Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Getting A Chicago-Style Dog Without The Drive

On the day that my review of the Hot Dog Shoppe posted on the blog, a longtime acquaintance and faithful blog reader, Jessie, called me to tell me that my post about hot dogs had sparked a memory of a visit to a different hot dog shop that she had taken with her husband. When she mentioned the name and location of the restaurant, Dan's Dogs A Hot Dog Eatery located right off the main square in Medina, Ohio, I immediately realized that I recognized the name. Not because I had read anything about the food, but that a hot dog place had opened up some time ago in downtown Medina. Seeing that our conversation had taken place before lunch and that I was already in Wadsworth visiting with my grandmother, I figured today would be the perfect day for a quick trip for what would hopefully be some hot dog goodness.

Dan's Dogs was located at 111 West Liberty Street, Medina, OH, 44256 and can be reached at 330-723-3647. Being that today was a national holiday, I called to confirm they were open and sure enough, they were. After arriving on the square, I parked in one of the many available spots dotting the town center and walked the rest of the way. It wasn't long before I came across the front door to Dan's Dogs:

Upon entering the restaurant, I was told to sit wherever I'd like. Seeing a table by the only window in the long and narrow space, I decided to take advantage of all the natural light I could. The interior was a throwback to the days of the 1950's diner, complete with booths, tables, and a counter area with stools up by the ordering station. The only modern sensibility was the tabletop video game seated next to my table, a throwforward to the mid 1980's. While I waited for my server to bring me a menu, I took a photo of the small sign sitting on my table:

I'm always a sucker for a good old-fashioned root beer. When I asked my server about it, she said that while the root beer wasn't made on-site, it was made specifically for Dan's Dogs. I decided to go with the smaller of the two available mug sizes and was quickly rewarded with this:

I immediately noticed two items about my mug of root beer. First, there was a ton of ice in it. Second, there appeared to be no carbonation at all. As I commented during my last trip to B & K, good root beer has to have the right level of carbonation. Too much and it creates a burning sensation as you swallow it. This version, with it's utter lack of carbonation, seemed equally as wrong, too. I also wasn't sure why my already chilled mug had so much ice in it. It wasn't until one of the servers was walking around the restaurant with a pitcher providing free refills of the root beer that I guessed that the root beer was probably not actually be coming out of the soda fountain and if it was, preserving carbonation wasn't an issue.

The flavor of the root beer was good, but a bit too sweet for my taste. My first sip actually elicited a "whoa!" out of me. I suppose it was a good match for the saltiness of the hot dogs I was about to order, but by itself, it was a little too much.

While the menu consisted of a single page, front and back, the number of hot dog options was enormous. Hot dogs are available in regular and jumbo sizes and I figured I would try and go for two different regular-sized dogs rather than just one jumbo-sized one. When I saw that the first dog on the list was a Chicago-style hot dog, I knew I had to get one of those. After careful consideration, I decided that my second dog would be the Reuben-inspired hot dog.

Here was a shot of my dogs when they arrived:

Here was a close-up of the Chicago-style dog:

Loaded with yellow mustard, relish, onions, pickled jalapenos, pickles, and celery salt, this was definitely a mouthful. With the number of jalapenos loaded onto this hot dog, I was quite surprised at the minimal heat level each bite of this hot dog seemed to possess. The hot dog was nice and juicy and the myriad of flavors adorning the dog really seemed to go well together.

My other dog, the Reuben-inspired creation,

was topped with sauerkraut, melted swiss cheese, and finished off with 1000 Island dressing. Also flavorful and juicy, I can't say that this tasted exactly like a Reuben sandwich, but once I suspended my disbelief, I thought this hot dog was a pretty successful homage to the original product.

One very important distinction I wanted to point out, gentle reader, was the awesome use of the hot dog bun itself. They weren't using standard hot dog buns at Dan's Dogs, but rather hot dog rolls:

Seen more often on the east coast being used for sandwiches such as lobster rolls, the wonderful thing about these rolls is that they can be toasted or grilled to add even more flavor to the party. These particular rolls were toasted quite nicely and added both a wonderful textural contrast and that nicely toasted bread flavor in each bite. I first noticed the use of these rolls when I visited Limburg's Patio Grill.

I also decided to order a side dish to my lunch order today. I wasn't particularly feeling the love for the fresh cut fries, so I asked about the "Real" onion rings. Now, before you think that I am using air quotes willy-nilly and without merit, the menu listed the onion rings in this fashion. Figuring that the realness must mean that the onion rings are made from scratch, I asked my server about them and discovered that I was sadly mistaken about my initial conclusion. The "realness" came from the fact that they actually use a whole onion ring inside the batter as opposed to chopped up onion meal (a la Burger King).

I will warn you that the price listed on the menu was for a side of onion rings. They were also available as a basket at an obviously more expensive price. When I read the menu initially, I had thought that the price listed was for a basket, so when my server offered me a side instead, I took it figuring it would be less than the price listed on the menu.

