Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Holiday Bar (Grand Rapids, MI)

An unexpected side effect of Sola Cepa has been the development of a certain boldness instilled in myself when I go from restaurant to restaurant. I am imbued with a profound sense of purpose, strengthening my resolve and my efforts. I know what I am there for, oh eatery, and I am there for that alone.

While sitting at the bar, the staff seemed intend on trying to butter me up with a bevy of alcoholic beverages, no doubt in an attempt to dull my keen tense of taste and put me in a mood fit for jovial spirits, and more inclined to give the onion rings a more favorable review. Not tonight, sir. Not tonight.

Here is a review of onion rings from The Holiday Bar.

Presentation and Appearance: 4/5

Plain brown paper rests between a hearty mound of onion rings and a metal tin. My eyes are immediately drawn to the green and white specks dusted delicately atop the batter. Experience has taught me that seasoning onion rings past the fry, and in such a visible manner, was something of an oddity, and it immediately piqued my interest.

While most of the rings are decently plump, a handful of shrunken and malformed rings lurk in the shadowy recesses of the tin, desperately seeking to avoid my gaze. Much as I imagine the humble roadside onion seller tries to hide the desiccated and rotten onions from their more photogenic siblings, the Holiday Bar clearly didn't want me to find these reject rings. It does not work.

A paper cup of ketchup (which I find to be a vile concoction) rests precariously near my precious rings, daring to pollute them. All in all, the appearance is refreshingly classic and homey, though the precarious ketchup placement and malformed rings are to their detriment.

Taste: 3.5/5

Even before I get a hint of the tantalizing seasonings resting atop the batter, my first bite reveals a greasy world of onion juice. With the grease comes a decent and solid onion flavor, which is just present enough to deliver a good taste without being overwhelming. The weak onion rings in the back, however, lacked the same flavor profile.

While the batter itself isn't tremendously flavorful, the seasoning added after the cooking, certainly including some ground salt and a dash of a number of savory herbs, adds a wonderful dimension to these onion rings that many others lack. This is a splendid example of how the appearance of an onion ring (the mottled specks of green and white on top of the batter) can build anticipation for the flavors yet to be unearthed, as a great apocalypse.

I cannot vouch for how the ketchup may or may not have affected the taste, as I refused to touch it. The thought of ketchup touching the glory of an onion ring makes me shudder, and weep for the poor souls this horror has been delivered to prior to my arrival.

Texture: 3/5

When you've been in the hard game of onion ring reviews as long as I have, you start to recognize patterns. An onion ring that tastes mightily of onion juices is typically accompanied by a mushy onion, with the juicy flavors coming at the expense of structural integrity of the onion itself. This was the case here, as the onions were soft and squishy, and mildly overdone.

The beer batter managed to provide a reasonable and soft bite, while my mastication delivered the sound and sensation of a slight crunch. It makes up somewhat for the onion, as providing a good texture with soft battered rings can be a tricky beast. The gnarled rings in the back are far too overdone to say the same of, though.

The slippage scourge returns, as soft batter and mushy onions make are a potent recipe for separation of the constituent components of the rings. While they has a number of good textural elements, these onion rings failed to meaningfully combine them into a positive whole.

Value: 3.5/5

For $6, I got a tin packed with reasonably thick cut rings.While $6 is a little steep for the amount of onion rings I received, they were certainly made in-house and with a reasonable degree of precision. All in all, these onion rings provided reasonable taste at a reasonable price, with an almost-stellar appearance, barring the reject rings in the corner.

Total: 14/20

Saturday, March 24, 2018

IRON Restaurant (Grand Rapids, MI)

Providence is an underrated force in human events. The confluence of factors that go into making a decision, like deciding to do another sweep of onion rings in downtown Grand Rapids, a day free of lunch plans, and a steely resolve to eat and review onion rings that fills my gullet like little else can do, can form a perfect storm of good timing and good fortune.

IRON Restaurant is closing its doors permanently effective tonight. It is only through providence that I managed to get a taste of their onion rings, before they were relegated to Grand Rapids culinary history.  If you're reading this, you may have one final chance to eat these onion rings, a soon to be relic, at IRON Restaurant's literal last supper tonight.

This is a momentous occasion for Sola Cepa. My initial vision was only to evaluate restaurants the world over by the Onion Ring Standard, but I now realize a second aim. Sola Cepa can serve as an archive of onion rings that are no more. Much like the Byzantine preservation of ancient Greek texts, which bolstered an early Renaissance in Europe, I can only hope this repository of knowledge can generate wisdom and progress in the years to come.

