Monday, June 09, 2008

Lulu's vs. Tarrant's vs. deLux

Saturday night, we went out to dinner at Tarrant's with some out of town friends (whom we directed to Lulu's for brunch earlier that day). The next morning, we went to brunch at deLux. Naturally, I have stories to share, but the competition aspect to this post was just a ruse to rope in readers (sorry). I guess I could point out that these three places started in the same general era (nowish), and so they are competing for legitimacy in a sense. Personally, I'm not completely in love with any of the three (having mostly superficial experiences thus far). Maybe that's indicative of my general disposition: the past rocks, the future is exciting, but right now... meh. Anywho, stay tuned for an aimless meandering of culinary wandering lostness.

Lulu's

When Karen's old high school buddy, called wanting to know where to meet her dad for brunch, I racked my brain and came up empty. Brunch is not an option on Saturdays at my favorite spots, but I recalled being tempted by Lulu's one Saturday at the 17th Street Farmers Market. When our guests got to our house, they reported a successful meal. She described the menu as mostly savory (she likes sweet breakfast food) and he thought his huevos rancheros were too beany (believing that meat eating makes one a man). Since I have to try the huevos everywhere I go, Lulu's just got bumped up in my queue (would they really tamper with the Millie's recipe?).

Tarrant's

Later that day, the four of us piled in a car with Jasper and headed down to 1 W. Broad for our first Tarrants experience. The staff surveyed the two dining rooms for the best place to stash a carseat-bound baby and we wound up in one of their bigger booths. Due to the heat, we all requested a steady flow of ice water.

And now the menu: on the way in I noticed fancy sounding specials on the sidewalk chalkboard. The prices ranged from $18-25, which threw me for a loop, as I recalled seeing fish tacos for under $10 on that same board during Broad Appetit. Whatever. I'm supposed to keep my cheapskate tendencies under wraps when we've got company. Of course, disparity probably stems from the price difference between lunch and dinner (an explanation that I'm not completely satisfied with).

At the table, we were collectively paralyzed by the array of choices. There must have been 25-30 sandwiches and wraps, at least a dozen starters, a dozen salads, and a dozen entrees. What would Gorden Ramsey say? If you've seen Kitchen Nightmares then you're used to seeing him wind up to his "pare down your menu ultimatim" (delivered abusively for the American audience and with tact for the Brits). Tarrant's piles on even more options with two paper menu inserts. Another 12-20 entree and appetizer specials as well as a listing of pizzas, calzones, and hot subs from the Tarrantinos eatery in the back. With each expansion to the side or the back, it seems that another page was added to the menu. I could hear Gordon spraying the owner with spittle demanding to know "who are you? Is this a sandwich shop, a pizzeria, or is it fine dining? You don't know, do you? For Christs sake, man, you're completely lost aren't you?" And so on, as Gordon plays up the emergency situation as his belittling critique comes to the rescue.

There's no emergency here. Tarrant's is a hit and people are going there with specific parts of the menu in mind (or maybe a little of each). And, I'm not Gordon Ramsey (but, I did find the dizzying choices to be off-putting). No, Jasper's the real high maintenance diner (now 9 weeks old). By the time we were ready to order, he was refusing his bottle and having a meltdown in Karen's arms. Other customers were forced to take notice. But, I impressed everyone around by grabbing the carseat and swinging it by the handle, rocking Jasper into a peaceful slumber. It was quite a bicep workout, but I kept it up for 10 minutes while seated and dangling the carseat in constant motion outside the booth. And I don't think I impeded any server's path in the process.

Tarrant's (seriously, this time)

The food... a white pizza with spinach and grilled chicken, two cesar salads (one with mid-rare grilled tuna), a polenta in seafood cream sauce starter, and I had the tilapia reuben. Honestly, I don't really have much to say about the food. They brought plate after plate of greasy garlic knots (delicious, but kind of a meal spoiler - I know, learn restraint - and they would have been better if a little crustier). The pizza was a hit, as I've blogged before, but our guests questioned the spinach topping saying it was previously frozen (not a biggie in my book, especially compared to the pointless chicken topping).

The two Caesars irked me, cuz I can't stand redundancy on the table. Not the restaurant's fault (although the salads were too croûton-y and none of us could figure the need for loads of kalamata olives with pits in the middle of it all - which I picked off of the two plates). My reuben was tasty, but I think I'll blog on it in a separate post about alterna-reubens I've had in Richmond (Table 9, Ipanema, and Harrison St). That polenta was flavorful, but the sauce was too rich for more than two consecutive bites, and the seafood pieces were small enough to be kind of irrelevent.

Would I go back to Tarrant's? Personally, only for an orthodox pizza. But I'm sure more patient customers have discovered the other strengths of the kitchen, but I'm not ambitious enough to expend that many visits working through the menu. Am I raining on the parade? Maybe I should qualify this whole thing by saying that I am glad to see this relatively accessible downtown business.

deLux('s)

The next day, Sunday, we wound up at deLux (sans guests, but with baby). We braved the heat in search of coffee, but stayed for the A/C and brunch food. Again, not much to say about the food here. The place is very stylish and not too fancy. My huevos rancheros seemed a little steep at $10, but they included sausage (which I requested they omit and they obliged). Karen asked for cheddar and tomatoes in her "two eggs any style" and they didn't bat an eyelash. Homefries came with each and I'm pretty sure they were frozen with factory-applied seasoning crust. Don't you love that shit? These are a pet peeve of mine, mostly because I hate to be temped to cheat with processed carbs. I guess it could be worse...

