The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

In the ‘Chain’ Gang, Longhorn is a Cut Above

I’m all about raising awareness and support of solid, independent, locally owned restaurants, choosing to spend my dining out dollars at such places the vast majority of time. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good quality “chain” restaurants out there.

lobster filetJust like most people, we occasionally find ourselves inside one of these national behemoths and I’m here to tell you: All chains are NOT created equally.

Most are cookie-cutter concepts offering average tasting, oversized portions served by unenthusiastic (yet tragically over-blinged) servers – dreading their next summons to sing “Happy, Happy Birthday” to a squirming toddler.

But some are good, really good, and I’ve always put Longhorn Steakhouse in that category. I recently stopped in to try out the restaurant’s new winter seasonal menu and was reminded just how top-notch this place is.

bacon cheese dipI know what you’re thinking, folks, but hear me out.

The creamy Vermont white cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon dip, flecked with green onions and served with crispy pita triangles, was dreamy. My broccoli Asiago cheddar soup was rich and flavorful, but not overly thick and heavy.

The Blue Ridge wedge salad was your typical combination – crisp hearts of romaine, plump tomatoes, bacon, crumbled blue cheese, red onions and blue cheese dressing – but all were very fresh.

My steak was spectacular.

The tender, juicy center-cut filet topped with lobster and tangy lobster hollandaise over fresh steamed asparagus was not only top-quality beef, but was also served at the perfect medium-rare temperature I requested. (A true rarity, which is why I rarely do the chain thing.)

cheese soupThe pecan praline sweet potato casserole with coconut topping served with it was decent – not at all overly sweet – and the Black Forest cherry lava cake I ended with was a fine finisher, although it was missing its promised molten center.

All items above are part of the restaurant’s special seasonal menu, which will change again within the next few weeks, but there are some shining stars on the regular menu as well.

I’m telling you, the food was strong from start to finish.

  • IF YOU GO: Longhorn Steakhouse at 91 RHL Blvd. (between Dudley Farms and Trace Fork shopping centers) is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. For more information, call 304-744-4112 or visit

Kiss for a Free Queso – Today Only at Qdoba

Now here’s a Valentine’s Day restaurant promotion that I actually get a kick out of … 

Go into any Qdoba Mexican Grill today and kiss your mate – or a complete stranger, if they’re willing – and you’ll get a free entrée with a purchase of one of the restaurant’s Queso entrées.

The fourth-annual “Queso for a Kiss” campaign coincides with the rollout of the chain’s new Queso Diablo and Queso Verde creations launched just this week.

Queso Diablo features a blend of fiery jalapenos and smoky chipotles, while Queso Verde incorporates fresh cilantro and lime juice for a smooth and zesty flavor. The original 3-Cheese Queso is available, too, and any of these three options can be enjoyed in a burrito or variety of entrees.

Charleston’s two Qdoba locations are at Trace Fork and Charleston Town Center mall. For more information, check out

Now who’s ready to pucker up? I’m hungry!

In what has become an annual tradition, Applebee’s will once again honor our nation’s veterans by offering them a free signature entree on Veterans Day.

Veterans can visit any Applebee’s location this Friday and enjoy their choice of free meals ranging from a seven-ounce house sirloin, bacon cheddar cheeseburger or three-cheese chicken penne to an oriental chicken salad, chicken tenders, lime chicken or double-crunch shrimp.

Veterans will need to provide proof of service, which includes an official U.S. military ID card, current leave and earnings statement, veterans organization card, a photograph in uniform or by simply wearing their uniform.

The national restaurant chain gave away more than 1 million free meals during last year’s event. For more information on the promotion, visit

Great News Regarding Healthier Kids Menus

Here’s some great news on the healthy eating front …

First Lady Michelle Obama has joined Darden Restaurants and Partnership for a Healthier America in announcing a “breakthrough” health and wellness commitment in the restaurant industry. Darden — whose brands include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze — is the world’s largest full service restaurant company and owns and operates 1,900 restaurants in 49 states, serving over 400 million meals per year.

