Friday, January 30, 2009

Big Night at Lembo's?

I was feeling in the mood for Italian tonight and even more in the mood for something hearty and filling like lasagna. Considering my options between work and home, I remembered that there was a mom and pop style Italian restaurant close to where I live that I had never been to, Lembo's Italian Restaurant. After realizing that they also had an on-line presence, I decided to visit their website and was delighted to learn that they also had their menu on-line as well. I began looking through the menu and noticed that many of their menu items had the word "home made" in front of them: the sauce, the pizza dough, the lasagna.

And then it hit me. Right in the middle of the pasta section, Timpano was listed. I sat at my desk at work for a moment, stunned. I have only had timpano once in my life and it was never at a restaurant. Immediately my thoughts turned to Primo in the movie Big Night. This couldn't be the one and the same, could it? Seeing as the restaurant was on the way home, I figured I would find out for sure.

I was seated at a table just past the all-you-can-eat salad bar and by the entrance to the kitchen. When my waitress finally came over, I asked about the timpano and how it was constructed. The waitress explained that it was just rigatoni layered with cheese and marinara. I further questioned her as to what other layers were in the timpano and she kind of gave me that ok-what's-your-deal kind of look. I quickly apologized and pulled up the link to the timpano I made earlier in the post. I explained to her about Big Night and the true timpano that is layered and covered with a pasta sheet. She looked relieved that I actually wasn't some creepy stalker guy. She finally dashed any hope that I would be mind melding with Primo tonight with a "you know, the one you're showing me does look really good, but ours is definitely not that." Rats.

So, instead I went with my original inkling and ordered the cheese lasagna with meat sauce. Almost all of the meals come with the all-you-can-eat salad bar and I have to say, if you like choices on your salad bar, then this is the place for you. It was absolutely huge, two full-sized islands with greens, pasta salads, soups, desserts, and breads.

First up, I grabbed a couple of pieces of focaccia bread from one of the covered steam tables.

First the positives. It was nice and warm. It had a nice softness to it. The herb and olive oil on the crust added some nice flavor. Unfortunately some of the positives were also some of the negatives. Sitting on the steam table kept the bread soft, but ultimately robbed the bread of any of its integrity. There was no difference between the crust and the crumb. Secondly, a light dusting of kosher salt would've really elevated this bread. It lacked the fine tuning that just a little bit of salt could've brought out.

Next up, a trio of pasta salads:

On the left we had a farfalle pasta with carrots, red bell peppers, and a creamy Italian style dressing. In the middle are small shells with celery in a creamy sauce. On the right are a fettucine style noodle tossed in oil and dried parsley. All three were unremarkable. Clearly the "home made" aspect applied to the food on the menu, not these salads. And looking around at my other choices on the salad bar pretty much resulted in the same conclusion: if you're really into the standard salad bar, this is the place for you. If you're looking for something special, you aren't going to find it here.

Finally, my lasagna came out. It was freaking huge.

First, I tried the meat sauce surrounding the lasagna on the plate. It was ok, a good depth of tomato flavor, but a little sweeter than I would've normally liked it. I could also pick up a hint of anise, more than likely fennel seed. I then started in on the lasagna. The first thing I noticed was that overall, it was a nice cheese to sauce to noodle ratio. A lot of times places absolutely douse the top with mozzarella cheese and it becomes too much. This one was nice. It was nice and sliceable as well.

I sliced off a bite that had layers of the pasta and cheese and sauce and let the flavors roll around in my mouth. And suddenly it dawned on me as clear as day: nutmeg! I could taste nutmeg. Thinking back quickly to my cooking school courses, a bechamel is often finished with nutmeg. But then it dawned on me that most lasagnas don't use a bechamel sauce. I actually liked the nutmeg in this. It was present just oh-so-slightly, but wasn't too overpowering.

When the waitress came around to check on me, I asked her about both the fennel and the nutmeg. To the fennel question, she said that she wasn't entirely sure, but they do make the meat sauce from scratch in house. When I asked about the nutmeg, she got this stunned look on her face and admitted that yes, there is nutmeg in the ricotta cheese mixture layered between the noodles. She asked how I knew that and I simply answered that I could taste and smell it. She copped to the fact that only a handful of people have ever been able to identify the nutmeg. Who knew?

