Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Brann's Steakhouse & Grille (Grand Rapids, MI)

My muse is not a spout that can be turned on at will. Though the occasions are few, there are times when, despite being at a new eatery ripe with onion ring potential, I don't feel the call of the Allium in my bones. Thankfully for you, dear reader, I was bolstered by a stalwart compatriot in the world of liberty (and Sola Cepa fandom, for which I imagine there is a non-zero overlap) to order and consume these onion rings on a wholly unrelated occasion.

Here is a review of onion rings from Brann's Steakhouse & Grille. My companions were too many to name, but you know who you are.

Presentation and Appearance: 3/5

Coated in a reasonably consistent covering of golden brown batter, these onion rings are marred immediately by a somewhat patchy breading. While they appear smooth at first blush, the gaps in the batter portend grave danger just ahead. Even from a distance vantage point, I can see the thin sheen of grease peaking over and among the rings. 

The presentation is roughly standard for bar fare. Plain white wax paper lines a reasonably good facade of a basket (made of plastic, but designed to vaguely resemble wicker). The onion rings don't quite fill the container, making the portion size seem more scanty than it otherwise would. The haphazard toss of a plastic container of the purported "Bistro Sauce," which, to the best of my limited knowledge, doesn't resemble in any way, shape, or form what one would get in a bistro, speaks to an apathetic lack of care in the plating.

Taste: 3/5

The batter, though delicately coated in a fine mist of grease, characteristic of the morning dew on a cool Spring day, holds a delicate and light flavor. Seasoned with a pinch-and-a-half of salt, it manages to approximate a sweet-spot between "bland pile of batter" and "explosion of every spice in the kitchen." Generally, I prefer a more flavorful batter, but I felt the mild taste worked well for these onion rings.

This may have been helped by the utter tastelessness of the onions. Though the onions were sufficiently soft to release flavor, very little of it made its way through the light batter. Indeed, the slight seasoning on the surrounding batter was enough to overpower the onion. 

However, both were not just blown out of the water, but set on fire, capsized, and collapsed to the bottom of the sea by the "Bistro Sauce." While I'm generally a fan of strong flavor, this sauce completely and utterly overpowered any hint of flavor in the other two primary components of the onion rings. While it delivered a unique tang, that tang marked the death knell of both batter and onion. 

Texture: 1.5/5

The standard Sola Cepa review, to the astute reader, is a mess of foreshadowing. Issues that crop up in Presentation and Appearance and Taste should signal (at least, to an onion ring expert) further issues in texture. The onion rings here are no exception. 

The softly cooked onions, while flavorless, generally could score some points on texture. However, when combined with the delicate batter, the inevitable result is iteration after iteration of slippage. The underlying texture of these onion rings was, in one word, weak. The batter falls apart as strands of what was once an onion ring slip out into the void. Integrity is gone. Peace is lost. 

Value: 2/5

$3.00 nets a meager portion of onion rings, drowning in an overpowering Bistro Sauce and ready to crumble at the slightest provocation. They were mildly filling, and looked pretty, but that's about the size of it. 

Total: 9.5/20

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Golden Egg (Ypsilanti, MI)

Onion rings are renowned for many things, not the least of which their mystical healing and therapeutic properties. For those that doubt this maxim, I would highly recommend consuming a hearty plate of onion rings after a (presumably) energetic wedding reception after an unknown quantity of gin and tonics.

Thankfully, on that fateful post-wedding reception morning, I received a timely invitation to brunch by my good friend Shelby. Joined by Eric, we journeyed to the Golden Egg for brunch, which thankfully had the mighty golden rings.

Here's a review of onion rings from The Golden Egg.

Presentation and Appearance: 3.5/5

Diner-style restaurants aren't where one goes for refined presentation, and the Golden Egg is no exception. My onion rings are served without glamour on a mildly interesting plate (with a variety of colored rings emblazoned on the surface), in a fairly standard heap. They appear to be thin cut, while remaining hand battered, and are a bit on the darker side of golden brown. 

Hidden beneath the mound are two cracked rings, and one can detect a handful of cracks in the batter sprinkled throughout. Beyond these minor issues, however, the appearance of these onion rings have no glaring flaws. 

Taste: 4.5/5

Onion ring deception is typically one of my greatest foes, comparable to state-funded business subsidies and my latent fear of dying of an infected wound in a post-collapse society, but in this case, the deception works to these onion rings' advantage. While fairly unassuming and thin in appearance, they deliver a wallop of flavor in both onion and batter. 

The sole flaw in flavor comes from the slight char on some bits of batter. Beyond that, the batter is seasoned congruently with the flavor of the onion. While most of what I get is salt, the ever eternal friend to onion and batter alike, it provides a reasonable and seasonable bite.

