Red Lobster has Made Some Changes

Red Lobster on Urbanspoon

REPOST:  Because of the Red Lobster contest I'm sponsoring, I'm reposting this review that was done in March 2010. Note that they did not start to officially sponsor this blog until August 1, 2010, thus this post was written with no bias to the restaurant at the time.

A couple weeks ago I got an email with an opportunity from Red Lobster's corporate promotions rep, Erica. They were inviting food bloggers and reviewers to come and sample their menu and meet their head chef. Gotta admit, I like his title. Michael Laduke's card says 'Senior Director Culinary Development'. Poor Girl Kimberly and I were pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed ourselves.

Now those who know me or read me via Urbanspoon see that I have pretty upscale taste. So I am hard pressed to remember the last time I went to Red Lobster. After all, I generally stay away from chains. Other bloggers or foodies might consider it a sell out to go to one of these events. First, it's free food. LOL. Second, I don't lie or compromise my reviews - I tell it like I see it.

Turns out we had a really great time. The conversation with the RL folk was great and we got to sample a lot of great food.

Erica explained that all the Red Lobsters in the Sacramento had recently been renovated. When customers were asked how they pictured RL restaurants in their mind's eye, they thought Maine/New England. So the decor was done to reflect a coastal fish restaurant in New England. The wood was all dark stained, the booths reupholstered, and the pictures all nautical themed. They also made a really nice outdoor patio in back - a definite seating to request as we go into our al fresco dining weather.

They figured this would be a good opportunity to come to promote the changes to the decor and the menu to those who might not have been to RL in a while. The changes to the menu include a lot more interesting choices than popcorn shrimp, fried fish, or butter laden shrimp scampi. Tasty, creative, and healthier items have been added to the menu.

I liked both appetizers we sampled. The first was the lobster pizza - crisp thin-crust pizza topped with langostino lobster meat, melted mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes and sweet basil. The crust was indeed very thin and crispy. There was a slight saltiness to it and then you got the fresh tang of the tomatoes and the lovely basil. I had never been one to think of shrimp on pizza, let alone lobster. But the small bits of langostino added a nice toothiness to your bites and fit perfectly with the tomato and basil.

This was demonstrated again with the Wood-Grilled Shrimp Bruschetta - chilled, wood-grilled shrimp tossed with fresh tomatoes, basil, red onions and balsamic vinaigrette, over garlic sourdough toastettes. The added bonus was the that the garlic toastettes were the perfect base. Toasted just right so that they weren't soggy and yet not rock hard either. You bit into it and it was an ideal crisp then chewy toastette.

They could not forget the cheesy biscuits that everyone has known for years. I just had to include this shot because it shows the flakes of cheese and how light and fluffy they are.

In between samplings we had a lot of great conversation. Little tidbits of Chef Michael were revealed. He used to be head chef at Disney's Epcot and he said that Disney was always on top of food trends. He also knew to cater to masses and deal with special dietary requests for the increasing numbers of children with special diets. You might have seen him on TV as well. He's been a judge on some of the Food Network shows such as Iron Chef and the Next Food Network Star competition.

We sampled about six other dishes and so I'll just mention a couple that really struck me. And in case you wonder, none of them were fried.

The first main course that came out was a great one. The Maui Luau Shrimp and Salmon - wood-grilled fresh salmon and skewered jumbo shrimp, brushed with our sweet and spicy glaze and served over wild rice pilaf with grilled pineapple. Think about that great Asian sweet chili sauce you get for dipping eggrolls in. That's the type of sauce that is glazed over the salmon and shrimp. The shrimp were cooked just right, but the salmon was a bit overdone and dry. Get the fish right and this one would have gotten a 10 from me. But that little error only takes it down a notch. Another observation, they provide extra sauce on the side. If you've read my other reviews you know that I always point out the need for a little extra sauce for those dishes without.

We did discuss the fact that they are really making an effort to showcase the wood-fire grilling. It's healthier and it cooks well while adding flavor. We were told you could still order your fish cooked sauteed, blackened, etc., but they didn't mention it on their menus because they want to go for the healthier grill. Research has shown that people order what they see on the menu and so aren't commenting on the change. I will say that we all know there are a lot of hidden calories in the sauces. So if you want to control that a bit, ask for the sauce on the side.

There were a few dishes we sampled that were showcasing flavor combinations in the sauces. The maple cherry glazed chicken breast was one. Another was the mango jalapeno shrimp skewers. Kimberly and I agreed that it could use a bit more jalapeno, but it was a nice sauce and we loved the presentation. The shrimp were interlocked into wheels on the skewer. As Kimberly said, this meant you were really getting your money's worth. How often have you asked the waiter, "How many shrimp come in that?"

My favorite, though, was the Tilapia in a Spicy Soy Broth. It was perfectly moist, flaky, tender. It had a reduced soy broth with a hint of wasabi for heat. Arranged around it were nice, thin spears of asparagus. I said I wanted the recipe and upon returning home I found that it was in the recipe box on the website. Yay!

In fact, let's talk a little about the RL website. You'll find the menu, of course, but I really liked that it had little videos embedded throughout. Go to the Chef's Kitchen and it's got areas for tips, chef interviews, and recipes. The videos feature Chef Michael and others teaching you about proper grilling of seafood, sauces, fish selection and more. Check it out.

They were done with the sampling but offered to let us try anything else on the menu we wanted. Having a sweet tooth, I always have to look at the dessert menu. As I've said before, I look for something different. We were all drawn to the Chocolate Chip Lava Cookie. Chef told us that he had come across a guy at a food trade show that was showcasing all these lava type desserts that he had come up with. Chef told him to keep the cookie under wraps and they flew him to the Orlando headquarters to show it and arrange a deal. It's now on the RL menus. Yummy! Who doesn't want a warm chocolate chip cookie with more chocolate oozing out of it and then topped with vanilla ice cream?! I admitted that this was something that would make me excited about coming to RL. To know that I was gonna have a great meal of non-fried seafood with those cheesy biscuits and then ending with this great dessert.

So yes, I am happy to report that there are a lot of good things to say about Red Lobster and to suggest that you give them a try. I know that among my more gourmand friends RL is never on our go-to list. We are often obligated to go when someone else has invited us to a function there. But I'm telling you, they have a lot to offer. Don't put that nose up too high.