Monday, November 30, 2009

You Want HOW Much For The BLT Sandwich?!?

In a recent conversation with my fellow foodie friend Kathy, she told me of a place on Merriman Road where they grill your food on stones. Thinking she meant Steak on a Stone, I told her that the restaurant she was describing was on "Restaurant Hill" in Montrose, just off of Rt. 18 and I-77. Her persistence that something had opened up in The Valley where they are grilling food on stones made me just curious enough to drive through the area today to see what she was talking about.

What I discovered was that both of us were right. Steak On A Stone is indeed on "Restaurant Hill," but a new joint called Double Deckers had opened up at 1662 Merriman Road, Akron, OH 44313 about four months ago. While they currently have no website, they can be reached at 330-864-3663.

From the street, I was presented with my first bit of confusion:

Was this Double Deckers Gourmet Sandwich Makers or Stonegrill Dining? Maybe this was one of those joint ventures where two kitchens share one restaurant space. Intrigued, I walked in to find out more. I was immediately greeted by this display case:

The interior was nice, white linens on the tables and nicely wrapped silverware, but other aspects were a tad off-putting, such as these illuminated wall photos:

Interesting artwork to say the least, but it felt a bit kitschy. Very common in restaurants that serve up buffets, these felt discordant to the rest of the environment.

After chatting with my server for a little bit, I began to unravel the mystery of this restaurant. It seems that the owners of Double Deckers decided to blend in a secondary dining concept that originally started with an Australian company, Stonegrill Dining. The concept was to sear the protein on the first side, flip it over and bring it straight to the customer to allow them to cook it to their liking. While I suppose this will appeal to a number of diners out there, to me it seems akin to offering "self-checkout" lines at the local supermarket. Why on earth would I pay someone else for the privilege of cooking my own dinner? Part of the reason I go to a restaurant where I have the ability to order my food cooked to a certain degree of doneness is that I can expect it to come out of the kitchen cooked correctly. If it's not done correctly, there is an implied expectation that the restaurant will do whatever it takes to fix the problem, including re-firing the dish. By allowing customers to finish the cooking process, is the restaurant no longer liable? What happens if the customer overcooks her steak, does the restaurant supply her with another free of charge?

Before even opening the menu, I knew that today's excursion was going to be a pricey one. Here was a shot of the table flier advertising some of the available wines:

$18 for a SINGLE glass of wine? Seriously? I've had very nice bottles of wine for the same amount, much less one glass. And of all the wines listed, not a single one could be found for under $12. Honestly, it didn't really matter that much as I was there for lunch and wasn't really interested in a glass of wine at that time of day. Were I to be there during dinner hours, I'd probably still opt to stick with something non-alcoholic. Today I just decided to have a glass of water instead. And while I normally wouldn't include a shot of a glass of water, Double Deckers did present an interesting twist:

In lieu of the usual lemon slice, a strawberry slice garnered my glass instead. It didn't really add the aromatic note that a lemon or cucumber slice would normally give to the water, but it was a nice way to finish the meal, a free mini-dessert, if you will.

When I finally opened up the menu, I was assaulted with nearly five pages of options. Here was a shot of each page:

The final page was loose and described the lava rock options for today:

It turns out that the conclusion I had come to earlier about this being a pricey meal were spot on. I immediately started searching the menu for something on the cheaper side. Quite a few of the sandwiches are a la carte and if you want a side, you pay extra. After a great deal of contemplation, I narrowed in on a Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, and Hardboiled Egg sandwich for $10.50. This was one of the few sandwiches that came with a side; I choose the homemade carrot and mango slaw.

After about ten minutes or so, this was what I received from the kitchen:

This was a sizable sandwich and a healthy amount of slaw. Here was a shot of the side of the sandwich:

For $10.50, this had better deliver and be one hell of a BLT sandwich. Both the applewood smoked bacon and the hardboiled eggs were perfectly cooked and the eggs were sliced impossibly thin. The tomato had both a sweet and acidic edge. The bread was fresh and toasted just enough that it gave this mouth-filling sandwich enough integrity that it didn't disintegrate as I ate it.

While the sandwich comes with a side of the homemade Pink Costa Rica dressing, my server also brought me a small dish of (not homemade) mayonnaise.

I tried each half of the sandwich with a different topping. While both added a bit of moisture to the sandwich, neither really contributed anything to the overall flavor. I think that this was partly due to the fact that the saltiness of the bacon just masked the more delicate flavor of the sauces. The Pink Costa Rica was described to me as a cross between Ranch dressing and a tomato salsa. After tasting the dressing separately, I would tend to agree with that description.

After finishing my sandwich, I had to admit, it was a darn good sandwich. And very filling. I turned next to the carrot mango slaw:

This was an excellent interpretation of the common everyday cole slaw that seems to be offered at every other restaurant. My initial expectation was that the mango would be adding sweetness to the dish, but it turns out that they use mangoes that aren't ripe yet. Upon further reflection, this made sense to me for two reasons. First, getting ripe mangoes year round is an expensive proposition. Second, because the unripe mango is less sweet, the resulting slaw is much more balanced. Besides the obvious carrots, other flavors such as celery, scallions, and celery seed added to the overall flavor profile. The slaw dressing was creamy, sweet without being cloying, and had just a bit of acidity. I really did enjoy it as a side dish.

