Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Sliders, Part II

In my last installment, I had thrown down the gauntlet and decided to do a head-to-head comparison between the national chain, White Castle, and a local Akron favorite, the Hamburger Station. Today was the perfect day to finish this up. Currently there are four locations around Akron and the suburbs and while each offers the same basic fare (like the sliders), each also offers something unique. The Hamburger Station I went to on Canton Rd. near Ellot offers chicken wings as part of their menu. But I wasn't there today for the wings. I was there for the sliders.

First up, a shot of the exterior:

And a shot of the door with a sign promoting the double-plus goodness of their ingredients:

While the Hamburger Station does offer several combo meals, I wanted to get a specific set of items to demonstrate as much of the menu as I could. Not to mention that the combo meals all come with the fries, and truth be told, if the winner was judged solely on fries, White Castle would win hands down. The fries at the Hamburger Station may be fresh cut, but they are typically a limp, oily mass that generally just aren't good.

Here is my full order:

The slider on the back left is my post-mortem slider (just like I had at White Castle). The two sliders on the back right are my lunch. In the front you have a small order of onion rings and a small order of fried mushrooms.

The onion rings are freshly prepared every day like the fries are, except they are dredged in the batter in the morning and then left to sit in the reach-in by the fryer until the moment an order is placed. They are a nice thick onion ring and because they've had a chance to sit in the batter for a while, it doesn't completely fall apart when you take a bite. You definitely get a nice contrast between the crispy coating and the soft, creamy onion on the inside. For fast food onion rings, these rate better than average.

The fried mushrooms are prepped in exactly the same way as the onion rings and have the same crispy exterior. Again, these were better than average, but what they really could've used was some type of spicy dipping sauce, like a horseradish mayo. That would've kicked them from good to pretty darn good.

When you ask for a slider with everything, that means mustard, onions, and pickles. Unfortunately, the onions they use for the sliders are raw. Some days the onions are sliced, today they were coarsely grated. Regardless, raw onions and my stomach don't particularly care for each other. The sliders I ordered for consumption had just the mustard and pickles on them (I added a little ketchup tableside).

The sliders here are better than average. If I'm in the mood for an exceptional burger, nothing comes close to the one I had the other day at The Greenhouse Tavern. But sliders are a slightly different beast. And these are the best example I've had so far. They aren't cooked exactly the same way that White Castle cooks theirs. Most notable is the fact that they are cooked to order and the buns are grilled while the burger cooks, so there aren't any sogginess issues. To my taste, the burgers at the Hamburger Station have a much fresher taste to them and the flavor of the meat actually comes through.

Here is the post-mortem slider with everything:

And with the crown of the bun off:

As you can see, when you get onions, you get a LOT of onions. I'd show you the heel of the bun, but the cheese between the meat patty and the heel had fused the two together. Thankfully, I didn't get the same floor show at the Hamburger Station that I got at the White Castle I went to for my earlier post. That's not a show I want repeated very often.

And so, gentle reader, to whom goes the slider crown? The Hamburger Station, of course. The product tastes better, has more bun integrity, and is cooked to order instead of sitting on a griddle for who-knows-how-long. The fact that it is a local chain found only in Akron, OH is a serious bonus in my book. If anyone out there in Internet-land really loves White Castle and is able to try the Hamburger Station's version, I would love to hear what you have to say. I might even print it here in my blog. Maybe. But only if you find in favor of the Hamburger Station. No, no, I promise to be fair.

After finishing my lunch, the sun was reaching its zenith and I decided that some frozen custard was necessary to cool me off in the hot afternoon sun. I spent some time in my youth living in Stow, OH, and fondly remember trips to Stoddard's Frozen Custard stand.

Here is what you'll see as you drive up:

Today's flavor of the day was strawberry. This looked promising. A shot of the Stoddard's stand:

One thing to note: if you want the flavor of the day in a cup and not on a cone, don't say the word "sundae". There was much confusion when I went to order the flavor of the day. To me, a sundae is whatever kind of ice cream/frozen custard you want, toppings, and possibly some whipped cream. To the fine Stoddard's folks, a sundae is ALWAYS vanilla soft serve with toppings and whipped cream. There was a little confusion until I finally understood that they make a distinction. What I REALLY wanted was a "small flavor of the day in a cup with whipped cream on top". Once we established that, I paid my $2.60 and went out into the sunshine to eat my cool treat.

