Sunday, February 28, 2010

Extra Helpings: Welcome Home At Flury's Cafe

Just like with Twig's Diner, I've known the location of Flury's Cafe since I first stumbled upon it years ago when I was out for an evening walk in Cuyahoga Falls. And just like Twig's Diner, it took an outside influence for me to put it on my list of places to try out. I was mucking around on Facebook the other day and noticed that there is a group for Locally Owned Akron businesses. If one clicks on the Discussions tab, there are a myriad of topics posted relating to the group, including one on restaurants. It was here that I discovered the mention of Flury's Cafe on more than one occasion. My curiosity now piqued, I decided that a visit was in order.

From my research, I knew that Flury's Cafe was a tiny space and made a concerted effort to go when it probably wouldn't be busy. At around 1:15 PM today, I drove down Sackett Avenue until I saw this sign:

Flury's Cafe was located at 1300 Sackett Avenue, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223 and could be reached at 330-929-1315. While they do have a small static website, the menu listed online was a subset of the menu I was given today. Parking was directly in front of the main entrance to the cafe, which itself was on the side of the building and not street-facing:

Once inside, I was warmly greeted. I realized I had come at a good time as there was only one other customer sitting at the counter. While I had read that the cafe was small, I was amazed when I surveyed the entirety of the restaurant; they weren't kidding! There were two tables of four and eight bar stools at the counter. Along the back wall was the convection oven, the fryer, flattop and a cold food station. While nothing felt cramped, it was definitely intimate. During the course of my meal at Flury's today, I did my usual people watching, but at some point was pulled with ease into the conversations that were happening around me. The experience was so nice that after finishing and paying for my meal, I just wanted to hang around for a bit and enjoy the genuine camaraderie and good-natured banter. It felt more like I had gone to a friend's house for lunch or dinner than eating at a restaurant. This was the kind of intimacy that corporate restaurant chains strive so hard to achieve but so sorely lack.

While some of Flury's menu is online, when my server handed me the official paper menu, I realized that I was holding a much more detailed and fleshed out menu. I managed to get a snapshot of each panel:

What caught my eye most was the multiple uses of the word "homemade" or "housemade." While breakfast was served all day, I decided today to stick with something a little more sandwich-like. It should be noted that unless stated otherwise on the menu, all the sandwiches and sides are a la carte. Looking over my sandwich options, there was plenty that looked good. I thought I might be in a burger mood today until I saw the BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich with housemade BBQ sauce. Bingo! Looking over the sides it was a no-brainer to go with the housemade macaroni and cheese.

It was amazing to watch the staff of two (cook and server) move in and out of personal and professional roles so easily. Once my order (and another customer's) was placed, the cook became single-minded and worked a solid ten minutes to produce both orders, piping hot and ready for service. While I hadn't ordered any of the fried-from-frozen onion rings, the other customer did and I have to say that they looked good.

First up was my BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich:

Adorned with a slice of February tomato, ribbons of Iceberg lettuce and some of the housemade BBQ sauce, there was a sizable amount of pulled pork topping a grilled bun. While pulled pork purists would scoff at the notion of serving the pork already dressed with sauce, this didn't bother me at all. The only condiment missing from my sandwich that the menu had listed was mayonnaise. Which, to be honest, I didn't really miss as the sandwich was incredibly juicy and moist. The pork was tender and seasoned perfectly and the tomato-based BBQ sauce added a wonderful mix of salty, sour, and sweet. My initial reaction was to remove the lettuce and tomato as they seemed superfluous to the sandwich. It wasn't until I took a bite that I realized that they served as a temperature buffer, cooling the very hot pulled pork to a level where you wouldn't burn your mouth. Also worth noting was the unusual bun, which had been nicely buttered and grilled. It turns out that the buns were from a locally owned bread shop, the Sarah Jane Bread Company. I've seen their products in my local Acme supermarkets and was excited that Flury's Cafe was using this quality product as well. The bun held up well to the rather wet filling and managed to keep its integrity from start to end.

Along with my sandwich came my side of housemade macaroni and cheese:

Lightly sprinkled with paprika to garnish, this was everything a good macaroni and cheese should be. The pasta had a nice chew to it and the cheese sauce was creamy, smooth, and well-balanced. While the portion appeared small on the plate for $3.25, appearances were deceiving. Between my sandwich and my side, I was completely full by the time I reached the bottoms of both plates. The cheese sauce was impressive on its own. I could tell that it was made with a combination of cheeses, cheddar to be certain, as there were multiple flavors assaulting my taste buds. I picked up a slight tanginess, so I'm wondering if there isn't sour cream or maybe cream cheese in there as well. Either way, it was delicious and highly recommended.