Surprisingly for the small size of the onion rings, the onion flavor shines through like the sun, peeking through an oddly colored brown cloud. Cooked to deliver a maximum of flavor, another rare feat, given the thin cut, the juices intermingle freely with the salty batter, without delivering an excess of juice or grease. 

Texture: 3/5

For all the strengths in flavor, the textural mishaps of these onion rings are numerous. The root of the problem, in another bizarre twist from the norm, is that the core of the onion and the batter are too adhesive towards each other. It's almost as if all the juices which provided terrific flavor act as a sealant between the onion and the batter as well. 

This has the unintended consequence of slippage, as the stickiness requires a more forceful bite, prompting a more destructive decay of the onion interior, spiraling out of control. Beyond the issue of sheer inseparability, the batter actually has a unique texture, probably imbued with a dose of cornmeal or some other thickening agent. The onion, too, is cooked well enough to be slick but not mushy. 

The problem is that the components don't swirl together into a cohesive whole, but rather wail against each other in a dissonant and confusing mess. 

Value: 4/5

Typically, smaller, thinly cut onion rings come at a lighter price point. Thus, the price of $3.29 initially gave me pause. However, given the well above average taste, decent quantity, and hand-battered nature of the rings, I think they deliver a solid value for the price. I would have liked just a few more to put it over the top, however. 

Total: 15/20

Monday, July 23, 2018

Ashley's (Ann Arbor, MI)

I can't think of any celebration that can't be enhanced by copious amounts of fried and battered onions, preferably in a circular form. This maxim proved its weight at a recent bachelor party/Bacchanalia in Ann Arbor, where I was joined by groom-to-be Garrett, fellow groomsman (to-be) Eric, and a ruckus-rousing Luke and Davy, where a healthy infusion of grease and batter made a fun night even better.

Here's a review of onion rings from Ashley's in Ann Arbor. 

Presentation and Appearance: 4/5

The onion rings arrive in a bowl too small to fit the moderate amount of rings, a fairly traditional tactic to trick a less discerning onion ring consumer into thinking they got a good deal. The brown paper, a slight departure from the archetypal white, jauntily fits in the white bowl, perhaps symbolizing the robust spirit of the locale. 

The first and most immediate impression of the onion rings is color. They are fried to a crisp golden brown, without the characteristic darkness of overfrying. They also appear pleasantly plumb, usually a good sign of latent onion juices, or sufficiently thick cut onions, so as to deliver a better flavor. While the color is good, the batter seems inconsistently applied, though it's clearly by hand. Chunks of better ebb and flow, like some cosmic goo, off of the onion rings, with a moderate cracking accompanying the ooze. 

Taste: 2.5/5

As may be expected with bar food, these onion rings were greasier than the norm. The plain looking batter was well-seasoned, and was responsible for most of the non-grease flavor, of which there was precious little. 

Despite the plump appearance of the rings, the onion taste was mild to a fault. While other rings manage to get the grease to flow with the onion juices, making the grease into an asset, these fail to make the same transformation, leaving the grease as a pale reminder of the things that were once good in life. 

Texture: 3/5

The dominant factor of these onion rings, whether through taste, texture, or appearance, is undoubtedly the batter. Its thickness and integrity give it something resembling a shell, reminding me of a greasy lobster at my local lobster shack. The shell was thick and crunchy, resounding with a solid thwack on each bite. 

The inner onion was cooked down to a vaguely onion flavored paste, making the lack of strong onion taste even more bizarre. Such a weak onion made the plague of slippage come back with a vengeance, infecting the table, the plate, the bowl my shirt, and my pride before finally being vanquished by me running out of onion rings to eat. 

Value: 3.5/5

For a price of $4.00, I got a bowl of onion rings roughly middling in most respects, including both taste and quantity. For that price, it's steadily creeping up on premium, at a not-quite premium quality. That said, it was a filling side portion accompanying my pretentious beer flight and slightly less pretentious chicken sandwich. I've paid a lot more for a lot less. 

Total: 13/20

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Varsity (Atlanta, GA)

Time, as they say, is a flat circle. I recently journeyed once again to a city that changed my life. Sola Cepa first began in Atlanta almost two years ago, and I relished the opportunity to revisit my great muse and discover more of what it had to offer. After wandering semi-aimlessly through the exceedingly hot streets of Atlanta, far beyond the confines of my hotel room, I eventually arrived at my destination; the (purportedly) legendary The Varsity.

Here's a review of onion rings from the Varsity. Thanks to Trey D. for the suggestion.

