Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cincinnati Trip, Part II

After our uneventful stay at a very nice Extended Stay America hotel, my traveling companion and I made our way over to the house of the theater friends who had starred in the production of 1776 we saw last night. Brunch was in order and our hostess was to regale us with her mother's world famous French Toast. Err, pancakes. Err, French Toast. Let me explain.

Normally French Toast is made by soaking day old slices of bread in a custard and then grilled in butter. Pancakes are a mixture of flour, baking soda (or powder), milk, eggs, oil, salt and a little sugar that are griddled in butter. Fundamental difference, no? Our hostess's mother discovered back in her college days that if she combined the methods, you get something totally new. She made a pancake batter with some cinnamon and nutmeg and then dipped slices of bread into the batter and griddled them like French toast. What you end up with is something totally unique, a hybrid that is better than the sum of the parts.

We started with some lovely mimosas while the bacon was being griddled. Once all of the components were ready, we sat down to a feast. Beside the fabulous French Pancakes, we had some lovely crispy bacon (my favorite kind) and scrambled eggs with peppers and mushrooms. A shot of my plate sans syrup:

This was so yummy, I had to have a couple extra strips of that crispy bacon and several more slices of the French Pancakes. We hated to say good-bye, but everyone seemed to have other commitments today that we needed to fulfill, so we were off. But we'll be back soon.

Cincinnati Trip, Part I

Some very good friends from Cincinnati were involved in a community theater production of 1776 that was wrapping up this weekend. A friend and I decided to come down to Cincinnati to help them close out the show. So today, after my friend got off of work, we headed down good 'ol I-71 and managed to make very good time despite Mother Nature's attempt at thwarting our effect by placing a storm consisting of snow and freezing rain in our path. We persevered.

And we arrived in enough time to stop for dinner before the show. Nothing fancy, but we decided on a definite Cincy classic: Skyline Chili. Now I know there are probably better representations of this classic Cincinnati dish than this chain, but unfortunately, I hadn't had time to do my homework ahead of time and by the time we got here, it was the closest thing that Google maps showed us.

My friend decided to go with the 5 way, which consists of spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and beans. I went for the classic 3 way, spaghetti, chili and cheese. Not surprisingly, the 3 way and the 5 way look almost identical because they are both covered in a mound of shredded cheese. Here is my 3 way:

This was the large. In retrospect, I probably should've ordered the regular sized plate as I didn't finish this. Even though we do have a Skyline Chili chain up in the Cleveland/Akron area, I don't really eat here, ever. I just don't care for this version very much. However, being in Cincinnati, I figured, "Why not?" The chili had flavors of cinnamon, clove, and various other fairly strongly flavored spices. It's honestly not something I would just sit down and eat an entire bowl. This is also served with a side of oyster crackers. The chili is so spiced (not spicy, spiced) that several times throughout the meal, I had to eat a few oyster crackers just to cleanse my palate a bit.

I guess this is one of those things that I will order here in Cincinnati, but don't really find it something that I would seek out if I were anyplace else. The one thing that both myself and my traveling companion noted was that by the time we got to the end of our entrees, we both really craved something sweet.

When we asked our server what dessert options were available to us, she pointed us to a cooler full of pre-made frozen desserts, still in their wrappers. She did add that the owner made chocolate chip cookies from scratch every day and they had baklava. Now, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would eat dinner at a Skyline Chili and hear that they had baklava for dessert. My friend rightfully pointed out that that Skyline Chili was actually started in the late 1940's by a Greek couple.

So, with a bit of hesitation (and needing something sweet to cut all those spices), we ordered a cookie:

and a baklava:

Honestly, the cookie was ok. It wasn't super fresh, but considering we were ordering from a Skyline Chili, it was ok. The baklava had nice crispy layers of phyllo. My friend felt it didn't have enough honey flavor to it. I actually liked the subdued sweetness. My complaint was there wasn't enough flavor from the nuts. Overall, it was a surprise considering where I purchased it. The waitress did admit that the owner bought the baklava from a local bakery and that they didn't make it in house. Had they made it in house, I would've been fairly impressed.

