu specials change relatively often, so always check what's new before you decide. One that's noteworthy at press time, for instance, is a choice of three "Surf & Turf" combinations for under $20 each -- chardonnay-grilled shrimp, grilled Maine lobster tail or snow crab legs paired with an 8-ounce peppercorn sirloin. Yum!

Red Lobster is, for the record, part of the Darden Restaurants
stable that includes the Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze names. The first Red Lobster opened in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968, according to company reports, and today there are somewhere around 700 locations throughout the United States and Canada.

At our Cuyahoga Falls get together, we went whole hog (or more accurately, whole fish). Even though it was lunch time, one of us picked the Ultimate Feast that includes a split Maine lobster tail, steamed snow crab legs, garlic shrimp scampi and Walt's Favorite Shrimp ($24.99). Another picked the broiled seafood platter, with bay scallops, garlic shrimp scampi and stuffed flounder ($13.99).

I must emphasize, however, that one of the things I crave most from Red Lobster isn't se
afood at all; it's those wonderful Cheddar Bay biscuits. So popular are these cheesy biscuits that Red Lobster reportedly bakes and serves more than 395 million every year -- making them from scratch and baking them every 15 minutes. The folks at Red Lobster won't divulge the recipe (nor do I blame them), but if you Google "Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits" you'll find some recipes that come pretty darned close to the real thing.

Our most recent visit was for a spur-of-the-moment late lunch on Christmas Eve Day. The stockings were hung, the gifts were wrapped, and we'd be alone for the rest of
the evenings since our family get-togethers were on Christmas Day and the day after that -- so I guess we were feeling a little blue and decided a blast of fresh seafood (and a couple of beers) would cheer us up fast.

Here, we usually sit on the relatively small bar side of the restaurant; the tables border on tiny, but for just the two of us, we manage -- and hey, we
're right next to the bar. We were armed with a $10 gift card I'd earned at, a site at which you earn points by viewing (and possibly purchasing) offers that are sent by e-mail. I always cash in my points with restaurant gift cards (most often from Darden Restaurants), and over the past few years I estimate I've earned at least a dozen.

Besides that, earlier that morning we'd cashed a small dividend check from a local bank, and when Jack put on an Ohio State University winter jacket he hadn't worn for at least a year, he found $15 in one of the pockets! Put all that together, and we decided that for once, money was no object.

In mid-afternoon we were seated immediately, although we've never been to a Red Lobster that was devoid of customers at any hour. Happily for me, Blue Moon was one of the draft choices; Jack was less happy to learn they were out of all the Sam Adams brews on tap, but he settled for a Sam Adams Winter Lager in a bottle. I will warn that beer isn't cheap here; his bottle cost $3.99 and my glass (larger) was $4.50.

For starters, we decided to share a Seafood Sampler ($10.75); this large plate was filled with four lobster-crab-seafood stuffed mushrooms, a handful of fried clam strips and a skewer of four bacon-wrapped sea scallops. The scallops, in particular, are mouth-watering; although our initial plan was to divvy up everything equally, offering a sweet smile and batting my baby blues got me three of the scallops in exchange for that fourth stuffed mushroom, a favorite of Jack's.

As we munched, we noticed a number of customers who were picking up what appeared to be party trays -- this was Christmas Eve day, remember -- and we made a mental note that next time we needed to bring something to a party, this could be a great place to go.

For our entrees, Jack stuck with his usual baked stuffed flounder (the same as he'd had in Cuyahoga Falls) at $8.99; his sides of choice were cole slaw and fries with sea salt. It took me a little longer to decide -- I like the "create your own" entree, from which you can choose any two fish items (for lunch, it's $9.50) and the shrimp linguini Alfredo. In the end, though, I opted for the Sailor's Platter, made up of breaded fried shrimp, garlic shrimp scampi and an oven-broiled fish filet for $9.75. For sides, I picked a garden salad and rice pilaf.

I feel compelled to mention that I used to love the Caesar salad here (you have a choice between that and a garden salad as sides), but they've changed the dressing so it's now heavier and gloppy (my word) compared to what it used to be. The garden salad, though, is very good, as is the ranch dressing I picked. The rice pilaf, though, contains wild rice and plenty of flavor, unlike the rice pilaf I've had at other restaurants (to the point that I rarely order it because so much of it has been under-flavored, over-flavored and otherwise virtually inedible).

