The Chelsea Olive Garden has been open for a couple months, but Gothamist only made it there last night. The purpose: To understand how a chain restaurant like Olive Garden can fit into our urban lifestyles. The Chelsea Olive Garden is pretty attractive - rich woods, open space, a wine cellar, lots of bar space. Sam, Ezra, and I arrived first, and we hung out at the bar after getting a pager to let us know when our table was ready - something different for NY restaurants but very common everywhere else. There weren't too many people at the bar, but lots of orders were coming from the tables...when the bartender finally got to us, I asked what the most popular specialty drink was. He walked over to the end of the bar and picked up a drink best described as looking like a milkshake a tall drink glass with a biscotti. It was a "Tiramisu" - Kahlua, Amaretto, milk, and ice cream. He placed it in front of me and said, "This is it." "For me?" I asked. "Well you can look at it, I guess," he said. So I tried it and it tasted like a milkshake with liqueurs - very easy on the way down. Sam and Ezra had Scotch and beer respectively and we scoped out the scene. An interesting mix of students, professionals, and tourists brave enough to go to a neighborhood that wasn't Midtown.
The pager buzzed and the hostess brought us to our table. By this time, Jake had arrived and we settled into a table with banquette in the back. Jake decided to order a screwdriver, which heavy on the vodka and with a slice of orange the size of a dinner roll. Our server was amused by us, as we were oddly smart alecky and earnest at the same time. We debated the merits of having a separate "ironic" menu for the Olive Garden patrons who are there for the ironic value. Josh and Ilise arrived soon after, and finally Karen. That's when the fun began: We ordered the Sampler Italiano with fried calamari, fried zucchini, and stuffed mushrooms, the Artichoke-Spinach Dip, and bruschetta. The stuffed mushrooms were excellent, filled with Parmesan, romano and mozzarella cheese, clams and herb breadcrumbs, and we ordered another round. The tomato topping for the bruschetta was very flavorful as well, with crushed red pepper flakes adding a nice kick. When we finally decided what to have for main course, we ordered:
Me: Seafood Alfredo - Sautéed shrimp and crawfish tossed with creamy fettuccine alfredo. It's the current promotion, so after hearing about the creamy garlic sauce for so long, I had to try it.
Karen: Chicken Marsala - Sautéed chicken breasts in a savory sauce of mushrooms, garlic and marsala wine. Served with roasted potatoes. A dish from the Culinary Institute of Tuscany (yes, it exists)
Ilise: Chicken Pesto Ravioli - Ravioli filled with roasted chicken, tossed in a pesto made with basil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese
Josh and Ezra: Chicken Vino Bianco - Pan-seared chicken breasts with mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and garlic in a white wine butter sauce over linguine.
Jake: Tuscan T-Bone - Grilled 18 oz choice T-bone brushed with Italian herbs. Served with roasted potatoes and bell peppers. Jake asked for the chef to decide how the T-Bone should be cooked.
Sam, taking one for the team: Tour of Italy - Homemade lasagna, lightly breaded chicken parmigiana, and creamy fettuccine alfredo. Sam claimed he would be able to finish it.
Chilled bowls arrived, marking the imminent entrance of the big bowls of salad for everyone to share. At this point, each of us had a large tumbler for water, a drink, an empty wine glass, small appetizer plate, plus all the over-sized plates the appetizers arrived on, various salt & pepper shakers, sugar, promotional menus... The table was way too crowded and it was making me (and Karen, I think) pretty crazy. We got the appetizer plates cleared, and then the breadsticks came. The breadsticks, which Karen's colleague at P.S. 234 had raved about, were in fact warm and buttery, but there was nowhere to put them - except the chilled salad bowl, and that definitely made Karen crazy. The salad was fresh and crispy, though heavy on the iceberg lettuce, with a nice light dressing.
We were definitely having fun, because it's not often this many of us has dinner with each other, with differing schedules and social calendars. Sam showed some t-shirt designs (not just SLRR shirts - stay tuned). Josh and Ilise revealed that they had been everyone in the city, looking for the best Bloody Mary, and every place's Bloody Mary lacked celery, even the one at the St. Regis. (Sam mentioned the Bloody Mary at Bubby's as being a with-celery pick. We'll be working on a thorough Bloody Mary post later.) Well, the Olive Garden Antipasto Bloody Mary doesn't lack anything (I joked it would have chunks of prosciutto in it...and I wasn't far off). It had a huge stalk of celery, plus pepper and onion and a toothpick with olives and salami skewered on it. We wondered about having an Olive Garden in Chelsea (official press release about the Chelsea Olive Garden) ...perhaps they should have opened one in the heart of Little Italy, on Mulberry.
All the entrees arrived at once - except mine. Obviously, there are still some operational issues to be worked out. We toasted to this very fine and makeshift family. Jake took a bite of his T-Bone and noted, "The chef apparently recommends well-done!" Karen offered me a taste of her Chicken Marsala, which was nice, very tender. Sam was digging in his huge platter. Ezra felt the Chicken Vino Bianco, though not explicitly stated as being creamy, was in fact very creamy, probably from a stick of butter. The Seafood Alfredo, when it came 10 minutes late, did have a good sauce, if a bit salty, but the seafood elements (shrimp, crawfish, calamari) was way too salty. Overall, the food was overproportioned, as evinced when most of us only made it halfway through our food. Jake doled out pieces of T-Bone to everyone, and we agreed it was not that great a piece of meat. Sam admitted defeat when he had a lot of Tour left on his plate. It's okay, Sam - you're a hero to us anyway and, besides, there's always next time.
One thing was consistent: our interest in drinking. Sam ordered a Bloody Mary after seeing Josh's. Ilise sampled the Barbera that Karen had ordered (Olive Garden does allow you to sample wines, and if you like your sample, they'll bring you a glass), but I think she ended up with a Chianti. I had a Chardonnay to go with my dish (the menu also suggests wines to go with your dishes). Josh ordered the Italian Margarita, which comes with sugar, not salt, plus a shot of Amaretto. The Amaretto inspired Jake to order "An Espresso with a shot of Amaretto." The server said, "Whatever you want." Ezra took it further, ordering a bourbon and milk. Lively debate ensued about which was more disgusting, espresso with Amaretto or bourbon and milk, netting with the guys feeling the espresso with amaretto was disgusting and the girls feeling it was all right, if not ideal. Bourbon and milk clearly had only Ezra in its corner.
Desserts, a chocolate lasagna and tiramisu arrived. His tastebuds altered by the espresso-amaretto, Jake couldn't really taste, which wasn't much of a loss as the desserts weren't that great. We all took half-hearted nibbles of the desserts, but we were all starting to feel our deeds weigh upon us. And then the receipt came.
Perhaps to soften the blow, many Andes mints arrived with the bill. Opening the receipt folder, Jake and Ezra gasped at the shocking receipt total. Which really wasn't that shocking. It was just odd, because it was the Olive Garden. For some reason, maybe it's our city mindset, eating a chain seems like it should be cheaper. But considering all the drink, plus the extras of salad and breadsticks, it was reasonable enough. It did take, though, too long for graduates of Columbia and MIT to figure out how to split up the bill.
Next stop: Trying to spend over $300 at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Seriously, it was a lovely time with friends, even if the food became progressively more uneven as we got further into the meal. What are suggestions for next time?
More photos at Bluejake