Friday, April 30, 2010

My Yearly Visit To Primanti Brothers

So what does one do when he finds himself closing out the Dave and Buster's location at 1:00 AM in the Waterfront district of Pittsburgh and craving a late night snack on a Saturday night? A better question might even be, where does one go at 2:00 AM to find the most colorful nighttime characters that Pittsburgh has to offer? The answer is quite simple, Primanti Brothers ... but not just any Primanti Brothers. The Primanti Brothers location of choice is the original storefront down in The Strip district just off of downtown. If this entry seems vaguely familiar to my longtime readers, that's because I was here over a year ago to sample this unique and tasty sandwich. If you take a moment to look at my pictures from last year, you'll realize how bad they were because I only had my cellphone with me which lacks a flash. This time around, however, I was smart enough to bring a camera with a flash.

The original Primanti Brothers location was at 46 18th Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222 and can be reached at 412-263-2142. As they did last year, they still have a website here. While there are now many satellite locations around Pittsburgh to experience this sandwich, the original location seems to have the best vibe and energy to it.

Here was the same tell-tale sign on the side of the building that I saw the last time I stopped in for a sandwich:

This time around, however, I managed to get two shots of the wall menu from which you order:

In case you've never had the opportunity to order a Primanti Brothers sandwich before, here are a few tips for you. At The Strip location, you walk in to the grill side of the restaurant first. On this side you can order a sandwich and a drink, but no sides. This was different from the last visit where we also ordered a side of French fries. This time my friend Ryan had to walk around to the bar side of the restaurant to actually order fries. The second tip is that all the sandwiches come with fries and cole slaw in the actual sandwich. I imagine they might leave one or the other off the sandwich, but I wouldn't tell them to put them on the side. The third tip is that you can actually seat yourself in the bar area without ordering anything from the grill side and the bartender will actually take your order (including a side of fries) and bring it to you when it is ready.

Of course, if you decide to order your food from the bar side, you'll miss out on the grill action:

Last time I went with a corned beef and provolone sandwich, so this time I decided on a pastrami and provolone with an optional fried egg. It was kind of fun to watch the line cook throw down the egg and meat on the grill, add the provolone cheese after the meat had been flipped, place the meat and cheese on top of the fried egg and then finally the entire contents scooped up and placed on the slices of Italian bread before being adorned with the infamous French fries, cole slaw, and fresh tomato. I paid for my sandwich and iced tea before moving over to the bar side to enjoy my spoils.

Here was a shot of my iced tea:

I am mentioning the iced tea not because of its flavor, but because of its sweetness. I like my iced tea barely sweetened or unsweetened and this is what I thought I would be receiving. I took one sip and about choked because it was so sweet. I asked my friend Ryan (who lives in Pittsburgh) if iced tea was normally served sweet unless requested otherwise and he indicated that tea was usually served unsweetened. I know that in certain parts of the country, sweet is always assumed; this sugar ladened liquid definitely caught me by surprise. Unfortunately, I was on the inside of the booth and the bar was quite crowded, so I just decided to live with it rather than try and make my way back to the ordering counter to fix it.

Legend has it that the reason for the French fries and cole slaw being placed between the two slices of bread was so that busy truckers could eat the sandwiches on the go. Anyone who has ever actually tried to EAT a Primanti Brothers sandwich knows that either the sandwich has evolved since they opened in 1933 or there is a bit of historical storytelling going on. Here was a shot of my pastrami, cheese, and fried egg sandwich tonight:

Even employing the "squeeze and shove" method to eat the sandwich, I still had a hard time getting my mouth around each bite without a cascading avalanche of fries and coleslaw falling back down to the waiting parchment paper below. Here was a side shot of my sandwich:

And how was the sandwich? I suppose at 2 AM after a night of drinking and partying, pretty much anything would've tasted good. Fortunately I had sobered up fairly decently on the trip over from Dave and Busters, so my memory and taste buds were firing on all their pistons. This was really, really good. I had thought the egg would be cooked so that the yolk was still runny (and maybe you can order it that way, I didn't ask). The version that I received was cooked through, however I could actually still taste the egg in each bite of the sandwich. The pastrami was warm and savory and while good, didn't seem all that different from the corned beef I had eaten a year prior. The fries were actually a little better for me this time around than last time, but the star of the sandwich was still the coleslaw. A vinegar-based slaw, it was both tart and sweet and really made the flavors of the sandwich sing in my mouth. My other friend Rick also agreed that it was the slaw that made the sandwich really work.

Along with our sandwiches, Ryan ordered a side of French fries for the three of us to split. Here was a shot of the fries:

The fries were better than I remember from my last visit. They were fresh cut fries and while not my favorite version of this fried carb, these weren't too bad. They were hot, not greasy and seasoned properly. For those who like fresh cut fries, these might be the epitome of a excellent French fry.