The color is subtle, but it is a very light pink.

When I first got up to the ordering window, I asked them how they made the strawberry flavored custard. The manager said they use real strawberries in the mix and I can tell you that by simply inspecting the frozen custard, you can still see little bits of strawberry right in the cup. The flavor was amazing. This had none of the problems that I experienced with my pumpkin frozen custard at Strickland's. The flavor was there from the first bite until the very last. And then some. Just a perfect amount of strawberry essence.

It seems a little cliche' these days to order strawberry since everyone seems to offer it, too (besides chocolate and vanilla), and isn't nearly as exotic as pumpkin or royal cake batter. But sometimes, simpler is better and when you can revisit a flavor done as well as this one was, I say go for it. While I love Strickland's attempt at the pumpkin, Stoddard's strawberry is declared the winner. At least this time around.

All in all, this was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed eating and then writing about it.

Hamburger Station on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Tale of Two Sliders, Part I

"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

I first read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens back when I was a wee youth. Prone to reminiscing from time to time, there are many things from our youth that we romanticize, even as adults. I grew up eating sliders from The Hamburger Station. This is a local chain of about four stores (I think there were quite a few more when I was younger) in and around the Akron, OH area. After moving out of Akron in mid-junior high school, though, this practice ceased. To be fair, my new home in Wadsworth wasn't all that far from Akron, but they just sort of fell off my radar.

As I was perusing around the 'Net the other day, I happened to come across a discussion of White Castle sliders. Now, I know that some people absolutely LOVE White Castle. And to others it is one of the most disgusting things they have ever put in their mouths. Personally, I've never had a White Castle slider, even though I lived in Columbus for a number of years and the retail stores were all over the place. It just never occurred to me that it should be something I would want to try.

Reviewing the food of national chain restaurants is not something I want to focus on in my blog. If they are national and you can get them anywhere, in my mind they lose their uniqueness. At the same time, having never had a White Castle slider before and the fact that I could do a head-to-head comparison with a LOCAL chain like The Hamburger Station, I decided to acquiesce on this particular rule for now. Doing a quick Google Maps search led me to the White Castle located on South Arlington Street, right off of I-77.

Upon entering the store, there was a fairly short line to place your order. I looked over the menu and decided to just go "Plain Jane" and order the basic combo meal: four sliders, an order of fries, and a soda for $4.99. When I finally got to the front of the line, I placed my order and upgraded to cheese sliders for $1 more. For some reason, the person taking my order only then asked if I wanted to add their new pulled pork slider to my order (from what followed after I paid for my order, it occurred to me that she wasn't the shiniest rock in the box). I declined, paid for my meal, and stepped to the side so that she could take the next customer's order.

Apparently, that's when the floor show began. Another co-worker, obviously flustered with the order taker's performance, pushed her (not hard) out of the way so she could access the register to "fix" the orders. Cue Jerry Springer-esque shouting match. Yes, right in front of the customers. It reminded me of the Arby's on Rt. 82 in North Royalton from a decade ago. We would go in there to grab lunch and would be treated to the antics of some of the most brain dead employees any of us had ever seen. Even the managers were terrible, yelling back at employees in front of the customers. Tonight's performance ranked right up there.

Ok, back to the food. Now, I knew from reading about White Castle how they prepare their sliders. The square patties go down on the grill, are then covered with some grilled onions, and the heel (bottom half of the bun) is placed on top. This allows the bun to "steam" as the burgers cook on the grill. At service time, the burgers are flipped right side up, topped with pickles and cheese (if ordered), and the crown (top half of the bun) is placed on top. This is then inserted into a small cardboard box that stays open on one end. Condiments are the responsibility of the consumer at the table.

One thing I did notice while I was waiting for my order to be completed was that both flat top grills had about 1/3 of their area covered with already cooked (and onioned and heeled) sandwiches just sitting there. While this was covered with a bit of parchment paper to keep them from airborne particulate, who knows how long they had been sitting there. And honestly, the parchment may have contributed to the problems I will describe a little later in the post. Just as the parchment keeps things from landing on the burgers from the top, it also helped to hold in the moisture underneath, too.

Probably due to the shouting match between the two employees, the four sliders I had ordered had already been taken off the grill, finished, and were sitting on a plate on one of the counters. It took another five minutes for the fries to join them. First thing that popped into my brain? Lukewarm sliders. And sadly by the time I finally managed to get my drink and napkins and condiments, they were exactly that.

