Friday, July 30, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Eggs Benedict And The *&!@$ Hollandaise

A while back, I had eaten a late breakfast at Twig's Diner in Barberton, Ohio. I had ordered the Twig's Benedict (their interpretation of the diner classic, Eggs Benedict). When I received my food, I noticed that the poached eggs were not only perfectly shaped, but exactly the same. When I asked Twig if they poach their eggs before service and then reheat them, she looked somewhat aghast at me and insisted that they were cooked to order, which could get overwhelming on the weekends because of the popularity of the dish.

Puzzled by this series of inconsistencies, I asked friend and Western Reserve School of Cooking owner Catherine St. John about this and she indicated that Twig's was probably employing some type of egg poaching mechanism, either a machine, or some other device that allows them to cook perfectly poached eggs every time. She could sense that this information surprised me a bit and when we returned to her shop, she brought me to a section of the store where she pointed out an item made out of silicone called poachpods. For $9.95, you received two cup-like silicone molds not unlike something that might've gone a long way to cover up the Justine Timberlake / Janet Jackson nipple flash fiasco at the Superbowl only a few short years ago.

Furthermore, after our amusing conversation about these gadgets' effectiveness at making poached eggs, Catherine simply picked one up and said, "Here. A gift from me to you. Blog about it if you want to." Well, okay then! Knowing that I was coming over to my grandmother's condo for the weekend, I stopped at the store to pick up the necessary ingredients for Eggs Benedict: eggs, butter, vinegar, English muffins, and some sliced ham. My main goal was to try poached eggs two ways, one in the poachpod and the other using the old fashioned method of immersion in almost boiling water.

First, here was a shot of the poachpods (made by Fusionbrands - caution, website has sound):

There were actually two pods in this pack and after separating them from their tag, I thoroughly washed both, even though I would only be needed one today. Here were the pertinent instructions on poaching eggs from the cardboard tag:

"To poach an egg: evenly oil the poachpod. Bring about 1 1/2" of water to a boil in a sauté pan, reduce to a simmer, crack an egg into the poachpod and float in the water. Cover pan with a lid and cook in simmering water 4 to 6 minutes or to desired firmness. Use a slotted spoon to remove the poachpod from the water. To remove the egg from the poachpod, run a spoon around egg edge, then flip pod inside out and gently push egg out."

To be honest, the oiling step kind of threw me. For some reason I guess I had assumed that the silicone stuff was kind of non-stick, but apparently not. I assembled the ingredients required for today's brunch:

The picture should be pretty self-explanatory, although I will say that two sticks of butter was WAY more than I needed today, even with my multiple attempts at making a hollandaise. I probably ended up pouring about 1/2 a stick's worth down the drain when I was doing the dishes.

So you've seen the ingredients, let's take a look at the various equipment stations. First up was the English muffin toasting station, namely my grandmother's toaster oven:

Next up was the egg poaching station, a large dutch oven filled about halfway with water and brought to a simmer:

The cider vinegar was there for the non-poachpod egg. A small addition of vinegar to the water helps the white part of the egg to set faster. I ended up adding able a half a tablespoon to the water. It wasn't enough that I could taste vinegar on the poached egg, but you could definitely smell the aroma if you took a big whiff of the steam.

Finally, the hollandaise station:

The pan in the back would be used for making my clarified butter and the pan in the front was where I intended to build my hollandaise.

The first step in building a hollandaise was to separate out two egg yolks and put them in the pan with about a tablespoon of tap water. The addition of the water gives you just a bit of extra insurance that you won't cook your egg yolks too far:

With the burner on medium heat, start whisking the yolks and water furiously.

As you continue to whisk and heat, you'll notice that the eggs will get frothy and begin to thicken. You may also notice some steam rising from the pan. If you need to, pull the pan on and off the heat as you whisk to control how fast the temperature in the pan is rising. Once the yolks are nicely thickened, you are ready to start adding the clarified butter.

But, of course, I am ahead of myself. Let's clarify some butter first. In a small saucepan, place your sticks of butter and put them over medium heat:

After the butter fully melts, it will begin to bubble. This is the water content of the butter boiling out. This is good. You'll also notice that a white foam starts floating on top. Using a spoon, just skim this mixture away into a separate bowl.

Here was a shot of the butter bubbling away, midway to clarification:

Finally, once the bubbling slows and stops, turn the heat down or off immediately and do one final skimming. Congratulations, you've just made clarified butter!

