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Dinner at Olive Garden

I have written from time to time about Darden’s restaurant family, most recently at the beginning of June in a passing comment about Bahama Breeze, which also got brief coverage two Aprils ago after we ate there on Easter Sunday.

Olive Garden has always taken a back seat in my Darden musings, perhaps because we last ate there about a half year before I started this blog. The occasion for that meal was Gail’s mother’s birthday, April 1, 2008. That was a complicated time. I had just moved from the Dean’s Office back to the Math department, and two days later we would fly to Albuquerque for a week spent all over New Mexico. I wasn’t really keen to drive all the way up to Lynnwood, about 17 miles north of here, for a meal at Olive Garden. But Gail’s brother was in town, along with his wife, plus their daughter Heidi and her family. And when you throw in Gail’s sister and her husband, Lynnwood was as central a location for all of us as any. So that’s where we went, arriving at separate times spread over almost an hour, from work and home.

The one person absent was Gail’s mother herself. But maybe that was part of the plan. I can’t remember. What I do remember is that by the time I was able to head out of my office and get into traffic, I was running late. I was surprised to discover on arrival that Tamara and Jim were later still. This gave everyone time to fill up on Olive Garden’s famous unlimited salad and breadsticks while awaiting the late arrivals. Beyond that, I don’t remember much about the meal.

I know the dinner didn’t change my general impression that one can do better at various Italian restaurants in Seattle, so that if it’s just us eating, there’s no compelling reason to drive up there. Of course there are better high-end Italian restaurants, such as Il Terrazzo Carmine in Pioneer Square near the sports stadiums. That’s an unfair comparison. What would be a fair comparison? What non-chain Italian restaurant in Seattle? I’m not really sure. Nothing quite fills the same niche.

This has weighed on me for three years now, during which time I’ve been fascinated by Olive Garden’s ads. The food always looks so attractive. And then there’s the Culinary Institute of Tuscany. I love the concept. I mentioned it two-and-a-half years ago, in maybe my first piece on Darden restaurants, inspired by a WSJ article comparing Olive Garden to famed Chicago Italian restaurant Spiaggia. As Olive Garden explains,

We believe that a true passion for Italian cooking isn’t just created in the kitchen and classroom—it’s inspired by experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Italy firsthand. That’s why we created Olive Garden’s Culinary Institute of Tuscany. Here, in a quaint 11th century Tuscan village, more than 1,200 of our chefs and managers have been inspired by the art of authentic Italian cuisine so that they can share their knowledge and passion with you.

At our Culinary Institute of Tuscany, our teams learn the secrets of great Italian cooking. Watch their videos to see how their experiences help them create Italian inspired specials you’ll enjoy sharing with family and friends.

Do watch the videos. You can find them here. They’re well done. And you’ll find yourself thinking, as I did: Forget about eating at Olive Garden. How about applying for a slot at the academy?

Lately, in their ads, Olive Garden has been featuring their new “Carbonara Ravioli with Chicken: Parmesan and pancetta-filled carbonara ravioli with pan-seared chicken in a creamy parmesan sauce.” You can see it at top, or go for now (but perhaps not much longer) to their specials webpage. Another reason to go.

And finally, for Father’s Day, Gail gave me a Darden $25 gift certificate, good at several of their chains, including Olive Garden. Gail may have had in mind that we’d use it at Bahama Breeze, but I knew the moment I saw it that our three-year wait to return to Olive Garden was about to end.

The opportunity came on July 4 weekend. I have already written about our special Saturday evening, July 2, in a Safeco Field suite watching a Mariners game. The next day, Gail and I were free, and on July 4 itself, we had a couple of events lined up. July 3 was the day, two weeks ago.

I looked up the Olive Garden locations and discovered that we didn’t have to go all the way to Lynnwood. There’s a closer one, about half the distance, on the other side of Lake Washington in the Totem Lake Mall area of Kirkland. We hadn’t eaten much for breakfast or lunch, so an early dinner was in order. Off we went, arriving around 4:30 in the afternoon ready for the Olive Garden experience.

