Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A reason to give Red Lobster another chance

I love seafood.

I've often said that if God skipped Day #3 and never got around to creating dry land, and instead skipped right ahead to Day #5 to create the sea creatures, I would not complain.

If I had a boat to sit in, I could happily survive on lobsters, shrimp, clams and flounder... and never think about the burgers that didn't exist. (However, it would be nice to have tomatoes to make red clam sauce and cocktail sauce. And we need cows for melted butter to go on the lobster, so it's good to have some dry land.)

Anyway, as a seafood fanatic, the ubiquitous Red Lobster chain has been a frequent source of frustration to me, chiefly because of lack of consistent quality both within the menu, and from restaurant to restaurant.

Some branches of the chain are simply much better than others, and many of the menu items -- like fried shrimp -- are the high school cafeteria version of real seafood. On the other hand, I've had superb New England clam chowder at several RedLobs, I like the salad topped with tiny shrimp, and the food is always fresh.

Nevertheless, RedLob is seldom high on my list when I have other dining choices.

My attitude may change with the company's new Wood-Fire Grilling program that was announced yesterday.

The company said it is "largest systemic change in Red Lobster’s history and is the second step in a three-phased plan to renew growth at the iconic seafood brand. Wood-Fire Grilling creates a clean, crisp flavor that naturally enhances the taste of seafood, emphasizing Red Lobster’s commitment to fresh, delicious seafood prepared with culinary expertise."

I'm a big believer in cooking seafood on wood fires. I love the roasted lobsters and clams I've been eating at The Place in Guilford CT since 1964. It's an outdoor restaurant, only open from April through October. If RedLob can come close to duplicating their flavor year-round, I'll be their biggest fan.

“We’re grilling food over oak because of the crisp, clean flavor it provides,” said Senior Executive Chef Michael LaDuke. “Fresh fish and seafood are delicious in their purest form, and Wood-Fire Grilling really enhances those flavors. The fresh, natural flavor makes the heart-healthy benefits of fish even more appealing.”

In developing Wood-Fire Grilling, RedLob studied consumer preferences for nearly 20 cooking methods, conducted more than 30 focus groups and tested Wood-Fire Grills in 36 restaurants for more than a year. Consumers rated Wood-Fire Grilling as their most preferred cooking method, especially for fresh fish, shellfish, chicken and steak, because it added such an appealing flavor.

Wood is the oldest grilling fuel and remains an excellent source because it enhances the natural flavors of food. But it requires practice and it’s advisable to let the wood burn down to hot embers before placing meat or fish on the grill.

Hard woods – like the oak used by RedLob – give the best results, because soft resinous woods produce a black, stronger smoke.

The result of the consumer feedback is the new Wood-Fire Grilled menu prepared by Certified Grill Masters at every restaurant. The menu features eight new items:

• Wood-Grilled Lobster, Shrimp and Scallops -- a split Maine lobster tail, skewered jumbo shrimp and sea scallops with a buttery garlic finish
• Peach Bourbon BBQ Shrimp & Scallops -- wood-grilled jumbo shrimp and baconwrapped sea scallops with a sweet peach-bourbon BBQ sauce
• Wood-Grilled Sirloin & Shrimp -- a lightly seasoned center-cut sirloin and a skewer of jumbo shrimp
• Wood-Grilled Scallops, Shrimp and Chicken -- skewered sea scallops, jumbo shrimp and a tender chicken breast with a buttery garlic finish
• Jumbo Shrimp with Lobster Butter -- two skewers of wood-grilled jumbo shrimp topped with a savory lobster butter.
• Maple-Glazed Chicken -- a wood-grilled chicken breast with a sweet maple and cherry glaze
• Honey BBQ Grilled Chicken and Shrimp -- a wood-grilled chicken breast and
skewered jumbo shrimp with a creamy honey BBQ sauce
• Peach-Bourbon BBQ Scallops Appetizer -- wood-grilled, bacon-wrapped sea scallops with a sweet peach-bourbon BBQ sauce over thin-cut onion rings

RedLob customers can also choose wood-grilling for any of the five to eight daily fresh fish species available.

Wood-Fire Grilling is an initiative that also includes new restaurant equipment and specialized training that led to the selection of four to five Certified Grill Masters at each restaurant. Only they will prepare grilled items, in an effort to ensure consistent, expertly prepared food. Approximately 3,500 employees have been trained and certified, for 680 restaurants.

High flames are not conducive for wood-fire grilling. Instead the Certified Grill Master must manage the burning logs as an even heat, using cross-hatching – typically recognized by diagonal grill marks - to know when meat and seafood need to be flipped over.

The name of the Grill Master on duty will be on the menu, so who'll know whose hand to shake if you like what he or she cooks for you.
This is a preview, not a review.

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