As I finished paying the check, I managed to grab one of the dinner menus that were available by the cash register. I wanted to look a little more closely at the Stonegrill Dining options when I had more time. Here was how the section on Stonegrill Dining was worded (including several mistakes):

"STONEGRILL Dining is famous worldwide for quality and exquisite flavor Originated in Australia now established in Europe, Asia, Canada and USA. In order to serve you the finest we process our own meats We use only Aged Prime Beef, which we have Aged for at least 30 days, for exceptional flavor and tenderness. Our steaks are hand cut and will vary in size and shapes. Seafood is selected on freshness and best availability from the world. Flown in overnight and processed for fabulous flavor."

Apparently they got the same person who does the Chinese to English menu translations to write the above paragraph. Ouch, my head hurts just trying to fill in the missing words and punctuation. I then decided to look at the starting points for the seafood to discover a very important point: not a single seafood selection was from the local area. Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Brazil, Mexico, Baja and South Africa were all starting points for this fairly expensive array of products that cost anywhere from $20 up to $55. If there was one thing that this menu espoused, it certainly wasn't how eco-friendly the ingredients were.

That being said, I am reluctant to outright damn them simply because of this fact. In all fairness, I enjoy eating sushi every now and again and I'm not foolish enough to think that the Yellowtail and Tuna I am enjoying while sitting in a Cleveland-based Japanese restaurant is coming from one of the Great Lakes. Hardly wanting to be labeled a hypocrite for telling you to avoid this restaurant because of their product sourcing policies, perhaps I'll just leave it at letting you, the gentle reader, make that decision for yourself after chewing on everything I've presented here today.

While I received a delicious and filling sandwich and side today at Double Deckers, my overall impression was that you could definitely get more value for your money someplace else. One final interesting note, the BLT with hardboiled egg that was $10.50 for lunch was listed on the dinner menu for $12.00. If price is an issue, it might be worth your while to check them out for lunch in order to save a bit on the check. However, if your lobster tails just HAVE to come from South Africa, then I would strongly suggest you give Double Deckers / Stonegrill Dining a chance.

Double Deckers & StoneGrill Dining on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Extra Helpings: Crop Bistro and Bar

Ever since I first read about Crop Bistro and Bar, I have wanted to go. Time after time I have read glowing reviews on various food forums, personal blogs and from friends whose judgment I trust. As soon as I discovered that they had a website, I immediately went online to check it out. What I found was a chef who is committed to doing local, sustainable and seasonal cuisine. Unfortunately, what I also found were menu prices that were a bit of a sticker shock for me. Even with me working right now, I knew that Crop would have to be a very occasional indulgence.

Along the way, I discovered that I can have my proverbial cake and eat it, too. On Sunday evenings, Crop offers a family-style dinner. Diners share the same salad and dessert course and each diner picks from a small selection of entrees. The price of this feast? Only $25 per person. Alright, so now I had a plan, the only problem was that for the past four months, my Sunday nights have been occupied with a recurring commitment I couldn't break. When I found out that I was going to be getting a free Sunday evening, I quickly contacted several of my Cleveland foodie friends, made a reservation using the OpenTable application for Android on my phone and anxiously awaited.

Crop Bistro is located at 1400 West 6th Street, Cleveland, OH 44113 and can be reached at 216-696-2767. Valet parking is available and there is a parking lot across the street. Of course, if you drove around the area a bit, there were also free places to park. I parked on the corner of Frankfort and W. 6th; there were meters, but it's only enforced before 6 PM.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Once inside, I sat at the bar and enjoyed a nice Argentinian Malbec and waited until my friends arrived. I looked over the wine line and much like the online menu, prices were really all over the place. The particular glass of wine that I had chosen was $8 per glass, or only $28 per bottle. Not a bad value, considering it was a delicious wine. As you can imagine, though, there were more than a few $150+ priced bottles of wine, too. When my friends finally arrived, we were shown to our table which fortunately was right in front of the open kitchen.

Here was a shot of the special Sunday family-style dinner menu:

As I mentioned earlier, Chef Steve Schimoler is focusing on seasonal foods, so the menu is likely to change fairly often. Our server took our order and soon after, a basket of bread and butter arrived:

Sadly, I didn't have much time to focus on the bread as an unexpected surprise arrived at our table:

This was our amuse bouche. While at first I thought that the chef might have recognized my foodie friends and sent over a complimentary course, apparently this was par for the course for every diner. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and the corn, done two ways both as kernels and as cornmeal had a wonderful play of sweet and salt in my mouth. The maple barbecue glaze underneath added another layer of amazing flavor. I didn't even realize until I looked at my friend Nancy's plate that mine was accidentally missing the cilantro oil flourish that hers had. She graciously scooped up a bit onto some of the bread and I eagerly tasted the bright flavor that the cilantro would've brought to the plate. Honestly, though, I didn't even miss it. My only taste of the bread that evening, I used the rest of the bread slice to completely mop up the remaining sauce on my plate.