The restaurant was moderately crowded. Not packed, but closer to full than empty. We sat at a square four-top, near a window, with an attractive view of the restaurant. The wait staff was friendly and efficient. There sure is a lot to think about when studying the menu. Even though I had the carbonara ravioli special in mind, my eye quickly settled on another of the specials, the “Tour of Italy.” Once I saw it, I had a hard time thinking seriously about anything else. And to my surprise, Gail found it tempting too.

The Tour of Italy is not a coherent meal. It’s really three meals in one. Are you thinking of that old standby, the chicken parm? Or maybe lasagna? Wait, I know. Fettucini alfredo. Well, think no more. You can have it all. Yup, on your tour you will have a piece of chicken parm, a block of lasagna, and some fettucini alfredo. I can never choose, and now I didn’t have to.

Gail wasn’t convinced that this trio hung together well. She asked the waiter if she could substitute a pasta with the pomodoro sauce for the alfredo. He said sure and recommended their capellini pomodoro, which she took.

At the same time, having turned down drinks earlier, Gail ordered a glass of the prosecco and I ordered the strawberry-mango limonata, described on the menu as refreshing strawberry and mango purée, mixed with sweet lemonade and sliced strawberries.

My lemonade was surprisingly good. I had two. Gail’s prosecco came in its own single-pour bottle. It was anything but good. This is surprising. Assuming Olive Garden has contracted with someone to make and bottle prosecco in volume in little bottles with screw tops, you figure they’d find a producer whose prosecco is pretty reasonable. But the bottle Gail had was nowhere near reasonable. I can only guess that something was wrong with that shipment, because I can’t believe Olive Garden has selected a poor prosecco.

The breadsticks: first rate. The salad: it’s okay. To my taste, I’d rather have more greens, less of the other stuff they fill the bowl with. Let’s see how they describe it. Well, no list of ingredients. Just “Our famous house salad, tossed with our signature Italian dressing.” Nothing really to complain about. I just think Gail and Joel both make far better salads at home on a regular basis.

The Tour of Italy: putting quality aside for a moment, it’s way too much. And an absurd mix. No side vegetable for one. What was I thinking? How did Gail allow me to do it, and then follow suit? I really did treat it as three meals. I didn’t see going back and forth among the trio. First I ate the lasagna. Again, quite reasonable, maybe even good. Not as good as we would make at home. Not as good as at Cafe Lago just down the street from us. (Another unfair comparison.) But I’d say it’s better than one gets at many middle-of-the-road Italian pizza and pasta places.

Then I tried the chicken, which was good, but decided to focus on the fettucini. Gail was right — the alfredo sauce didn’t make much sense in amongst its tomato-based brethren. I liked the fettucini, but that’s the one I should have omitted altogether. On to the rest of the chicken. And guess what? I was getting pretty full at this point. It was a thin piece, not a lot, so I continued on. And I liked it. But I think I would have been happier with a straight order of the chicken parm with spaghetti. Or the lasagna. Or maybe that ravioli carbonara.

We skipped dessert of course. You know, I think we may have to go back, so we can sample better-proportioned main dishes and the desserts. Plus explore their red wine list and avoid the prosecco.

They really do a serviceable job. What we may also need to do is return to a local outpost of that other Italian national chain, Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Gail’s sister had us eat there just after Thanksgiving two Novembers ago when her daughter (our niece) was in town. We returned twice since, after seeing Toy Story 3 last August and after Gail’s brother’s inurnment last October. You might say it’s one of our special-occasion restaurants. And my sense is that it has an edge over Olive Garden. But I really need to eat at both in quick succession to make a fairer judgment.

Oh, and then there’s Maggiono’s Little Italy. We tried to have a quick meal in the bar of our local branch just after Christmas last December, following a visit to the Bellevue Arts Museum. It was a disaster, more because of service than food. And we didn’t order a regular dinner meal. We did have a lovely wedding celebration meal there. I believe it positions itself as a more upscale place than Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill.

We have our work cut out for us. But really, why not just eat at our preferred local establishments?

Categories: Restaurants
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