|Bread and olive oil dipping sauce at Facci|
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.
- 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.
|Papadam and chutneys at Royal Taj|
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?