Here was a shot of my side of "Real" onion rings:

Good grief! I'm happy I hadn't ordered the larger basket as I had trouble finishing even this amount. The onion rings were fried nicely and not greasy, but they had also been sitting for a little bit as they were just a little hotter than lukewarm. The breading was nicely savory and the textural contrast between the coating and the cooked onion made these rings better than average. However, the same issue that most fried-from-frozen onion rings have plagued this version, too. In almost every ring I ate, the onion had separated itself from the fried outer shell and all it took was one bite to pull out the entire onion from the now empty casing. While I would still prefer these onion rings to fresh cut fries, I kind of wished Dan's Dogs would go the extra step and make these fresh to order.

After my very lackluster experience at the Hot Dog Shoppe, it was nice to find a spot where their creativity, and most importantly, the flavors of their flagship product were so prominently featured. With so many combinations of hot dog toppings, as well as soups, salads, burgers and more available on the menu, it would be quite easy to find something that everyone in your party could enjoy. While there were very few children when I went, the atmosphere was fun and I have no doubt that children would find Dan's Dogs as accessible as adults do. There are lots of very interesting shops on Medina's downtown square and if you find yourself in the area to do a little shopping, stop in at Dan's Dogs A Hot Dog Eatery for lunch or dinner and check them out for yourself. I definitely think they are worth it.

Dan's Dogs on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 28, 2009

New Spicy Szechuan Offerings At Wonton Gourmet

Normally, on the Sunday after the Ohio Linuxfest is held, my aunt and I traditionally go out for lunch somewhere in Columbus before I head back home to Akron. However, on this particular Sunday I had been invited by a very good friend to attend a late lunch she was throwing at Wonton Gourmet in Cleveland to showcase some of the new menu items that had been added recently. Now I know that I have written about Wonton Gourmet several times before here on my blog and there have been plenty of times I have gone and didn't write about it because I had already covered the food or just plain decided I didn't want to belabor the point. However, since our nine course meal was covering new culinary ground, I thought it would be appropriate to not only come back early so that I could attend the festivities, but also write up an entry to introduce the new food to you as well.

I arrived at around 2:20 PM and decided that since I had never included a shot of the front of Wonton Gourmet, I would do so now:

I walked in to find that our hosts, Diane and Steve, were already sitting at our table waiting for our not-so-small group of tasters to arrive. The original invitation that Diane had sent out to her guests had a list of the courses that we would be served today; however, there were a few changes and the addition of one extra course to surprise us. After the entire party arrived, the first course was brought out and consisted of a hot corn and tofu soup which was ladled into bowls before being passed around:

I have had this completely vegetarian soup one other time and absolutely loved the subtle interplay between the corn and the tofu. As with many of Wonton Gourmet's dishes, the flavors balanced sweet and savory extremely well. While I knew I had to pace myself, I ladled another half bowl of this soup into my dish before forcing myself to stop.

Food at Wonton Gourmet is served "family style." This means that the food is brought out as it is finished being prepared in the kitchen and is served in one large bowl or large plate. Often times this manifests itself as multiple dishes coming out in rapid succession and longer pauses occurring in between courses. Next up, a dish of yuba wrapped pork and shrimp filled rolls in a savory sauce appeared on our table:

While I initially thought that the one per customer rule was a bit strict, I was thankful later on that I had actually only eaten one of these rolls. These were tender and flavorful and the filling really touched on my sense of umami. The yuba skins were very tender and held up well to my manhandling of the roll with my chopsticks.

The next course to appear on our table was one of the new spicy dishes, Szechuan Style Jumbo Shrimp:

In addition to all of the obvious chili peppers in the above photo, this dish also had sliced celery. The shrimp were absolutely fantastic. They were large and had a dry coating on them. Tossed around with a fiery blend of spices and chilies, the shrimp had a piquancy to them that was pronounced without being overpowering. As with many traditional Chinese dishes, this was a dry dish. Spooning this over my rice didn't do a whole lot to add flavor to my rice, although it did allow my rice to counteract some of the heat.

The next dish to be served was the XO Paste Rice:

While I originally thought this was just shrimp and scallop fried rice, it wasn't until my friend Edsel pulled up the menu on his iPhone that we realized that this dish was to feature XO Sauce. While this dish was excellent, neither Edsel nor I really got a distinct flavor from the XO Sauce. He admitted, too, that had he been served this and not known what it was supposed to be, he would've just assumed it was your standard seafood fried rice.

The next course to arrive at our table was the Ma La Pork Chop:

Traditionally, the "Ma La" refers to two different sensations, one being the spiciness of the chili and the second being the actually numbing of the lips and mouth. This is usually accomplished through the addition of Szechuan peppercorns, an ingredient that you will be hard pressed to find being used in Americanized Chinese cuisine, especially food that is destined for the traditional American palate. While the pork chop had a great flavor and a nice spice, it was only after careful inspection that we discovered just a few Szechuan peppercorns on the plate. I'm guessing the cook wanted to introduce us to this flavor and sensation without giving the diners full frontal "Ma La."

Smartly, Diane decided to include a green leafy vegetable in the middle of the meal instead of at the end. In previous visits, the greens always seem to come out last when everyone is too full to enjoy them. This plate of Yu Choy dressed in a savory sauce seemed perfectly timed:

Yu Choy, also know as the rape (pronounced "rop-A") plant, was similar to Chinese broccoli in texture, but not quite the same in flavor. The rape was nicely cooked and the entire vegetable was tender with just a bit of crispness to it. Diane's plan worked perfectly, and platter after platter of this tender vegetable was eaten up before the arrival of our next course.

