Monday, April 27, 2015

Spain: To be or not to be

First of all, I think SER is one of the worst restaurant names in recent history. To a Spanish-speaker, it seems like a word that non-Spanish-speakers should know, but plenty of people will have no clue that it means "to be." And even for those of us that do know, to be? What's the connection to food? Food is necessary for survival (being)? Even worse is the subtitle/expansion of SER: "simple. easy. real." This has total Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart, etc. connotations for me (google "simple easy real" and Martha Stewart's Real Simple magazine is the first finding. I don't have a major problem with Martha or Rachael (so long as I don't have to spend eternity on a desert island with them), but what do 10 Minute Meals/Eat Waffles for Any Meal of the Day have to do with restaurant-style Spanish cooking? On paper, SER can't quite decide whether it is homey abuela-style cooking or polished dining that merits $30 entrees. In practice, SER is a stylish restaurant that is striving to produce polished Spanish classics.

They were still working on the polish, but our experience indicated that, with some work, they might end up as a very decent restaurant. In their defense, we ate at SER mere weeks after they opened and I expect/hope that many glitches have been ironed out. We split a meat paella (one of our diners is allergic to shellfish....), suckling pig, and an order of grilled vegetables. If you have made paella at home, you will probably like SER's well enough, but will think: I can do this at home for a lot less than $48 (the dish is intended for two). Also, there wasn't quite enough meat to justify the price. I know they're not using Uncle Ben's and saffron is relatively costly, but .... come now, rice is not an expensive ingredient. The suckling pig was flavorful, but some bites were quite dry. For $64 (2-3 portions), I will pass on dry meat, thank you very much. Also, the pig only comes with potatoes. Now, they were very good potatoes, but for this kind of money, I HATE having to buy a side of vegetables. This isn't unique to SER, but it's my least favorite restaurant trend of all time. Be a chef, plan a composed dish with balanced flavors. A child can pair pork with french fries. This is why we ordered the grilled vegetables, which I found to be a little on the small side. This all sounds pretty whiney for food that was actually pretty good. If the prices were lower, I'd wouldn't mind a that some of the pork was dry, etc. High prices (even in very new restaurants) necessitate a better product. Period.

While the service was quite friendly, it was seriously amateurish. This in no way prevented us from having a good time and these are the kinds of kinks I imagine are gone by now, but even new waiters should know to bring (or offer) water and bread. Most every step of our meal seemed like a small struggle for the staff with the manager/owner having to step in - they didn't have a high chair for my toddler, didn't know how to carve the pork, how to pour the wine, etc. Again, we don't care about this kind of thing so long as we are being fed well, but ... a bit ridiculous in my opinion, for a restaurant charging this kind of money. There will always be issues in the beginning of a restaurant's life, but much of this revealed pour training, I think.

SER is in a bit of an odd spot on the edge of Ballston. There is very little free parking nearby. And I think it might be a little pricey for the area, especially at lunchtime. I'd probably go back for their happy hour special and I'd probably ride my bike to avoid paying for parking. Also of note, SER won the Ballston Business Improvement District's 2014 Restaurant Challenge, which means they have a year of free rent and a large interest-free loan. I don't know that they'd make it without such a large cushion. We'll see what happens....

1110 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sri Lanka: Number 2

While I did discover that the "ethnic" food situation in Berlin was not as bad as I had believed, or at least was more interesting, the Indian food situation really was quite grim. In almost seven years, I found a single really good Indian place and the majority were not just OK, but really very, very bad. This remembrance of terrible Indian food is a somewhat unfair to tell you how beyond thrilled we were to discover an amazing Sri Lankan restaurant at the end of our street, when we moved from Mitte to Schoenberg (the food improved overall, I think). I actually miss Raamson now -- and there is very little about the food situation in Berlin that is better than here in my not-so-humble opinion.

All of this is to say, that if I hadn't once had life-changingly good Sri Lankan food almost at my doorstep, I might have loved Shakthi. It was very good, and if we could have dined from the buffet -- set up in the dining room for a private party -- I might have a different opinion (it smelled amazing and made the longish wait for our food, torturous). No buffet for us; we split string hoppers and kith roti. They were both really good and really spicy, but they just weren't as good a the food we ate at Raamson. Almost but not quite. Dinner in Berlin isn't a regular option for most and I would recommend Shakthi, but would be more likely to return when the restaurant has the buffet open for all diners (weekend lunches?).