Here's a review of onion rings from IRON Restaurant.

Presentation and Appearance: 3.5/5

My rings arrive plated on a rectangular and dark brown plate, with a metal cup of dipping sauce resting on one edge. The presentation is modern, without yielding itself too much to the pretension that can plague the style, and fitting.

Roughly half of them are gloriously thick cut (per the menu, they are purportedly made from local onions), cooked to a golden brown perfection, and plump and pleasing to the palate. Unfortunately, the other half range from burnt to a crisp and covered with the barest hints of a patchy batter, to middling between the two extremes of plump and crisp.

Taste: 4/5

The accompanying BLIS BAST mayo, a tantalizing dipping sauce for the onion rings, was perhaps the best accompanying sauce I have ever had for onion rings. It was flavored with a spicy tang, but absolutely packed to the brim with taste. The sauce alone elevated these onion rings, even the charred and overdone ones, to heights that would have been otherwise unreachable. The sauce was more than a complement to the onion rings, it was like a rope pulling a scared child out of a well.

When cooked well, the IPA batter on the onion rings was delivered a bite full of seasoning, and packed a surprising amount of flavor into each ring. Even many of the rings which appeared charred and overdone still maintained a solid batter taste. The onions were strong without being overpowering, and many had the perfect amount of onion juices and grease, middling without tacking to excess.

An innovative and tasty dipping sauce, a flavorful IPA batter, and some well cooked thick cut local onions made for a pleasant bite. Unfortunately, only a little over half of the onion rings managed to reach that lofty height. The rest were over-done, not fully covered with the batter, or had onions sliced far too thin to stand up to the heat of the fryer.

Texture: 3.5/5

The batter is the true star of these onion rings. When cooked properly, the batter was simultaneously crunchy enough to warrant substantial chewing, but soft and light enough to seemingly disappear in my mouth as I ate it. These were nearing the ideal density, and usually maintained shape under pressure. It's remarkably difficult to get a battered texture right (or, more likely, most restaurants don't feel as passsionately about onion ring texture as I do), but these were on point.

There were more than a few instances of the dreaded slippage, and a handful of instances of shedding on some of the burnt ones. Even the seemingly overdone onion rings, for the most part, preserved the soft and buttery texture of the batter, a testament to its strength.

I suspect that the charred onion rings were mostly the result of a thin cut onion, contra the menu's claim of a thick cut. Subjected to the same fry time as the proper onions, they were unable to stand up to the pressure. In these rings, the onions were charred and blackened, so dry that they lacked even grease. They were a far cry from the quality of the batter.

Value: 2.5/5

For the steep price of $8, I got a confusingly mixed quality plate of onion rings. If they were all of the caliber of the top rings, I would be a little more forgiving, but charging such a premium and failing to deliver consistent, high-quality rings is a travesty.

These onion rings were on the verge of greatness, and they showed many signs of it. The amazing sauce, the robust batter, and the thick onions, when executed properly, were some of the best I've ever had. Unfortunately, these onion rings failed to live up to their own potential, perhaps much like IRON Restaurant itself.

The inconsistency in appearance, taste, and texture held them back from soaring to the heavens, but they still managed to jump pretty high.

Total: 13.5/20

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Steak 'n Shake (Everywhere)

Steak 'n Shake has always evoked an odd nostalgia in me. It reminds me of simpler times. Meeting up with friends before going to a movie (which, incidentally, was the occasion for this trip to Steak 'n Shake), celebrating the conclusion of opening night of a high school play, going off to a sock hop, enlisting to fight in the Korean War, buying a house for a bag of oats and firm handshake, and so on.

Despite all this nostalgia, I'd yet to ever try their onion rings. Here's a review of onion rings from Steak 'n Shake. Thank you to Ryan V., David S., and Micah W. for accompanying me.

Presentation and Appearance: 2.5/5

Color is an oft-overlooked variable when reviewing onion ring quality. Too pale, and the rings seem lifeless. Too dark, they're almost inevitably overdone. Getting a light golden brown is deceptively complex, and these onion rings succeed in spades. The breading is more than a little gnarly, and definitely fails to properly cover the onion rings in full.

The meager mound of onion rings makes a pitiful pile on a plain white plate, variate in size and covering but consistent in color, if nothing else.

Taste: 3.5/5

These onion rings are demonstrably juicy and moist. While these terms often describe admirable attributes in any number of dishes, it's a bit odd to describe onion rings as such. However, the flavors work. The onion taste is strong, and reinforced by an ample helping of delicious juices, percolating within the recesses of the golden circles.

