The Skinny: Dine in a pseudo scenic mountain lodge in the middle of the Houston Heights.
The Fat: So, if you’re anything like me, you look up a restaurant on Google maps and try to find the coordinates in hopes of getting to your dining destination without a hitch, but even Google “street view” can’t prepare you for how beautiful the Rainbow Lodge is when you finally arrive. We turned the corner, noticed the valet sign and turned toward it, into the sweetest little driveway ever.
I felt like I was pulling into a cozy lodge in the mountains. There were wooden accents and darling hanging lamps to light our path to the front door. A gracious hostess, seeming to be awaiting our particular arrival, came to open the front door. We all thanked her as she held the door open for us to walk in toward the hostess stand. Then I felt the first ping; all that glitters isn’t gold.
Now, you’re probably thinking I’m about to slam this place, but I’m not...not entirely. I have a lot of nice things to tell you about Rainbow Lodge, but before I do, I just want to express that I hold fine dining establishments to a higher standard than I would of their more casual contemporaries…and rightfully so. So if you’re ready to hear the truth, the good and the bad, you’ll get that right here.
Come “rich” or come “people like me who can afford a great night out, now and again”, when you spend close to $100 per person (yummy wine included) to dine anywhere, near flawlessness is the goal. Remember when you had those instructors in college who, on the first day of class, told you that you started with an A+ at the beginning of the semester and it was up to you to keep it? Well, that’s my policy, so I walk in with the best in mind and I just expect a place to keep their grades up!
So the head hostess, I’m guessing, was chatting away on the phone. Maybe she was helping a potential customer; nonetheless, if there are two hostesses on duty, I would expect that either should be prepared to deal with new arrivals. That was not the case, so we stood patiently. It wasn’t a long wait, but it was an unnecessary one. After she finished her call, we were escorted through the lovely lodge-like labyrinth.
I called ahead to request a nice table. When I go out of my way to request a special table, I do so because I want to avoid the possibility of being placed next to kitchen doors and in odd corners, especially on a first visit. Oddly enough, we were lead to the smallest, coldest and most remote table of all.
At Rainbow Lodge, they assumed that my request meant that we wanted to avoid the adorable room with the fireplace, steer clear of the other spacious dining areas and be placed in the corner of the most narrow room ever. We had to endure the chill of a dripping AC unit and the traffic of patrons repeatedly walking by us to get to the patio door – both a mere six inches from our table - not what I would have selected if a customer made a point to ask for a great table. It almost seemed intentional. Even our neighbors asked to move to another table. To top it all off, there was a fire alarm right behind me and a faint, but unmistakable smell of…I hate to say it, ok, I won't say it...it just smelled funny.
Getting past the immediate distaste for our table, my friends and I thought we'd just begin with a bottle of wine while we perused the menu. We were one menu short for about five minutes, another annoyance.
As a courtesy to the people dining with me, I typically look over the menu ahead of time because it tends to take me AGES to decide what I want to eat. This problem occurs everywhere from taco stands to steak houses. This day happened to be my birthday, however, so I said “to hell with it, we’ll drink wine until I figure out what to order.” A great idea! They had a wonderful selection of wines and there were some fine ones that hovered in the $30-$50 range. We chose a nice South African red and waited for our water and bread.
So we talked and waited, laughed and waited, drank and waited and still no bread and water. We had been there for over thirty minutes without bread and water. Jesus could have performed a miracle in less time. We felt deprived and a little irked….but we continued to enjoy ourselves.
We decided on a couple of appetizers to share while we enjoyed our wine. We chose the spicy Hawaiian tuna tartare with the BBQ sauce consommé, English cucumber and heirloom radish and then the marinated lobster with ruby red grapefruit, avocado and orange blossom vinegar. Both sounded so fantastic, we were all thrilled with our selections.
When the appetizers arrived we started in immediately. Considering we were still waiting for bread and water, we dove in - without hesitation - for a taste. Even though I was a bit put off by the look of the tuna dish we'd been served, I stretched my fork toward it. What we assumed to be the tartare consisted of six small slices of albacore slathered in white foam. For the record, I hate foam. While the culinary garnish has made confident strides into mainstream preparation, I hate it. It looks like spit. I just don’t get it.
I realized, a moment later, that this simply could not have been what we ordered. Visions of chopped red tuna covered in deep maroon barbecue consommé kept haunting me. Had this tuna appetizer not been salty and tough, I may have graciously overlooked the mistake, but since it was, I felt fine pointing out the fact that we had been served the wrong dish.
When the waiter finally came by to check on us, far too long a wait in my opinion, he then proceeded to try and figure out -table side- how the mistake might have happened and then, after an exceedingly long dialogue, decided that the kitchen must have been at fault. I’m not a snob, I’m not a horrible customer, but if the plate is wrong…take the damn thing back. It was your fault or someone else’s fault, it wasn’t our fault so spare me the play by play.