If you leave the heat on after you've reached this stage, two undesirable things will happen. The milk solids in the bottom of the pan will begin to brown and create buerre noisette. And while buerre noisette is utterly delicious, it isn't desirable when trying just to clarify the butter. The second, and more important, is that the butter will remain extremely hot and when you go to add it to your whisked yolks in your hollandaise pan, you will get hollandaise disaster #1:

This was my first attempt at hollandaise. Because the butter I added was too hot, it actually cooked the yolks and they coagulated. D'oh! Fortunately, I had more eggs and clarified butter, so I cleaned out the pan and started over with two more yolks and a tablespoon of water. When I got to the right point with the yolks, I began adding the now cooled clarified butter to much success. Until I accidentally added too much butter and the sauce split and little pools of butter began to form on the surface. Hmmm, this wasn't going as well as I had hoped. Hollandaise disaster #2.

But not to worry, I remembered something that Alton Brown from Good Eats had said on his show on making mayonnaise. If it splits, start a new yolk in a fresh bowl and gradually whisk in the contents of the split sauce into the new egg and all should be well. I did this and wouldn't you know it, it actually worked! I thinned the sauce with a little bit of vinegar (for flavor) and about a tablespoon of water.

Here was the finished hollandaise:

I also added salt to taste. The vinegar I added was a bit of sherry vinegar I had picked up at the store yesterday.

It did add a bit of brown coloration to the hollandaise, but the flavor was quite nice. Happy with my third attempt, I put the pan on extremely low heat and turned to make the next component of Eggs Benedict, the toasted English muffin. Maddeningly, when I turned to look at my perfect hollandaise just moments later, the smooth creamy sauce had once again, you guessed it gentle reader, SPLIT!! Ugh! Hollandaise disaster #3. At this point I had essentially run out of patience (as well as eggs), so I figured I would just live with the results I had. I am happy at least that I was able to get a shot of the finished sauce before it split just to prove I can make a successful hollandaise, even if I couldn't hold it until service.

I split my English muffin and placed it into the toaster oven to crisp it up:

Fortunately, I didn't really have to watch this so much as smell it to know when it was done. I oiled up the poachpod with some grapeseed oil and cracked my egg into it. I lowered it into the simmering water, covered the lid and set the timer for four minutes. At four minutes I checked the egg and while the outer edge was definitely set, the inner yolk seemed just a tad bit too liquid. I covered the pot for an additional minute and when I checked it again, the middle seemed firm enough. I removed the poachpod from the water, used a spoon to loosen the egg from the silicone, and flipped it on top of the English muffin half onto which I had already placed ham and inverted the cup. The egg did come out, but it overshot where I wanted it to land and I had to VERY CAREFULLY use the spoon to reposition the egg so that I didn't prematurely break the yolk open.

After topping the poached egg with the now broken hollandaise, here was what it looked like:

The egg was definitely a very nice uniform shape. When I cut into the center of the egg, five minutes had been the perfect amount of time to ensure that the yolk was warm and runny. Even with the unappealing visual aspect of the sauce, the flavor was actually still quite good. With the exception of the hollandaise, this was a nice Eggs Benedict. I think the poachpod product actually delivered on its promise.

For comparison, of course, I did my second poached egg the traditional way. First I cracked my egg into a custard cup:

I've read and been told many places that it's far easier to get a better poached egg if you crack it into a bowl first and then gently slip it into simmering water rather than cracking the egg directly into the pot. So that was what I did. I then used my slotted spoon to attempt to wrap the egg whites around the yolks. While I was somewhat successful, even with poaching just one egg, quite a good amount of whites got away. Because the egg was submersed completely in the water, I also didn't need to cover the pan. Additionally, the egg was cooked properly after only three minutes instead of the five I needed for the poachpod.

I removed the egg from the water using a slotted spoon, drained it slightly on a paper towel and deftly deposited it on my waiting English muffin / ham base:

I topped it with more of the broken hollandaise, and tucked into it to see if there were any differences I could spot. Both egg whites were tender and both egg yolks were warm and runny. Since the other three components of the Eggs Benedict were the same for both versions, other than the visual difference between the poached eggs, flavor-wise they were identical.

Here was a shot of the poaching pot I used after poaching just one egg the traditional way:

This kind of leads me to my final point, which was even with generously oiling the poachpod prior to cracking my egg into it, there was a bit of egg white residue left on the silicone after unmolding it. My guess would be that you would need to completely wash and clean it before using it again lest you have even worse sticking. That being said, with two molds, I was perfectly set up for a single serving of Eggs Benedict. But if you were making this for a group of people, you'd be well advised to get multiple sets of these molds as cleaning them between each use will become a truly time-consuming task.

