Eating my World

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Brecks, just like when I was a kid

rib-eye-steak

I dont know how you grew up, but I grow up a po white child.  I suppse we were lucky because I grew up in Las Vegas and Vegas in the 70’s was a cheap place to eat. Those were the days of $1.99 prime rib dinners at the Eldorado or any of the old time hotels downtown on Fremont street. And for clarification, I mean the old cool Fremont street, not the covered silliness.

Anyway my parents used to take us to hotel buffets which were cheap and had enough food on hand for growing kids. When we visited Montana and hotels with cheap buffets were a scarcity, we would eat at diners, good stick to your ribs greasy spoon places. Just the sight of this type of place brings back memories of when we lived in Montana and mom and I would travel around Montana servicing oxygen concentrators. We would hit all manner of small town diner and it was usually cheap and it was almost always good.

Its because I have roots in these types of places that when I walked into Breck’s a few night ago, that memories filled my brain. The smell of old cigarette smoke and food and bad coffee are like time machines that warp me back to my childhood. Unlike eating at expensive places, I feel completely at ease here. I can almost see my family sitting in one of the booths. The booths are stained plywood. The butts of many a big un have polished the seats to a mirror shine. The sign in front says seat yourself.

My waitreess is like every waitress in these places, chatty, loud, friendly, calls you hun and says yes mam and yes sir a lot. I have seen her before, hundreds of times. I think that people are born to some jobs. These women are certainly born to this one.  They are insanely hard working people that have lived hard happy lives. Mine asks me what I want to drink. I have no choice, I am in a southern diner, its sweet tea, everyone has it, I am not sure why they even ask. She comes back with a tea that must be in a liter sized glass. I think I got up about 5 times that night to pee as a result of said drink.

My waitress also brings me the menu which has surprisingly few items. This is a meat place and meat is what is on the menu. There are about 7 steak choices. Steak is what people come here for and that is what they serve. The first item on the list is a 52oz sirloin, to be fair it says “meant for 2 people” I should hope to shout. There is one steak under 20 oz on the menu and its a fillet mignon. The rest are huge. I choose the 22oz ribeye. The waitress asks me what sides I want. She rattles of a list a mile long that included, corn, green bean, squash, sweet potatoes, and may others that I don’t remember but I do remember the last option was mac and cheese. HA! Mac and cheese with a 22oz ribeye. Yes just in case my heart doesn’t seize up from the meat. I can finish it off with the mac and cheese.  I also get a choice of potatoe and there is every form available. I choose mashed, she asks “Do you want brown gravy on those?”. Yes of course I will have brown gravy.

Note, the menu says at the bottom “Because of the thickness of our steaks, we are unable to cook them well done”.

As I am sitting there waiting for my salad two people walk in, a man and a woman. They are of such equal size and shape that it appears they were poured out of the same mold and this mold was not small. I would give them a 400-450lb range.  They squeezed into the booth across from me.  This place is not helping them one bit and should be doing what bars do to drunk people, tell them they have had enough.  I feel sorry for the drive that they must feel to come to this place. A place where that 52oz monster with all the fixins for two, was under 20 dollars.  That is death to people with weight issues.

Speaking of 52oz steaks, the waitress walks by with one. I don’t think I could fit two of these on my full sized Weber at the same time.  I get my salad and I swear to you it has the best blue cheese dressing I have ever had.  It was literally just chopped up blue cheese with a little mayo in it. I also got a basket of crackers to go with my salad. ritzy places serve bread with dinner, diners serve crackers.

Finally my steak comes and as I imagined, it was a monster. 22oz of fried steak. Yes fried. They don’t grill steaks in diners, they fry them. That is OK by me, crispy salty outside, tender red inside. The steak was good. Sure its not the Met but I didn’t pay 75 dollars for this either. This was a good steak, heck a good meal. I asked for a side of that amazing blue cheese to smear on my steak and was told they had to charge me for it. When you charge 13 dollars for a full ribeye dinner, your profit margins are slim, no free dressings.  I get that and have no problem with the extra 50 cents. I probably would a bought a jar of this stuff to take home if they sold it.

