A couple of weeks ago, “Monk”, “Jazzy” and I ended up in Langley on an overcast Monday afternoon. We stumbled upon Langley a week before, when due to a comedy of errors, we “did not see Avatar 3D.” I’m almost a little embarrassed to say this, but we went back to Langley purposely to check out the big box shopping. “Monk” insists we went back because strip malls and poor urban planning comforts me and developments like Langley remind me of the suburban sprawl of Toronto. The real mission of the day was to go to the gigantic pet store and pick up some fishies for the “cutest baby in the world Jazzy,” but as usual, we also needed to get some lunch.
“Monk” and I have been joking about the Olive Garden for years. Well, I’ve been joking, she’s been putting up with my repetitive and one-sided humor. Long before she met me and while she was “dating some other clown,” she apparently developed a taste for all things Olive Garden. Apparently, she loves the all-u-can-eat bread sticks and the all-u-can-eat salad and has had good experiences at California, Florida and Langley locations. The Olive Garden is much more popular back east and in the States and I’ve had a few Olive Garden experiences of my own. I remember one meal, where me and ten golfing buddies went/stumbled to an Olive Garden in Orlando. That meal was memorable purely because of the stupid amount of bad wine we drank and the extremely attractive servers we were trying to seduce. Later in the evening, I also remember a pack of wild armadillos crossing the highway, but armadillos and sassy servers are a whole different story. “Monk” and I went to an Olive Garden in Bellingham a few years back, only because I knew she wanted to go (I needed the brownie points) and that meal was ruined by hair in the food and below par service and below par food quality. I love the scene from “The Bachelor” a few years back, when Andrew Firestone goes on a dinner date with a “gorgeous blonde bimbo.” At the time, Firestone was the manager of his family owned winery and was well-rooted in the California wine and dining community. His dinner date says, “What’s your favorite, like, restaurant chain? I like the Olive Garden!” When he smirked and didn’t respond favorably to the Olive Garden, she questioned his appreciation for Italian food and I didn’t stop laughing for a half an hour. Years later, this scene still cracks me up and who says reality TV ain’t real and awesome? So, do I have biases towards the Olive Garden? I certainly do. It’s a big chain, everything is pre-packaged, it’s un-authentic, pseudo-American Italian food. The Olive Garden stands for everything that I don’t believe in, when it comes to cooking good Italian food. I’ve never claimed to be an expert on the Italian cucina, but I worked for Vancouver’s top Italian maestro a few years back and I feel I have a pretty good appreciation and understanding of genuine Italian cuisine.
Since we were in Langley, I half-jokingly suggested that we go to the Olive Garden for lunch and “Monk” happily agreed. I had no idea where else to eat, so I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to “bank some good will with the wife”, plus I could make endless jokes about the meal and be the pain in the ass, that I am so good at being. We rolled into the parking lot of the Olive Garden [20080 Langley Bypass, Langley, (604) 514-3499] at 2:45 on that fateful Monday afternoon. We went in, were greeted warmly and were told that there was going to be a short 5/10 minute wait until a table was ready. They handed up a spaceship looking pager/buzzer/thingee that vibrates when your table is ready and we had a seat in the foyer. I was in a state of shock and I couldn’t for the life of me, believe that they did not have a table for 3 at 2:45pm, in this monstrosity of a faux-Tuscan restaurant. In only a few minutes, the hostess led us to our table and I was genuinely surprised to see this place basically full, of relatively happy looking diners. We were sat and within a minute, a server was “crouching at out table,” telling us the “specials” and pouring us a taste of “plonk” sangiovese. I started to look at the menu and decided to let “Monk” order for the two of us, since this was her “special occasion” and she seemed so “at home” in our new Tuscan inspired surroundings. After much deliberation and contemplation (the menu is massive), she ordered spaghettini and meatballs and eggplant parm. After I realized what she ordered, I figured I needed to have a glass of wine, so I ordered a glass of Antinori to calm my nerves and settle my stomach. The server returned quickly, opened the bottle of Antinori, poured me a taste in the “smallest wine glass ever” and after nodding my approval, he proceed to fill the tiny glass to the brim, only 3 mm from “spillsville.”