The lobster appetizer was true to form. Pieces of the shellfish had been tossed about in chunks of fresh red grapefruit and avocado, just as described. Before we were finished our waiter brought out the tartare we’d actually ordered and another complimentary dish for the mistake. We hadn’t made a scene, we were all quite good-humored about the error and so his extra effort seemed genuine and unforced. Both were delicious.
Our waiter then offered to take us on a little tour of the lodge. I think he may have originally suggested the tour as peace offering for the appetizer blunder, but when we accepted, he realized how little time he was actually able to spend with us. Step by -rapid- step he conducted the tour at warp speed. My stilettos became liabilities, mere millimeters away from gapes in the old wooden floors during our fast paced walk-about. Again, we tried to enjoy it and forgave our waiter’s speed as he quickly and clumsily spilled us onto the patio, next to our table.
For the entrée, I was stumped. Hoping for inspiration, I asked the waiter to describe the specials a second time. The second time, however, major ingredients had seemingly changed. My friends and I agreed that they had initially been described differently. As if my own ordering issues weren't enough, this was tragic. I had no idea what I was going to choose. Nothing was jumping out at me on the menu, but I had to make a decision.
I let the boys order first. “I’ll have the Bryan Farm chicken wrapped in pancetta with the house made chicken sausage, baby vegetable fricassee, tender greens, and natural jus” I heard from one side. That sounded wonderful. Then I heard from the other side, “I’ll have the grilled rib eye of beef with the heirloom potatoes, cauliflower-brown butter puree and bordelaise sauce”. Gosh, that sounded fantastic too.
My turn...Ok, um, ok! “I’ll have that fish special you mentioned.” It sounded alright…I think. It was fish with some other stuff. Yep, pretty forgettable. When it arrived, the fish was delicate and flaky, but altogether flavorless, not special at all. Oh, so maybe you’re thinking I have GRASS IS GREENER syndrome? No, I just have a tongue…and it was bored with the fish “special”.
Oh, but the rib eye. Each bite (and I had a few) was delicious, perfectly cooked to the - ever illusive- medium rare that my dining companion had requested. It was bursting with flavor and I hardly remember the side dishes, for none were needed.
Then I pinched my first bite of my other friend’s dish. I have never in my life had a bit of chicken so fresh and tender. I almost lost my mind uttering its praise. Each chew reinforced its deliciousness. I think I may have even made my friend feel a little uncomfortable with my accolades, leading him to believe he had inappropriately ordered the dish that should have clearly been reserved for a Birthday Girl.
Apparently, Bryan Farm is a local poultry source that raises their chickens “with fresh air, sunshine, green grass, and wholesome feed” and the chicken is completely fresh…if you get my drift. I have never been so impressed by chicken. It was so moist and flavorful that it made me sorry for all the Chick-kin that have lost their lives for anything less.
After I'd happily helped my friends finish their entrees, we completed our meal with the most delectable chocolate crème brulee ever. Its crusty top layer was the perfect introduction to the creamy custard within. Talk about finishing on a high note! I could barely keep myself from licking the ramekin.
We took our time, walked the property with wine, chit-chatted and made the most of our evening at the Rainbow Lodge. I enjoyed the experience because I was with two of my best friends, the restaurant could not make or break that for me. I would hesitate to visit again, however.
The waiter mentioned that the chef was not there that night and I hope that had a lot to do with the sub par experience. Nonetheless, I expect that a responsible chef would either leave his restaurant in suitable hands or not leave at all.
Understandably, every place has a bad day. I’ve worked in enough great restaurants for enough years to know that every place has an “off” day. Sadly, it’s not about their “off” day, it’s about the patron's good experience and I expected a better result.
While I think it’s imperative to maintain a good attitude when things go awry, that doesn’t change my expectation of such a highly regarded establishment. I’ll forgive a thing or two, but not three or more...not all in one visit. I expected the food and the service to be superb. Overall, they dropped the ball.
Nobody likes a sad, skinny baby...nobody!
Whether I’m ordering a meal at a restaurant or cooking up something at home, enjoying what I eat brings me immense satisfaction. On the other hand, being disappointed in a meal sends me into tantrum mode.
I expect certain things out of a dining experience. I’m realistic about the standards I hold for each place, from the local taco bar to the five star steak house. What I've decided is that it's about a perfect balance between service, food quality, ambiance and price. That may seem like a lot to juggle, but Houston is a big city with a plethora of restaurants to choose from. There’s no reason to expect anything less than the best.
If you strip my needs down to the bare essentials, you'll find I'm very much like a baby; I love tasty food and I love to be happy. If an experience doesn't generate a sense of fulfillment for those two basic needs...you're gonna hear me cry.
Nobody likes a sad, skinny baby...nobody!