Saturday, March 6, 2010

City Limits Diner

I have been told that to err is human and to forgive is divine. Far be it from me to impart absolute condemnation on anyone (or anything, for that matter) without the benefit of a redo. Okay, so there was that one time with that one restaurant that nearly sent me fleeing from the premises and screaming as if I were being murdered, but one can only be gracious for so long before the fight-or-flight mentality takes over.

Saturday evening saw a return visit to City Limits Diner in Stamford, which is part of the Livanos Restaurant Group. This was not supposed to be a repeat performance by design. When I planned to go here, I just didn’t realize that my husband and I had actually eaten at City Limits Diner on our very first night as new residents of Stamford. It wasn’t until while driving and I turned onto Harvest Avenue from Tressler Boulevard that I said to myself “This looks familiar.” The fact that it was directly across the street from the Subaru used car dealership where we recently purchased a car was just the right touch of insult to my otherwise astute nature.

“Well, I’m here already so I may as well eat,” I mumbled to myself as I drove into the parking lot. You may have picked up on the fact that this was not where I wanted to be. But I was nothing if not fair, and despite my first experience with City Limits Diner, which was nothing short of mediocre, I reconciled myself to the reality that I would give it one more try. It’s that whole 'forgiveness is divine' rationale.

As diners go, aesthetically speaking City Limits is certainly a notch up on the competition post with its chrome fixtures, whimsical booths and jazzy tables. The multi-colored tile floor, however, was a bit dizzying to look at and I dared not stare at it for fear of being hypnotized in some manner. With its six different colors—sky blue, red, brown, gray, tan and white—the confused palette was perfect for hiding things such as bits of food shrapnel, spilled drinks, dropped silverware, bodies, etc. To play into a more festive atmosphere, there is piped in music from speakers in the ceiling spitting out everything from Alicia Keys to The Beach Boys. Unfortunately, the table that I sat at was directly under a speaker, but it was not too terribly loud that I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. After all, I wasn’t trying to have a conversation with myself. I did, however, feel like I was sitting in a police interrogation room because one of the overhead lights was pointing directly down on my table. When I looked up I expected to see a lone light bulb swinging from a cord hanging from the ceiling and, across the table from me, a detective with a face hardened by time and too many sleepless nights. Perhaps I should confess to something?

The menu is very un-diner-like, with selections running the gamut from Keftedes (Greek Meatballs), Middle Eastern Vegetarian Sampler and House Smoked Atlantic Salmon appetizers to Udon Noodles, Mustard Crusted Halibut and Turkey Scallopini entrées. And with breakfast served all day (although City Limits Diner is not open 24-hours), hungry eaters have a wide array of items to choose from.

As with most of my meals, I wanted to begin with an appetizer (right after I ordered a tall glass of Stella Artois draft which, by the way, tasted a little watery). The Smoked Chicken & Corn Quesadilla sounded tempting, as did the City Limits Turkey Chili, but it was the Chicken Spring Rolls that finally won me over. After all, City Limits’ website states that “Everything is made from scratch.” However, I would beg to differ with that boastful statement with at least this one item on the menu.

The chicken spring rolls looked anything but homemade. In fact, they gave the appearance that they came straight from my grocer’s frozen foods section. Sadly, they tasted like it, also. The most frustrating thing about the dish, though, was what my suspicious mind had the audacity to conjure up. I got the distinct feeling that the rolls were pulled from a freezer, dropped in a vat of hot grease for the requisite three minutes (as probably noted in the directions on the back of the box), thrown on a paper towel for thirty seconds or so to drain, tossed on a plate on top of a patch of field greens and VOILA! – instant appetizer. The main problem with this scenario is that the spring rolls were hot, greasy and crispy on the outside, but they weren’t given nearly enough time to actually cook on the inside and, subsequently, were barely heated through. Normally, I don’t send food back to the kitchen; I chalk it up to the loss column. But I was in the mood for chicken spring rolls and, doggonit, that’s what I intended to have. The waiter removed the plate from my table at my request and, oddly enough, he returned with a freshly prepared batch . . . in three minutes flat! The second time around was definitely not a charm. It was the same thing all over again—they looked identical to the first round and, sadly, they too were hot and greasy on the outside and cool on the inside. I gave up and made a note in my pad of the dismal attempts at righting a wrong. The only good feature about the spring rolls were the dipping sauces—one avocado and the other chili.