I really enjoyed my experience today at Flury's Cafe. Between the atmosphere, the fun-natured staff and the delicious food, this little cafe is a place where you can retreat from the pressures of modern living and enter a small, intimate space where you can eat and share amongst friends. There were so many interesting items from which to pick that you could go back time and again and still have a hard time eating your way through the entire menu. Personally, I plan on trying just that.

Flury's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Lenten Project, Week 2

For the second week of The Lenten Project, I was supposed to stop by for lunch at Peninsula United Methodist Church and then dinner at St. Mary Catholic Church in Hudson. Sadly, Mother Nature decided to throw a last minute curve ball my way by dumping several inches of snow on the northeast Ohio area last night making the roads impassable until well after lunchtime. And, in fact, looking at the projected radar forecast for the early evening hours, it appeared that I would have a narrow window of opportunity to drive up to Hudson for dinner and back before additional flurries began falling once again. That said, the taste for fried fish and pierogi being especially strong today, I decided to take the risk and venture out.

I was fortunate to have started writing this entry before heading out to Hudson. After linking to the website of St. Mary Catholic Church, I clicked on the link to make sure it was good. I'm glad I did. Apparently St. Mary had already canceled the dinner for Friday, February 26th. An appropriate response? Mustering up my best Homer Simpson voice, "D'oh!" I debated what to do now. When I started The Lenten Project, it was with the idea that I wanted to taste some of the area's non-commercial fish fries. Today, however, I had been given a big old basket of lemons. Thinking locally, I decided to re-focus and decided that in this particular case, I would still honor the notion of a fish fry, but at a restaurant that was very close to where I live, Duffy's Restaurant and Grill. They have been advertising an AYCE (all you can eat) fish fry on Fridays for quite some time.

Duffy's was located at 231 Darrow Road, Akron, OH 44305 and can be reached at 330-784-5043. Parking was in the lot connected to the south side of the restaurant and in a single row on the north side.

I had actually been wanting to try Duffy's since they reopened in December 2009. Very early in 2009, a fire had broken out in the kitchen during dinner service at the end of January and completely destroyed the inside of the restaurant. Fortunately, all of the patrons and staff were able to evacuate the building safely. Unfortunately, it took them almost a year to re-open. I didn't want to review them too soon after they opened because every restaurant needs a couple of weeks or a month to work out the service kinks. Tonight seemed like an opportune time.

As I drove up Darrow Road, the first thing I noticed was the roadside sign:

I had gone early today, both wishing to beat the impending snow storm and the Friday dinnertime crowds. Even at 4:50 PM, I pulled into an almost completely filled parking lot. There were two entrances to Duffy's. One was on the side of the building and leads you directly into the bar area. The other, the front entrance,

leads you to a reception area where you can go left to enter the restaurant area or right to enter the bar area. While the interior of Duffy's was essentially one big room, a partition divided the restaurant in half. That being said, I could easily see the barside flat panel TV's from my table on the restaurant side. While I've heard tales of the dim interior before the fire, the current interior was decently lit and looked modern and updated.

While I knew I was here for the fried fish, I went ahead and took photographs of the menu:

The daily specials were printed on a piece of paper and affixed to the top of the menu:

From what I gathered on additional signs around the restaurant also listing the daily specials, the cheese ravioli were homemade. Half-tempted to go with something that I knew was made from scratch, I stuck to my guns and ordered the fried fish dinner. With my dinner, I received a dinner roll and my choice of salad.

Here was a shot of the dinner roll and pats of butter that my server brought me:

The roll was nothing special. It was room temperature and fresh. The butter was nice because it was also room temperature and spread easily on the roll.

My server brought my cole slaw out with my dinner roll:

As I began to eat this side dish, I started to sense a tingling, almost burning sensation, in my nostril. After eating another bite or two, I put two and two together and realized that there must be horseradish in the cole slaw. It was a nice slow burn and while I quite enjoyed it, those who aren't fans of the spicy root will probably find it a bit too overpowering. Thinking that this must be homemade, I asked my server about it. It turns out that Duffy's was serving Grandma's Original Recipes Cole Slaw, of which horseradish was indeed one of the ingredients. I know I have seen this brand in local supermarkets here in Akron, but I had a devil of a time finding a website for the manufacturer of this product. The closest I got was to click on this link, which gives you what the product looks like, but not the name of the manufacturer. Regardless, the cole slaw would turn out to be the highlight of the meal.

