Friday, July 31, 2009

A Pre-Cursor to the eGullet Heartland Gathering

[Ed. Note: For the past three years I have attended a local(ish) annual gathering of fellow eGulleters who get together for food, fellowship, and fun. This year it's going to be in Kansas City and one of the organizers, Aaron D., asked if I would be willing to talk to a local reporter. Of course I agreed. Here is the email exchange that happened between the two of us.

This email was originally addressed to three of the attendees this year. I've changed just a few words so that it appears that it was only sent to me. Hopefully this will avoid any confusion. Names have also been shortened to protect the innocent.]

Hello Tom:

Aaron D. gave me your contact info because I'm preparing to hang out with you as you make your way through the KC food landscape. I'll be writing a magazine story. I'd be interested in getting a little information from you in advance, so I can get a sense for who some of you are and why you're so passionate about food that you'd make this annual trip. So....just tell me a bit about yourselves, your relationship to food and what you know or expect to find in Kansas City. Have you been here before?

I understand you have done all of the annual gatherings (true?): What keeps you coming back? What have you learned (about food, travel, specific locations?) in previous trips?

Anyway, I hope you're game for this. Looking forward to meeting you.

Steve Paul
Senior Writer and Arts Editor
The Kansas City Star

Steve –

What a pleasant surprise it is to meet you. When Aaron asked me if I'd be willing to talk a little bit about my past Heartland Gathering experiences, I truly felt honored. Before I go into your myriad of questions, I must first dispel the myth that I have been to all of the Heartland Gatherings that have been held: I have not. However, this will be my fourth annual gathering and I am just as excited about this one as I was about the first one I attended in Ann Arbor, MI.

A little bit of background about myself. I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH to study computer science. In fact, I hold a Bachelors of Science degree in Computer Science. With that degree, I've spent nearly my entire “real” career as a IT consultant and computer programmer. I do enjoy the technology side quite a bit and I suppose there will always be part of me that needs to geek out from time to time, but I have really gotten to a point in this career where I need something else to occupy my time, even if it is part-time and unpaid.

Back in 2006, I enrolled in the Western Reserve School of Cookery located in Hudson, OH. I've slowly progressed through their culinary program and I have one pastry class left before I finish their program. While I'll be the first to admit that the school is not even close to being as rigorous as an actual culinary school where you go full-time for 16 or 18 months, the WRSoC has allowed me to take the classes when I had the time to do so and when I could afford them.

As part of this transition period, I also started catering part-time, mostly small parties for friends. The largest party I've ever catered with just myself was a 50 person wedding reception. I was doing between 1 and 2 events per month while still holding down the day job as a computer programmer. This went on for a while until about mid-2008 when the economic downturn really started to grab hold of people's pocketbooks. Just like that everything catering related has seemed to dry up.

At first I was a little distressed about losing my outlet for being involved in food, but after reading a friend's food-related blog one day, I thought to myself that this might just be a nice way to use the right half of my brain to express my inner foodie. Honestly, when I started my blog, it really was just for me. I figured I'd get a handful of my foodie friends and maybe some family members following along. I started writing back in December 2008 and have continued with roughly 3 articles released per week about whatever strikes my fancy, most always food-related. Most of them are anonymous reviews of restaurants that I have eaten at or want to try, but there are a few cooking-related ones thrown in there as well. And you can be certain that I will be writing about my upcoming weekend in Kansas City. I'll include some links at the end of this in case you want to check it out (hopefully I'm not being too presumptuous).

As for eGullet, I joined back in January of 2006. At first I was a lurker, only reading what others had to say. My forte is breadmaking and that forum was where I started making comments, slowly at first. Even when you are a die hard foodie, you quickly realize that there are people even more hardcore than yourself, and the last thing you want to do is make a stupid or incorrect comment. So I played it safe for a while. When I saw that there was a planning thread for a Heartland Gathering to be held in Ann Arbor, MI in early August, I realized that 1) this would be a cool way to meet some actual people who had a similar interest and 2) no one had offered to bring any bread. So with only two weeks before the event, I stated my intentions and pledged to bring bread.

Interestingly enough, I was fine with this until the night before I was set to leave. I was in my kitchen making the breads I would be taking with me to Ann Arbor the next day and the sudden wave of realization washed over me: I was taking my pride and joy to a group of people with highly trained palates. What if they poo-poo'd it? I knew my bread was good, but was it good enough? At that point I had committed to going and half of the bread was already baked, so I figured I'd throw caution to the wind and just go for it. I'm so glad I did.

What I took away from that first gathering was a sense of community, of shared responsibility, of the love for doing things the slow way – the right way. The idea that if you take the time to get to know the farmer and the products he or she is offering and in season, your food will simply taste better. The idea that while it's enough for most people to throw flour, water, yeast and salt into their automatic bread maker and let the machine produce a loaf of fresh bread for them, if you take a little time and take the bread maker out of the equation, fresh bread can be elevated from nourishment for the body to nourishment for the soul. And these people understood that. It's as if I had been speaking a foreign language to everyone around me all of my life and for the first time, someone could speak back because they understood what I was saying.

