Thursday, October 26, 2006

That's Entertainment: Underwhelmed on Cue at Cabo's (or Bilked at the Bistro)

October is the last week for those of us who bought the Entertainment book-o-coupons, as each and every offer inside expires on November 1st, 2006. Then, we've got to ascertain (again) if the book was worth $40. Inevitably, a flood of bad memories comes back, highlighting the frustrating experiences driving around looking for somewhere to eat that has a coupon in the book, the places that restricted our orders to combination plates only, and… and then there's Cabo's Corner Bistro at Broad and Allison.

(we're in the middle of restaurant week, but my regular dinner date is taking advantage of some lucrative consulting gigs these days, so I'm going to supplement my would-be review of Rowland's with the following tid-bit)

The truth is, the book is totally worth it, if you like to get a bargain once in a while. But if you base your life on it, like Karen and I sorta tried to do, it's gonna come up short. Personally, I think I want another Entertainment coupon book for next year. In part, because I know that there are so many deals that I missed out on this past year. The R-Braves tickets, discount museum entrance, half-priced oil change. The list goes on.

On one lonely evening in October, Karen and I decided we would indulge ourselves with a meal from one of the high-end restaurants in the front of the book. These, like the rest of the coupons, offered buy-one get-one free entrees. Only, instead of presenting a paper coupon, you had to have a little plastic card punched by your server. So, we picked Cabo's, because it attracts a well to do sort of clientele, and we're just into fancy food these days, and a free entrée is all incentive we needed.

When we showed up for our reservation, the bar was dimly lit, but well attended. Because we wanted non-smoking, they took us in the neighboring room. The hostess seated us at a square four-top and pulled out our chairs so that we would sit facing the wall with our backs to the room full of other diners. After two seconds of awkwardness, and the hostess out of sight, we switched our seats and proceeded to people watch.

The crowd was as expected: white, middle aged, with a scattering of young lawyer types, and us - blinking, grinning, whispering to each other about everyone else. To our right was the door to the kitchen, constantly swinging open and closed as servers carried food in and out. This is also where one of the kitchen staff preferred to stand, just inside the dining room, shuffling his feet and leering in no particular direction, giving off an air of discontent. I wouldn't usually have noticed him, but the dining room is pretty small and he stood less than ten feet from our table, swinging his dish towel and fidgeting with his backwards ball cap. A bad sign in my book. As we proceed, keep in mind that this man made several periodic appearances, perhaps while waiting for the entrees that he was responsible for to get a little bit drier and for most of their appreciable flavors to subside.

Our server was a big guy, built like a baseball player - another looming presence in this small dining space. When he came to our table, he handed us menus and glared at us as if searching for something to say. When he returned, he asked if he could take our order. I pointed out that there is a "market fish" listed as "market price". What's the market fish? Salmon. And the price? Twenty-three dollars. Would you like to hear our specials?

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. As a big fan of fish, served almost any fashion, I was hoping for more seafood. As it turns out, they had halibut in the list of specials that he was reading them off of a slip of paper. I had to ask again how much this entrée was, which I'm sure embarrassed Karen and the guy reacted as though I were giving him a hard time (and maybe I was). Maybe price is not something that is supposed to be brought up at fine dining establishments like Cabo's, but I thought we had a right to know before ordering. Twenty-seven dollars for halibut.

At the bottom of the menu, there is a note that the chef is happy to prepare a "special" vegetarian dish of seasonal ingredients. The server came back and stared at us for a few seconds with a semi hostile "So, what do you want, already?" expression before asking if we were ready to order. Now, I actually like it when my server is new and owns up to their inexperience or asks you to bear with them, but this guy was defensive and gave off a kind of unhappiness with all of these people who stood between him and the money in our wallets.

We ordered the handmade gnochi and white beans for an appetizer. Karen got the halibut and I ordered the vegetarian surprise. Our server replied that I could choose between pasta or risotto. I said risotto and he searched his mind for a moment before asking if there were any veggies that I specifically don't like. I told him that I was up for anything and he disappeared.

The gnochi arrived and to my surprise, they were green. Then I remembered, the menu said "basil gnochi." The little oblong dumplings were soft, basily, and slathered in a garlicy white wine butter sauce. The white beans were a little hard from being slightly undercooked, but I actually find that quality kinda reassuring because it means that they're not from a can. Anyhow, we gobbled this up, noticing that the gnochi's each had the same markings, two inches long, pointy at the ends with three cross-wise ridges along one side. This was the shape that was produced when the dough was squeezed in the fist of a chef. We were tickled with our observation and figured this was a good sign to counterbalance the bad omens all around us.