Presentation and Appearance: 3.5/5

Taken without context, a paper plate, accompanied by plastic cutlery, atop a school-grade red plastic tray, with a delicate cardboard carton on top, doesn't scream haute cuisine. I have found, however, through extensive experimentation, that onion rings don't really follow the traditional norms of plating. The casual style of presentation simultaneously evokes nostalgia and ease, settling one in for an immediate sense of comfort food.

The onion rings expand beyond the small carton elegantly, like a delicately crafted bonsai tree sprouting from its earthen mold. Each ring is delicately and tightly packed almost perfectly into the carton, forming a neat row of consecutive circles, of a shockingly uniform thickness.

Though the presentation is stellar, the onion rings do lack something in appearance. The inconsistent battering, filled with dozens of scrappy spirals of batter schlepping beyond the circle, does clearly indicate a hand-made batter, but perhaps one mass produced in the back of house. It's nothing hugely sinking, but it does leave something to be desired in terms of care and precision.

Taste: 4/5

Bursts of flavor coalesce from a fusion of the batter and the onion. The house-made batter was seasoned just right, with just the right mix of salt and other spices. The batter is peppered with flecks of black pepper, adding a good bit of color in the otherwise brown batter. When mixed with the onion flavor, it's smooth and buttery.

Onion-wise, the cook time is such that the onions yield a solid mixture of grease and juices, without devolving into a wet, sopping mess. The thin film of grease fits the flavor well, and complements both the batter and the onion.

The main mark against flavor comes from a lack of oomph. The parts that make up solid taste are there, but they can't quite make it to the next level. I suspect, in large part, this is due to their mass-production. Made in small batches, with perhaps a little more time, they could soar to the peaks of the mountains of flavor, ascending like the eagle of proper food preparation, before resting on the nest of cohesive production.

Texture: 3/5

I suspect the Varsity, being the well-oiled machine of food production that it is, has the fry time of onion rings down to a near exact science. The onions, as they were in taste, are the start of the texture of this dish. It's the Golden Mean of onion texture, with the perfect position on the sliding scale of firm to mushy. It has enough give to yield juice and flavor, but is firm enough to maintain shape under duress.

The batter, despite the heavy taste, is delicate, and flaky. Though the onions are cooked to perfection, the slightly-too-thin layer of the batter became a bit too crispy, with some rings bordering on burnt.

Carl Menger thought that the first facet of economic analysis was understanding cause and effect. Though I'm loath to compare my meager reviews to the beauty of economics, I think an apt comparison can be drawn to cause and effect. Because the batter was weak, and coated relatively lightly, while subjected to too long of a time in the fryer, shedding seems to be the natural consequence. Flecks of batter chipped off the structurally sound onion, falling onto the sea of of the red tray below me.

Value: 5/5

Value is among the hardest things to quantify, as it relies so strongly on a heavily subjective and personal understanding. That said, for $2.20, these onion rings are a grand slam. For a none-too-tidy sum, you get a dense carton of thick rings, at a perfect meal sized quantity with above average taste and texture. These onion rings are a grand value any day of the week.

Total: 15.5/20

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Udder Side (Jonesville, MI)

As one might be able to imagine, there's not a whole lot to do in the region of Hillsdale. As a result, standards for an "exciting night out" fall dramatically. This, in essence, is how a standard ice cream shop, The Udder Side, became an exciting destination for the Hillsdale students who are not yet old enough to drink, or just want to do something to ease the characteristic tedium for a few short moments.

Fortunately for me, the Udder Side also has onion rings. Here's a review of said onion rings from the Udder Side. Many thanks to my wonderful girlfriend, Allegra, for joining me.

Presentation and Appearance: 2/5

Curled into the recesses of a greasy paper bag, which is somehow stapled shut, I manage to unearth a medium-sized cylindrical carton, overflowing with a packed set of onion rings too big for their metaphorical britches. The container itself is naught but a ghastly pallor, showing a unique contrast between the darkened rings.

The rings themselves, while appearing to be hand battered, have clearly seen better days. Though some batter does tenuously cling to the rings, it far too often borders from dark-brown to a crispy black, indicating an almost certain burning sensation soon to come.

Taste: 2/5

They say one ought not to judge a book by its cover, but in my many years of reviewing onion rings, I'm pretty confident that I can judge the taste and texture of an onion ring by its presentation and appearance.

In short, the burnt batter overpowers any other flavor present in these onion rings. The more passable bits of batter, like the handful of shiny beets at a roadside beet stand, form a thin, shell-like coating over the onions. While it's not as greasy as one might expect, it fails to deliver a flavor capable of standing up to the almighty char.