A few minutes after the wine arrived, our endless bread sticks and salad arrived. The server offered some freshly ground pepper from one of those massive “pepper monkies” and freshly grated cheese for the salad as well. The bread was warm and tasty though “very industrial” in nature. The salad was fresh, reasonably tasty and it was a bit of a treat, since I haven’t tasted iceberg lettuce and pepperoncini in quite some time. I guess I can grow tired of eating hand harvested baby heirloom lettuces and sometimes a guy just wants a wedge of iceberg with lots of ranch dressing. If you haven’t already figured it out, I am not a food snob. Sure I like the good stuff, but I do not eat foie gras and caviar on my days off (only every now and again) and fully appreciate a good bowl of pho, a couple of warm Krispy Kremes or the meatloaf special at “Chubby’s Snack Shack.”
After a refill on salad and “sticks made of bread” our lunches arrived. The eggplant parm was hot, crispy and tasty. The eggplant itself was cooked very nicely. The side of pasta it came with was terrible, with the noodles being deathly overcooked and the sauce being ridiculously bland and watery. The spaghetti and meatballs were OK, again with the pasta being overdone for my liking, but apparently perfectly al-dente for “Monk.” Yowza! The meatballs tasted like the frozen meatballs you’d buy at Costco, but they weren’t offensive. Just not very good or special in any way. I’ll be honest, none of the food was offensive. I’m sure the food was all within their specs as far as food quality; everything tasted fine and the temperature of everything was very good. I had a lot of unanaswered questions floating in my head as we were eating our lunch. Is this Italian food? Do I use the spaghettti and meatballs from Babbo in NYC as the food benchmark? How come this place is so freaking busy? Why do I feel like I’m in Tuscany when I know I’m in Langley? Why does the server keep crouching down when he comes to our table? Do they really send their chefs to Tuscany to train and learn cooking techniques? If they do, are they hiring? I want to go to Tuscany so bad; drink the wine, eat the bisteka and meet Dario the butcher and try his smoked lardo. I really wanted to hate my meal at the Olive Garden, but I didn’t and in fact, I even ordered dessert. We ordered the zeppole and they were hot, fried dough covered in powdered sugar, that you dip in a chocolate sauce. Apart from them being a touch bready and the sauce being very similar to Nestle Quik, they were really good. My wife later reminded me; we once had a meal at one of Vancouver’s top restaurants, we were so disappointed with dinner, that we didn’t even stick around for dessert and ended up at Diva at the Met for dessert/coffee that evening. She figures I must have enjoyed this meal much more than that fancy schmancy meal and the truth is she might actually have a point.
Issue and concerns; the food is not very good, quality ingredients is not on their radar and mass-produced, pre-packaged gear is not my bag. Sure, the food isn’t great, the service is very TGIMcFunsters, but that’s OK, the Olive Garden “is what it is.” I can’t believe how busy it was at 3pm on a Monday afternoon and how can I possibly argue with “giving the guest what they want?” I’ve been preaching this gospel to my boys in the kitchen for the past two weeks and as a chef, I would love to learn some of their secrets and increase the popularity of Tapenade Bistro to their level, yet staying true to ourselves and keeping within the scope of what we do. This was a meal of curiosity quenching and intrinsic self discovery. It opened my eyes to my personal biases and there is definitely a good lesson to be learned from our trip to the Olive Garden. Will I go back? Only if “Monk” really wants to or I’ve been overly jerky and need to make ammends. If I’m the neighborhood and have a hankering for some fried dough, maybe a few quickie zeppoles at the bar.
On my chef’s night out scale, the Olive Garden receives 2.5/5 SOB (slices of bacon).