Friday, November 12, 2010

Kicking Off Linuxfest With Monte Carlo Italian Kitchen

The time has come for another round of restaurants reviews during my weekend spent in Columbus, Ohio for the 2010 Ohio Linuxfest. While this year I decided to rent a hotel room after snagging a killer deal on Priceline for the Ramada in Westerville, I did meet up with my aunt and cousin for dinner on Saturday night at a local Thai restaurant. But more about that in a future entry.

After getting off of work on Friday night, I managed to hop in my car around 5:45 PM and with relatively little problem, arrived in Columbus at the I-71 and I-270 interchange by Polaris right around 8:00 PM. Not knowing exactly when I would be arriving tonight, I hadn't made any firm dinner plans and when I realized that I would be getting to my destination early enough in the evening, I thought I would check out an old favorite of mine that ironically was less than half a mile from my hotel.

I pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall complex on the north side of Shrock Road, just east of the intersection of Cleveland Avenue and Shrock Road, to find that Monte Carlo Italian Kitchen was still open for business. At least until 9 PM. Located at 610 West Shrock Road, Westerville, OH 43081, they can also be reached at 614-890-2061. Parking was available in the general strip mall parking lot in front of all the stores.

Here was a shot of the storefront's exterior:

Storefront of Monte Carlo Italian Kitchen
What I didn't expect as I walked through the front door was that the place would be packed, every single seat at every single table filled, a mere fifty minutes before they were scheduled to close for the evening. Fortunately, there was a small two-top in the corner by the emergency exit door that I was all too happy to take. Clearly most of these tables were finishing up their meals as within roughly fifteen minutes, the place went from being mobbed to eerily quiet and empty.

After seating me, my server left me to ponder the menu:

Monte Carlo's Menu Page 1
Monte Carlo's Menu Page 2
Monte Carlo's Menu Page 3
Monte Carlo's Menu Page 4
The reason I hadn't returned to Monte Carlo during prior Linuxfest weekends was that when I lived in Columbus six years ago, the restaurant wasn't open for dinner on Saturday night. If I didn't make it down on Friday night in time for dinner (which was pretty much every year), I was out of luck. Fortunately, I was happy to see that they now have Saturday evening hours for diners who can't make it on Friday night.

From what I remember of my dinners at Monte Carlo, I recall them having several seriously good dishes on the menu; however, beyond those, the food wasn't all that particularly memorable. Unfortunately, given that I was only going to have enough time to visit Monte Carlo once during my weekend in Columbus, I knew that I wouldn't be able to give the menu the thorough vetting I felt it required. This realization led me to focus on deciding which of the two standout dishes from my past to order tonight: chicken Parmesan with gnocchi and red sauce or the lasagna.

While I was deciding what to have, my server brought out dinner rolls:

Dinner Rolls
While these weren't anything particularly special, they were fresh enough and strangely, after chewing them for a minute or so, I was surprised to experience a sudden sweetness that had been missing when I took my first bite. I repeated the experiment several times and was rewarded with the same results at the conclusion of each trial. Interesting.

After deciding on my entrée, I also went ahead and added a garden salad to my order:

Garden Salad
Already, memories from past meals were beginning to re-emerge from the depths of my brain. It seemed that the rather basic, tasteless iceberg lettuce salad that had been served six years ago was still on the menu. Different, however, was the house dressing:

Bottle of House Dressing
Salads used to come with dressing in prepackaged foil-enclosed containers ... Marzetti, if I remembered correctly. Tonight's dressing had clearly been made in house and while fairly mild in terms of acidity and spices, a generous application at least added some desperately needed flavor to the salad greens.

For my dinner, it hadn't taken much effort on my part to decide what made Monte Carlo memorable in my mind, and I easily chose the chicken Parmesan with gnocchi and red sauce:

Chicken Parmesan with Gnocchi
While the menu had been amended to offer both shrimp and cod Parmesan (which I thought sounded awfully odd considering that Italians don't pair seafood and cheese together), I stuck with what I knew and was quite pleased to see what the kitchen had prepared for me tonight. What always fascinated me about the chicken Parmesan was how fresh it tasted. Because it was a nice thick piece of chicken, it always stayed moist. The coating was flavorful, the breast was fried with an expert hand, and it was never greasy. The red sauce was thick and rich and always well-balanced.

As I took a closer shot of my chicken Parmesan tonight, my mouth began to water:

Chicken Parmesan with Red Sauce
Upon cutting into the chicken breast with knife and fork, I was rewarded with EXACTLY the same culinary experience I had last witnessed six years ago:

Side Shot of Chicken Parmesan
This was chicken Parmesan par excellence! Everything I had hoped would be present was still there. From first bite to last, I relished every single mouthful. Between the chicken and the gnocchi, there was enough food for dinner tonight AND leftovers tomorrow, but since I had yet to check into my hotel and didn't know if I had a refrigerator in my room, I decided to greedily finish the entire portion.

Served up next to the chicken was the side of gnocchi with more of the red sauce:

Gnocchi with Red Sauce
The gnocchi were soft and pillowy, but not light and ethereal like the type that I prefer. I managed to isolate a single piece of pasta sans sauce and tasted it. Having had GREAT gnocchi in the past, these fell into the good, but not great, category. I could barely taste any potato flavor in the pasta, a hallmark of freshly made gnocchi. That being said, the gnocchi were also exactly as I remember them. I think the difference between then and now is that I've learned what really great gnocchi are supposed to taste like.

When my server returned to drop off my change after paying the check, I spoke with her for a few minutes about the food. It seemed that while the veal and chicken were individually pounded and breaded from fresh cuts of meat at the restaurant, both the shrimp and cod Parmesan were prepared from frozen products that were simply fried a la minute. I was also sad to hear, but not surprised to learn, that the gnocchi were not a homemade product. Which was a shame since the gnocchi were listed on their menu as a "signature" pasta and as such, commanded a premium price.

Regardless, I highly enjoyed my meal tonight and would return with very little apprehension for the chicken Parmesan again and again if I still lived in Columbus. Even with the food service rolls, tasteless iceberg lettuce salad and questionable provenance of the gnocchi, the chicken Parmesan and their red sauce was enough to trump all the other less-than-stellar components of my meal tonight. While I didn't have a chance to try the lasagna tonight, if it has remained consistent over all these years, you might just want to give that a chance, too.

Monte Carlo Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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