Since we didn't quite know where we were going when we crossed the sketchy footbridge from Byrd Park, over the expressway to Strawberry Street, deLux was basically an oasis for us. They were open before 10am, and we were sipping coffee within seconds of sitting down. The real treat for me was featured on the check. A dollar was deducted from the price of my huevos, because I asked them to hold the sausage. It is so seldom that vegetarians are given this kind of consideration. Instead, there's often an element of punitive treatment for causing trouble with our special requests (so many plates just seem to represent the kitchen's misconception that vegetarians don't like to eat). Also, the price of Karen's eggs wasn't hiked up for the cheese and tomatoes.

The financial impact of these billing nuances is minimal, but the gesture will surely bring me back, especially since it's within walking distance. Would I ever order the huevos there again? Probably not. It was a forgettable dish that scarcely resembled the classic namesake. Millies and Kuba Kuba are good bets for huevos rancheros, but so is Taqueria del Sol. I can't wait to find out about the "beany" version at Lulu's.

10 comments:

  1. I've had one good experience at Tarrant's and one abysmal. I've blogged about neither but am giving them another try in the future.

    deLux is one of those that isn't quite firing on all cylinders yet but I do like them so far. The frozen fries are just inexcusable in this day and age. That's another Ramsey pet peeve - frozen processed food that actually costs more than fresh. When a restaurant uses frozen crap I just see it as lazy.

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  2. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Bottle?? Bottle of what???? I thought J was BF'ed.

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  3. Jasper drinks whatever's available. "Exclusively breast feeding" is the goal, but eight lactation consultant appointments later, it seems that it just wasn't meant to be. So, we bring a bottle of formula with us when we go out.

    Um... it's kinda creepy to answer questions about your wife's appendages from an anonymous questioner. Anyhow, I guess it goes with the blogging/parenting territory.

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  4. Anonymous9:10 PM

    Sorry about the abruptness/anonymity thing (don't have a Blogger account, and I use a different blog site and don't want another). I'm S, I live in the Richmond burbs, and I have two little kids of my own and know firsthand about the trials of BFing. In a nutshell, I was just being nosey. No funny business, really.

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  5. Karen and I practically live half our lives reading blogs about boobies and spit-up and fecal matter consistency (now that we're past the birth canal and foreskin and cervix phase of reading and research). So, it's no big thing to talk about this stuff (even during a conversation about food).

    Modesty has definitely gone out the window of late and I have to remind myself that baby-business talk can arise anywhere and everywhere. On the breast feeding exclusivity scale of 1 to 10, I'd say we're at 8.5 and fighting to stay near a perfect 10 (while relinquishing the notion of perfection in parenting).

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  6. Did I fail to sufficiently stir the pot with this post? Does no one want to defend these new eateries against my half-hearted attacks? Head nodding is okay too, I guess. Signify head nodding with a quote from the movie "Idiocracy."

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  7. Tarrents.. we went for lunch yesterday. We sat for 30 minutes with our drinks. no garlic knots, those were all sent to the 16 top.

    We were ahead of the 16 top, so I have NO idea why it took so long. After waiting about 20 minutes, the waitress brought Aidan some oyster crackers. He was starting to get restless (2 1/2), but was behaving quite well.

    I got the Caesar with mini crabcakes. WTH was that? For starters -the crabcakes were HUGE, and piping hot. Way too hot to be put on a salad that is served cold. Second, the black olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes. um.. errr.. why were these on the plate?

    Mini crabcakes should not be as large as a regular sticky note. and yes, the croûtons were weak.

    They need to pair down their menu and focus. they seem scattered.

    as for Delux. We might return to try them again, but it was a miss for us.

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  8. ((nodding)) brought to you by Carl's Jr...I agree on sticking with "Orthodox" pizza at Tarrant's. Their traditional red sauce cheese and pepperoni is already among my favorite in town (I particularly love the charred crusts). Tarrant's is a GODSEND for this part of downtown, so I'm just giving this place all love, all the time (regardless of Cheesecake Factory sized menu)...

    ...because you see, RVA Foodie, a pimp's love is very different from that of a square...

    PS: Take a sabbatical but don't quit this blogging game!

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  9. It sure is gratifying to have a reader key in on the operative word in my Tarrant's thesis: orthodox. There is nothing worse than an overly complicated pizza (i.e. Bottom's Up). And yeah, the scorched crust shows their tough love in the cooking process. Doughiness is only good for pizza crust when it's on the other side of a scalded and crispy crust.

    Sketchy zero'd in on the superfluous elements of a salad that's supposed to be simple. So goes most entrees that come out of kitchens with too many aspirations on their agenda. Ed said Cheesecake Factory. A coworker mentioned Fridays. Either way, it seems they're trying to be all things to all people. A viable business, nonetheless.

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  10. Anonymous11:04 PM

    just experienced Delux for the first time and most likely last...mediocre food and apologetic service...the kitchen seemed overwhelmed for Sunday brunch..though the house wasn't full...warm food on piping hot plates left a lot be desired (did the plates just come out of the dishwasher??!??)...I usually give places a second chance, but it might be while for this one...wounds are way to fresh...

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