I finished and left. I smelled a little bit like smoke and old coffee and beer and thoughts of my childhood hummed along in my head. You can’t beat these places for good food. Not pompous food, food where you can sit and enjoy yourself without having to worry about spilling on the silk table linens. That is not to say there isn’t a place for that, because there is.

But there is a place for Break’s too.

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Couches, Jay Walking and BBQ

As we are all temporary here at work in Charleston, few of us know each other. A few people have somewhat buddied up. There are two women in our group that are friends. Seems like they do some things together, dinner, drinks and what not. Not me, I am a loner, I ride alone, one trick pony and so on.

The other day I hear the two buddied women discussing dinner. One says “You wanna get supper tonight?” and the other says “Yeah”.  People from the south and poor simple folk, the kind Sarah Palin calls real Americans, like to call dinner, supper. Because I have hit some good restaurants while here in Charleston I decide to offer a suggestion. “I have eaten at some good places, would you like a recommendation?” I say, to which one of them replies “Sure”. I start reeling off names of good places I have eaten. She gets a look on her face as if I have suggested eating doggy cigars out of the yard. She says in a very disgusted tone “Oh you eat at them fancy places”.  Caught by surprise I say “Uh yes, I guess I do” She says “I like BBQ and diners”, to which I reply ” I like BBQ also, hell I love BBQ, but you can’t eat that everyday”, to which she replies “the hell I cain’t”.

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I have made an observation which may require me to apply for a grant from the Government to study. Our government is handing out money like candy on Halloween and I need some to figure out something.  Charleston is packed with jaywalkers. They aren’t everywhere, matter of fact they are in very specific places. Charleston has very distinct boundaries in their city. You go from has, to has not as you go through some intersections.  I have driven around a lot and have gotten lost a lot. This has put me in all kinds of places in the city. This is where my observation started. As soon as I crossed into a neighborhood that is I would classify as has not, everyone and I mean everyone crosses the street where and when they want to. Several times I wasn’t sure if I should stop in the middle of the road to let someone cross or if I should just swerve.  If I stop, which I did a couple times, I get a look that says “Hey, I’ll be damned, you stopped” which made me wonder if people ever stop.  What is it about different cultures or income levels that make you more or less inclined to cross the road at intersections?

These neighborhoods are full of activity that you never see in other places in the city.  I remember my cousin telling me all these stories about the poor neighborhood he lived in that was just like the ones I am talking about. Crazy stories about things that just don’t happen in “has” neighborhoods.

Sunday I was looking for a restaurant and I was lost, which is a common theme to finding anything around here, and I was in a fairly poor neighborhood. I looked up and there was a woman with a full sized red couch on a shopping cart. She was wheeling it down the center of the road.  There were people all about and none of them paid any attention to her.  I kept wondering how she got the couch. I figured she found it and was wheeling it home with the only transportation she had.

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One night last week while waiting to get a table at an incredibly crowded restaurant, I stood outside leaned up against the building watching people. It was dark and to my right about a 100 feet was a guy of about 21 and he was harassing everyone on the street. I kept thinking oh man this guy is going to see me and start hassling me. So sure enough he looks over and screams as he is running to me “HEY MAN, YO YO YO CHECK THIS OUT!” “I don’t have any food, I don’t have a home, I have nothing man, I ain’t trying to do nuthin but get some food, cuz I ain’t eaten in a long time”. I wasn’t sure if this was true but this kid was certainly entertaining and at the very least looked as if he didn’t have a home. I said “what does it cost you to get food around here?” He said “Oh man only 3 or 4 dollars”. “3 or 4 dollars?” I say,  “Where can you eat for 3 or 4 dollars?”  I had a ten in my pocket and just gave it to him. We were instant friends. He was thanking me over and over and asked me where I was from. I told him Seattle, he said he didn’t know people from Seattle were so nice.  Neither did I actually.  He ran off down the street yelling his head off about how nice I was.

Yeah tell that to the guy that wanted my camera last week….

S.N.O.B. Down Day

Thursday glorious Thursday, my day off. I could do what I wanted all day and not just at the tail end of the day for an hour before I have to go to bed. I spent the day touring Ft. Sumter and the USS Yorktown, which is the ship my brother Lynn served on. After those fun times I decided to hit a spot I had been told to hit for lunch. S.N.O.B. which stands for Slightly North of Broad. Funny little play on words me thinks.