Having finished nearly all of my sandwich and one third of the fries, I finally had to stop. I seriously wanted to finish my sandwich, but I knew too much of a good thing would make the ensuing indigestion an unwelcome visitor. There were no trash cans, so customers simply left cups, napkins, and other trash on the table and the bartender came around occasionally and cleared away the trash. I should mention that in addition to getting a great sandwich at 2 AM in Pittsburgh, a visit to The Strip location at this time of night will give you a great opportunity to do a little people watching, too. It really was a diverse crowd tonight.

Once again, Primanti Brothers delivered a great sandwich. While the version served at Panini's in the Northeast Ohio area is close, there just isn't any substitute for the real deal. The next time you are in Pittsburgh, I highly suggest you hit up one of their myriad of locations for this classic Pittsburgh treat.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Unusual Suspect At Tre Belle

I love a good suspense movie where all of the pieces fall into place in the final moments of the film. Experiencing that "Gotcha!" moment doesn't happen often with me, and when it does I remember and cherish it. Such was my experience with the movie The Usual Suspects and such was my experience with tonight's choice for dinner, Ken Stewart's Tre Belle. Before we get into the dinner itself, let's set the mood a bit, shall we?

"Verbal: Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone."

Tre Belle is the third restaurant to bear the Ken Stewart moniker. Truthfully, I have only visited the original, Ken Stewart's Grille, and it had been quite some time. Apparently from those who don't live in Akron, Mr. Stewart has carved quite a niche for himself. Whenever someone from outside of the Akron area finds out that I write about local food establishments, almost inevitably Ken Stewart's name is invoked. Honestly, having never met him, I was almost convinced that he was like Keyser Soze, a name brandied about that was all ephemera with no substance. Kind of like Pink Floyd or Santa Claus. The name epitomized an idea or a notion, but not a real person.

Tonight's impromptu stop at Tre Belle was to prove otherwise.

I arrived at Tre Belle on a Tuesday evening at around 7 PM with no reservation. I was worried when I first pulled into the parking lot because it was quite full. Apparently the majority of the customers must have been there to eat at the adjoining Ken Stewart's Lodge, because once I walked in the front door, there was plenty of seating available. Before I get too far into this review, let me just say that Tre Belle was located at 1911 North Cleveland Massillon Road, Akron, OH 44333 and can be reached at 330-666-9990.

Once parked, I sauntered up to the front of the building:

Walking through the heavy wooden doors, I was greeted by even more wood. Both the dining room and the bar area were brightly lit, but one thing was quite clear: the rustic woodsy look was the primary factor when fleshing out the vision of this restaurant. Many of the tables sported the old 70's standard, the Italian Chianti bottle that had been studded with a candle, burnt half-way down with wax ribbons spiraling in multiple directions as the molten droplets obeyed the laws of gravity. That being said, there were some modern touches, like the flat panel screen in the bar that was broadcasting a basketball game and the somewhat less than authentic music that was being played in the background. While these modern touches didn't bother me, clearly the restaurant wasn't going for absolute authenticity.

When my server first showed me to my table, I asked him where the restroom was located. While he proceeded to tell me, an older, more distinguished gentleman sitting at the bar offered to show me. He led me back towards the front door, pointed down a long corridor and indicated that the restroom was on the right hand side. Almost immediately I was reminded of my very first job working as a bagger at the Buehler's chain in Wadsworth. During my training, I remember my manager telling us that if a customer asks where an item is located in the store, don't just tell them; take them to it. I didn't know who this stranger was, but I immediately began to suspect that he might be the general manager of Tre Belle.

Once I returned to my table, I took a series of pictures of the single-paged menu. The pictures go from left to right, top to bottom:

In addition to the menu tonight, there were four additional specials: a roasted beet with goat cheese salad, a pasta dish with either mussels or clams, a sun-dried tomato pasta dish with chicken, and a veal saltimbocca. Something that struck me as I looked at the menu was that there was much talk on the Internet about how incredibly expensive any of Ken Stewart's restaurants were. In fact, before I walked in, I checked my wallet to make sure I had more than enough cash. I counted $56 and thought to myself that if my meal was going to come to more than that (plus tip, obviously) then I'll just have to enjoy a nice glass of complimentary water and move somewhere else. I was happy to discover that prices are quite reasonable, somewhere between the range of "I wouldn't pay that much for pasta for my six year old" and less than "You want $35 for an entree? Seriously?"

Having kind of grown out of my expensive wine phase of my life, I started off by enjoying a simple glass of iced tea:

This was crisp and clean; clearly, it was freshly brewed. At $2.50, I think it might have been just a bit pricey, but it was definitely a good iced tea.