This is a shot of the side of my lasagna showing the layers of pasta, cheese, and sauce. The pasta had a lovely bite to it, not too soft, not too chewy.

Fortunately, I had more than enough left over at the end of my meal, so I brought it home and will have it tomorrow morning for a late breakfast before leaving for a small trip to Cleveland, OH to have a fabulous meal at L'Albatross.

While the salad and bread was eh, so-so, the lasagna was definitely a winner in my book and I'm definitely eager to get back and try some of the other homemade specialties, such as their gnocchi.

Lembo's Italian Restaurant on Urbanspoon  Lembo's Italian Restaurant on Restaurantica

Monday, January 19, 2009

A good tomato in January?!?

Taking a cue from a fellow colleague, today I decided to eat at a Canton, OH institution, Bender's. Bender's has been open more than 100 years and bills itself as a place for fresh seafood, steaks, and chops. I looked at their menu on-line and saw that the lunch menu was much more affordable than the dinner menu.

What I didn't realize when looking at the lunch menu on-line was that there were also daily specials. It was here I discovered what would eventually be my lunch: an oyster po' boy sandwich. Now, I've had my share of "Po' boys" here in Ohio, and quite frankly, whomever made those versions need to visit New Orleans and learn how to make a proper one.

But, I just couldn't shake the notion, so I ordered one. It turns out that they have fresh fish and seafood flown in each day from Foley Fish in Boston, MA. No I normally wouldn't order a fish dish on a Monday (see Anthony Bourdain's comments to figure out why), but hearing that the fish was flown in daily eased my mind a bit. As luck would have it, the sandwich came with a cup of soup as well. I choose the roasted chicken, mushroom, and wild rice soup.

The meal started with a warmed dinner roll and my soup.

While the roll was warm, I tore off a piece and discovered that it had been microwaved. It had that chewy texture that bread gets after being reheated in the microwave. The butter pats were nice and soft though. The flavor of the roll was so-so and nothing special.

The soup was quite good and had a nice mouth feel to it. It was seasoned perfectly. The only downside was that there was far more broth than chicken, mushrooms, or wild rice. I don't know that the "roasted chicken" part of the name really translated into any additional flavor boost. I suspect that perhaps in making the chicken stock, they roasted the bones first.

Finally, my server brought out my sandwich:

This was an amazing sandwich. Every single component was spot on. The roll was buttered and chewy and soft (in the good way), the oysters were fried perfectly and had just the right seasoning on them. The tomato, that single slice of tomato, was bright red, not mealy at all, and was actually sweet. In the middle of January! The only kind of fresh tomatoes available right now are simply terrible.

I asked my server about the tomato slice and she told me that the chef has several sources to get this kind of quality all year long. Nobody but the chef knows where these originate from (although they are all apparently Ohio tomatoes). They have a tomato salad listed on their regular menu that I will have to have the next time I go back.

The chips and pickle spear that was served with my sandwich were just run of the mill sides. But that sandwich ... oh my, that was tasty!! And very reasonable considering: $7.99 for soup, sandwich, chips, and a pickle.

Bender's Tavern on Urbanspoon  Bender's on Restaurantica

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Weekend in Pittsburgh

This weekend I decided to brave the cold and snowy roads and spend some quality time with a good friend from college and his family. As it turned out, it happened to be his birthday, too. Not much discussion was needed to decide how to celebrate, however; it would be a visit to the ever cool Dave & Buster's down in the Waterfront district. My friend's brother also decided to drive in and join us.