I was surprised and delighted when the next course arrived, the Hot and Spicy Szechuan Fish:

I had the privilege of eating this dish the last time I went to Wonton Gourmet several weeks ago and absolutely fell in love with it. Comprised of whitefish and Chinese cabbage that had been cooked in a spicy, hellish broth and topped with loads of fresh garlic, this dish was a flavor explosion and a garlic lover's dream. Additionally, since this dish was served "wet," there was plenty of sauce to spoon over the rice. The fish was cooked perfectly, tender and still juicy, and the combination of the chilies and garlic tantalized my sense of smell even before I managed to eat any.

Our final savory course was known as Hot and Spicy Two Flavor Beef:

This dish contained two cuts of beef, tripe and tendon. Served in a spicy sauce and topped with peanuts, scallions, and sesame seeds, this dish had me a bit worried. Tripe is not my favorite cut of beef and if it isn't prepared correctly can be frightfully chewy. I needn't have worried as the tripe was incredibly tender. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the beef tendon that was a bit too cartilaginous for my taste. The flavor of this dish was very good, but I did have an issue with some of the textures. I'm glad I tried it, however.

All I knew of the last dish was that it would contain sweet red beans and lotus. Knowing that the Chinese don't like extremely sweet desserts like Westerners do, I figured it would be some take on a sweet red bean filled pastry. It turns out what we were served was a sweet red bean "soup." Here was a shot of the dessert:

This was quite interesting. I will have to admit it isn't something that I would crave, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to try it. It was served warm and definitely tasted of sweet red beans. The consistency was that of a regular bean soup you would see here in the United States, although it was smoother. As I had thought, the sweetness was very reserved. It was a nice way to clear out all of the spice of the previous meal. Being pretty darn full by this point, I only managed to eat about half of my soup before stopping.

Traditionally, Wonton Gourmet presented food from the Hong Kong region in the Cantonese style of cooking, which didn't lend itself to a lot of hot and spicy dishes. However, looking back at our amazing meal, I realized that nearly half the course were Szechuan-like, if not outright Szechuan. I'm happy about this because no other restaurant in Cleveland, Akron, or Canton serves this style of cuisine (at least to my knowledge). Now I have four more reasons to return to Wonton Gourmet when I need my spicy Chinese food fix.

While we managed to get away with all of this food (plus plenty of leftovers for the next day) for a mere $30, including tax and tip, normally meals at Wonton Gourmet run as low as $10 per person. While you can certainly go by yourself, it's when you get to have a shared experience with five of your closest friends that the sense of community really comes alive. I know that our group of twenty people had a very communal experience with today's meal and I look forward to returning soon for another fantastic experience. As always, Wonton Gourmet is highly recommended.

Wonton Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 25, 2009

Drama On The High Seas At Old Bag of Nails Pub

[Ed. Note: Here is my Christmas Gift to all of my readers out there. Good food and an even better story to go along with it. Happy Holidays!]

Let me set the mood of this entry by starting with a quote from the movie Casablanca:

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."

Yep, it was going to be one of those nights.

After finishing up my sessions at this year's Ohio Linuxfest, I decided to meet up with my aunt at the Easton Shopping Center on the city's east side of town. While there are plenty of places to eat at Easton, I wasn't really feeling the love for any of them. Remembering a tiny vegetarian Indian restaurant that used to be located close to the first apartment complex I lived at while residing in Columbus, I suggested that we eat there. The food was always spectacular and as there were usually far more Indian clientèle than American, I figured the food had to be pretty authentic. Unfortunately, it was no longer there. Feeling pretty famished, we chose plan "B" and decided to settle on what was always a favorite of mine, the Old Bag of Nails Pub. There are several around town, but the one we chose was the one in Worthington, near the intersection of Rt. 161 and High Street. They are located at 663 High Street and can be reached at 614-436-5552.

Parking was located both on the street and behind the row of buildings. After parking my car, my aunt and I walked up to the front of the restaurant. Here was what the front of the building looked like:

My aunt was a little concerned that we were going on a Saturday night after the Ohio State football game just ended and that there would be a horrendous wait. Fortunately, there were a lot of two tops coming available and the hostess was able to seat us within five minutes of our arrival. As we proceeded to walk past the bar area into the back part of the restaurant, I became aware that she would be seating us at the middle table (which of course had the poorest lighting conditions). As we sat down, I happened to glance at the table to my left and noticed a four top consisting of two couples. While I couldn't see the couple at the table sitting directly to my left, I did manage to get enough of an impression of the couple sitting opposite them to give me pause.

Here was where the story got interesting.

My mind started to race. I got the distinct impression that the woman looked vaguely familiar. Was this someone I know? I racked my brain for about ten seconds or so and decided I needed another look. I quickly glanced over and focused on both of their faces for what seemed like an eternity, but I'm sure was closer to a second and a half. I only broke my glance when the mystery woman turned her head and I got the full facial outline. Then it suddenly hit me. At the table next to me was my old high school girlfriend, let's just call her 'K', from my senior year. The one I had dumped prior to prom and hadn't spoken to in over nineteen years. The one who used to wonder how we could talk for hours and hours at a time over the phone but when we were together, there was never any physical chemistry between us. The one who as my life continued to unfold during my college and post-college years I thought about contacting several times in order to explain that it, "really was me and not her," but never did.