With my tea, my server brought me warm bread and an unusual dip:

Fully expecting olive oil in which to dip my bread, my server placed a small plate of homemade roasted red pepper hummos in front of me. While I was at first skeptical because of it's rather granular and non-homogenized appearance, a single small forkful of the contents of this dish convinced me that the kitchen staff knew what they were doing. Having prepared roasted red pepper hummos myself, I think I would've preferred a much more forward red pepper flavor, but this was still pretty darn good.

The bread, crusty and warm, also delivered on the goods:

I didn't ask if the bread was made in-house. However, given the freshness and tenderness of the crumb and the crispness of the crust, it didn't really matter. Was this the most complex bread I've ever had? No. But it was quite good for typical bread-service style bread. And while good on its own, its also didn't interfere with the delicate flavor of the hummos.

For a starter, I decided on going with the roasted beet and goat cheese salad:

This was a mixed green salad with roasted beets, crumbled goat cheese, crispy pancetta and dressed in an orange sherry vinaigrette. After my server proceeded to twist a few grinds of fresh black pepper onto the salad, I loaded up my fork with a little bit of everything on the plate and took a taste. I was rewarded with sweet, tart, salty, fatty, tender and chewy. I have really come full circle when it comes to fresh roasted beets (I used to hate them as a child ... then again, mother always used to serve them from the can) and tonight I really enjoyed the combination of flavors in my mouth. The vinaigrette was particularly tart and if you didn't have the sweetness from the beets to counteract them, it definitely would've been too overpowering.

Sadly, the first service faux pas occurred as I was getting close to finishing my salad. With about three or four bites left, my server brought out the pasta I had ordered. Given that pasta is one of those tricky dishes that waits for no one, I can empathize with my server for wanting to serve it fresh. However, at a place like Tre Belle and especially given that the restaurant was probably one-third full tonight, I expected just a little bit better timing between the courses. Honestly, I wouldn't have even minded waiting a few minutes after having finished my salad to receive my entree.

Speaking of entrees, tonight my main course was to be the homemade gnocchi in marinara sauce:

When I was first conversing with my server about this dish, I asked him if the gnocchi were homemade. He assured me that they were and in fact, he indicated that the kitchen first cooked the gnocchi and then sauteed them to give them a bit of texture before saucing them in the homemade marinara. While already sprinkled with a bit of grated Parmesan cheese when it arrived at the table, my server offered to gild the lily and top the dish with just a bit more. The heady aroma of the Parmesan sent my salivary glands into overdrive. It became immediately apparent after tasting the pasta, however, that there was nothing even remotely seared about any of these little dough pillows. Sure, they were tender while still being just a tiny bit toothsome, but alternating textures? Nope, not these guys.

The marinara sauce, while I don't doubt meatless, wasn't the fresh, acidic variety to which I think most of us have become accustomed. This was more in the orange-red color palette of Campbell's tomato soup and much less watery. My guess was that perhaps the marinara sauce had been studded with either a bit of bread or a bit of cheese; perhaps both. I'm not saying the sauce was bad. In fact, it was quite tasty. Really, the whole dish was quite tasty. While the gnocchi weren't ethereally light and potato-y like I've come to expect from my own personal recipe, these also weren't the heavy, leaden dough bombs I've learned seem to be the norm at restaurants that serve them.

Truth be told, I ended up taking most of my entree home with me. This must have confused my server as I was thinking of trying one of their desserts. Sadly, my server must have assumed I was completely full if I was willing to take so much home and simply presented me with the check. In times past, I might have insisted on seeing the dessert menu anyway, but I realized that perhaps I didn't really need dessert after all. And what did I pay for this meal? With my iced tea, roasted beet salad and pasta dish, including tax, it was a little over $29. I realize that had I added a glass of wine to that, I probably would've been pushing close to $40. So, yes, I can see why people criticize Tre Belle as being expensive because the total bill for two people would've come to $75-$80. But honestly, most of the appetizers were between $6-$10, the salads were between $6-$9, and the entrees ranged from $13-$20. The question wasn't "Are they too expensive?" Rather, it was "Was it worth the money?" Yes, I do believe it is.

As I stood to gather my keys and phone, the same gentleman who had shown me to the restroom earlier in the evening stood up from the bar, turned to me and asked me how my meal was tonight. "Really good, " I responded. Without batting an eyelash, he looked me straight in the face and said, "Hi, my name is Ken Stewart. Thanks for dining with us tonight. What's your name?"

Apparently Keyser Soze walks among us.

Tre Belle on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 26, 2010

Killbuck Valley Mushroom Dinner At AMP 150

At the recent charity event Cleveland Chefs Cook for Jewel, I happened to run into an until then only virtual friend, Phil Ridolfi. Phil, the proprietor of Now Dining Deals, a restaurant advocacy company seeking to connect restaurants with customers through social media like Facebook and Twitter, was at the event to support a great cause as well as to eat some wonderful food. It was actually Phil who recognized me as I wandered from table to table. I stopped and we chatted a bit about how great the turnout had been.