After only a few additional minutes, my fried fish platter arrived at my table:

With the fried fish dinner, you got to choose a side. As my server ran through the list when I first placed my order, I discovered that one of my options was macaroni and cheese. While I figured that there wouldn't be pierogi on tonight's menu, I was happy to see that I could carry something forward from last week's tasting to tonight.

Here was a shot of the fried fish:

While at first the fish appeared to be fried perfectly and not greasy, upon lifting up the white fish fillets and inspecting the underside, I noticed that parts of the bottoms of the fillets were indeed a bit too greasy. The majority of the coating was nice and crunchy, but there were a few pieces that I sort of pushed aside on my plate because it was too soggy from sitting in grease. The beer batter coating did have some seasoning in it, but it was clear that it needed just a bit more salt. I'm guessing that the fillets weren't seasoned after being pulled out of the fryer. The biggest disappointment for me, however, was the rather anemic strips of fish inside the coating. The fish wasn't dried out, but there was so little meat that it also wasn't moist either. My server checked in on me several times to see if I wanted to order additional fish, but I politely declined each time.

Where the fish had been a bit mediocre, the macaroni and cheese side that I received was downright awful:

The cheese sauce was creamy, but fairly unremarkable in its flavor. While I am normally critical of the taste of food, in this instance it turned out that the elbow macaroni was the Achilles' heel of this dish. Having been cooked WAY past done, it had no texture at all. Engaging in the perfunctory act of simply chewing food before swallowing seemed entirely unnecessary as the minute I put a bite of this side dish in my mouth, it more or less dissolved. I found it akin to taking the time to chew pureed baby food. I did end up eating about half of the portion I was given, but it was mostly out of some morbid curiosity to see if I could discover a mouthful that didn't leave me disappointed.

The final element on the plate was the tartar sauce:

I didn't have a chance to ask too many questions of my server as the restaurant was filling up by this point, so I don't know if this was homemade or not. My guess would be no, but I'm willing to concede being wrong. It had a nice balance of flavors between sweet and sour and the mayonnaise-based condiment did help the fried fish a little bit in the moistness department.

Quite honestly, I was disappointed with my meal tonight at Duffy's. As I mentioned earlier in this entry, my goal during The Lenten Project was to focus only on non-commercial entities so as to level the playing field. These churches, lodges, and clubs only do these fish fries during this one time of the year. My expectation was that a commercial establishment should easily surpass a non-commercial one. Last Friday's meal at Our Lady of Peace in Canton far outshone the meal I had tonight at Duffy's. While I obviously cannot comment on the rest of the menu offered by the restaurant since I didn't taste it tonight, I can tell you that there are far better places to get fried fish and macaroni and cheese than at this establishment.

Duffy's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 26, 2010

Amping Up The Flavor At AMP 150

The Airport Marriot at the intersection of West 150th and I-71 has taken a bold, and some might consider risky, move. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist (or perhaps more appropriately a public media person) to know that downtown Cleveland and the areas just surrounding the downtown have some rockin' and pretty hip places to eat. Two of Iron Chef America Michael Symon's restaurants are located in the extremely trendy neighborhoods of East 4th and the Tremont district. Chef Jonathon Sawyer is playing to the local, sustainable, and ultimately "green" crowd with his restaurant on East 4th, just a few storefronts down from Michael Symon.

Knowing that the Airport Marriot could get a significant slice of that restaurant revenue if they opened something desirable within the hotel, they recruited and brought in Executive Chef Ellis Cooley and his vision of a fine dining establishment so that guests didn't have to leave the premises to find great food. Originally envisioned as a gastropub by the Marriot management team, Chef Cooley convinced them to pursue a different direction instead. He wanted to bring local, seasonal, and high quality ingredients to a menu that rotated during the course of the year. He has been tweaking the menu since the opening of the flagship restaurant, AMP 150, in order to hone and finely tune the menu offerings to match what guests were ordering. He has also championed the notion of the "small plates," where guests can find smaller, higher quality tastes for less money than their large brethren, the entrée. Similar in notion to Spanish tapas, this gives guests a way to share many different flavors for the same amount of money they'd spend on a single entrée.

Back in January 2010, I had received a communication from a fellow Cleveland foodie, Stuart, that Chef Cooley was looking to sponsor a menu tasting for local foodies and food bloggers. Sadly, due to multiple counts of inclement weather, the meal was postponed until the majority of us could convene last night. And even though the weather last night was pretty crappy, too, I was bound and determined to find out what Chef Cooley and his menu offered the northeast Ohio diner.