Overall, I'm glad I got to sample a staple of the Cincinnati food dining scene. However, my choice to only experience this one whenever I am in Cincinnati remains firm in conviction. I know there are some better more local places to experience this delicacy. Next time I come down, I plan on finding some of those spots.

I'm very much looking forward to the best French Toast ever tomorrow morning with my friends from the show! More pictures to come.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Sub Station: A Has Been?

As a rule, I will generally favor local mom-and-pop style restaurants over a chain any day. In fact, if I have the option, I will generally seek them out. It isn't necessarily because the food is always better in these places, but because they will generally offer the diner something unique that can only be found in that restaurant or in that geographical area.

Like Marie's pizza, another longtime favorite of mine has been The Sub Station, located at 126 Main St, Wadsworth, OH 44281. In fact, I've been going here since I first moved to Wadsworth back in 1986. I don't get to eat there as often as I did back in high school, but every now and again when I am in Wadsworth and in need of a submarine sandwich, this is where I turn. And even though it is more expensive than say, Subway, I always justified this by telling myself that I would rather spend a little more on a local place that put uniqueness and quality over quantity.

I experimented with the menu quite a bit throughout high school and by the time I had graduated back in 1990 (no comments please), I had settled on what would become my standard order. First, a shot of the counter area that has changed very little since the mid-1980's.

The ordering process has also changed little from what I first encountered: place your order, pay the bill, grab the "call number" tab off the bottom of the order slip and wait for your number to be called.

Here is a shot of what I normally order ...

Half a turkey club, an order of onion rings, and a large root beer from the soda fountain and not from the can. This is one of the few times I will knowingly order a beverage with high fructose corn syrup. Although if they offered something in a bottle or can that used sugar instead of HFCS, I would order that instead. It just doesn't feel the same without a root beer from the fountain.

The turkey club comes with turkey, mayo, bacon, lettuce and tomato. The tomato is not so good this time of year (no surprises there).

What did surprise me this time (and maybe I just haven't been paying enough attention over the last couple of years) is that the bacon was pre-cooked and then warmed for service. Now I don't know if it was purchased pre-cooked or they cooked off a batch that morning for service later. Honestly I don't really care. It detracts from the original experience. I don't know if this was a cost cutting move or a labor cutting move, but unfortunately, it's the start down a slippery slope. Otherwise, the experience now was the same as I remember from high school.

I also want to say something about the cost. Since I've been coming here for over 20 years, clearly I expect the prices to go along with the economy. But my half sandwich, order of onion rings, and large root beer finally exceeded the $10 mark (no tipping required here). While that doesn't necessarily bother me from a cost perspective, I have to ask myself whether I am willing to pay nearly $6 for a half-sandwich that has pre-cooked bacon on it.

Nostalgia is a powerful force. The funny thing is that I would pay more for the real thing. And I know it's a delicate balance right now with the economy the way that it is, but I can only say that if they change the taste too much, if they finally reach a point where they violate the spirit of the original, I have no problem cutting my losses and just living with my memories.

Sub Station on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Butterfinger Cake

My grandmother's 86th birthday was actually on Thursday, February 12th, but today was the first day that my aunt from Columbus, my mother and I could get together to help celebrate. We started out with lunch at The Mill at our local Wadsworth location of Buehler's grocery store. Nothing was particularly noteworthy (or photo worthy) so I won't say anything more than this: The Mill's hollandaise was way better than The Grotto's was.

After lunch, we returned to my grandmother's condo to do cake and presents. My mother decided to make the cake this time instead of the normal way-too-sweet version at Giant Eagle. I present you with ... the Butterfinger cake:

And now, Mr. Deville, your close-up shot:

This is actually a pretty straightforward cake. Use a recipe for your favorite German chocolate cake (my mom's was from a mix). Personally I would make sure that you don't overcook the cake as it can get a little dry. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, poke holes in the cake using the back of a wooden spoon or a dowel rod. Take a jar of your favorite caramel sauce (or you could make your own caramel -- even better!) and pour it over the still hot cake. Then cover with a layer of crushed Butterfinger candies. My mom said that two normal sized Butterfingers fit this bill nicely. Now let cool completely to room temperature.

