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Mid-range disappointments in pictures

An interesting conversation broke out this week on the Houston Chowhounds mailing list when someone asked if there is a secret to having enough money to always eat well. Unlimited supply of money is the easiest way to ensure you eat well more often than not, but money is only part of the problem. For me it all comes down to time and value. Every bad or average meal is an opportunity lost.

I find that I get the best value on the ultra high-end or the ultra low-end range of the dining spectrum. Both require a considerable amount of energy and research, but a meal costing $6-10 seems just as likely to be revelatory as a 4 hour multi-course dinner that sets you back over $200. Meals in the middle often disappoint and rarely exceed expectations.

The reason is simple. At most average mid-range restaurants you pay for a nice setting, access to alcohol and food that won’t confuse casual restaurant goers looking for a good night out. You are less likely to find a talented cook trying rise above the fray. Why bother when you have nice decor or a never ending supply of half naked chicks at the bar?

At least the folks at Zula had the decency to make indecency the main feature of the restaurant, so the rest of us don’t wander in there expecting decent food. Far too many other mid-range restaurants continue the charade, however.

No sooner than I formulated my thesis my cloaked friend over at Food in Houston published a review of a recent dinner at Quattro, which illustrates my point quite nicely. My lunch there was beyond disappointing. It’s not that it was particularly expensive, but it was so painfully average that I still feel the empty space in my wallet once occupied by the money I spent  on the food (and that was before valet parking).

I have trouble deciding if I hated the Aramark inspired German chocolate cake more than the greasy tasting french onion soup with nasty little toast points. Or maybe it were the rubbery ravioli stuffed with some sort of a green leafy vegetable that tasted like they spent a bit too much time in the fridge? I picked around the plate, but called it quits when I came across a tin can flavored artichoke topped with mysterious orange sauce and went back to work hungry. Screw it. Just because I paid for bad food, doesn’t mean I have to force myself to eat it.


Exhibit 2: Prego used to be one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, but has recently slipped into the unfortunate “mid-range and average” mode. It’s is still far more edible than Quattro, but the prices have gone up and quality of cooking has slipped. At a recent lunch, John Watt, Prego’s long time chef, was at the restaurant, but seemed kind of disinterested in what’s going on in the kitchen. The food, meanwhile, was being turned out by some guy wearing a Trevisio toque.

Some of the John Watt’s food back in the days seemed really inspired. I didn’t think twice about ordering a premium priced special, knowing that he probably got his hands on some stellar baby coho salmon or soft shell crab. Now the special always seems to be the veal chop. The outstanding rabbit dishes I ordered there for years are no longer on the menu either, so I have been gambling with the menu and mostly coming out the loser.

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Take my word for it and stay away from the bland and flabby bowl of cheese  that passes for veal meatball lasagna at Prego, although that’s not the only pothole on the menu. Even the safe standbys of pan roasted chicken or veal with a pan sauce and mashed potatoes seem lackluster now. During a recent visit the chicken was rubbery and under seasoned. The pizza crust topped with government quality mozzarella was so limp it flopped over like a dirty sock.

Not everything was a complete loss. The bread is good as ever. Skip the formalities and stick to the bread basket if you do decide to go.

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