Friday, December 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: Dunwoody "Club and Café"

Opening last year with equal portions of fanfare and hype, the Dunwoody "Club and Café" is a relative newcomer to the greater Atlanta scene. The pre-opening hype designed to garner an enthusiastic local reception combined with the incessant, often embarrassingly harsh comparisons to the rival Dekalb's "Soul Food Station" all but guaranteed that reality would fall short of expectations. To obtain a fair appraisal this review covers dining experiences both at the early stages of operation and after the owners and staff had settled in.

After a brief operation in temporary digs, The Club and Café opened in a new facility situated at the south end of a large and poorly laid out parking arena (it is simply too disorganized to call it a "lot"). The building is low slung with an architecture and exterior decor somewhat reminiscent of that found in "Lady's" magazines from the post-war era. Not at all unpleasant but somehow disturbing, like a the single remaining photograph after an old house burns--it doesn't belong here--it doesn't belong now.

Upon entering the front door you immediately arrive in the main dining room. Directly across is a huge, sweeping, curved bar, dominating the south side of the restaurant. To the left are six generous booths and a large private dining room. Alas, these are available by reservation only and the means of securing a reservation is somewhat secret. At least to this reviewer. On the right is the kitchen, and in stark contrast to promises by the owners, this kitchen is not exposed to diners' view. Restrooms are tucked away behind the large partitions concealing the kitchen, an architectural construct reminiscent of the men's room entry on Concourse A.

The fitment at the bar is sumptuous, though noticeably more so behind the bar than on the patron side. It is also the center of activity, commanding the attention of most of the wait-staff as well as the obligatory bartenders. It is as if the restaurant designer took Shopsin's observation that "the profit is in the liquids" to heart and devoted a majority of the effort and resources to potable purveyance. As one would expect, service at the bar is most attentive and drinks at the bar certainly qualify as a "good pour".

The dining room falls somewhere between elementary school cafeteria and third rate sidewalk Café and was the first real indication that the facility itself was not new or re-newed and may have even been purloined. Recycle, repurpose and reuse all have their place. That place is not the dining fitment of a restaurant serving an alleged top end demographic. The tables were on the smallish side and while they appeared to be in good shape were obviously used. The carpet had not only uglied out it had worn out, becoming thread bare in heavily trafficked areas with separated seams being held together with duct tape. While many would consider this unsafe, warranting immediate redress, the owners priority appears to have been the bar and private areas with little emphasis on the common area.

Or perhaps the money went into the kitchen.

Perhaps not. One cannot see how the food is prepared thus forcing the diner (and critic) to avoid the distraction of Kitchen Nightmarish antics and focus on what comes out of the kitchen. After all, what does the Head Chef's wife's spat with a nearby competing restaurant have to do with the quality of food at this one?

The menu was poorly presented and being unavailable in any printed form was delivered verbally with great enthusiasm, but without much detail on either ingredient or preparation. Available fare was virtually the same as the Soul Food Station the owners intended to supplant. This was not totally unexpected since the pre-opening announcements indicated the Club and Café would offer more of the same, but would be a better value. Originally the owners intended to bring in professional restauranteurs, but at the last moment decided to toque-up and put their own chefmanship on display.

And it truly is more of the same. That said, a notably excellent offering is the Mighty Meaty Super Supreme Deep Dish Double Crust pizza pie. A real pizza pie with enormous amounts of meat, cheese and veggies sandwiched between two thin crusts, topped with sauce and cheese and baked in a spring-form pan. Nothing else on the menu compares in taste or value. Unfortunately for fans of the Club and Café this delectable comes directly from the kitchens of Dekalb's Soul Food Station. Not from their menu---this is delivery.

Otherwise, most fare was over cooked and over seasoned offering mushy mouth feel and monochromatic flavor profiles. When dining at the Club and Café, one is advised to remember the rule of etiquette stating that "what goes in on the fork, goes out on the fork, if one must". One must.   But at least one can clear the palette with one of those fine drinks from the bar, right? Not so fast. Apparently a good pour is reserved for those at the bar and what gets delivered to the table is at least watered down. Even the wine was opened before being brought out. Consider ordering that pizza with a bottled beer, unopened, and bring your own church key.

As for waitstaff, one must consider this is early in the operation with little time to select, train and develop staff. The owners' statements this was to be a "classy" operation leads one to expect a  well appointed and professional,  though not distractingly attractive waitstaff. And by no means is any waitress at the Club and Café even minimally qualified to work at Hooters. It was later learned this was by design with an explicit policy to deny the, shall we say, more esthetically qualified the opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

At first glance the commitment to value seemed like a reasonable assertion if one assumes that all kitchens have bad days and this was just one really bad day. But like many restaurants of its kind, the Club and Café could not survive without substantial outside investment. While restaurants are nominally about food, fun and dining, they are nothing if not a business, and in business where the money comes from greatly influences where the money goes. The bar is an obvious money maker and resource taker. Outside money probably has access to private dining with a far superior cuisine and level of service. The laughter from the private dining room cannot be completely explained by opening enthusiasm.

The second visit was no less revealing than the first.

The appointments were largely unchanged. The bar was bustling. The kitchen was still hidden from view, but one can sometimes hear what is being said and as one would expect this is mostly a distraction.  The dining area was unchanged and the booths and private dining were clearly still the place to be.

The menu was now in print, almost professionally, and the offerings had seen little change though there had been an attempt by one part-owner to remove the Mighty Meaty Super Supreme Deep Dish Double Crust pizza from the menu replacing it with a seasonal offering appealing to a small but vocal vegan crowd. Some latitude must be offered on this point since the Club and Café itself was founded on the support of a vocal minority but this time sanity prevailed and the Mighty Meaty remains a menu mainstay. And it continues to be delivered by the Soul Food Station.