One thing I will say about City Limits Diner: They are one of the few places that have a clue as to what customer satisfaction really means. While intimidation was not my intention, my furious scribbling of food notes drew more than a few curious stares, one of which was from the eyeballs of the nervous looking waiter. After what I’m sure was a bit of nervous chatting back and forth, a manager approached my table with a look of grave concern blanketing his face. He asked about the spring rolls and what the nature of the problem was, so I felt inclined to be honest with him. He mulled over this newfound information, apologized profusely and, to his credit, had the appetizer removed from the bill. Big yay.

One of the amazing things about food is that it can be so unpredictable. Delicious cuisine resonates with me so I actively seek it out. Yet when my first few bites are a disappointment, it sets the tone for expectations that usually ends in abject disappointment. So you can just about imagine where my mind had taken me after the starter was all said and done. But I still had hope.

I realize to some, “hope” can be a nasty four-letter word, but I choose to maintain its powerful force in my arsenal of optimism, for I am an idealist at heart (at least that’s what I tell myself when I look in the mirror and say “I can lose ten pounds in two weeks!”). And when the Grilled Salmon sandwich was brought to me by a visibly shaken waiter, I pasted a saccharin smile on my face and thought “This WILL be delectable; this WILL astonish my taste buds; this will NOT disappoint me.”

And it did not.

The grilled salmon sandwich is originally served on Bordelaise with asparagus, Portobello mushrooms and dill-smoked salmon spread along with field greens; however, I decided to take the path least traveled and opt for the meal to be prepared my way—salmon well done and relatively naked without asparagus and mushrooms. I know I know . . . this isn’t Burger King and it was a bold step to take, one which could quite possibly go down in the history books, but that’s just how I roll. And perhaps, as a testament to my propensity to not eat as healthy as I should, I substituted French fries for the field greens.

So who was more shocked than I when the plate came out with an abundance of leaves, twigs and other assorted green stuff? Since the food was brought by someone other than my waiter (said mystery man being as happily zipadeedoodah as one can get…) my complaint wasn’t initially registered. When the waiter returned, he took one look at the plate and spoke before I had an opportunity to voice my concerns.

“I’ll bring a plate of French fries for you,” he said sullenly.

He knew me so well.

From the first bite to the last, the grilled salmon was a treat to my mouth. Even though I had requested it be prepared well done, it was far from dry but was, instead, juicy and full of flavor. The ends of the salmon were crispy and well-seasoned. The only downfall was a lone lackluster slice of tomato on one half of the sandwich that, while somewhat orangish on the outside was white and hard on the inside. That slice was relegated to the discard pile, but I devoured everything else, crust and all. I even had the gumption to eat the field greens, which were a riot of crisp, leafy garden goodness covered in a smattering of red wine vinaigrette. And the fries? Oh, yes, they too were delicious.

Even though my meal ended on a decidedly positive note, I’m still unsure what to make of City Lights Diner. Having been privy to dining there once before, I realize that there is a great deal of inconsistency with the way their food is prepared. One dish is good; the next, not so good; the next has you jumping on the tables and ready to kiss the cook; while the following plate inspires scenes of dread and doom in your head. What gives? I’m not exactly sure. I do know, however, that to form a positive opinion in a customer’s mind, there needs to exist a constant; some semblance of consistency that inspires confidence and a desire to return time and time again. I don’t get that from City Limits Diner. My first experience was rather dismal and lacked that special umph that would have made it memorable. And now, the second time around is filled with mixed emotions. I can’t realistically speculate on what was taking place in the kitchen. I would proffer, however, that a bit of stability is what is needed. Sure, there may already be repeat customers who come and order the same dish each time without fail because they know that one thing is cooked just the way they like it. But for those whose palate is a slave to diversity, they’re missing out on what could potentially be an above-average meal.

Would I recommend City Limits Diner? Proceed with caution. Being an educated customer has nothing to do with predicting how well a meal will taste. Grill the waiters before you order and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be honest with you and steer you in the right direction as to what might be a winner for the evening and what to stay away from.

Is City Lights Diner a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? I would classify City Lights Diner in the “Affordable” category. While some of the items, such as the Steaks or Seafood selections from the dinner menu can be a little pricy, you can still get out the door without putting a tremendous strain on your wallet.

What about atmosphere and ambience? If you’re into the whole throwback diner scene, you’ll enjoy City Limits Diner. While that isn't necessarily my scene, I found it enjoyable anyway. Just try to avoid sitting directly under a speaker, and be on the lookout for those ominous interrogation spotlights—you just might find yourself confessing to a culinary crime you didn’t commit!

City Limits Diner
135 Harvard Avenue
Stamford, CT 06902
(203) 348-7000

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