Scathing critique: Review of Olive Garden in St. Cloud, MN

I got some positive feedback regarding my tear-it-to-shreds review of "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou. In that vein, allow me a quick review of a meal I experienced last night at the St. Cloud, Minnesota, Olive Garden.

Jess and I sat down and had tastes of wine from our very good server, Beverly. Like practically everything at Olive Garden, her formality brought with it a tincture of sadness, because we all seemed to acknowledge that the organization -- Olive Garden -- functions on a series of gimmicks (i.e. "taste the wine first!") instead of quality food and atmosphere. I knew I'd need the alcohol here.

We sat and waited, drinking in the "casual dining" atmosphere which included raucous high school kids. "Friday night at 8:30, and no wait," I noted. I saw a male server in his early 20s quickly wiping off a table after the patrons had left. "What's the hurry? He ain't gonna have to worry about people sitting there," I joked to Jess. I only saw one dining party come into the restaurant at that point, which made for a Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m. feel instead of a Friday night at 9 p.m. feel. (If you've worked in a restaurant, you know the difference in atmosphere is very different. In the former, no employee is working hard; in the latter everyone is hustling. Quality of service and food matches the effort.)

This same young man said to another server, "I got $150 in my pocket!" This was gauche, I thought, saying to my wife, "Yes, but that's standard for Friday and Saturday." Anyway, it was a tasteless discussion of income. Now, I'm never going to be a rich man, but whenever I hear people say things like this, I want to say, "War profiteers are making tens of millions!"

Jess and I had artichoke and spinach dip. Not bad. Wine flowing like beer.

We waited for our entrees. They came, and I have to say that my $15 steak tips and pasta alfredo dish was disgusting. The two dominant flavors were a cheese liquid mix for which I could literally taste how it came from a plastic bag. I saw spinach; I did not taste it. The meat was a disgrace to sausage, which is awful considering that the meal was priced at a "legit steak" price. The only bite of the rubberized meat that was anything less than depressing had the meat covered by a sodium-rich worcester sauce. This bite disappointed me only further, because there was a delay in my realization that the taste was not real -- it was from an MSG-rich (perhaps) sauce.

"This food is so bad I'm going to feed it to my dog," I told Jess.

"Don't do that!" she said.

"Hmm, it's probably not good enough for her, either. You're right," I said. (Of course, Jess was more concerned about Ellie's digestive system, but that's that.)

The governing problem with the meal was its complete lack of flavor separation. I was not eating food; I was eating a business model. "What kind of food like this has no garlic?" I thought. Every flavor melded into one unidentifiable processed-food styrofoam-esque flavor. I imagined what I would be tasting if the dish were prepared with a modicum of care by a cook with fresh ingredients: butter, olive oil, multiple cheeses, kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, pasta, spinach, garlic, rosemary, thyme, steak dripping with fat. It made me very sad to think of where my food came from -- a manufacturing plant, bagged, trucked, and squirted out by a line operator/"cook." Did the "steak" come from 400 different cows, like a McDonald's hamburger (as shown by Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma)? I'd give it a 75/25 likelihood.

Jess ordered some decaf coffee. "Taste this," she said. "It's burnt."

"It tastes like it got brewed at 6 o'clock," I said -- more than three hours before. Again, the sad state of the coffee was belied by "authentic"-looking coffee and cream containers.

We paid the bill. Walking out, I joked, "Olive Garden takes facade to the level of Potemkin Village." Even the Vatican has a facade, but Olive Garden is a restaurant so shallow that I will no longer shudder to choose Arby's over it. Everything about the place, from the landscaping to the faux-brick on the exterior of the building, screams affectation. The architecture of the building had a haphazard, construction-boom-cycle papier-mâché quality, although, as is the case with practically every suburban strip-mall business, the parking lot was roomy, logical, even masterfully planned.

Were I pressed to make one comment on my dining experience at Olive Garden, I would say this: Olive Garden has a criminal hostility to fresh ingredients and creativity with food. The organization uses both kitchen and service staff like puppets. The kitsch factor of the entire operation -- atmosphere, wine "tasting," endless breadsticks/salad, mints -- only accents the sinking feeling of post-industrial service economy/economies of scale/mystery-meat-food-chain. I am only sad that the solid, chirpy service from Beverly was wasted in such a toilet-drain-spiral of a place.

This is not Walt Whitman's America!!!

Today, my wife saw that I had indeed boxed the extra food from Olive Garden (for my dog). "Don't get too big of a head, but the food you cook is better."

"I know," I responded.

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