This place is probably the neatest looking place I have eaten since I have been here.  Its got an open kitchen which I always like. I like to watch the goings on and keep track of what they are doing to my food. I am hitting this place during lunch time which was the recommendation from the Lucca Ladies. I take a couple sly pics and then the waiter shows up with a grass pail of hot corn bread.  Corn bread is a fantastic measure of a restaurants abilities because good corn bread is really hard to make and even harder to keep fresh and warm all day long. Most of the times its crumbly and dry but this was pretty good, probably not the very best I have had but I would give it a solid 7.75 on the CB richter scale.

I didn’t have a powerful hunger in me so I stayed away from the heavier looking menu items and decided to go for the seared tuna. As you can clearly see, it arrived cooked perfectly which is to say, barely. Really with tuna, you just need to get it somewhere near the stove, throw sesame seeds at it and bring it to me. As good as it was, I really think my favorite thing on this plate was the house made kimchi.  It was fantastic. The little pile of pickled cucumbers and scallions were good too. I rewarded my lite lunch choice by having carrot cake for desert. Hey what can I say, its early in the day and I am not eating dinner!  CC was just OK. I have definitely had better.

Anyway feeling pleasantly plump I walked outside only to see this in front of me. What a find! My breath reeked of Wasabi and I was totally out of gum. I figured they leave this there as a public service to people on the street with terrible breath.

39 Rue De Jean Day 9

39-rue22

As is starting to be my pattern, I arrived back at my hotel at 6:30pm last night with two equal but opposing forces working upon me. The first was utter exhaustion from working for 12 hours straight, which in and of itself would not be that big of a deal, but this work involves the sitting or standing in one spot for 12 hours and writing down numbers.  This “work” is incredibly taxing on my soul. It feels as if I am sitting with tablet in hand and Sears power vac in my ear, removing every ounce of soul I once had. Some might argue that said soul was devoid of any value anyway and therefore is no great loss, but I contend I need this soul for drive to live and eat, eat… Oh yeah! I was going to talk about eating and hunger. Hunger is the other force pulling me and as hunger can really get the best of any other force acting upon a person. I decided to continue my quest for culinary greatness instead of going straight to bed.  Anyway I pulled out the now mounting list of waitress and Lucca friends recommendations and start going through them to see what looks good. I thought about McCradys but that is clearly a dress up and make an evening of it type of place and is highly touted as the best restaurant in Charleston. I don’t doubt this as I see the menu looks fantistic and I also see that chef Sean Brock is bucking for a James Beard award. Just to be in the running for that, means you are the at the very least as good as me in the kitchen! HAHAHAHAHAH  OK sorry. I will save MCcradys for my one day off so I can get all dolled up for my solista cena. On my lists I came across 39 Rue De Jean and get online to view its menu. The place is french, duh, and as I am sitting there the menu opens and as it does my eyes lock on to the Roquefort Fillet. In the space of about .39 (Rue) seconds I have seen the dish, made the decision, and heading for the door.

I arrive there and unlike the other places I have been to here in Charleston, the waitress takes pity on me and places me in a corner. I have not forgotten my camera this time and this table will be better for taking photos, which is always uncomfortable in a nice place. As soon as I sit down I start to take a picture and the waitress walks up and gives me the “what are you doing” look. I tell her I am nuts and to just ignore the camera for now.

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I have seen the wine list and have spyed a Malbec. You know I love Malbec and chose a Zucchardi “Q” , Mendoza, 2003. Next I needed a salad, I had read that the Mesclun Salade (you know its going to be good when they spell things with an extra E on the end of the word) with baby greens, candied
nuts and aged red wine vinaigrette and French Goat Cheese was popular so I ordered one of those. Goat cheese is a little like bacon in nature, in that anything it touches becomes pure goodness. The light dressing, the candied pecans and goat cheese combo was A MAY ZING.

