Dear Dara

Well-reasoned rants on mayonnaise, plagiarism, and the hoped-for demise of the pretend seaside

But seriously, you all: I am so touched. I'm blushing as I write this, but really, it was so flattering, such a highlight of my year, and, on a truly personal note, I got word of it right as I was getting beat with sacks of oranges by people who are hell-bent on keeping me down, though I can't go into the real details, and the short of it is that you are all my rescuers, and I thank you so much.


Dear Dara;

Not-so-fast seafood: Corvina sea bass at Vincent a Restaurant
Kathy Easthagen
Not-so-fast seafood: Corvina sea bass at Vincent a Restaurant

I love your reviews. My favorites are the politically edged ones that contain well-reasoned rants against chain restaurants. Please continue to fight the good fight. As someone who lives in the Highland neighborhood of St. Paul, surrounded by Chipotle Grill, Noodles and Co., and Leeann Chin, all of which are perpetually overflowing with human customers, I find this trend particularly distressing.

Peter of Highland Park


Dear Dara;

Red Lobster announced today it has completed an enhancement of its eight Twin Cities restaurants with the company's new "Coastal Home" redesign that emphasizes the bright, open feel of the sea.

In developing the new Coastal Home concept, Red Lobster brought together architects, kitchen designers, operators, and guests to come up with a coastal look that was appealing to consumers and true to the company's brand. Designers created a relaxing coastal experience that guests can relate to--whether they enjoy seaside locations from the Northeast to California, or from the Carolina coast to Key West.

"Our guests have an emotional tie to the ocean," said John Altomare, Red Lobster's senior vice president of concept development. "It's a place they go to relax and connect, to vacation, to enjoy great times with family and friends. Our Coastal Home look reinforces these feelings and memories."

The Twin Cities area is key to Red Lobster's growth strategy. The National Restaurant Association's 2003 Restaurant Industry Forecast expects sales in Minnesota to increase 4.4 percent to $5.95 billion [for all restaurants].

Red Lobster is the world's largest seafood casual dining operation with more than 670 restaurants in the United States and Canada and approximately 70,000 employees. The company served more than 140 million guests in fiscal 2002 (ending May 31, 2002) and enjoyed total sales of $2.34 billion, a 7.1 percent increase over the previous year. The company is a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants Inc. Darden also owns and operates Olive Garden.


Dear Darden Restaurants;

Stop writing to me! Just stuff your stupid press releases up your stupid lobsters and jump in a seaside location of your choice, from the Northeast to California, or from the Carolina coast to Key West! Which are areas that have very little in common, frankly, except that my prestigious, high-income, highly literate, highly desirable readers are fond of coastal areas, and not fond of you! And if the February 3 issue of Fortune magazine is to be believed, your days are numbered. How's that?

Well, basically, fast crappy food is on its way out: This winter McDonald's stock was "trading near its seven-year low, its chief executive quit, and in the nine months ended September 30 its global same-store sales were off 2.1 percent. Burger King, meanwhile, was sold to an investor group at a $700 million discount from the original sale price." Meanwhile, "Whole Foods Markets, the Austin supermarket chain that sells mostly natural and organic groceries, led its sector with profit growth of 20 percent last year."

You know what sucks, Red Lobster? Having a corporate growth strategy premised on exploiting people's longing for a seaside vacation. You know what's amazing? That in the six years I've been doing this more and more people have been looking around and saying, "I will not eat poop, either literally in terms of irradiated beef or the piss-scented meat of corporate farmed pork, or figuratively in terms of fake experiences in fake places."

(Hey, if anyone out there hasn't tried the taste test of organic pork versus the ammonia-scented reek of corporate-raised hogs, you are advised to do it posthaste, it's a terrifyingly vivid experiment.)

And you know what else it amazing? Everything I've had lately from the humming-like-a-perfect-music-box kitchen of Vincent. Like the pig's trotter salad, a warm, glistening glaze gellied to the texture of summer rain, offering the taste of allspice and luxury as it drifted like warm vapor across the tongue ($8.95), or an unforgettable fillet of monkfish ($23.50), in which a white and light custard of a middle was surrounded by a crisp armor of brown seared skin, the sort of preparation that only a closely-attending chef can pull off. Oh, Vincent. I've been revisiting our light-and-bright downtown home of chef Vincent Francoual, onetime Le Bernardin chef, and gift to all Minnesotans, and you know what? There is more greatness and heart at the host-stand at Vincent than in Darden's entire $2 billion chain.


Dear Readers, did you know that Vincent recently debuted a $25 prix-fixe bistro menu? It's true: Monday through Thursday, all night long. The menu changes weekly, but a recent one offered a first course of soup, or corn custard with sweet peas in a tomato-piquillo broth and goat cheese fondant; and an entrée of your choice--roasted quail stuffed with rhubarb, with creamy polenta and spring asparagus; or pan-seared trout with braised escarole, potatoes Parisienne and caper butter; for a final course, your choice from the renowned dessert or cheese menu. (Dinner without dessert is only $22.)

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