Would You Recommend...

"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly." ~ M.F.K. Fisher

I'm always flattered when someone asks me for a restaurant recommendation, but then a sense of responsibility rushes in and reminds me that my opinions won't necessarily be the same as the next person's. If it's someone I know, I'll usually make a few suggestions and ask for feedback on their experience if they go anyplace I've recommended.

Mezze Plate - Papa Zuzu's - Mt Pleasant, SC
If I don't know anything about the individual's preferences or lifestyle, I'm usually not comfortable telling them where to take their spouse for a special 25th anniversary dinner. I don't do the fine-dining scene all that often. I will tell you where you can get a really good taco or some bangin' tapas, though. If you want to know where to get some juicy Pernil Al Horno, or sweet Chicken Adobo, I'll tell you where I've enjoyed it. That doesn't mean you will.

When I'm selecting a place to eat, especially when I'm traveling outside my home city, I do my homework first. Consumer review sites such as Urbanspoon give me an idea what type of experience I'm in for, as well as what's good, what to avoid.

Hibachi Chicken - Shiki - Mooresville, NC
I love reading about places and creating a wishlist on Urbanspoon before heading to a new city, but I'm always willing to stray from the list when a friend suggests a favorite spot I may not have noticed. I'm mining for hidden gems when I'm dining solo, but when I have fellow diners to consider, I'm more likely to pay attention to the popularity quotient, and comb the reviews for local diners opinions.

Home or away, I do have a few standard criteria upon which I rate a restaurant. They are based on my personal preferences. I'd love to hear what you look for in a good restaurant experience as well.

Is the concept at all original? Is it fresh? Properly cooked? Is it real food, or did they rip open a plastic bag of sauce, drizzle it on some frozen protein, plate it with frozen veg medley and heat it in the micro?

Jibneh - 13 Gypsies - Jacksonville, FL
Do the flavors meld and enhance the experience, or is some seasoning or ingredient so predominant it blows your tastebuds out of whack? Does it look appealing? Are the textures pleasant? Temperature appropriate? Would I order it again? Is the cost in keeping with the value?

Are the ingredients locally sourced, and does the menu change with the seasons' bounty? A plastic covered menu is an early indicator to me that the food might be... institutional. I'm leery of those "glamour shots" of food on the menu. Put those on your website to lure me in. Once I'm there, let me imagine how the food is going to look, and be pleasantly surprised when it exceeds my expectations, not the other way around.

Here's where it gets a little subjective. I don't go for starched and formal. I seek out spots where I a feel welcome and comfortable - as if I'm visiting a friend (who happens to be a chef) in their home.

The Blue Fish -Jacksonville, FL
While I appreciate and prefer good interior design, I am not generally a snob about ambiance. I don't mind if the decor is less than stellar as long as the food quality makes up for it. I am willing to pay more for food if it served in pleasant surroundings. Just sayin'... But I would eat in a shack if the food is really good.

Similarly, cleanliness is essential, but I've eaten in places that were neat as a pin inside and out where the food was just one step above Alpo. I like a clean dining room, but my number one pet peeve in restaurants continues to be staff vacuuming or sweeping the floor while I'm eating nearby. If I can hear you sweeping, the particles you are stirring up are most likely going to make their way into my food. Let fallen french fries lie until the section is closed. 

Am I comfortable in the room? Are the chairs, tables, etc. clean and in good repair? Is there an off-putting odor? (Out the door, pronto. I've learned that lesson.)

Spinach Pizza - Libretto's - Jacksonville, FL
How is the noise level? Is the lighting adequate? Are their fresh flowers on the table or some dusty plastic arrangement? Are the plates and cups clean and free of chips, cracks, residue? (You'd be surprised how often that answer is no.)

I also consider the crowd. Are my fellow diners young, older? Hip? Conservative? What's their general mood? I like a diverse crowd, it tells me there's something to appeal to everyone here. When I'm searching for a good representation of cultures other than my own, I consider the ethnicity of the diners as well as the staff. If you're eating Mexican food and the other diners are Mexican, you know it's because they've found a taste of Mexico on the plate. If the language of the table talk around you matches the ethnicity of the place, you may be on to something.

Am I greeted soon after entering? Does someone acknowledge my quest for a seat? Will the wait be long, and if so, what are my options? Did the staff ask about seating preference? Did they honor my request for a light, sunny table?

Danny and Molly Armonyard - Owners
Bangkok City - Buckeye Lake, OH
While I am a fan of great service, I am also a student of human nature, so I am often entertained even when the service is less than adequate. Rude service, however, is never appropriate.

In my opinion, great service may help me accept a less than stellar meal, but bad service can't be helped by good food. If you put me in a bad mood before the food comes, how am I going to enjoy it?

Does the proprietor, GM or chef visit the front of the house, or do they lurk out of sight? If I'm a regular, do they greet me by name?

So that's pretty much it. If this system works for you, use it. If not, use whatever does. And if you want to discuss who makes the best tacos, pizza, Thai, seafood, barbeque or sandwiches in town, I'm your gal!  INCIDENTALLY - all the pics in this post represent favorite foods and places that were recommended TO me by friends and family! THANK YOU ALL for each and every suggestion - and keep 'em coming!


Tapas and Table Envy - at Barcelona

 When several friends from several states tell you a place has good food and you're going to love it, it's likely they are on to something. Which is how I ended up in barcelona - during a recent visit to German Village, in Columbus, Ohio.