Next up was another surprise course that I wasn't expecting. When these cups were first sat down in front of my other friend, Edsel, I thought he had ordered a cappuccino, even though I hadn't heard him say as much. Once all of us had one in front of us,

our server explained that this was a pumpkin and squash soup with a bit of seared duck confit in the bottom of the bowl, topped with a milk foam and finished with just the slightest bit of black truffle. Even before tasting the soup, I kept thinking to myself, alright, an amuse and a soup have already been served and we haven't even gotten to the three courses that were actually listed on the menu. And all this for just $25? Wow!

The soup was absolutely delicious. Even before tasting anything, the heady aroma of black truffles hit my nose. The soup itself was more broth-like than a thicker pureed soup, but wasn't lacking in flavor. The generous portion of duck confit at the bottom of the cup was crispy, tender, juicy, and had an amazing depth of flavor to it. Whatever the kitchen's magic is, I hope they keep it for a long time. I was disappointed when I reached the bottom of my bowl. Actually, I think all four of us were.

Having finished our soup course, we focused our attention to the large mixed green salad that had been placed onto our table:

Composed of leafy greens, roasted red and golden yellow beats, fennel, cauliflower, roasted red peppers, shreds of a wonderful nutty-tasting Swiss cheese, this was dressed in a homemade white balsamic vinaigrette.

Here was a shot of my portion (which was huge):

If there was a low point this evening, it would be the salad. The dressing was flavorful, but it didn't impart enough seasoning for the salad, so it was a touch bland. Given the fact that none of the tables had salt or pepper on them, I'm sure the intent was for each dish to come out of the kitchen seasoned appropriately. Don't get me wrong, this was still a lovely salad, but I think that all of the flavors would've really come together with just a touch more salt.

Having finally finished our third course, the entrees finally arrived. Here was a shot of my seared Tasmanian salmon served over melted leeks:

When I asked my server to what temperature the fish was cooked, she responded that it was normally cooked medium rare unless the diner prefered something different. Medium rare was perfect for me, so I let the kitchen do its thing. What I received was a nicely sized portion of salmon that was juicy, seasoned and seared perfectly, but sadly wasn't medium rare. It was more on the medium well side of the equation. Had the fish been dried out, I definitely would've sent it back to have them re-fire it. However, it was eminently juicy, so I decided to stick with what I had in front of me. The melted leeks were actually a combination of leeks and onions that had been slowly sweated and allowed to caramelize. Topping my salmon was a tarragon buerre blanc that had just a touch of sweetness to it to balance out the acidity. Overall, this was an amazing plate of food.

Accompanying each of our entrees was a shared plate of sides. Today we were served green beans that had simply been sauteed and seasoned and a Fall risotto that had been studded with apples and cranberries:

I tried both sides and while the green beans were a bit too vegetal for my taste, the creamy risotto was indeed wonderful. The apples and cranberries, which I wouldn't have thought would work well in a savory risotto, paired beautifully. Sadly, two of my dining companions ordered the fresh egg pasta as their entree and were bummed to discover another carbohydrate being served as part of the side.

After absolutely cleaning my plate, our server cleared the table and the dessert that was part of the dinner arrived at the table. Tonight's dessert was a chocolate and cranberry bread pudding:

The bread pudding was served with a maple-infused creme anglaise. This was a wonderful way to end our meal ... or at least that was what we thought. All of the flavors worked so well together and yet each retained its own identity on the palate. The pudding was super moist and it was served nice and warm. I would happily take this bread pudding any day.

After clearing away our dessert plates, we were surprised and delighted when Chef Schimoler came over to our table with a second dessert for us to share. The Chef had indeed recognized my dining companions and thought he would spring a complimentary dessert from Crop's regular menu on us.

Here was a shot of Steve's Sweet Foie:

Comprised of an espresso blondie that had been heated on the flattop, it was topped with a piece of seared foie gras and finished with a peppercorn and rosemary chocolate sauce. It turned out that the dessert was perfectly sized; after we split it up, everyone got a single bite. And, oh my goodness, what a bite! To call this dessert complex does a bit of a disservice to the flavor profile. Here you had a perfect example of something that hit almost all five flavor points in your mouth: sweet, salty, bitter and umami (or savory). The only thing that this really didn't play on was sour. But that's perfectly fine with me. As the chef was eager to point out, the seared blondie almost gives the flavor the "burnt marshmallow" effect creating in his mind the flavor profile of a campfire s'more. All I know is that in one bite of food, the chef had sent my mouth and my brain from happy to overload. I can only imagine the number of neurons that were being fired off in my brain to deal with the flavor explosion that was happening in my mouth.