As soon as I recognized K, I also recognized D, her husband, too. He ran in the same circle of friends that K and I did. To add another level or resolve to my conviction, I then heard her laugh at something someone else at the table said. I hadn't heard that laugh in nineteen years, but as soon as I heard it, I knew for certain that my suspicions were right. Had the vegetarian Indian place still been open, had we gone to a different Old Bag of Nails Pub location, heck, had we sat at a different spot in the restaurant we were in, this serendipitous meeting would never have happened.

Normally, I would've just quietly leaned over the table and told my aunt what was going on, but I didn't want to draw any undue attention to myself, lest K or D make the same realization about me and heaven forbid, actually start up a conversation. So I did the only thing a freaked out nerd could do, I texted my aunt's cellphone.

"OMG! Do U know who is sitting at the tbl next 2 U? Ex from HS. Break-up was very bad."

Unfortunately, she was sitting on the same side of the table as K and D, so the only thing she could see was the left side of D. It wasn't until the entire table finished paying the check and got up to leave that she was finally able to get a good look at the entire party. I don't know if K or D ever figured out who I was, but none of them said a word as they all filed past me towards the front of the restaurant. I almost felt like I had been holding my breath the entire time and now I could finally let out a huge breath of used air in one big "whoosh!"

Now that I've thoroughly entertained you, gentle reader, with my multi-decade drama, we can progress onto the meal itself. While I have eaten many items off of the menu, the one thing for which I come whenever I manage to get to Columbus is the fish and chips. In fact, it is the bar by which I judge all other fried fish dishes; it is simply that good. After sitting down, our hostess handed us each a menu:

I didn't take pictures of the individual pages for two reasons. First, the menu is on the website I linked to earlier in this write-up. Second, the lighting was atrocious and I didn't want to post picture after picture of heavily doctored photos. So, the only other menu-related photo I took was of the fish and chips dinner:

At $12.99, this was several dollars more than I remember it being since the last time I had been here. However, it was now all you can eat. Which was a little strange, because unless they had changed the size of the fish fillets used, the two pieces it initially comes with were plenty. My aunt and I both placed an order for the fish and chips and continued talking about the oddness of the evening while the kitchen cooked up our order. After about fifteen minutes or so, we each received this:

The fries were hidden underneath the two large whitefish fillets, but you can see them barely sticking out of the bottom of the basket. Served with cole slaw and tartar sauce, I couldn't imagine anyone being able to eat more than this, and I suppose that when the restaurant decided they had to raise the price, they probably figured that giving people an AYCE option was a good way to justify it.

The thing that I've always loved about the fried fish at Old Bag of Nails Pub was that it always combined the best of all worlds. The fish was cut thick enough so that it stayed juicy and hot. The beer batter was thick enough to add texture and crunch, but no so thick that you felt like you were eating mostly breading and just a little bit of fish. How did tonight's version stack up to previous visits? I still think it is my favorite version of fried fish, but tonight's sampling was just a tad dry in spots. My aunt felt the same way about her fish, too. That being said, it was still delicious. The chips, or more accurately, steak fries, were a bit disappointing in that they were only lukewarm. Fortunately, they weren't limp or greasy, so I cut the kitchen a little slack given how busy they were.

Every fish and chips platter comes with a side of cole slaw:

The cole slaw had a nice tang to it and did well to help cut through the fattiness of the fried fish and the tartar sauce. I only managed to eat about half of it, almost all of my fish and chips, and about half of my pint of Guinness before I decided to throw in the towel and give up. Our server returned to check on us to see if we needed her to put in another order of fried fish. After rebuffing her question, she looked shocked and proceeded to regale us with the tale of another patron who not only ordered two appetizers and the fish and chips, but also had two extra fish fillets on top of that. I don't know if I was being truly empathic that night or not, but I almost felt ill just listening to it.

Overall, I think that the Old Bag of Nails Pub still puts out a very good fried fish dinner. My steak fries weren't quite as hot as I thought they should have been, but they still managed to avoid the pitfalls of most poorly fried food. Would I return again the next time I find myself in Columbus? Absolutely. Would I surreptitiously scout out the joint first just to make sure I don't have a repeat run-in with an old ex-girlfriend? You'd better believe it!

And K, if you're out there and you actually manage to find this, I did walk away from that relationship with your love of North By Northwest. Well, that and a few more things that aren't particularly relevant to a food blog.

Old Bag of Nails Pub (Worthington) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Around The World At The North Market

When I first started attending the annual Ohio Linuxfest many years ago, I found myself drawn, almost lemming-like, to the Food Court on the first floor of the Columbus Convention Center during our hour long lunch break during the day long event. The Food Court contained the same list of tired old classics that we, as Americans, have come to expect in our mega-malls and airports across the country. Let's see, there is the kind-of-Japanese place, the two and three way combo plates at the Americanized Chinese place with nary a wok in sight, the submarine sandwich place, and the ever ubiquitous Italian place that offers pizza by the slice. The first several years, I followed suit and joined my fellow convention-goers, but by about the third year I attended, I finally figured out that something better was just beyond the doors to the outside world.

