Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Best Things In Life Are Free -- But Where?

Bread and olive oil dipping sauce at Facci
Facci Ristorante has changed its bread, and you'd be surprised at how much that seems to matter.

Free stuff matters in restaurants.  I know owners hate the waste, but these little things can set the tone -- and even make the meal.

That's why we noticed the bread at Facci on Johns Hopkins Road.  For a long time, they'd served some kind of pre-buttered bread.  Very soft.  A bit greasy.  We like the food at Facci, but we normally said up front not to bring the bread because we didn't want it.  And didn't want to waste if we didn't eat it.

(Waiters -- You don't re-use the bread bowls, do you?  Okay, maybe you shouldn't tell me.)

But we were at Facci a few weeks ago, and the waitress brought sliced Italian bread.  Plain, basic bread with a terrific olive oil dipping sauce.  Mostly oil with a bunch of salt and spices.  It immediately jazzed up the afternoon.

So what are the best free extras in Howard County?  Great bread.  Great chips in a Mexican restaurant.  These can be basic items, but I understand that thin margins make restaurants reluctant to give anything away for free.  That makes me pay extra attention when a kitchen cares enough to send out something special.

Delicious food makes me happy.  Plus, it sets the stage that the kitchen has aspirations -- and won't cut corners on anything that you order. As I read my list, I think it isn't a coincidence that these places rank among my "Best of Howard County."

Five great items for me:
  • Thick, earthy tortilla chips at the new Xitomate in Columbia.  These were really unique.  They dip into wonderful salsa.  The waiter offered a second bowl.  The chips make the point that Xitomate wants to serve unusual food.
  • Papadam and chutneys at Royal Taj
  • Green tea at Sushi Sono in Columbia.  It's delicious, and they'll pour cup after cup as you enjoy your sushi.  This shows the good will created by an extra.  With three or four great sushi restaurants around, I can be swayed to Sushi Sono by thoughts of enjoying the tea.
  • Biscuits at Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia.  Perfect pastry, spread slightly with butter.  So good they were an early post.  So versatile that they're the base of Victoria's poached egg breakfasts.
  • Papadum at Royal Taj in Columbia.  House of India offers terrific spiced crackers as you read the menu, but I think Royal Taj's may be even better.  Thick, crisp and served with fresh, super-flavorful chutneys -- a green spicy mixture and a chunky tomato and onion version with less kick.
  • Panchan at Shin Chon Garden in Ellicott City.  I debated whether the items above can really compare with the table of small dishes that Shin Chon delivers to every table.  But the truth is that Shin Chon doesn't have to deliver six or eight different vegetables, pickles and slivers of meat.  Other Korean restaurants serve three or four and nothing special.  To me, the great draw of Shin Chon is that we barbecue thin-sliced meats and contrast them with the ever-changing array of kimchi, marinated tofu, pickled radish, potato salad, slices of squid . . .   If you want to try, check out my Korean 101 post for "first visit" instructions.
Am I right that hot tea is free at Noodles Corner?  I always recommend asking for the free barley tea at Shin Chon, and I think Noodles Corner pours free tea as well in heavy metal tea pots that add drama to a shopping center dinner.

What other places go the extra mile on complimentary stuff?  Tortilla chips?  Breads?  I have a memory of a lunch at Tersiguel's in Ellicott City where the bread basket was exceptional.  The Facci bread is fine, but it was noteworthy only because of what it replaced and what it can be dipped in.  Who does spectacular bread?


Marcia said...

Well, those things are exactly "free". You are paying for them, the cost is built into what you pay for your meal & drinks, along with the other operating expenses the restaurant incurs.

But I understand your point. Those items set the tone for the rest of the meal. Good bread, light & fresh tortilla chips, fresh salsa, they make a difference. Even if you don't devour them, they tell you whether or not the restaurant is paying attention to details.

Jody said...

The brunch pastry basket at Elkridge Furnace good! Not exactly "free" as it's included in the $27 brunch (no a la carte option), but it was an excellent start to a great meal. The warm chocolate crossaint and raspberry scone were the two most memorable in the basket.

kam said...

Unless it's changed recently, the tea at Noodles Corner isn't free. There are a few varieties you can order off the menu; they're quite good and the teapot provides several cups' worth, plus it's just fun to pour out of a big metal pot. But it's not free.

Also, the Xitomate menu says they charge for the second basket of chips, but they may not be enforcing that yet. Or maybe they throw in an extra basket if you order guacamole. Either way, they're tasty.


Dave Bittner said...

Our kids love the garlic knots at Tomato Palace, so much so that we have to put limits on them, lest they ruin their appetites before the main course arrives. There's nothing subtle about them, but they help make Tomato Palace an easy sell when we're looking for something a little more upscale than fast food, yet still family friendly.

bearmom32 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bearmom32 said...

Zapata's in the Harper's Choice Village Center has yummy warm tomato salsa and in the summer, outside tables that overlook a landscaped plaza. Nice!

Koby said...

We love the free chewy milk candies that come with the check at Yama. Perfect way to end a meal.

Anonymous said...

It's a chain, but Bertucci's bread is delicious. They usually come out warm, with a hard crust and soft inside and herb-filled oil to dip them in. We always order an extra pack of them right before we leave to take home and eat with our leftovers.

Anonymous said...

Mama Lucia's in Columbia brings a generous serving of toasted Italian bread and delicious dipping oil rich with garlic and herbs before you ever order.

Anonymous said...

The warm ciabatta from Luna Bella (hint: it's from The Breadery on Oella Ave).

Just Plane Jayne said...

I love that they bring free shots of Grand Marnier with your check at Pub Dog. It's not all the time -- and I haven't figured out the specific conditions -- but it's a nice way to end a meal at a place that doesn't have dessert.

Gabrielle said...

I agree with the comment about Bertucci's rolls - they're wonderful. As for the panchan at Shin Chon, not only do they bring out a wonderfully large selection of them, but if you finish them, they bring out some more!

Scott said...

In the county? Probably Terisguel's bread service.

Penny said...

The roti at Mango Grove! It's almost my favorite part of the meal.

Gina said...

Uncle Julio's has a great smokey salsa we love.
And don't forget the dough balls in syrup(not sure what they are called) they give you after your meal at Royal Taj.

Eric said...

...gulab jamun (sp), the first Indian food my wife learned to cook, back in college.