Now fully sated, we requested our check and still couldn't believe that with tax and tip, the amazing meal we had just eaten was only $33 per person. While the foie gras dessert on the regular dessert menu is a bit pricey at $15, if you are looking for an absolutely amazing bite of food, do yourself a favor and split it amongst your dinner companions.

To say that I recommend Crop Bistro and Bar is a bit of an understatement. From the moment we arrived until the minute we left, we were presented with a creative, well thought out menu that was a true pleasure to eat. With the added bonus of the Sunday family-style dinner price, there isn't a single reason I can think of not to check out this amazing Cleveland eatery.

Crop Bistro and Bar on Urbanspoon  Crop Bistro & Bar on Restaurantica

Friday, November 27, 2009

Making The Grade At Alexandris Restaurant

At a recent breakfast with one of my faithful readers and her husband, the suggestion was made that I ought to check out another one of Wadsworth's old stalwarts, Alexandris Restaurant right on the downtown square. I had eaten there many, many years ago when I was still in high school, but for some reason, it had fallen off of the radar until the moment when my breakfast companions suggested it.

The restaurant is located at 146 Main Street, Wadsworth, OH, 44281 and can be reached at 330-336-0203. I searched for a website and couldn't find an official one, although the restaurant is mentioned on a number of other related website (Urbanspoon, etc.).

I approached the front of the restaurant at around 1 P.M. As I prepared to take the photo of the front of the restaurant,

a woman carrying a carry-out container walked out of Alexandris and out of frame. At that moment I snapped the photo only to discover that she had only been delivering an order to the store next door. As I lowered my camera, she approached me.

"What are you doing?"
"I'm taking a picture."
"Why?" (Her voice began to escalate.)
"Because I wanted to."
"Is there something wrong?"

I knew I couldn't tell her the real reason why I was here as that could potentially compromise the anonymity of my visit and the quality of the food I would receive. I decided to play it cool and try and diffuse the situation.

"No, nothing is wrong. I just wanted a picture, that's all."

Seemingly placated by my words, I followed her in through the front door and promptly asked for a table for one person. She seated me at a table near the back of the restaurant and went back about her business, oblivious to the fact that I continued to discreetly take additional photos. The seating arrangements at Alexandris can be broken up into tables, booths, and the ever popular lunch counter. Here was a shot of the lunch counter:

To the left of the lunch counter is a small salad bar containing the ingredients for a green, leafy salad with all of the trimmings or a variety of homemade non-green salads such as pasta salad, macaroni salad, potato salad, and cole slaw.

I normally try and photograph the entire menu, especially for a restaurant that doesn't already publish theirs on a website, but unfortunately, there were FOUR menus to choose from today and I decided that it would be just too much. Here were some of the menu choices I had from which to choose.

The regular Breakfast Specials:

The regular Lunch Specials:

And the regular lunch and dinner menu:

I failed to take photos of the regular breakfast menu and the daily specials which were written on a dry erase board by the entrance to the restaurant. Clearly there is a lot of choice at Alexandris Restaurant.

Today I was in the mood for a sandwich and despite the fact that my server suggested I try the Triple Decker, when I saw that they offered a Patty Melt, I was immediately drawn towards that choice instead. With most of the sandwiches offered on the menu, it was only a $0.50 surcharge to add a bowl of soup, too. My server assured me that both soups today, Lentil soup and Creamy Chicken Noodle soup, were made from scratch in the kitchen. My choice of Lentil soup was greeted with approval as my server noted that "too few people order that, but it is really very good."

A few minutes later, my soup arrived:

The soup was actually very good and the lentils were nice and soft. In addition to the lentils, ham, carrots, celery, onion, and a good bit of black pepper made their way into this bowl. While I would order this soup again just the way it was, as I continued to eat it, I began to notice that it was missing something. The first flavor that popped into my head was rosemary. The second was thyme. I don't know that it needed both, but it definitely needed something herbaceous. A second tier of flavor, if you will.

After finishing my bowl of soup (which is a great deal for $0.50 extra), my sandwich and onion rings arrived:

Served with grilled rye bread, two kinds of American cheese (white and yellow) and grilled onions, the Patty Melt was slightly better than average. The bread and the cheese were fine, but unfortunately, the grilled onions still had a bit too much crunch to them and the 1/2 pound burger, which I had asked to be cooked medium, came out something more like this:

While the burger wasn't dry, it certainly wasn't medium either. Closer to a shade over medium well. I'm guessing that the grilled onions were started at the same time as the burger and only after the onions cooked long enough were they both removed at the same time.

My side of onion rings didn't fare much better:

The moment I tried to bite into these, the onion on the inside immediately released from the outer coating and I got a mouthful of cooked onion sans coating. I suspected that these were fried from frozen and when I asked my server about it, she freely admitted it. "Gee, we don't have time to do everything from scratch, you know?" This seemed a little strange given that they made so many of their other items from scratch and yet failed to see why doing fresh onion rings would make that much of a difference.

I finished up the remainder of my lunch and took my check up to the front of the restaurant where the woman who had first confronted me outside was standing behind the cash register.

