To say that this is not a restaurant town would be an understatement of elephantine proportions. Although Ann Arbor, a college town barely an hour’s drive from here, has more than their share of high quality dining establishments from cheap and interesting to white tablecloth and superb, we have nearly nothing. Every chain in The Big Book of Franchise Success is established here, and there are a handful of very good, inexpensive dives and ethnic eateries, but there is almost no place in this town where one can have an attractive room, an interesting and thoughtful menu, good service, and great food. (There are exceptions, but this is a rant and I’m not in the mood).
On Friday night, my parents took my family and my visiting mother in law to a local “fine dining” establishment called Hershey’s. To its credit, Hershey’s is not a chain restaurant, and it has survived here for 23 years while many others have come and gone. Their independence makes me want to like them, and say that everything was great, but I just can’t do it. Let’s think of this particularly abysmal review not as a kick in the kidneys, but as a challenge to do better.
The restaurant is attractive, and our waiter was both skilled and attentive. We ordered, Mr, Annie and my father choosing the Halibut Sandwich, my mother in law selecting a chicken sandwich, Sam picking a New York Strip, and my mother and I opting for an appetizer and the salad bar – Baked Brie for her, Baked Goat Cheese for me. Although Mr. Annie is a major red meat eater, and Hershey’s is, well, “Hershey’s Steak and Seafood,” he had a bad run in with a steak on his last visit, and was (I believed at the ordering stage) cutting off his nose to spite his face by ordering a fish sandwich, instead.
We sat outside, because (owing, I think, to the Steakhouse theme), the inside is dimly lit, and it was a beautiful evening. It became immediately clear that, despite the umbrella over the table, two of the six of us were going to be blinded by the setting sun at any given moment. The waiter obligingly tipped the umbrella, which left only one of us blind and simmering. The manager then came over and lowered the awning over the tables, which solved the problem. While the response was satisfying, the amount of dithering over the fact that there was sun and it was setting, as it does every day on that patio, was somewhat bizarre.
The salad bar was fresh and good, offering the usual lettuce, vegetables, potato salad, ambrosia, and other Midwestern standards. I added points for the presence of freestanding bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar and roasted red peppers, and subtracted for the mysterious presence of whole, rather than chopped, hard-boiled eggs, and a glutinous vat of what appeared to be canned apple pie filling.
So the “real” food started to arrive. Although the menu referred to the Halibut Sandwich as, well, “The Halibut Sandwich,” the waitress sent to deliver them referred to them approximately five times as “Halliburgers.” (Which reminded me of Halliburton briefcases, which probably taste quite similar). They were, in fact, more like compressed wads of Kleenex baked in breading. The fish squares, reminiscent of The Gorton’s Fisherman cooking for an elementary lunchroom were thin, dwarfed by the breading, and baked rather than fried so that the outside “crispy part” was dense and fairly tough. The oven fries served on the side (Hershey’s does not have a deep fryer, which is commendable but undoubtedly contributed to the misery that is the Halibut Sandwich dinner) were burned. On the positive side, the remoulade sauce was tasty, but did little to balance the awfulness. Fortunately, Mr Annie had also ordered the salad bar, so he filled up on salad.
My mother’s Baked Brie arrived, topped with the cinnamon apple stuff from the salad bar, and served with little rounds of peppery bread. I went in with an open mind, thinking that apples and cheese go well together, but the combined effect of the VERY sweet and thick apple goo, the Brie and the sharp peppery flavor of the toast rounds had some sort of violently negative impact on me at a molecular gastronomy level. It was just wrong, and it tasted bad. Trying the cheese and apple on a slice of plain bread was an improvement, but I would still not have paired the creamy, mild cheese with something so bland, thick and sweet. Strike Two.
My own personal dinner of Baked Goat Cheese was not bad; it was served with roasted garlic, roasted red peppers, toast rounds and (oddly) celery sticks. I might have tweaked it; I probably would have preferred crackers or crisper, unbuttered and unflavored toast rounds, but the cheese was nice, and the garlic was well-roasted, and they paired well.
About the time I started eating my meal, Sam received his steak, and began to cut it, complaining that it was kind of tough and fatty. Since he is on the verge of adolescence, and somewhat paranoid about meat fat (as I was at his age), I pretty much ignored him. His dinner looked fine; the steak was flanked by two scoops of garlic mashed potatoes, and there was a monkey disk of broccoli in cheese sauce with a crumb and butter topping. In the midst of lively conversation about shame and the Chinese national identity, Sam, who generally doesn’t interrupt adult conversation, interrupted to say that he had discovered a staple in his steak. And he had. It was either a straightened staple or a random piece of silver-colored wire, lying tidily on the edge of the plate. We speculated on the circumstances under which the cow was stapled, called the waiter over to share our good fortune, and tried to avoid thinking about the damage that might have been caused by ingesting a piece of metal wire with two sharp ends. Strike Three.
Although Sam’s dinner was replaced cheerfully, and we were not charged for it, the skies were not blue again over our mealfeasance. In the replacement meal, the adequate looking broccoli with cheese sauce was replaced by a monkey dish with three spears of broccoli standing in approximately 1/16 inch of cheese sauce,a bit dessicated, and without butter or crumbs this time. Also, despite the fact that the manager was visibly on the premises, and that the waiter had asked him permission to remove the charge for the dinner due to the staple debacle, he never came to the table to apologize for the offending object, even in a noncommittal/non sue-able sort of way.
I want to support the little guy, the local guy, the guy who survives the onslaught of Smokey Bones and Applebees, and keeps trying. Really, though, Hershey’s has to try harder. The prices are high for this area, and for the price of the salad bar I could have eaten a filling and wonderful meal at our favorite Thai restaurant, or had a Greek omelet with fresh tomatoes and imported Feta at our favorite greasy spoon. It just wasn’t good, and neither an attractive decor nor a good waitstaff makes up for food that is ill-conceived and carelessly prepared.
Hershey’s Steak & Seafood
2682 East Grand River
East Lansing, Michigan 48823