14 West, not the best

Yesterday, hubby and I were recounting all of the Valentine’s Days we’ve shared thus far. Last year, we were in Paris — that’s going to be a hard act to top. Ever. Year before that, I was 8 months pregnant and laid up on bed rest. Neither of us can remember what we did the year before that, but for our first V-Day as a married duo (2006), I cooked a lovely candlelit dinner at our little rented cottage in Sonoma. We weren’t physically together for Valentine’s Day the year we were dating. I was in Indiana and hubby was in Germany, but I seem to recall he sent me some books for the occasion.

So that gets us up to speed. We weren’t sure we’d even have a chance to do anything romantic this year, between getting toddler-care squared away and hubby having to work at some sort of motorcycle trade show downtown at the convention center this weekend. Lo and behold, the daycare where the toddler attends offered a babysitting service last night courtesy of a Girl Scout troop trying to raise money for a trip this summer. Sold to the man without the hat! Hubby pledged to knock off work by 5 p.m. and date night was on like Donkey Kong.

I started thinking about dining options, worried that we might have trouble getting in somewhere nice, what with the trade show going on and the fact that it was Saturday night on Valentine’s Day weekend. My original idea was to hit Tastings, a relatively new wine bar located in the swanky Conrad Hotel. However, hubby and I knew we would want a full meal and it looked like they only served cheese plates, so that was out.

I’d wanted to try 14 West for a long time, and an online search discovered they had a special menu this weekend. Perfect! When I called, the only reservation times open were 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., both well outside of the babysitting window. Hmph. I put my name on a wait list and figured if all else failed, maybe we could eat at the bar. As luck would have it, I got a phone call around 3:30 from the hostess saying she’d had an opening at 6 p.m. I figured I must be livin’ right and quickly claimed it.

Hubby agreed to meet me in the 14 West bar at 5:30. I changed outfits about five times (hubby told me to wear something “hot”), packed up the little man and we were off. Right on time, I had just parked the car in one of the Circle Centre lots and was locking it up when I got a text. “Running late, just got called into a meeting.” Great. I texted back to ask how late and walked on up to the restaurant. With my hand on the door, hubby replied “45 minutes.” I nearly burst into tears, seconds away from spinning on my heel and calling the whole evening quits. Fortunately, hubby then called as I was on the verge of meltdown to tell me it was just a joke and he was waiting for me at the bar. Whew. Crisis averted.

14 West was hopping, obviously a popular spot. It’s pretty upscale, the décor is fairly romantic and hubby looked very dashing sitting at the bar. (My heart went pitter-patter all over again when I caught sight of him.) We enjoyed a drink – Stella Artois for him and a fragrant glass of Riesling for me — and chatted warmly for a cozy half an hour. The bartender was very friendly and had a wonderful laugh. I had high hopes for a lovely meal.

At 6 on the dot, we got up to claim our spot – a very wide table tucked into a corner upstairs in a crowded, noisy room. Hubby and I felt miles away from each other, but our table was nearly jammed flush with the one next to us. It was almost like we were on a date with the people sitting next to us instead of each other! Intimate conversation was a little difficult to achieve, but no matter. We settled in and turned out attention to the menu.

Our waiter, who we’ll call Brandon (because that was his name) seemed pretty stressed; we overheard him explaining to our fellow compadres next door about how many tables he had to take care of and how busy they were that night. Um. Yeah. Not what you want to hear from your waiter immediately after being seated. This didn’t bode well. Still, Brandon managed to get us our drinks fairly quickly and explained the steak frites appetizer in detail when hubby asked, but didn’t give us any schpiel about the special menu. We placed our order and waited. And waited. And waited…

We didn’t order anything complicated, two entrees and a Caesar salad for the hubster. I really wanted to try either the lobster mashed potatoes or the lobster mac and cheese, but the side servings looked huge and I knew my seafood-hating hubby wouldn’t have pitched in to help. A hostess with huge boobs brought us a couple warm pretzel rolls in the meantime, which we devoured in about two seconds. Thirty minutes later, we’d watched Caesar salads flying around the room to every table but ours. Brandon finally came by to let us know our entrees were on the way and got flustered when hubby asked about the status of his salad. Hubby told him if it was coming out as the same time as the entrees to just forget about it. So he did.