"How was everything?" she quipped.
"Oh, just fine," I quietly answered.

Apparently she had been fortuitous enough to catch me snapping a photograph of the outside of her restaurant, but hadn't managed to catch me in the act of taking a dozen more once I sat down. I thought about telling her that I would be writing about her restaurant on my food blog (since I had already paid the check and comps weren't possible at that point), but then thought better of it. Of the many places I have reviewed so far, few have gotten that privilege and those that did had normally caught me in the act of taking pictures and asked enough specific questions about what I was doing that I had to come clean.

I'm torn about Alexandris Restaurant. The Patty Melt platter was $5.95. The additional bowl of soup was only $0.50 more. That makes for a check that is easy on the wallet. However, an excellent bowl of soup mixed with an overcooked burger and mediocre onion rings makes me think that while there was nice potential for a good meal, they definitely have room for improvement. While Alexandris Restaurant isn't someplace I would recommend to people who are looking for a destination dining type of spot, if you happen to be in Wadsworth, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chicken And The Sea

After my recent trip to the Windsor Pub to try out their burger, I made the decision at some point to try out the place located right next door, Wing House, the next time I was craving chicken wings. As I've mentioned many times before, I picked up the love for a good wing during my college days when we would make weekly outings to the Euclid Tavern for $0.10 wings and pitchers of Busch beer served in gallon-sized glass apple juice bottles. Sauce choices back then were pretty simple: regular, hot, BBQ, and atomic. My, how things have changed.

Located at 1300 East Tallmadge Avenue, Akron, OH 44310, the Wing House can be reached at 330-630-0960. While there wasn't a website available when I visited the Wing House, since then they have acquired one.

Not knowing what to expect, I decided to try them out at a "safe" time. I pulled in the parking lot around 5:30 PM on a Friday night and was greeted with this sign:

The entrance, rather than being road-facing, is actually on the left side of the building:

As I walked from the brightly lit day into the dimmed and subdued lighting of the establishment, my eyes quickly readjusted to take in my new surroundings. To the left were a series of free-standing tables. Directly beyond the tables was a well-lit bar with rows of liquor bottles. Several female bartenders were working to fill drink orders. Directly across from the door were a series of wooden booths. To the right, on a dais, was a series of typical bar activities including pool tables and dart boards.

I noticed that while the bar was only one quarter full, the racial and ethnic diversity of the other patrons let me know that this was not the kind of place that catered to only a select demographic. I decided to sit down at a booth across from the entrance. The menu, held upright in a small plastic inverted-T, seemed to offer a pretty wide variety of food for a place that looked slightly better than your typical dive bar. Then again, the Euclid Tavern back in my halcyon college days was also a dive bar and I craved those wings on a weekly basis, so I figured I'd be open minded. Here was the front of the menu:

And a shot of the back of the menu:

Clearly there were a multitude of categories from which to choose; however, I was here for the wings. One of the employees, a manager if I had to guess, walked by my booth twice in about five minutes. He obviously noticed that I was sort of looking around and he stopped to ask me if I had ever been here before. He explained that the Wing House is not a full-service restaurant and that if I wanted to place a food order, I normally needed to go up to the bar and order and then wait for my name to be called. The food would then appear at the food counter at the rear of the bar near the pool tables.

As I started to get up to place my order, he actually called over one of the bartenders who wasn't busy to help me out. I asked her a few questions about the wing sauces and learned two very important facts. First, you can't split sauces across an order of wings unless you order fifty, and then you only get two choices. Second, the "Atomic" sauce was definitely the hottest sauce on the menu. Knowing that I could be playing with fire (literally) ordering the hottest sauce in the joint, I also decided to order a different wing sauce that I could use to temper the spiciness of my other wings. I decided on "California Gold."

After what seemed like a long time, although in reality it was probably closer to fifteen minutes, my name was called through the loudspeaker. I walked up to the food counter expecting to see a person ready to present me with my food. Instead all I saw was a lonely tray with two cardboard containers of wings on them:

I returned to my booth and prepared to dig in. The Atomic are on the left and the California Gold are on the right. I decided to start with the California Gold first thinking that if the Atomic were truly righteously spicy, I wouldn't be able to taste anything else after eating them. The California Gold were "wetter" than the Atomic, so I tasted the sauce pooled in the bottom of the cardboard tray first using my finger. The sauce reminded me of sweetened BBQ sauce that had a bit of ketchup and mustard added to it. The sweetness felt like it came from honey or molasses. The menu advertises that they make their own sauces daily. If I was a betting man, I'd say they were probably mixing pre-made BBQ sauce, ketchup, and yellow mustard and a sweetener of some kind to take the edge off of the mustard flavor. Regardless, it was a nice sauce.

I then picked up a drummette and bit into the flesh. The chicken skin had clearly been fried, but the skin was still a bit rubbery and not crispy. Unfortunately, most chicken wings in the area are served this way and while passable, certainly isn't my favorite version. As I was chewing the chicken meat, a very unusual flavor sensation hit my palate. I began to discern the flavor of seafood. Thinking that maybe there was something unusual in the California Gold wing sauce, I tasted the sauce again by itself and the seafood flavor was clearly absent.

