Saturday, September 22, 2007

report from the new mall

Everyone in Claremont is really excited about the Packing House/Village Expansion, and we were certainly looking forward to its opening. In the event, though, we are disappointed on nearly every count.

I could post daily for a month about the establishments they've brought in, and how they all seem to be run by first-time business owners. Even in the places that I frequent frequently, like the wine bar, they are friendly but they don't really know what they're doing (e.g.: serving white wine in stemless glasses, "because they look cool").

Last night, before seeing Across the Universe at the Laemmle (which you absolutely must see if you're between 35 and 55 -- plus you'll be the oldest person in the theater, for a change!), we hit Casablanca for dinner. I had been there for lunch a couple of weeks ago and wasn't all that bowled over, but K. hadn't tried it yet.

In a word: mediocre.

First of all, the food is solidly Lebanese. So why are they naming it after a city in Morocco? Beirut is 3200km from Casablanca.

The decor, too, seems to be the work of someone who has never designed a restaurant before. Not only is it not Middle Eastern -- lots of wrought iron, along with touches of the Baroque -- but the lighting is seriously hosed. In the back of the restaurant, you have your choice of sitting in shadow (without a candle or lamplet) or under a 150W spotlight.

Our waitress, although kind of charming in a geeky way, was the ditziest thing ever. She screwed up orders, she brought the wrong thing to the wrong table, she waited on later arrivals before earlier arrivals -- and all in a station that only held four tables. A guy who was giving off son-of-the-owner vibes kept trying to help her, but often he made things worse.

There was a systematic attempt to upsell on everything. I've worked food service, and I know that it has to be done subtly, but there was nothing subtle about this. They have removed the least expensive wine from the wine list, and instead they recommend the two most expensives ones, without telling you the price. And the wine list looks like it was chosen by the manager of the Albertson's, for that matter. Similarly, with the beers, both the waitress and the son-of-owner guy kept pushing K. to get the Almaza, an extremely bland Lebanese beer we've had at Grapevine (and which they charge more for than the Bass).

The food was okay but not great. For once, we got mains instead of making a meal of starters, as we usually do at Grapevine (which I think is the parent or at least godparent of this place -- except that Grapevine is worth returning to. They even play the same mixtape!). I got the lamb chops, rare, which were too salty and more "seared raw" than rare. They were certainly edible -- I don't mind eating lamb completely raw -- but they showed no skill at all.

K. order the salmon kebab and got the salmon filet, which he was too nice to send back. The filet was fine, although it was slightly overcooked, being quite dry in the center. Both our dishes were served with sides of mashed potatoes, boiled milled carrots (those baby-finger things that are good for snacking), raw onions sprinkled with sumac, and a grilled anaheim pepper. Not particularly good, and the mashed potatoes, while flavorful enough, had been done in the food processor, so they had that gluey thing going that happens when you break down the starch molecules.

We might be back, if we're in the nabe or something, but I'd far rather go to Grapevine or Darvish.


K said...

Eh, I thought that the salmon was okay -- it seemed juicy enough to me. I've certainly had salmon that was much more overcooked. And the potatoes were reasonably good.

The slow, disorganized service will hopefully get better as time goes on. We eaten at plenty of new restaurants with similar issues.

For me, the surprise in the new mall was Three Forks; we stopped by to take a look and check out the menu. We've been eating out in LA a fair amount, but I was a bit taken aback by the prices. I don't mind paying over $30 an entree now and then, but it better be some mind-blowing food.

If this place is going to cost as much as (or more) than Campanile, AOC, Jar, Josie, and the some of the amazing, knock-your-socks-off places in LA, it better be pretty rockin'. Hopefully, we'll find an excuse to check it out sooner or later and report back.

It's kinda cool that somebody's stepping up to the plate to try to provide this kind of dining experience nearby.

KF said...

You know, R. and I have had several great experiences at Casablanca (though I'll confess to being utterly befuddled by the name as well). In general, though, I'd say that the starters are infinitely preferable to the mains -- we've eaten there, what, eight times? ten times? and have had mains twice. Every other time, it's been appetizers all the way, most of which have been fabulous. And the owner has been fabulously attentive and accommodating. The service has some bumps in it, however, as does the service at most of the new joints. But for goodness sakes -- there are New Joints, and I'm just so happy to have choice that I'm determined to keep them alive.

On Three Forks: I've been there three times (appropriately enough), once for lunch and twice for drinks and appetizers (there's a theme here), and most of the appys and all of the drinks have been great, as was the lunch. Utterly non-cheap, but great. I've heard good things about the mains, but haven't ventured that way yet.

Finally... how to put this. I'm much less concerned with the not-quite-ready-for-primetime feel of things in Village West than you are. I find it kinda nice, that folks are getting to try out new businesses and see what works, and that they're learning from the process. And the range of new stuff in town just makes me happy. Which makes me bristle a bit at referring to things out this way as "the new mall." Yes, some of it is a bit less than one might have hoped for. But it's something, which is more than there was before...

meg said...

KF: I might feel different about Casablanca if I didn't have to drive an equal distance there as to Grapevine or Darvish. Which is to say, I think I show fewer symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome than some.

"The new mall" is the term a good friend I work with uses to describe the Village Expansion. I rather like it, because it reminds me that no matter how desperate we all were for it to open, it's still a mall.

And, yeah, it's great that Claremont has more businesses, but from what I've heard (esp. about Vroman's and the Dale Brothers), the developers made it nonconducive for established and/or clueful businesses to take up residency in the Packing House.

K said...

