Monday, January 10, 2011

Howard County Restaurant Weeks 2011

The Howard County Winter Restaurant Weeks kick off on January 17 and offer you an excuse to get out of the house and explore some great food.

The theme for 2011 is "international flair," but the attraction from January 17 to 31 remains special prix fixe menus where you get to splurge.  You need to commit some cash -- $10-19 for lunch and $29-41 for dinner -- but you get an extra course or a special preparation.

As of today, I'd highlight the relocated Aida Bistro in Columbia.  This would be a fun way to try out the new, larger space.  I also like the menus that have been posted by Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia ($29 dinners like a poached pear salad, chipotle and chocolate braised beef shortribs, and dessert) and Portalli's in Ellicott City ($30 dinners like calamari, a blood orange-poached snapper escabeche and s'more made with homemade shortbread).  To go all out, consider the $40 dinner at Ranzul in Fulton where you get four courses like a pear salad, fish tacos, short ribs and creme brulee.

Check out the list of restaurants -- particularly those that have been updated to show their special menus.  I'm going to keep an eye on Bistro Blanc in Glenelg because restaurant weeks seem designed for kitchen that do something special.  You agree to a big meal, and they try to show you why you should come back all year long.

(Update: Check out Trip Klaus' comment below.  That's a voice worth following, and he highlights the Cafe de Paris lunch because it's $10 and Victoria, which upscaled the lunch to $19 but has a menu that still interests him.  Also, check out Paul and Dennis' video promoting Restaurant Weeks.)

Remember that I'm the hometown cheerleader when I say that I can't just ignore the list of restaurants.  The theme is "international flair," but, on the current list, Union Jacks qualifies as ethnic food.  I get that the promotion is aimed at expensive kitchens, and you get lovely French, Italian and Mexican options.  But the list was flexible enough to include Looney's and Union Jacks, which we agree is your hometown spot for $1 drinks during "power hour" but doesn't even mention food on its main Web page.  There wasn't a single Asian restaurant willing to join restaurant weeks?  

(Update: vamunmdg makes a good point in a comment about pricing when you share dishes and don't have appetizers, but I could imagine sushi or Indian places doing courses.  Many Indian places already have thalis or special menus.)


Anonymous said...

I think it's sort of hard for Asian restaurants to join Rest. Wk b/c food is generally shared. Harder to do a fixed price for a fixed # of dishes that way (also there aren't "courses"). But, I suppose sushi restaurants could do something for Restaurant Week more easily.

Trip Klaus said...

Ever since Restaurant Week started in Howard County I've been surprised by the general apathy by the consumers and confusion by the restauranteurs. What's the point, both sides ask. In DC top restaurants like Bistro Bis and Taberna del Alabardero pack diners in at lunch with prices around $20 for top quality food and normal portions. Their hope is that people who might not other visit will be so impressed they will come back for an expensive dinner. The raw number of people who visit make up for the discounted prices. Typically their dinners are less of a value. I highly suggest the blog post by Washingtonian Magazine's Todd Kliman about what he calls "Free Dessert Week."

In Baltimore there seems to be out right derision of Restaurant Week. People take the time to bash the restaurants that offer it.

In Howard, some restaurants seem to want to increase traffic and offer value, some want to showcase their talents or try something new, and some just seem to participate to get their name out.

Not all of the menus are out, but here are my impressions.

Value/ Free Desert: Tersiguel's, King's Contrivance, Elkridge Furnace Inn, Iron Bridge

Special: Bistro Blanc, Portalli's Victoria Gastro Pub, Coho Grill

Why: Looney's, Greystone, Ram's Head ($40?)Ranazul (same food as normal again at $40)

Cafe de Paris replaces Victoria Gastro Pub as the best lunch time deal. Last year Victoria offered items like onion soup and a cuban sandwich for $10. This year they decided to upscale the lunch and charge $19. I'm happy with the menu and will try it at least once, but will miss the deal. So I will return to Cafe de Paris for the first time in a couple of years to try their $10 lunch special. If it's good I will return a couple of times.

Either now, or during the weeks I'm happy to hear suggestions from others.

Jess said...

My husband and I had a great meal at Ranazul during the last Restaurant Week, so we're plannin to head back there. We're considering Bistro Blanc as well, as we haven't been before, and it seems like a good time to try.

Lee Biars said...

I think you hit the nail on the head- Some restaurants truly want to offer value to just get people in the door, some want to showcase their talents, and some just do it because they think they should and end up putting out a half-assed menu.

The conundrum is that it's usually the value that will draw in people who otherwise wouldn't eat there, but to showcase your talents you need interesting ingredients which cost more money. Nobody's going to go to your place specifically to try the grilled chicken with beurre blanc, mashed and veg, but they will for a pan-roasted duck breast with macadamia nut stuffing and grilled artichoke hearts. But you can't sell the duck with 2 other courses for $20 and remain profitable. So which way do you go? Does a $20 menu with the chicken bring more people in, or does the $30 menu with the duck? I guess it depends on your restaurant's theme and target clientele.

As an example (shameless plug alert), the first restaurant week we did at Diamondback Tavern we offered a $20 menu and offered mostly stuff that was on our menu. Being a newer restaurant, we didn't know what to expect and wanted to play it safe the first time around. We were packed almost every night. The following season we thought we could build on that and did a $30 ramped up menu with more interesting preparations and all locally bought ingredients. We thought we wouldn't see a drop off because the price increase was in direct proportion to our costs and the quality of product, but we ended up doing about half the business we did when we offered a $20 menu. So in our case, it really was the $20 pricepoint that drew them to us. This time we're trying $25 and we'll see what happens.

I think in general the most popular restaurant week places are the high end restaurants that offer a great value. I think most would agree that 3 courses for $30 at Tersiguel's, Victoria's or Portalli's (two shameless plugs in one post!) is a great value, and I wouldn't be surprised to see those 3 places packed every night for both weeks. Then there are some restaurants that I don't think will get that many additional diners from restaurant week (I'll let you decide which ones they are)