At this point, cover with Cool Whip (or lightly sweetened whipped cream) and then garnish with some additional crushed Butterfinger bars.

It was a nice cake and the less sweet topping (whipped cream / Cool Whip) was nice as the caramel could make the cake seem too sweet at times for me. Really the only thing I would have changed ingredient-wise would have been to add a little cocoa powder to the box mix. The cake just didn't seem chocolate-y enough to balance out the other flavors in the cake. But, that being said, I actually had two pieces and plan on taking some home with me as well.

Oh, yeah, Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Gruesome Grotto

Until recently, The Grotto called Merriman Road in The Valley (Akron, not Cleveland) home. I've had numerous people ask me about it, but I never got around to eating there, so I never knew what to say. Then, a few months ago, an announcement was made in the Akron Beacon Journal that The Grotto had now moved into a larger, more modern facility on the southeast side of Tallmadge Circle in Tallmadge, OH. The new facility could accommodate more diners and had banquet rooms capable of seating hundreds more. The address listed on the website linked to earlier lists the OLD address. The correct address is 360 West Ave, Tallmadge, OH 44278 and their phone number is (330) 633-5656.

The crowds were horrendous on opening week and continued that way for about a month. I noticed about a week ago as I was driving home from a friend's house on a weeknight that the parking lot seemed much more manageable now. Thus, it was without a reservation that I showed up on a Thursday night at 6:30 PM and asked for a table for 1. I needn't have worried I wouldn't get a seat. While I didn't check the bar side, the dining room had perhaps 20-25 diners in the midst of eating dinner. Thinking that this must be because of the downturn in the economy, I proceeded to start looking through the menu.

I asked my server, Brandye (nope, not a spelling mistake), to make some recommendations as I was a first time visitor. She quickly confessed that she was a vegetarian and really hadn't tried a lot of the dishes, but based on what people ordered, she suggested a few items. Most of the meat dishes didn't list sides and the sides that were listed were under the "A la carte" section of the menu. Noticing that "risotto" was listed as one of the sides and that Brandye may have in fact tried it since it probably didn't contain meat, I asked her about it. Sadly, she hadn't tried it, but suggested that she could bring me a small sample and I could decide for myself.

Not realizing that all the entrees come with a salad, your choice of side and the garlic mashers, I went ahead and ordered a soup and an appetizer. That way, when the risotto came out, I could decide if I liked it and would then order my entree and side. She also mentioned that fresh bread was about five minutes from coming out and I said that I had no problem waiting for fresh bread.

I went to the restroom to freshen up and when I returned, this was waiting for me:

This was not listed as any particular kind of risotto, but it had small pieces of what I originally thought were crab, but in fact turned out to be roasted red peppers. It was okay, a little too cheesy for my taste. It didn't really have a distinct flavor of its own. Is it the worst risotto I've ever had? No, but it was less than average, too.

It was at this point that the bread and butter were brought to the table. It looked decent enough sitting in the basket. I went ahead and placed my entree and side order and decided to dive into the hot bread.

Unforuntately, when I pulled off a quarter (it was pre-cut), I discovered that this loaf was undercooked and completely gummy in the middle:

This just wasn't very good at all. This wasn't even the case of cutting into hot bread after baking the loaf. This would've been undercooked and gummy hot or cold. After having to take out most of the center, you were left with little else.

For my soup, I ordered a cup of the French Onion soup, which is a standard on the menu (i.e. not the soup du jour). It had a nice caramelized cheesy crust on top:

Oddly enough, my server didn't bring me a soup spoon to eat this with. Ah well, I just used my dinner spoon. There wasn't a single crouton on top of the soup, but smaller croutons both on top (under the cheese) and distributed through the soup. The soup was intense, but I think it needed a bit of acid to liven it up a bit. Maybe some sherry vinegar. This was also the first place I noticed the minced garlic. Turns out that The Grotto tends to use a lot of minced garlic in their dishes. Unfortunately, even though I don't object to the garlic in the soup, shouldn't the soup have been cooked long enough to basically break down the little chunks?

