Monday, October 5, 2009

Soccer Monsters

I don't know why, but my oldest son's soccer team chose the name "Soccer Monsters". I have trouble prioritizing how I spend time, so for kicks, I whipped up (with the assistance of Amy's valuable feedback and suggestions) a team logo:

The coaches liked the result. Now our little 5- and 6-year-old soccer stars are sporting embroidered patches of the logo on their jerseys (thanks, Patches4Less), and slappin' stickers of the logo all over the place (thanks, Contagious Graphics).

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Main Street Steak & Seafood, Harrisburg, NC

At the core of every pessimist's belief system is a simple truth: if you expect the worst, you'll only get pleasant surprises. At the core of every realist's belief system is another: if you expect the worst, and consistently receive it, pessimism might just be warranted.

Long ago, 4351 Main Street, Suite 111 — located in Harrisburg's Town Center — held Ciro's Italian Restaurant. Amy and I lived in Chicagoland at the time, and were only able to visit that establishment once. I recall enjoying it and remarking that it was much like having an Olive Garden in Harrisburg, but without the cookie-cutter chain restaurant feel. But eventually Ciro's moved out of that space, making way for a new tenant: Parma Ristorante. Now, my understanding is that Parma was actually a reincarnation of a separate restaurant (Roma's) which had previously occupied a location on the outskirts of the town. We had friends who swore by Roma's pizza, but our own experiences there were mediocre at best. Sadly, mediocre took a turn for awful when Parma opened up. This isn't a review of Parma, and perhaps it isn't kind to speak of the dead, but suffice it to say that despite multiple opportunities to impress us during visits to that shop — even across its various management and ownership changes — it not only failed to impress, but it failed to even remotely please. Parma was, quite simply, a monumental culinary disaster.

When Main Street Steak & Seafood opened its doors a few weeks ago in the old Ciro's/Parma location, we looked forward with cautious optimism to trying it out. That optimism was quickly crushed by the terrifying review of the establishment that we received from some good friends. Their nightmare-ish experience at the place — which ultimately resulted in them having to cancel subsequent plans for their evening — was one for the storybooks. If I recall correctly, the only positive thing that could be said was that the dessert tasted good. And even that was bittersweet, as said dessert was delivered in unrequested take-home boxes! So, as you can probably imagine, it was with justifiable pessimism that my wife, Amy, and I wandered into Main Street Steak & Seafood last night.

Our first impression of the restaurant was not exactly ideal, though in fairness, only some of that could be helped. The orientation of Suite 111 in that building is such that the restaurant doors are on what could arguably be considered the back side of the restaurant. I've got a whole set of opinions about the design of Harrisburg's Town Center that aren't particularly relevant here, but again, this is just what Main Street S & S has to work with. What can be improved is not allowing a number of staffers to sit in a bench near the hostess stand with their backs to the window awaiting incoming customers. Even if there isn't always something to be done in a restaurant, the customers need to think there is.

The restaurant was busy, but not crowded. Several staff members were bustling about, doing their thing. One got the sense that the place was alive — not quite abuzz, but definitely alive — with activity. Gone were the old Tuscan tones of Ciro's and Parma. New cuisine demands new decor, and MSS&S has opted for a more contemporary blue and silver look, sparsely accented with iron works and some somewhat out-of-place looking fish caricatures. Modern jazz music added to the ambience, playing at appropriate levels — even though we were seated directly beside the kitchen, we heard more of each other than of the music, and more of the music than of shuffling pots and pans. As this was a rare chance for Amy and I to have a dinner without our kids, "more of each other" was a big plus for us.

Soon after we were seated, our server, Chad, greeted us and took our drink orders. While the wine list appeared to be about a page long, we opted for soft drinks on this evening instead. Chad returned with the drinks (served in unassuming glassware) a short while later, bringing a basket of breadsticks as well. We needed some extra time to decide on our orders, and Chad granted us that without disappearing into that abyss that often consumes other waitstaff in similar situations. Amy and I eventually decided to opt out of an appetizer, hoping to save some room for dessert. Chad took our dinner orders, and then set off to register them with the kitchen while we set off to munch on the rather tasty breadsticks.

