Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dim Sum At Li Wah

A recent episode of Top Chef Season 8 had the chefs attempting (I use that word very lightly) to cook and serve dim sum in a Chinese restaurant in New York City. Dim Sum, for those who may have never heard of it, is a Chinese meal consisting of sharing many small appetizer-sized dishes of various dumplings, roasted meats, steamed and fried items, cakes, stuffed buns, and of course dessert. In traditional dim sum restaurants, servers push carts throughout the restaurant loaded with dishes of different foods and when the cart gets to your table, you simply indicate which dishes you would like and how many of each.

While one could certainly do dim sum by him or herself, the experience is greatly enhanced when you share it with others. Thus, being inspired by the Top Chef episode, I contacted a number of foodie friends, and on a recent Sunday around noon, five others joined me to partake of a meal at a Cleveland dim sum stalwart, Li Wah Restaurant. Located inside the Asia Plaza building, it was located at 2999 Payne Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44114 and can be reached at 216-696-6556. Parking was available in a lot outside the building.

Here was a shot of the corner of the Asia Plaza, announcing Li Wah's presence:

Exterior to Marketplace Housing Li Wah in Cleveland, Ohio
Once inside the building's main doors, the entrance to Li Wah just off to the left. When we arrived, the restaurant was about two-thirds full, a sign that the kitchen was cranking out fresh dim sum dishes almost constantly. After being seated at a table right next to the roasted meats carving station (what a sight THAT was to behold), we started the meal by participating in the associated dim sum tradition of yum cha, or "drinking tea":

Hot Tea
Fellow food blogger Nancy from Fun Playing With Food had joined us for our meal today and since she has an excellent memory for the actual names of the dishes we had, I consulted her well-written blog entry about our meal to verify the names. However, you don't have to know the actual name for each dish as the menu provided to us gave it to us by description as well (e.g., Steamed BBQ Bun). That being said, let the food fest begin!

The first dish on the table was the Eggplant Sandwiches:

Fried Eggplant Sandwich
Slices of eggplant had been stuffed with pork and shrimp, breaded and then fried in a wok. Delicious without being oily, I can see why these were a favorite of Nancy's (who had identified them on the dim sum cart).

Next up were the Baked Coconut Buns topped with sesame seeds:

Baked Coconut Bun
The filling was smooth and custard-esque without being too loose. The coconut flavor was present and while it was a little sweet, it stayed safely away from being dessert territory.

Next up were steamed rice-paper wrapped shrimp dumplings:

Steamed Shrimp Dumplings
The actual name for each type of dim sum can be dependent on the wrapper, the filling, and the method of cooking (steaming versus frying). Alter one of these three, and it can end up having a brand new name. These dumplings were tender and had great shrimp flavor.

Prepare yourself, gentle reader. As the chef who went home in Top Chef did so because of his/her failed attempt at a Chinese staple, chicken feet, we decided to add a plate of the Avian tootsies to our table as well:

Chicken Feet in Spicy BBQ Sauce
Some at the table absolutely embraced this dish, others categorically refused it. Having never had them, I decided to give them a whirl. The part you actually eat is the flesh around the bones, not the bones themselves. The flesh was soft and came off easily, but the best part was the slightly spicy barbecue sauce that coated the meat itself. Would I order these again? Probably not if I was by myself, but I would eat them again if presented.

Next up at the table were a quartet of steamed pork and shrimp dumplings (shu mai):

Steamed Dumplings with Pork and Shrimp
This particular dish is very common at Chinese-American buffets for some reason. These were executed at a much higher level than that and had a nice balance between sweet and salt.

Besides starch-based wrappers (such as rice or wheat), another common wrapper for fillings is yuba bean curd. It's the thin skin that forms on tofu when it is made and it makes for a slightly chewy, yet not unpleasant texture, when deep fried:

Fried Yuba Bean Curd
Stuffed with pork and mushrooms, these were fried to a nice golden brown and served in a brown sauce. They were a little hard to cut, but they were tasty nonetheless.

Since the Chinese don't have the same squeamishness that Americans do when it comes to serving food with the heads on, our plate of Salt and Pepper Shrimp stared back at us as we prepared to dig in:

Salt and Pepper Shrimp
A simple twist of the head from the body and a quickly peeling of the shell left us with the sweet taste of the shrimp along with a saltiness from the MSG used to prepare the dish. Would I want a whole plate of these? Probably not, but one was perfect.