The onions, cooked reasonably well despite the overdone batter, provide a solid, if somewhat light, onion taste. Unfortunately, like the breading, the onion is overpowered by the too-crispy, too-burnt batter.

Texture: 2.5/5

The shell-like coating of the breading makes a valiant effort at a reasonable crunch, but the burnt batter makes them far too crispy. The onions, on the other hand, have a smooth, juicy texture, riding the line between soft and firm, and erring neither towards a mushy paste nor a raw circle of onion.

Texturally, these onion rings held some small potential. Had the execution been better, either on the frying or the battering, the score would be much more competitive. Alas. Perhaps the Udder Side should just stick to ice cream instead.

Value: 2.5/5

For a time, I held off on writing this review because I couldn't recall the price, needed for the value ranking. Through a complex series of searches, and a healthy dose of luck, I finally managed to find a menu with prices.

I was shocked to discover the price for these onion rings were $3.50. For the amount received, it's bordering on a premium price, but with sub-quality taste and cooking, they left much to be desired.

Total: 9/20

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Whataburger (Chain)

At long last, I conclude my travelogue of dipping my toes into the vast culinary world of Austin, Texas. Of course, by that I mean sampling a variety of onion rings to gauge restaurant quality. The nobility of my calling, and the esteem that comes with it, is often lacking. Many fail to understand my crucial role in the culinary ecosystem, and I must work in the shadows, skulking about with those precious few who know the power of the Onion Ring Standard. 

Here's a review of onion rings from Whataburger, at a location in Austin, Texas. Thanks to my brother, Zach, for driving and joining me. 

Presentation and Appearance: 3/5

The carton shape that serves as a delivery mechanism for the onion rings from Whataburger is unique among the various fast food onion rings I've reviewed. It's neither roughly cylindrical, nor roughly cubic, as is the norm, but a mysterious combination of angles, in what I assume to be a unique Texan geometry. It's intriguing, though somewhat confusing. 

The odd shape of the carton makes it difficult to see all of the onion rings at first glance. From my vantage point, I can clearly see at least one exposed onion ring, showing its hidden ivory interior to the world around it. The breading is colored on the darker side of golden brown, and I suspect they're fairly overdone. These rings are, in short, a mixed carton characterized by creative presentation and lackluster attention to detail. 

Taste: 3/5

Unsurprisingly, given the geographic location of these onion rings, and the chain of Whataburger at large, they are heavily flavored with grease. The grease serves as a flavor delivery mechanism for the onion juices, derived from the somewhat overdone onion rings, and is the highlight of the taste of the dish. These juices deliver a strong and more than sufficient onion flavor of the rings, though this taste is inconsistently applied over the rings. 

The batter, on the other hand, is largely flavorless. There's a vague hint of seasoning, probably no more than a dash of salt, but the juices meld with the batter on occasion to deliver a soft, buttery bite. 

Texture: 1.5/5

An onion ring fried for a good length is a delicate balancing act. The longer cook time tends to generate an excess of onion grease, and additional flavor, but at the cost of yielding a mushy onion texture. This was demonstrably the case for these onion rings, as the onions fell prey to this unfortunate tendency. Though several were soft and smooth, and approaching a fine onion paste, a number of them slid further still into the unquenchable heat of the fryer, resulting in blackened and scarred crunchy remnants of what was once an onion. 

The batter is worse. The hint of a cracked batter I saw early on reared its ugly head further in, with cracked batter running amok on more than half of the onion rings in the carton. The batter was attached by a thin membrane, weak as a spider's web and half as tasty. A major problem was likely in the thin cut of the onions, making them unable to withstand the crucible of grease and oil. In short, the texture was a crumpled and wicked mess. 

Value: 3.5/5

This carton of bruised and frayed onion rings cost a mere $2.39. Though lacking in cohesive texture, they did deliver a strong onion flavor, with a substantial quantity, at a more than reasonable price point. 

Total: 11/20

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Uchiko (Austin, TX)

Magic is something I don't really think of anymore, that almost-lost, intangible quality of wonder and delight. There are moments, however, where something manages to recapture its spirit, and I get a spark of that awe that was once so common.

Thomas Kuhn, who I was first introduced to by Dr. Steele in a course on the History of Economic Thought, famously described changes in scientific understanding in the terms of paradigm shifts. Researchers discover phenomena that can't be sufficiently explained within the current model (or paradigm), which eventually prompts a dramatic shift in methodology and principle to explain the data.

The onion rings at Uchiko gave me a little slice of magic. They prompted something akin to a paradigm shift in my cynical mind, and shattered my arrogance at having "seen it all" in onion rings. To date, they are the best onion rings I have ever had.