After a number of beers and way too many games of Air Raid (holy cow, is that an addictive game -- and expense, too), we left Dave & Buster's only to discover that it had started to snow pretty hard. By this time, we had all pretty much sobered up and were in need of sustenance. I had originally wanted to come early on Saturday so that I could stop and have a local sandwich legend. Unfortunately, I hadn't left early enough and thought I had missed my opportunity. So, with great zeal I suggested we go and get a Primanti Brothers sandwich. Although there are several locations, we choose to go to the original one in The Strip (18th Street). Even though we arrived around 1 am, all the street parking was full up and there were tow trucks sitting waiting to tow anyone who parked illegally. Fortunately, Primanti Brothers has its own parking lot, which was mercifully empty. Here is the sign on the side of the restaurant:

The deal with a Primanti Brothers sandwich is that you can order whatever type of sandwich you want and they will top it with coleslaw and french fries and serve it to you on deli paper. There is nothing formal about this place. An extra order of fries? Served on another piece of deli paper. After paying for and picking up your finished order, you retire to an open table to enjoy your feast. I decided to go with a hot corned beef and provolone cheese sandwich. You'll have to excuse the lighting in the next two photos, the restaurant was dimly lit and since it was 1 am when we went, there wasn't any additional lighting available from the restaurant's front windows. First, a shot of my entire sandwich:

As you can tell from the picture, there is a LOT of bread on top of the sandwich. The bread is hand cut to order and this results in a more unique look. From the bottom up you have the bottom slice of bread, corned beef, cheese, coleslaw, french fries, and then the crown. There are really only two points to make here. First, as you can imagine, this is a challenging sandwich to eat. I had to basically employ the squish and bite method in order to fit it in my mouth. Second, this was a delicious sandwich. The vinegar and sugar that was in the coleslaw really balanced out the unctuous taste from the corned beef. It had that sweet, sour, umami combination that really went well together.

Here is a photo of half of my sandwich. You can see the layering of ingredients a little better.

The only thing I didn't really care for were the fries. I'm kind of picky about my fries and I like them crisp and not overly greasy. These were hot, yes, but a little on the limp and greasy side. They didn't really detract from the sandwich, but they also didn't really add anything either. My two comrades and I split an actual order of fries as well. Overall, this was also a pretty economical meal. Each of us had a sandwich, we split an order of fries, and two cokes totaled just around $20.

By the time we left Primanti Brothers, it was close to 2 am and we were all just itching to get back to my friend's house where we could crash. Unfortunately, the snowfall had been steady and getting progressively worse, so it took us close to an hour and a half just to get home. It was at that point we learned that my friend couldn't even get his car up to his driveway (steep hill) so we had to park at the bottom and walk the last bit. Thankfully the really cold weather had moved out of the area the night before.

Before I left Pittsburgh, I had decided to include another sandwich place in my weekend visit, only this time it would be an ethnic sandwich called banh mi. This is a Vietnamese specialty that uses a French-influenced roll filled with all sorts of meats and condiments. My Ngoc in The Strip (I had to drive right past Primanti Brothers to get here, funny, no?) is well known for their banh mi. I knew this would be the place I would be going to for lunch today.

I arrived around 1:30 pm today to find most of the lunch crowd had already gone. I was seated at a table by the window (my request) and started perusing the menu. I had assumed there would be an entire section just for the banh mi. Nope. There were two types available, chicken and beef, and both were listed in the appetizers section. Unfortunately when I asked about them, my server informed me that they weren't available. I thought about asking why they weren't available, but his English and my Vietnamese are both terrible, so I decided on a different path instead.

For my appetizer, I started out with a rather traditional Vietnamese specialty, the summer roll with shrimp and hoisin dipping sauce.

These had a nice fresh flavor to them but there was nothing really out of the ordinary in the summer rolls themselves. The real surprise was to find just the slightest bit of heat in the hoisin dipping sauce. While I certainly like my other dishes spiced with a generous serving of sriracha, it had never occurred to me to add a little spice to my summer rolls. It really worked well.

Following my summer rolls, I decided to have a version of their Pho with round steak instead of the beef ball (which comes with their standard Pho). It is closer to the Pho that I have gotten used to in Cleveland. Here is the Pho with accompanying plate of extras:

What you can partially see on the plate are bean sprouts, thai basil, and a lime wedge. You add whatever extras you like. Before adding anything to the Pho, I tasted the broth. Sublime. It was full of meaty flavor without being overly salty. I could've just eaten a bowl of this by itself. But after combining everything else with a bit of sriracha, I was in Pho heaven. It was absolutely delicious. I ate all of the broth and most of the other ingredients. I left with a warm belly to face my long drive back home to Ohio.