So, even with my stupid hollandaise breaking three times, I still managed to vet the effectiveness of the poachpod in making perfectly poached eggs. While there were a few differences in technique and cooking times, in the end, it did a good job. For those who might be a little too frightened to do it the traditional way, it is a relatively inexpensive way to ensure that you get consistent results. As for my hollandaise making and holding skills, apparently I need just a few more lessons. That, or maybe a nice blender.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More Breakfasts From Flury's Cafe

I have written about a quaint little eatery in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, called Flury's Cafe twice now. However, I have eaten there probably a half-dozen times since my first visit. I don't know that I want to document every single visit with a blog post (nor do I think you would want to read about every single visit), but I figured that a single post about some of the breakfasts I've had would be a good use of our time together. Today I'll talk about a breakfast I ordered off the regular menu and one that came from the daily specials.

On my first visit to Flury's, I mentioned how very small the space was. The seating consists of two four-top tables and a series of stools around a lunch counter. However, what I don't know is if I captured effectively in my description was the size of the grill/fryer/prep area that Kim, owner and cook, has to deal with when making those inspired and tasty dishes. On the day that I visited, Kim's mom had actually stepped in and taken over the cooking duties for the day.

Here was the actual amount of area she had in which to work:

This was taken by me sitting at the corner of the lunch counter. To the right of the prep area was a dish washing station. Behind me was the front wall to the restaurant. The place is TINY to be sure. Fortunately, in all of my visits, I have tried to go at off times and have been rewarded with a usually fairly empty restaurant, so I've never had a problem getting a seat. The same may not be said for Saturday mornings.

For my first visit of the entry, I decided on going with a regular menu offering, the #16 from the breakfast menu. This consisted of a biscuit with gravy, hash browns, and eggs cooked to my request. I had seen the biscuits and gravy on the menu during earlier visits, but it wasn't until now that my curiosity was piqued enough to order them. When my server asked how I'd like my eggs prepared, I asked for sunny side up. She responded and said, "How about basted instead?" Memories of my grandmother's butter basted eggs suddenly flooded my brain and I quickly agreed.

As I sat there watching today's cook prepare my meal, I noticed several interesting items. First, she was using some type of oil in a squirt bottle to not only coat the grill, but to brush the split biscuit before grilling. I asked her about it later and she said that it was a butter and canola oil blend, which when she made it was closer to a 25% butter and 75% canola blend. When Kim made it, the butter content tended to be a little higher. The other interesting item I noticed was that when she went to prepare a serving of the sausage gravy, she actually finished the gravy with heavy cream. That was a twist to sausage gravy that I hadn't seen before.

Having finally plated up my breakfast, my server brought it over to me:

Because of the incredibly high standard set in previous visits, I was a little surprised that I had a few minor quibbles about the above plate of food. The eggs weren't seasoned at all. That being said, this was actually consistent with eggs I have ordered here before, so it wasn't a surprise. What was a surprise about the eggs was that based on my definition of the word "basted," these definitely did not like up to that adjective. Basted to me means that after you add the fat and crack in your eggs, you spoon the fat over the tops of the eggs until they are cooked. What Flury's had done was to crack the eggs on the fat on the grill, and then finished them by shooting a squirt of water onto the grill and covering it for fifteen seconds or so with a cover, thus cooking the tops of the eggs, too. That being said, once I added salt and pepper, the eggs were tender and delicious and the yolks nice and runny.

The other minor quibble was about the hash browns. The irregular chunks of potato clearly indicated that they were homemade, but they needed just a bit more salt. While you can see from the picture above that they were clearly griddled, they needed just a bit more time to add that textural contrast so that the outside was nice and crunchy and the inside nice and creamy.

The third component on the dish was the biscuit with sausage gravy:

The freshly made biscuit had been split, brushed with the butter/canola blend and then griddled to not only reheat the biscuit, but also give it more texture. The sausage gravy was ladled on top and finished off with a bit of paprika for color. You could definitely taste the smoothness and fattiness from the heavy cream and that may have helped to cut down the spiciness of the sausage as the heat was very mild. I for one would've loved a bit more peppery heat, but as it came, the biscuit and gravy was delicious.

While I will be the first to acknowledge that I'm being the ultimate nit-picker here, you have to understand that in all of my other visits, Flury's Cafe had set the bar very, very high. I also know that in my conversations with Kim, she seems to understand that the Devil is in the details, if you will. You need to use the best products available to you, make as much as you can from scratch, and always be concerned that every dish you send out tastes and looks the best that it can.