Here's a review of onion rings from Uchiko. Thanks to Zach, Emily, and Leah (aka Mother) for joining me.

Presentation and Appearance: 5/5

The meager picture I managed to snap, through a combination of haste, my phone's camera quality, and relatively dim lighting, genuinely does not do these onion rings justice. The menu simply bills them as "onion ring tempura," and they are, in fact, clearly tempura battered. This is a wholly unique innovation in the world of onion rings, at least, to my experience, and results in a non-standard appearance. It is the first, and most dramatic, paradigm shift in the world of onion rings.

These onion rings are massive, and marred with dozens of pockmarks in the batter. The batter balloons out like an inflating tube, somehow maintaining inflation despite the porous nature of the casing. There are a plethora of different colored spices and seasonings mixed into the batter, with a deep, dark red being the most dominant, but brown and green also make an appearance. Beyond these specks, the coloring is remarkably consistent.

A surprisingly large grouping of four onion rings sit atop a multi-colored modern plate, with just the right amount of an expertly placed paper underneath. The small accompanying ramekin of soy sauce looks to be the perfect size and amount for the four onion rings, another fine attention to detail.

In a certain sense, these onion rings break the rules of appearance. The batter is inconsistently covered, with more holes than I can think to count, much of it is hollow and expansionary, and it seems almost destined to fall for hubris. But, for whatever reason, they pull it off with style.

Taste: 5/5

Batter flavor is a woefully under-valued quality of a good onion ring. Though I was initially suspicious of this new tempura batter, the taste won me over. It's simultaneously salty, savory, and spicy, with no one flavor overpowering the other. The delicate mixture of multi-colored seasonings blends together in a veritable party in my mouth, and nobody is throwing up.

As my palate is only sufficiently refined in the realm of onion rings, I couldn't place the flavors as anything other than originating from Japanese cuisine. My brother hypothesized the specks of red were some variety of roe egg, but I can't be sure myself. All I know is that the batter, and the seasoning, delivered flavors like nothing I've ever tasted in an onion ring before. This is the second paradigm shift. 

The strips of onion, buried deep within the recesses of the bloated batter, brings an onion taste with no complaints. It's sufficiently strong for me to know it's an onion, but doesn't overpower anything else. The batter is without a doubt the star of this dish, but the onion plays a supporting role with no complaint. This shows in the wonderful complementary taste between onion and batter, much like the on-stage charisma between Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson.

The accompanying soy sauce neither overpowered nor perfectly complemented the onion rings. Rather, it transformed it. Though I didn't miss any moisture when I was eating them, a quick dab in the soy sauce flooded it with a whole new dimension of flavor. This is the third paradigm shift. 

Texture: 4.5/5

My first blast of magic came when I picked up an onion ring on the plate, and my normally placid face immediately lit up in delight, as I exclaimed excitedly that it was "like paper." The tempura batter was, indeed, somewhat like a dry clump of various papers, or like a wasp's nest abandoned on the pavement. It was light and delicately crackling, almost like a pork rind. This all combined to make them, at first brush, appear fragile.

The boldness of the tempura batter breaks all the conventional rules of texture, namely stability, integrity, and a thickness, but it just works. The tempura batter forms the facsimile of a planet-like crust, albeit with chasms, but the interior is almost entirely hollow, until you get to the onion core.

The core of the onion has a smooth and approaching perfect texture. It is neither too mushy nor too raw, not too thick nor too thin. Though no doubt aided by the gargantuan size of of the tempura batter, the onion remains steady and smooth, with no slippage.

My first impression of fragility proved wrong, as barring one dramatic incident of shedding, it stayed steady. This was, perhaps, the only true flaw with these onion rings. The tempura batter just can't quite maintain itself with the rigidity needed to compose the parts.

Value: 5/5

The going standard for larger, and higher quality, onion rings is approximately $1 a ring. Here, four onion rings cost a mere $5. They are, without a doubt in my mind, worth the extra quarter a ring. Frankly, they're worth more than that. The amount is certainly not mind-blowing, but I got a way greater value than I paid for.

The threefold paradigm-shifting nature of these onion rings would be bold enough on their own. Uchiko was not content with merely breaking the mold, however. They also delivered an explosion of Japanese flavors and seasoning, an almost perfectly executed tempura batter, and perfectly sliced and fried onions.

I wasn't being hyperbolic above. These truly are, to date, the best onion rings I've ever had. This is the Crying Dragon I've been chasing ever since Saucy Dog's Barbecue in Jonesville, Michigan. The magic is back.

Total: 19.5/20