Before we begin, gentle reader, full disclosure dictates that I inform you that I knew going into the meal that it would be fully comp'd (minus alcoholic beverages). While I am normally uncomfortable with a gratis meal, my curiosity was firmly piqued and I knew that this restaurant might be something those of you who are kind enough to read my blog might be interested in. I checked with my contact to make sure he knew that if I did attend, it was with the intention of being honest and fair in what I wrote. He indicated that it wouldn't be a problem.

[Ed. Note: Begin soapbox. In case you didn't already know, when being comp'd a dish or an entire meal, it is important to realize that the food is free, not the service. Always tip a commensurate amount to your service staff. Sometimes patrons get the phrase "free food" stuck in their minds and forget that most of a server's wages here in the US come from tips. Okay, end soapbox.]

The other item I wanted to mention before beginning was that nearly everything we tried tonight was either on the menu currently or had been on in the past and would more than likely be making a return sometime soon. That being said, what you are about to witness turned out to be a multi-hour onslaught of food. I did manage to try everything that came out of the kitchen, but sadly some courses just didn't get finished due to the sheer amount of food that Chef Cooley sent our way. Due to the volume of courses we had tonight, some of my descriptions may be more in depth and some less. However, let it be known that I truly enjoyed the enormity of what Chef Cooley did for us tonight.

First up, the current menu for AMP 150. A left, middle, and right shot:

The current menu is broken up into Appetizers, Soups and Salads, Small Bites, Gardens, and Larger Bites. At the end of the meal, the chef stopped by to talk with us about the notion that he was thinking about revamping the menu so that Small Bites are much more predominant than Larger Bites. His thinking fell along the lines of, "Why pay $25 for one taste when you can pay the same amount for four tastes?" I think if he can keep the Small Bites in line with his philosophy of local, sustainable, and best quality possible, he may just have a winner here.

As soon as we were seated, two flat breads and two types of chicken wings appeared on our table. Here was a shot of my appetizer plate:

To the upper left was the oyster mushroom, goat cheese and celery leaf flat bread. To the upper right was the roasted chicken, fontina cheese, fresh rosemary, and garlic oil flat bread. Both were fantastic, but the roasted chicken flat bread was top notch. The combination of the flavors just sang in my mouth. The flat bread itself was also nice and thin and had a wonderful crunch to it without it crumbling when taking a bite. The chicken wing to the front of the plate was the Natural Free Range Chicken Wing with spicy glaze. The one to the rear was the Sweet Soy and Peanut Chicken Wing with homemade spicy Kimchee. I'll say collectively about both wings that they were cooked perfectly, each with nice crispy skin and juicy chicken meat inside. The spicy glaze on the first wing was akin to your standard "hot" wing and was quite tasty. The Sweet Soy and Peanut wing by itself wasn't all that spicy, but the homemade spicy Kimchee was delicious. In a nod of what was to come, I began to realize that Chef Cooley draws his culinary influences from all over the world.

Next up were a plate of Old Bay House Made Potato Chips:

Again, like so many of the dishes tonight, these were expertly fried and seasoned. By themselves, they had almost a "BBQ chip" flavor. Accompanying the chips were a homemade lemon aioli (think garlic mayonnaise) and a tarragon mignonette. Both dips offered an interesting contrast to the flavor of the chips and gave you that difference between creamy chip dip and a salt and vinegar chip.

Seeing that we hadn't yet met our fried food quota, the Hand Cut Sea Salt Fries showed up next at our table:

Served with more of the homemade lemon aioli and regular ketchup, these fries were actually quite good on their own. Not normally a fan of hand cut or fresh cut fries, these had none of the negative qualities that plagues the category in general. These were crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, and seasoned with just the perfect amount of salt. While I did try the two dipping sauces, I ate most of my fries just naked because they were so good.

When we figured we were finally done with the appetizers, another showed up just to prove us wrong. Here was the Chicken Liver Pate served with grilled bread:

Accompanying this appetizer was a selection of relishes to pair with the chicken liver spread:

On the top was a barely sweetened cranberry compote, on the bottom was more of a traditional cranberry jam, and to the right was a spicy and sweet cranberry jam. One of these was Jorgensen's Jam as noted on the menu, but no one bothered to identify which was which, so I tried all three. Interestingly, cranberry does pair well with chicken liver pate, but it was the sweet and spicy cranberry jam on the right of the plate that proved to be the best pairing for me. One other interesting flavor to note was the charred bits of bread. The flavor actually worked well to cut through the fattiness of the pate. I don't think just toasting the bread would've been enough. It was the actual char that worked so well.