What brings me back every year is not the expectation that everything I put in my mouth is going to be succulent and perfectly seasoned, but that people are making a concerted effort to be conscious about the food they are putting into their own bodies as well as the bodies of relatives and friends. The fact that I have made so many good “real” friends and not just ethereal Internet-based usernames just adds to my need to come back year after year. Kansas City is definitely the farthest I've traveled to go to an event, but even with me only being able to attend Saturday and Sunday's events, I am confident that I will find what I am looking for.

Unfortunately, I've never been to Kansas City. Even more unfortunately, given my limited time in Kansas City this weekend, I won't get to experience the Kansas City food experience that Aaron and Judy have worked so hard to prepare for everyone. Probably the furthest west I've been in the “Heartland” was St. Louis back in the mid-90's. Back then I was just a budding “foodie”. At the time I thought as I'm sure most people think, good food must mean expensive food. But, of course, over the years I've evolved to the point where I understand that a “foodie” can be just as happy eating the best cheeseburger in a 90 mile radius for $6 as well as doing the twenty-six course tasting menu (The Tour) at Alinea in Chicago and spending $300 to do it.

To address the “what have I learned” question you originally asked, and not to sound glib, but, pace yourself. Seriously. The dinner on Saturday actually begins with noshing much earlier in the day and you will continue to eat until about 9 or 10 pm. You will get to a point where you want to eat more, to try just one more taste, but the physical pain will finally make you want to cry, “Uncle!” On a more serious note, what I've learned from all three Heartland Gatherings I've attended (Ann Arbor, Cleveland, and Chicago) is that the camaraderie of cooking and sharing a meal together is the best way to bring people together and create a common bond. There are no racial, ethnic, sexist, or homophobic boundaries. We are all there as a group, doing what we all love to do.

I hope that my little diatribe has successfully answered some of your questions. If you have something specific you'd like me to talk about, please feel free to email me back and let me know.

While you are of course free to peruse any article on my blog, I've picked out a couple that I think are representative of my style and what I am trying to achieve.

Cocktail Nirvana at the Velvet Tango Room

Kismet Is a Thing of Beauty

Passover Seder, Pt. I

I think I strive to accomplish one thing in my writing: To tell a good story from a particular point of view. I'm fortunate that the blogging medium allows me to use both pictures and words to hopefully achieve that goal. It's hard enough remembering all the details about the food itself. Having to remember all of the other salient details of a restaurant visit like the d├ęcor and ambiance might just drive one to walking around with a notepad constantly (or I suppose in this day and age, a netbook).

I look forward to meeting you on Saturday.

Best wishes,
Tom Noe

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Getting A Good Burger At The National Hamburger Festival

This is going to be a long post. Enjoy!

I'm always in the mood for a good festival, especially one that focuses on food. The problem I find at most festivals, however, is that there are usually only one or two vendors selling food that is related to the main theme and a ton of other vendors selling food that has nothing to do with the theme. Cuyahoga Falls hosts a number of these festivals every summer and whether it is the Irish Festival, the Italian Festival, or the German Festival, plenty of elephant ears, burritos, and gyros can be found strewn throughout the festival space.

It was at the suggestion of my friend and fellow food blogger Kathy that we meet up for the 4th Annual National Hamburger Festival held right here in Akron, Ohio. She and her husband had attended the first two years of the festival but had missed last year's festivities. While the weather forecast did call for rain, fortunately we were spared Mother Nature's wrath, at least while we were there. And in fact, the weather was quite nice, mid-70's with a gentle breeze that kept the sweating to a minimum.

The festival has been held every year in Akron's Lock 3 park right on Main Street. The event organizers also cordoned off Main Street between University and Church Streets for the food vendors. Here is a shot of the banner as I approached the entrance at University Street:

While I know what this sign is supposed to say, doesn't the word "STOP" with the circle and line through it actually take on the opposite meaning ... "Don't STOP"? But I digress.

Once inside you approach the Food Ticket stand and purchase $1 tickets in whatever amount you wish:

I've seen this approach used at many festivals in the past and I suppose this works on two levels. First, vendors don't have to worry about maintaining a cash box or running out of $10 or $5 bills. Second, by parting with your money up front and receiving paper tickets, you are more prone to experience the "credit card" effect; that is, you don't really feel like you are spending money, just tickets, so you tend to spend more. However, the concern I have with the ticketing system is that generally you don't get refunds for unused tickets. Thus, if you buy $15 in tickets and only use $12, you end up with three fairly expensive pieces of paper to take home with you.

Because I had gotten there prior to Kathy and her husband, I decided to walk down Main Street and check out the various vendors. First up, White Castle:

They were selling their sliders for 1 ticket each, making them the cheapest place to get a burger. Oddly enough, other than the guy in the gray t-shirt, there was no else in line for these. Hmmm, I wonder why.

