"It's not much but it's ours"

Wednesday, May 17, 2006



Day three of my trip in Kansas saw me kicking into business mode and leaving the comfort of Mark’s place for the less agreeable and more sanitised environs of the Inter-continental at the Plaza.

Both, it has to be said, beginning to look a little shabby since my last visit. The hotel had lost the charm it once had as the Ritz Carlton and then the Fairmont and now stood testament to the soulless nature of corporate hoteldom. The Plaza, the premier shopping district of Kansas looked tired and past its best. Designed along the lines of the streets of Seville with whom the town is twinned, I used to love pottering around the stores there. Now, it seems that many of the decent stores have closed and it looks to be suffering.

On days like these when meetings are the centre point, food choices become much more functional and have to be predicated on speed and proximity rather than quality and taste. Which is just as well given that the offerings in The Plaza are very much of “ The Cheesecake Factory” variety

In truth, not a day that will go down in memory as a great success. A slightly dispiriting meeting with the good people of Hallmark, sandwiched between two meals which would range in the blah to “ out of the way, I am about to cover you in spew” category. Both chains. For lunch, PF Chang's. Harmless enough and, in fact the lettuce wraps are perfectly well done, if nothing else is. Much worse was an early supper at McCormick’s ( I know, I know – but we had to be up at 4.30am and could not face any sort of trek for supper.) Truly a grim meal. I can only take so much perky in a day and our server used up that ration on the way to our table. Sweet enough, but she sounded like she sucked up a good dose of helium before coming back to the table each time. Lousy martini, acceptable calamari, non descript salads and dreadful salmon. Now, this is a fish restaurant, right? So, if you are going to make that your main offering, be any bleeding good at it. You may be part of a chain, but you are still charging best part of $60 a head for a meal. So at least get the main bit right. Not here. Dry as a bone

After forking out best part of $250 for a meal for three, we slunk out and back to the hotel where a Talisker and a cup of mint tea restored my humour a tad.

But, all in all, a day to get to the other end of rather than to enjoy

Getting up at 4am the next morning was less than fun and the Martini and Whisky from the night before had created a thick fug in my head. But, we had an early flight to catch and I forced myself up to meet my colleague in the lobby and, after a perfectly harmless flight we soon arrived in Chicago.

I must have been to Chicago over twenty times and it remains one of the few cities that I get genuinely excited about returning to in the US ( Boston being one of the others ) Architecturally, I think it is a truly great city and the buildings, both old and new, are staggering. From a food point of view, I think it offers more than just about any city in the US from high end to joints and, I am quite taken by the people who while preternaturally brusque are rather good humoured .

This trip was slightly different though. A jolly organised by the good people of Weber ( The Rolls Royce of Barbecues ) Me and my colleague have been central to building up their publishing programme of books in Europe and everywhere outside the US. We have published the books in a number of languages all of which have been a raging success. Bizarre fact, one of our Weber titles was THE number one non fiction bestseller in Denmark in 2004. Go figure.

Anyway, in recognition of this, we, along with a number of our co-edition partners had been invited by Weber to join them for a couple of days during which we would get to see the factory and eat at The Weber Grill Restaurant.

Arriving at the airport, we were met by Peter, who organises all the travel for Weber people and whisked by stretch to our rather delightful rooms at the Ritz Carlton. By 11am we were checked in and, since we were not meeting up for drinks until 5.30pm, we had time to eat a couple of unfeasibly large, well made salads in the rather lovely lobby restaurant of the hotel, go out and do some shopping and have a workout.

While I worked out, I was watching The Food Network and came across an extraordinary woman called Paula Deen who, apart from being totally unintelligible seemed to have a repertoire that consisted entirely of opening cans of condensed mushroom soup, scrunching crackers and deep frying. I also watched an Italian cookery show with a chef whose name I forget but who looked like one of those parade inflatable cartoon characters with a small body and an ENORMOUS head and the widest permagrin I have ever seen. Both, for different reasons, very , very scary. Never thought I would miss Rick Stein and his "whenever I look at gurnard I think of a poem by E.E. Cummings" schtick - no you fricking don't.

By early evening, I was ready for a drink and decamped to the bar where the rest of our party were already gathered

Typically of Weber, they had predicated the evening on us just having fun rather than anything more corporate and, after a very nice glass of Sancerre, I was ushered out into the cool night air for the walk to our restaurant for the evening

This has rapidly become a bit of a local attraction. Quintessentially Chicagoan in style, buzzy well appointed room,excellent service and portions that border on the obscene.

We ordered a mixed batch of starters for the table. Popcorn shrimp, Calamari and Lobster cocktails. All excellent. Particularly the Popcorn shrimp.

I was slightly disconcerted by the waiter turning up with a plate of fish for us to examine in the same way that the waiters do with steak at Gibsons ( who co-own this joint ) It works with meat, but with dull eyed fish?

Still, what appeared once we had made our choice was very fresh indeed. While others chose Grouper or Salmon or Dover Sole, I went, as I always do at this time of year, for Soft Shell Crab. I can never get this in the UK outside of a Chinese restaurant and the season is so short, I just always get tempted to try it. What I got was as good an example as I have tried. Three large specimens, fresh, meaty and perfectly cooked.

With this, we ordered two whites ( a Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc for one. I don’t recall the other ) and a red ( the Fritz 2003 pinot ) which everyone took to rather well.

None of us fancied dessert, but were persuaded to share some for the table. What turned up was so far from a normal portion as to be obscene. A German Chocolate Cake was enough to feed at least ten people. A Strawberry Shortcake, not much less and the Key Lime Pie would have fed most of the 5,000.

The trouble is with stuff like this is that, often it looks toweringly impressive, but tastes horrible. Which this did. To my right was our German publisher. She tasted the German Chocolate Cake and grimaced before just shaking her head. We left most of it and it made me think about the sheer quantity of waste that must be going on in similar restaurants around the US on any given evening. Although similar plates at neighbouring tables were being wiped clean, so i do know where it does end up. On the waistlines of Chicagoans

On the whole, a decent, fun evening in excellent company with generous hosts. So, what is a half ton of German Chocolate Cake between friends?
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