During the course of our conversation, Phil mentioned a special dinner being served at AMP 150 the following night featuring the Killbuck Valley mushrooms. I had heard of these mushrooms before from other friends, but had never had the chance to experience them myself. He indicated that there were several spots still open and that if I and any of my friends would like to come, he would take care of making arrangements for us to do so. I asked around and it turned out that two fellow foodies took me up on the suggestion. I let Phil know the next day about our merry trio and at 7:00 PM that evening, the three of us convened on AMP 150 for a six course mushroom extravaganza.

Joining us for the evening to talk about the mushrooms were the proprietors of the Killbuck Valley farm, Tom and Wendy Wiandt. While they do not have a website of their own, they are referenced on the web here. They were already in the private room when we arrived and greeted us warmly. It turned out that we would be lucky enough to have them join us at our table. While Tom did most of the speaking between courses explaining a little bit about the mushrooms used in Chef Cooley's dishes, it was fun to engage both of them during the rest of the dinner as they were a wealth of knowledge.

From what they told us, they both left the corporate world around thirteen years ago having tired of it. Three years later, they opened up Killbuck Valley and began producing organic mushrooms. They started out in the farmer's markets and have gradually expanded their reach into some of the finest restaurants in Cleveland and Akron. They still work at least two farmer's markets a week, giving out free samples of cooked mushrooms to entice market-goers into giving their wares a try. They are a growing business, but have decided that controlled and sustainable growth is the right way to operate. Tom readily acknowledges that his product is not inexpensive, but he so firmly believes in his farming methods and his mushrooms that he'd rather lose a half-serious customer who doesn't also see the potential in his product than make a quick sale.

As we retired to our table tonight, each place setting had a menu placed on top of the mat:

First out of the kitchen was the demitasse of mushroom soup:

Served as if it were a cup of coffee, the luscious warm mushroom soup was topped with a frothed milk and a slightly dried shiitake mushroom cap. The soup was velvety smooth and seasoned perfectly and the entire dish made a perfect introduction to what we were going to sample again and again tonight ... umami! Umami is that fifth sense of taste that allows us to taste savory and mushrooms are just loaded with it. Speaking of shiitake, it turns out that -take is the Japanese word for mushroom. The first part of the word, in this case shii- actually refers to the origin of where the mushroom is found. Shii is actually Japanese for oak. Thus, matsutake, maitake, etc. all refer to a mushroom that is found most commonly under (or on) different trees.

Of course, following the soup course in American cuisine was the salad course:

In this case it was a wild mixed green salad with roasted baby shiitake caps, pickled radishes and cucumbers, and was lightly dressed with a shiitake vinaigrette. Having this much mushroom flavor in a dish can weigh the palate down a bit, but the acidity from the vinaigrette and the radishes worked very well to keep everything balanced. Once again, Chef Cooley did an excellent job balancing textures and flavors. What surprised me most about this dish was the size of the mushroom caps used. When I buy shiitake mushrooms, I normally look for a good size to the caps. In this case, nothing but baby mushroom caps were used.

The third course was comprised of a homemade mushroom ravioli topped with an aged goat cheese and a sunchoke puree:

While the free-form mushrooms dotting the plate were shiitake caps, the filling was made up of the most savory oyster mushroom filling that I've had in a long time. The ravioli itself was perfectly cooked and had a lovely toothy bite to it without being chewy. The aged goat cheese, having been shaved over the top of the ravioli, had a real nuttiness to the bite that reminded me of a good Pecorino Romano and not of a goat cheese at all. While the real star of the plate was the oyster mushroom, I couldn't but also drool over the sunchoke puree with fresh chives. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, and a small fibrous vegetable that can easily be substituted for potatoes in part or whole and adds another dimension of flavor.

The chef told us after the dinner had concluded that his preparation of "white" vegetables like sunchokes and the salsify puree we enjoyed during a later course was made by boiling the vegetable in a 50/50 water/milk bath until the vegetable was tender and the heat caused the casein in the milk to separate out and actually form curds (kind of like making ricotta). The whey is then strained off and added into the combination of the pureed vegetable and curds to thin it to the right consistency. I don't know if the chef enriched the puree at the very end with a little bit of cream or butter, but I have to tell you that both purees we enjoyed tonight were creamy, smooth, and delicious.

Our pasta course now complete, we moved on to course number four, the fish course:

This was a mushroom crusted cod served over a watercress and garlic chive brodo. The application of the mushroom crust was interesting in that it seemed more to be a mushroom and breadcrumb application that adorned this amazing piece of fish. Having been steamed to utter perfection, the minute I placed a bite of the tender and moist fish in my mouth, I actually sighed in complete contentment. Cod can be a subtly flavored fish, and the treatment that Chef Cooley gave it tonight was so well thought out. After all of the badly prepared cod I had eaten during the course of The Lenten Project, tonight's preparation showed that cod can be a magnificent piece of fish when done right. The accompanying broth was also quite lovely and the only thing I could've wished for to make the experience better was a spoon. Sadly, I think drinking the broth straight from the bowl would've been bad form.

