Sunday, June 03, 2007

Dining in Greensboro, and a plea for Muse Restaurant

Bear with me, Greensboro diners, you may just find this read worth your while. Alternately, it may offend. Your choice.

So I'm not going to lie. My frustration with the dining situation in Greensboro is getting steadily worse by the day.

Said frustration, however, does not lie in the variety of restaurants in the area, although I will admit Greensboro could do better. What riles me up more than anything else is the kind of diners that Greensboro is famous for. Call me judgmental, but it's difficult to think otherwise when a voters for local weekly's "Best of" list awarded first place for best fries to McDonald's, and runner up for best local sushi to the freaking refrigerated plastic packages at local supermarket chain Harris Teeter. My sentiment is the same as the Weekly's staff's: "Excuse me? Harris Teeter? Harris Teeter?" I'd like to add a "What the %!*$?" and a "Oh hells no" for good measure.

Other more popular reader review sites offer little comfort, though I will say that Citysearch gets it a little more right, with plenty of restaurants unique to Greensboro making the list. TripAdvisor, usually one of my "go-to's" for reader reviews of hotels and restaurants, is much worse, with Red Lobster, Applebee's and Olive Garden all in the top 15 most popular local restaurants.

Could it be a result of the overwhelming quantity of chain restaurants in the area, or an issue of local restaurant quality? I would argue that Greensboro, although certainly not a mecca for fine dining, has quite a few gems tucked in between the chains. In fact, if you discount the garbage pile of chain restaurants that is the intersection of Wendover and I-40, restaurants unique to Greensboro are quite easily found. Bistro Sofia, Noble's and Marisol, for starters, are all excellent venues. My favorite Asian restaurant in Greensboro, Taste of Vietnam, is buried in a strip mall next to a Staples. Get the Caramel Short Ribs in Clay Pot; you'll think you're in another world altogether.

Sure, there are plenty of places that aren't worth the bad parking and poor service, but I often wish that locals were more willing to give small spots a chance, and stop clogging up the parking lots of Olive Garden and P.F. Chang's. One might argue that Olive Garden and Red Lobster are, in fact, pretty decent, and P.F. Chang's is classy, authentic fine dining. I'd argue that this is total garbage. I'll save the specifics of my vitriol towards P.F. Chang's and their dumb cement horses for another day.

That gets me to the issue of the quality of the diners themselves. Many people in Greensboro rarely venture outside of the city for any purpose, so in a way it's understandable that a vast majority of people think that cheese-globbed tacos at Mexico Restaurant or General Tso's chicken at P.F. Chang's or hibachi-grilled teriyaki chicken at Sapporo's are "authentic" ethnic dishes. But to even suggest that there are more authentic versions of these cuisines is like taking a giant poop on the conservative south's feelings. Anything outside of their comfort zone is completely unacceptable. I mean, Chinese people eat General Tso's all the time, right?

What makes me the absolute saddest, however, is the fact that really good restaurants sit nearly empty while there's a 70-minute wait at the nearby Pretty Foul Chang's. I'm thinking specifically of a small restaurant called Muse that occupies a small space in a very large shopping center-slash-complex. Muse has been open for less than a year, I believe, and every one of the seven visits I've taken there has been nothing short of impressive, if not spectacular. Service is unusually attentive and friendly, the creators of the restaurant have clearly paid attention to every detail, and most of all the people who work there seem to actually give a shit about the food and not just the tips.

Not to mention every dish at Muse is so fresh and inventive; often unexpected, even. Their "Brutus" take on the Caesar salad is surprisingly bold, the fish selections are super fresh, the pastas are perfectly savory and the steaks and lamb are always cooked to just the right temperatures. The chef, Mitchell Nicks, has done a fine job of melding potentially intimidating ingredients with traditional Euro-bistro affair, making the menu inviting to even the most uninitiated diners. One of my favorite appetizers is their frogs' legs, which I got a little squeamish about when I first saw them on the menu. Instead of the scary, bare-roasted legs I imagined, they're fried in a panko breading and served with a lemon-caper butter on top of fresh coleslaw. Who knew frogs' legs could be so freaking good? Even the most conventional steak-lover can find tender steak to be served atop a sizable heap of mashed sweet potatoes, with some fresh, buttery veggies to match.

