Archive for January, 2009

No More Coffee Breaks at Starbucks?

The afternoon doldrums brought me to Starbucks.  I like Starbucks; I like the fancy drinks (although the prices pain me).  I often think that I’d prefer to support the neighborhood coffee shops, but Starbucks put a lot of them out of business.  The only one left within a convenient distance to my current home just isn’t that good.

I particularly enjoy Starbucks’ specialty drinks.  Their regular coffee is simply too bitter for me.  Every once in awhile I give it another try, I ask them to leave me a lot of extra room for milk or cream, but I still end up dumping half of the coffee in the trash so that I can mask the bitterness with milk/cream and sugar.  Palates differ greatly, though – my husband can drink (and enjoy) their coffee black.

On this visit to Starbucks I was hoping for a new seasonal coffee drink; I love the seasonal concoctions – Pumpkin Lattes, Eggnog Lattes, and possibly my all-time favorite, the Leprechaun Lattes.  When I want less caffeine and more comfort, I love the new Signature Hot Chocolates.  In the summer, I drink light Frappucinos.  So, I was surprised to walk into Starbucks after several weeks of Starbucks withdrawal to find that not only were there no new specialty coffee drinks but that the coffee menu had been taken over by (gasp!) teas.

Don’t get me wrong – I like tea.  But it’s generally not why I go to Starbucks.  I do occasionally order a chai tea latte, but like their coffee, it tastes as if it was overbrewed and the strong black tea flavor overwhelms the spices that make chai special.  The new menu at Starbucks features several Tazo tea latte drinks and tea infusions.  I will probably try one of these at some point, but I’m hugely disappointed to see tea taking over the menu.

Several hours after my Starbucks excursion I discovered that Starbucks is facing financial troubles and may be closing as many as 300 more locations (they closed several in 2008 already).  Which leads me to think…perhaps Starbucks should stick to what they do best?


Domino’s at My Door

I admit it.  I’ve never, ever, had Domino’s pizza before.  I consider myself a pizza aficionado, I’ve lived near Domino’s franchises several times, and yet I’ve never tried their pizza.  I’m not sure how this happened, it certainly wasn’t intentional.

So, tonight, I rectified the situation.  After a simple online order, Domino’s was at my door in less than 30 minutes with their trademark boxes.  We took advantage of a special that included three small pizzas with one topping each, for four dollars each.  We also took advanatage of ordering breadsticks, just because.  For just over $20 including tip, we have dinner for two nights.

The breadsticks weren’t actually breadsticks, although my husband tells me they used to look like true breadsticks years ago.  The breadsticks were actually a half a pizza dough, a semi-circle of baked dough that was an unappetizing yellow color.  One bite explained the yellow hue; the breadsticks were buttersticks.  They tasted like cheap pastry with a smattering of herbs on top.  The marinara dipping sauce wasn’t much better.  It was far too acidic and didn’t have a nice flavor.

The pizzas were a big improvement over the breadsticks.  We ordered a pepperoni, a mushroom, and a feta.  None of them were well endowed with toppings or cheese, and the texture was a bit oily/greasy, but overall, I enjoyed the pizzas.  The crust was thick and bready, the pepperoni was just crispy and spicy enough, and the mushrooms added a fresh flavor.  Unfortunately, I could barely discern the feta, although I could see small crumbles of it here and there on the pizza.  I haven’t tried the pizza in its day-old state yet, but I worry about the oiliness after reheating.

Domino’s satisfied my pizza craving, but there are better pizza options out there.  I can’t say Domino’s won’t be at my door again, though.


Chilling at Chili’s in Westford

There’s a list of chain restaurants that I avoid…I want to like them because of their convenience and affordability, but after food poisoining from one, hair in my food at another, and general disappointment at many,  I created a mental list of “chain restaurants to avoid.”  Chili’s Grill and Bar was on this list for awhile – not for any great offense, simply because I often left disappointed.  However, after receiving some gift cards for chain restaurants for the holidays, I’m back in the (chain restaurant) saddle.

One reason that I avoided Chili’s was the seemingly unavoidable noise, even on a weeknight.  My husband and I returned to Chili’s on a weeknight, and while it wasn’t quiet, I was pleased that we could hear each other easily.  The noise certainly didn’t detract from our meal.

Our waiter was warm, friendly, and attentive.   He was quick to take our drink order and to deliver them.  I ordered a Chambord 1800, a margarita on the rocks  with a kick of Chambord.  My husband ordered a Long Island Iced Tea.  Both drinks were sweet and enjoyable, if a little too full of ice.

For dinner,  I had the chicken tacos with sides of rice and black beans.  My husband had steak and portobello fajitas with rice.  My tacos were good but I found the chicken filling somewhat sparse and the cheese almost non-existent – the filling was predominantly iceberg lettuce and tomatoes.  I was surprised that I needed to eat all three tacos to feel full (I was looking forward to left-overs!).   The soft taco shell/tortilla was soft and just bready enough to be satisfying.  The rice, on the other hand, was so salty it was nearly inedible.  Interestingly, my husband had what appeared to be the same rice but we both found his appropriately seasoned and agreed that mine tasted like a salt shaker.  The black beans were cooked appropriately and were decent.  My husband also enjoyed his fajitas but the portabello mushrooms were very few and far between, and he also complained of the lack of cheese.