39-rue2

You already know what I chose for my entree. I chose the Filet Roquefort with Frites, and as much as I would like to tell you it was great, it wasn’t. It was good, but wasn’t great (Much like the complete bomb of a photo I took of it). The lamb chops from La Fourchette were great, this was just good.  I can’t believe I am typing these words but there was actually too much cheese on the steak and it really over powered it. There was also red wine based demi glace sauce on the plate, I know the French love their sauces but Roquefort and Demi Glace combined are too much.  I couldn’t even taste the meat. I found myself scraping all the cheese off just to find the meat. The fries were good and maybe they could have used the cheese instead, ala The Majestic Cafe.

chocolate-pate

Desert on the other hand WAS great. I ordered the Dark Chocolate Pate with dark chocolate cream, creme anglaise and raspberry coulis. I love cream anglaise. When I was on that goofy protein diet I used to make this stuff when I was jonesen for sweets as it is just egg yolks, heavy cream, vanilla beans and sugar (I used artificial sweetener). Sure its heart attack on a plate but I figure if the french can eat this stuff all the time and have a low instance of heart disease then clearly its OK. And oh man was it ok.  You could smear this desert on a dead road cat and it would be delicious. I mean just look at it!!!! (yes my photo of it is fantastic also:)  Anyway I rolled out of there 60 in change poorer and 60lbs and change heavier but all in all it was worth it.

Lucca Trattoria Day 6

The work gods also known as managers have in their infinate goodness allowed me to cut my work hours to 8 hours on Saturday and Sunday.  Saturday I raced back to my hotel like a little kid, excited at the prospect of actually seeing Charleston in the daylight. Something that after almost a week I had not done, save for the area right around where I am working.  I got to my room changed into some shorts grabbed the camera and luckily at the last minute decided to grab my camera bag (attention, spoiler alert).  I went to downtown Charleston to take spme pics and see the sights. It was a little cloudy and as I got out of the car a couple sprinkle hit me. UGH, the one day I have off it rains. At least it was warm. I head out and walk around town and take some pics. The clouds meanwhile are getting darker and darker.  When I was about 3 miles from my car, the heavens opened up and rained holy hell upon my head.  I was grateful that this once I had brought my camera bag.

I tried to kill some time by ducking into a restaurant and eating hoping it would stop raining while I ate. It didn’t. I had BBQ which was just OK, AND it was still raining when I left. I walked back to my car in the near dark, by the time I got there I was drenched, wet dog drenched. Saturday was a bust food wise. I would try again tomorrow.

Sunday was another 8 hour day and I decided to hit Lucca Trattoria. The first thing was I left 45 minutes early for a place that was 5 minutes away. I must have some sort of moisture induced ESP here because I could not find the place. Its in a neighborhood that no one would ever guess would house such a place. They must have gotten a steal on the newly renovated building. Its a beautiful place on the corner and has windows on two sides to see it. I went in and was about 1 minute early for my reservation made about an hour before. The waiter sat me next to a table full of women, literally inches. I was thinking “well this is kind of like eating dinner with someone else”.  I ordered wine (name escapes me) and was told by the waiter that on Sundays the menu is “family style”. I said “UGH! that is not going to work, as I am by myself” He explained that maybe family style is not the word to use (and it wasn’t). It is actually a set menu. 8 courses, 35 dollars per person and let me tell you it was the best value in food I have ever had.

I said that yes I would like the 8 course dinner, he said they would get started on it. As I sat and drank wine it became appearant that the table full of classy, well dressed women next to me were my kind of people. I listened to them talk of food and great restaurants in the area, and knew I was going to have to butt in and chat with them. And knowing me, you know I did. I spoke up and told them I am from out of town and in search of the holy grail of southern culinary greatness. They said “We were saying when you came in that we thought you were a food critic”. I told them I was a critic of food, just not the kind they think I am.  Anyway they said to pull up a chair and chat with them. They provided much insight as to where I should eat and visit while I am here. One of them (Gail) even owns a restaurant in the area. I don’t remember the name (I will edit it back in when I remember) but its a wine and cheese specialty place. She gave me her card and said to call her and she would set up a special dinner. Ah most excellent, this is exactly what I am looking for. I told them that I need a restaurant suggestion for Thanksgiving as I am going to be here over the holiday and need a place for dinner. At that, Katie (the woman closest to me) says that I must have Thanksgiving with all of them at her house. She said that every year they take in strays, yes she said strays. She said I will have to come in a cab as there is much wine consumed and I would not want to drive back to my room.  Even better, Thanksgiving with the locals! I graciously accepted and pronouced this outting a success even before I got any food.