I look forward to trying the banh mi next time I'm back in Pittsburgh.

Primanti Brothers (Strip District) on Urbanspoon  My Ngoc on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 9, 2009

Skin Is In

For lunch today I decided to go to a little diner-esque type restaurant that I started frequenting every now and again since I have been working in Canton. Nicole's is a cute little place, with the daily specials on the wall, the pies safely tucked behind the glass case. The restaurant is located on Rt. 30, east of downtown and has a storefront that looks like this:

Normally, I have the double cheeseburger. While their burger is exceptionally juicy and good, today I decided to go with another menu item that has been calling out to me lately, fried chicken. Well, technically it is broasted chicken. I decided to go with the two breast/two wing combo, which included dinner rolls and two sides. I choose the mash potatoes and gravy and the vegetable of the day, green beans.

The dinner rolls were your standard fare, although it was nice that they came out warmed (and the butter cups softened). Nothing noteworthy flavor-wise, but not out of place in a restaurant like this.

My lunch took a while longer to prepare than normal, but it was well worth the wait.

I could tell that the mashed potatoes were homemade because there was the occasional lump (which I actually like). The gravy was just a bit too thick and gloppy. The green beans were canned, reheated and held for service. To be honest, the thing that struck me about the meal overall was its lack of salt. I don't know if this was intentional or not. The only thing that was seasoned properly, if not a little too aggressively was the gravy. Which, when eaten together with the potatoes, "fixed" the potatoes.

Now, on to the star of the plate, the chicken. It was hot. It was juicy. The fried chicken skin was a total revelation. So many times the skin just isn't done right and it's far more preferable to simply discard it. Today is one of the few times that I not only ate all of the chicken skin that was on my plate, but actually thought it would be great if there was more for me to eat. The only problem with the chicken was that it, too, was underseasoned.

Here is a shot of one of the chicken breasts after pulling some of the meat off the bone.

As I got up to leave, the lunch rush had pretty much come and gone, so I had a chance to chat with the cook. I had presumed that broasting was simply pressure frying. But apparently, the chicken is marinated first before frying. I was going to suggest that maybe they brine the chicken before cooking it, and maybe she was equating brining with marinating, but I did mention that the chicken, while hot, juicy, and crispy, was a bit underseasoned.

Nicole's is pretty decent. They have some things I really like there. They also have some things that I will pass on. They do make a lot more of their menu items from scratch than not, but clearly the green beans I was served today more than likely came from a large Sysco-esque type can. Check them out if you happen to be in the area.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Identity Crisis

I was decidedly in an ethnic cuisine sort of mood today for lunch. As odd as it seems, right in the middle of downtown Massillon, OH is a restaurant that serves both Japanese food and Korean food. Having gone there on and off for lunch over the last year, I'm always surprised that they are still in business as I am often the only one eating there during lunch.

Apparently about 3 1/2 weeks ago, the space being occupied by Lee's Korean BBQ is now being shared with Colucci's Ristorante. Lee's is now open only for dinner, while Colucci's is open for lunch and dinner. They share the space in the evening. So now you can get Japanese, Korean, and Italian all at the same location.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, my first clue that something was up was this sign leaning against the building on the ground:

My server explained how the new arrangement will work. She didn't really go into any reasons why Colucci's agreed to this arrangement, but I have to assume it is beneficial to both businesses.

The lunch menu was pretty straightforward: pastas, salads, sandwiches, and soups. They also have a daily special, today's was Swiss Steak. I asked my server if the restaurant has any specialties. She pointed out that the chef makes his own meat sauce. Lucky for me there just happened to be a spaghetti with meat sauce for $4.99. I also ordered the optional side house salad.

The house salad came with home made Italian dressing on the side:

The salad itself was nothing really special, it's Italian heritage denoted by two slices of pepperoni on top. The dressing was, sadly, too oily and seasoned quite blandly. I will give a slight pass to this though because vinaigrettes are notoriously hard to keep emulsified and as such, the taste I got with my fork before dispensing on my salad may have been tainted by the (small) layer of oil floating on top.