Next up was a dim sum staple that I've seen at many other restaurants, the Fried Taro Ball:

Fried Taro Balls with Pork
Taro is a starchy vegetable similar to a potato that is used in many other cultures. In this case, the taro has been stuffed with mushrooms, pork, and shrimp, rolled in a breading and then deep fried until crunchy. These were pretty darn good and we even got a bit of amusement as one of the guests at our table commented that they looked like fried Tribbles.

The next dish was the first of two chive and shrimp dumpling dishes, this one heavy on the chives and wok-fried:

Fried Chive and Shrimp Dumpling
These had both the sharp onion bite from the chives and the slight sweetness from the ground shrimp. While not quite as good as the chive potstickers from Wonton Gourmet, these were still pretty darn good and had I not had nineteen other selections from which to choose, I could've eaten all three.

Our only all-meat course for today was half of a roasted duck, chopped into smaller pieces for easier consumption:

Roasted Duck
The meat was rich and moist and for those willing to eat the skin, a nice bit of fattiness to combat some of the starchiness from the previous dishes. One thing I've learned over the years of eating dim sum is that sometimes (such as when eating the chicken feet), you have to put the chopsticks down and get your fingers a little dirty.

Another dim sum staple, a plate of Turnip Cakes made their way onto our table:

Turnip Cakes
While I enjoyed Li Wah's version, Wonton Gourmet has hands down probably the best turnip cake I've ever tasted. Made with pork sausage, the cakes are first steamed, sliced, and then fried so that the exterior has a nice crunchy exterior. While these were served with a sauce for dipping, I have always preferred mine with a bit of the chile-infused oil that sits on every table.

Next up were shells of green peppers filled with a ground shrimp mixture:

Steamed Bell Pepper and Shrimp Pate
After steaming, the shrimp mousse had set and the final step was to drizzle a savory brown sauce on top. The green pepper is popular in Chinese cuisine as it brings a certain bitterness to the table which the Chinese love.

Next up were rice noodles filled with dried shrimp and then fried:

Fried Rice Noodle with Dried Shrimp
When I use the word "noodle", think more like enchilada than spaghetti. These were soft and crunchy at the same time. The dried shrimp added a unique fishiness to the dish without being offensive.

Our next finger-licking-good item were bits of beef shortribs:

Beef Short Ribs with Black Pepper Sauce
While there was a significant amount of bone on these that you had to work around, the meat that easily pulled away was tender and spiced with a rich flavor due to the Chinese five spice powder.

Our second chive and shrimp dumpling of the meal came in the form of a steamed rice-paper wrapped version:

Steamed Shrimp and Chive Dumpling
These had more shrimp in them than the first version and thus, were more sweet than sharp. Of course, the steam treatment meant that the wrappers were much more tender than their fried counterpart.

Full yet, gentle reader? I know we were all starting to slow down by this point, but only three dishes remain, so go into power eating (or reading) mode and plow on through to the end!

The next dish was another of Nancy's favorites and was a fried wheat starch dumpling with a pork and shrimp filling:

Fried Wheat Starch Bun with Pork and Shrimp
The interesting thing about this item was that besides being perfectly fried on the outside, the wheat starch just under the fried surface was rather sticky. While this was an unusual texture for an American palate, I didn't find it unappealing at all.

While all of the items we had wanted eventually made their way to us via the carts, there was one particular item that both myself and a fellow tablemate wanted badly enough that we eventually had to ask for several plates of the Steamed BBQ Buns to be brought to the table:

Steamed BBQ Pork Buns
There was a baked version of this available as well, but we wanted this soft and delicate steamed rendition instead. As you can see in the above photo, each bun is sitting atop a square of paper, so do make sure you remove it before eating the bun. As with other dishes today at Li Wah, I've had better versions of the barbecue pork filling elsewhere, but Li Wah's buns were fresh and flavorful. This was definitely the dim sum fix I had been craving.

By this point, I was STUFFED! However, my tablemates decided to add one more item to the table, steamed Chinese broccoli with a Soy/Oyster sauce drizzle:

Steamed Chinese Broccoli with Oyster and Soy Sauce
Much as I needed a wafer-thin mint at this point, I did manage to get a taste in and was delighted to find a vegetable that was cooked through, yet still a bit crunchy. The flavor was only slightly bitter and the savoriness from the sauce went well with the flavor from the broccoli.