Oh yeah the food. My first course came and it was Chetchie Bean puree with olive oil and parmesan cheese. It was kind of like thick hummas and was served with toast points.  Very very good. Next was thin shaved pickled beets with a small frisee salad with pine nuts, shaved garlic and olive oil. This was my favorite thing of the night. You wouldnt have guessed these were even beets. They were amazing, crisp, tart. Oh man they were good. Next was a plate of 3 different types of cured meats. Which I liked all but one. The one tasted like bologna. Next was shrimp and zuccini tempura which was really good but clearly not Italian and didn’t seem to fit with everything else. Next started the entree courses, the first was a pounded and fried pork loin over mashed potatoes with a caper lemon butter sauce. This was REALLY good.  Next on the list was pasta. To be honest, I didn’t like it. It was a noodle that I can’t remember the name of with egg plant, sausage and tomatoes. There was about 87 other things in it, but there were so many things that really it all kind of blended together. The worst thing was that I hate egg plant, or rather I hate its texture so every so often I would get a bite of egg plant goo, which I loathe.  I didn’t eat much of this. Next came Steamed monkfish with panchetta and mushrooms. This was another hit. It was really good and how could it not be, it had bacon!

At about the pasta point of my dinner the ladies next to me got their desert which was Tiramisu. Oh man anyone that knows me, knows I LOVE Tiramisu.  But by the time I got to desert I was SO FULL I could not even move let alone eat more. I forced myself to try a couple bites of the Tiramisu and then asked to take the rest to go. As I sit here typing this I am thinking that they never did bring it back and I didn’t remember about it when I left and I JUST GOT SCREWED OUT OF MY DESERT! That is one desert I will never get back. You know on average a person only gets 29200 chances in their lifetime for desert and one of mine just got tossed out the window. I am going to have to eat TWO deserts on some other day to make up for this.

This was a great dinner but really the find on this night were the lovely southern ladies that sat next to me, that provided me with dinner conversation, more places to visit and a Thanksgiving invite.

La Fourchette Day 4

la fourchette

As it was my 3rd day working 12 hours, I decided to take the night off from going somewhere and just have Soup in my room (yes there is a place in the grand scheme of things for Campbells Soup, albeit a small place) and resume the quest for fine food on night 4.

Night 4 came and though tired as hell, I decided to take waitress Emily’s advice and go to the French restaurant La Fourchette. The street where LF is located was busy on this night and I had to park about a half mile away. It gave me a chance to take in the sights and because it was still 70 degrees out at 7pm, I enjoyed the walk. LF is a small quaint place and seem to ooze a good food aura. I knew from standing looking in the window, that this was going to be good. As I entered the waitress asked “Will there be two of you this evening?” “Not unless you are planning on taking a break and eating with me” I thought. But I just said no, its just me. Luckily for me all the center of the room spectacle tables were full and I got a wall spot. Like an idiot I sat there I was looking at a HUGE painting of a fork on the wall and as I stared I thought, Hmmm I wonder what La Fourchette means. I hop on the Blackberry to find out. I am sure that I am the only person on the planet that doesn’t know what La Fourchette means but on the off chance there is another knot head on the planet, its The Fork.

My waitress came and after ordering a glass of 2003 Cahors Zette Malbec, told her I was here at the recommendation of Emily from Fig. My waitress here knew exactly who she was. Seems these two restaurants are friends. Buddy eateries as it were.

As with Fig there was nothing on this menu that was going to disappoint me. From the double fried (in duck fat no less) Pomme Frites, to cassoulet to house made duck pate this place was authentic artery clogging french goodness.

As an appetizer I ordered the Coquille St. Jacques, pan seared scallops with shallots and a wine wine cream sauce with little chunks of bacon in it. The scallops were slightly rare on the inside and crisp on the outside. I swear if people weren’t watching I would have picked up the plate and licked it clean. As it was I settled for mopping up the sweet juices with my basket of bread.

For my entree I chose the Cotes D`Agneau Grillees Gratin Dauphinios, which was grilled lamb chops with rosemary au jus, potatoes, garlic, gruyere and cream au gratin and haricot verts. I was given 4 lamb chops which may be as good as held by my previous top lamb chop eatery of Gibons steakhouse in Chicago. These were as tender as meat gets without being pureed in the blender and poured in a glass. They were like little meet lollipops.  I must have looked like a complete idiot sitting there grinning ear to ear chewing the bones of the chops until they were gleaming white and suitable for surgical re-implanting and reuse by ribless baby sheep the world round. Oh and the the Gruyere gratin was gooey and amazing but its not meat so it takes the backseat of goodness.

