Chianti Braised Short Ribs at Frescos. A nice dish that could have been done better.
Down in Florida visiting the family for Memorial Day. When I left this town the height of culinary culture was Red Lobster and Carrabba’s, and you had to wait a couple of hours to get into either one on a Saturday. Things have changed in my home town.
I got up Saturday morning (we arrived around 1am after an 8 hour drive)and was going to go and visit the Auburndale Farmer’s Market, however my sister came over and agreed to go with me and S. and suggested we go to the downtown farmer’s market. I no longer have visit local farmer’s market as a goal, but I still try to visit new and interesting ones when I can. At this one they had blocked off three blocks of Main Street and had an assortment of produce bearing vendors. We wandered around and got some fresh beignets and some organic kale pesto.
I found an advertizing magazine that showcased some of the restaurants around Main Street Square. One was called Frescos and had some very interesting looking photos of featured food. I asked my sister about them and she said they were on her shit list because she went in there one morning for coffee and bagel and the staff person who was ringing up a large order didn’t acknowledge her right away. She left in an insulted huff and had not been back. I’d been itching for someone to be rude to me so I said we’d go down there and pay them a visit and see if they ignored me when I asked for coffee and bagel.
The restaurant is a short stroll from the square and had both indoor and outdoor seating. They need it because the place is small. On average the size of a common living room. I went in and was immediately met by a smiling man who asked me if I wanted to sit inside or out. I told him I wasn’t going to do either and could I please see the dinner menu. I querried him on a few menu items and his answers were competent and satisfactory. I saw several items on the menu that intruiged me and I decided to come back that evening for dinner.
From there we made our way out to Plant City to a blueberry winery and spent a couple hours there sampling wines. We drove home and I slept (noisily, I was told) on the sofa for about an hour. I got up and dressed and suggested to my parents and reluctant sister that we go to Frescos for dinner. I called ahead and although they don’t take reservations, they agreed to reserve a table for us if we were going to arrive within 30 minutes.
We arrived and the place was mostly full but kinda quiet. The live music was setting up and my sister bemoaned how much she hated eating while someone was playing music. We were re-greeted by the smiling man who shook my hand and led us to a table with a reserved sign on it. I picked up a beer menu with about seventy varieties of beers, and twenty different craft beers. I ordered a craft hard cider and looked over the menu again, even though I was pretty sure what I’d be getting. Our waitress was named Ashley and she was prompt, friendly, and professional. Everyone made small orders (Dad got a chicken Caesar salad, Mom had the pan fried trout and havarti grits, Sis settled for Drunken Shrimp and a side of risotto, and S. got the Ahi Tuna small plate and the Shrimp and Scallop Linquini). I built my meal out of some small plates, having the antipasta platter, California Spring Rolls, Ceviche and the Chianti Braised Short Rib. I recognize it is one of the dreadful consequences of going someplace with a foodie such as myself that there may not be much in the way of shrimp salad or grilled chicken biscuits or Redi-Mix mashed potatoes ala Applebee’s, Morrisons, or Chik-Fil-A. You go out with me and most times we are going to go someplace where the food is interesting and uncommon. I used to feel guilt about it, now I feel sorry for people who are missing out on opportunities. You can’t eat fried pork chops and turnip greens and Uncle Ben’s rice at every meal, for chrissakes.
The singer amped up and began some gentle easy listening ballads from the ‘70’s, which I tortured my sister with by singing along. Our food came in a very respectable amout of time and I had a great deal of fun consuming, debating and analyzing everything, from sauce to filling to garnish to preparation. Most of this debating occured as a monologue, since my family was mostly unresponsive to my observations.
I’ll say that I liked everything I had. There was nothing that was a disappointment or that I wouldn’t order again if I had the chance. That said, I have to say also that although I found the menu interesting and ambitious, the execution left something to be desired. Like a really pulse-pounding, exciting, thrill a moment movie trailer that makes you want to go see the film, only to find out it stars Steven Segal. Most things were technically competent, just lacking in passion, zing, joy, soul, love… what ever the magic mojo is, it didn’t have it. I crunched into the California Spring Roll and said: “Oh, I am totally gonna steal this for my own menu… but make it better.” Sister’s risotto had great base flavor, but was over-cooked and under seasoned. It was a good dish that fell short of great by a lack of zeal. S. said her liquini noodles were under cooked, and her ahi tuna was over-cooked, a high crime in my own kitchen (albeit it may be the “culture” around here to eat ahi tuna on the more done side). Short ribs fell apart under my fork and were accompanied by a great ginger-carrot slaw, but lacked a moist glaze or gravy or sauce which left it a little dry. The ceviche was nice, but clearly had been made hours (or even a day) ahead of time and was fully cured. Despite extra ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and peppers, it lacked punch or roundness or depth.
For dessert S. got a creme brulee and I got an apple crisp. My parents just kind of sat looking bored, not even having gotten anything to drink besides water. The creme brulee was competent, but not flavorful. Nothing to make it stand out from the 1001 other creme brulees in the world. I take that back. There was one thing I’ll remember. It was garnished with whipped cream from a can. Sac le bleu! My own dessert was served in a mini cast iron skillet and was hot, but not bubbling hot. It had a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle. Again, lovely idea, creatively presented, no points for excellence. Like a gorgeous woman in a tight red dress and killer high heels who struts along and turns an ankle, lurching to the side and flailing to recover. I was satisfied, but I wasn’t wow’d. Since I punished everyone with the trip I picked up the tab and we came back to the house.
I asked my mother if she enjoyed the dinner and she said: “Not really. It was just too fancy for me.” She’d had some trouble with the menu, unable to discern appetizer from entree, and uncertain whether to choose soup or salad. “Fancy?” I thought. “You had fried fish and grits.” But I have to recognize that my palate and adventurous eating habits are not shared by my more traditional, predicatable, safe-eating family members. It kinda saddens me that something I am passionate about is of almost no interest to my family. Oh well, they have 364 days to eat Shake-N-Bake and canned green beans. I’m not asking for much.