Eh, I think that "New Mall" is pretty richly deserved -- as much as I complain about the lack of diversity in Claremont Village, I appreciated the way they kept out the chains. The new development seems to be chock-full of chains like Jamba Juice and American Apparel. And yet, still no hardware store. :-)

I'll tell ya, though, having the Claremont 5 open up with some decent movies makes up for all of it. I'm so happy to be able to just bop down the road a piece to pick off some alternative movies! The place hasn't been exactly booming, but hopefully business will pick up as people realize what a gem we have out here.

I'm a little jealous that you live within walking distance of all that fun stuff. Given that I have to drive (or do some fairly enthusiastic cycling) to get to it, I'm naturally a little less excited -- if I'm gonna get in my car already, I'm gonna cast my net more widely. There are some interesting restaurants nestled in the strip malls of the Inland Empire...

Anonymous said...

I like to think of "Village West" as a work in progress. Given what is now residing there I predict there will be a turn over in 60% of the spaces within 12 months. The restaurants so far are obviously being operated by first timers ( except for 3 Forks which by the way needs at least 3 entrees less than $20 on their menu to succeed in Claremont).

I have a feeling the overhead for the newbies is so high that they may not be able to tread water long enough to learn from their mistakes. First lesson these fine folks must learn is: Produce consistently good food. I have met the owner of Casa Blanca a very nice man, but he seems to believe he has a successful restaurant simply because he has a lease in Claremont. The key is and always will be the food, every plate that comes out of the kitchen. People in Claremont know good food, it is a shame it's so rare to find it in Claremont these days..

KF said...

Well, Blogger has finally decided to accept my login again, so I'm back. K, I totally agree with you on the chains. American Apparel is one thing, I guess, but I keep expecting a Gap or a Victoria's Secret to pop up next. Which I guess indicates that part of my issue is with *which* chains they've imported. The Coffee Bean? Not that I want the Sagehen's new coffee bar to face the competition, you realize, but: Why Not Peet's???

And yeah, a *huge* part of my defense of the development has to do with the walking-distance phenomenon. The Thai place is far from the best Thai in the area -- but it's Walking-Distance Thai, and that rocks. Casablanca's got some real bumps in the road, I'll admit, but I'll still stand by the quality of their food (if not their service), in part because standing by it is super-easy, because I can walk there.

If I were to start lodging complaints, however, they'd have less to do with the chains or the quality of the service than with the further expansion of the Claremont Cuteness factor. Enough with the tchotchkes and the craft stores, fer real. Bring me a real bookstore. A market that either charges regular grocery store prices or is open 7/11 hours (as opposed to the place on 2nd street, which I have taken to referring to as the Inconvenience Store). And a hardware store, dammit; I still miss the old village hardware store.

Anne said...

An aquaintance just raved about 3 Forks last night. While he commented that it was pricy, he said the side creamy rissoto and creamed spinach they had were the best he's ever had. They had the salmon on a bed of roast corn and the beef fillet. I don't know his taste, but he was impressed.

Anonymous said...

I have eaten at 3 Forks and I was shocked at the prices. There will never be any justification in my mind to pay that kind of money for food unless I am in an environment that dictates those prices. A steak is a steak is a steak. It may be a really good piece of meat but it is a steak for Pete's sake. If I am looking out at the Grand Canal in Venice or a storybook Square in Salzberg I could open my wallet as part of that whole experience. But $70 for a steak for 2 people (the Porterhouse) to look out and enjoy the view of a factory across from the restaurant is crazy. The pricing is alla carte so if a solo piece of meat is not your idea of a meal be prepared to pay another chunk of change for a salad or a vegetable. Plus if you feel the need to order a beverage of some kind to wash this all down well you can always get a second on your house.
My personal opinion is this type of restaurant has no place being in Claremont.

Anonymous said...

"New Mall" may be a good name but I call it "Little Victorian Gardens". The original concept was to complement the old village. My original belief that it would be model like the old village as a New England style village. While the old village has it regular visitors, it also draws many visitors from surrounding communities and even distant ones. Friends from other communities visiting now are apalled at what the city has down. It is all over priced, not well received, and far more Rodeo Drive than Claremont quaintness. I have to agree, with the financial future of this country look grim and the prospect of a near by recession, I would say with in two years 60 to 75% of the businesses now in the expansion will be history and the City Council dream of grabbing hugh sale tax monies from the expansion will be a nightmare for them. As far as the theater, I still rather go to Pasadena and the ambiance of the theaters of that chain there than the hickness of the Claremont facility. And yes a Vromman's or other equally qualified bookstore would be wonderful. And yes where is our wonderful neigborhood hardware store? The Claremont Village used to have an aura of small town vintage America. We lost that aura with the Expansion.

The Saint

Anonymous said...

The Casablanca Bar and Grill sucks! First of all the service is terrible. I've met the owner on several occasions and he always reeks of alcohol. This place is completely disorganized. I predict they won't last much into year 2008.

Pomona Joe said...

Recently while trying to kill an hour before seeing Shonen Knife at the Glasshouse, my buddy and I decided to get a drink. Instead of hitting the bar at Sakura Ichi, (which would have been exceedingly appropriate), we decided to get a drink in the new Claremont expansion and went to Casablanca. Fools! The bar has an extremely limited selection and the food was mediocre! For great Middle Eastern eats one need look no further than Aladdin Jr. near Garey and Foothill.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering who Pomona Joe is calling a fool when he is promoting Aladdin Jr. in Pomona? I think he needs to get his facts straight and take a close look at the menus and business cards of both Casablanca and Aladdin Jr. to see that both are owned by the same people. All you need do is ask. The menus and recipes are virtually identical, minus the soup dishes that I wish they had at Casablanca but don't. I frequent and love both and as they are new to having an alcohol license we need to remember that they are just probably still learning. Aladdin Jr. never had one. I find the owner(s) always friendly and accommodating as well but the comment about the smell of alcohol one of their breath is true, sadly.