Here is a shot of my meal:

Remember how I said that each of those cardboard boxes is open at one end? Take a look:

First, let's talk about the fries. These actually weren't terrible. Some were pretty crispy, others had a bit more limp to them. Fortunately, though, they weren't greasy. I consider the fries to be the highlight of the meal.

On to the sliders. Like I said at the beginning of the post, I think you either love these things or you hate them. And no offense to any of my gentle readers out there who love a White Castle slider, but I didn't find them good in the least. Tasteless meat, overly soggy heel, onions with a strange bitter flavor; truly a trifecta of terrible. I kept trying various condiment combinations thinking that I must be missing something. After three of the four sliders were gone, I just gave up and decided to use the fourth slider for a post-mortem analysis.

Out of its cardboard home:

Just the picture perfect shot I'm sure White Castle's marketing department hopes for, right?

Next up, the slider with the crown removed:

As you can see at the front of the burger (bottom of the picture), the brownish/gray coloring is where the heel has basically lost all integrity because it had become too soggy.

And finally, the money shot. Soggy city, indeed:

Like I mentioned earlier, the fact that the heel had been sitting on that grill for who knows how long AND underneath the parchment paper probably contributed to this soggy, yucky mess. By all means, if you enjoy these, don't let me dissuade you. Better yet, if you enjoy a good floor show with your sliders, I'd highly recommend the White Castle on South Arlington. It didn't make the burgers taste any better, but at least I cracked a smile once or twice.

Knowing that I needed some culinary redemption after my meal, I decided to stop by an Akron favorite for some frozen custard. Strickland's was started in the mid 1930's and has proliferated in Akron and the surrounding suburbs. Some of the locations are walk-up only (like the one that I went to tonight), while others have indoor seating. I decided to go to the store right across the field from the Goodyear blimp hanger, on the corner of Massillon Road and Triplett Boulevard since it was on my way home. For some reason, Yahoo Maps can't find that location, but the link above should get you to a map. Here is the side view:

Strickland's custard is wonderfully dense and rich. Being made on-site, every day they feature two new flavors. In fact, not all of the Strickland's are on the same flavor schedule, so you could literally go to two store locations on the same day and find two completely different sets of featured flavors. Today's flavors were pumpkin and royal cake batter. They will give you free taste samples if you ask and I opted to try both flavors. The royal cake batter was good (think of a cross between frozen custard and vanilla cake batter), but the pumpkin was WAY good. Not only that, but they were currently churning out the pumpkin, so I knew it was fresh.

I opted for a small pumpkin sundae with nothing but whipped cream on top for $2.85. Here is what I received:

How do I describe this? The first bite with the whipped cream was nothing short of spectacular. The pumpkin flavor, the traditional pumpkin spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove), the controlled sweetness, and the whipped cream all came together to whisk me back to the traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie slice. In custard form. It was so delicately balanced and delicious. Which oddly enough, turned out to be its downfall.

The first bite, heavenly. The third bite, pretty good. By the fourth bite, my tongue was so cold that the only thing I could taste was creamy and sweet. And that pretty much was how the rest of my sundae went until after I finished it and was back on the road. By then my taste buds had been given the proper time to start warming back up and suddenly I was hit with round two of the flavorful pumpkin and pumpkin spices.

Don't get me wrong, I truly enjoyed that sundae, but by making the flavors of the pumpkin and spices so delicately interwoven and subtle, they ended up with a flavor that can only be enjoyed at its maximum at the beginning and end of the experience. And I can understand how the person developing the recipe might not realize the problem. They are tasting it one spoonful at a time before making adjustments, thus allowing their taste buds to remain in the unfrozen and useful state.

All that said, Strickland's is definitely recommended.

In my follow-up post, I plan on visiting another frozen custard stand that was one of my childhood favorites, Stoddard's, for a head-to-head comparison to Strickland's. That is, after my visit to The Hamburger Station.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Sandwich Universe Where 1 + 1 = 3?

Where I currently work, there really aren't any interesting places to eat in the immediate vicinity. If you drive about 10 minutes in any given direction, however, you'll find some decent places to catch a meal. Today I decided to drive south on I-77 and that led me to the locally owned restaurant Georgio's, located off the Rt. 212 exit at Bolivar/Zoar. It is nestled in behind the Wilkshire Golf Course and during the summer many of the golfers can be seen at lunchtime having a drink and a sandwich.