The server also brought out a bread basket:

Italian style bread which was a bit dried out. Fortunately the accompanying pats of butter were softened enough to be easily spreadable.

Finally, the main event:

Now, I have to say that just looking at the plate there are already two strikes against it. Problem one, and this is all too common, is that the pasta is WAY oversauced. Problem two, which isn't so immediately obvious from the photo is the puddle of water underneath the pasta. I know Americans want the sauce on top, but honestly, if done the correct way, the whole oversaucing and additional water drainage issue would just go away.

To its credit, the pasta wasn't mushy and better yet, the sauce was quite good. It actually took the concept of a meat sauce and elevated it by incorporating shredded pork as well. It's probably closer to an Americanized meat sauce with shredded pork than a true Ragu alla Bolognese (too much tomato product), but it was decidedly good nonetheless. The pork gave it an extra layer of texture and flavor and the sauce wasn't overly sweet.

And to be honest, I didn't mind the extra sauce this time around as it gave me a chance to keep tasting the sauce by itself. The meat sauce was definitely the star of the show.

It would be awesome if the chef offered a truer Italian style version of the dish where the pasta was tossed in the condiment before plating, but I guess we can't get everything we want in life.

The server also mentioned they have a garlic and oil sauce that is very good as well. Guess that means I'll have to go back and give it another go.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Hometown Favorite

Whenever I return to my home town of Wadsworth, OH there are two places that always sing their siren song to me. One of them is a submarine shop called the Sub Station. The other place is a mom and pop shop that has been around since 1970 that has seen itself expand from a small restaurant capable of seating maybe 25-30 to a ginormous place on the busy end of town that now seats well over 100 in the main restaurant and has a banquet room as well. I speak of the beloved Marie's Pizza restaurant.

Now, make sure you go to the address in the link given above. Both Yahoo and Google searches on "Marie's Pizza Wadsworth" came up with a link to their OLD address. They are actually right off of I-94 just north of I-76, right across the street from the National City Bank.

In their old incarnation, it was simple food, prepared well. A favorite has always been the pizza. In fact, it won the best pizza in Akron award in 1976, I believe. Other favorites were lasagna, spaghetti and fabulous garlic bread. When they moved into their new location, they decided to revamp the menu. While keeping that which made them a local favorite, they also added additional menu items. Now, I'll have to be honest and say that I don't go to Marie's for their honey teriyaki chicken (which sadly, they did add). However, some of the new items like the chicken parmesan sandwich are a real hit with me. It is unfortunate that they feel that in order to compete with all the "TGI McChilibees" in the world, they felt like they had to diversify. At least they didn't take the good stuff off the menu.

I decided to go with an old favorite, the simple pepperoni pizza. I got a medium for $10.29. This is a pie adequately sized to feed between 2-3 adults. The thing I like about Marie's pizza is that the crust is somewhere right in the middle between thin crust and deep dish. While Marie's does source some of what they serve in the restaurant from Sysco, I verified with my server that Marie's makes their own dough and their own sauce from scratch. Honestly, you can really tell by just looking, smelling, and finally, tasting the finished product.

First off, a whole pie shot as delivered to my table:

And the obligatory shot of a single slice with red pepper flakes (added by me):

The one thing that Marie's has improved upon since moving into their new home is the absence of the layer of grease that used to float on top of the pie. You never really thought about it when you were eating it hot, but trust me that the next day when seeing it cold, the sight could be off-putting.

Here's what I like about Marie's: it tastes DAMN good. It also tastes like home. The sauce is fresh, the toppings are nice, the bread is crusty and soft. It's just a well integrated pizza: not too much or too little of any one component. It's a slice you could eat with your hands or with a knife and fork. I especially like the crust. While certainly thicker than a crust you are going to find at Bar Cento or Lolita, it really does have that great interplay between the crispy exterior of the edge of the pie (and the bottom of the pie, too) and that wonderfully soft chewy interior just below the crispy surface. And for not being baked in a traditional stone oven, the crispiness of the crust on the bottom is surprising, but certainly welcomed.