On my next visit, while I went in for a late lunch, it was the daily breakfast special that was calling my name. I have had Kim's wild blueberry crepes before, but I had yet to try her stuffed French toast with bananas. That was, until now. Here was a shot of the French toast:

And a shot of the crispy bacon that comes as a side:

First, let me just say that I always love pairing something salty and something sweet. Bacon was a no-brainer to me because it also let me pair something crunchy with something creamy. The French toast had been made by dredging some of the Sarah Jane bread used by Flury's Cafe in a typical egg / milk / cinnamon batter and then griddled on the stovetop. Kim then took an actual banana, fresh from the basket, peeled it and placed it onto the griddle as well. The third component of the dish was the luscious sauce that would be poured over the finished toast. She combined butter, brown sugar, some vanilla syrup, and what turned out to be the most surprising twist of all, fresh lemon juice in a pan and let it reduce while the bananas and toast were cooking. Once the first side of the French toast was cooked, she flipped them and then added the "stuffed" part of the dish: a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream, and powder sugar. After the second side finished, she assembled the entire affair, sprinkled the top with a bit of powdered sugar and brought it to me.

The minute I tasted the sauce, I was mesmerized. Many times, breakfast syrups can be a little too cloying for my taste. The addition of the lemon juice tempered the sweetness and allowed me to taste more of the other flavors. The funny thing was that it didn't actually taste of lemon, but I could definitely tell there was an acid in the sauce. Alternating between bites of salty bacon and sweet French toast, I eagerly gobbled this up. Grilling the bananas had been an excellent idea as the some of the bananas were soft, some were firm, and the grilled pieces had a bit of caramelization from the sugars in the banana itself. Whereas my previous breakfast had a few areas that could use improvement, today's breakfast was spot on. I was fortunate that my server was paying attention and as soon as I had finished the French toast, she addressed my temptation to lick the plate clean by clearing it away.

Having visited this eatery a half-dozen times now, I really can't recommend them enough. Even when the food wasn't perfect, it was still quite good and when the food was spot on (which has been every other time), it was absolutely marvelous. I have mixed feelings about the fact that in several days I will be starting a new job that will have me in Cleveland during the weekdays and I won't be able to get my weekly or bi-weekly Flury's fix. I guess that means I'll just have to start coming on Saturday's instead.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Waiter, There's Too Much Pepper On My Paprikash

The obvious reference to the line in the wonderful film, When Harry Met Sally, just couldn't be avoided.

I recently returned to the Golden Goose Restaurant and Bakery for a mid-day Saturday meal. My visit happened to occur the Saturday after Lisa Abraham had written about the establishment in her weekly Food section in the Akron Beacon Journal. As I pulled into the parking lot, I was amazed at how full the lot had become. Fortunately, as I walked in the front door, I wasn't greeted by a long line, but definitely a full restaurant. As I waited for one of the helpful servers to scout me out an empty table, I took a look at the daily specials whiteboard situated above the pastry case:

While I had originally had an inkling for the same fried chicken sandwich I had enjoyed on a previous visit, when I saw chicken paprikash with spaetzle as a daily special, I was definitely hooked. Sadly, the pastry case was completely empty at noon on Saturday. I would find out later when I inquired about the Saturday bread special, brioche, that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING pastry-related had been sold out for hours. Apparently, the Beacon article had done the trick in helping to drive in new customers. I asked my server if it had been a busy morning for the restaurant, too, and she indicated that they had been slammed for hours. In fact, they were also out of the challah for the French toast and the homemade mashed potatoes. Fortunately, they still had servings of the chicken paprikash.

The chicken paprikash also came with one side and I decided to originally go with mashed potatoes. When I learned they were out, I went with something I've had previously, the homemade coleslaw:

While I won't rehash the flavors here since I did it in an earlier post, it remained a tasty side. My only complaint was that the cabbage and carrots were absolutely swimming in sauce. After finishing the shredded vegetables in the dish, there was easily 1/2 cup of sauce left over in the bottom of the dish.

Next up, the chicken paprikash and homemade spaetzle:

When this was sat down in front of me, the first thought that popped into my head was, "Doesn't paprikash have paprika in it? Isn't paprika, like, really red?" There was a definite lack of ochre in the color scheme in the dish in front of me, so I wondered if there was even paprika in the dish at all (which pretty much defines paprikash). In fact, after I got home, I did a little digging around the Internet and found this picture of a chicken paprikash that more closely matched what I thought it should look like:

(Image courtesy of Is That My Bureka?)

