Monday, August 9, 2010

Carrabba's (for the Love of Brian and Cindy)

HIS . . .
Ah, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all heard the common refrain “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” right? I firmly believe that’s a solid rule to live by in pretty much every area of life except for food. Seriously, how often do you have a dining experience (formal or informal) where you leave pleasantly surprised relative to what your expectations were beforehand. I’m not saying it never happens but there are generally few surprises when it comes to food… However, that’s exactly what happened recently when the wife and I had dinner with friends at Carrabba’s.

With several locations across the U.S., Carrabba’s looks every bit the part of an Italian-American restaurant chain in the vain of Olive Garden. Don’t get it twisted, there’s nothing wrong with Italian American or Olive Garden, to a lesser degree if we’re in the mood, but our taste buds have grown the past few years to where we appreciate more regional Italian fare. Imagine what our expectations were when we stopped in for dinner on a beautiful summer night recently. Promoting itself as an “Italian Grill,” Carrabba’s is more Sunday dinner at grandma’s house masquerading as a chain restaurant.

With all dishes made from scratch, they start you out with what any casual dining restaurant worth its salt does well – BREAD. They take soft, fresh, out-of-the-oven Italian bread and elevate it by placing a spoonful of a surprisingly tasty herb mixture on a small white saucer, drowning it with olive oil stopping right before it runs onto to the table. No words are needed from this point as instincts kick in and everyone’s bathing their bread in this stuff - it just feels like the right thing to do.

In the middle of gorging ourselves on bread, we decide to order an entrée as an appetizer - dinner with friends who long for food as much as you do is called culinary chemistry – so we decide on Spiedino Di Mare: Shrimp and sea scallops coated with Italian breadcrumbs which are then grilled and topped with lemon butter sauce. I was skeptical about their ability to execute breaded and grilled seafood but, again, I was very surprised. Both the scallops and shrimp were fresh, cooked perfectly, and not overwhelmed by what was a delicious lemon butter sauce that was also good for bread dipping (yes, I was still eating bread at this point.)

As for my real entrée, I ordered “The Bryan” which is a hybrid of the Sirloin Marsala and “Chicken Bryan” (boneless/skinless chicken breast topped with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and a basil lemon butter sauce.) And since the “I’m watching my fat and caloric intake” train left the station a long time ago, I put all my chips in and chose garlic mashed potatoes. Besides, who really expects dinner at grandma’s house to be low-fat; not me. Having said that, I don’t even want to know what’s in the potatoes but I know besides garlic, one of the primary ingredients starts with “b” and ends with “utter” and I was okay with that because they were smooth and good.

Make no mistake, the sirloin wasn’t steak-house quality beef but compensated for that by being well cooked (mine was medium) and flavorful thanks to a solid marsala although my favorite was the “Chicken Bryan.” The chicken breast was cooked perfectly and I love goat cheese and pretty much anything with sun-dried tomatoes so nuff said there. Also, another surprise is the flavor that Carraba’s wood-burning oven imparts to the food - even to my wife’s spinach. It also serves as a nice focal point to their open kitchen but aside from that, the rest of the décor typifies what I would expect from a chain with an Italian family-style theme but I don’t think Carrabba’s tries to be much more than good food with excellent service and on this night, they delivered on both.

I give Carrabba’s “A lot of Love!”

HERS . . .
Trust has to be earned, right? If trust is at the crux of any good relationship, then why is it so hard for Marcus and I to trust our friends culinary recommendations? Short answer: We’ve been burned so many times—spent big money on bad food; took long drives for longer lasting disappointments. Who to trust?

This is why when our friends, Cindy & Brian, first professed their love of Carrabba’s I was not drinking the kool-aid (which was immediately downgraded to Tang when I heard Carrabba’s was “a chain.”)

A chain, you want moi to go to “a chain.” That could put my foodie status in jeopardy!

BUT . . . for good times with good friends we were more than willing to gnaw on mediocre eats and smile graciously.

ENTER the Rembert’s and Hofstra’s into Carrabba’s. Cindy and Brian eager to share their favorite place with us, and we were eager for good conversations, not really good food.

Nice ambience, not bad for “a chain.” Wood burning oven, not bad for “a chain.”

Matt, the poor waiter, was about to earn his stripes. Two skeptical, self-professed foodies and two Carrabba veterans who know and can recite the menu by heart were no match for Matt’s patience and poise, um--not bad service for “a chain.”

My evening refrain continues with a twist once Matt appears with a loaf of crusty top Italian bread served with herbs, cheese and olive oil---um, really good for a chain. So good in fact that Matt had to keep the bread coming and coming and somehow a bowl of buttery alfredo sauce appeared for the purpose of dipping the bread into. Do foodies do alfredo sauce with bread? They should!

(Above: Is Brian praying to the Carrabba God? Multiply this bread PLEASE!)
Brian remembered a seafood dish with lightly breaded scallops and shrimp with lemon butter. Butter you say---bring it on, Matt! Well cooked seafood--done extremely well for a chain. Am I being converted here?

A good Mediterranean salad came with the meal, but a spoon full of Brian’s soup proved to be the best choice with its essence of Italian sausage.

Out came my Chicken Trio, I couldn’t make up my mind—okay, and the smell emanating from the plate did not scream chain. It screamed straight from the wood oven with love.

The trio of Chicken Bryan, Chicken Marsala, and Pollo Rosa Maria looked the part, too. The Chicken Bryan was juicy and complemented by its topping of goat cheese and sundried tomatoes not to mention the lemony butter sauce it sat in. The Chicken Marsala had the best taste of the wood burning oven which married well with the woody taste of the mushrooms. My favorite was the Pollo Rosa Maria. Pork, chicken and butter together on one plate. The chicken was stuffed with fontina cheese and prosciutto topped with mushrooms sitting in that same lemony butter sauce.

( Above: Chicken Marsala, the Hofstra’s Money Meal!)

A chain, you want moi to go to a chain? Okay, as long as Cindy and Brian come along—good food and good conversation--- Trust earned!

Carrabba’s has earned . . . A Lot of Love!