When our server began dispensing soup spoons, everyone at the table pretty much figured our next course would be a soup. Here was the simply named, but complex Chicken Soup:

Made with homemade chicken stock, this clear broth contained bits of shredded chicken, avocado, jalapeno, radish, tomato, lime, and a few small pieces of freshly made sweet cornbread. Oddly enough, the cornbread was the key to balancing all of the flavors in this dish for me. Savory, acidic, spicy, and just slightly sweet, this was an unusual but delicious chicken soup.

Thinking we had finally progressed beyond the Appetizer section of the menu, the chef mixed it up again and sent out two shellfish dishes. First, Black Mussels with ginger and lemongrass served in a spicy chili broth:

The mussels were exceedingly tender and the flavor of the ginger and lemongrass showed through brightly. While I did manage to get some of the broth in the mussel shells, apparently it wasn't enough for me to sense the spicy chili flavor the chef intended. However, a fellow diner who ate a spoonful of the sauce directly said that she could definitely detect a bit of heat.

Our second seafood course was something that wasn't currently on the menu, steamed cockles with bacon:

Again, these were exceedingly tender, especially for being such small examples of seafood. The bacon was tender, not crispy, and added much needed smoke and salt to the cockles. I think had we not already had so much food and knowing that more was to come, I would've loved to have seen both the mussels and cockles served with some nice French bread to soak up all that amazing cooking liquid.

Full yet, gentle reader? You'd better loosen your belt a notch because we are about to hit a few more highlights off the menu before getting to dessert. Next up? The salad courses, of course.

First up was a Bibb Lettuce Salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, paper thin shaved red radish that was dressed in a pumpkin seed vinaigrette:

If you've never had the opportunity to taste toasted pumpkin seed oil before, it is a really unusual and delicious flavor. You won't find it in most grocery stores, but it can be found in specialty food stores and health food stores. Incredibly good for you, it has a wonderful deep and nutty flavor that is most distinctive. The Bibb lettuce in this salad served as a wonderful vehicle for getting the pumpkin seeds and vinaigrette from plate to mouth.

The second salad we were served consisted of Baby Arugula with candied walnuts, blood orange supremes, shaved Parmesan cheese, all dressed with a citrus vinaigrette:

The saltiness and savoriness from the cheese, the pepperiness from the arugula, the sweetness and acidity from the blood oranges all worked so well together. It turned out that I had an entire plate of this salad sitting in front of me most of the time the salads were on the table. Consequently, I nearly finished this, even knowing that more was to come.

The next course, Chicken Paprikash, had been specifically requested by the coordinator of the event. Apparently it had been on the menu in the past and according to the chef, would most likely be making a return since it sold well. The chef had decided that he wanted to offer Austrian Goulash on the current menu and didn't want the two dishes competing. Here was a shot of the Chicken Paprikash:

Essentially a chicken roulade that was comprised of whole strips of breast meat chicken combined with a forcemeat of the dark meat chicken, the entire mixture was placed onto a piece of plastic wrap, rolled tightly into a log and then gently poached until cooked. It was then cooled and sliced into rounds for service before being reheated on the flattop. The rich paprika-laden sauce and crispy fried shallots gave this dish incredible depth of flavor. That being said, this was the only dish of the entire evening where I felt the seasoning was a bit too aggressive. When I shared my assessment with a fellow diner, I received a nodded head of agreement. I enjoyed the real depth of flavor each of the elements gave to the dish, but I definitely had to finish the rest of my glass of water afterwards to restore balance to my palate.

Next, the fish course. First up was a Pan Roasted Arctic Char with honey-glazed turnip matchsticks, charred onion puree and frisee salad:

In case you are unfamiliar with Arctic Char, it is somewhat of a cross between salmon and trout. The fish was cooked perfectly, the skin being nice and crispy and the flesh being translucent and creamy in flavor. The bed of honey-glazed turnips sitting underneath the fish were cooked, but still firm and the sweetness from the glaze went well to soften the charred onion puree. Overall this was a very nicely balanced and seasoned dish.

Our second fish course was the Glazed Chesapeake Bay Cod:

Served over a smoked onion broth, the dish also contained fresh edamame, bok choy and broken shrimp. The smoked onion broth tied this dish into the previous fish dish quite well. The cod was moist and seasoned well and the soy glaze added a lot of savoriness to this dish. The edamame popped in my mouth like fresh (but actually delicious) lima beans.

Ok, gentle reader, are you still with me? We've now covered nine appetizers, one soup, two salads, one entree, and two fish courses. What could possibly be left? Meat, of course!

The first of the two meat courses was the Austrian Goulash:

This was served with a creamed herbed spaetzle. Upon further inspection, the "creamed" portion of the description turned out to be coconut milk, giving the spaetzle a wonderful floral taste to it that worked well against the heaviness of the beef. Having been braised for hours, the beef was incredibly tender and flavorful. Eaten together with the creamed spaetzle, my palate began picking up additional flavors such as hints of cinnamon that didn't exist in either primary component. Perhaps more of that culinary alchemy that I've experienced in the past?