...Which is why I am so baffled by the fact that during the last three visits to Muse, my table was one of two, maybe three tables at the restaurant the entire evening in a room that seats 60+. To be fair, the last visit was on a Monday evening, but the chain restaurants a couple of blocks over had their parking lots packed. During that Monday meal, our server was almost overly-eager to have our patronage, and we got multiple visits from the Chef Nicks, engaging us in pleasant discussions about menu selection, wine varieties and seasonal ingredients, including when and where he finds the freshest fish and vegetables. You get the feeling that he's the kind of chef who would refuse to serve caprese if the tomatoes were underripe, and in fact relayed to us stories of such pickiness (I use "pickiness" in the best sense possible, like the way a parent might be picky about what they feed their kids).

Maybe Muse is too frou-frou for most. Frenchy bistro, after all, hasn't quite made it into the daily lexicon of the average Greensboro diner. Maybe the name is too pretentious for the lovers of Mimi's Cafe. Maybe they're not advertising enough. Or maybe (and this is my best guess) the prices have driven away potential customers. For a five-course meal and a bottle of good wine, plus complementary amuse bouche to begin and chocolate truffle to end, a party of four at Muse might expect to pay about 60 bucks a pop. That's more than what most would pay for, but I've seen fatties dole out serious cash money for a long waits, shitty service and mediocre meals at chain steakhouses (need I even mention Positively Frightful Chang's?).

For all consumer items, food and non-food, I try to buy local as often as I can. Though I love Whole Foods for their variety of (oft-overpriced) organic produce, I adore Deep Roots Co-op for their homespun feel and hippie cashiers who radiate excitement about sharing fresh food and local organics. I struggle with sharing knowledge about fresh ingredients when average American diners want the biggest plate at the cheapest price. "More For Less" is what many Greensboro diners want, and nudging folks towards quality vs. quantity is a bigger struggle than it should be.

I can't help but feel for the Davids in a slew of Goliaths. Especially when the Davids could kick the Goliaths' asses on Iron Chef any day of the week.


Bonnie said...

Way to route for the underdog. How do people not know that chains suck by now? I wonder what you would think of the grocery stores and restaurants in Tokyo. I miss our yum yum dinners you used to cook. That was back when my cooking skills were limited to my hand reaching for your specialty chocolate in the cupboard. You better visit me while I'm here. We'll dine our days away, I promise.

Anonymous said...

Culinary mind of Greensboro

First of all, I use to work for a so-called wonderful chef at a local country club and what he told me when I was trying to get the food just right was that "it's just food". My wife also worked there and he was having her make cakes in rusty pans. Have you ever checked on how many different restaraunts he has worked for? Having gone to culinary school, I have noticed that the reason the people of Greensboro seem to flock to chain restaraunts is a big word called "Quality Control". I will not say anything else about what I saw while working with Mr. Super Chef. As for the preferences of the local patrons, what are you so worked up about? I have a piece of advice for people who move into a new area and begin blasting the local culture: "We were at least smart enough to pave the roads both ways from whence you came." And if it were so good where you came from, then why did you leave?

Ingrid said...

Anonymous: Since it seems that you based your knowledge of my background solely on, well, I'm not sure what, I'll clarify for you. Greensboro is my hometown. The vast majority of my childhood was spent there and my family is still there. I didn't come in as a newbie and start "blasting the local culture". The local dining scene has improved somewhat in the past few years, and even since I wrote this post two years ago. But in general, Greensboro has a long way to co still, and it's a frustation I've had since I was a kid when I started getting interested in food and restaurants.

As for local chefs vs chain execs, as a culinary school grad I'd think you would know that just because you work in a local kitchen doesn't make you a better chef than the exec at PF Changs. This is a position that has evolved for
me since I started working in professional kitchens. I can't speak for the chef you're talking about since I have no idea who you're talking about, but there are talented people who work in chain restaurants and shitty chefs who run local places too. My frustation lies mostly with the patrons, but one can only do so much.