I speak, of course, of the North Market located literally one block away from the north side of the Convention Center. Located at 59 Spruce Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215, the administrative offices can be reached at 614-463-9664 or you can visit them at their website. Even though today was a bit foggy and rainy, I braved the moisture-laden air to walk over for my lunch. Here was a shot of the front of the market:

Having lived in both Cleveland and Columbus and shopped at both the West Side Market and the North Market, I can tell you that although they both have an open-air market feel to them, the biggest difference between the two markets is in crowd control. The West Side Market can often be intimidatingly crowded and unpleasant to navigate through. The North Market, while it can be busy, never seems to be so bad that you feel like you are about to be manhandled in the middle of a mosh pit at a Phish concert. Besides the stalls where you can pretty much buy any type of fresh produce you could imagine, there were plenty of stalls where prepared foods were being served. Additionally, there were a number of tables on the second floor where you could take your lunch, sit down and enjoy yourself, if even for a few minutes.

After perusing my options, I decided on Vietnamese food for lunch, specifically at Lae Viet:

Most food vendors have hanging menus and Lae Viet was no different:

Seeing that banh mi sandwiches were available, I decided to go with a sandwich, a summer roll, and a bottle of water. I placed my order (a #2 and a #6), paid for my lunch (which, incidentally only came to $7), and climbed the stairs to the second floor eating area to address my ravishing appetite. Here was a shot of my lunch, with some spicy Sriracha which I added at the vendor's counter before leaving:

First up was the Goi Cuon, or summer roll, with a dipping sauce:

This was very good, however, the rice paper used to encase the filling was on the verge of breaking apart. My guess would be that they had rolled a number of these before the lunch rush and then let them sit too long. That being said, the filling was very nice, the large shrimp were fresh and not rubbery, and the dipping sauce was a nice combination of sesame, ginger, and hoisin sauce. This wasn't the best version of this dish I've ever had, but it was decent enough.

After finishing my summer roll, I unwrapped my banh mi sandwich, specifically, a Banh Mi Thit:

Here was a shot of the inside of my sandwich:

Layers of fresh vegetables and cilantro as well as ham, chicken, and liver pate were served on a French roll that had been toasted nicely in a sandwich press before being slathered with a layer of mayonnaise. The only thing I did to dress this sandwich up was add a thin line of the Sriracha chili-garlic sauce before I closed it up and took a bite. I have to say, for being only $4, this was an amazing sandwich. The bread was soft and crunchy at the same time, the fillings were tasty and fresh, and the small amount of Sriracha I had added gave the sandwich just the perfect amount of zing. I was originally worried that the liver pate might be too overpowering, but after just a few bites, I realized that like every other flavor in this sandwich, it was harmoniously balanced. It was like listening to a symphony play and being able to listen to the music as a whole and yet also being able to just focus on one instrument, picking out the individual harmony that a single component added to the whole. I finished the sandwich with a smile on my face.

I have to admit, I had an ulterior motive for picking the North Market today for lunch. The other reason I knew I would be going to the North Market was that I simply had to stop by Jenis Ice Cream shop (which was fortuitously located just to the right of Lae Viet). I have had their ice cream on numerous occasions and am absolutely in love with it. Having finished my sandwich, I returned to the first floor and eagerly walked over to Jenis stand. Here was a shot of the chalk board with the available ice cream flavors:

What I love about Jenis ice cream is both the freshness of the product and the originality of the flavors. Flavors are either subtle or bold, sometimes both. While I do think there are flavors that small children would find appealing, I think their ice cream is targeted to people who want all five flavor sensations hit with every spoonful. You can get pre-built ice cream concoctions (like a sundae), or you can mix and match the flavors that sound good to you.

Here were a couple of shots of some of the ice creams in the cases:

After looking over my options, I decided to get a trio of scoops for $4.25 in a bowl. My first choice was an intriguing combination of sweet corn and blackberry:

I figured that this would be my "subtle" flavor. For my second and third choices, I decided to amp it up a bit and choose bolder flavors.

I choose the Thai Chili because I had heard good things about it and I knew I would enjoy Jenis's take on Thai flavors. The Dark Chocolate I choose because I am a true chocoholic at heart and anything claiming to contain that much cocoa powder MUST be a good thing. I paid for my trio at the cash register and picked up my post-sandwich treat:

Garnished with a small wedge of fresh waffle cone, I took this outside and found a picnic bench where I could savor every bite. I started with the sweet corn and blackberry. Although there were no discernible chunks of corn, the sweet corn flavor was definitely present and balanced so well with the slightly acidic fruit of the blackberries. I was right to start with this flavor as this experience was all about subtlety. Next up, I started in on the Thai chili ice cream. This was a blend of local Krema natural peanut butter, coconut milk, toasted shredded coconut, and of course, Thai chilies. The shredded coconut gave the ice cream a nice textural balance, but the real winner was the Thai chili heat. It was gentle and tickled the back of my throat. While this was a bolder flavor than the first flavor, the subtlety of the Thai chili was also nicely balanced.