Our final meat course was a seared lamb tenderloin that currently was not on the menu:

Seared medium rare and sliced and fanned over brown lentils and Merguez sausage, this was both a hearty final dish as well as a nicely spiced one. The tenderloin slices were mild and still juicy and the lentils were cooked perfectly, retaining just a bit of their integrity. I don't know if the chef intends to put this dish on a future menu, but if he does, order it. You won't be sorry.

Lest you think that we could get this far into a meal and skip dessert, here are the three that the kitchen sent out for us to sample. First, a lemongrass creme brulee with palate cleansing sorbet:

Next up, vanilla bean ice cream spiced with honey-glazed peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and more of that lovely pumpkin seed oil:

And finally, while not totally original, when made with Valrhona bittersweet chocolate, a decadent way to end a meal even for the most ardent of chocoholics; chocolate lava cake with some of Jeni's chocolate ice cream:

Cutting into the round of cake reveals the most luscious liquid interior that serves as the cake's own sauce. I've actually had this chocolate ice cream once before, during a trip to Columbus for the Ohio Linuxfest. If you've never tried it and you consider yourself a true chocoholic, you must track some down.

When I looked at the clock at the conclusion of the final dessert, it read 10:30 PM. We had been eating our way through the menu since 7:00 PM and I can safely say that every single one of us was completely stuffed. The chef came out to a warm smattering of applause and began a Q&A session with the entire table. I had thought about asking him where he drew inspiration from, but on reviewing the menu we had been served as well as the rest of the menu we hadn't, it was clear to me that no cuisine was off limits to Chef Cooley: Irish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Austrian, Hungarian, Korean, Japanese, North African. These were but a small sample of food cultures represented on this menu. Considering that "AMP" stands for "America's Modern Palate," I can only conclude that AMP 150's clientèle consist of the modern eater, one who eats out several times a week or month and isn't happy with basic meatloaf and potatoes any more.

Like many modern restaurants in the Cleveland culinary scene, I think AMP 150 is best enjoyed in the company of friends and family. The ability to share so many disparate flavors without breaking the bank makes the restaurant stand out in my mind. That you can get this level of food at a Marriot hotel impresses me even more. As I mentioned before, tonight's meal was gratis; however, in what turns out to be the ultimate assessment of what I thought of the food tonight, would I return and pay for a meal at AMP 150? Without a doubt, absolutely.

And since I didn't mention it specifically before, AMP 150 was located at 4277 West 150th Street, Cleveland, OH 44135 and can be reached at 216-706-8787. Reservations are recommended.

Amp 150 on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Ode to Cranberry Salad

[Ed. Note: I'm sure many of my gentle readers were ENTHRALLED with the Ode To Green Fluff that I published about six months ago. With the Easter holiday upon us shortly, I figured it would be appropriate to publish my next food-related opus, a tribute to my grandmother's cranberry salad. Enjoy!]

O dish of wobbly goodness, how I admire thee from afar!
With proper ingredients and good technique, a salad that's never sub-par.
Fresh apples and cranberries and ground walnuts for sure,
Anything more exotic and you wouldn't be so demure.

With fruit and nut perpetually suspended in Jell-O,
Ne'er a more delectable concoction has been sampled by this fellow.
Portions are served on lettuce both crisp and green,
Nary a vinaigrette is required which makes it quite lean.

Authenticity as a salad is assured by the masses,
As a multi-generational comfort food, clearly this passes.
But who amongst us really knows the true story
Of how fruit in Jell-O became a salad, a tale most hoary!

Admitting that chicken, tuna, and egg all make great salads,
The requirement of greens and a dressing simply must not be valid.
Can the salad universe handle such an expansive variety?
With selections so vast there can be only satiety.

What's needed right now is recognition that diversity is key,
All salads should be welcomed to be all that they can be.
So, this holiday season, embrace your cranberry salad with gusto,
The sour, sweet, crunchy Jell-O treat that's so good, you'll be in lust-o!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Two For The Price Of One: Siamone's Double Header

Visit The First

After a long week at work, I decided to treat myself and return to a small restaurant I had discovered several months ago, Siamone's Thai Pub. I had been so impressed with the quality of the food that when I wrote up my last entry covering my experience there, I actually fast tracked it to the front of my publishing queue. Since then, I had returned one other time in order to try the Phnom Penh noodles in soup, or what in most Vietnamese restaurants would simply be called Pho. I knew it was time to return to try another item that had caught my eye the first time I went.