Everyone was now in agreement that we were all too full to do any more damage and asked for our check to be tallied. The two-hour epicurean odyssey finally at an end, the bill came to a measly $17.50 per person, tip and tax included. For the level and variety of foods I had eaten today (I pictured eighteen different dishes), this was an unbelievable value. While the restaurant was open and offered dim sum for both lunch and dinner, it is definitely advisable to go for lunch since the dim sum cooks finish up for the day in mid-afternoon and the dishes at night might not be as fresh as they would be during the day.

If the thought of doing dim sum intimidates you, at the end of the day, knowing which dishes to pick is all about what sounds good to you. While I've highlighted eighteen different choices here, there were at least twice as many being offered. I would highly recommend you get yourself to Li Wah and check out the dim sum for yourself. With the ability to customize your meal so completely and for so little money, even if you try a dish you end up not enjoying, there will be plenty more that you will find delicious and satisfying.

Li Wah on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finding Cupcake Love At Blue Iris Cakery

I've gotten to the point now where not only am I reporting on places that I happen to discover when I'm out and about in the northeast Ohio area, but now readers and fellow Facebook friends who follow my little dog and pony show are beginning to share some of their favorites, too. The suggestions come in all forms, from comments left on blog entries, to text messages on my phone, direct email, or through Facebook. I happened to be having lunch yesterday when I received just such a Facebook message from a fellow foodie.

Jeremy's message was simple and to the point: "I stopped at a cupcake shop yesterday they had a candied maple bacon pancake cupcake. I figured bacon its got to be good. It was the most amazing thing I have ever had in my mouth. You have to check it out I think they are on fbook. The bakery is blue iris in niles"

Once I got back to the office, I powered up Google and discovered that Blue Iris Cakery in Niles, Ohio has both a Facebook fan page as well as a website, although at this time only the domain has been purchased with an actual website to follow. From the fan page, I learned that proprietors Melissa and Steve Murphy had only recently opened their shop up for business in this Youngstown suburb as of December 2010. I also found that business hours were Tuesday through Saturday from 7 AM to 7 PM and on Sunday from 8 AM to 2 PM. They were closed on Mondays.

Heeding Jeremy's urgent call to action, I packed up my camera bag and headed out to the small shop early on Saturday morning, arriving just slightly after 8 AM. The shop was located at 606 Robbins Avenue, Niles, OH 44446 and can be reached at 330-652-2253. You can also email them directly if you wish. Parking was directly in front of the building.

Here was a shot of the storefront:

Storefront of Blue Iris Cakery in Niles, Ohio
I had hoped that on an early Saturday morning with kind of crappy roads I might find the shop empty enough to be able to engage whomever I found inside. I was suitably rewarded. Only two people were working behind the counter along with a lone customer who was just preparing to leave. As you well know by now, gentle reader, my typical modis operandi is to do my reviews completely anonymously to ensure that I don't get special treatment or free food. However, given that the cupcakes were already baked, there really wasn't much that could be done that would qualify for special treatment. Additionally, I wanted to try and get some really great photos of Blue Iris's products while learning more about its history.

So, I pulled out a business card for the blog, introduced myself, and was warmly greeted by one of the co-owners, Melissa Murphy. I explained to her about my blog and its purpose and why I had come today. When I mentioned Jeremy's missive about the "candied maple bacon cupcake," she nodded and responded, "Oh, yes, the Short Stack. That's very popular. I have a batch that are still warm and I think they are best that way. Would you like to try one while you're here?" You didn't have to ask me twice. How on earth could I say no to that?

While Melissa went into the kitchen to plate my cupcake, I wandered around the small shop and took a few photographs. To the left of the front entrance was a small area containing various coffee options as well as a few tables:

Coffee and Seating
Directly to the right of the front entrance was that most classical homage to A Christmas Story, the Leg Lamp:

Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.
Melissa gleefully admitted to having built this from scratch, having loved the movie so much. After a few rounds of "quote the movie" between the three of us in the store, I continued my quest to photograph other interesting items.