For dessert, we split a gargantuan order of chocolate chip cookie molten cake.  It was a warm, moist white cake full of chocolate chips and topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.  There were two chocolate sauces on the dessert – an enjoyable chocolate shell that ensconced the ice cream, and a soft chocolate sauce that surrounded the cake.  It was decadent.

Our bill came to just over $50 including tip, a fairly reasonable price.  I recommend Chili’s for their fun drinks and desserts, but entrees can be inconsistent.  Regardless, I think Chili’ls has redeemed itself enough to be removed from my list.


Not Your Average Lunch at Not Your Average Joe’s?

Lunch the other day found me at Not Your Average Joe’s at The Loop in Methuen, MA.  The restaurant was not as crowded as I would have anticipated at lunch time and we were seated swiftly.  I’ve eaten many times at Joe’s over the years, and have also eaten many dinners at the Acton and Newburyport locations.  I enjoy their menu, particulary the fact that it is an allergen-friendly restaurant offering many gluten-free options.  They have a varied menu that includes pizzas, salads, sandwiches, meat and seafood, and a few pasta options.  They are inconsistent in quality at times although I have found the salads to be consistently great.

Our server was quick to arrive and greet us, but clearly perturbed that we weren’t going to eat and run.  After a few hasty attempts to take our order before we’d read the menu, she abandoned us for a long while before returning (which was preferable to the table-stalking).  Luckily, she left us with Joe’s addictive focaccia bread served with a dipping sauce of olive oil, parmesan and red pepper.  I could easily have eaten just bread and oil for lunch.

My friend and I each decided on the soup and 1/2 sandwich combination offered on the lunch menu.  Oddly, the soup selections weren’t on the lunch menu (I have noted them on the dinner menu in the past).  After inquiring about the soup options, we each chose the Tuscan sandwich and I added a sweet potato soup to my order, while my friend ordered the chicken noodle.  I also ordered a hot coffee.

The Cup of Joe was not average, it was in fact quite a good cup of coffee, especially on a cold day.  My sweet potato soup was creamy, but not too rich, with a nice sweet potato flavor.  However, the finish was overpowering due to too much black pepper which quickly overwhelmed all of the other flavors in the soup.  I was also surprised to find chunks of meat in my soup, which my server had not mentioned.  I couldn’t be sure what the meat was, but my best guess was that it was ham.  It didn’t add anything to the soup, nor did the unidentifiable white chunk which may have been a flavorless piece of mozzarella.  The soup would have been wonderful had they not tampered with it so much and masked the nice sweet potato flavor in the soup.  My friend’s soup was also chock-full of black pepper, including peppered wide noodles.  My Tuscan Chicken sandwich was decent, although it could have used more pesto.  The chicken was tender and the sun-dried tomatoes added a nice flavor.  Overall, it was an average lunch that I could have gotten cheaper at a deli or coffee shop (the combination was about $9, not including my coffee).

Lunch was good, but probably not worth the nearly $30 it came to (including the tip).  I would recommend Joe’s for dinner when the prices are more justifiable, or for lunch when in the mood for a full entree (an order of Crab Cakes or Not Your Average Chicken Oscar is only a few dollars more, if even).  Joe’s also offers many specials including a fixed price couples’ menu including wine on Wednesdays (Winesdays), Happy Hour food specials, and an “insiders” e-mail listing that includes coupons on your birthday.  All in all, Joe’s may not be average, but it is a mixed bag.


How Local are Localvores?

In an effort to learn more about localvores, and to find restaurants dedicated to the cause of cooking with local ingredients…I haven’t unearthed very much!

First, my search to find restaurants in my area that strive to use as many local ingredients as possible – results online were limited.  I did locate a site that lists restaurants in MA who buy local ingredients – the Metrowest area listed mostly restaurants in and very near to the city, but I was pleased to see two restaurants that I know and like: Aquatini in Newburyport, and the Flatbread Company in Amesbury (Flatbreads has several other locations, including Bedford, MA – stay tuned for a review on a future date!)  However, I know many more local restaurants strive to serve fresh, local foods.  Along these lines, I was saddened to learn of Infusions Bistro in Chelmsford, MA closing their doors after a slow winter/holiday season (another thing I can blame the snow for?) as I know that the chef there valued local ingredients.  I wish him and the rest of the staff well and hope he opens another restaurant in this area.

I did come across a site (all links at the end of this entry) for localvores in Boston and I learned a bit more there.  They have great resources for city-dwellers, and I got one great piece of advice which was (I am paraphrasing, hopefully doing their intentions justice) that it’s ok to start slowly as a localvore – commit to buying a few local ingredients (i.e. local dairy products) rather than jumping in whole-hog.  That I can do, and would like to try.  I do enjoy farmers’ markets, farmstands and smaller grocers that sell local ingredients – which is saying a lot as heading into a grocery store/superstore sends me into a tailspin (just ask my husband!)  They also state on their site that localvores do not buy all of their food locally nor does the food need to come from within 100 miles (again, I am paraphrasing).  This point confuses me…I do remember reading in the past that localvores strive to eat as much food from possible from within a certain radius…I remember it having something to do with maximizing the “green” efforts of eating locally.  So, this leads me to ponder, what is local?  How relative a term is it?