(Big Rapids, MI) A year or two ago, a friend recommended that we try a new restaurant in downtown Big Rapids called Blue Cow Cafe. We had meant to pop in for lunch that day, but as luck would have it, we were able to order from the breakfast menu. We enjoyed a couple brunch cocktails and well-prepared food, and left with a resolution to return sometime for dinner. The finicky Michigan weather let up enough for us to drive an hour north and see if Blue Cow would live up to our first experience...
After a pleasant drive, we arrive at Blue Cow Cafe, managing to snag a primo parking spot right out front. The quaint neon sign hangs overhead, one tube blown out and dark. Is it an omen? Without the sun shining on a bright, cheery day, the small, packed-for-winter sidewalk deck looks positively forlorn. Inside, though, warm lights and a fireplace beckon. We go inside and meet our dinner companions: John, Leah and Katie. They had made the 20 minute trek from Bitely in order to join us. We all have high hopes and huge appetites.
I should have known the stars were misaligned when I approach the hostess and tell her we have reservations under Johnson for 6pm. "John?" she asks. No, I reply...Johnson. The manager, hovering nearby, glides over and sticks his finger on the page. "John?" he asks. No, I laugh. Johnson. "Oh, they probably just left off the last part. Follow me." We do as instructed, still cheerful, untouched by doubt. He leads us past the cozy and well-appointed front room, into the back room which is decidedly colder. Our table is in the far corner, close to the rear door. Whenever other patrons enter, we get a blast of February air. We are the only diners. "Don't worry," he says. "There's a party of 16 arriving shortly, so you won't get lonely. We're going to be packed tonight." I suppress a shudder of misgiving at the thought of the peaceful room exploding with the wails of uncomfortable children, or the raucous laughter of drunken revellers.
Drinks are easy, initially. Blue Cow brews their own beer (a nice surpise!) and of course I have to try their sampler. Cream Ale, IPA, Strong Ale and Bourbon Stout are all solid, well-balanced Michigan beers. Our waiter brings out the appetizers we order, including thick and juicy Roasted Tomato Bruschetta; homemade hummus; and a cheese plate. Although Juliet and I are able to suss out which cheeses were which, it would have been nice to have an explanation of the types being offered. Instead, we are left to squint in the low light and taste/smell our way through the course. I will say the goat cheese with balsamic vinegar reduction is tangy, creamy goodness.
About that time, the large party starts to filter in and amp up the noise level. Our table quickly becomes second fiddle; we have to constantly flag our waiter for drink refills and remind him of missing dishes. The soup and salad course arrive too quickly on the heels of the appetizers, and it feels almost like they are trying to pump us out of the restaurant. My blueberry, bleu cheese, and pecan salad is sweetly crisp, with earthy overtones. (I really do enjoy salads that have a lot going on.) Enamored of the leafy greens, I get halfway through the bowl before realizing John's simple dinner salad has not been delivered. It finally comes with the main course, but by then the damage is done.
Smoked Chicken Penne
Having just returned from Vegas and beefed-out from a particularly good shortrib dish, I decide to venture elsewhere on the menu. I'm a sucker for a good pasta dish; the smoked chicken penne sounds right up my alley. It comes in a big bowl, heaped with creamy penne tubes and firm red pepper slices. But where is the chicken? It blends in, monochromatically, with the rest of the pasta and I have to dig for the meaty treasures. Not that it matters; the whole dish just sort of lays there in the bowl, on my tongue, lazily daring me to dislike it. Discouraging. It makes me wonder if the chef is tied up with preparing the other tables' meals, and we get the sous chef to prep ours. With the exception of Katie's pan-seared scallops, everyone else's dishes receive luke-warm reception.