From the next photo, you can kind of see how the crust looks from the side:

Finally, a shot of what I walked away with since a medium is WAY more than one person could eat in a single meal:

I plan to warm up the leftovers tomorrow for lunch. While this is neither a NY style pie nor a Chicago style pie, I honestly think this is the pie I would prefer to have most often given the choice. But, I suppose I am biased since this is what I grew up eating.

I will also caution you to either go at an off-time or be prepared to wait. I went today (Sunday) at 4 pm and the place was half full. If you're thinking about going on a Friday or Saturday night for dinner, go before 5 pm or after about 8:30 pm or so. They also have a full bar and a patio for when the weather gets nice. And stick with the traditional stuff ... it's what they do best.

Fumble? Yes. Recovery? Most definitely.

Not that I am one to use football terminology casually, but I felt that after Friday's disastrous adventure to the Euclid Tavern, today needed to be a knock-out. After suggesting several options for lunch that turned out not to have lunch hours, I finally suggested Hunan East on Richmond Road, right across the street from the Richmond Mall. It was originally suggested to me by a good friend and when I was working up in Richmond Heights about a year ago, I visited there several times with good results.

The key to a good meal at Hunan East is knowing to ask for the "Chinese" menu. When you initially walk in, they give you the Americanized Chinese menu (Sweet & Sour, General Tso's, etc.). The Chinese menu pictorially describes about 3 dozen various authentic Chinese dishes. An English translation is written below the pictures. My friends and I decided we would do family style dining and we each ordered an entree from the menu that suited our fancy.

My friend Chris ordered the shredded pork and shredded pressed tofu in soy sauce:

This was quite good and while the dish was seasoned nicely with soy, there wasn't any "sauce" to speak of. It had all been absorbed by the dish. Mike liked the look of the scallops in black bean sauce:

This came out on one of those sizzling hotplates you normally see in Mexican restaurants when someone orders fajitas. I found out later from the friend who had originally recommended Hunan East that this is how black bean dishes are traditionally served. This dish was also a slam dunk. The fermented black beans had a nice piquancy to them and the scallops were simply divine. They were tender and succulent, with just the right amount of seasoning. Of the three dishes we ordered, only this one was polished off.

Finally, when I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to order it: Ma Po Tofu.

I ordered it extra spicy, or "la", and boy did it deliver. Besides the jalapeno peppers (which were also in the shredded pork dish), there were also other kinds of peppers in there as well, although I didn't detect any Szechwan peppercorns. This had a really nice heat level to it, although it didn't blow your head off. To my palate, the heat of this dish was more of a back-of-the-throat heat, as opposed to a front-of-the-mouth heat. The balance between the creaminess of the tofu and the texture of the ground pork was also very nice.

All three of us declared that Hunan East had indeed delivered on a fantastic meal. It was also a great value, at about $12 per person with food left over. Highly recommended.

Hunan East on Urbanspoon  Hunan East on Restaurantica

Friday, January 2, 2009

Heeeeeeeeeeere's Johnny!

I've been looking forward to trying the re-opened Euclid Tavern since I learned that it was back in existence about two months ago. Now, I realize that I shouldn't expect it to be exactly the same as it was before. After all, it had new owners.

So, it was with great trepidation that myself and my friends Mike and Chris cautiously approached the front door. All seemed well when we saw this colorful display:

Alas, that is the only photo you will see from the Euclid Tavern for two very important reasons. First, the bar itself was very dimly lit. As my phone has no flash, any photos I took would've not come out at all. Secondly, and more importantly, sadly, the food we had was just not good. We had fully intended to spend the entire evening there, starting out with some wings, graduating to some sandwiches, and finishing it off with a pitcher or two of beer.

The menu actually looked promising. Many of the items purported to be homemade. There were eight different sauces you could pick from on the chicken wing menu alone. Since you can order wings by 6 or 12, we decided to start out with 4 different flavors of wings: sesame oriental, sweet chili, spicy bacon, and Japanese sriracha. Yes, you read that right, Japanese sriracha. Um, isn't sriracha typically associated with Vietnamese cuisine?