There was some hope for cuisine improvement as several scrumptious looking dishes passed temptingly close on their way from kitchen to booths and private dining. Ignoring the long standing warning, again from Shopsin, against ordering "what he's having", orders were placed by pointing to dishes and booths. That resulted in a salad from which not quite all the wilted bits had been plucked and a chicken diablo on overcooked rice. The chicken itself was underdone as if it were delivered from the kitchen before it was quite ready. The other dishes were little better. A shrimp cocktail of six small, overcooked shrimp with a gritty component from the kitchen's failure to properly clean and de-vein. The cocktail sauce was bland and tasteless, but at least not distracting. A watery caprese salad came with tomatoes better suited to frying. Then there was the "signature steak": a healthy portion of NY strip cooked to order. Apparently "how would you like your steak cooked" is a rhetorical question at the Club and Café.  While the long edge of fat was properly crisped, only the far opposite ends of the strip appeared to have seen any heat whatsoever. If you trim away the fat and the two ends you would be left with a perfectly raw piece of meat, the very heart of the steak.  One has to wonder how you would do this even if you wanted to.  And the cheesecake! Flavorless and actually a bit tough, arrogantly bad, as if no one else in Dunwoody would be allowed bake a cheesecake. At least it was cooked.

A fellow diner, quite the fan of a good sloe gin fizz, watched from afar as the bartender poured. Shortly afterwards he noticed another sloe gin headed to one of the booths, but it came from a different bottle. Surprised, he snagged the waitress:
"Do you have call and bar brand sloe gin?"
"Of course not", she responded.
"But I just saw them pour my drink from one bottle and a booth drink from another."
"I'm sure you're mistaken. We only have one sloe gin."
But dining is about more than food and drink--it includes atmosphere and more importantly, service. As noted earlier, drinks are drinks (sometimes), and what comes out of even the best kitchen may vary from plate to plate, but service, now that's what separates great dining from mere sustenance.

The waitstaff generally had a noticeably improved attitude, more smiles if not greatly improved attentiveness (or attractiveness). As the menus were presented mention was made of this improvement in cheer.
"Well business must be improved, you seem almost giddy."
"Not really, business is pretty much the same as always."
"Are they tipping better or did someone get a raise?"
 The waitress glanced to the bar and noting that the bartenders were in their normal mode of ignoring the dining area, she leaned over and said in a whisper,
"We can't call it a raise, but it is better than a raise. See we have these outside investors",
she winked as she smiled and continued,
"and the owners, they can pretty much take as much money as they want whenever they want.  That's why business doesn't really matter. Anyway, they wanted this gold plated health insurance and, like, there's some rule, you know, that if they get it we gotta get it. So we did."
Another mystery solved.

Then, believe it or not, things went downhill. This dining experience included a couple of business acquaintances making the mishandling of the bill even more of an embarrassment than just the usual "I'll, get it--No, I'll get it" pas de deux. It seems the prices on the menu had changed since our order and we were to pay the new (and no surprise here) higher prices. Even more insulting was the suggestion that perhaps we had made a mistake, but since it was such a small amount relative to the overall bill we could just "add it to the bill next time". Apparently the flow of outside money was not sufficient to prevent gouging the patrons.

So there you have it, dear readers. After one full year of operation the Dunwoody Club and Café presents no credible challenge to any of the top players in Atlanta's culinary landscape. Those with even a minimally refined palate who are looking for good value, attentive service, a pleasant dining atmosphere and creative cuisine will be much happier at Roswell's Woodfired Brick Oven, Marietta's Square Deal Diner, Norcross's Whistle Stop Café, Decatur's Funky Falafel, or even the old standby, Dekalb's Soul Food Station.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Assault Weapon

In the mid to late 1700's American colonists found themselves under the control of an imperialistic government so harsh in its restrctions and so demanding of the fruits of their labors, that they found it necessary to take up arms against what was then the legitimate government in America.   Their fight for freedom cost many their lives, some on the King's gallows, and put many more lives and livelihoods at stake. For this great effort these patriots put everything, their homes, their families, their honor and their lives, on the line.

Having recently freed themselves from oppression, they formed a government with separation of powers, each part held in check by the others and with provision to amend and adapt this government to better serve those to come after. In order to ensure their progeny the liberties for which they had just successfully fought and to provide us with the means to maintain these liberties they immediately added ten amendments. The first enumerates the freedoms paid for with their own blood. The remainder, in order of importance, serve to provide citizens the means by which to ensure for themselves their own freedom.

Cognizant of the nature of man they knew a system of checks and balances might prove inadequate to prevent the ultimate devolution into a self-serving government comprising people dedicated to their individual greed and lust for power--a government without regard for the people. To prevent this they guaranteed the citizens of this country the means to demand that government remain of, by and for the people.  The degree to which we as a nation have preserved the freedoms they fought for is directly measured by the respect our government shows to the people and to those rights enumerated in our constitution.

We have from time to time found it necessary to renew this fight for freedom, placing our men and women in harm's way in defense of this country and our constitutional liberties. Most recently this includes our response to an attack against the City of New York, the Pentagon and an attempt against Washington, D.C.

So it is with equal parts irony and alarm that we see the Mayor of New York City set himself against our founding fathers with his recent call for greater federal infringement of our second amendment rights. He seeks to abuse the Fort Hood tragedy, exacerbated by a policy that disarmed on-base personnel, to further erode the rights passed to us by these patriots. Yet he and others like him have neither the courage, nor the moral standing, to use that which they also gave us--the ability to amend our constitution--to achieve what they claim is best for a people who have consistently stood against them. It is  this arrogance, this elitist sense of superiority and subjugation that colonial America rebelled against.

This open assault on our freedom makes securing our constitutional rights more relevant and more important today than ever before.