Further down the road, I noticed an enormous line that had formed for the Windsor Pub stand:

The sheer length of the line amazed all three of us. While none of us had ever eaten at this Tallmadge-based pub, clearly the line indicated that they must be doing something right. Or perhaps people just assumed that if there was a line, whatever is at the end of that line MUST be good. While none of us actually had the burger from the Windsor, we actually agreed that at some point in the near future, we needed to venture to the actual establishment and try one out.

The first burger I decided to try was from the Midway Oh Boy cart based out of Elyria, Ohio:

For some reason, the cart and the description of the burger evoked my memory of Swenson's. Not that I was expecting Swenson's, but it had that sort of local mom-and-pop type feel to it. Their signature sandwich is the Oh Boy, but for the same amount of tickets, I could get three sliders (called Baby Boys) that were identical to the Oh Boy, just smaller. Since there were three of us, I figured it would be the best way for all of us to give it a try.

Here is a picture of the Baby Boys:

These were so-so. The "sauce" that was advertised on the menu was really more of a doctored up mayonnaise and there was quite a bit of it on the burgers. So much that it become kind of a hindrance when trying to eat the burger as big gobs of it kept oozing out of the sides when you took a bite. The bun was fresh and lightly grilled, but the meat had a very odd texture to it. It was sort of compressed, for lack of a better term. It reminded me very much of the texture of a breakfast sausage patty. When ordering my Baby Boys, the woman taking my tickets did give me a 10% off coupon for their actual store in Elyria. I think I may hold onto it and stop in to give them a formal review some time in the future.

The second burger I decided to have was at the stand Crave Restaurant was working:

This was the other burger vendor that had as long a line as the Windsor Pub did. The difference, however, was that Crave had won several of the professional burger tasting categories the day before; the Windsor hadn't won any. Crave was also different in that they were offering pre-set burgers. In other words, you couldn't get a burger done "your way". There were three different burgers from which you could choose:

I decided to go with the Prairie Dog burger and my friend Kathy went for the Muffaletta burger. Each was a 4 ounce burger and cost 3 tickets. Once you made your order and paid your tickets, you moved to the right where the food was being assembled:

I have to say that these guys were operating like a well oiled machine. The guy in charge of grilling the burgers in the back would pass the finished ones to the guys in the assembly area. Here the various cheeses and toppings were added, wrapped up and handed to the customers. Even though the line was long for Crave, once I placed my order and moved to the pick-up area, I probably only waited about two minutes before my burger was ready.

The three of us took our burgers and walked to a tented area with tables closer to the Lock 3 stage. Here is a shot of my Prairie Dog burger wrapped:

And unwrapped:

The Prairie Dog burger had a mixture of American and Pepper Jack cheeses, grilled salami, spicy 1000 Island dressing, and fried onions. While this was much better than the Baby Boys I had eaten from Midway, this still didn't come across as a remarkable burger. Presentation issues aside (they were producing these at a very rapid pace), the flavor combination just seemed a little odd to me, especially the grilled salami. The spice level of the 1000 Island dressing was nice and added a dimension of flavor that was missing in my first burger. This wasn't a bad burger per se, it just occurred to me as I was standing there eating this that if this was the winner, do I even want to try the losers?

As we walked the entire length of the food carts, I was struck by an observation: no gyros, no burritos, no elephant ears! The organizers had wisely decided to make this festival about one thing, hamburgers and their various forms. In fact, none of the hamburger vendors were even allowed to sell drinks. That being said, there were some other carts available for non-hamburger purchases.

First up, WaffleMan and his hot waffle and ice cream sandwiches:

While this sounds like a good idea in theory, all three of us wondered how you would hold onto the hot waffle without burning yourself.

As with almost any festival or carnival you go to, the variety of fried foods was abundant:

The next cart was more specialized, French fries and freshly-squeezed lemonade:

By the time I got around to the next cart, I had pretty much already eaten my fill and was looking to leave the festival, but I thought I would stop and chat:

When I saw an Akron, Ohio location printed on the side of the cart, I figured they actually had a real building where they sold their ice cream and gelato. Unfortunately, this cart was all there was. The address on the side of the cart was actually for a refrigeration company, which the cart proudly displayed at the various festivals and carnivals it attended. So, sadly, I didn't and probably won't have a chance to sample their goodies until next year, assuming that they return.

The final non-hamburger stand I saw that looked interesting was this one in which a cooking demonstration was going on:

I didn't linger too long listening to the presentation going on under the tent, but I did manage to hear Rachel Ray's name bantered about, so who knows what they were talking about.

The final topic I wanted to cover in this post was the amateur burger tasting competition sponsored by the Akron Beacon Journal. There were two categories with five contestants in each category. You can read about the different finalists and get recipes in the Beacon article here. The competition was located right down at the Lock 3 stage. Here is another shot of a banner for the hamburger festival:

To the left of the banner is the stage where the judges sat and to the right is the grilling area where the contestants had to make their award-worthy entries. Here are a couple of photos of the grilling area:

It turned out that the woman in the orange tank top in the above photo was a relative of a friend of mine who was also in attendance. She had submitted the Farmers Market Bison Burger in the non-traditional category. Unfortunately, she only received third place.