The wings themselves (as far as a chicken wing goes) were meaty and cooked well and had a nice crispy exterior. Unfortunately, that was where their goodness ended. Both the sesame oriental and sweet chili sauces were grossly undersalted, although the sweet chili was slightly better. The spicy bacon wings were unanimously voted as the best, although the only reason I think it won was because the bacon actually properly seasoned the sauce. The Japanese sriracha just wasn't good. The primary flavor that came through was tomato paste. You really could've done a wonderful Vietnamese take on a chicken wing and incorporated sriracha into it. This concoction, was neither Japanese nor Vietnamese. It was simply not good. The other universal complaint was that three of the types of wings had that sticky glaze on the wing and was not really a sauce at all.

When our server came back, I asked her if the sauces were made in house or came out of a bottle. She indicated that some were homemade and some weren't. She did indicate that of the ones that weren't made in house, the chef would doctor them with little tweaks. Honestly, none of us felt that any of those could've been homemade.

When it came time to decide whether we wanted to order additional things from the menu, we unanimously decided to go somewhere else for dinner.

Which landed us at Q Doba. Where I had this:

Soft tacos with grilled chicken, tomato, lettuce, and corn salsa. It was *okay*. All three of us were pretty darn disappointed with the Euclid Tavern: NOT because the wings didn't taste like they did 15 years ago, but because the wings they served just weren't good.

All three of us agreed that a haiku detailing our experience tonight is in order.

Oh, Euclid Tavern,
immense anticipation,
did not deliver.

Euclid Tavern on Urbanspoon  Euclid Tavern on Restaurantica

Weekend in Cleveland

On the first Thursday of every month, the only surviving member of the First String Band plays with fellow musicians at the Barking Spider on Case Western's campus in University Circle. Every six months or so, myself and a few other fraternity brothers will take a road trip back to Cleveland to hear this ensemble play. It's a great way to relive a bit of our past glory, catch up on what is going on in each of our lives and in general, just a nice way to spend an evening. We also usually take the next day off of work and bum around, revisiting some of the old restaurants and haunts we did in days past.

So it goes again. Even though yesterday was January 1st, it turns out that the Spider would be open and the group we wanted to hear would be performing. So we checked into our room at Glidden House (CONVENIENTLY located right next door to the Barking Spider) and headed to Coventry to see what was open for dinner.

We decided to eat at a new place, Tree Country Bistro, located where the Que Tal used to be. It is now a Japanese / Korean / Thai restaurant. This appealed to all of our group since we could each get what we wanted. My friend Mike ordered sushi, and ended up getting the Snow Mountain:

He reports that this was quite good. It had tempura eel that was then wrapped in a maki style roll and topped with crabmeat (well, the fake kind used in California rolls). I decided to go with a Thai curry and opted for the green chicken curry:

It also had peas, green beans, bamboo shoots, green peppers and eggplant. The flavor was excellent, but the heat level was nowhere near what I had asked for (confirmed by another taster in our group who also likes spicy foods). I ordered this Thai spicy. I even went so far as to say, "Not American Spicy. Thai Spicy." And what did I get? Barely warmer than mild. As with other Asian restaurants, I am finding that just because the menu says that spice levels are 1-3 or 1-5, the upper number is never the absolute limit. When I brought the spice level issue up with our waitress, she only then admitted that Thai spicy was probably closer to 5 than a 3 (which according to our menu was the spiciest level). *Sigh*

Today for lunch we decided to hit up an old favorite, the Mad Greek on Fairmount in Cleveland Heights. This has always been a favorite of mine as they make such an excellent grilled pita (I know, it's the simple things in life, isn't it?). The prices were noticeably higher than they have been in the past and the lunch menu was a much more pared down from what we've seen the previous times we went. However, the foods and flavors were outstanding. We decided to start by splitting an order of hummos and grilled pita bread:

It almost looks like a bowl of oatmeal, but I can assure you it isn't. This was very good, if not a bit too much of tahini in the hummos. The grilled pita is like crack and you most assuredly will run out of it before you finish the amount of hummos they give you. Fortunately, additional pita is free of charge. The pita is reasonably fresh and what really gives it it's "crack-like" status is that before serving it, they brush each side with olive oil and throw it on the flat top to slightly caramelize each side. So, so good.