Mounted on the rightmost wall was a chalkboard with various bits of interesting information:

Wall Mounted Chalkboard
While Melissa had been in the open kitchen frosting cupcakes when I walked in, her assistant was taking the finished cupcakes and placing them in the glass cases at the front of the store. Here were a few candid cupcake shots:

Candid Cupcake Shot 1
Candid Cupcake Shot 2
And while I was at the glass case, here are left, middle, and right shots of today's offerings:

Cupcake Display Case 1
Cupcake Display Case 2
Cupcake Display Case 3
After snapping all of these photographs, Melissa indicated that my Short Stack was ready and I sat down at one of the tables after pouring myself some of the freshly brewed coffee to take a closer look at this marvelous creation:

Short Stack Cupcake
"Short Stack" as the saying goes, refers to diner speak for a stack of pancakes that numbers less than a full order. Melissa's idea was to essentially recreate a pancake breakfast with a buttermilk cupcake base, maple buttercream, heavy dose of maple syrup, and topped by that most essential of breakfast foods, crumbled bacon. After carefully peeling the paper baking cup back, I began to dig in and discovered that the flavors were absolutely spot on. What surprised me was that while the frosting was sweet, it was not overly so. I've had buttercreams that made my teeth ache, they had so much sugar.

To be honest, the entire cupcake was really well balanced. That seemed to be thematic throughout the entire cupcake line. After finishing my breakfast (literally and figuratively), I began to chat Melissa up about her past. Classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh, she worked at a number of restaurants before opening and running Blue Iris Cafe in Warren, Ohio for a number of years with her chef husband, Steven. While she loved running the cafe, it just didn't give her enough time to devote to her true passion, cakes, and more specifically, cupcakes. They closed Blue Iris Cafe in November 2010 only to open the new shop about a month later.

In addition to the cupcake I had eaten at the store, I decided to walk away with five additional cupcake flavors for later sampling. I did decide to take a photograph of each while I was in the store, however.

First up was the Red Velvet Cupcake:

Red Velvet Cupcake
While I didn't take any additional pictures of the insides of the cupcakes, each had been filled with the same frosting that topped the cake. The cake was velvety, smooth, and had a rich chocolate undertone. The buttercream frosting tasted as if it also contained some cream cheese because of the slight tang. Between the tender cake and the lighter than air frosting, this was a great way to start out my post-visit tasting.

Second, the Strawberry Fields Cupcake:

Strawberry Fields Cupcake
While I expected lots of strawberry flavor from the dollop of strawberry jam on top, I didn't expect there to be a deep vein of jam right through the center of the cupcake. This gave the entire cupcake an intense fruity aroma and taste that I really enjoyed. While all of the cupcakes I had eaten today were good, this particular one stood out as unique.

Third, the Chocolate Truffle Crunch Cupcake:

Chocolate Truffle Crunch Cupcake
When you start by cherry-picking off the dark chocolate truffle adorning this vertically endowed cupcake, things can only get better. Rich chocolate cake combined with a chocolate sauce center, light as air buttercream and finished with crunchy chocolate candies (they weren't sprinkles/jimmies) gave this true chocoholic a reason to sit back in my chair, roll the flavors around in my mouth, and truly enjoy the chocolate love that I was experiencing.

Fourth, the Lemoncello Cupcake:

Lemoncello Cupcake
Made with actual Lemoncello liqueur, the cake was not quite as tender as the Red Velvet cupcake, but it was still darn good for a cupcake that had sat for twelve hours before being eaten. The lemon flavor was pronounced, but not overpowering. The frosting, unsurprisingly, was light and airy.

And finally, the Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcake:

Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcake
For chocolate fudge lovers out there, this would be your cupcake. While at first glance it only appears that chocolate fudge was piped on top to finish the cupcake, once you take that first bite, you discover that hidden within the cakey walls of goodness lies a liquid core of fudge sauce so deep that you'll literally get a bit of fudge with every bite of cake. While I couldn't share this particular cupcake with my tasting buddy (you didn't think I had just eaten six cupcakes, did you?), because she can't have peanuts, I had to step up to the plate and eat the entire thing. You know ... for the blog.

During my thirty minute visit this morning, Melissa also plated and brought forth this amazing looking (and smelling) platter of freshly made iced sticky buns:

Iced Sticky Buns
These suckers were ENORMOUS! While I was tempted to get one of these as well, my sense of sanity kicked in and I figured I needed to save something for my next visit. If they taste half as good as they smelled, I know I will be in for a real treat when I finally do have the opportunity to sample one.