The judges sat at the opposite end of the stage and awaited the presentation of the burgers to begin:

Judging today were (from left to right) chef Catherine St. John, owner of the Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson; chef David Russo, owner of Russo's restaurant in Peninsula; chef Louis Prpich, owner of Akron's Creative Catering; and Tom Loraditch, executive chef for the West Point Market in Akron. They didn't talk during the judging, but did share some words with the contestants and the audience before the winners were announced.

Finally, all ten finalists on stage eagerly awaiting the news of who won in each category:

So who won? In the traditional burger category, the Peppy Burger won. In the non-traditional category, the Asian Salmon and Shrimp Burger won. Unfortunately, the only people to try any of these burgers were the judges, so I can't really comment on their flavor. However, since the recipes were published in the Beacon, perhaps you can try them out for yourself.

With two different burgers in my stomach and a burger tasting contest under my belt, I decided it was time to pack up and move on. While some things impressed me about my experience at the 4th Annual National Burger Festival, my actual burger eating experience left me a bit underwhelmed. That being said, I do have a date with my friends to try out the Windsor Pub's burger sometime soon, so maybe there is hope for redemption.

I encourage all of my readers out there to support your local establishments, burger or otherwise. I know that attending today's festivities has at least given me several other places to try, and that's always a great outcome. Who wants to help me spend my 10% discount coupon at Midway Oh Boy?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Apocalypse Now: When the Foodies Descend

Gentle reader, if it helps to put you in the right frame of mind, please feel free to start humming Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries.

After my last visit to Vaccaro's Trattoria in Akron, I knew that I needed to introduce my Cleveland friends to the talents of Chef Mike Ferris. The meal had been an amazingly delicious surprise and I was completely blown away by the entire experience. It was with great enthusiasm that I sent out emails and made reservations with Vaccaro's for an intimate dinner for eight people. There were actually supposed to be ten of us, but one of the couples misread the name of the restaurant and went to Trattoria in Little Italy in Cleveland instead. Oops!

When we finally all sat down, I decided to start with a nice glass of wine from the wonderfully constructed by-the-glass wine list. I originally asked for a glass of syrah, but our wine steward for the evening, Martin, informed me that they were out of that selection and suggested I try this instead:

This was a shiraz and grenache blend called Slipstream and is from McLaren Vale vineyards in Australia. It was a very nice wine, not too dry and not too sweet with a lovely bouquet of cherries and plums. An excellent substitution for the wine I had originally picked.

When I called to make the initial reservations at Vaccaro's, I spoke with the chef and he asked if our party wanted to do a tasting menu. I indicated that as this was the first time visiting for my guests, they would probably just order off of the regular menu (and their daily specials), but he should feel free to put something together if he wanted. From my last visit I knew that the kitchen was absolutely fine with some people ordering off the menu and others participating in the four course tasting menu. Sure enough, the chef did put together a tasting menu for tonight's dinner. Here is a shot of the menu (notice whose tasting menu it is):

I officially have my own tasting menu now. I think I might just have to frame that and put it up on my wall. As you can see from the menu, there were four courses paired with four wines and this was only $40 per person. Truly an outstanding value! After hearing the amazing dinner specials for the day, our table was evenly split: four of us decided to order off the menu and four of us decided to give Chef Mike's tasting menu a try.

After placing our orders, the bread service started:

And while I didn't ask last time I visited whether the bread was homemade, this time I did. It turns out that the foccacia served at the restaurant is made in-house. The other two, equally as good as the foccacia, are actually sourced from two separate bakeries, Orlando and Stone Oven. Paired with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and grated Parmesan cheese dip that was prepared tableside, this really whetted our appetites for what was to come.

First on the tasting menu was a skewered phyllo and prosciutto wrapped shrimp:

This was dramatically served with a savory apricot chutney and a balsamic honey port wine reduction. Cooked to perfection, the crispy flaky phyllo dough protected the wonderful salty sweet flavors of the prosciutto and shrimp on the inside. The apricot chutney and the gastrique that lined the plate added wonderful sweet and sour notes to the dish. A wonderful way to start the meal, to be sure.

Paired with the first course was a light, crisp white wine:

This was a Pace Arnies. Our wine steward had decided to not only pair each of our courses with a wine from Italy, but also a specific region from within the country, Piedmonte. The slight acid of the wine helped to cut through the fattiness of the phyllo dough and prosciutto and definitely enhanced the flavor.

Next up was the salad course. A dining companion allowed me to shoot her Insalata Mista with balsamic vinaigrette:

I didn't actually taste this, but the person who ordered it said it was very, very good. This is the salad that I received as my second course:

Placed in front of me was an Asian pear and nut salad with field greens, fresh berries and toasted goat cheese dressed with a champagne vinaigrette. The nuts, pecans in this case, had been candied and then dusted with cinnamon. Just like the last salad I had at Vaccaro's, this one played on the many flavor elements and textures to achieve its success. The vinaigrette was again perfectly applied to the salad so that it was always present in every bite, but not overdressed.