I was slightly surprised to see that the restaurant was only half-way full when I arrived at 6:30 PM on a Friday night. I suppose I was relieved that I would be able to get a seat right away, but a little shocked that they weren't busier. Regardless, I picked out a two-top table in the moderately lit bar and ordered a water from my server. While I knew what I would be having for my entree, I hadn't quite worked out what I wanted as a starter.

As I scanned the list of possibilities, I decided to give the Coconut Chicken soup (which would be Tom Kha Gai in the original Thai) a shot, seeing that it was only $3.99. After only a few short minutes, my server returned with a large bowl of creamy soup:

Filled with mushrooms, scallions, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, red bell pepper, chicken, and most surprising of all, diced tomato, the soup was incredibly well done. It was creamy, tart, sweet, spicy and earthy all at the same time. The chicken and vegetables were cooked perfectly and the broth ... oh my gosh, the broth! Honestly, as good as the solid ingredients were in the soup, when I realized that I had eaten most of them and only broth remained, I literally picked up the bowl and held it close to my face so that the distance from the bowl to my mouth was as small as possible. The broth was absolutely divine. In an interesting twist, the tomatoes worked well because the acidity of the diced tomato, not the sweetness, actually helped cut through the fattiness from the coconut milk. The spice level was just enough to make it interesting, but not overpowering in the least. I actually thought about ordering a second bowl of this soup and just skipping the entree entirely.

After nearly licking the bowl clean after finishing the soup, I was left with this:

A lone piece of lemongrass and a single kaffir lime leaf now sat at the bottom of the bowl waiting for my server to come and take away the dirty dish to the kitchen. If you like Thai flavors, you will LOVE this soup. I was already looking forward to returning to Siamone's just for this soup.

But, I had come tonight to try something else on the menu, the Beef Bulgogi in Stone Hot Pot, or as those more familiar with Korean dishes would know it, Dolsot Bibimbap. I have eaten bibimbap at other restaurants, but only rarely been served in the stone hot pot that was infamous for creating that nice crusty rice layer at the bottom of the bowl. Bibimbap, for those who don't know, is actually two words, bibim or "stirred" and bap or "rice". The concept of bibimbap is that cooked rice is placed in the bottom of a bowl and various raw and cooked items are placed on top of it. When the diner receives her bowl, additional accoutrement called banchan are added to taste and the entire affair is stirred around with the chopsticks, thus blending the flavors before eating it. Banchan can be anything from kimchi (fermented cabbage) to gochuzhang (chili pepper paste). The word dolsot actually refers to the fact the bibimbap is served in a heated stone bowl.

Traditionally, bibimbap is topped with an egg, authentically served raw in Korea and more commonly fried in America. Unfortunately, due to Americans' wariness of eating raw eggs, most Korean cooks not only fry the egg, but cook it until the yolk is cooked all the way through. Every place I've ordered this dish, I've had to really work at making sure not only my server, but also the cook knows that while I don't mind the egg being fried, I want the yolk runny. Most cooks making this dish aren't usually American natives and don't understand the concept of "sunny-side up" or "over easy" eggs. At one place in Massillon, Ohio, I finally was able to break the language barrier by saying, "Only cook the egg on one side."

With great trepidation I waited to see what came out of the kitchen. I could actually hear my dish arriving from around the corner before I saw it. As the tray containing my bowl approached the table, I could hear and more importantly smell the rice sizzling at the bottom of the bowl. This was what was set down in front of me:

The rice was hard to see in the above photo because of all of the wonderful ingredients on top. My server mentioned that she thought the cook might have cooked the egg too long, but when she picked up the tray, the yolk jiggled so she figured it would be just fine. While the whites were a little crispier than I like, the yolk was definitely runny. In Siamone's version, none of the banchan were brought to the table. The kimchi had already been added to the bowl for me as well as a little bit of the Korean chili paste. Knowing my penchant for spicy food, I asked the waitress if she could bring me the spice condiment "caddy" that they had at the restaurant. She began to explain that the cook had added some chili paste to the dish already and I gently stopped her mid-sentence and responded, "Trust me, I'll be needing more spice than that."

While I waited, I looked at the bowl of thick darn brown sauce accompanying my dolsot bibimbap:

This was the teriyaki sauce, which was essentially soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and corn starch to thicken it. I knew that the dish came with it, but was reluctant to use it. I tasted it anyway, just to be sure. As much as I've loved Siamone's food up to this point, there was no place on that tray for this sauce. It was just a bad pairing. And for all of the tasty authenticity that Siamone's had worked so hard on promoting, I have no idea why you would pair a classically Korean dish with a Japanese sauce. Actually, not even so Japanese as the thickening of the sauce with cornstarch was more of a Chinese technique. Either way, I put the sauce to the side and waited for the condiment caddy to arrive.