Entrees arrived a few minutes after. The food was delicious – hubby got a steak with steamed vegetables on the side. Nothing terribly fancy, but he said it was good. My meal was a nicely cooked piece of Chilean sea bass on top of risotto with some wild mushrooms and a basil sauce. It tasted great, but the serving size seemed a bit scant for $36 or whatever we paid for it. Also, when I took a bite of mushrooms, I felt something in my mouth that didn’t seem right and proceeded to fish out a dime-sized piece of cardboard. That was somewhat alarming. I’d already eaten half my meal by that point, so I went ahead and finished it, hoping I wasn’t in for some sort of delayed-reaction contamination.

Brandon finally came back to check on us and I pointed out the cardboard. He apologized profusely, promising to bring it to the manager’s attention. A short while later, he returned to let us know they were going to comp us two desserts, which we would have ordered anyway, so that worked out pretty well. I did find it a little off-putting that he didn’t let us select the desserts we wanted, instead just telling us which two they were going to give us. But hey, it was on the house, so whatever.

To Brandon’s credit, the desserts arrived fairly quickly – an individual cheesecake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate drizzle, and a slab of chocolate mousse cake with another scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, this one rolled in an addictively crunchy praline coating. Both were yummy. We polished off the cheesecake, but the chocolate cake was so rich, we could only manage a few bites. That’s saying something – I usually have no problem tackling the most decadent of chocolate desserts, but this was too much even for me.

By this time, we really needed to get going in order to pick up the toddler on time. Brandon dropped off the check, but then kept passing by our table without picking up my debit card. I tried unsuccessfully to flag him down three or four times before getting pissed off. We finally just stood up to leave and handed him our payment on the way out, standing in the hall while he ran my card. Even with the comped desserts and the subtraction of one of hubby’s Stellas, the bill still topped $100.

I realize Brandon was extra-busy and stressed, but still. There’s no excuse for lackluster service at a restaurant of this caliber, especially on a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. I tipped 10 percent; an amount hubby and I felt was extremely generous, all things considered. The food was great (well, apart from the cardboard) and the ambiance was nice, but overall, the 14 West dining experience was something of a letdown for us. And served as a reminder why we don’t tend to frequent upscale restaurants very often – too much pressure and too many high expectations that can fall short. When we’re paying that kind of money, we expect things to be pretty much perfect, and they rarely are. (St Elmo’s is one of the few spots that really delivers in this capacity.)

In retrospect, we figured we probably would have had a much better experience just eating at the bar like we’d originally intended. Live and learn. It was still great to get dressed up and meet my handsome husband out for a real date, so in that sense, it was definitely a happy Valentine’s Day.

Race weekend recap

Ladies and gentlemen – start your… appetites! Last weekend was the busiest weekend of the year here in Indianapolis, it was time for the big race, and some darn good food along the way. Since hubby works in the motorsport industry, he was privy to several invitations to swanky little race-related shindigs, and I got to be his date. All we had to do was line up some babysitters and we were good to party.

The first event I tagged along to was a Brits-in-motorsports mix-and-mingle reception at the Governor’s mansion on Thursday night. (Hubby’s not British, but I guess Ireland is close enough in proximity for him to garner an invite.) In any case, he’s attended this annual party before and felt confident I’d be impressed with a visit to the Governor’s mansion and the food served there.

The party itself seemed fine and the crowd an interesting group. Hearing so many foreign accents in the middle of Indianapolis was a little strange, I must admit, but they all seemed to be enjoying the camaraderie of their common homeland. I was happy enough to play my role as gracious arm candy and people-watch. Governor Mitch was even on hand to greet everyone and say a few words. The food, I’m sorry to say, was the biggest disappointment of the evening.

I forget the name of the caterers, which is telling in and of itself. Even if I could remember it, I wouldn’t use it here to protect their identities. The food was boring and forgettable. A platter of cheese and crackers with a few wilted looking strawberries, skewers of chewy grilled steak and peppers, chicken fingers that weren’t terribly hot or crisp, and some kind of stuffed mushrooms that didn’t look the least bit appealing. I think they contained crab and cheese, but I wasn’t willing to taste one and find out. Now, I know the British aren’t traditionally known for quality and variety in their cuisine, but this was a downright insult!