While there is a main dining room when you first walk in, Georgio's is also set up for a crowd. There is a separate large room off the back of the restaurant that can be used for large gatherings. I've eaten at Georgio's before, but it's probably been quite some time, so I decided to give them another try today. Once inside, there is a daily specials board right next the to hostess stand. Now truth be told, only once have I been satisfied with something I ordered off the daily specials board. My advice would be to stick to the regular menu; you'll be much safer.

Over the 20 months that I've visited the restaurant, I've seen the menu change and the restaurant adapt. Which is normally a good thing because it shows that management is paying attention to what sells and what doesn't. The latest changes have really tightened up the menu and focused the kitchen on what they are good at: soups, salads, wraps, sandwiches, and well, not so much their pizzas. I've had the pizzas in the past and not been a fan, but I'll talk about them in another blog entry, after I've given them another try (just to be fair since I didn't have a pizza today).

Here is half of the printed menu. Unfortunately, I neglected to get a shot of the other half:

I decided to start my meal with a cup of the chorizo and potato soup with kale. Here is what I received from the kitchen:

Even though the menu didn't specifically say it, I was actually expecting a creamy potato soup, not a broth-based one. That being said, I decided to keep it anyway, partly because I was hungry and partly because it was my fault for not asking up front. It was a nicely balanced soup and the seasoning was very good. Looking through the cup, I could see that in addition to ground meat, potatoes, and kale, there were also tomatoes, garlic, and onions. While the soup was good, I seriously question the use of the word "chorizo" as a description for the meat. Most chorizo that I've eaten have had two major flavor elements: lots of garlic and lots of spice. This soup had neither. And the texture of the meat in the soup led me to speculate that they were using a mild sausage instead of actual chorizo. Initially I thought it migt be a mild Italian sausage, but there was absolutely no hint of an anise flavor (usually provided by fennel seeds). I did ask the server about it, but she insisted that as far as she knew, it was chorizo.

I've gotten a variety of sandwiches during previous visits and for the most part they've been pretty good. A new addition to the menu since my last visit is the Monte Christo sandwich. Now, I remember this sandwich from the cafeteria in my college days, and honestly, the only thing I really remember about it was that it was essentially a grilled cheese with ham and turkey. I have since learned that there is an egg batter involved in a proper Monte Christo. Since the description on the menu indicated that we were dealing with the real thing, I made the decision to go with a Monte Christo and French Fries.

As I was finishing up my soup, my server brought out my sandwich:

And another shot from the opposite side:

What's in the little plastic cup, you ask? Ketchup? No, my server brought me a separate bottle of ketchup for my fries. It turns out it was maple syrup (well, more than likely the high-fructose corn syrup kind, not the real deal). Thinking it would be weird to pair the two together, I actually ate the first half of my sandwich without the use of this condiment.

How did it taste? It was quite good. I could definitely taste the egg batter on the bread, the ham and turkey were nice: hot and tender. When I got to the second half of my sandwich, I realized two things. First, the Grilled Bread Conundrum had struck again. I tell you right now with certainty that if I ever manage to invent a device that can hold a grilled (or griddled) sandwich above the plate so it doesn't sit there and steam against the plate and get soggy, I will be a gazillionaire. Perhaps some type of anti-gravity device where the sandwich can somehow float above the plate and avoid contact, thus avoiding the sogginess issue. My second realization was that the maple syrup was there for a reason and I might as well try it with the rest of my sandwich. At least one bite's worth.

So, with trepidation, I dipped and bit.

The heavens opened. Trumpets sounded. Suddenly I had all this sensory information hurdling towards my brain saying, "Yes! Yes!" Somewhat similar to, but not quite the same, as the Sally character from Katz's Deli. Sweet, salty, and fatty all came together in my mouth and made me realize that this is another example of two foods that when eaten together, are definitely more than the sum of their parts. I took a second dipped bite just to confirm what I had tasted in the first bite and sure enough, more food nirvana.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the French Fries, since they were also on the plate (although next time I think I'm going to get a second Monte Christo and a side of maple syrup as my side instead of the fries). They were nice and crispy and golden and just a tad greasy, but not too bad. Georgio's on the whole does pretty decent fries and they didn't disappoint this time either.