Confused? Don't be. German Village contributes to the gastronomic import of Columbus in ways other than hot pretzels and sauerkraut balls - particularly if you look past the obvious tourist attractions and seek out the locals' faves. As if oompah bands and sausage wielding waiters in lederhosen weren't doing enough to stimulate the local economy, there are actually quite a few hip eateries and food related businesses in this barely-suburban enclave.

Barcelona is among the most popular of these, having captured the interest of Columbus diners since 1996, when it shook off the old bier stube decor and reinvented the space that once held GV mainstay Diebel's.

On their website, Barcelona bills itself as "a culinary fusion of metropolitan chic and Old World European charm." The room buzzes with an elegant city vibe, and the fresh decor does balance nicely with the traditional warm brick walls, tin ceilings and wide plank floors.

By all accounts the award winning extensive patio is an oasis of calm and greenery, but on the night of my visit the greenery had given way to ice and snow, and the patio was battened down for the winter.

That didn't stop our hosts from seating us there, however. They wrapped the entire thing in a plastic bubble, blew in some heat from a noisily humming pump, and filled the place with diners.

A helpful bartender alerted me to the half-price bar happy hour from 5-7, so I had a charming cocktail and soaked in the ambiance indoors while I waited for my friends.

Once they arrived, we were whisked out to the patio and seated in an out of the way back corner, (in - big shock, patio furniture) where we could peer in at the diners in the cozy and grand private dining room. The effect was slightly less glamorous than the pics of that lovely patio in summer would have suggested. Granted, these accommodations weren't ideal for our party of five, but we soldiered on, endeavoring to enjoy light conversation over the honing of that heat pump.

Single Cheese selection - 6
Salads and a cheese plate were considered. I ordered one of the cheese selections, and was surprised at how little six dollars bought me - a spartan arrangement of an index finger-sized strip of rather ordinary cheese, two thinly sliced rounds of what could have been yesterday's toasted baguette, and a lovely square of quince paste, or was it fig? Can't recall, sorry. None of the romance that I associate with tapas was present on this plate.

Tomates Y Mozzarella - 7
Our dear friend the motion picture historian casually noted that one could procure all six of the chefs current cheese selections at Trader Joe's. I laughed, taking down a mental note not to order the cheese plate here again.

Salads were lovely though, and appropriately dressed for the evening. Oven roasted tomato slices joined soft, fresh mozzarella cheese and field greens in a honey balsamic reduction with smoked paprika sea salt.

Ensalada Verde Con Higos - 7

Having spent the afternoon sampling pastries at a nearby shop, Barcelona's Spanish inspired small plates held my interest more than the larger entree offerings.

Grilled Foie Gras Tapas
I was thrilled with my selection of the the Ensalada Verde Con Higos - spiced marcona almonds adorning a plate of field greens with dried fig and soft goat cheese in a bacon vinaigrette, and this perfectly grilled Foie Gras - accompanied by a garnet red precise brunoise of roasted beets and an herbal garnish of some sort - I confess I can't recall - pea shoots, or water cress?

Paella Barcelona - 27 (plus lobster)
It seems as good a time as any to mention that the menu changes weekly, and although some entrees stay on for the season, this foie gras is not currently featured. If it is back when you go, treat yourself.

Our resident epicure and patroness of the arts had her heart set on revisiting the Paella, a signature dish at Barcelona (although this one looked to me to be very unevenly cooked - a criticism I had heard earlier that day from a local chef when mentioning our impending visit to Barcelona). They added a lobster tail at her request for an additional cost - so would-be diners, take note.

Pollo al Ajillo - 22
Style guru Kiki ordered the Pollo al Ajillo, a pan-seared chicken breast with garlic, olives, onions, potatoes, roasted pepper and gorgonzola.

She enjoyed the dish but felt it didn't quite live up to the memory of the first time she tasted it. Possibly the lighting in our plastic bubble wasn't as conducive to romancing the plate. Or possibly the buzz about Barcelona is somewhat true - inconsistencies have seeped in and diluted the initial excellence of the place. That can happen over time. Passions cool, chefs come and go. I can't say, as this was my first visit, but there did seem to be some rough edges to the experience which I wasn't expecting, given the rave reviews from my friends.

Vieiras - 25
The mayor's wife (a hoot in her own right and one hell of a fun dinner companion) enjoyed a large plate of Vieiras - a concoction of pan seared sea scallops, bacon, mushroom, baby lima beans, dates, chili flake and cream.

I'm skeptical of ordering seafood in landlocked towns, and my concerns were heightened when this steaming plate landed on the table next to me. The scent of the dish didn't do much to qualm my fears, but our friend seemed to enjoy it. I was offered a taste and asked to help identify the flavor components. Avoiding the scallops and limas (not my favorite bean) I sussed out the chili flake and cream, and the waitress informed us that the sweetness, which quite permeated the sauce, came from dates. All in all, it wasn't a bad dish, I just don't know that I could eat a whole plate of it. It seemed to cry out for some rice, or better yet, grits... (OK, polenta).

Our desserts were the kind you sip in a glass, so no pics there, but Barcelona does serve some lovely sounding desserts, if you have room for them after your meal. So there you have it. The best part of the evening was spending it with good friends old and new, and the bit where they FINALLY turned off that annoying heat pump and fired up the space heaters instead. We actually cheered.

If you're going to Barcelona and want to sit outside, wait until the patio is back in bloom. If I return, it will be on a Monday night when they feature a half price tapas menu. I could really go for some jamon and manchego and a glass of sherry right about now.

Barcelona on Urbanspoon

263 E Whittier St
Columbus, OH 43206

(614) 443-3699