It was at this point during the meal when I realized that there was a method to the madness in which the courses had come out. We had started out light and small and worked our way up to more assertive flavors. The fifth dish to come from the kitchen tonight was a grilled strip loin of beef with mushroom ragu and salsify puree:

While I was a little worried because the first slice of beef on the plate was nearly medium well, the rest of the beef slices were perfectly medium rare. The mushroom ragu was tender and seasoned just perfectly. The salsify puree, a vegetable that often is often compared to actual oysters in flavor, was beautifully pureed and had been dressed up with some fresh dill which gave it a wonderfully sweet finish on the palate. With the subtle sweetness from the salsify and the earthiness of the mushrooms paired up to the savoriness of the beef, this was truly a bite to sit back and savor. With another course coming, I saw several others only eat part of this course. Me? I ate the entire plate and would've licked it clean if I had known no one else was watching.

After the heavy fifth course, our sixth and final course, dessert, would serve to clear out the heavy flavors and wake up the taste buds just a little bit:

Here you have a roasted fig compote sitting next to a scoop of goat cheese ice cream which is sitting next to a goat cheese panna cotta, itself topped with maple glazed shiitake caps, all of which was surrounded by a maple-infused sauce. After a bite of each of the ice cream and panna cotta, it was clear that a younger goat cheese had been used as that little bit of acidity and tang gently sang through the sweetness and creaminess of each dessert. I didn't detect a huge maple flavor in the mushroom caps that topped the panna cotta, so mostly I considered its use to be as a textural contrast to the gelatinous milky concoction below. I paired the fig compote with the ice cream and it worked well. The maple flavor from the sauce worked well to unify the flavors on the plate and didn't overpower anything else. For being an unusual dessert, it worked quite well, in my opinion.

While tonight's meal wasn't inexpensive at $45 per person, for the amount of food and the quality of the dishes presented, I considered it to be an excellent value. This was only my second dining experience at AMP 150 and between the two of them, I am certainly looking forward to seeing what else Chef Cooley will be bringing to the table ... LITERALLY. If you have the chance to sample either the food at AMP 150 or the mushrooms from Killbuck Valley from one of the farmer's markets they frequent, I strongly urge you to do so. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Freebies And Giveaways And Contests, Oh My!

Welcome to the first (of hopefully many) giveaway here on Exploring Food My Way!

I have in my possession three $25 gift cards to the recently opened AMP 150 up near the Cleveland Hopkins International airport. I originally thought about having three separate giveaways and asking readers to answer trivia questions in order to qualify. Then I quickly came to my senses and realized that if I wanted maximum participation that I should make it as easy as possible for you to channel your inner Arnold Horshack and shout "Ooh-ooh-ooooh!" Sadly, no extra credit points are being offered if you can identify the TV show I just referenced, but you will get a commiserating look from me because you, too, are now officially "old."

To that end, if you would like to participate in the giveaway, simply leave a comment on this blog post saying that you'd like one of the gift cards. You must identify yourself in either the name you give or if you select "Anonymous", you'll need to identify yourself in the actual comment portion. If you don't, I have no way of identifying who you are if you win. The contest will be open from Sunday, April 25th 12:00 AM through Sunday, May 9th 12:00 AM (EST). At that time, I will use a random number generator and pick three comments and announce the winners in a separate blog post. The winners will then have one week to contact me via email in order to supply me with a postal address so I can send out the gift cards. Feel free to leave multiple comments if you want to increase your odds of being selected, but as I want AMP 150 to get as much exposure as possible, I am going to limit one card per winner.

And speaking of exposure to AMP 150, I wanted to invite you to come back on Monday morning and read my review of an amazing six course mushroom dinner featuring the wonderful products being grown at Killbuck Valley and being prepared and served by Chef Ellis Cooley. It was an incredible meal and as a by-product of that dinner, I have these fantastic gift cards to give away.

Good luck!

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Interesting Divsersion At The Pufferbelly, Ltd.

Lately I seem to be on a Mexican food kick. First I posted about El Meson and then followed that up with a trip (or six) to Taqueria La Loma. In doing research on Urbanspoon, I discovered that Kent held another highly regarded restaurant, Taco Tantos. Sadly, when I went last Sunday, they were closed. Thinking that they were closed because of the day, I returned today to discover that they were still closed. Apparently they weren't closed the first time because it was a Sunday, but because the restaurant itself was actually closed for a two week period. Having driven all the way to Kent to check out the restaurant, I was bound and determined to find someplace else within walking distance where I could find a decent lunch.

While there were several other restaurants on Franklin Avenue, the one that immediately caught my interest was The Pufferbelly Limited. Located at 152 Franklin Avenue, Kent, Ohio 44240, they can be reached at 330-673-1771. Their website is available here.