There's also a preponderance of grease, but somehow, when mixed with the juices, it seems to work. The batter is reasonably well seasoned, and delivers a nuanced taste of salt and pepper. Though these onion rings don't look like they'd have a tremendous amount of flavor, it managed to hide within.

Texture: 1.5/5

What these had in taste, they lost in texture. The juicy onion interior of the rings came at the price of an overly-mushy (and probably over-fried) onion, leading to a characteristic lack of firmness and structural integrity. The rings were also shockingly dense, perhaps owing to the batter welded firmly to the moist onions.

The frequent shedding and slippage of the onion, and the inability of the dissimilar parts to stay together, drive this point home. While the batter did manage to maintain a slight crunch, just as the last gasps of a man chopped in half technically have some sound and meaning, it was insufficient to cover up the wet onions and the weak breading. While they have the original appearance of density, in truth, this was an illusion, delivered by Big Steak 'n Shake to foist the chaotic blob onto unsuspecting diners.

Value: 3.5/5

Too often in this world, I feel as though I don't get what I pay for. My consumer surplus, after factoring in the regret of a bad purchase, can erode entirely. The onion rings from Steak 'n Shake, however, are about what you pay for. For $2.59, I got a small plate of alright looking, alright tasting, onion rings, that went down with heat and grease to accompany my tall, cool shake.

Total: 11/20

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Peppermill Grill (Rockford, MI)

The ubiquity of onion ring offerings in restaurants across the land is among the many reasons I began Sola Cepa. It's almost impossible to exhaust all the onion ring locations in a single city, let alone a state, the nation, or the world. My quest, which same may call quixotic, can never end as long as I walk this Earth. It was this quest that brought me slightly out of Grand Rapids into dangerous and unexplored territories to the north.

Here's a review of onion rings from the Peppermill Grill in Rockford, Michigan.

Presentation and Appearance: 2.5/5

A shallow white bowl envelops a mound of reasonably golden brown onion rings. It's simple, but perhaps a bit bland. Generally speaking, presentation can afford to simple if the appearance of the rings themselves deliver. Unfortunately, these onion rings miss the mark.

The biggest offender by far is the excessive number of cracked, frayed, and pulverized onion rings mixed in with the complete ones. I suspect part of the problem is that the onions themselves are too thinly cut to maintain shape under frying and plating, or perhaps a lack of care and precision at any step in the process. They do, however, have a reasonably consistent coating of batter and a good color.

Taste: 2.5/5

The thin cut onions come home to roost on my first bite. On more than a handful of rings, the onion taste was bitterly weak. Others, however, were packed with flavor, rife with the sweet greasy juices that only the onion can deliver. In the latter case, the rings delivered solidly, but the inconsistency was its downfall.

The batter was unlike any I have ever tasted. It didn't seem to be seasoned all that well, beyond a brush or two of grease, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something else in the batter giving it a unique flavor. It may have been cornmeal, but it was certainly a non-standard addition, giving the batter, if not a "kick," at the very least a light, jovial slap on one's back to indicate its presence, in the manner of a long lost friend.

A massive plastic container of ranch accompanied the rings, far in excess of the consumption needs of even the most pale denizen of the Midwest, which may or may not be me. It was alright, nothing special, and mostly served to mask the lack of onion flavor in some of the weaker rings.

Texture: 3.5/5

Coating on an onion ring, whether breading or some kind of batter, is a tricky beast. The batter on these onion rings was unlike any I have ever encountered, in both taste and texture. The coating itself was thin, but it had a fiendish strength despite the lack of thickness, maintaining shape even under pressure.

It reminded me of a shell on some mythical onion ring crustacean, with enough density to survive, but if you really pushed at it, it would collapse. The shell-like batter was also unusually sticky, a strong potential contributor to its cohesion. Unfortunately, the strength of the batter resulted in a good deal of slippage from the onions within.

The onions, unfortunately, did not match up to the mystique of the batter. As mentioned above, inconsistency ruled the day. They ran the gamut from mushy and juicy to a dried out husk.

Value: 3.5/5

The bowl of onion rings was pretty full and fairly filling, at a reasonable $2.95. The cracked rings, and the weak onions, make these onion rings slightly less of a great value.

