Check, Please! Reality Check: Episodes 401 & 402

This season's first episode (#401) of Check, Please! Bay Area didn't merit its own post. It was odd that the three guests were so unanimous about how great everything was at Mescolanza, a neighborhood Italian place in the Richmond, the Basque Cultural Center in South SF, and Alexander's Steakhouse, an expensive, Vegas-style place in Cupertino, especially given that the writen reviews on KQED's Web site include some critical remarks, but they didn't seem to be very sophisticated diners.

This week's episode (#402) is another story. Most experts rate the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Shanghai Dumpling King the best in the Bay Area, but the two guests who were trying the place for the first time didn't order them. One didn't make the connection between the restaurant's name and the menu. The other didn't order them because she's a vegetarian. What!? Sending a vegetarian to review a restaurant that specializes in XLB is like sending an observant Jew or Muslim to cover a pig roast. If the producers want to have vegetarians on the show, wouldn't it make more sense to give them their own all-veg episodes?

Oddly, the vegetarian's pick was farmerbrown, a very flesh-centric upscale soul-food spot that makes some of the best fried chicken in town. They accomodate her with off-menu items such as an awful-looking tofu po-boy and vegetable jambalaya. The other two identified some of the restaurant's strong and weak points.

The segment on Caesar's Italian Restaurant (2299 Powell), a North Beach / Fisherman's Wharf institution that hasn't changed much since it opened in 1956, seemed unbalanced. All three diners enthused about the place, even though some of the food shown on camera looked pretty mediocre. I have a perverse fondness for old-school Italian gluttony, so the next night I had dinner there to see for myself. I ordered the seven-course osso buco dinner ($28) and my companion had the fried squid ($27).

The salad was old-fashioned, crisp iceberg lettuce with shaved onions and a slice of canned beet. The mayo-based house dressing was tasty.

The assorted antipasti were a highlight of the meal: delicious marinated eggplant, giardiniera in a zingy caponata-style sauce, good kidney and garbanzo bean salad, tender marinated calamari, and a few slices of mortadella. There was only one sour note, a dish of green olives that tasted like they'd picked up some off flavors in the refrigerator.

The minestrone shown on TV looked better than the thin vegetable soup we got next. This was a bland, tomatoey broth with some thoroughly cooked cabbage and green beans.

Next up was overcooked spaghetti in a bland, watery meat sauce. I took a second bite to make sure: this was definitely the worst pasta I've had in years.

My osso buco was nicely cooked, but also bland. It came with al-dente sliced carrots and broccoli and not-great roasted potatoes. My companion's calamari was depressing: soggy and underseasoned.

The dinner includes coffee and ice cream, both passable but nothing special. I also ordered the house-made cannolo ($5), which was as good as it looked on TV: dense, slightly sweet ricotta in a crisp, crunchy pastry tube. Personally I prefer lighter Sicilian-style cannoli, like the ones served at Pizzeria Delfina, but if you're a fan of the heavier New York style, this is one of the best in town.

Caesar's has a lot going for it. The 50s decor and formally dressed waiters are charming, and the service is friendly and attentive without being intrusive. Tables are far enough apart that you don't hear neighboring diners' conversation. Prices are low compared with better Italian restaurants.

Too bad the food's so hit and miss. And too bad that Check, Please! didn't get that across in the show. As the most sophisticated and skeptical of the three diners (the one who picked Shanghai Dumpling King) put it in his written review, the food's not the reason to go--Caesar's is about atmosphere.

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