Here’s what they have agreed to and, as a parent of three boys who dine out often, I’m telling you this is huge:

  • A fruit or vegetable will be the default side for every kids’ menu item. (Not fries or mac ‘n’ cheese.)
  • 1% milk will be the default beverage, provided automatically if no alternate beverage is requested.  Milk will be prominently promoted on the menu and made available with free refills. 
  • Food illustrations on the menu will promote the healthy choices for meals and drinks.
  • Healthier menu options will be more prominently displayed when possible.
  • Carbonated beverages will not be displayed on children’s menus. (HALLELUJAH!)
  • Improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat and 600 mg of sodium.

Some changes have gone into effect immediately, with all being fully implemented by July 2012.

In announcing the news, Obama said: “I’m here today because this is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry. Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before. They’re not just making their kids menus healthier so that parents have more choices and more control, they’re committing to make changes across the full menu at every single one of their restaurants.

“I’m confident that if companies like Darden continue to be creative and innovative and keep our kids’ best interests at heart then we will solve the challenge of childhood obesity and give all our kids the healthy futures they deserve.”

So, today’s “National Splurge Day” – and if you were in New York City, you’d have PLENTY of ways to celebrate.

Picksie – a recently launched location-based entertainment and dining guide offering up-to-the-minute personalized recommendations – has created a fun list of extravagant (but oh, so, pricey) splurges in the Big Apple. So if you have a few C-notes to spend on dinner, the most expensive …

  • Prefix dinner: Masa, $400+
  • Burger: Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne, $150 (with 20 grams of shaved truffles)
  • Steak: Old Homestead Steakhouse, $150 Gold Kobe 10 oz. sirloin
  • Drink: Covet Lounge, $100 Icharus Cocktail (with Louis XIII’s $1,600/bottle cognac)
  • Sushi: Masa, $240 Masa Toro with caviar roll ($70 per piece)                                  
  • Dessert: Serendipity, $1,000 gold-leaf sundae complete with gold spoon
  • Breakfast: Le Parker Meridien, $1,000 caviar omelet

Check out  to create your own account and find out which location Picksie recommends for your ultimate day of indulgence!

Capitol Roasters Rolls Out New Sandwiches

Since I work from home, I occasionally pack up ye’ ol’ laptop and head out to one of my many branch offices to break up the monotony of the day. These are cozy spots where I can settle in for a few hours, sip coffee or grab some lunch and, of course, scam free wi-fi.

For me, these places are lifesavers. You simply know them as Capitol Roasters, Taylor Books, Panera Bread, Books-a-Million, First Watch and the like.

So I popped into Capitol Roasters (corner of Quarrier and Summers streets) the other day and noticed they’ve offering a few new sandwiches on the menu. In addition to their always tasty wraps, soups and larger-than-life baked treats, I’m especially fond of their fantastically flat paninis and other warm and melty sammiches.

And now there are a handful of new ones to try:

  • Alaskan Salmon Melt — Flaked, wild-caught Alaskan pink salmon with lemon, sprices and smoked mozzarella cheese on ciabatta.
  • Chicken Athena — Pulled chicken breast with feta cheese, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomato pesto mayo and smoked mozzarella on focaccia.
  • Florentino — Oven-roasted turkey breast with baby spinach, marinated artichoke, roasted red pepper, basil pesto mayo and havarti cheese on focaccia.
  • Chicken Chutney — Pulled chicken breast with cracked pepper, topped with creamy gorgonzola spread, apple-pear chutney and buttery havarti cheese on ciabatta.
  • Get Roasted — Tender roast beef with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and cheedar on ciabatta. 

If this lineup is anything like the last, you’re in for a treat. And if you want a little heads-up before you try them, check back here often for my take on them …

I guarantee I’ll work my way through the new menu in the coming weeks!

Win a Stack of Free Pancakes – Every Day of the Year

Love you some pancakes?

IHOP will reward one lucky winner with a year’s supply of free pancakes (that’s one short stack every single day of the year) through its “Stacks for Good Acts” online contest, which coincides with the company’s annual free pancake giveaway fundraiser benefitting Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

Good Samaritans everywhere are invited to submit a story of 250 words or less on about a good deed they or someone they know did in 2010. Entries will be judged on emotional impact, originality and entertainment value. One grand prize entry will receive free pancakes for one year.