Paired with my salad was our second wine of the evening, the Gavi Di Gavi. Unfortunately, the photo I took was too fuzzy to use here, so you'll just have to order yourself a glass the next time you go to see for yourself. Also from Piedmonte, this was another crisp white wine, this one with a little more sweetness to it. A wonderfully balanced wine, this went particularly well with the goat cheese in the salad.

The third course of the tasting menu was a smoked Moulard duck breast. Here is a photo:

The duck breast was hot smoked and then seared rare. This was served with grilled leak and duck confit mashed potatoes, braised kale and apple braised red cabbage, and a creamy black currrent demi glace (the sauce appears to be brushed onto the plate underneath the duck). The duck was perfectly smoked and cooked. I usually like my duck breast more of a medium rare than rare, but tonight's duck was tender, juicy, and delicious; so no complaints from me or the other diners who got to enjoy this dish. The braised kale and red cabbage added a wonderful bit of acidity to cut through some of the fattiness of the duck. The black current demi glace tied in nicely with the wine pairing for this course (which I'll talk about next). The only problem with this course was the leak and duck confit mashed potatoes. They were too salty. Certainly not inedible, but after tasting course after course of perfectly seasoned food, it was completely noticeable to all four of us who ate this that the seasoning was too aggressive. I'm going to hazard a guess and suggest that the potatoes were made in one batch and then divided onto the four plates for our table.

The wine that was paired with the duck was a Nebbiolo Barbara blend from what is known as a "Super" Piedmonte region of Italy. It went together with the duck really very well and complimented the smoky flavor that Chef Mike had managed to infuse into the duck. One of the tasters thought it was the best pairing so far. The wine was a bit dry and very laid back. The flavor was not aggressive at all. As I already mentioned, the black current demi glace used on the plate brought out the fruit in the wine as well.

Finally we came to the fourth course, dessert. I was pleased to see a riff off the Panne Fritti on the regular dessert menu show up:

These were freshly fried donuts served with lemon curd, raspberry coulis and chocolate sauce. This was a perfect way to end the meal. Warm, sweet, tart, and chocolate-y. The flavors paired very well with out last wine, a Moscato di Asti:

The Moscato brought wonderful aromas of apple, honey, and vanilla to the party. Although this was a dessert wine, it wasn't overly sweet, which was nice. Along with a nice cup of black coffee, this was a wonderfully pleasing way to finish up the meal. I alternated between a sip of wine, a bite of donut and a gulp of wonderfully bitter coffee. Chef Mike came out one last time to check in on us and see how our meal had gone. The group asked him several questions about the various food we had been served tonight and everyone was in agreement that we had a wonderful experience tonight.

Afterwards, I thought it would be helpful to get additional feedback from some of the guests who had ordered off the regular menu.

* One diner ordered the grilled calamari with fresh tomatoes and pesto oil and absolutely raved about how good it was. She said it was the best calamari she had ever had.

* Another diner ordered the Pan Roasted Wild Striped Bass with orange and grilled fennel farro risotto with sauteed arugula and mandarin orange cream. Only she ordered it without the fish (which was absolutely not a problem for the kitchen). She also proclaimed her total love of this dish (which, without the bass was simply more just a plate of farro done in a risotto style).

* A diner ordered one of Friday's specials, the New Zealand rack of lamb. She said that the flavor was exquisite and it paired perfectly with a glass of Malbec that she had ordered, but her lamb was just a touch overdone at medium; she asked for it medium rare. Although sending it back to the kitchen was certainly an option, she choose not to and ate it instead.

* Finally, two of the non-tasting menu diners each ordered the Lasagna al Carne (shown below ... thanks to my friend Stuart for this photo (also released under a Creative Commons license). Check out his photos here). One thought it was wonderful and the other thought it was a little too salty.

Now, gentle reader, before you get all defensive and accuse us of being hypercritical, I want to reiterate that every single diner that I talked with after the meal said that they had a wonderful time and would definitely come back if and when I schedule another dinner at Vaccaro's. Speaking on the tasting menu alone, Chef Mike managed to marry a lot of complex flavors and cooking techniques to produce this menu. If the only negative thing that I can say is that one component of one dish out of four was a little too salty, I think that says much more about what Chef Mike did right than what he did wrong.

I remain excited about this fine Italian restaurant right here in my own back yard. Of course I will continue to patronize those Cleveland establishments that I've grown to love over the last three years, but now I know that I don't have to travel very far if I want a taste of something refined, elegant, and most importantly, delicious.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stick To The Basics and You'll Be Fine

On the recommendation of a colleague I decided to check out a local place that reportedly serves very good homemade pasta. Jimmy's, located at 4262 Portage Street NW in Norton Canton, OH 44720, 330-494-9096, looks like an old Wendy's fast food restaurant that has been converted into its present form, complete with a rear patio. The sign out front not only shows the marquee for the restaurant, but also any daily specials.