Here was a shot of the entrance to the building:

Just outside the front door was a sidewalk sign that contained today's specials:

Inside the front door was a chalkboard displaying today's dessert specials:

Once inside, I took another photo of the interior of the space:

I was a bit confused because I got the distinct feeling by some of the wall art and the dessert specials just inside the main door that the space was in some way connected to the railway system. In fact, when I did some research on Pufferbelly Limited on the Internet after my meal, it turned out that this space was actually a rail hub that had been renovated back in 1971 and re-purposed as a restaurant and bar area. What I didn't really get, however, was why there was an old buggy hanging from the ceiling and mounted fish on the walls. The space itself was quite large and during peak hours could probably hold 150-200 guests. Fortunately, I decided to have a late lunch, so there were probably closer to 15 guests when I went.

As my hostess sat me at my table, she handed me the menu to look over:

Nothing really jumped out of the menu at me, so when my server came over to get my drink order, I asked her if Pufferbelly had any signature items. Apparently this was the wrong question to ask because she immediately became flustered and started muttering things like "I normally don't work the day shift" and "Gosh, everything is really good" and "I don't really know what your tastes are." It wasn't that she was being rude about it, the question just really sent her into a tailspin. It turns out that in later conversation I discovered that she had been working at Pufferbelly Limited as long as it had been open, twenty-nine years. How she was unable to make a recommendation off the menu after working there for so long was a bit disconcerting.

She left to get me my drink and I continued to study the menu. While I am not a huge fan of wraps, Mike's Philly Wrap looked decent enough. The fact that it came with a homemade "creamy cheese dressing for dipping" was probably what sold me on the notion. The only part of the description that didn't sound all that appealing was its pairing with the restaurant's fresh cut fries. Fortunately it turns out that you can substitute a number of other sides for free or for an extra $0.55, you can get sweet potato fries. Bingo!

Fairly soon after placing my order, my lunch arrived:

Here was a close-up of the Philly Wrap:

Consisting of thinly sliced roast beef with grilled mushrooms, onions, red and green peppers, grated mozzarella cheese and shredded lettuce, the sandwich was wrapped in a herbed flour tortilla. Had I seen the "herbed tortilla" on the menu, I would've requested a plain one in its place as I am not usually a fan of that flavor combination. Then again, I suppose I received the sandwich as the chef had intended it, so I could judge it more fairly. I tried a bite before pairing it with the creamy cheese dressing. The roast beef was tender and the ingredients (except for the shredded lettuce) were seasoned properly. The wrap, although not my favorite flavor, was definitely fresh. Unfortunately, I don't know that a wrap was the right vehicle for this sandwich as it kind of fell apart as I ate it. With the herbed tortilla, the flavors were quite busy. So busy, in fact, that you began to lose the beefy flavor of the meat.

Pairing it with the creamy cheese dressing,

I tried another bite. This was definitely not a good combination. The muted flavor of the melted Mozzarella already present inside the wrap was good enough. The dressing (also called a sauce on the menu) was simply too strong. I tasted the sauce by itself and it had a very strong extra sharp cheddar taste to it. The other strong reaction I had was to the texture. While the sauce was smooth, there was a residual mouth feel, a slight graininess like those associated with eating an aged cheese. You couldn't really pick up on the texture when applied to the wrap, but by itself it was quite evident. I have to wonder if this sauce was a classic Sauce Mornay made with an aged cheddar or some proprietary recipe that they developed at Pufferbelly. Either way, it was too much flavor for an already confusing wrap.

Along with my Philly wrap were an order of sweet potato fries:

These were fried quite nicely. They were crisp on the outside and very creamy on the inside. While they didn't have the nice rigidity of a properly cooked French fry, they weren't limp either. They were seasoned lightly with salt and eaten by themselves, they were quite good. I asked my server after she stopped by to check on me if they were freshly cut, too, but apparently no one had ever asked her that in the twenty-nine years she had worked there and didn't know the answer.

As an extra surprise, this condiment came with my lunch:

As soon as she set it down, I could immediately smell the cinnamon. I guessed that it was a sweetened whipped butter with cinnamon for the sweet potato fries and my server agreed with me. After a little further tasting of the butter by itself, I would guess that this was whipped butter sweetened with brown sugar, maple syrup (or flavoring) and cinnamon. It was a bit hard to "dip" the fries in this as it was only slightly softened when she brought it out. I employed more of a swiping method to dress the fries. I do have to say that the butter did add a nice flavor to the already good fries, playing off the combination of salty and sweet. After tasting this, I'm entirely happy that I paid the extra $0.55 for this option.