Clearly, you can see a difference between the two sauces. I asked my server about the presence of paprika and while she initially said that she wasn't sure, when she returned from the kitchen minutes later, she told me that the kitchen had used quite a bit in today's preparation. The question having been asked and answered, I tucked in to Golden Goose's version. I tried the spaetzle first and was rewarded with wonderful little egg noodles that were tender and still had a bit of toothsomeness to them. While I don't know that it is particularly Hungarian, I personally would've sautéed the cooked spaetzle in a bit of buerre noisette to give an extra layer of flavor and texture. That being said, the noodles were still pretty darn good. The copious amount of caramelized onion sauce added a nice sweetness and savoriness at the same time.

Finally turning my attention to the piece of chicken, I discovered it to be a bone-in, skin on chicken breast. My first task was to remove the rather flabby chicken skin. While I'm a big fan of crisped chicken skin, this version didn't really entice me all that much. I gently pulled the chicken breast meat apart in rather large pieces. Here was a shot of the inside of the chicken breast:

While there was plenty of sauce in which to coat individual bites of meat, ultimately long cooking breast meat is a futile act. I learned this many, many years ago when my mom used to make CrockPot chicken using breast meat. No matter how much she sauced the meat, at the end of the day, the long cooking process had robbed the meat of any moisture. Her chicken used to "squeak" in my teeth as I chewed it. Today's chicken paprikash did the exact same thing. While it wasn't as utterly dehydrated as my mom's version, it still wasn't the luscious, juicy chicken breast that I knew was possible when cooked properly. I think the cooking process for chicken paprikash screams out for legs and thighs, cuts of meat that would be much better suited for this cooking method. Then again, I'm guessing most of the guests who would order this dish would prefer breast meat over dark meat. Sadly, it was their loss.

All of this nitpicking aside, this really was a tasty dish and even though I personally missed the paprika (at least in color), I would order it again. While I was hoping to take home a loaf of the homemade brioche bread today, fate and large crowds beat me to the punch. I suspect that pastry chef Michael Bruno will be ramping up his production to meet this new demand, but it may take a bit of time for him to fine tune his production schedule. I'm more than willing to wait.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When A Grinder Isn't Really A Grinder

Even before I write this blog post, I have a funny feeling I am about to be banned from yet another restaurant. As the song goes, "Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be."

I came across a reference to Bellacino's Pizza and Grinders when I was looking at a map of Stow area restaurants. After checking out their website (which included their menu), I was intrigued enough to add them to my list of places to visit. Based on the history blurb on their website, they had slowly grown from a small time mom and pop place to the full-sized eatery that was located at 3657 Fishcreek Road, Stow, OH 44224. They can be reached at 330-678-3000. The parking lot around the store was ample and should be able to handle a large number of customers.

Here was a shot of the front of the store:

While the patio was not only open and occupied tonight, it was still a bit too chilly for my taste so I opted to sit inside. During lunch service, Bellacino's was a serve yourself kind of place. But during dinner, the restaurant transforms into a full-service restaurant, replete with hostess. After seating me by a window table in the bar area, I began to peruse and photograph the menu:

I requested a glass of water and my server brought me this:

Normally I wouldn't include a glass of water in my write-up, but in this case I made an exception. Although the water had no odor, it definitely had a funky flavor. I'm not normally one to pick up on off flavors or odors in my water, but time after time of tasting this, I couldn't get over the pond-esque taste of it. It reminded me of the smell when you are walking through the woods and discover a still pond with algae growing in it. Now that very well may be the city of Stow's problem with its water, but I'm here to say Bellacino's needs to filter it.

I wasn't sure what I was going to order for dinner until I figured out a way to try both the grinder and a pizza. It seems that Monday night's special was a medium 12" specialty pizza for only $8.99. Coupled with the fact that I could get a 4.5" grinder sandwich (considered a 1/4 sandwich) for right around $4, I figured that I'd order both and just take whatever I didn't finish home for later consumption. For my grinder, I did ask my server if there was a house specialty and she pointed to the one with Italian cold cuts. Not really being in a cold cuts kind of mood, I asked her about the meatball grinder. She confessed that the meatballs weren't homemade, but the sliced meatball sandwich was a popular seller. For my pizza, I decided to go with the "Super," a combination of pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers and onions.