Here is what you will see from the roadside:

Once inside, I found a table that would have access to some of the sunlight from the outside streaming through the blinds. Unfortunately, it also had the effect of making the menu somewhat hard to photograph well.

Here is a shot of the front of the menu:

And a shot of the back:

And a close-up of the dinners / entrees:

While I would normally get something like the chicken Parmesan, I decided to branch out and get the chicken piccata with a side of pasta and their house red sauce. I figured I would get to try both their homemade pasta and sauce as well as something a little different as well. At $17 it felt a little pricey, but I proceeded to order it anyway.

After a few minutes, my server brought out a bread basket and my salad. First up, a shot of the bread:

And while this bread wasn't homemade, my server indicated that it came from a local bakery. It had a lovely smell and flavor to it. It was essentially a seeded Italian loaf that was sliced into nice thick pieces. It wasn't dried out in the least. And while I didn't have a chance to ask, I'm almost positive that the croutons on the salad I received

were made in-house from this bread because they tasted so fresh and delicious. While Jimmy's offers several varieties of salad dressing, only the the house Italian vinaigrette is homemade. Other than the croutons, the salad was nothing out of the ordinary. While the vinaigrette was seasoned properly, it didn't really pop in my mouth.

After finishing my salad, my entree and side of pasta came out. First up, a shot of the entree:

When this was set down in front of me, I was in shock. In perhaps a bit of foreshadowing that Jimmy's used to be a Wendy's, a bit of TV past came back to haunt my thoughts in the form of Clara. Those who remember her from Wendy's commercials from the late 1980's and her iconic question will know to what I am referring. For a minute I stared at my plate and literally thought, "Where's the beef?" Or, I suppose more appropriately, where's the chicken? For $17, I expected about twice the portion I had been served.

Now, I will concede that the chicken was very tender and moist. But that's where the love stops for this dish. The chicken had been dipped in an egg and batter and then pan-seared. Traditionally, chicken piccata is lightly floured and pan-seared. What I had been served was actually chicken Tosca. They used to do a marvelous version at Carrie Cerino's in North Royalton, Ohio using veal instead of chicken. Some might argue that an egg and batter dipped chicken can also be chicken piccata as well, but in my mind there is a distinct delineation between the two methods of preparation. Nomenclature issues aside, the biggest issue I had with this dish (besides the portion size) was that there was just too much sauce for the platter.

As was quickly evidenced by the cooling sauce, the sauce proceeded to get lumpy and oily at the same time: the butter was falling out of emulsion and the gelatin in the chicken stock was beginning to solidify. Here is a shot of the broken sauce:

There was literally more butter than finished sauce on my plate. I don't know if they tried to emulsify too much butter into the final sauce and it split as it cooled or if they heated the sauce too high after incorporating the butter. Either way, this was a gloopy mess and really detracted from the nicely cooked breast.

The one shining star of the dinner was the side of pasta:

The homemade angelhair pasta was at the same time tender and yet had just a slight firmness to it when bit, a perfect al dente. While the red sauce was definitely tomato-based, it was clear that after the homemade meatballs were cooked off, they were nestled in with the tomato sauce and simmered for a while to infuse flavor. I didn't get a meatball with my pasta, but I was fortunate to discover a small piece of one lying at the bottom of the plate. I just managed to put two and two together.

The last thing I wanted to mention was the service. While there was only one server in the bar area, there were really only three or four tables at any given time that she needed to take care of during my visit. While the food didn't feel rushed, my server gave off the impression that she was rushed. She'd come over to take my order and the minute it came out of my mouth she was gone before I had a chance to ask her any questions. Maybe that was just her style. I guess what surprised me is that I didn't feel engaged as a customer.

With the portions that I was given, I did manage to eat my entire meal and left full. However, for $17, I expected to have enough food that I could've taken home half for lunch the next day. From a food value perspective, Jimmy's did a poor job.

Jimmy's food was hit and miss. The bread was nice and the homemade croutons added a necessary bright note to the salad. The chicken breast was very moist and the side of pasta and red sauce was quite tasty. But, the absolutely pitiful state of the piccata sauce and the fact that I wasn't even really served chicken picatta go a long way toward my recommendation of sticking with the homemade pastas and avoiding some of the entrees.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Nice Day Trip to Limburg's Patio Grill

While talking about restaurants to try, a good friend of mine suggested that I try out his uncle's place connected with the Coshocton Airport. Apparently it is a very small and seasonal grilling place that offers simple, but tasty food. Having just eaten there the previous week with his family, he assured me that the burgers were excellent and the ice cream even better. Having a completely open Sunday, I thought today would be the perfect opportunity to try Limburg's Patio Grill located at the Richard Downing Airport (aka the Coschocton Airport).