I know Georgio's is a little out of the way for a lot of the people who read this blog, but if you ever happen to be heading down I-77 and find yourself in this neck of the woods, this would make an excellent place to stop for lunch.

Georgio's Grill on Urbanspoon  Georgio's Grill on Restaurantica

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tavanello and Sons: It's Good To Have Choices

As much as I love Marie's Pizza located in my hometown of Wadsworth, Ohio, there is a lesser known pizza purveyor that I feel I should give a chance. It's on the extreme west side of town out by SkyPark and most of us "townies" don't really even know about it. The only reason I knew about it is that a good high school friend of mine lived out in that area and he would get it on a regular basis. It just so happened that I was in town and out driving around thinking about my dinner options (because it was SUCH a gorgeous day) when I decided that I would stop in and order a pie.

Tavanello and Sons is located at 2985 Greenwich Road in Wadsworth, OH and can be reached at 330-336-6581.

Having never been inside the store before, the only thing I knew about it was that this was a take-out place; there are no tables inside. That was okay with me though because there is a park not five minutes away where I could sit out in the sun at a picnic table and enjoy my dinner.

The place is quite quaint and I discovered upon walking in that the pizzeria shares the interior space with a very small general store. They have DVD rentals in the rear of the store and a refrigerated case where you could pick up beer and bottled water and soda. The right side of the store was where the kitchen was. It always fascinates me to walk into a place and order a pizza (as opposed to calling it in) because then you get to see the entire process from start to finish. This isn't fancy pizza. What this is, however, is pizza made by people who care. I could tell that the couple (Mr. and Mrs. Tavanello, I believe) taking orders, making the pies, and ringing up customers were there because they love what they do and take pride in what they do.

The menu is pretty simple: pizzas, calzones, and subs. They have some other sides, like garlic bread, etc., but the majority of the menu is about how to combine dough, sauce, meat, and cheese.

All the dough and the sauce are made from scratch. Tavanello's has a pizza oven with two columns of doors. On this particular Friday night, only the left side had been heated up. In the back corner was the industrial stand mixer for the dough and next to that the sheeter, used to initially flatten out the balls of dough before being finished by hand. Toppings are fairly standard, but I did notice that they offered meatballs as a topping (a nod to my good friend Nancy). Unfortunately, when I asked about the meatball option, they were all out.

Once the pie had been sauced, cheesed, and topped with your choice of toppings (mine was pepperoni), into the oven it went. No timers were set. No alarms ever went off. Mr. Tavanello knew by how brown the crust was and how caramelized the cheese was exactly how much time each pie had left in the oven. Once the dough had set in the pizza pan, the pie was removed from the pan and finished directly on the floor of the oven. This ensured a nice golden brown crust. It probably took about fifteen minutes from the time I ordered to the time I paid for my pie and left.

Right before cutting and boxing up my pie, it was brushed with garlic butter, just to "guild the lily" a little bit.

Here's what I brought out to my car (this is a large, they also have extra-large):

And a shot of the pizza in the box:

I was going to try and actually eat a piece before I even got into the car, but the Molten Cheese Conundrum came into play: The fresher the pie, the more likely the cheese will completely slide off if you try and pick up a piece. I quickly realized that a 3-5 minute ride in the car to the park would do the cheese a world of good. And it did.

Once I got to the park, however, all bets were off. A closer shot of the uneaten portion of my pizza:

Now let's talk about taste. If you like thicker crust pizza, this was an excellent example. The crust was nice and toasty from the oven, wonderfully chewy, and cooked completely through. The crust had a nice flavor, most likely from the garlic butter that was brushed on right at the end, but it wasn't overpowering. The homemade pizza sauce was quite good and seasoning was spot on. In terms of a quality sauce, I'd put it right up there with Marie's sauce. I immediately got the taste of the richness from the tomatoes, a strong oregano/marjoram essence, and just a hint of garlic. Honestly, my first thought when I tasted the sauce was the herb being used was marjoram, but that would be such an unusual ingredient for a place like this to use. And since marjoram and oregano have similar flavor profiles, I'm willing to bet it is probably the latter. Next time I go, I'll find out for sure.

The cheese was plentiful and had a nice rich flavor to it. The pepperoni was nice, but the only criticism I could levy was that I wish it came with just a bit more of the topping. I suppose that's what double-toppings are for, right?

