Red Lobster may taste decent, but if you are counting calories be careful

My friend Tommy, toting a bag of leftovers, rushed across the lobby of the huge, packed restaurant near Northlake Mall and greeted me, laughing. “I’m going to tell the whole world,” he said, “that you’re eating at Red Lobster.”

Yeah, I’ve written restaurant reviews for over 30 yeas and you’d think I’d know I wasn’t about to get the world’s best meal. But it wasn’t my fault. I dine with a group of friends every Friday and they insisted we go. It was revenge for the awful restaurant I took them to the week before.

Some background: We started dining together after a spontaneous meal at Longhorn Steakhouse four years ago. Yes, Longhorn’s food is acceptable in that predictably unadventurous, middle-American way. But it doesn’t hold a candle to many of the city’s often-cheaper restaurants, especially ethnic venues.

Red Lobster, not surprisingly, is operated by the same group, Darden Restaurants, that owns Longhorn and Olive Garden, among others. Once upon a time, the restaurants were quite successful, but profits have dropped dramatically in the last few years. We’re talking declines of 40-plus percent, especially at Red Lobster.

Why? There are three reasons. First, the restaurants are not really inexpensive, so they were hard-hit by the still-sputtering economy. There are cheaper, no-tip restaurants in the casual-dining format. Think Chipotle and Panera. Second, quality has become a big deal for many consumers. They want healthier alternatives. Third, the restaurants offended many when Darden tried to avoid Obamacare.

The low profits have motivated Darden to put Red Lobster on the market. Meanwhile, the company has allegedly worked to offer healthier options.

Be all that as it may, we found the Northlake restaurant packed, and there was very little that looked particularly healthy on the menu. We dined there during its annual Lobsterfest and four of us ordered from its special menu.

My choice was the Lobster in Paradise. It included a split, Maine lobster tail fried in coconut batter; skewered grilled shrimp; and a creamy lobster-and-shrimp “bake” topped with crushed macadamia nuts. It came with the famous cheddar biscuits and a Caesar salad. All other dishes at the table were variations, most featuring baked instead of fried lobster tails.

There was also the classic Surf and Turf with a seafood-stuffed lobster tail and a sirloin steak topped with lobster meat and a hollandaise sauce.

How’d it taste? Disturbingly, it wasn’t bad, but here’s why: huge quantities of fat, sugar and salt. You could fry a cheap hot dog in coconut batter or drench it in hollandaise and it would taste pretty good. My entrée included 1,130 calories. I ate three biscuits, 450 calories, and added a dessert of red velvet cake stuffed in a jar with chocolate bits, 550 calories. That’s 2,130 calories, not including my Caesar salad—more than you need in an entire day! God knows what the Surf and Turf added up to.

What else is there to report? The restaurant was obviously under-staffed and our servers, although super-friendly, couldn’t quite pull it all together. For example, when our entrees arrived, the server brought me the wrong dish. She took it back to the kitchen. I waited. And waited. I got angry with the server. I waited. My friends were at least halfway through their entrees before mine arrived.

To its credit, the restaurant didn’t charge me for my meal—something that’s become quite unusual in our city, no matter how much an order is screwed up.

Red Lobster retains a loyal following, but the truth is that you can get far better lobster around town, sometimes for less money. One example is the lobster-special at Crawfish Shack (4337 Buford Hwy., 404- 929-6789). It’s also worth noting that off-the-boat lobster prices are lower than they have been in years, but most restaurants aren’t really reflecting that. Grocery stores do, though, so if you get a craving, you might want to cook your own.

I suspect Red Lobster (3937 Lavista Road, 770-934-2645) won’t be around much longer, or they will be difficult to find. If you want 2,000-plus calories in one meal, you probably should hurry on over.

Cliff Bostock, PhD, offers workshops and individual life coaching. Upcoming workshops include one on gay aging and one on the psychology of taste. 404-518-4415.