Seldom do I tip below 15% but this particular dinner warrants a less-than-exemplary gratuity. We pay, bypassing dessert, and move on with the rest of our evening. For all the good will our first visit to the Blue Cow instilled, this meal tears it down. It is very disappointing to know that a restaurant can achieve greatness but something holds it back. Is it the waiter's fault for not keeping up with his tables? Is it the manager's fault for not supervising properly? Is it the chef's fault for delivering mediocre results? All of the above, I'm afraid. We all left the cafe more than a little blue, so in that regard the restaurant is aptly named.
Jeremy and I ate at the Blue Cow once before, about two years ago. I remember our waiter was knowledgeable about wine without being pretentious. The food was exceedingly good and a bit more "gourmand" than I would have expected in Big Rapids. (Having spent much of my childhood in Big Rapids, I remember when Bennigan's came to town and was considered "fancy".) In short, Blue Cow was a pleasant surprise we remembered with fondness.
In hindsight, we should have never gone back; our dining experience was a disaster and I doubt we will ever return. Our dear friends—John and Leah, along with daughter Katie—joined us for a fun evening of good food and great conversation. We were half right.
We start with the cheese platter for two, bruschetta, and the hummus plate. I also order French onion soup (the room is very chilly and I need a warm up.) The cheese platter is quite generous; all five of us dig into it and there's still cheese left at the end of the meal. The one downside is we have no idea exactly what's on the platter as the waiter never explains them to us. This is a pet peeve of mine. While I can recognize a goat cheese from a blue from a Parmesan, it's still nice to get a little info on the cheeses. Where did the cheese come from? Is it local? Artisan? Cow? Goat? Sheep? Aged how long? Restaurants and waitstaff do themselves and their patrons a disservice by not sharing these details. HINT: When someone drops $15 on a cheese platter, you can probably assume they enjoy good quality cheese when dining out or at home. Wouldn't you be providing great customer service by telling them about the cheese in case they'd like to try some later? (Did I mention this is a pet peeve of mine?)
French Onion Soup
The hummus is very good and has red pepper slices, cuke wedges and Kalamata olives. Our waiter brings extra toasted slices of bread to go with the cheese platter and the hummus, which is a nice touch. I'm not a big bruschetta fan so I can't speak to it, but it looked lovely.
Just as we dig into our apps, the waiter brings the soup and Jeremy's salad. He seems to have no clue where to put these plates; I have to take my soup bowl from him and put it on the table, as he is absolutely gobsmacked to find an appetizer plate in front of me! Now that I think of it, we are never given appetizer plates. We use our bread plates to hold our apps.
It's downhill from here. A group of 16 is seated behind us and our waiter's the only one serving them. We get the short end of his dubious attention span and questionable abilities for the rest of the evening. He forgets John's salad. He forgets drink orders. My water glass is empty for most of the meal and he never offers to refill it. We have to flag him down for wine orders. After we are all clearly finished with our dinners, plates cleaned and/or silverware at the four o'clock position (an indicator anyone in the restaurant industry recognizes as the international symbol "all done"), he stops by and asks, "How's everyone doing?"
Bad or negligent service is one thing, but pair it with mediocre food and the night goes from bad to worse. We each order something different—ahi tuna, cajun seafood pasta, shrimp curry and smoked chicken penne—and all agree none of it is special. John calls it "pedestrian", which is spot on. The one exception is Katie's sea scallop dish...the clear winner. The scallops are large and sauteed golden brown, then served atop creamy risotto. Katie slips me a couple hunks of scallops (one of my favorites) and they are tender, sweet and perfectly cooked.
We opt out of dessert and quickly leave. It's sad to note, after the waiter overhears us complaining about our food and poor service, and even after Leah tells the host what a bad experience we are having shortly after the entrees are served, no one approaches our party to intercede, offers an apology or asks us to give them another chance. I'm pretty confident, even after mediocre food and crappy service, if a manager would have just approached the table with a kind word, it might have turned our experience around. Evidently attention to detail has been lost in regards to service, food and customer satisfaction at Blue Cow. Perhaps Bennigan's is the better choice.