Hot Potato Cafe needs to try harder.
Editor's Note: Brian McManus visited Hot Potato Cafe in 2007 and found the food, as you can read below, less than desirable. He was invited back after Gordon Ramsay's retooling of the restaurant and menu. His review of that trip will appear tomorrow in advance of the third season premiere of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares at Hot Potato Cafe.
There's a scene in Michael Ruhlman's excellent The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute where the author, earning his stripes, is getting killed on a busy fry station. He's backed up, buried in orders and getting his teeth kicked in when he realizes he's left a batch of spuds in the grease too long. He grabs them, but it's too late. They're burnt.
He begins to convince himself they aren't that bad, maybe just a tad crisp. He faces the same dilemma every chef who's ever pulled on a pair of houndstooth pants has had to wrestle with a hundred times: Do I serve this crap, catch up a bit and hope no one complains? Or do I start over and make it right?
Ruhlman chooses the former and is quickly called on the carpet by an irate, red-in-the-face chef who makes an example of him in front of the class. It's a decision he still wishes he could take back. After all, what's the point of cooking for a living if you're not going to try to cook well?
That's the question the folks behind the kitchen curtain at Hot Potato Cafe might want to ask themselves. For it takes an equal amount of determination and possibly more time to ruin a batch of green beans the way they do as it does to cook them properly. Just looking at the beans would make Ruhlman and his instructor weep. But we'll get to them in a moment.
First, let's talk about a few of the less sizable, less incompetent gaffs. "It's good ... just get it!" is the entire menu description for something called "buffalo chicken dip." I do. It's not.
It's not entirely bad--just a bit strange. Chicken and cheese are chopped (almost to the point of puree) into a mush, tossed in tangy wing sauce and served in a medium-sized dish surrounded by thick slices of ho-hum baguette. The additional cheddar on top, browned to a crispy crust in a salamander for texture, is the only thing keeping the dish from being the world's oddest baby food flavor.
Strange as it is, the dip is worlds better than the "specialty of the house" potato soup. An enormous dollop of sour cream floats in a bowl of thick brownish-gray liquid, its color indicating that burnt bits at the bottom of the pot have broken off and made their way into the mix. It tastes more like bacon gravy than soup.
Pierogies suffer from an all-too-short trip to the fryer, and as a result are a rubbery, too-chewy affair. The diced caramelized onions on top are every color possible--some translucent, some burnt, some perfect--a feat I didn't know was even possible.
A linguine pescatore in an overwhelmingly creamy white sauce offers a hodgepodge of seafood over limp noodles. Both the shrimp and scallops show no evidence of being anything more than boiled, and both are tough as tires. And those poor green beans. No cook worth his associate's degree would serve such a godawful, burnt and impotent pile of non-nutrients to another human.
Billed as "Asian green beans," the once raw, crisp little guys are flash-fried into an oblivion only an infant, an Englishman or the most seasoned of citizens could love. They're doused with a quick flash of soy sauce, the sugars and salts of which sear the already pathetic bean into a charred, gummy mess.
What's worse, they're served alongside an overcooked, dry-as-a-bone cheese-stuffed chicken roulade as the vegetable of the day. Roulade is misspelled "rouillade" on the menu, another telling sign that Hot Potato doesn't much care for details.
Dinner is such a disaster that the thought of lunch a few days later is unsettling. I bring a co-worker for comfort, and together we share a crab dip served in the same style as the odd buffalo chicken. Co-worker describes it as "crab snot," but it's passable nonetheless, and my fears begin to ease.
Still, ordering anything that requires much know-how is something I'm unable to bring myself to.
Grilled cheese and fries, please.
Co-worker has a "back in the day salad," a hearty mix of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, croutons and cheese--not unlike a salad you might find at the Applebee's just up the road--to accompany his burger (overcooked but not bad).
My grilled cheese is burnt, but nothing I can't scrape with the back of a knife. For this I'm thankful.
The fries are a revelation, about 10 pounds served on a platter for $2.50. They're Hot Potato's one culinary bright spot. The place is BYO, after all, and the thought of coming in to split them and a sixer with a table of four doesn't seem too terrible an idea. Lord knows the friendly staff would accommodate.
And that's the thing. The warm and helpful waitstaff at Hot Potato are about as nice as they come, exhibiting the exact tone you'd expect from a joint aiming to be a neighborhood standby. If only the kitchen would give them some help.
The Inquirer reports a negative review from Philadelphia Weekly helped bring the popular Gordon Ramsay show Kitchen Nightmares to town to fix the Hot Potato Café.
PW's Brian McManus reviewed the Hot Potato Cafe in the summer of 2007. He didn't like it. In May of last year he was invited back by the producers of 'Kitchen Nightmares' after a relaunch spearheaded by curse-happy Scotsman and world renown chef Gordon Ramsay. The review that follows is for his return visit. The Hot Potato Cafe episode of Kitchen Nightmares aired Friday. Watch the video while you're reading the review.