Finally, I got to the Dark Chocolate ice cream. While I was pleased with how good the Sweet Corn and Blackberry and the Thai Chili ice creams tasted, I was blown away with the Dark Chocolate. After just a single bite of the Dark Chocolate, I actually found myself involuntarily uttering the phrase, "Holy Shit!" softly under my breath. At the same time creamy and smooth, there was so much cocoa powder in this ice cream that it also had just the tiniest bit of mouth feel, or grit if you will, that only made the ice cream even more flavorful. The intensity of the chocolate flavor mixed with the mild bitterness that only dark chocolate can bring to the table was heavenly. As far as I am concerned, this was the best chocolate ice cream I have ever eaten. If you are a chocoholic, I suggest you drive yourself as quickly as possible to a Jenis Ice Cream outlet and try it for yourself.

Not for nothing, the waffle cone triangle served as a nice palate cleanser between flavors. Slightly sweetened with just a touch of vanilla flavoring, it served as a nice buffer to allow me to segregate the flavors in my mouth. Now mentally and physically sated, I threw away my waxed cardboard cup and spoon, picked up my waterproof notebook and headed back to the conference for another four hours of sessions on all topics Linux and open source.

I can't recommend enough that you check out the North Market in Columbus if you happen to be fortunate enough to live there or find yourself visiting. The entire place is a vibrant example of a farmer's market, the prepared food vendors are diverse and delicious, and a stop at Jenis Ice Cream is absolutely mandatory. With so much from which to choose, there should be no excuse to leave with unhappy taste buds.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Tasty Red Curry At Nong's Hunan Express

One of the guilty pleasures I've allowed myself to indulge in over the last seven years is the annual Ohio Linuxfest in Columbus, Ohio. While the conference has always been totally free, in recent years, a "sponsor" level was established to allow those who could afford a donation to make one. The first several years of the conference I actually lived in Columbus, so finding accommodations was unnecessary. However, after moving back to the Akron area back in 2004, this became a new concern every year. Originally I stayed at my aunt and uncle's home on Saturday night, traditionally coming back on Sunday after having lunch with my aunt. The first couple of years this worked out relatively well except that I always tended to miss the early morning sessions on Saturday. Last year and this year, I was fortunate to be able to stay with my cousin at his apartment both Friday and Saturday nights. By going down on Friday evening after work, I was able to get to the conference early enough to hit the morning classes. At least, that was how it was supposed to work in theory.

Being in the fortunate position of having my Friday afternoon free, I decided to head down to Columbus in the early afternoon and hang out at Cup o' Joe at the Lennox complex off of Kinnear Road. Close to both the Ohio State campus and the downtown area, the cafe always contains a nice mix of students, people casually sporting sandals and flip-flops, and some of the technically savvy crowd. I ordered up a cup of honey and ginger green tea, opened up my laptop and reveled in an experience I hadn't had in nearly five years. Even though I do love the friends and experiences I have had over the last few years since moving back, there is still a part of me that really liked living in Columbus, too.

After finishing up my writing and editing tasks at Cup o' Joe, I headed off to my cousin's new apartment near Grandview. On the way up Northwest Avenue, I happened to pass a restaurant that I only discovered shortly before leaving Columbus, Nong's Hunan Express:

I didn't remember too many specifics about the food, but I did remember that my experiences had been fairly positive. While my cousin and I did consider some other restaurants for dinner, my suggestion of Nong's and its proximity to his apartment finally sealed the deal. When you first walk through the front door, you are greeted with a smattering of small tables and a counter where you can order your food for takeout:

If you are there for sit-down service, like we were, simply sit an any of the tables and one of the staff members will stop by to drop off menus and take your order. Seeing as Nong's serves both Americanized Chinese as well as Thai, I decided to get one of the Thai curries. I had originally inquired about the green curry with pork, but my server suggested that if I wanted pork, I should try the red curry instead. As usual, I asked for my curry to be prepared "Thai Spicy" and tried to impress upon her that I really did mean "Thai Spicy." My cousin decided to go with the Pad Thai, spiced medium.

After about a short break, our food arrived. First, a shot of the steamed rice that accompanied my dish:

Next, a shot of the bowl of red curry with pork:

Finally, a shot of my dinner plate, filled with rice and curry:

Let's talk about the flavor of the curry first. It was well balanced and delicious. The creaminess from the coconut milk was a nice foil to the red curry paste. The pork was tender and delicious and the green beans still had a nice snap to them. The sauce was so tasty, in fact, that I would've been happy just eating it spooned over the rice. The pork and green beans just upped the ante a bit. Now let's talk about the spice level. It was somewhere between mildly spiced and medium. It wasn't even spicy enough to elicit any kind of reaction from my sinuses.

I motioned for our server to come back over to the table. I explained that while the curry was very tasty, it was not nearly hot enough. I asked if perhaps they had some fresh Thai chilies I could use to add to the curry. She returned a minute later with a small dish containing two whole green Thai chilies. I sort of looked at her and then the chilies and must have uttered an, "ummm ...," because before I knew it she had whisked the chilies and my bowl of curry back to the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with my curry, apologized and said something to the effect that the kitchen had forgotten to put the chilies in the sauce originally.