After a bit of a wait, my dinner finally arrived. First up, my meatball grinder:

It wasn't until I went to fold the sandwich over that I realized that the sandwich was actually on two different pieces of bread. And, in fact, it became apparent to me quite quickly after my server told me that a whole grinder was 18" long that what Bellacino's was offering was not a grinder, but a focaccia sandwich. Putting two and two together, I began to formulate a best guess as to what was going on. The dough being used for the "grinders" was the same homemade dough being used for the pizzas. To make this bread, I surmise that they spread the dough out onto full sheet pans, measuring 18" x 26" and bake it off earlier in the day. When a grinder is ordered, these sheets of dough (essentially focaccia at this point) are cut to size, toppings placed on top, and the whole thing is run under a broiler or placed in an oven to heat up.

As any sandwich aficionado knows, a proper sandwich is as much about the bread as it is about the toppings. And whether you call it a grinder, sub, hoagie, po' boy, or zeppelin, this sandwich qualified as none of those. This wasn't a mild stretching or interpretation of the classic definition; this was a bastardization of it. As a focaccia sandwich, it still wasn't great, but at least it was the proper category.

So, bread issues aside, how was the meatball filling? A very sad disappointment, too. Here was a close-up of the meatball slices:

The only thing meatball-ish about these oddly shaved meat patties were their round shape. The flavor had a metallic taste to it, a sign of garlic / onion / seasoning salt and the texture was oddly smooth and spongy, like one would expect from a forcemeat such as pate. It was clear that the meatballs were kept separate from the tomato sauce and only put together when the sandwich was assembled because there were plenty of meatball slices that had no sauce on them at all. To make matters worse, the sandwich came out barely lukewarm and by the time I got about three bites in, it was completely cold. My plan was to eat the entire grinder and take most of my pizza home. Not tonight. I ate less then 1/3 of my grinder and just left the rest on the plate. When I only asked for a box for the remainder of my pizza at the end of my meal, I hoped that my server would've picked up on the fact that most of my sandwich was left and I wasn't taking it with me as a sign that maybe something was wrong. She didn't say a word. I decided to save my words for now.

Fortunately, the "Super" pizza fared better than the grinder:

This was brought to the table nice and hot. In fact, it was only after finishing up with my sandwich that I even turned my attention to the pizza and it was still hot. Here was a shot of a single slice:

When I had asked my server about the provenance of the dough and the pizza sauce, she confirmed that both were homemade. At Bellacino's, toppings go on before the cheese and this made for a bit of a mess when taking a bite as I got long ropes of Mozzarella cheese that pulled off in large, hot mouth-burning strands. The sauce was nice, if a little uninspired. The dough, while nicely browned on the outer crust, was completely blond and underbaked on the bottom. Which was really odd, because the slogan on the side of the take-out pizza box indicated it should be otherwise:

I couldn't agree more: Crust IS the key. I ended up taking home half of my pizza and re-heating it later on for a snack. While the pizza wasn't bad, it also didn't stand out either.

Having tried the two signature items on the menu (the name of the restaurant is Bellacino's Pizza and Grinders after all), in my mind the "grinder" turned out to be a miserable failure and the pizza was just so-so. Coupled with the fact that the water had an off taste and the meatballs were some of the worst I have ever tasted, I think it's pretty safe to say that I don't think I'll be stopping by again for another meal anytime soon.

Bellacino's Pizza & Grinders on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

An Outrageous Meal At Ken Stewart's Lodge?

In a rather bold move, I decided to take on the second of three Ken Stewart restaurants tonight. As with my visit to Tre Belle just a few short weeks ago, I pulled into the rather full parking lot on a Tuesday evening at 7 P.M. with no reservation. While I was initially worried, when I saw only one couple dining out on the patio, I figured that if the interior was completely full, at least I'd be able to eat outside.

As I walked into the front door of Ken Stewart's Lodge, only a few feet from the entrance of Tre Belle, I was greeted with a surprising lack of light. In fact, it was so dim inside the restaurant that I felt almost blind walking down the main entranceway to the hostess stand. When my eyes finally adjusted, I realized that the old interior that used to be Little Joe's had been revamped to bring a northwest lodge feel to it. I was initially concerned that my photographs would come out terrible in such a low light environment and when the hostess asked if I wanted to dine out on the patio this evening, I quickly agreed.

The hostess led me to a smaller table over by the couple I had seen when first walking up to the front door. As I sat down, I realized that it was really a perfect night to be eating al fresco. Here was a shot of the patio from my table:

The sun was lingering behind some clouds, the temperature was in the mid-70's and really the only annoyance for the evening was the occasional fly swarming in to see what looked tasty.