After the soup came my unexpected salad. I had asked for the house dressing which is a homemade red wine vinaigrette. The salad? Plain and boring. The dressing? Interesting, but lacked appropriate seasoning and any kind of punch to make it effective.

This course was forgettable.

I have to tell you that I stared at the Appetizer list for a good while trying to find something that sounded good. I'm sorry, but when did a place supposedly known for its seafood and steaks put Buffalo wings on their appetizer menu? Honestly. I wound up selecting the mussels cooked in a white wine and garlic broth.

The mussels were cooked well and texturally they were fine. Unfortunately I noticed some of the mussels hadn't been cleaned properly as a bit of their beard were still on the outside of the shell. There was a ton of that same minced garlic through the mussels as well as a surprising amount of shredded cheese. Yes, you heard me, cheese. And beyond just the problem of pairing cheese with mussels was that some of the cheese had melted and some had not. The broth did nothing for this dish. Normally the broth is the best part. Unfortunately, the kitchen had coated the grilled bread with a, you guessed it, garlic butter, so they were completely ineffective at soaking up any of the broth. Not that I really wanted all that much of the broth.

By the way, the appetizer portion was enough for an entire meal. I don't know why restaurant put these enormous appetizers on the menu and then charge twice the price of what it should have been. I'm glad I didn't go with my first instinct and order two appetizers instead of a soup and an appetizer.

Finally, my entree arrived. Pork medallions with a mushroom and Marsala wine sauce and asparagus with hollandaise.

My server, the self-avowed vegetarian, actually said, "Wow, this really looks good!" Foreshadowing at its best.

I assure you, that plate is untouched. This is how I received it from the kitchen. This cost $26. Clearly whomever was running the pass in the kitchen tonight skipped the day in culinary school where they talk about good presentation. On the left side of the plate are the pork medallions. In the middle of the plate was another representation of garlic, the garlic mashers (as they call them). And of course, on the middle/right is the asparagus.

But wait, I hear you saying ... wasn't the side supposed to be asparagus with hollandaise? Why, yes, yes it is. A closer inspection of the asparagus ...

As soon as my server set down the plate I mentioned the missing hollandaise and she assured me that yes, it was definitely on there. I said, "Ummm ... are you sure?" She offered to get me a side of hollandaise from the kitchen and I agreed. If you also look closely below the asparagus, you can see the not-so-wonderfully broken Marsala wine sauce. Clearly they mounted the butter into the sauce and then boiled it. Harumph.

While waiting for my side of hollandaise I started tasting various things on the plate. Marsala wine sauce? Broken, but otherwise okay. The garlic mashers? Nice pepper flavor, but underseasoned and honestly they were the consistency of glue. Almost no integrity. The pork? Ah, the pork. Once again covered in the minced garlic, the seasoning was fine but they were beyond well done. I had ordered the dish with the pork cooked to medium. Medium this was not. Again, clearly they had presliced the medallions and cooked them individually in the saute pan instead of cooking a nice piece of tenderloin and then slicing the medallions.

By this point I had come to the conclusion that this was just one culinary disaster after another. Had the rest of the meal been up to snuff, I might have sent it back to the kitchen and had them re-fire the dish, but I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was how the pork came out however one ordered it.

Finally, my server returned with a small ramekin of hollandaise. It looked okay, but then I took my spoon and began to play with it a bit.

The consistency was very thin. The taste was mostly egg yolk. Not nearly enough butter. And it lacked seasoning and brightness that a squeeze of lemon could've brought out. And it was room temperature. This surprised me more than anything else. I spooned some over the asparagus. Initially you could see it, but sure enough, within about 10 seconds, it all but disappeared into the nether regions of the plate. Strangely enough, the asparagus were pretty decent, even though the hollandaise was literally non-existent.

Finally, I had to try and get a shot of the well done pork. This thing was dry as a bone. No amount of sauce could help this.

