You can't make all the people happy all of the time--especially if you're a restaurant. A few years ago, trendy dining establishments tried to offer something for everyone: a few beef and chicken dishes, some fish for the pretend vegetarians, a selection of pastas and maybe some pseudo-ethnic dishes. But stretching the kitchen staff that thin usually resulted in generic, mediocre food that made nobody happy.
Now, in this era of downsizing, the trend seems to be toward specialization. Open a restaurant that focuses on one item--pasta, for example. Give the impression that the name of your eatery is synonymous with pasta (perhaps by putting the word "pasta" in the name?). Convince the public that because you do pasta almost exclusively, you are the master of the pasta universe.
If two restaurants along Parker Road are any indication, this approach can work.
At Ed-Dee's Killer Shrimp, it works because owners Ed Kintz and Dee Stinson have thoroughly explored everything there is to know about shrimp. (Forrest Gump's Bubba has nothing on them.) They seem to know something about making a comfortable restaurant, too. In July 1994 the husband-and-wife team bought what was once the Olive Oil, knocked out a few walls, scaled back the decor to casual, put paper on the tables and threw around a few nautical knickknacks. And then they got down to the business of shrimp.
Kintz and Stinson serve up shrimp straight, shrimp with pasta, shrimp on pizza. That's it. But that's plenty, because the shrimp live up to the restaurant's name. These are truly killer.
Stinson steams the crustaceans in their shells, which makes for moist meat that stays tender, and then adds the shrimp to Ed-Dee's special sauce, a two-day reduction of chicken stock, clam juice, plenty of cayenne and too many herbs to name (Kintz says there are more than twenty). It's key that the shrimp aren't boiled, which would water down the unique flavor of the sauce, or cooked in the sauce, which would result in disintegrated, chewed-up-looking shrimp. Instead, this intelligent preparation leads to a pungent, finger-licking mess of shrimp carcasses and wet napkins, not to mention stuffed bellies.
The simplest way to sample this goodness is the bowl of Killer Shrimp ($10.95). An order brought ten Thai tiger shrimp swimming in sauce, plus a quarter-loaf of French bread that was more useful for soaking up leftover liquid than the side of rice ($1.95) we'd taken on. We didn't need anything extra to sponge up the sauce on the shrimp with pasta ($12.95), since the linguini had been cooked just right and stayed slurpable to the very last drop. Ed-Dee's offers a choice of linguini, fettuccine or penne, but I think the sauce would be too thin for penne, and just try getting both a thick, heavy pasta tube and a piece of shrimp on a fork.
We could have ordered linguini with the Cajun shrimp scampi ($13.95), but the two bucks it would have added to the price seemed out of line for thirty cents' worth of noodles. Besides, these shrimp required no accessorizing. This time the kitchen had done the peeling for us, then butterflied and grilled the little buggers before bombarding them with big pieces of garlic. A hint of ginger rounded out the sharp flavors of the grilling. The shrimp on the twelve-inch pizza ($8.50, plus $2 for shrimp) had also been grilled, but less intensely, which made for a mild shrimp flavor against the mellow tomato sauce. Ed-Dee's offers a white pizza as well, and you can get other toppings for a buck a pop, including Canadian bacon, pepperoni and sausage. But why would you want to, when the shrimp are to die for? (In fact, next time I'd skip the rabbit food, too, even though salads are included with entrees. The iceberg lettuce, tomato and oily vinegar were unworthy distractions from the main event.)
Further down the road, Rocky Mountain Chicken hasn't quite achieved killer status for its birds, but the restaurant is coming close. Greg and Andy Feese, another set of spouses, took what had been the Siberia Russian restaurant and turned it into a deli specializing in charbroiled chickens. Inexplicably, the physical space has lost much of Siberia's charm; the dining room is now a sterile, too-brightly-lit space. The birds, however, certainly fly.
Greg, who worked with Jack Hogan at the London House for five years, has taken his father's grilled-chicken recipe--replete with citrusy tang and crisp, seasoned skin--and reworked it using a charboiler. Rocky Mountain offers both white and dark portions of the birds--either a breast and a wing or a leg and a thigh--as well as whole and half chickens. We decided to go for the complete chicken meal, which was supposed to serve four comfortably and came at the bargain price of $16.95. But it didn't come easily. The safest bet, according to the guy who answered the phone, was to order the whole chicken ahead of time, ostensibly so that the kitchen could have it on hand, since it takes about an hour and a half to produce the finished product. But we both messed up: I arrived 35 minutes late, and Rocky Mountain had sold all of its birds. Greg says he's working on some kind of system that will ensure that there's enough meat for every order and that he won't get fowled up if a customer fails to show.
A complimentary piece of apple pie soothed our ruffled feathers, and we walked away with three dark segments and one white one--all the restaurant had left after a busy night depleted the stock. But even as the evening's leftovers, the chicken was across-the-board wonderful, with each piece evenly cooked and coated with that tangy marinade. Our seventeen bucks also scored a total of four cold and four hot side dishes in little to-go containers--each portion weighed about four ounces--and four buttermilk biscuits (the deli also had run out of cornmeal muffins). While the biscuits had a good, homemade texture, the hot sides were as uneven as the dishes at a church potluck. The cream-cheese whipped potatoes were a hit, proof that you can't go wrong with cream cheese; the BBQ baked beans, on the other hand, tasted of nothing but beans and cheap barbecue sauce--despite Greg's assertions that they're cooked with onions, bacon, ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, pepper, molasses and, yes, barbecue sauce. And while the garlic-cheese grits were unsettlingly smooshy, the creamed spinach casserole was rich and homey.
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The cold sides were the same tossup. The cole slaw is made from Andy's recipe, which Greg was quick to explain uses lemon juice and onion for flavor, rather than mayonnaise and vinegar, but it tasted like wet cabbage. I'm not saying that slaw has to have mayo in it to be good, but either someone didn't follow the instructions, or something got lost in the translation. The potato salad was slathered with mayonnaise; Greg says they buy it ready-made. The cinnamon apples were just pieces of the fruit mixed with cinnamon and sugar, but the strawberry cream-cheese gelatin was something special. This time the cream cheese had been whipped up with Cool Whip and spread atop gelatin crammed with strawberries and celery; it sounds like a recipe out of a small-town Junior League cookbook, but it tasted great in a kid-again kind of way.
In fact, those old-timey tastes are a big part of Rocky Mountain Chicken's appeal. Although our serving of chicken noodle soup ($1.50 a cup) suffered from being the dregs of the pot and had thickened to gravy consistency, it was still filled with homemade-style noodles (frozen fresh pasta instead of dried) and hand-shredded chicken pieces. Eating our meal was like having Mom cook for us again, although this time we had to pay her--but we didn't have to do the dishes.
And that's a restaurant trend that will never go out of style. Whether a kitchen serves a one- or fifty-item menu, convenience should always be the specialty of the house.