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Ask A Restaurant Critic

Dear Restaurant Critic,

About a month ago, my husband of 25 years passed away. My brother Mark and I are very close, but there was nothing but animosity between him and my husband. For this reason, Mark chose not to attend my husband's wake. I know they had their differences, but it deeply hurt me that he didn't show up. If he didn't want to pay his respects to my husband, the least he could have done was be there to support me. Should I confront my brother or just let it go?

—Mourning In Morgantown

Dear Mourning,

Upon walking into Café Allegro, you no doubt will be tempted to double-check the address, wondering whether this is the same place you've frequently heard praised in hushed, near-reverent tones. Its spartan furnishings are coupled with a motley collection of seaside paintings for an altogether underwhelming atmosphere. What lay ahead in the kitchen was an equally mixed bag. Beginning with appetizers, we were pleased to find the saffron focaccia a coherent blend of pungent flavors that nicely countered the earthy flat bread. The house salad, consisting of tired romaine with tufts of arugula and shreds of cucumber, couldn't be redeemed by a cleverly balanced lemon vinaigrette. This nearly unforgivable misstep, however, was all but forgotten once the entrees arrived. My rigatoni with shrimp and feta was tart and rich without being cloying. My companion's chicken vesuvio, often marred in lesser restaurants by overzealous use of garlic, was not far behind. Plump strips of chicken and silky wands of garlic potatoes were bathed in a white-wine sauce that would have been better served with a drier vintage. Indeed, the wine list at Café Allegro seems poorly selected for the menu; my glass of Signorello Chardonnay clashed violently with my entree. Should its salad chef and sommelier ever receive a basic primer on attention to detail, Café Allegro could indeed become a star in local dining instead of merely an extra.

Dear Restaurant Critic,

My wife has always been a tidy person, but lately it seems like she's obsessed with cleanliness. I don't feel comfortable in my own house, for fear of spilling or smudging something. Is there something I could do to make her relaxed about the slightest bit of dust around the house? It has really gotten out of hand.

—Cleaned Out In Clarion

Dear Cleaned Out,

Touted as a Southwestern-style restaurant, The Coyote Grill instead bears a distinct South American pedigree, more Rio de Janeiro than Rio Grande. Housed in a converted warehouse, the eclectic interior warms the eyes while the wide selection of tequila drinks warms the body before one cracks open the menu for the gastronomical pursuit. Kicking off the meal with a couple of selections from the tapas menu, we were rewarded with appetizers that can only be called climactic. The chorizo topped with white sweet corn and locally produced mozzarella shavings was an exceptional treat. After such an auspicious start, it was with some trepidation that we sampled our entrees. However, our hesitance quickly proved unfounded as we discovered entrees as symphonically actualized as the tapas. My crab claws with a lightly drizzled chipolte cream sauce were both smoky and grounded. The pan-seared kale complemented the crab with a Portuguese-informed earthiness. My companion's spinach and sauteed shallot quesadilla was also a winner, with a twist of lemon adding depth to the already seductive dish. The only stumble was dessert. The mocha flan, though coherent on its own, was marred by an all-too-eager caramel sauce, turning dessert into an exercise in overstimulation. If your palate craves something sweet after a Coyote Grill entree, you'd be better advised to pick up a pint of Häagen-Dazs on the way home.

Dear Restaurant Critic,

My best friend just got his license taken away by the state for his third DUI. Despite this, he's still driving and is even going to bars. I don't want to risk losing his friendship by reporting him to the police, but I don't want to see him getting killed in a car wreck or killing somebody else. Should I confront him and hope for the best or go to the authorities?

—Unsure In Union City

Dear Unsure,

The latest entry in the local sandwich fray is Zuckerman's, a full-service deli/sandwich shop that's eager to please but, sadly, falls short in almost every category. Open only a week, the shop has some serious kinks to work out, starting with the decor, which makes the place seem more like a bombed-out, white-washed stucco shell than an eatery. Lunch began with a timid beef-barley soup whose broth lacked meaty flavor and whose cook evidently needed a note to add celery. Despite the fresh baked bread, the sandwiches couldn't muster a rating past passable. This may be due to the lack of variety and quality of meats and cheeses offered. Perhaps Zuckerman's could take a cue from west-side champion The Prometheus Deli, which has long offered only the finest imported and domestic meats and cheeses. Some might balk at Prometheus' prices, which, at about $11 a sandwich I still consider a bargain, even compared to Zuckerman's average cost of $5. The corned-beef sandwich was workmanlike but, surprisingly, wasn't served hot. My companion's Continental sandwich (turkey, swiss, lettuce, alfalfa, and tomatoes slathered with Dusseldorf mustard) was pensive at best. Perhaps better served without the epic fallout of pre-cut lettuce. A true lover of the craft of the sandwich art will find greener pastures on the west side.

Dear Restaurant Critic,

My boyfriend is wonderful, but he seems to require constant contact with his friends. No matter what we're doing, he's always getting phone calls from "the guys," who are usually looking to play poker or watch the big game. I try to make him not pick up when we're alone, but he refuses. I know his friends are important to him, but I feel that there should be limits. Am I just nagging or is he plain wrong?

—Second Fiddle In El Segundo

Dear Segundo,

Upscale fusion favorite Jo-Jo's has long been championed in my column, the clear pacesetter in a crowded field. In the two years since I formally reviewed it, the eatery has only improved. Setting the perfect atmosphere with a blend of the rustic and urbane, it mixes Nipponese austerity with a Santa Fe style that sets the tone for its culture-bending experiments. Choosing appetizers from Jo-Jo's ever-expanding repertoire is a frustrating delight, as almost all are winners. I finally settled on caramelized salmon ringlets and a dish of hearts of palm drizzled with a crab remoulade sauce, which was a dainty feast in and of itself. Perhaps the most appealing addition to the repertoire is in the salad department. The house salad, a piquant mix of greens and crisp vegetables topped with a walnut vinaigrette that will send shivers down your spine, was exceptional as usual. However, waiters now offer white pepper in addition to the usual cracked black pepper to mill over the salad. But even the addition of the white pepper can't overshadow the attention lavished upon the entrees. My lobster thermidore, accented with a single truffle patty, was exquisite, as engaging as it was playful. Not willing to appease merely the palate, Jo-Jo's creates a dynamic visual experience, as well, with its colored plates and sauce designs. My crimson lobster dish was accompanied by a canary-yellow plate with a swirl of blueberry sauce topped with strands of grated yucca that made it a celebration for all the senses. My companion's portobello custard tart with two strips of herb-tossed white asparagus was similarly accented with an emerald plate and horizontal stripes of raspberry sauce. For dessert, we chose the house specialty, chocolate-orange pots de creme, which has been raved about in this column so often, I feel it wholly unnecessary to describe its luscious majesty yet again. Some may grouse about the cost (dinner for two averages about $350), but it's a small price to pay for a dining experience this fully realized.

Ethan Pillers is a syndicated columnist whose weekly advice column, Ask A Restaurant Critic, appears in more than 250 newspapers nationwide.

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