Charlottetown, I think most would agree, is a sort of culinary gulag. It is difficult to find menus in this city where the majority of the menu does not consist of “X with french fries.” In discussing the use of spices in restaurants in the city last week with a friend, we agreed that the tendency in most is to simply “none.” The same friend, when I asked her where should would eat if it was a really special occassion, and she wanted the best, replied “at home.”
There are, thankfully, exceptions. We are graced with a Lebanese-Canadian community that gives us shish taouk, baba ganoush, tabouli and falafel. We have a passable Indian restaurant (and another serving Anglo-Indian food that, inexplicably, many love dearly). But we are left out of the fragrant flavour panorama offered by the rest of the world’s cuisine.
When living under these harsh conditions, the opening of a new restaurant is an event of great anticipation. “This might be the one,” we say to ourselves.
It was with this sense of anticipation that Catherine, Oliver and I headed out to dinner to Angels last night. Angels is the new Kenny Zakem-fronted restaurant that occupies the space formerly filled with Hughes Chrysler on Belvedere Avenue.
I am a big Kenny Zakem fan. He took over the Perfect Cup Cafe from Bruce MacNaughton back in the early 1990s, and served uncommonly good breakfast and lunch fare. When he packed that operation up, I was left without a breakfast place that serves something other than fried eggs and bacon. I’m still looking.
I’d heard good early reports from others, and when we drove up last night the parking lot was overflowing with cars.
The signs, in other words, were all good.
Before I continue, I should mention, by way of disclaimer, that Oliver really, really didn’t want to go out to dinner last night. He didn’t tell us this before we got out to dinner, of course, and even then his method for communicating his feelings was less “Mother, Father, I’d rather eat at home this evening!” and more “crying, thrashing and generally making a scene.” The conditions for evaluating Angels, in sum, were not ideal. But then again, the best restaurants can really come into their own when faced with parents with cranky kids: waiters in Spain and Thailand know Oliver’s moods well, and came up with some novel (and successful) placation devices.
We had a 20 minute wait for a table. Can’t knock them for that, and, besides, they’ve got a doorway right into Dow’s Furniture next door, so we could go and browse there while waiting.
Once we were seated, we were immediately offered a high chair (bonus points; this is often forgotten) and menus. And then we waited about 40% too long for the waiter to come and take our orders. I don’t mind waiting for a table — there’s only so much space to go around! — but there simply weren’t enough wait staff on duty, and our man was forced to serve too many tables.
The menu was, unfortunately, standard ho-hum fare; basically the same items you’d find at the Brennan’s (nee Pat’s Rose and Grey): seafood, thin-crust pizza, club wrap, beef and pork done various ways. Appetizers fell into the same category: bruschetta, bacon-wrapped scallops and three salads (Caesar, house and Greek). Beverages were standard; beer selection lacking (Catherine likes Clancy’s; or rather, Catherine dislikes Clancy’s the least, and they didn’t have it; she had to make do with a Moosehead).
The interior of Angels is interesting. Table are arranged in a large ‘U’ around a glass-wrapped open kitchen. Our table was directly in front of the appetizer prep station, and just down the hall from desserts; mains were prepared on the opposite side. This aspect of Angels makes it a marginally more compelling place to eat than other places in its class: something about the cooks having to make the food out in the open makes me feel better.
Unfortunately, this aspect of Angels was about the only thing that set it apart from the run of the mill.
Our appetizer — we choose the bacon wrapped scallops, for it was the only thing that seemed like it might offer some excitement — sat on the counter about 3 feet from Catherine’s head for about 5 minutes before our busy waiter figured out it was there. The scallops were small and dried out; the bed of greens underneath was an unnecessary distraction.
Our mains, which, like the menus, arrived about 40% later than seemed proper, were a disappointment.
I ordered the “clubhouse wrap,” remembering that Kenny used to make a very tasty “chicken in a pita” dish at the Perfect Cup. There was, I believe, no spice whatsoever in this dish (I was promised a “special sauce;” perhaps its exceptional quality was its tastelessness?). Good cooking takes a collection of regular ingredients and enlivens them in their combination; my clubhouse wrap was somehow less than the sum of its parts. The only highlight was the roasted potatoes, which were well-spiced, hot, and nicely cooked. But by the time I came to taste the potatoes, the battle was already lost by the moribund sandwich, and it was too late.
Catherine ordered the thin crust “Mediterranean” pizza. At its best, thin-crust pizza (with “thin crust” acting as a sort of code word for “not regular everyday Dominos style”) has a delicate crust, and a frugal selection of well-combined ingredients. This was not pizza at its best: the crust was cooked to “hard to cut through” solidity, and ingredients were slathered on. The result was a too-oily, too-cheesy morass that was, somehow, simultaneously too crisp and too soggy. Catherine’s summary: “there was so much cheese and oil that you couldn’t taste any of the other ingredients.”
Oliver’s orneriness necessitated an exit before we had an opportunity to try the desserts: this area seemed to have some promise, at least visually, but I can’t comment on how this translates into when it comes to the eating.
All in all, alas, a disappointing evening: service was amateur, food was uninspiring. Back into the gulag we go.