Only once in the many times we've eaten at a Red Lobster have we had room for dessert -- it was a piece of delicious key lime pie ($4.99) -- but if you can possibly stuff it in, there are plenty of delectables from which to choose. Jack's had his eye on the warm chocolate chip lava cookie for quite some time now -- a warm, thick cookie with a molten chocolate center topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce ($5.99). Hopefully, he'll give me a bite or two!

If you go: Red Lobster
5701 Youngstown-Warren Road
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 544-1321
Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Check the Web site for hours at other Red Lobster locations.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Trying a new chain restaurant can be a real crapshoot -- you never know how you'll like the atmosphere or, more important, the food, until you try it. If it does suit your style and palate, though, the plus is that you can be relatively certain that you'll get that same enjoyment whenever, and wherever, you go.

Such is definitely the case at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, where the cookin' is the stick-to-your-ribs variety and dependably tasty. Headquartered in Lebanon, Tenn., the chain was founded in 1969 and now has 594 restaurants in 42 states, mostly located near interstate highways.

I don't recall the first time my husband and I ate at a Cracker Barrel -- it was many years ago -- but I do remember this: My meal of choice was chicken and dumplings, which came with two sides (my choices were mashed potatoes and gravy a
nd sweet baby carrots). I loved it so much, in fact, that as many times as we've eaten at Cracker Barrel since then, the only time I've ever ordered anything else is if I'm in the mood for breakfast (more on that later).

Of course
, along the way I've sampled some of the entrees Jack has ordered -- he's much more adventurous than I am when we eat here -- and everything has been delicious. If I had to guess, I'd say my love of the chicken and dumplings stems in part because I grew up on a farm in southwestern Ohio and had a mother who cooked everything from scratch -- even growing her own chickens. Granted, the large chunks of chicken in Cracker Barrel's meal can't hold a candle to the freshness of Mom's chickens, but they hold their own. The dumplings, if I may be so bold, just may be even better than Mom used to make.

I say that on good authority. Some years ago as my mother's health began to fail, she ha
d a tough time eating much of anything and, at a diminutive 5 feet 2 inches with high heels on, probably weighed 95 pounds soaking wet. On one of our visits, we took her and my Dad for their first visit to a Cracker Barrel, and I recommended the chicken and dumplings. To this day -- several years after she passed away -- I still smile when I recall that she polished off the entire plate in short order -- the most I've ever seen her eat at one sitting.

These days, the dinner with two sides goes for $7.39; if you don't care for carrots (although I recommend them highly), you can choose from many other sides such as whole kern
el corn, fried apples, macaroni 'n' cheese, cole slaw, breaded fried okra, turnip greens and more.

Before I ramble on about the great food, though, I should mention that each store is in itself a treat to visit. The walls are covered with old-time country "stuff" -- cooking pots and utensils, old photos and posters and even small tools. Outside, the open front porch is lined with rows of rocking chairs that invite diners to sit a spell if they need to wait for a table (which is quite likely if you go at a mealtime). The rocking chairs are available for sale ($129 each for the natural wood or white painted versions). They're so comfortable, in fact, that we've had one on our front porch for several years now and are thinking about springing for a white one or possibly the bright red one with the Ohio State University logo).

Once insi
de, guests must pass through an extensive gift shop to get to the restaurant desk (a very effective marketing ploy, by the way). All around, wonderfully scented candles, clothing like shawls, hats and hand-decorated shirts and jackets, "country" dinnerware and old-time brands like Watkins Products catch your eye and make you want to open your pocketbook even before you're had a bite of food.

Many items, like CDs, are exclusive to Cracker Barrel. Last month, for instance, the store began selling Smokey Robinson's new 12-song CD "Now
and Then," the first release by an R&B artist in Cracker Barrel's music program that's best known for country and bluegrass. No, we didn't bite at our last visit, but I did find a beautiful embroidered faux suede shirt for me and something for our daughter Chris for Christmas (if you read this, honey, try to pretend you didn't know it was coming). Both were 50% off the sale price and a steal.

I mentioned that many Cracker Barrels are located close to interstate highways. One of the benefits of this decision is that food is served quite quickly, so as to cater to travelers who need to grab a bite and get on their way. On the other hand, the restaurants are popular stops for tour buses -- in fact, th
e company has a special program for tour groups. So although they typically schedule visits slightly outside peak meal hours, we always turn tail and run somewhere else if we spot more than one in the parking lot.