Today's trip to Blue Iris Cakery cost me $15 for six cupcakes, or $2.50 apiece, which I think is entirely reasonable given the fact that they were delicious and made with quality ingredients. Sadly, the cakery is an hour's drive for me each way and while I'd love to support Melissa and Steve with lots of repeat visits, a trip to this tiny shop will likely be relegated for special occasions, unquenchable cravings, or as a quick stop when I am traveling to or from Pennsylvania via Route 80. That being said, if you happen to live near Niles or the surrounding community, you should get into your car and drive over to relish this delicious culinary experience on your own. Even if you don't live close, there are many other interesting places to visit on the east side of Ohio that make stopping for this sweet indulgence absolutely justified.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lenten Project II: Week 3, Part 2

Tonight's second fish fry destination shared two things in common with last Friday's visit to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on the campus of Akron University. First, the menu lacked pierogi and thus filled the other spot on my list of churches I added after I ran out of places to visit having both fish and pierogi on their menu. Second, while tonight's parish was not Greek, it was Romanian and thus offered up something interesting that I hadn't seen on the other churches' menus.

I speak, for those not familiar with my Lenten Project schedule, of St. George Romanian Byzantine Catholic Cathedral located at 1123 44th Street NE, Canton 44714. For those in need of additional information, they can be reached at 330-492-8413. St. George is one of many churches which just appear out of the middle of nowhere while traveling through residential neighborhoods in Canton. Last year's second place winner, Our Lady of Peace, was exactly the same. Regardless, I pulled into the rather long driveway for St. George and took it around to the back parking lot. While it was pretty full, I assumed that the first wave of diners would probably be finishing up and leaving shortly.

At roughly 6:45 PM, I got out of my car and took a picture of the rear of the church:

Entrance to St. George's Catholic Church
The entrance to the fish fry was to the rear left in the above picture. Behind the columns was a small corridor that led to a door. Once inside I was greeted warmly and handed the menu:

St. George's Menu
Mercifully, the fried fish was offered as one, two, or three piece dinners. While I hadn't eaten all of my dinner at my previous stop, I still wasn't really in the mood to put away (much less pay for) a full three pieces of fried fish. Each dinner came with two sides and extra sides could be ordered for between $1-$2 each. While pierogi were off the table (so to speak), St. George was offering something quite unique in its place, which was why I decided to visit them in the first place, mamaliga. My interest clearly piqued, I decided to go with macaroni and cheese and mamaliga for my included sides and added a side of coleslaw.

After paying for my meal ($6 + $1 for my coleslaw), I grabbed a tray and proceeded to walk the service line from start to finish. From what I had been told by the woman greeting visitors at the front door and what I could tell from the chafing dish, mamaliga was a layer of corn polenta that had been topped with both sour cream and melted cheese. After gathering my entire meal, I retired to a table that had a couple of open chairs.

Here was a shot of my dinner at St. George:

Fried Fish Dinner
First up was the Fried Fish:

Fried Fish
Sadly, my timing on the fried fish was off by just a few seconds. When I got to the position in line where the fish was being served, the pickings were pretty slim. After being served my portion, one of the kitchen crew walked around the corner carrying a brand new hotel pan filled with freshly fried fish. When I finally had a chance to cut into the fish, it was lukewarm and the outside soggy and limp. The coating had not an ounce of crispness left in it and the fish was definitely dried out.

Here was a shot of the interior of the fish:

Interior of Fried Fish
I tried to pair it with some of the pickle-laden tartar sauce, but there was just no hope for this. I will give St. George the benefit of the doubt that while when first fried it may or may not have been perfect, it still would've been better than what I was served.

Next up on the plate was the Macaroni and Cheese:

Macaroni and Cheese
After the terrible version of this American staple I had eaten earlier in the evening, I knew that my odds could only improve. Yes and no. Fortunately, the kitchen staff at St. George had managed to not cook the pasta to death, but it was still overcooked. As opposed to my fish, the macaroni and cheese was fresh out of the kitchen, so sitting in a hotel pan for any length of time couldn't be the culprit. Helpfully, the crispy topping added some textural contrast. The down side was that this pasta lacked necessary assertive cheese flavor. I understand that there are many variations of macaroni and cheese, but with only two ingredients in the name, I need to be able to taste both.