My large one topping came to $9 and had 8 slices, so it really only cost about $1.13 per slice, which is pretty economical. Two hungry adults could definitely finish off one of these guys. Next time I go back, I'll have to verify the answers to some of the questions I posed in this blog entry with the owners and try a pizza topped with meatballs instead of pepperoni.

If you happen to be in the Wadsworth area and are in the mood for a local pizza you can enjoy out in the fresh air at the park, definitely check out Tavanello and Sons.

Tavanello & Sons Pizza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sun Luck Garden: A Treat No Matter When You Go

I have eaten at Annie Chiu's Sun Luck Garden restaurant over the last several years and have really fallen in love with the quality and inventiveness of her food. She has an amazing eye for detail and accepts no shortcuts when it comes to what she serves in her restaurant. To boot she is always cheery and helpful and that infectiousness transfers nicely to her staff.

After a recent viewing of the New York Metropolitan Opera's The Audition (fabulous, by the way, if you ever have a chance to see it), my companion and I agreed that Sun Luck was to be our dining destination for the evening. Fortunately, my friend had the foresight to call ahead and make a reservation for us. Not ten minutes after we arrived (about 5:20 PM on a Sunday), the place was PACKED.

For starters, I had ordered hot tea. However, it was so noisy that my waiter misheard me and mistakenly brought me hot sake. Now, normally I would've sent it back, but it's been ages since I had a nice hot sake and decided instead to keep it. The sake came in a wonderful little porcelain serving vessel and matching cup:

While Annie has many wonderful soups on her menu, both my dining companion and I decided to go with the curry butternut squash soup. It is a clear broth (think Wonton soup) with dumplings that have a lovely curried butternut squash puree in them.

This was a heavenly cup of soup. The broth was seasoned perfectly and had a real depth of flavor. It was both salty and just slightly sweet, the way that pork can be if prepared correctly. The dumpling was also wonderful. There was just a kiss of curry in the butternut squash puree and the dumpling texture itself was just lovely. Cooked all the way through, with just a little resistance to the tooth.

Next up, we decided to split an appetizer. Although my friend highly recommended the crab rangoon, I was skeptical. I've eaten my fair share of crab rangoon and while I do occasionally come across one that I like, they are usually a disappointment. Not only did Annie's version not disappoint, but it sought to reinvent what a good crab rangoon should be:

The filling in these deep fried wrappers was uniquely Annie's. There was the bit of cream cheese and crab, but there was so much more. A bit of heat, a bit of herbs. And the dipping sauce wasn't the day-glo red sweet and sour sauce you find on every other Americanized Chinese restaurant menu. This was something unique ... sour, sweet, and something else ... akin to a good Nuoc Cham. My dining companion knew what the secret ingredient was and when I guessed, she was impressed and said, "Close!" I won't tell you the actual ingredient, because I want you, the gentle reader, to try this out for yourself and make your own guess. Don't worry, I'll tell you if you guess correctly!

Next up, the entrees. I've always wanted to order the Ma Pou Dofu at Sun Luck, but have just never gotten around to it. This time, I decided I had to have it. As I've learned from a previous visit to Sun Luck, if you want it with a decent amount of heat, you have to order it "Spicy, spicy!" Which is exactly what I did. And this is what was brought to the table:

Now, the unusual thing about Annie's Ma Pou Dofu presentation is that she chops the tofu finely instead of leaving them in larger cubes, which is how most other restaurants serve it. While looking a little unappetizing (I'll leave you to figure out what I mean by looking at the photo), it actually worked very well because everything was basically the same size as the rice. I put a little rice down on my plate, spooned over some Ma Pou Dofu, mixed it a bit with my chopsticks, and the result was marvelous! Salty, sweet (from the ground pork), appropriately spicy, and creamy from the tofu. My dining companion was equally as pleased with the result.

The other entree we ordered was something not even on the menu. Knowing the magic that Annie can create, my dining companion ordered a baby ginger and dark tofu dish. Here is what came out of the kitchen:

It's a little blurry, but this had mushrooms, sliced ginger, dark tofu, carrots, broccoli, and onions. Annie's dark tofu dishes are legendary among her devoted fans and there is a reason: it is amazingly delicious, even to meat eaters. If I had to become vegetarian or vegan, THIS is the dish I would order day in and day out. It was a mix of all thing savory, crispy, creamy, and meaty (without any meat, obviously).