Our salads were delivered quickly, and were much larger than we expected for the $2 paid for them. Amy went the garden-salad-with-balsamic-vinaigrette route, and she was pleased by the thick dressing and (again) the large portion. My Caesar salad was good, too, but even though I could see that the dressing was thoroughly mixed throughout the greens, I wasn't able to taste it in my first several bites. I suspect it was mixed when the lettuce leaves were still wet from washing, which watered the taste down below the threshold of detectability. But as I settled into the salad, that Caesar dressing taste began to appear. In the end, it was largely forgettable as salads go. But forgettable is actually quite fine when you've every reason to expect much, much worse.

Our entrees arrived just as Amy (who is a slower eater than I am) was finishing her salad. We had chosen entrees that we were familiar with so that we could have some point of reference for comparison. Amy's filet mignon was cooked properly and accompanied by smashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. We were surprised to see yellow carrots amongst the mixed vegetables — those aren't common in area restaurants. Amy had positive things to say about her entree's taste, the portion sizes of the sides, and the cool plate all of this was served on. Her only negative comment was that she felt the veggies might have been improved with some seasoning. My oscar-style grilled salmon was also properly cooked, flaking apart as I expected without any detectable dryness save for a small, thinner corner section. It was topped by asparagus that, too, was well prepared — al dente enough to remain crisp and encourage knifework, but soft enough to drape across the salmon fillet. I, too, had the smashed potatoes, which weren't the garlic mashed I'd hoped were available, but which served their starchy purpose.

The main course came to a close much as it often does: my plate empty, and Amy's only halfway so. Here we learned the downside of those "cool" plates: those suckers are heavy. We asked Chad for a take-home box for Amy's leftovers, but the restaurant should strongly consider having the servers perform the transfer of food to boxes instead of leaving the customers to deal with those heavy plates themselves. Once the leftovers were boxed, Chad gave us the dessert selection. The options were fairly straightforward — no fancy dessert names evoking imagery of volcanoes, tropical destinations, or one's own demise. "Chocolate cake" was the first mentioned, and I'm not sure were even paid much attention to the rest of the list because clearly (to my wife, anyway) it was a night for chocolate. They were out of ice cream, so we ordered a coffee accompaniment. Chad returned shortly thereafter with a whopping chunk of 3-layer cake, drizzled with chocolate and raspberry sauce (and, of course, our coffee). Here Amy's and my opinions diverged. That the cake was served chilled was to her a great thing, somehow balancing out with the hot coffee in her universe. Me? I want soft, moist, and warm cake. I want the chocolate to ooze, the icing to drip, and to feel like I need to keep a spoon on standby when the fork can't keep up with the whole lot of the liquefying mess that ensues. This fact, however, did not prevent me from performing my husbandly duties and eating 49% of the cake. Warm, cold, or otherwise, it was a tasty cake. Then upon our request, Chad provided us with the bill, and that was that.

Overall, our visit to Main Street Steak & Seafood was nothing like what we expected. In stark contrast to the experiences of our friends, the service we received was outstanding. Food-wise, I can't say that anything we had was unique or inspirational, but perhaps that's okay right now. Maybe playing it safe and establishing a client base is wise given the disappointing track record of the previous establishment. I would certainly encourage the management to consider some more creative options, though, perhaps offering the entrees with choices of cooking styles and/or sauces. As for Amy and I, we welcome this new addition to Harrisburg's foodscape, and look forward to returning for another visit some time.

UPDATE 01/18/2010: Amy and I visited Main Street Steak & Seafood multiple times after this first visit. Perhaps as expected, our opinion of the place plateaued quickly. I guess that after being flatly shocked not to hate the place on our first visit, we eventually realized that there wasn't really much to love, either. The food was fine — and just fine. We never had a single dish that tasted like the chef had tried to personalize it. We never left upset, mind you — just a bit underwhelmed. And now Main Street Steak & Seafood has joined the ranks of the many restaurants to have bit the dust at 4351 Main Street in Harrisburg.