Total: 12/20

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Choo Choo Grill (Grand Rapids, MI)

My calling, though noble, can rack my tranquility. As I drive by any given restaurant in my daily life, I'm forced to evaluate the likelihood that they have onion rings. My ever-expanding list of restaurants to conquer fluctuates wildly with whatever happens to come into sight.

I've driven past the Choo Choo Grill hundreds of times in the past two years, and I finally went in, to satisfy both my curiosity and my insatiable, never-ending drive for more onion rings.

Presentation and Appearance: 2/5

Language is a tricky thing. The same word, like "simple" or "bare-bones" could be said of two wildly different things, one of which may more perfectly illustrate the true definition of the term. All that is to say that the presentation of these onion rings was, in fact, simple. They were served in a tangled pile on a small, white plates. That's it. It's fitting for the diner aesthetic of the Choo Choo Grill, though not the most impressive. 

The onion rings run into more trouble in their appearance. I can immediately tell that they're overcooked, as evidenced by the dark, dark brown coating, and the frays in the batter. They have a somewhat consistent size and cut, but that comes not from art of the craft, but from the purchase of a large plastic bag of frozen onion rings. 

The restaurant was set up in a small building, with counter seating surrounding the grill and fry area. As I was paying my bill, I noticed a new batch of onion rings going in the fryer, being delicately spooned from a large plastic bag, obviously pre-made, obviously frozen. Though I've had my share of frozen onion rings before, this is the first time I've seen the indelicate and mechanistic frying, bereft of care, bereft of love. 

Taste: 1.5/5

My eyes did not deceive me, as the predominant taste of these onion rings was an overdone batter, often bordering on badly burnt. The onions, cut razor-thin, failed to deliver a substantial onion taste. Given the long fry-time, there was little chance for the onion juices to mingle with the ubiquitous grease, making for a remarkably dry onion ring. 

In short, these were largely flavorless. It was burnt breading with a vague hint of onion, flavored in a pool of grease. 

Texture: 1.5/5

As with all other aspects of these onion rings, the texture was almost solely determined by the overpowering, overcooked, and slightly burnt breading. The onions, when they weren't desiccated husks of what may have been an onion at some point in time, did deliver some okay texture, but it was mostly dry, and masked by the awful batter. 

In addition, they fell prey to the cardinal sin of onion rings: slippage. 

Value: 2/5

As I was originally working through my notes for this review, I was cautiously optimistic on value. When filling out my check, I saw the dread of the bag of frozen onion rings poured with a modicum of care into the fryer, and my heart sank. 

I originally thought $3.39 for a decent sized pile of sub-par onion rings wasn't too bad, but when confronted with the absolute fact that they were pre-made and frozen, I couldn't help but feel it was a rip-off, at best. At worst, it's a crime against all things Allium, and an affront to all things good in life. 

Total: 7/20

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Filling Station (Comstock Park, MI)

All human endeavors, given enough time, develop their own internal lore. Onion rings are no exception. A little over a year ago, I put out a call to arms on Facebook, calling for suggestions for onion rings to review in the greater Grand Rapids area, to feed my nigh insatiable hunger for the mighty onion ring.

One suggestion was the Filling Station, located in Comstock Park. According to legend, and as relayed to me, they used a legendary recipe for their onion rings derived from Mr. Fables, a defunct local chain that went under when I was five. I ventured forth on a clear-skied Saturday, eager to taste a piece of living onion ring history, and to delve deeper into the rich culinary lore that surrounds the noble dish.

Here's a review of onion rings from the Filling Station. Thank you to Sola Cepa super-fan Patrick O. for accompanying me.

Presentation and Appearance: 4/5

The onion rings arrived harmoniously heaped, stacked in a golden brown tower, in a green-and-blue striped cardboard container. Interestingly, this container was itself atop a traditional checkered paper, which was itself atop a plastic basket. The successive layers of presentation may have been a subconscious ode to the layers of the onion, a significance which merits further investigation.

The stacked pile of onion rings made for an appealing dish, as did the almost perfectly uniform hue of the batter, on the lighter side of golden brown. I have deducted some points for a major outlier shoved in the bottom of the basket, an overdone half ring that was fried to oblivion and back.

Beyond this, the onions seemed to be of a uniform cut and size, both in circumference and, more importantly, in the thickness of the onion interior. They are clearly hand-battered, but perhaps with a small lack of care, as the batter expanded like a porous nightmare from beyond the confines of the ring.