I finished my first wing and decided to try the Atomic. I bit into the wing only to discover the exact same "fishy" flavor. It wasn't like I was eating a piece of fried fish, but the savory element was definitely there. The much drier Atomic chicken wings didn't have any extra sauce in the bottom of the cardboard tray for me to try, but the sauce was obviously much stronger and spicier than the California Gold had been and the fish flavor was still coming through. I re-checked the menu and sure enough, several fried seafood products were offered. I came to the initial conclusion that clearly the oil used in their fryers was too old and had picked up the flavors of fried fish which was then infused into my chicken wings.

When I returned home, I contacted a number of my foodie friends who informed me that certain oils, such as Canola, have high levels of unsaturated fatty acids (also known as linoleic acids) and break down under high heat and acquire a "fishy" odor and flavor, even if what's fried in it isn't fish. That's why high temperature frying is normally done with peanut oil or vegetable shortening. They don't break down as quickly given the high heat conditions. And according to Accim's Razor, the simplest answer is probably the most accurate. Since the menu didn't advertise "trans fat free oils" being used to fry their products, it was probably vegetable shortening. More than likely, it's been a while since they changed the oil.

Besides the fishy flavor, I should also comment on the Atomic wing sauce. I needn't have been concerned that it would be too spicy. Depending on when I need to blow my nose during the meal is usually a good indicator of how spicy the wings are. This particular meal required a nose blow only after I finished all twelve of my wings and proceeded into the clean-up phase. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say that the spice level of these wings was only about a 6. The flavor was decent, with most of the burn happening at the back of my throat.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. For a place that names itself the "Wing House," you'd figure they'd have stellar wings. While the wings were a nice size, the flabby skin, anemic wing sauces, and most objectionably, fishy flavor of these chicken wings were a big turn-off for me. They do have $0.25 wing nights on Tuesdays, so if you really are interested in trying them out, at least it won't break the bank. Considering that at normal menu prices, six wings cost $4.50, or $0.90 per wing, the Tuesday option is the way to go. Sadly, the only thing that the Wing House's chicken wings really made me crave was a side of tartar sauce in place of the traditional blue cheese as a dip for my wings.

Wing House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Extra Helpings: Friendsgiving, Part II - Casserole

In an unusual twist, this will actually be my second Extra Helpings posting. I had started talking about my Friendsgiving experience in a prior post and since this is the week of Thanksgiving, I wanted to make sure I got in both the recipes for the Red and Black bread as well as the other dish that I brought to the dinner, Green Bean Casserole. What?!?! After I prattle on endlessly about avoiding processed foods and buying locally and seasonally and I have the NERVE to bring that bastion of convenience and overly salted badness known as GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE?

Calm down, gentle reader, you should know me better by now. I decided many years ago to take that unholy trinity of canned string beans, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup and French Fried onion bits and reinvent it. This isn't simply dressing up the old stand-by with a few fresh herbs; this is a complete overhaul, Green Bean Casserole version 2.0 if you will. The first year I brought this dish to Thanksgiving dinner, my mother was so convinced that no one would like my "gourmet" version that she also fixed the original. Suffice it to say that my grandmother, longtime believer in the philosophy of Campbell's cans of processed goodness, actually asked me for the recipe. I don't think she would ever make it herself, but hey, the gesture of her asking was compliment enough.

Before we get started, I will warn you that this is not a "shortcut" kind of a recipe. When I make this dish by myself (which is 99% of the time), it usually takes me about 2 to 2 1/2 hours to go from prepping the ingredients to pouring it into the casserole dish. That being said, you can make the bean and mushroom base and keep it in the fridge for up to 2 days before you bake it for dinner, so you can plan ahead. Plus, I would say that half of the time for this dish is in the prep work, so if you can get others to help out with trimming the beans and cutting the shallots and garlic, you'll cut your time down significantly.

This recipe is for a 13" x 9" Pyrex casserole dish. I've also baked this in a 8" x 8" casserole dish and it worked well, too. You end up using about a 1/3 less of each item for the smaller dish.

You start out by getting 2 1/4 pounds of fresh green beans and weeding out the undesirables, trimming the ends off the good beans and then cutting each bean into bite-sized portions:

This alone is probably the most time-consuming part of the recipe. You can leave the beans longer if you want to (I did this the first time I made it), however, they don't serve well with a spoon and people end up having to cut them before eating them anyway. Here was a shot of my fully trimmed and ready to go beans:

After trimming up the beans, you need to blanch them. Start by bringing a large pot of water to the boil:

Only after the water reaches the boil do you want to throw in about 1/2 cup of salt into the water. You'll know that your water is salty enough when you (carefully) taste it. It should taste salty, but not powerfully so. You want to blanch your beans in batches, the number of batches really depends on the amount of water you have to cook them in. In my case, two batches was plenty. If your pot were smaller, there is nothing wrong with doing three, four, or more batches. After you add your batch of beans, place the lid on and start the timer for three minutes. After about thirty seconds, remove the lid and stir the beans so that they are all submerged. After exactly three minutes, remove the beans with a metal spider or a slotted spoon into a bowl of cold water with ice cubes:

This will stop the cooking process of the beans and lock in that gorgeous green color. Once the beans have been shocked, they can happily hang out in this bowl until you've processed all of your batches. Add ice cubes as necessary to keep the water cool. Make sure you bring the water in your pot back to the boil before adding the next batch. There will be no need to add additional salt between batches. Once all of your beans have been blanched and shocked, drain them in a colander and spread them out onto either multiple layers of paper towels or on tea towels. You want to get as much water off the surface of the beans as you can or else it could water down the bechamel sauce we will be making later in the recipe.

Hooray, the first (and most time consuming) step has now been completed!

The next step is to make the mushroom bechamel sauce that we will toss with the blanched green beans. First, finely mince three medium shallots and nine cloves of garlic:

I normally toss a little bit of olive oil in with each and mix with a spoon in order to help prevent oxidation while we prep the other ingredients.

Next up are three kinds of mushrooms. The first two, button and shiitake, are fresh. Most supermarkets now carry fresh shiitake mushrooms, so these shouldn't be too hard to find. You could always substitute the same amount of another kind of common mushroom, like cremini, if you can't find the shiitake. The third kind of mushroom required will be dried porcini. It is definitely the most expensive of the three per ounce, but because of its intense flavor, you'll only need one ounce.

Here we have 14 ounces of fresh button mushrooms, 8 ounces of fresh shiitake mushrooms (with stems) and 1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms from Heather's Heat and Flavor in Hudson, OH. Heather's has some of the best dried porcini mushrooms I have ever come across. Sadly, as the clerk who helped me earlier in the week informed me, these aren't a big seller and until the demand improves, once the two Heather's locations run out of these mushrooms, they won't be refilling their inventory anytime soon.

To begin processing the mushrooms, bring about 2 cups of water to a rapid boil on the stovetop. Turn off the burner, add the entire ounce of mushrooms and stir with a spoon to make sure that all the mushrooms have been moistened and submerged. This will need to steep for about twenty minutes to fully hydrate the mushrooms, so you might want to do this step while you are prepping your green beans during the first part of this recipe:

Every five minutes or so, just give this a casual stir. For the button mushrooms, I simply wiped any dirt off the caps and sliced them in about 1/4" slices. The shiitake mushrooms must be de-stemmed and then have their caps cut into 2, 4 or 6 pieces, depending on how big the cap is. They should be roughly the same size as the sliced button mushrooms. Once the porcini mushrooms have been reconstituted, strain and reserve the soaking liquid. Press on the porcini to push out any extra moisture and give them a rough chop on your cutting board. Here was a shot of the prepped mushrooms and the porcini soaking liqueur:

In the same pot (which was simply rinsed out) in which you blanched the green beans, put it over a medium to medium-high heat, add three or four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and add in all of the shallots and garlic:

Add salt and freshly cracked pepper and begin stirring the mixture. You want it to saute until the shallots are translucent, but make sure not to burn the garlic. If you do, toss this mixture and start again; there is no way to recover if the garlic gets burned. After maybe 90 seconds sauting in the pan, add the button mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms, another glug or two of olive oil and another round of salt and pepper:

Continue to stir the mushrooms until they start to exude some of their water and begin to shrink. Once this begins to happen, add in the reconstituted porcini, reseason as necessary and cook until the mushrooms are nicely cooked and there is no extra moisture in the pan. At this point, transfer the cooked mushrooms to a separate bowl:

The next step is to make the bechamel sauce for the mushrooms. The ingredients required are:

Fresh thyme sprigs, half a stick of unsalted butter (salted would work okay, too), about 2 cups of 2% milk, the reserved porcini soaking liquid, and 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour. The first step is to make a roux. Place the mushroom-free (but not cleaned) pot back on the burner and add the four tablespoons of butter. Once the butter has melted and is bubbling, add in the flour. This all moves pretty fast at this point, so no distractions ... no phone calls, no kids, no pets. Once you've added the flour, you need to use a whisk to constantly stir the flour and butter. As you whisk, you will liberate the little bits off the bottom of the pot and they will incorporate into the roux, turning it darker and darker. This is perfectly normal.

After cooking the roux for about two minutes, the flour taste will be gone and we can start adding the liquid. We are looking to add about three cups total liquid to our cooked roux. Whisking with one hand, start by adding the porcini liquid. Add as much as you can without adding any of the little mushroom sediment that has now settled on the bottom of your container. As you begin to add the liquid, it will start to bubble and look like it has seized up. Keep adding liquid and whisking. Once the porcini liquid is used up, move to the 2% milk. Add between 1 1/2 - 2 cups, depending on how much porcini liquid you added, constantly whisking. At this point, the sauce will not look thick enough. Add your first round of seasoning (salt and pepper) and between 6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme. Now, continue to whisk until the liquid comes to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, turn down the burner to a simmer and whisk on and off for about 5-10 more minutes.