After an hour and a half of shop talk and networking, we called it quits and headed to the Rathskeller to meet some of my friends for a quick drink before collecting our little one and heading home.

The next night saw us attending an IRL VIP reception downtown at the Conrad, one of the select few four-star hotels in Indianapolis. I had never been inside and was looking forward to checking it out. My cousin Jenny, our babysitter for the evening, was nearly more excited than I was, convinced we were going to be rubbing elbows and hobnobbing with the likes of Playboy Bunnies, Mario Lopez, Carlos Diaz and other celebrities who happened to be in town for the race. Alas, our party took place from 6:30 until 8 p.m., ending well before the big red carpet do, which didn’t start until well after 9 p.m. I was sorry not to come home with photos of myself getting chummy with (team owner and racing enthusiast) Patrick Dempsey, but c’est la vie.

The Conrad party was held in the Vitesse lounge, a trendy little joint full of dark seats and an impressive bar. We were greeted by several of hubby’s contacts and left to explore the buffet. Now THIS is what I’m talking about, Willis. The invitation clued us in to expect heavy hors d’oeuvres, but this was an insanely high-class spread of tasty items, not to mention the handful of attentive servers who passed hors d’oeuvres though the room at regular intervals as well.

The buffet had a distinctly Mediterranean feel – pita bread with olives, roasted peppers, hummus, marinated artichokes, feta cheese, pine nuts, and the like, but that’s only scratching the surface. There was also an array of salads and hot items as well – satay-style chicken skewers with dipping sauces, roasted jumbo shrimp, slices of juicy pork tenderloin, and even a chafing dish of succulent baby lamb chops. I’d never thought of lamb chops as a finger food, but these worked. Perfectly cooked and tender enough to nibble right off the bone, no fork required. The servers passed delectable crab cakes the size of golf balls; chilled shrimp and cocktail sauce; some kind of interesting little tidbit of toasted bread with kiwi, strawberries and cheese, and I can’t even remember what else. Heavy wasn’t the word – these hors d’oeuvres were like a little nine-course tasting menu!

Then there were the desserts… the desserts were a whole buffet all by themselves. I managed to taste three of the half dozen or so options – a shot glass filled with rich chocolate pot de creme, a light-as-air raspberry mousse cake and a tiny pecan tart. All mouthwateringly good. The service was impeccable, too. No sooner did you set down an empty plate or napkin than it was discreetly whisked away before a crumb could hit the floor. I shudder to think what a spread like that must set a person back… hubby and I agreed we’d come back sometime for a drink at the bar and maybe a nosh or two.

So that was Friday night. Saturday night was my friend Alison’s birthday party, another downtown bash. She had chosen to gather some girlfriends at Oceannaire for cocktails and appetizers at the bar, and then proceed on to wherever the evening might lead. Oceannaire was yet another place I’d never been and was excited to check out. Hubby is not a seafood fan, an occasional fish and chips at the Brew Pub is about as far as he goes, but I love it when it’s fresh and done well.

The Oceannaire was just starting to fill up when we all arrived early in the evening, but we snagged seats at the bar and stayed perched there as the place became busy around us. Generous glasses of wine and cocktails flowed. We all ordered food from the appetizer menu; I would love to come back sometime to partake in a full-fledged dinner. Among our group, we covered the calamari, shrimp cocktail, crabcakes and oyster shooters. I couldn’t pass up the crab cocktail, a huge goblet stuffed with shredded iceberg lettuce and loaded up with big chunks of icy cold jumbo lump crabmeat. A side of spicy cocktail sauce was so good, I could have picked it up and sipped it. Deeeeeelicious. We passed around a big steaming plate of hash brown potatoes (enough for about six of us to share and still have some left over) and a plate of tasty green beans almondine. Every bite was fabulous.

And to top it all off, Alison’s good friend Gillian made her a birthday cake from scratch, an outrageously chocolaty concoction with a ganache filling and creamy chocolate frosting. I think we all sighed a collective sigh of utter contentment after taking the first mouthful. As Alison is a frosting junkie, Gillian had the foresight to bring an extra ramekin of extra icing and ganache for the birthday girl. Now THAT’s a pal. Kinda made me wish my own birthday wasn’t so far away…

So for the race weekend events, I batted a solid two for three when it comes to good eats in Indy.