I was full as can possibly be, but the waitress took advantage of my love of desert by mentioning the Profiteroles filled with ice cream and hot fudge poured over them at the table. There was nothing I could do, I was powerless against its lure. I had read on some review on line that LF had the best coffee in Charleston (which has since been disputed by my dinner friends at Lucca) and to definitely try it. I did in fact. They get their coffee from King Bean here in Charleston and have a special roast made for their restaurant. They make their coffee in french presses and bring the press to your table so you can refill at will.  If you are a coffee connoisseur you know that coffee made with a french press is the best way to make coffee. The last cup being the best.

As with Emily at Fig I asked my waitress for her recommendations for restaurants in Charleston. She gave me a list, some of which were the same as the ones recommended by my waitress at Fig.  I have at least a couple weeks of places to hit. I am going to take a couple days off and think that I will hit a place called Luccas next. Actually I DID hit Luccas next as its already happened and I am behind in my writings.

Fig Day 2

Fig

After my first day at work here in Charleston, (12 hour day) I came back to my hotel and plopped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. I  considered just laying there on the bed and not getting up for anything save the 5am wake up call, but my belly was grumbly and my credit card was screaming at me from the other room. So I got on the internets (if you get that one you watch too much Jon Stewart) and searched for a suitable place to dine for the evening. I found an article by some food writer for some paper here in Charleston. He said that many people ask him his favorite restaurant in town. He chose his top three and holding the numero uno punto was Fig, which stands for Food is Good. Say no more, I Google it and head out.

I must say that eating alone is always an embarrassing adventure, I am not really a fan of it. Everyone is looking at you, giving you the, “hey that loser can’t get a date”, look. Of course to make matters worse the cute little receptionist senses my discomfort and places me squarely in the center of the room.  Cute young girls derive much pleasure from embarrassing old men, of that I am sure.

My waitress Emily was very nice and asked me about wine, of course I want wine and ordered an Elderton “Tantalus”, Shiraz/Cab/Malbec, South Australia 2004. I am the Will Rogers of Malbec. I have never met one I didn’t like and this was no different even if it was a blend.  The menu was small but everything looked amazing. I told Emily to chose for me, one appetizer, one entree and one desert and pair the wines I am drinking to match, (she suggested the Tantalus). She loved that idea and chose for me for a starter, the Lamb Carpaccio. Thin shaved raw lamb over an African spice of which the name escapes me, slightly spicy and exotic. With a little salad of mint and frisee drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Eating it was like eating the flesh of baby sheep, OH WAIT I WAS! Oh man baby sheep are SO delicious! It was amazing and because it was wafer thin, it didn’t cause me to, well, you know, you’ve seen the movie.

My entree was the pan seared flounder which had a buttery sauce of little neck clams and artichoke hearts and was on a bed of smooth mashed potatoes. Another hit out of the park. When my entree came I switched to a Kooyong “Massale” Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula 2004 which went with the fish well despite its color clash. I don’t get the whole white wine with fish thing anyway.  I think red goes with anything. Anyway back to the fish, I really am torn by calling this food, food. Its really art. I should have brought my camera, but I have screwed up twice now and haven’t brought it. I promise it will not happen again.

For desert Emily suggested the Pear Crisp with Maple Nut ice cream.  I doubt I need to say anything about this. Its crisp! What more needs to be said. Legally anything named crisp MUST be good or they can’t call it crisp.  The crisp was washed down with fantastic coffee.

Before leaving I told Emily that I was on a quest for the best cuisine Charleston had to offer and asked her to write down her favorite restaurants. She gave me a list of about 5 or 6.  At her recommendation I think I will try La Fourchette next.  Asking wait staff at great eateries seems to be a good way to find your next great spot. Food people tend to know where food people should eat.

As I got up to walk out I noticed everyone lean over to their dinner partner and mumble, there goes the loser  with no dinner date. True, but I have a belly full of baby sheep.