These high-traffic locations also have prompted something new: Installation of electric vehicle charging stations at several Tennessee locations with plans to roll them out elsewhere. Installation of the DC Fast Charging stations both accommodate and encourage use of the more environmentally friendly vehicles and are a tribute to Cracker Barrel's beginnings -- the
first store sold gasoline. “Cracker Barrel was founded along the interstate highways with the traveler in mind and has always tried to anticipate what our guests might want and need as they stop in for some good country cookin’ and to experience genuine Southern hospitality,” Michael A. Woodhouse, chairman and CEO, said in a Nov. 30 news release.

Ultimately, he said, guests will be able to get an 80% charge -- the recommended charge -- in just under a half hour at the locations that will have the DC Fast Charging stations. In essence, guests essentially will be able to "fill ‘er up" in about the same amount of time it takes to order and eat a meal.

Cracker Barrel also has a "Books-on-Audio" program that's geared to travelers as well. If you buy a CD or cassette at any location, you can return it
to any other location and get full credit less a per-item $3.49-per-week exchange fee.

It is the food, of course, that brings most folks back to Cracker Barrel. Since breakfast is served all day, as I mentioned earlier, we sometimes choose that option; my favorite, I suppose, is the Country Morning Breakfast: two eggs, grits, two buttermilk biscuits, a cup of sawmill gravy and smoked sausage patties (or bacon). Jack prefers the Old-Timers' Breakfast, two eggs (over easy), bacon and a side -- he loves the fried apples -- for $6.89. Meals come with a choice of fresh-baked bis
cuits or cornbread; I admit I'm not a big fan of the cornbread here, so we always go with the biscuits.

Describing the chicken and dumplings without using superlatives is hard, but the bottom line is this: three or four good-sized chunks of fork-tender white meat chicken (not breaded), topped with lots of tender dough dumplings swimming in thick white gravy. If you choose mashed potatoes as a side, as I always do, you can get more of the gravy, and the potatoes are real.

Another of Jack's favorites -- and one of only two other entrees I've had here besides breakfast -- is the meatloaf. On Tuesdays, in fact, it's a lunch special, served up with mashed potatoes and your choice of one vegetable. What was the second entree I've sampled, you ask? Another down-home favorite mamma used to make: fried chicken livers. Delicious!

These items are, as you might suspect, only the tip of the iceberg lettuce. The extensive menu lists several salads and sandwiches, "Country" dinner plates with enough food to satisfy Paul Bunyan, sandwiches and four luscious desserts including fruit cobblers (during holiday seasons, many restaurants sell whole pies as well).

Cracker Barrel has a kids' menu as well, and vegans can opt for an all-vegetable plate. Prefer to eat at home? Call ahead to pick up a complete meal for six -- two hours in advance is preferred -- and choose one entree, three sides and either corn muffins or a loaf of sourdough bread. If all that is more than you want, you can order anything off the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus to go.

By now, it should be clear that I love Cracker Barrel. But is there anything here I'm less than pleased with? For starters, the tables and chairs are packed
a bit closer together than I prefer -- the servers even have a bit of a challenge navigating in between when their arms are filled with orders to deliver. I'll also warn about that inviting roaring fireplace -- a godsend in winter weather, of course, but hot enough that the devil himself probably wouldn't sit anywhere near it (and I advise you not to, either).

Lastly, I should note that this is just about the only place we've found where servers don't deliver breads (or biscuits or corn muffins) before the meal arrives -- always a bit of an annoyance even though the food arrives quickly enough that it's rarely a real inconvenience. Turns out this is company policy -- an effort to make sure the breads are served as warm as possible and to save money because, as officials claim, breads delivered automatically are often wasted because diners really don't want them. "As competitive as our business has become, every chance to reduce waste helps hold prices down," a company report says, adding that all servers have been instructed to bring bread before the rest of the meal on request.

From a customer service standpoint, I beg to disagree with that philosophy; particularly in this competitive day and age, I do not believe the burden of service, so to speak, should be placed on the shoulders of customers. No, I don't expect water or bread to be delivered automatically -- I agree that would be wasteful and require servers to make an extra trip to the table that isn't necessary.

But in fact, the Cracker Barrel servers always ask what kind of bread diners want when they take the food orders. Surely, if they can be "instructed" to bring bread beforehand on request, they can be taught to ask if diners at the same time if they'd like the bread brought before their meals.

At any rate, now that I -- and all the folks reading this blog -- know to ask, and ask I shall. Forewarned is forearmed!

If you go: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
5600 Interstate Boulevard
Austintown, Ohio 44515-1100

Check the Web site for other area locations. All restaurants are open Sunday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.