Blast From The Past.
I am sometimes accused of being too blunt. Too mean. Too much of an asshole. Moi? Nah. I’m a sweetheart.
On the other hand, long, long ago, I used to write restaurant reviews for the newspaper in Richmond, Virginia under the name “Michael Robinson.” You want to read what I’m like when I’m not being all mature and restrained and literary-adjacent-ish?
From 1991. The now-defunct Richmond News-Leader. This is what mean looks like:
“THE BOTTOM LINE RULES IN RED LOBSTER CHAIN”
I knew you, the reader, would be interested in the details, so as I sat in my booth in the Red Lobster on West Broad Street, I tried very carefully to count and identify the various food stains on the wall beside me.
The red stuff was easy — cocktail sauce. The white stuff I figured for Alfredo sauce, but the big orange smear was a puzzler. It could have been Thousand Island dressing, or it might have been Newburg sauce. But when I checked the menu, I saw there was no Newburg sauce, and so I’m prepared to go out on a limb a little here and say it was Thousand Island.
Now, the various bits crusted on the frosted glass lamp shade were impossible to call, since the heat of the light had baked them all to the same brown, and I never was sure about the mystery scrap that nestled in the thick carpet of dust covering the top edge of the wainscoting. It looked at first like a bit of onion peel, but then I thought, no, shrimp shell. Of course, only a rube would misidentify the fuzzy growth at the bottom of the picture frames. Yes, it looked like fungus or moss, but it was only more dust. The crumbs that filled the crack where the booth meets the wall were presumably composed of different shrimp breadings and roll crumbs, while the greasiness that made the plastic table tent almost opaque was composed of
. . . well, of grease.
Two different booths, two different nights, both dirty. Not messy, as in the waiter forgot to knock a few crumbs off the seats, but filthy, as in probably the dirtiest dining room I’ve seen this side of a New York bus station.
Now, to the food. We started with a cup of “Bayou style seafood gumbo”
($2.65), a flavorless, insubstantial bowl of goo. Possibly a misunderstanding on the part of Red Lobster. See, you’re supposed to start a gumbo with a roux, not goo.
We took the invitation to create our own appetizer sampler ($3.99), choosing shrimp egg rolls with no discernible quantity of shrimp and greasy fried clam strips.
For our first entree we had the “fresh” red snapper ($14.95) cooked, so the menu claimed, “blackened Cajun style.” Well, let me tell you about this fish. First, “blackened Cajun style” refers to a technique of cooking that involves coating a fish in spices and slapping it into an exceedingly hot iron frying pan which seals the fish and turns the coating of spices black. The fish Red Lobster served was not pan-blackened. In fact, it probably had never seen a pan, and it wasn’t black. It was red. Cayenne- and paprika-red and dusty as . . . well, as the restaurant itself. See, while the menu says
“blackened Cajun style, “ what they in fact give you is a sort of Cajun shake-it-and-bake-it.
The result was that the skin, still on one side of the fillet, had shrunk during cooking, causing the fish to shrivel up into what looked exactly like a ball of yarn. A cayenne-coated, baked to death, impossible even to cut, ball of yarn.
We also had the Ultimate Feast ($15.99), one of Red Lobster’s signature combo plates. This one consisted of a tiny rock lobster tail that had been nicely vulcanized, greasy fried shrimp, stealth scampi with garlic undetectable to the human tongue, and Alaskan snow crab legs — steamed till dry. I don’t know exactly how it was done, but yes, they were steamed until the crabmeat lost every bit of its moisture and flavor.
Then, it was on to another fine combo, the Supreme Trio ($13.99), which included half a dozen perfectly nice broiled scallops, the familiar greasy fried shrimp, and a plate of creamy mush that was billed as lobster Florentine. Imagine, if you will, linguini cooked to the consistency of custard, drowning in a floury white sauce and . . . let’s see, what’s the right word? Studded? No, that’s too generous. Highlighted? No, way, way too generous. I know: punctuated. Yes, it was punctuated by an amount of lobster that can best be described as insignificant.
Another platter combined crab in Alfredo sauce and “southwest” fried shrimp. Southwest fried shrimp are just like regular fried shrimp, but instead of being coated with bread crumbs saturated by grease, they have cornmeal saturated by grease. The crab Alfredo was lobster Florentine all over again except that molecules of crab had been substituted for the molecules of lobster.
For dessert there was a dry and overly sweet carrot cake and a monstrosity of devil’s food cake and chocolate pudding and assorted forms of chocolate glop called Sensational 7 ($2.99).
Now, no one expects great food from a chain like Red Lobster. It is, after all, a giant corporation run by people with MBA’s who understand absolutely nothing about a restaurant beyond what can be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.
But at least in the past, people like Red Lobster maintained the discipline necessary to keep a restaurant from becoming a sty. I note that Red Lobster has remodeled the restaurant on Midlothian Turnpike. Maybe they should spare a few bucks from that venture to buy a bottle of Fantastik for the Broad Street location.
This should not reflect on any other Red Lobster location, and bear in mind, this was 1991. I’m sure they’ve cleaned it up since then. Right?