Taste: 3.5/5

As might be expected from the Codex of Allium, which holds the Mr. Fables recipe supposedly maintained by the Filling Station to be unique for its batter, the batter is the highlight of flavor for these rings. It is satisfyingly well-seasoned, and somewhat dry. It avoids the deluge of grease and onion juices that so many onion rings fall prey to, while maintaining a certain crispiness of batter.

The onion flavor, however, does fall a little short. I suspect that these onion rings were made with a sweeter onion variety than may be the norm (perhaps, like Russ', the sweet Spanish onion). Consequently, the onion taste is inconsistently present. When it's there, it provides a taste that is simultaneously pervasive and mild, without being overpowering in any regard.

Other bites proved to have little to no flavor in the onion interior, and all I was left with was a mouthful of creamy batter, seasoned with the bitter taste of disappointment.

Texture: 4.5/5

Unlike the taste, these onion rings deliver handily in the quality of texture. The batter is neither overly soft nor hard and crunchy, but sits comfortably between the two extremes. The batter is crispy and fresh, soft enough to deliver a buttery sensation, but stable enough to ensure almost no slippage or shedding throughout my meal. Indeed, the integrity of these onion rings is a marvel, and in large part thanks to the quality of the batter, though it was applied more than a little haphazardly.

The onions which form the basis of the ring, while lacking a bit in flavor, are cooked excellently. Like the batter, they avoid the extremes of soggy mush and raw earthiness.

A substantive flaw can only be found in the outlier onion ring, chopped in half and overdone, which ruined the texture of both batter and onion. Beyond that, the texture was top-notch.

Value: 4.5/5

$3.65 buys one a massive basket of onion rings, of substantial historical importance. While there are a couple outliers, and they are somewhat lackluster in terms of onion flavor, you definitely get your money's worth with these.

Total: 16.5/20

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Kitchen 67 (Grand Rapids, MI)

Motivation is a fickle mistress. After months of inactivity, Sola Cepa burst back onto the scene, as I renewed my onion ring fixation with an unmatched vigor. Unfortunately, as the ebb and flow of time and life washed over me, my motivation for excess reviews of onion rings waned. A balance must be struck, as the Aristotelian Golden Mean. Sustainable, long-term output is more important than vague bursts of reviews.

That said, here's a review of onion rings from Kitchen 67. Thank you to Dave for the suggestion.

Presentation and Appearance: 3/5

In a unique twist on the classic, the wax paper that lines the squarish ceramic bowl is printed int he facade of a newsprint, an attempt to hearken back to something homey and unique. While it's a relatively convincing fake, and it does add a bit of a twist on the standard white or red-and-white checkered paper, I don't know how much it ultimately adds to the equation. It does, however, stand out.

The rings themselves are demonstrably hand-battered, but not with delicate care. They are messy and haphazard, with hills of gnarled batter climbing off the rings to and fro. They're a bit on the darker side of golden brown, perhaps indicative of a slightly too-long fry time.

Taste: 1.5/5

I often throw around the term "greasy" when reviewing onion rings, but I feel the overuse of that term has led to an underappreciation of the extent of grease that is possible. These onion rings, rather than being delicately brushed with a thin layer of grease, were drenched with a series of successive buckets in a desperate attempt to drown the poor onion rings.

As you can gather, these were remarkably greasy. I got hints of seasoning in the batter at times, but these hints were overwhelmed by the powerful grease. Indeed, after finishing the rings, a small pool of grease collected in the center, something I've never seen before.

Overall, the taste was overpowering, and not all that pleasant. The accompanying dipping sauce, never identified, was bizarrely both bland and poor in taste. All that said, the onions had a decently strong flavor, the only positive of taste yet identified.

Texture: 3/5

The texture was a mixed bag. The batter delicately collapsed with a pop, as it puffed extravagantly out from the inconsistent (mostly thin) cut onion. To deem it a crunch would be a misnomer, and it was far more of a pop.

The batter, however, was oddly heavy, despite the pop in the bite. Each bite built a successive layer in the pit of my stomach, forming a dense layer of greasy batter and onions. There was far, far too much batter for the size of the onions. It might be more accurate to term these "piles of greasy batter that have a little bit of onion inside of them that may or may not be in the shape of a ring" rather than an onion ring.

What little onion I did encounter were decent. They were soft, without becoming mushy and overcooked, and provided a nice, soft, juicy bite. Unfortunately, the greasy ball of batter overpowered that.

Value: 2.5/5

For $2.99, I got a reasonably sized bowl of relatively mediocre onion rings. The quality left something to be desired, but the amount was adequate. They were filling, to an overwhelming extent.

Total: 10/20