When our entrees arrived, we were both impressed by the look of Karen's fish. It was a solid hunk of halibut that had been cooked golden brown like a picture perfect piece of chicken breast in a tv commercial. Next to it was a pile of steamed sting beans and some roasted fingerling potatoes. As Karen went to work, I watched her closely for some indication about the flavors. But, since she's not one to voice her criticisms too quickly, I had to end the suspense and reach over for a taste.

The fish was thick and it took some effort to flake off a piece. Now, I like fish that resembles steak. And in this case, it was very meaty. Another bite and I decided that there was clearly something missing… taste… and moisture. I mean, it wasn't extremely overdone, just not fresh or marinated. In fact, this very well could have been a baked chicken breast for all we could tell. So, the fish was impressive to look at and maybe even to chew, but not to taste. The side items followed suit. Flavor seemed to have been omitted from the potatoes and the green beans. Now, my baby likes sauce. Maybe we should have told our shortstop turned server this fact about us up front. Karen's plate featured no sauce, or any significant seasoning, so we turned our attention to my risotto.

The dish was pretty attractive, with a whole yellow squash sliced on an angle and fanned out over top of the creamy risotto. The squash was cooked okay, semi-crisp with a hint of butter, but this was the only veggie that was really visible. As I dug into my Italian rice delicacy, I tasted some cream, some cheese, and found a few pieces of asparagus. Part of me hoped that I would find some extra gravy in this to offer Karen as it might help her get some of her dry and boring food down easier. But, it seemed that the rice had soaked everything up and there were no drippings to ladle over to Karen's plate.

I guess I should point out that I'm not really an expert on risotto and have never made it myself. But Karen likes the stuff a lot and made a great batch of it for one of our first dates almost three years ago. When she scooped up a fork full of risotto, she immediately started shaking her head once she put it in her mouth (very un-Karen). "Eh mop puck," is what I heard from her full mouth. She finished chewing and swallowed. "The rice isn't done." What'd you say before that? "It's not cooked. The rice is still crunchy." That shows what I know. The risotto was thick and pasty and the grains of rice were al dente, so I figured it was "as described" as they say on eBay. Even the asparagus, Karen's favorite veggie, didn't really make up for her overall disapproval. I could see it on her face: This place is a sham. She makes the same face when give her a present that I clearly got for free.

At this time, we looked up from our plates to see how everybody else was feeling about the food. It was hard to discern, but one thing was clear. Every table within eyesight was handing over an Entertainment coupon card along with their bill. I couldn't help but wonder if this were coordinated somehow. Cabo's con-men rolled out their cheap food for us cheapskates. Impossible. The Entertainment two-for-one offer has been good all year, or maybe not good, but valid. My guess is that this is Cabo's everyday routine.

Well, my undercooked rice and unimaginative veggie surprise was an $18 dollar entrée. But since it was the least expensive of the two, it was free, leaving us to pay for the $27 dollar flavorless fish, plus the $9 garlicky bean and dumpling appetizer. Add in a drink apiece, tax, and tip, and we're talking upwards of $55. Now, I know what people are paying for at Cabo's: superficial but pretentious atmosphere and dubiously earned social status. This translates to an air of mutual disdain that permeates the entire space, from the hapless salesman-server who lumbers back and forth between the tables' inflated tabs and the credit card machine, right down the bored and disgruntled kitchen staff who gets off on watching scores of people pretending to enjoy his uninspired creations. Well, Cabo's can add our disapproval to the pile of pity, and we'll even throw in a pledge: NEVER AGAIN WILL I GIVE CABO'S MY MONEY OR ALLOW ANOTHER TO MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE I DID.

Tired of my kvetching about cuisine? Stay tuned. Plenty of positivity is just around the corner. You can look forward to our experience with Ming Tsai's new line of frozen dinners and jarred sauces, the annual Festival of India, my adventures in tortilla making, favorite lunchtime dining spots, and maybe some commentary on the weekly developments on Bravo's very cool Top Chef show.


  1. Congratulations on your recent marriage. IF you ever feel the need to leave the confines of Richmond for a dinner out - try the Fat Canary in Williamsburg. Expensive but worth it. Two years ago I had the special rabbit dish and can still taste every herb.

    We got bilked at a different bistro - The Blue Talon - in Williamsburg also. Thank god we had been given a gift certificate, the meal was not worth the $20 some we actually paid, much less the $70 some the bill came to. If possible, the most disappointing meal I have ever had, from service to food quality. I've had better McDonalds meals. And no one at McDonalds has ever stood between the tables and pointed his rear end at our table. YUCK!

  2. I have been looking for a good place to eat in Willimsburg. Thanks for the tip and the cautionary word.


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