Finally, it should be noted that Annie spent some time as a pastry chef. Her desserts, while not all necessarily true to her Asian heritage, are scrumptious and always worth a look. In fact, my dining companion actually wanted to know what the dessert specials were before ordering any of her food so that she could plan appropriately. From the desserts specials for the day, we ordered the homemade banana ice cream with hot fudge and a blood orange sorbet. That's Annie in the background:

I had the blood orange sorbet. It was the perfect way to end the meal as the acid from the blood oranges cuts through the heaviness of the previous courses. It was nicely balanced with sweet and sour and oddly enough, had much more of a granita-like texture than a sorbet. There were several other sorbet flavors available, but I know the short season for blood oranges and decided to give this one a go.

I also tried a spoonful of my friend's ice cream. It was everything you hoped for in a homemade ice cream. And the hot fudge sauce was rich and chocolate-y and wonderful. If it wasn't perishable, I would be encouraging Annie to bottle the stuff up and start selling it. She could have a successful side business with just that alone.

As her website indicates, Annie is interested in cooking contemporary Chinese cuisine. Starting with techniques and recipes from traditional cuisine and adapting them for the ingredients that are available to you, she serves up something that is unique and delicious. I'm just grateful that I get to eat it. Clearly, Sun Luck Garden is highly recommended.

Sun Luck Garden on Urbanspoon  Sun Luck Garden on Restaurantica

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ohio's First (and only) Certified Green Restaurant

That's right, gentle reader! The Greenhouse Tavern opened for business last week and tonight I and three of my friends descended upon the establishment for a tasting of their menu. Chef and owner Jonathon Sawyer has been blogging extensively about the renovation of the space for quite some time now (as well as posting photos up on Flickr), and it was finally great to be able to walk into the finished space and see the result of all of the hard work that he and his team put into the place to make his vision happen.

The premise of the GHT is that all of the food served is local, sustainable, and accessible. Jonathon started this tradition with the restaurant he was previously involved with, Bar Cento. With the GHT, he is blessed with not only a three level eatery, but when the roof space is finished (and there will be seating on the roof, too), he will grow some of the herbs and other greens he will be using in his kitchen. Seating right now consists of the basement, a ground floor, and two second floor eating areas (think mezzanine) on opposite ends of the restaurant. The basement space is a smaller "chef's" table area where the kitchen is located. There is also outdoor patio seating once the weather gets nicer (which was definitely not today).

GHT is located literally three doors down from Michael Symon's award winning Lola. Here is the brand new sign for the GHT:

We were seated on the first floor right next to the bar. Almost immediately, bread service began.

This is fresh bread and a very finely processed (in terms of texture) duck rillette. It took the place of butter and oil and when spread on the bread added a wonderfully unctuous and flavorful element. Having to make sure that the bread was up to snuff, I tried it without any rillette. The bread itself was quite good. Upon going down into the kitchen area after our meal I discovered that the bread they serve is cut from this wonderfully large loaf of round bread. Not a miche, but it looked like it was composed of individual dinner rolls that had been allowed to proof together and fuse. When baked, it made a marvelously large loaf of bread, perhaps three feet in diameter.

The GHT menu is surprisingly easy to navigate. It consists of a single page and has Firsts, Seconds, Thirds, and Halfs. Or, in regular-people-speak, small appetizers, regular appetizers, entrees, and side dishes. You are encouraged to mix and match however you'd like your meal to progress. There were between 4-6 dishes in each category and only two daily specials, so you won't feel overwhelmed with the number of choices. We decided to go with a mixture of five appetizers (Firsts, Seconds, and Halfs).

First, a daily special ... savory bread pudding with fried chicken livers on top:

This was delightful. The bread pudding was creamy, rich, and savory. And the surprise for all of our palettes was the addition of nutmeg. It added an almost "sweet" twist to the flavor profile of the pudding. And the chicken livers were completely amazing. Crispy, rich, livery, but not too livery. Eaten alone and then with the pudding it was marriage made in heaven. I could've eaten the entire dish alone if I had had the opportunity.

Next up were the breakfast radishes topped with creamery butter and simple sea salt. This was served with a dressed watercress salad:

I'm not a huge radish person, but these were amazing. The radishes were mild in flavor, but cold and crispy, the butter was creamy and delicious, and the little bit of salt on top just put the dish over the edge. There are so many layers going on at the same time. Texture, flavor, and temperature.