The newly returned curry now had the fresh taste of Thai chilies and it was a little hotter, but it still wasn't "Thai Spicy." Resigned to the fact that I was pretty darn hungry at this point and the fact that I was scared that if I sent it back a second time, the resulting curry might end up being hot enough to kill me, I began to eat it with my remaining rice. The flavor was still delicious, and in fact, improved now that fresh chilies had been added. I ended up eating about two thirds of my curry at dinner and taking the rest home along with a small container of white rice for a nice little snack later on that evening.

My cousin also enjoyed his Pad Thai, commenting that the spice level of his dish was perfect for his taste. I encouraged him to pick up a take-out menu on our way out of the restaurant to tack up on his refrigerator. Hopefully he'll be returning again soon for some more Thai food. I honestly think that the food at Nong's tasted very good. The problem with spice levels at Nong's is the exact same problem I have at every Asian restaurant. Since there is often a language barrier, I cannot entirely fault the restaurant for giving me what they think I want instead of what I truly want. Unfortunately, it will always come down to cracking the spice level code at every Thai restaurant individually in order to solve this problem. Well, that or learn to speak Thai or Mandarin.

Nong's Hunan Express on Urbanspoon Nong's Hunan Express on Restaurantica

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Extra Helpings: Vaccaro's Family Feast

The last time I had a meal at Vaccaro's Trattoria, I was fortunate enough to have a short conversation with owner and chef Raphael Vaccaro. He suggested that I gather some of my foodie friends and he would cook us a multi-course menu of the classic Italian recipes he grew up on and that weren't necessarily on the menu. I agreed and told him to give me a price per person not including drinks or alcohol. He came back and surprised me with me a six course menu for only $25 per person. I picked a date, told him to set the number of guests at ten, and proceeded to contact anyone whom I thought might be interested.

As it turns out, ten turned out to be the correct number as that was how many converged on Vaccaro's Trattoria last Saturday night at 6:30 PM. I arrived a little early to help get our service staff on the same page. I asked my server if we could just do separate checks for everything and she indicated that it wouldn't be any problem at all. I talked with Aaron, who is one of the wine stewards at Vaccaro's (the guy really knows his stuff) and I asked him to bring out two bottles of prosecco at the beginning so that we could have a nice holiday toast. Chef Raphael also briefly came out to welcome myself and my guest. Just as quickly, guests began to arrive.

While I do trust my own sense of taste (and I'm guessing if you are a repeat reader here on Exploring Food, you might, too), I am always nervous introducing new chefs and new restaurants to my foodie friends. With two other food bloggers in attendance tonight, I knew that this had to be an impressive meal. And not to reveal the mystery too early, but I was quite pleased at the outcome.

After most of the guests arrived, I had the other wine steward, Martin, proceed with opening and pouring the prosecco. While I had originally inquired about a producer I had tried at a wine tasting earlier in the week, unfortunately they didn't have any more of that brand available, but Aaron said he had something very similar. Here was what he came up with:

After everyone who wanted one had a glass, I proposed my toast, we all clinked champagne flutes and officially declared the meal started. Chef Raphael, as he did during each course of our meal, came out with the first course to give us some background on why he chose to start the meal this way. Our first dish, the appetizer course, was to be pizza. Pizza Nostra, literally translated as "Our Pizza", to be more precise:

Here was a shot of my appetizer plate:

Topped simply with fresh tomato, onions, garlic, herbs and a judicious amount of Romano cheese, this pizza was truly a revelation. While the dough was homemade, it hadn't been retarded or fermented at all. The chef had first cooked the pizza in his regular pizza oven, but then added the touch of brilliance that everyone, including Nancy, who is a connoisseur of New York City-style pizza, thought put it over the top; to add extra flavor, he put the cooked pies on the grill to get just a slight bit of char on the crust. Topped off simply with a drizzle of olive oil, this was soul-satisfyingly good. Where we had been a fairly talkative group just seconds prior, now there was complete silence, save for the occasional moan of pleasure.

As the chef told us about his thoughts on what makes good pizza, we sat and ate in silence. At one point he mentioned how he hadn't planned on serving any bread with dinner tonight and that's why there weren't dishes of olive oil for dipping on the table. The only problem, of course, was that there were already dishes of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and freshed grated cheese at three points on the table. "I guess there are." After he went back to the kitchen, two baskets of bread showed up, too. I've talked about the bread and the oil before, but I thought I'd include two shots just for completeness:

Our second course was to be the soup course, specifically Italian Wedding soup. Here was a shot of my bowl:

Chef Raphael explained that his soup didn't use chicken base for the broth; instead he started with actual chickens. The meatballs were a combination of beef, pork, and veal. The greens were a mixture of escarole, endive, and spinach. The tiny grains of pasta at the bottom of the bowl were acini di pepe. The final component, a mixture of eggs and more Romano cheese had been added at the last moment. Again, the chef used a well-trained and restrained hand on the Romano cheese. The results? Unbelievably good. More than one person commented that this was the best version of Italian Wedding soup that they had ever had. I think I fell in step with that line of thinking, too.