My experience today at Pufferbelly Limited was moderate to good. The service was excellent and some of my meal was very good. Mike's Philly Wrap with creamy cheese dressing, however, just didn't hit the mark for me. Having just recently had a pretty close-to-classic Whiz Wit at Cosmo's Cheesesteaks in Scranton, PA, this was nowhere near the flavor profile it should have been. Add in the herbed tortilla wrap and the main ingredient, the beef, just got a little lost. I'd recommend you check out Pufferbelly Limited if you happen to be in Kent, but I'd skip on Mike's Philly Wrap.

Pufferbelly Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Losing That Lovin' Feeling For Williams-Sonoma

I was recently wandering around Summit Mall and found myself outside one of my favorite old haunts, Williams-Sonoma. I fondly remember spending hours and hours of my time looking through every nook of the store and spending even more time pouring over the catalogs, envisioning a kitchen that had all of the wonderful cookware, gadgets, and electronics that this high-end boutique store could offer. I became even more excited when a good friend of mine got a job as a salesperson. Not only could I have my cake, but I got a discount on it, too. I made up my wishlist and like the good Santa Claus she was, she filled my culinary stocking with lots of goodies. I'd like to think it was because I was an especially good boy that year, but the reality was I simply paid her to do it.

From the first moment I walked into Williams-Sonoma, I've known that these high-end products don't come cheap. And I'm okay with that. If there was one thing I could come to expect from the products sold at this store chain, it was quality products. If I ever had any problems with an item, I returned/exchanged them with no problems and no arguments from anyone. In fact, the only real problem I ever had was with a Kitchen Aid Pro 600 stand mixer, which I got on sale for $299 because they were phasing out the color schemes associated with spring. Apparently there was something wrong with the gear mechanism and as I started using the mixer for heavy duty bread kneading, small metal shavings began raining down into my dough. Definitely not a good thing. I packed it back up, took it back to the store from which I purchased it, and they replaced it. No muss. No fuss.

Over the years as I have become a more experienced cook, I found myself buying less and less when I stopped in for a visit. It wasn't that there wasn't some cool new gadget to obsess over, it was just that I had all the basics in my kitchen now: knives, pots, pans, essential tools. For a while I was even buying some of their jarred sauces, especially the spicy peanut Asian sauce that I used quite a bit with udon noodles. But even that stopped when I decided to teach myself how to make it from scratch. I had gone from Love to Mild Indifference over the course of a decade.

That all changed yesterday. As I walked through the front door of the store, I was curiously drawn over to the pots and pans section of the space. I spotted this:

Image ownership and copyright by Williams-Sonoma.

This, gentle reader, was the All-Clad Ultimate Chicken Roaster. It is essentially a roasting pan with a long curved neck that suspends the chicken above the pan. And what fabulous price was being charged for this ultimate chicken roaster pan? Well, the suggested retail was $250, but the good folks at Williams-Sonoma had decided to give the chicken roasting public a break and were only asking $179.99!

Something snapped inside my head. I felt like I had eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden and I suddenly knew of my culinary nakedness.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem spending a nice chunk of change to buy a really nice roasting pan. I have made many a roasted chicken, pork loin roast, and roasted root vegetable medley to prove that. What drove me to sudden fits of insanity was that here was a well-respected company, All-Clad, offering a culinary uni-tasker for $180 (or worse yet, $250 if you went with the suggested price)? I began to realize that a younger, more inexperienced version of myself would've been all over it. It was exactly the kind of superfluous piece of hardware that I would have asked for as a Christmas or birthday gift.

I began to stumble around the store, looking for other bits of overpriced insanity. First up, I discovered the All-Clad Timer/Clock. A hefty little gadget, it was priced at $39.95. I can hear your question now, gentle reader and no, there wasn't a probe thermometer involved, it was just a TIMER. For $40. Seriously? Up next, a pair of kitchen tongs for $28.50. Don't people know that they can get kitchen tongs at any good restaurant supply store for much, much less? My favorite overpriced tool, however, had to be the vegetable and garlic choppers. Priced at $29.95 and $18.00 respectively, the thought that people either have so little time or so little skill with a knife that they need to spend nearly $50 on these two gadgets made me quite sad and mad at the same time.

Ultimately, Williams-Sonoma (and its other high-end boutique brethren) is a business and is looking to sell what it thinks its customers want. I guess it just wasn't until today that I realized that their business model had evolved to embrace the same "dumbing down" that has happened on Food Network since its inception in the mid 1990's. People either don't want to or don't have time to learn proper knife skills or how to roast a chicken regardless of whether you have the Ultimate Chicken Roaster or just a plain old aluminum foil pan you bought at the grocery store.

I guess what saddened me the most was that trips to Williams-Sonoma used to inspire me to be a better cook and learn new things, be it ingredients or techniques. I firmly believe that higher quality kitchen products do help you to turn out better and more consistent food. Unfortunately, the only thing I saw during my trip yesterday were gadgets that didn't help to further knife skills and overpriced uni-taskers that have no place in the home of a serious cook.