One of the criticisms I had heard about eating at the Lodge was how expensive it was. Then again, I had heard the same rumor about Tre Belle and was happy to discover during my visit to that half of the building, the prices were pretty much in-line with the quality of food and level of service. As I sat down in my chair, my server handed me two menus.

Here was a shot of the dinner menu (top, middle, and bottom):

And here was a shot of the bar / patio menu (top, middle, and bottom):

Immediately, several notions crossed my mind. The first was that the dinner menu was significantly more expensive than the bar / patio menu and was significantly more expensive than the menu was at Tre Belle. Second, the Lodge is a steak and seafood kind of place. The two lonely pastas and one roasted chicken dish seemed entirely out of place. I assume they are there for diners who aren't in the mood for steak or seafood. The third idea that came to me was that while ordering off the regular dinner menu wouldn't be cheap, at least there was the alternative of ordering from the bar menu. However, be warned that the bar menu was only available in the bar (obviously) and the patio.

When I asked my server about daily specials, I was disappointed to learn that the Lodge shares a trait with the original location, the Grill: an almost sickening abundance of daily specials. In addition to the seven or eight appetizers available on the dinner menu, there were five additional appetizers alone. Don't even get me started on the litany of entrées that were available as daily specials. While I am all about choice in a restaurant, expecting diners to remember that much information, much less have the staff have to go through it with each table, seems a bit silly for me. You get to a point where it would be better to print up daily specials menus to distribute with the regular dinner menu. Fortunately, the time I visited Tre Belle, I was relieved that this practice hadn't taken root there, too.

As I pondered over my myriad of choices, my server brought me bread and butter:

It turned out that the bread was actually from Stone Oven on Lee Road in Cleveland. I had sampled this very tasty bread when I ate at Dante Restaurant not too long ago. While the bread was exquisitely fresh, I did prefer the version at Dante because they had warmed the bread before serving it.

The softened and whipped butter had fresh rosemary in it which complemented the bread nicely.

After pondering for a bit longer, I decided that for my appetizer, I would go with one of the daily specials, the seared scallops over vanilla bean risotto:

Visually, this dish was quite arresting. Which was interesting to me given how rustic my entrée would be later on in the meal. The duo of scallops had been seared to utter perfection and when I cut one in half, the white translucent interior told me that they would not be tough, but silky and ethereal:

The tender and creamy scallops had the perfect amount of texture and could've melted in my mouth. The vanilla bean risotto, also perfectly executed, wasn't sweet like most people would expect, but savory. The rice had just the right amount of toothiness to it (al dente) and was creamy the way a risotto should be prepared without the addition of too much cheese. The reduced balsamic streaks on the plate added a subtle sweet and sour element to the dish. I honestly thought it would be the balsamic reduction that was too strong for the delicate flavor of the scallops. It actually turned out to be the glazed strawberries.

When too much strawberry was combined with the other flavors on the plate, the acidic assertiveness of the strawberry overwhelmed everything else. When I cut the strawberries into smaller pieces, the flavor was much more balanced and I could taste each individual flavor as well as the dish as a whole. My suggestion would be to keep the strawberries, but perhaps use them diced finely as a garnish, almost like a confetti or maybe a strawberry chutney. That way, you can keep the flavor impact more manageable.

What I didn't realize (and I didn't see it listed on the menu) was that every entrée also came with a house salad. Here was mine:

Along with a mix of greens, toasted slivered almonds, dried cranberries, a sprinkling of feta cheese also dotted my plate. A house balsamic vinaigrette accompanied my salad in a separate cup. I hadn't asked for it on the side, as I expected a restaurant of the Lodge's caliber to be able to correctly dress a salad. But, that was a minor quibble. Before dressing my salad greens, I tasted the vinaigrette by itself. I personally like my vinaigrettes more acidic and this one definitely fit the bill.

Having added dressing to my taste, I attempted to gather up a little bit of everything on my fork. When I got a dried cranberry, the sweetness balanced the acidity of the vinaigrette well. Without the cranberry, I felt like it was missing something. The feta lent a mild flavor to the salad, but the creaminess was certainly appreciated. The toasted slivered almonds added a nice textural contrast and an obviously nutty flavor.

My appetizer and salad courses completed, I decided to add a glass of red wine for my entrée. Here was a shot of the tableside menu:

Perhaps they have a bigger wine menu available inside, but if this was the entirety of their wine selection, I would be a little surprised. Regardless, I went with a glass of the Columbia merlot:

I wasn't necessarily looking for a wine with lots of bold flavors; more like something that would complement the choice of protein in my entrée this evening. This wine fit the bill perfectly. I initially thought that $10 for a glass might be a bit pricey, but given the size of the pour, I definitely think it was worth it.