With that, I said enough is enough and asked for the check. With one glass of red wine, my bill with tax came to $50. Now, I know that when I go out to eat and post on my blog, I am being hypercritical. I have to be, that's how I discern myself from the average eater out there. But I have to say that for $50 (and only $6 of that was for a glass of wine), people deserve a LOT more.

To revisit an earlier thought in this posting - I originally thought the restaurant was dead because of the economy. Now I realize it's because of the food.

My server, however, was professional and helpful. Well, as helpful as she could be having not tasted 3/4 of the menu.

Grotto Seafood & Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Friday Night Fish Fry

As so often happens on my way home from work last night, I decided to stop for dinner along the way. This time I choose another local mom and pop place called the Chicken Manor Family Restaurant located at 8043 Cleveland Avenue N.W. in North Canton. It's a fairly good sized place that even has a banquet room. It reminds me a lot of those "family restaurants" from the late 70's and early 80's. It still has that particular charm. I had eaten here one other time and was pleased with my meal, so I thought I'd stop in and see if anything new was on the menu.

My very cute waiter made some suggestions off the menu, but then added that they were serving a fried haddock fish dinner. This particular dinner came with three sides and dinner rolls and was modestly priced at $9.25. I'm always a sucker for a good piece of fried fish and he insisted that it was very good tonight. Having been steered wrong in the past by servers who assured me that the fish was awesome, I was wary. But, like I said before, he was cute, and based on the meal I had had there before, I decided to give it a try.

The dinner started out with standard dinner rolls. They were average.

The kitchen must have been banging on all cylinders last night because shortly after receiving my rolls, my dinner came out as well. Noting that both the corn and green beans came from a can, I opted for french fries, applesauce, and something called hot sauce for my three sides.

Now let's talk about this platter. From noon, going clock-wise, you have the hot sauce, the french fries, the applesauce, the fried haddock, and the tartar sauce. First the average things on the plate: the applesauce. Plain Jane, straight from the jar. The hot sauce was okay, a nice try to make something unique, but it lacked character of its own. It was more of a rice in a tomato-y liquid than anything else. It had a bit of cayenne in it and I could feel it at the back of my throat.

On to the good things. The french fries were just how I like them, crisp and not greasy. They were a tad darker than I would've preferred, but they were still tasty. The fish was stupendous. A nice thick cut with a very light but extra crisp coating. The fish was hot and juicy and had a lovely fresh taste to it. The coating had just the right level of seasoning in it. To complement the fish was a housemade tartar sauce with a surprise ingredient, sweet bread & butter pickles. The pairing of the sauce with the fish actually elevated the fish to a new level. Sweet, savory, juicy, creamy. It all worked very well. It's probably the best piece of fish I've had in quite a while.

When confronted with my inevitable questions at the conclusion of the meal, the server confirmed that yes, the fish was fresh not frozen and that they did make their own tartar sauce from scratch. You could really tell. The server also managed to get me to agree to take a piece of the homemade cherry pie home with me since I was too stuffed to eat anything more. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture until I was half-way through the pie, but it was a decent rendition. Homemade crust with pre-made filling. The crust was nice, the pie filling was sort of average.

Next time I go back, I'll have to get the house specialty ... fried chicken. Who knew?

The Anti-Marie's Pizza

Earlier in my blog, I posted about a hometown pizza favorite of mine, Marie's. Homemade dough, homemade sauce, just the right blending of herbs, spices, and toppings makes for an excellent finished product.

On my visit to Lembo's last week, I saw a table next to me order a pepperoni pizza that looked pretty darn good. Looking at the menu, I noticed that Lembo's also makes their own dough and sauce. Thinking that this might be something good to order the next time I dined here, I kept it in the back of my mind. Earlier this week, as I was driving home from work, the pizza again popped into my head. So I decided to give Lembo's a shot.

Skipping their enormous (and quite run-of-the-mill tasting) salad bar, I went straight for the gold: a large pepperoni pizza.

If someone ever tells you that something must be good because the ingredients are homemade, don't believe them. This pizza was the complete opposite of a Marie's pizza. The dough was bland, the sauce tasted like it was made with Campbell's Tomato Soup and sorely lacked the presence of any herbs and the pepperoni was extra oily. I had to spend about 5 minutes just soaking up the layer of orange grease off the top of the pizza before I could even start eating it. A little grease is okay, but not large pools of it.

