It's a fiasco

It's a Veritable Feast! fumbles into famine

Restaurateuring is a hard way to make a living, harder than any honest profession except perhaps those involving a set of erasable markers and an Amway starter kit.

Running a restaurant is a risky endeavor fraught with start-up glitches, long hours, and little financial reward. But no matter how backbreaking restaurateuring might be, there is a certain rule that should never be violated, even in the depths of hardship. It's a rule that even Amway doesn't seem to get as it continuously introduces its products via the most disliked member of each American family. And that rule is: Your profession should never be harder on your customers than it is on you.

It's an unwritten rule that the management of It's a Veritable Feast!, located on level four of the West End MarketPlace, might want to consider writing down--perhaps several times. Because eating this food is most certainly a chore. And while giving bad service in a place that has no service may seem something of a contradiction, It's a Veritable Feast! pulls this off too, making the struggle by diners that much more onerous.

In all fairness, this counter-service eatery has had more than its share of start-up glitches, according to Feast! operator Paul Jerabek, who also owns Special Affairs Catering. A West End MarketPlace news release dated October 17 pegs the opening date November 1. But because of delays, its actual opening date was December 2, and planned amenities such as a gourmet coffee bar and a Sunday brunch buffet, along with food classes and cooking demonstrations, won't be part of the mix at least until February. The core menu, consisting of soups, sandwiches, salads, pastas, pizzas, and desserts--which the release describes as homemade--is in place, with just a few gourmet salads to be added later. But if this menu is homemade, the house it was made in should be condemned and razed before any more food can escape.

In true Amway style, the menu is scribbled in dry-erase marker on a pair of white boards listing items such as hamburgers; the soup of the day; tuna, egg, and chicken salad sandwiches; pasta, green, and Caesar salads; and soft drinks. Although Jerabek claims pizza is served daily, it was never listed as an available menu item (there is no printed menu), nor was there any sign of pizza-making paraphernalia during two visits.

Chicken and rice soup came with hearty chunks of chicken and perfectly cooked rice. But the carrots, celery, and onions were mushy, flavorless, and nearly colorless, while the broth tasted as if it were rendered from car-wash drippings.

Lubrication seemed the overriding objective for the pasta salad. This simple assembly of bow-tie pasta, pepperoni, mushrooms, red bell pepper, artichoke, and pimiento was so over-oiled and slimy that the pasta kept sliding off the plastic fork no matter how fiercely it was stabbed.

Burgers and sandwiches anchor the menu, but on our first visit, we were never asked simple things such as how we wanted our burgers cooked (we were informed of a choice between American or Swiss cheeses) or what kind of bread we wanted. (We discovered on a subsequent visit that Feast! offers white, wheat, seven-grain, and sourdough breads.) Plus, the burgers came underdressed in lettuce and tomato with none of the toppings--pickles, onions, relish, peppers, or fresh cucumber slices--you would expect from a place with Feast! in the name. That's too bad, because these dry, rubbery meat patties, crowned with cold, unmelted slices of cheese, were in desperate need of distractions.

The bland chicken-salad sandwich, little more than chicken chunks choked in mayo, was delivered on dry, stale bread--staples that even West End mall rats would just as soon relegate to park pigeons.

Jerabek, who moved his catering operation from Lovers Lane and Inwood to the West End after 15 years, says his new venture aims to upgrade MarketPlace food service with the hope of drawing more retail business to the upper levels. "What they wanted me for was better food for the general public here," he explains. "And I needed a place to run my catering operation. So we're doing both up here...We have a new, clean place, and we serve a quality product."

But here again, the talk and the walk trip all over each other. Feast! shared a food-court-type common eating area decked in Southwestern touches such as terra cotta tiles, rough-hewn white-washed chairs, glass etched with cacti and horses, and walls with broken tile in Southwestern hues. Yet its service counter is little more than a sticky mess with food crumbs welded along the edges and in corners. The immediate seating area was littered with food scraps, while the near-empty bakery case, presumably designed to show off Jerabek's fresh-baked creations, was a disheveled hash of hardening bits of Reese's Pieces cheese cake and a runny, listing slice of black forest cake on a curled, yellowing piece of cardboard settled among a scattering of bakery crumbs and debris.

While things went better on a second visit (we were actually permitted to order burgers medium-rare, which rendered them juicy and flavorful), the foibles continued to trump the tenuous successes. A smoked-turkey sandwich was nothing more than folded slices of turkey on bread (not stale this time) wiped in mayo and mustard. An order of chili, featuring a core of pulverized meat and bean mush, was so greasy, it seemed the down-flush from a car oil change constituted its primary ingredient. Plus, the goop was so hot, it melted the bottom out of its Styrofoam serving cup.

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