Once it did, I chose to apply several heaping tablespoons of sambal, which in this case was a chunky combination of chilies, garlic, vinegar, and salt. I then broke the egg yolk with my chopsticks and stirred the entire mixture around, careful not to touch the still hot stone bowl. As I dug in, every mouthful would be different because of the stirring. One bite would contain the grilled marinated beef and some kimchi, the next bite would contain some of the crispy rice from the bottom of the bowl and the next I would get some of the shredded carrots and bean sprouts. It was an incredibly good version of bibimbap. The sambal added a nice bit of heat without overwhelming the dish entirely. I was a little worried about the kimchi already being added to bowl as it can have quite a strong flavor, but this kimchi was mild and delicious and added only the slightest bit of tang. I actually only managed to eat half of my entree and ended up bringing the rest home for a delicious lunch the next day.

Other than the really odd teriyaki sauce pairing with my entree, my entire experience just goes to underscore how really wonderful the food at Siamone's Thai Pub is. If you love these flavors or just want to learn what these flavors are, I implore you to seek out Siamone's and give them a try for yourself. While Siamone's does use local ingredients from time to time (e.g., the diced tomato in my Tom Kha Gai), she also understands the balance that the dishes from this region of the world need to have. Should you decide to order the dolsot bibimbap, I suggest you skip the teriyaki and go right for the more authentic flavor of the sambal. If you're a chili-head like me, you won't be sorry that you did. I'm looking forward to returning soon.

Visit The Second

And return I did. In doing this double header, I wanted to share even more of Siamone's wonderful menu with you, gentle reader. While I have noted before that a lot of the appetizers are fairly expensive, today I decided to try and keep the balance of the overall bill in check by choosing one of the more inexpensive entrees. In the past I have tried the chicken and coconut soup and the Cambodian spring rolls. This time around, I went with an old Thai stand-by, chicken satay:

All of the elements of a typical chicken satay were on the plate, however, there were a few differences. For starters, the normal sweet and sour sauce with a few pickled vegetables were replaced by it's opposite, a lot of pickled vegetables with just a little bit of sauce. While the flavor was most familiar, the use of the the condiment as a "dipping" sauce was obviously lost. I had to eat or move most of the vegetables so I could get at the meager amount in the bottom of the cup. The second deviation was in the peanut sauce. While the sauce did have peanuts in it, it tasted much more strongly of butter, to the point of reminding me of a buerre blanc. The remarkably yellow sauce even made it look like it had been mounted with quite a bit of butter, too.

The chicken was nicely grilled and given the unusual flavor of the peanut sauce, overall the dish was very good. Still a bit pricey at $8, but it definitely was filling and could easily serve as a single appetizer for 2-3 adults.

For dinner tonight I decided to have a bowl of the Phnom Penh noodles in soup, or in the more Vietnamese vernacular, Pho. Even though it was one of the more inexpensive items on the restaurant's menu, it certainly wasn't lacking in flavor or portion size:

With my pho came the obligatory bean sprout and lime garnishes:

And the condiment caddy, the "box of hot":

I added a few bean sprouts, a nice squirt of lime juice and a healthy amount of one of my favorite condiments in the world, sriracha. I stirred it all into the broth and took my first spoonful. Absolute heaven. The richness from the broth, the spiciness from the sriracha, and the acid from the lime juice all played so nicely with each other. Oddly, one flavor I detected this time that I didn't the last time I enjoyed this dish at Siamone's was a gentle sweetness. It wasn't a predominant flavor, but rather subtly sitting in the background. I greedily slurped up soup, noodles, tender cuts of beef, scallion, and red pepper. Because I had finished my chicken satay appetizer, I was only able to get through about half of this bowl of soup. Fortunately, I was able to take the remainder home with me for lunch the next day. Not quite as good as fresh out of the kitchen, but still pretty darn tasty.

Overall, Siamone's Thai Pub continues to impress me with its fantastic menu and spot-on flavors. The somewhat unappealing teriyaki sauce and the rather unusual peanut sauce from my two visits here really were anomalies in the overall Asian flavor profile I have been enjoying since I discovered the restaurant. The fact that Siamone's is local to Akron just makes me that much happier. I strongly encourage you to check them out if you live anywhere in the Akron area. If you are from out-of-town and like good Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or Cambodian food, make it a point to add a stop in your journey to try them out. You won't be disappointed that you did.
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