The pizza lacked any sort of character whatsoever. It was not assertive in the least. In fact, I think it ranks lower than most chain store pizzas and some of those are truly awful indeed (Pizza Pan anyone?). It really made me rethink my newfound excitement over discovering Lembo's. I may go back one more time to try the homemade gnocchi, but honestly, this visit has left me with a significant doubt that they will even be good. There seems to be more not to like than to like here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Comforting Meal on a Cold Winter's Night

After my recent visit to Cleveland earlier last month, I discovered that That Place on Bellflower had been replaced with a new restaurant, L'Albatros. At the time my group and I sort of made fun of the change as we walked towards our fatefully bad dinner at the newly re-opened Euclid Tavern. Had we known any better, we would've stopped there instead. While checking out the Cleveland Food & Wine Forum, I discovered that several people had actually eaten here and really enjoyed themselves.

So I gathered 10 of my closest foodie friends and we descended upon L'Albatros last Saturday night. As with it's predecessor, parking is in front of the restaurant, but the lot is owned by someone else. There is a self-service machine that you feed money to (or credit cards) based on how long you think your stay will be. I choose the 3 hour option (which costs $5). I know that seems like a long time for dinner, but I can assure you, it took us that long (actually just a shade over 3 hours) to get through everything.

First, a shot of the front of the restaurant:

It is at this point that I must apologize for the next two photos. L'Albatros is very dimly lit and my poor camera phone sans flash just didn't cut it. I very much liked the interior, it had very clean lines and was modestly decorated. There is a small bar area, but it was quite full of diners who couldn't get a table. I arrived about 20 minutes early and got a glass of Tokai, but felt a little odd trying to find a spot to park myself until the rest of the party arrived.

When we finally did sit, the servers immediately began filling water glasses and brining bread to the table. It was a nice sourdough with an excellent crust and very fresh taste.

I could eat this bread unadorned, just as it came. But the butter they served with it was simply divine, rich and creamy. A little sprinkling of the course salt that was on the table and all I could say was "Yumm!"

With eleven of us, it was not surprising that most of the items off the menu were ordered and shared. We also tried two of the pizzas that were on the menu. The pizzas were decent, but weren't really what I had expected them to be. Maybe the flavor profiles just didn't appeal to me.

I ended up ordering the frisee salad with a poached egg and lardon.

On taking an intial bite from the top of the salad, I would've said that it was over salted. However, one I cut into the egg and mixed the salad a bit more, the seasoning was spot on. The lardon were nice, but several were almost crouton-like in their crunch. This was a good dish, but not really a stand-out.

For my entree, I ordered the cassoulet. I've used a photo taken by another diner (with permission) there that evening, Stuart. His Flickr set for the entire evening is here. He also documented what others had as well. Definitely check it out.

To get that nice photo, he actually used a camera with a flash. This dish was served in a saute pan and had a lovely combination of ingredients: white beans, confit dug leg that was crisped up, housemade sausages, and some lovely pork fat. It was delicious. It was also extremely rich and I was able to really only eat about half of it. Which is really okay because I had some excellent leftovers for lunch the next day.

I finished up my meal with some french press coffee. You had your choice of four different coffee bean blends; I went with the Hawaiian Kona blend. I'm not a huge coffee drinker, but I occasionally enjoy a nice cup. Now, granted, the french press coffee service was $6 and a standard cup of coffee was $2. However, I considered this to be my dessert, so I decided to splurge. I'm glad I did. It was bold, smooth, and rich. It had the taste of a stronger coffee, like a Turkish coffee.

I was afraid that this would be a meal that would break the bank. While it's certainly not an every day kind of meal, my glass of wine and dinner came to roughly $60, which isn't as bad as it could've been.

I definitely recommend L'Albatros and I know that I will be back soon. Make your reservations early; when we went at 6:30 PM on Saturday night, the place was completely booked.
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