There are some hits and some misses. Hits were big and misses were slight:
Olive Garden threw a little media party in The Woodlands, north of Houston… just for food and restaurant bloggers. They were introducing new menu items to us after they had been selling them to customers for a month or two. That’s always a good idea (when possible), so that the kitchen staff gets it down and the servers know what they’re serving, as well as how to romance them to diners.
We were asked to try so many dishes in such a rapid-fire presentation of them, so I’ll cover the memorable offerings with reviews and comments about them… and photos of most of them. First of all, I want to offer congratulations to Olive Garden for raising their bar on presentation. Most dishes were creatively presented to us.
‘Twas a wonderment to me that I would find my personal favorite wings in Olive Garden! These Italian-seasoned Calabrian Chicken Wings (baked and tossed in herbs, Calabrian essence with pepper flakes and lots of garlic) had a sane amount of heat… were bursting with flavor and could be improved only with the addition of a big screen TV for sports. BTW, the wings come with a simple Gorgonzola dipping sauce that I chose to taste (delicious) but not use. These wings need no softening of their heat, nor dilution of the coating tossed thereupon.
Calabrian Chicken Wings
Many go to Olive Garden for the endless Salads and Bread Sticks. I’m not one of them, but I eat my share when there. That institution has been upgraded by the addition of optional Salad Toppers for an additional $2.99. Those include Antipasti Italian Meats and Cheese… OR, Roasted Tomato Caprese, which we sampled. With fresh mozzarella bites, roasted tomato, bell pepper basil and kale, this would be my go-to salad there in the future.
Salad with a Caprese Topper
There are some new lo-cal dishes and the Chicken Abruzzi, with only 520 calories is stellar. Not a typical low calorie compromise, this is a full-flavored order-again dish with grilled chicken strips, a clear, rich broth and kale, cannellini beans and perfectly cooked “garden vegetables”. I loved this dish, yet found the fact that while the kale leaves were really nice, the inclusion of the tough under cooked stems was off-putting for me. That’s a very simple fix for the restaurant and this remains one of my favorites there. Either trim the leaves of the stems, or cook them a little longer.
Chicken Primavera with Giant Fusilli
I was pretty impressed with the Chicken Primavera with Giant Fusilli. The sauteed chicken was not at all overdone and the same goes for the veggies. These aren’t from a frozen bag. The fresh asparagus was crisp. It and the other veggies (zucchini, snap peas, etc.) were cooked in a white wine marinara just enough to shout “We’re here and we’re fresh.” The fusilli were cooked to al dente perfection and the marinara clung to it quite well.
The Pappardelle Pescatore with perfectly sauteed shrimp, bay scallops and clams tossed with pappardelle pasta, fresh tomatoes red pepper cream sauce was pleasant and I enjoyed it… however, I kept wondering why the teeny clams were there. If they were there to impart their flavor to the sauce, then it worked. If they were there for presentation, then it worked. If they were there so you can eat the clams, then use bigger ones. I love clams.
Build-your-own Cucina Mia
A new menu component is called Cucina Mia. Diners build their own creations from six different pastas. Then they add a house-made sauce, choosing from five (including a seasonal selection. Then, they add a selection from five toppings including Chicken Meatballs, Sausage Meatballs, Meatballs (regular Italian) or shrimp.
My build-out included Chicken Meatballs (not juicy enough for me… but it’s chicken), a creamy sun-dried tomato sauce (delicious)… on a bed of large Pacheri pasta. The dish and the method have great potential… but I got what I chose. The minor disappointment for me was probably a fluke in the kitchen and it was that the giant, thick Pacheri pasta was far too big to be served as al dente as it was. But, then I don’t know if this was a one-of-a-kind mistake by a cook on MY dish, or a standard. My worthless suggestion would be to cook the pasta a little longer.
Other dishes tried are below in the Galerie du Cuisine. Reviewing them all exceeds the amount of time I have expound upon them. I recommend a visit to Olive Garden to check out the new menu items.
Galerie du Cuisine
Polenta Shrimp alla Greco
Bucatini with Spicy Diavolo and Shrimp
Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich (with a Diavolo sauce)
Wild Berry Layer Cake