For my lunch I decided to go with a standard: gyro with fries.

The fries were quite good, crispy and hot. The gyro was also delicious, with its blend of spiced meat, the tomatoes, onions and the yogurt sauce.

Tonight we'll be tackling another favorite old haunt, the Euclid Tavern. More on that in my next post.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wonton Gourmet: Fab-u-lous!

To me, Wonton Gourmet is like sushi. I can go for months without even entertaining the thought of sushi and then one day, WHAM! I can think of having nothing else but sushi. In very much the same light, when I get a craving for really good, authentic Chinese cuisine, I have found nothing better satisfies that craving than Wonton Gourmet, located on the corner of East 32nd and Payne near downtown Cleveland. Their particular cuisine is Hunan style, so nothing is overtly spicy, although there is always chili flakes in oil on the table as a condiment.

Last Sunday, having finished my lovely gelato, I suddenly got such a craving. I called up a few of my Cleveland friends and suddenly we had a lovely dinner party for five people. We descended on the restaurant around 6 pm and were warmly greeted by several members of the staff who recognized several members of our dining group. Normally when a group of non-Asians walks through the door, the first thing they normally put down on the table are forks. For us, they put down the standard chopsticks. While you can simply go by yourself, it is much more fun for a group because of all the dishes you can share.

There are actually three menus from which you can order. Two of them have English translations, but the third one, the daily specials, are written on placards that hang on the wall. For those, you must ask for the translation (or as my smart friend Stuart did, take a photo of the characters, post the photo on Flickr, and invite people to actually post notes on the photo with the translation). Since our group had gone at a very slow time during the day, it wasn't too big of a deal to ask for their time in translating whatever we needed.

We ordered dishes from all three menus. First we started with a fish maw and conpoy soup, served with red vinegar.

I have had this before and it is really, really delicious. The soup all by itself is really a well balanced soup. The red vinegar adds a touch of acidity and sweetness (kind of like a balsamic vinegar would). I was actually thinking of having a second bowl of soup when this arrived:

These are fried rice noodle rolls with soy sauce. Incredibly delicious, they are crispy and warm and soft all at the same time. Eaten with some chili oil (which is to the left of the photo), our table quickly gobbled these up. Next up were the house made turnip cakes, which unfortunately I did not get a photo of. I think there are two things I would ALWAYS order if I have a meal here: the turnip cakes and the chive potstickers, pictured here:

These are probably some of the best (and most consistent) potstickers I've ever had at any restaurant. And so fresh. So, at this point, the soup and appetizers are out of the way. Now come the main courses. First up, clams with spicy black bean sauce (towards the back of the photo):

This was spooned over white rice and was quite good. Another member of our group who had eaten the black bean sauce before said this one wasn't quite as good as she remembered, but I thought it was delicious nonetheless. Next up was was a dish that was hanging on the wall menu, braised pork belly with pickles.

This was very soft and tender and the pork did melt in your mouth, but this wasn't the best preparation of pork belly I've ever had. The "pickles" were nice though. If that weren't enough food already, we placed an order for the fried pork chops.

The pork was nicely fried (it wasn't greasy at all), but to me the pork was a little dry. It was served with slices scallions and chilis, but it didn't have a sauce, per se, so it didn't make too much sense to eat this over rice. Finally, (getting full yet?) on the recommendation of our server, we placed an order for fried fish and Japanese tofu. The "scallops" in the photo are actually the tofu, which they somehow managed to sear. I thought this one was good, but it didn't blow me away. Perhaps because we had all reached our gustatory limits.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, how much did this ravenous feast cost? After filling your belly with the most amazing food, you can now fill your brain with the wonderful thought that all of this food, without tip, was a mere $14.40 per person. And we had leftovers to take home. Truly, truly amazing.

Needless to say, my craving for Hunan style Chinese cuisine has now been quenched. I'm kind of glad I live far enough away to make it sort of an effort to get to Wonton Gourmet. I think if I lived in Cleveland, I'd be eating there ALL the time.
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