Next up was a dish that my dining companion Nancy was interested in trying, the cabbage gratin. Think of it like "French Onion soup without the soup part" was how someone had described it to her. The cabbage is joined with onions and caramelized to an inch of their life to create this incredibly rich dish that is then topped with cheese and put under the salamander until the cheese is bubbly and browned:

Next up, steak tartare with a poached egg, mustard, and cornichon served with grilled bread.

This was far better than I thought it was going to be. I'm not a huge steak tartare fan, but this was very good, especially when eaten with a bit of the mustard and some of the egg. Rich and fatty, the crispness from the bread and the sharpness of the mustard really brought this dish together for me.

Next up is the pommes frites with a poached egg and chervil:

One of Chef Sawyer's signature dishes at Bar Cento was the pommes frites. He has not only brought that knowledge with him to the GHT, but I think he has improved upon it. Pairing pommes frites with a soft poached egg may seem strange to the American palate, but when you got some potato and some egg in one bite, it was quite lovely. The one thing we discovered as we were digging through the frites was the presence of whole garlic cloves, crushed. This lent a "kiss of garlic" taste to the frites. The one thing that none of us really got was the chervil. Its flavor just wasn't there and visually, it didn't seem to be in the dish.

Okay, so we've finished our appetizers. Now it's time for the entrees. I decided to go with the Ohio burger with rosemary pommes frites and homemade vinegar.

When I go to establishments where I don't know about the quality or sourcing of the ground beef, I always order my burger medium well. Tonight, I was a trusting soul and ordered it medium. I was not disappointed. I have been on a quest for a good burger for a while now and just have yet to find a burger that truly satisfies my soul. My search ended tonight; this burger was divine. The burger actually came out just a shade less done than medium, but I decided to give it a go anyway. And I'm glad I did. Besides being savory, the thing that struck me about this burger was how juicy it was. And the grilled bun was a perfect foil for the meat and cheese. It was both crusty where it had been grilled and soft on the interior.

One of my friends decided to order the Tom Cod en Papillote. Inside the paper pouch was a wonderful sauce of wine, butter, and fresh black truffles. This also came with sliced potatoes (also cooked inside the pouch).

Apart from the actual butter used in the pouch, the fish itself was soft, creamy, and incredibly "buttery". Just melt in your mouth good.

Another friend ordered the buckwheat noodles with clams, tomato, and chili.

I tried a little bit of this as well and discovered why she ordered this tonight even though she had it previously. It was delicious. The noodles were cooked, but still had a nice bite to them. The clams, tomato, and chili were wonderful together, little bits of capricious heat distributing themselves throughout the plate of food.

Finally, we couldn't pass up dessert and I decided to have the Valrhona bittersweet chocolate Pot du Creme with a almond cookie dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel. (Nancy's Red Eye setting on her camera happened to click in just as I snapped this photo.)

The cookies and Pot du Creme are designed to be eaten together. What can I say about this dish. Heaven on a plate. Truly. The cookie complimented the Pot du Creme which complimented the cookie. This dessert is designed for the hardcore chocoholic out there. Of which I am a total fan. And given the cute presentation (there are two cups of Pot du Creme and two cookies), this is a dish that would entirely be appropriate to share with someone else.

Finally, after our meal (which took a good two hours from start to finish), we descended into the basement to check out the open kitchen and the chef's tables.

I feel that my review would be incomplete if I didn't include two details that some might find noteworthy. Chef Sawyer is very aggressive with seasoning. This was how he cooked at Bar Cento and this is how he cooks at the GHT. I personally don't think the food is too salty. But it is on the edge. He is definitely not afraid to use salt to bring out the best in the food he serves. I only mention this because I could definitely see a customer who was sensitive to salt having an issue with how the food leaves the kitchen. And seeing as there are no salt and pepper shakers on the tables, the food is meant to be eaten how it leaves the kitchen.

Second, unbeknownst to my little group of foodies, the Chef directed our server to comp our desserts. Now, we didn't know that at the time we ordered them, and I just want you, the gentle reader, to understand that while I certainly appreciate the gesture, I have in no way held back from what I really thought about my experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at the GHT. I will be going back soon. The prices are extremely reasonable for this quality of food, the food itself is marvelous, and I know that I am supporting a restaurant that cares about local farmers and purveyors and has adopted a sort of "do no evil" type of mentality. And that's the kind of place I want to support with my dining dollars. I hope that you do, too.
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