Entries can be submitted now through midnight Feb. 25, with the winner announced on National Pancake Day, March 1. On that day, IHOP will also give customers a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes from 7-10 a.m. in exchange for a voluntary donation to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals or another local charity.

For more information and rules, visit

For those who were intrigued by last week’s post, I gotta tell you that New Year’s Eve at Bridge Road Bistro totally rocked …

We enjoyed toasting the end of 2010 at the restaurant that night with some really great food. (See the full four-course menu a couple of posts down.) My wife had the crab cake, beet salad, striped bass and apple tart, while I enjoyed the quail, baby bibb salad, lamb chops and decadent chocolate cake. Not a sub-par dish in the bunch.

Love that Bistro!

I know I’m supposed to be a serious food writer and all, but I kinda dig the Olive Garden. (And fans do say THE Olive Garden, even though “the” is not part of its name.)

Once the butt of many a chain restaurant jokes, the Olive Garden back in 1999 teamed up with the Culinary Institute of Tuscany in an effort to reinvent itself.

Yeah right, I thought, and was horrified when my editor at the time asked me to go review the new menu for a restaurant critique. “Olive Garden?” I squealed – this is before I became a fan, thus no “the” – “At the mall!?”

But I reported for duty, skeptical wife in hand, to sample some of the new wares. Wow! This was not the Olive Garden I remember.

We started the evening with delicious new appetizers, ended it with impressive baked desserts, and filled the middle with delicious gourmet entrees and nicer quality wines. Amy still talks about the pork loin we enjoyed that night – and it’s been more than 10 years.

Now I seriously don’t go back that often, but I’m always pretty impressed when I do. I think it’s one of the rare national chains that actually keeps getting better instead of resting on its “lowest common denominator” laurels. I adore the Braised Beef and Tortelloni (sliced short ribs tossed with cheesy pasta, mushrooms and a basil-marsala sauce) and just this week I sampled the delicious Vino Bianco Pork Scaloppini featuring pan-seared pork cutlets served with asiago cheese-filled tortelloni tossed with roasted portabella mushrooms and green onions in a white wine cream sauce. (That last one’s only being offered for a limited time, so rush in if interested.) And I usually manage to sneak a bite from other plates that are just as tasty.

Sure, there’s too much fat and cream and salt. And it’s really unnecessary to shred cheese over EVERY SINGLE THING they bring to the table, as they are want to do. The garlic breadsticks aren’t all that – and I think it’s socially criminal that they offer them to overweight Americans in unlimited quantities.

But I can say no to a tsunami of cheese, stop after one breadstick and actually enjoy my meal. Which I do, every time.

Highlight on New Blossom Deli Menu is a Real Killer

If you missed my review of the newly revived Blossom Deli in today’s Daily Mail, well, shame on you. But you can still check it out here:

In the story, you’ll notice that I wrote about an unbelievable sandwich that’s now offered on the menu. Here’s what I said:

“There’s also this frighteningly intriguing new creation called “The C-A-B-G.” You can’t make this stuff up, so in the menu’s own words …

“Only a select few truly know what it stands for, so please keep it to yourself. All you need to know is that after only one bite your heart will literally skip a beat. We begin with a classic Blossom grilled cheese on Texas toast, any style you like. Next, we top it with four Buzz Buttered Steaks, Applewood bacon, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo before we finish construction with another Blossom grilled cheese on top.”

As if four burgers stacked between two grilled cheeses weren’t enough, you can also “double” or “triple” it for a few bucks more.

Is this some kind of joke? The C-A-B-G must stand for Calling All Big Guys. Or Croak At (Once) By God.

But wait, there’s more!

One of the new owners, Jim Nester, wrote in to say: “I have to say you’re stab at the CABG acronym made me laugh out loud…you should hear some of the guesses we’ve had.  You did forget that it has a fried egg and slices of thick bacon 😉   While we expected to sell one a week given the grandeur of the CABG, we’ve been surprised that we’ve sold at least one every day we’ve been open – including a few doubles.”

All of that and fried egg and bacon, too??!! I’m not sure if I’m horrified — or marching right down there tomorrow to get one!