The soup was so well-balanced and delicious that I had a hard time putting my spoon down until my bowl was absolutely dry as a bone. The pasta was cooked absolutely perfectly, having just a little chew, but no starchiness. The meatballs were amazingly soft and flavorful. For me, however, what really put this version over the top was the Romano cheese. Enough so that you knew it was there, but it didn't overpower the dish at all. Another slam dunk for old world Italian recipes.

Our third course was the salad course. This was our mixed green salad:

Composed of Boston Bibb and Arugala, this was topped with fresh blueberries, shaved Parmesan cheese and topped with a red wine and aged balsamic vinaigrette. To the side of everyone's plate was a small roulade made from fresh cheese curds the chef had rolled out, filled with a paste of sun-dried tomatoes and basil, rolled up and then sliced.

Prior to our consumption of the salad, our server walked around with what can only be called a Howitzer of a pepper mill, offering freshly cracked pepper to those who wanted it:

* see note below

The first two courses being composed primarily of sweet, savory, and salty, this course was to take us to bitter. The bitterness of the greens was a refreshing change-up. The blueberries, amazingly sweet for this time of year, helped to balance the bitterness of the greens. The fresh curd pinwheel was also delicious and added a nice flavor counterpoint to the salad.

The fourth course, our pasta course, was hand rolled cavatelli served with a slow-simmered sauce of tomatoes, onions, beef and pork. Knowing that some of the diners were already starting to indicate that they were filling up quickly, the chef mercifully kept the size of the portions on the smaller side:

Again topped with just the right amount of Romano cheese, the smell was heavenly. The pasta was done perfectly al dente. Although I will have to concede that the "al dente" was more of an Italian one than an American one. To an Italian palate, this was the texture meant when one says "al dente." To an American palate, however, this was probably a bit too toothsome. Regardless, the condimento, or sauce, was impeccable. The slow-cooking had really allowed the sauce to develop a truly rich depth of flavor that no bottled sauce could ever hope to replicate.

Our fifth course, sauteed veal with lemon and parsley, showed off the maxim that if you start with good ingredients and treat them well, you don't need gimmicks or tons of extra ingredients to make the dish really shine. Here was a shot of my veal:

While I am not one to find the face of the Virgin Mary in everyday objects, I couldn't help but think that my veal, prepared by an Italian chef in an Italian restaurant, had an oddly similar resemblance to a famous boot-shaped country in the Mediterranean.

According to Chef Raphael, he had simply pounded the veal thin, coated it in 00 flour, pan seared it it some clarified butter and then finished it simply with fresh lemon juice and parsley. While the other four courses had been perfectly seasoned, the chef indicated that he choose to underseason this one slightly. Fair enough, but a lot of my dinner guests tonight thought it could use a smidge more salt. Once we managed to track down a few salt shakers, a few extra grains of salt were all that was required to bring this dish completely into focus. The veal was incredibly tender and the combination of lemon, butter, and parsley were simple, yet very effective.

One of the guests who didn't eat veal, requested something different and this was brought to the table, a stuffed and baked eggplant:

* see note below

While I didn't get to try this, the diner who ate it said it was simply marvelous (in fact, it was her photo that I am using).

Finally, we were on our last course. The chef wisely finished up the meal with two scoops of Vaccaro's homemade gelati, pistachio and butter pecan. Each plate was decorated with a single luscious blackberry and sprinkled with powdered sugar:

With my dessert, I ordered a cup of decaffeinated coffee, hold the sugar and cream, please:

While the portion may look small, it was the perfect amount to end this gluttonous meal. The pistachio really sang in my mouth and I almost got the sense that there was a second flavor in there, too, almond perhaps? The nuts in the butter pecan had been toasted prior to incorporation into the gelato. This not only brought out the full flavor of the pecans, but also made them easier to eat and not so crunchy. The blackberry, it should be noted, was also uncharacteristically sweet, just like the blueberries were in the salad course.

It's hard to believe that this entire meal was only $25 per person, but it was. Like I mentioned before, these dishes aren't on Vaccaro's standard menu, but there isn't a reason to think that if you are planning your next dinner party, Chef Raphael and his team can't do something equally as impressive for you, too, gentle reader.

Now clearly I would be deluding myself if I thought that the chef didn't know I was going to write about tonight's experience and that he needed to bring his "A" game to the dinner table tonight. He and his staff did an outstanding job of making our experience tonight one that none of us will soon forget. I have been trumpeting Vaccaro's name since I first stepped foot back into the restaurant back in May after a ten year absence. Over the last seven months they have continued to deliver a wonderful menu, excellent food and service, and a pleasant and warm environment in which to experience it all. Whether you work with the chef to put something special together or decide just to order off of their regular menu, I think you'll be pleased with what you get. Of course, even the best of restaurants can have an off night, but I have yet to experience one of those at Vaccaro's Trattoria.

[* Note: The photographs of the "Howitzer" pepper mill and the stuffed roasted eggplant were taken by one of the dinner guests, Nancy Rhodes. She has graciously surrendered her ownership and copyright to me and I have released them on this blog under the same Creative Commons license in which the rest of the content is governed.]

Vaccaro's Trattoria on Urbanspoon Vaccaro's Trattoria on Restaurantica
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