At this point, the sauce will be nice and thick (gravy-esque), the thyme sprigs will have released all of their leaves, and the sauce should have a smooth, shiny appearance to it. Pull out the thyme sprigs, adjust the seasoning one last time, and add your cooked mushrooms back into the sauce. Of the two, the mushroom sauce should be slightly more aggressively seasoned than the green beans. Even though we salted the blanching water for the green beans, they will still require additional seasoning to be perfect. Once the mushrooms have been returned, add in your drained, blanched beans and mix to coat:

At this point, make a final tasting. Try and get both a mushroom and a bean on the same bite. One should be more aggressively salted, the other a bit on the weak side. But as you chew them together, you should get a feeling for the "average" salt level. As this mixture sits overnight, the salt levels of each component will average out. Once you are happy with the final seasoning, take this pot off heat and continue to stir every couple of minutes to release the heat. Once is it has cooled to a little bit above room temperature, scrape into your 9" x 13" casserole dish and press into an even layer. Cover with plastic wrap, foil, or the plastic lid and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The third and final component of our Green Bean Casserole version 2.0 is the topping. Knowing that when I reinvented this dish I needed to stick with the crispy topping for it to be truly accepted, I decided to do a fresh bread crumb and olive oil mixture that would turn golden brown as the casserole baked away in the oven. To make the topping you'll need your food processor, six slices of your favorite whole wheat bread, about one cup of freshly grated Parmegiano Reggiano, fresh thyme and rosemary, and extra virgin olive oil:

I stripped enough rosemary and thyme to taste (probably about 1/4 cup of each), place them in the food processor with the bread torn up into smaller pieces and then essentially whizzed the heck out of it until every was chopped very fine. You then take this mixture and put it into a bowl and add the grated cheese. I'm assuming, gentle reader, that if you've decided to make the recipe using my directions up to this point, you won't do yourself a great disservice and use the stuff that comes in the "green" can that you keep in the fridge. One cup of grated cheese is an approximation, use more or less to your taste. I usually add enough cheese so that after it is incorporated into the bread crumbs, I can still see the cheese bits throughout the bread. At this point, you can stop, cover the bowl and place it aside for later use if you aren't ready for it right away.

To finish the topping, you need to stir in (with a spoon) enough extra virgin olive oil so that the entire mixture looks "moist." Enough so that as you stir the mixture, the bread crumbs form little balls that break up easily if you prod them with the spoon. Although this shot is a little blurry, this is just the right amount:

At this point, take the casserole out of the fridge, generously top it with the bread crumb mixture and place in a 350 degree oven for about 35-40 minutes. You'll know it's ready when the mushroom bechamel sauce is nice and bubbly and the topping is golden brown. What happens if you get bubbly before you get brown? Stick the casserole underneath the broiler for 20-30 seconds until the bread crumbs brown up nicely. Pay attention though as they will brown very quickly.

I will say this about the finished casserole: Right out of the oven it will be rocket hot and probably not edible for a good 10-15 minutes without burning your mouth, so prepare on letting it sit a little bit before diving in. Here was a shot of the finished product that we served at the Friendsgiving dinner:

And a shot of my portion on my plate (along with all of the other yummy goodies):

On this plate was some of Kathy's very tender and juicy turkey, Jane's cornbread dressing, wonderfully tasty whipped potatoes and an artichoke salads with capers that was simply delightful. There were lots of side dishes and as with the regular holiday of Thanksgiving, everyone ate until they were too stuffed to move and we had TONS of food left over. I guess this is what happens when foodies cook for themselves. However, everyone had room for the most amazing dessert selections. Between the ricotta cookies, cheesecake bites, fudge bites, walnut chocolate tarte, two kinds of pumpkin pie and lemon ricotta cake, we were in full-on food coma heaven. Four and a half-hours after arriving and eating non-stop, I and a few of the other guests came to the sad realization that Friendsgiving was over for another year, packed up our leftovers and headed out into the crisp November air.

While Thanksgiving is a time for me to reflect and be thankful for having a job (you know, the one that affords me the opportunity to be able to pay all those restaurant checks), a supportive family, and so many good things in my life, Friendsgiving now allows me to be thankful for my newly acquired Akron foodie family as well. That they are serious, irreverent, funny, and light-hearted all at the same time makes for a fantastic way to spend five hours of your life, eating, drinking, and laughing until your sides hurt.

Here's a tear sheet of the ingredients you'll need:

Green Bean Casserole version 2.0
2 1/4 pounds fresh green beans
14 ounces button mushrooms
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 medium shallots
9 cloves garlic (1 head should suffice)
Fresh thyme
2 cups 2% (or higher) milk
1/4 cup All Purpose flour
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil for sauteing

For the topping you'll need:
6 slices of whole wheat bread
1 cup of grated Parmegiano Reggiano
Fresh thyme
Fresh rosemary
Extra virgin olive oil
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