I could say that it's not you, Williams-Sonoma, it's me. But that wouldn't be true. It is you. I think the love affair may finally be over; it's time to break up and move on.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Decent Matzoh Ball At Eddy's Deli

I was recently in the Stow, Ohio area for some non-food-related business. As it was getting close to dinner time, I thought I would check out a restaurant that had been in the process of opening for the last several months. As I pulled into the half-full parking lot surrounding the restaurant, I had no idea that I was about to step into the newly opened second location of a Cuyahoga Falls' favorite of mine, Eddy's Deli and Restaurant. Eddy's has been on my list of places to return to so that I could write up a proper review, but I just hadn't gotten around to getting back to the original location.

This Eddy's was located at 4581 Kent Road, Stow, Ohio 44224 and can be reached at 330-346-0551. The website for both locations can be located here. Also note that the Urbanspoon link at the end of the article actually points to the original location in Cuyahoga Falls, not the Stow location (as there wasn't one available for that location).

Here was a shot of the outside of the Eddy's in Stow:

I think the primary reason why I didn't connect this new location with the original was that the building exteriors looked nothing like each other. The exterior and interior decor were nice enough, but they didn't have that unique feeling that the original location in Cuyahoga Falls has. The original location has that cool breakfast and lunch diner kind of vibe. This location felt more subdued and sanitized. Which was probably another reason why I didn't connect the two locations.

It wasn't until I sat down and looked through the menu that I realized that something might be up:

It was only after my server returned that I asked about the striking similarity of this menu to another place in Cuyahoga Falls, also called Eddy's.

"Yep," she replied, "one and the same."

I've had many good meals at the original Eddy's; I was excited to see how the new location stacked up. One thing I had never tried at the original was the matzoh ball soup. Apparently while there were always several soups du jour, the one soup that was always on the menu was matzoh ball soup. Having had two of the most tremendous versions of matzoh ball soup at my friend Nancy's house during both Passover and Rosh Hashanah, I knew what good matzoh ball soup was. Nancy had set my bar high and I somewhat nervously ordered a bowl to see if it could compare.

My server returned shortly with a bowl of Jewish penicillin with the largest matzoh ball I've ever been served:

Here was a side shot of the matzoh ball after I cut out a few spoonfuls:

First, let's talk about the broth. It was a nice broth with a good depth of flavor. It was seasoned properly and still had some of the residual onions and carrots, now nicely softened, in the bottom of the bowl. The broth itself could've been a little warmer as it was a little warmer than lukewarm when I received it. Second, let's talk about the matzoh ball. As far as matzoh balls go, Eddy's version was pretty good. It was fully cooked through and there were no raw spots. The texture was closer to Nancy's Passover matzoh balls which have no leavening, so it was a little dense. I checked with my friend Nancy and she said that most places that serve matzoh ball soup usually add leavening to their matzoh balls to help with the lightness, especially when they get to be the size of a tennis ball. While this version may have had leavening in it, it just didn't compare to the version Nancy made for Rosh Hoshanah. The only real gripe I had with this matzoh ball was that it really needed salt. Eating a spoonful of matzoh with the soup helped, but once I swallowed the soup and was left with chewing the matzoh, it quickly became apparent that it needed some serious help.

Oddly, the server also brought saltine crackers to the table for my soup:

Which, given the size of the matzoh ball and the fact that the soup was seasoned perfectly, was a curious addition to the soup service.

After I finished my soup, my sandwich platter arrived a few minutes later. I had decided to order the patty melt:

All sandwiches come with potato chips and a pickle spear, unless you want to pay extra for a different side item. I chose just to stick with the potato chips. The chips and pickle spear were pretty much run of the mill, so there aren't any surprises there. The patty melt, which I ordered medium, came out something more like this:

While the burger was cooked closer to somewhere between medium well and well, it was still juicy, which was most appreciated. The meat was seasoned properly, but ha an odd sort of "spongy" texture to it, like it had been compressed too much before cooking. The two cheeses, American and Provolone, were nicely melted and added a definite creaminess to each bite. Unfortunately, the onions weren't grilled quite long enough and had a sort of raw bite to them. The rye bread, however, was nicely buttered and grilled. Still, even with the shortcomings I mentioned, I managed to finish my sandwich and almost all of my potato chips. Overall, I'd say that this was about an average version of this burger classic.

There were a few misses today at Eddy's new location in Stow, but overall I had a positive experience. Having now experienced both Eddy's locations, if I had my choice, I still think I'd prefer the original in Cuyahoga Falls because of the ambiance. If you happen to be closer to the location in Stow, at least there isn't a reason to drive further to experience the food that Eddy's has to offer. The menu has lots of choice, the prices are reasonable, and the food for the most part is pretty good. Definitely check Eddy's out if you have a chance.

Eddy's Deli on Urbanspoon
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