The address I found on-line for the airport is 24569 Airport Road, Coschocton, Ohio 43812. That being said, Google Maps couldn't make heads or tails of that address. Therefore, I'll give you the quickie directions. Take I-77 south past New Philadelphia. Get off on State Route 36 heading west towards Coshocton. Once you pass State Route 621, look for Airport Road (there is a sign for it). At the light, make a right onto Airport Road and follow the heavily wooded, twisty and turny road up the hill for about a half-mile. Suddenly the trees will part and you will have found the airport. A good sign that you've made it is when you see this marker:

There is ample parking around the airport and I choose to park in the outer lot because most of the closer spots were already taken (ominous foreshadowing, I suppose). From here you could see several of the parked aircraft:

As I walked toward the main building, my confidence was bolstered that I was at the right place when I saw this sign:

And right next to that sign was a sign hanging on the fence that only served to reinforce how fleeting this little "restaurant" actually was:

Clearly this is a limited-time summer treat. Only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday hours and even those didn't start until June 13th. I didn't have a chance to ask when they close up shop for the year, but my guess would be sometime in August. I walked around the corner following my nose as a guide only to discover that to my horror, apparently everyone from Coshocton had shown up and gotten in line just before me:

One thing as a Sunday restaurant go-er you always needs to be conscious of is the post-church crowd. Clearly they were out and in-force today as all the people in their nice clothing and the little girls in their Sunday dresses were here for some backyard grilled food. While I was slightly annoyed that I picked the exact moment when everyone was going to order, it also gave me a chance (actually about 30 minutes worth of chances) to do some people watching and as I got closer, to start observing the operations going on in the restaurant ... er, tent. Yes, everything from taking orders to cooking and plating food was all being done under this one large tent. As I got closer, I got a better idea of how the service was going:

As I got close to the front of the line, I took a gander at the posted menu to the left of the tent:

(c) Copyright 2009, Dale Limburg. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The menu is extremely simple: hamburgs (to use their vernacular) and cheeseburgs, double hamburgs and double cheeseburgs, hot dogs with optional coney sauce or sauerkraut, grilled chicken breast sandwich, and something called a Patio Grill Salad. There were no fried sides like french fries, but you could get cole slaw, baked beans, and bagged chips. There was sweetened and unsweetened fresh brewed iced tea and a soda fountain with five or six different choices of nationally branded sodas (Coke, Diet Coke, etc.).

In trying to figure out exactly how the ordering / picking up of food transaction was to take place, I noticed that to the left side of the tent, people were picking up their food on plastic trays and taking them to one of the many picnic tables available. But the one thing I really noticed was this one woman in a green shirt and khaki pants who seemed to be at that counter an awful lot. Realizing that there were a lot of families there today, I figured she had put in a huge order and was dutifully picking up finished food and taking it back. After a while of seeing her do this, however, I actually thought to myself, "Jeez, lady, how much food did you order?!?"

By the time I got to the front of the line, I had figured out that when you order your food, they give you a little card with a letter or symbol on it. You take that card and find a spot to sit. When your food is ready, they bring the food to you. The woman who I had originally thought was ordering enough food to feed an army was actually WORKING for the restaurant. Okay, mystery solved. I placed my order and was given my card. Today I was the letter 'L':

I took my card and found a picnic table at the opposite end of the tent. A perfect spot to watch the goings on of the grilling area:

Everything is essentially done on two grills, one for meats and one for toasting buns. Speaking of the buns, I should mention that the hot dog buns they use are extremely unusual for this area. Well, really, any part of Ohio. Instead of using what most of us think of as hot dog buns, they actually use a New England lobster roll, similar to this picture. All the buns are buttered and then subsequently grilled.

While sitting at my table watching the various workers doing their jobs, I almost noticed a no-no, but the owner, Mr. Limburg, actually caught himself before making it. The chicken breasts are kept in the cooler marinating in a large bucket of what looked to be Italian dressing of some kind. There were tongs associated specifically with the chicken breasts. There were also tongs used for grilled meats that were hung over the end of the grill. When Mr. Limburg reached in to grab the bucket of chicken, the "chicken" tongs fell onto the ground, obviously contaminating them. Instinctively, he went to grab a second pair of tongs to transfer the raw chicken to the grill, the "already grilled meat" tongs. However, as soon as he touched the "grilled meat" tongs, he immediately realized his error and instead used a gloved hand to reach into the bucket and grab the number of chicken breasts he needed. He then discarded the used glove and got a new one. The problem was that once he used the pair of tongs that were for only cooked meats to transfer raw chicken breast, they were now potentially contaminated. Had he then touched a cooked burger or hot dog right afterward, he could've potentially caused salmonella poisoning because of cross contamination from the raw chicken. Excellent save on his part.