Shortly after my wine arrived, so did the remainder of my dinner. Here was a shot of the seared elk over a root vegetable ragout:

This wasn't on the regular menu, but was one of the daily specials. When I asked my server the price, she quoted me $45. While I was a little shocked at first, seeing that their filet mignon was listed at $37 and knowing that good steakhouses charge about that much for similar steaks, I figured that an extra $8 to try something I had never eaten before was worth it. And seeing as I pay for a $37 filet about once or twice a year, I figured tonight's entrée would count as one of my yearly indulgences.

When my server asked me how I wanted it prepared, I informed her that when I order filet, I normally get it medium rare. She nodded and said that the chef definitely recommends elk be cooked medium rare as well, as being too rare or cooked much past medium rare will lead to a tougher cut. As I cut into my elk steak, I was rewarded with a perfectly cooked piece of meat:

This farm-raised elk had been marinated in red wine to help remove some of the gamey flavor. I would've loved to try a version that hadn't been marinated, because honestly, I could detect no hint of gaminess at all. The seasoning was spot on and as I made the first cut into the steak, I noticed the ease with which it cut. When I placed the bite into my mouth, I was rewarded with a rich meaty flavor and meat that almost melted in my mouth. Pairing it with the jus pooled at the bottom of the plate, each bite was as heavenly as the last. The only real issue I had was with, of all things, the garnishes. While I've dinged some restaurants in the past for the lack of something as simple as a sprig of parsley, today's bouquet of parsley stems and leaves looked vulgar and out of place. While I get that as opposed to my appetizer, the elk was supposed to look "rustic," the parsley didn't have the professional polish that should've accompanied a plate of food at this price point. The sweet potato chips adorning the top of the steak also weren't crispy at all. The color was great, but the chips had more of a chewy texture to them.

While I was originally debating a side dish, when my server informed me that a trio of samplings was available for $6, I jumped at the chance to try it out. Here was my side dish tonight:

An interesting dish and presentation, what the three of these side dishes had in common was that they had all been gratineed under the Salamander (a professional broiler). The yellow line was a Latin City corn dish that had been spiced up with a bit of cayenne pepper. The green line in the middle was the same creamed spinach that was already available on the menu. The final line was a sweet potato soufflé, which I'm guessing refers more to its lightness rather than the fact that it rose in the oven at some point.

Each side was tasty, but the creamed spinach could've used a bit more seasoning as the spinach flavor was a bit flat. I could've sworn that there was either yogurt or creme fraiche in the sweet potato soufflé, but my server checked with the kitchen and they denied that either ingredient was involved. Any way you slice it, this side dish was an excellent decision for only $6.

As I sat on the deck, post dinner waiting for the check, who should walk up to my table other than Ken Stewart himself. If you remember, gentle reader, during my tale of Tre Belle, I actually met him for the first time ever, but I didn't identify myself other than to tell him my first name. This time, however, he remembered. "You're the blogger guy, aren't you?" We chatted for a few minutes and I gave him some of the exact feedback I am posting here. He asked if I had been to the Grill yet and when I told him that it was on my list of places to try, he seemed pleased.

Alright, the moment has arrived that I'm sure you've all been waiting for ... the check. As it turned out, the elk dish had been misquoted to me by my server. It wasn't $45. It was $48. Of course, I could take the easy way out and simply blame my server. Or I could blame the plethora of off-menu specials and congratulate her for getting the number so close to the right price.

All said and done, with a about a 23% tip and tax, the bill came to a whopping $106. That included a glass of wine, an appetizer, an included house salad, and an entrée. Yes, that is expensive. Like really expensive. Then again, was it a good value? Considering that the scallops and elk were cooked to perfection and the fact that there probably aren't many other places in northeast Ohio where one could even find elk on the menu? I'd say it was a fair value. Will Ken Stewart's Lodge be on my regular list of restaurants I visit often? No, probably not. I just can't see myself regularly dropping the same amount of cash for one meal as I used to budget for four weeks of grocery shopping back in college.

I would certainly recommend Ken Stewart's Lodge for those special occasions when money may be less of an issue. The food and service were both excellent and they are clearly there to take care of you in whatever way they can. As a diner, I would certainly appreciate a paper copy of the daily specials (nothing fancy, just something that can be thrown out at the end of each day), but I can't deny that the execution of the food was nearly flawless. If you can afford to do it, I would suggest stopping in for an excellent meal.

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