After about another twenty minutes or so, my food finally arrived. A shot of the large unsweetened iced tea that I sipped on slowly while waiting for my food:

And a shot of the two sides that I ordered with my burger:

First let's talk about the cole slaw:

This slaw was strange to me. It wasn't that it was bad; it wasn't. But the dressing used to make the slaw really had no discernible character of its own. Normally most of the flavor comes from the dressing and the cabbage and carrots are there for the textural contrast. In this case, the dressing was so mild that I could actually taste the cabbage. And raw cabbage definitely has a very subtle flavor. I tried bite after bite of this to try and nail down whether I liked this version or not. I will simply say that I was wholly intrigued by it. My perception up to this point is that I prefer dressings with a bit more vinegar, sugar, and salt. This was lacking in all three. I certainly have never found cole slaw that tasted like this.

Next, let's talk about the baked beans:

These were nice. Nothing out of the ordinary, but hot and creamy and delicious. They had that nice sort of brown sugar / molasses / tomato sauce flavor combination to them. They also had a nice amount of sauce and weren't overcooked at all. I would definitely order this as a side dish again.

Finally, the reason I had driven 90 minutes to get here, the double cheeseburg:

I had ordered mine with ketchup, mustard, and pickles. The pickles they added directly to the bun before putting the meat on top. The other condiments, however, were my responsibility (if you look closely in the above photo, you can see the packets of mustard and ketchup peeking out from behind the burger on the left). Upon taking off the crown, I discovered a nicely buttered and toasted bun:

When my friend was telling me about the burgers at Limburg's, he mentioned that they are grilled to order. Not exactly. They are grilled only after you order. All the burgers are cooked the same way: done. There is no ordering your burger cooked medium well or medium rare. Also, don't make the same mistake that I did, a double cheeseburg is a large sandwich. Each of the patties was easily 1/3 of a pound. I didn't actually manage to eat the entire sandwich, although I did get through most of it.

The burger itself was seasoned well. The meat was thoroughly cooked, but just a tad bit dry. The ketchup and mustard I applied helped a bit, but I found myself going back to my iced tea just a bit too often. The meat had a wonderful smoky flavor from the grill and the grilled bun stood up excellently to the enormousness of the sandwich. The bun itself was nice and fresh as well. This certainly isn't the best burger I've ever had, but it was a decent example. I would say that this level of burger is what I would expect at a back yard BBQ at the neighbor's house. A neighbor who knew how to properly season food and cook the burgers until they were totally safe to eat. And I suppose I have to at least say that if I was grilling burgers for my closest 200 friends in my back yard, I don't imagine that I'd be grilling them to specific temperatures either. You'd get your choice of "done" or "done", which would you like? That being said, if you were in my back yard and I was grilling you a burger, I wouldn't be asking you to pay for it either. So there is that to keep in mind.

Part of the charm of Limburg's Patio Grill is its location at the airport. While you sit lounging in the sun, you get to watch planes come and go:

A real crowd-pleaser, a helicopter landing directly on the parking area for the planes drew lots of attention from the crowd:

Honestly, I had the theme song from Magnum, P.I. running through my head while watching this helicopter swoop in and land on the ground. I half expected Tom Selleck to come climbing out of the cockpit. Alright, gentle reader, I hear you, enough with the 80's flashback.

One of the other reasons for my visit was to experience a unique Ohio-based company, The Velvet Ice Cream Company, and some of their flagship products. They had eight different flavors from which to choose, and after carefully considering my options, I decided on a small bowl of the Buckeye Classic:

And a closer shot:

This was marvelous! Studded with bits of the Buckeye candies, the veins of chocolate-y fudge and creamy vanilla ice cream, this was a mouthful of flavor from the first bite to the very last. The fact that this dish of ice cream was only $1.25 also made my wallet very happy, too. I was hoping to try some other flavors of Velvet ice cream while I was there, but with that very large burger, my sides, and my small ice cream, I was absolutely stuffed. I felt a food coma quickly approaching. I returned to the now much shorter line and got a free refill on my iced tea, hopped in my car and headed back down Airport Road preparing for my return trip to Akron.

While lunch certainly wasn't a short affair, I really did enjoy my time at the airport. Well, except for the slight sunburn I am now sporting on my arms and neck. It honestly never occurred to me that I might be sitting out in the sun at the hottest part of the day. I'm not sure when their "slow" hours are, but I can certainly tell you it isn't at 12:30 pm on a Sunday afternoon. The hours were posted in an earlier photo, but I'll provide them here so you don't have to go scrolling upwards in order to find them. They are open on Fridays from 5 - 8 PM, Saturdays from 11 AM - 8 PM, and Sundays from 11 AM - 6 PM.

Just for the sake of self-disclosure, I wanted to point out that I have never met my friend's uncle nor did I mention to my friend exactly when I would be showing up to try out the food. In addition, I paid for everything I ate today and neither expected nor received any complimentary food. While I certainly understand the fact that I was reviewing the restaurant of a good friend's relative, I tried to be completely fair and objective in my assessment.

If you happen to find yourself in the Coschocton area over the summer months (perhaps visiting the Roscoe Historic Village) and you are looking for an interesting and unique culinary outing, I would definitely recommend you stop by and check out Limburg's Patio Grill at the Richard Downing Airport. But go soon or they may be all closed up for the year.
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