Up next, the very item for which I had been excited to stop at St. George, the Mamaliga:

Mamaliga with Cheese
The texture of the polenta was firm, as such I needed to slice it and not spoon it. I cut a piece and placed it in my mouth. I definitely got the corn flavor from the cornmeal. The sour cream and cheese added a bit of flavor contrast to the corn and just a touch of saltiness. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to cover up the fact that while the polenta layer had a bit of salt, it was grossly underseasoned. While I obviously realize that the people making up the kitchen crew are not restaurant professionals, if your church or organization is going to charge money for food, then it really does fall under the same level of critique that a restaurant would. Were I served this in a restaurant, I don't think I would order it again.

With both sides being tasted and evaluated, I turned to my extra side, the Coleslaw:

While I don't believe this was homemade, it was nice and tangy and a good representation of what most people expect when they order this shredded cabbage salad. After the relative blandness of the mamaliga, this was a nice change of pace.

And in an odd show of solidarity to tonight's earlier meal, it turned out that the fresh bread stole the culinary show:

Fresh Bread
While I am not exactly sure where Queen of Heaven was getting their fantastic bread, I learned quickly the provenance of tonight's offering. At least three volunteers working at St. George tonight made sure everyone knew that the bread was homemade by one of the parishioners. The bread was incredibly fresh and had a nice pull to both the crust and crumb. One sniff of the crumb and I immediately could tell that this bread was made with no pre-ferment (aka starter) as I was missing that wonderful yeasty acidic smell. As such, while it was WAY better than food-service dinner rolls, it didn't quite tickle my taste buds as much as Queen of Heaven's had. However, I give the baker an A for effort as I know how much time it takes to bake enough bread to feed such a large crowd week after week.

My second meal now complete, I packed up my camera, grabbed my coat and walked out the door into the parking lot saddened by the fact that the high points for both meals tonight had been the bread. After making strides in all areas last week, tonight was one of those "one step forward, two steps back" experiences. Let's hope that next week's dinner will dole out some fried fish and pierogi redemption.

Here are the current rankings so far from best overall to worst overall as well as an individual grade for each of the major elements on the plate.

1. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (Akron): Fish, B+; Macaroni and Cheese, B; Coleslaw, C; Roasted Potatoes, B; Baklava, A-
2. St. George Catholic Church (North Canton): Fish, C-; Macaroni and Cheese, C-; Coleslaw, C+; Mamaliga, C
3. Queen of Heaven Catholic Church (Green): Fish, C+; Macaroni and Cheese, D; Roasted Potatoes, C; Pierogi, C; Coleslaw, B-
4. Our Lady of Guadalupe (Macedonia): Fish, B-; Pierogi, D+; French Fries, C; Coleslaw, C
5. St. Mary Church (Hudson): Fish, D+; Pierogi, C-; French Fries, B

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lenten Project II: Week 3, Part 1

In the movie The Matrix, when one of the characters noticed the same cat cross the same doorway twice, it ultimately meant trouble for the small band of freedom fighters. Deja vu, or that sense that you've experienced some emotion, feeling, or experience before is something that I think everyone has had to deal with from time to time. The only two dinners on my list of destinations this year that are return visits include stops at the Slovak J Club and tonight's visit to Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Green, Ohio.

While consistency is something for which any good restaurant strives, in the case of Queen of Heaven, I could've simply placed a link to last year's review and walked away. But, of course, I haven't given out the whole story quite yet. While consistency is a great thing, if you aren't consistently good, then that presents its own problem. At just after 5:00 PM today, I pulled into the parking lot for Queen of Heaven to discover an already full parking lot. When I went last year for my second dinner of the evening, I had a somewhat tricky time even finding a parking spot. Clearly this dinner was a popular Lenten destination.

Queen of Heaven Catholic Church was located at 1800 Steese Road, Uniontown, OH 44685 and can be reached at 330-896-2345. They also have a website. Like last year, the fried fish dinner was held in the Parish Life Center:

Entrance to Parish Life Center
Being an experienced diner at Queen of Heaven this year, I knew that once inside the door, there would be two lines, one for placing take-out dinner orders and the other for dine-in only. As I approached the order and payment tables in the dine-in line, I took a snapshot of the menu:

Queen of Heaven's Menu
As I wanted to make sure I sampled both the pierogi and macaroni and cheese (to see if they had improved from last year), I was happy to see that all dinners came with two sides. Since I had discovered the roasted potatoes from the previous week's visit to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, I decided to add an additional side of the potatoes. I paid my somewhat reasonable tab of $9.50, took my filled-in order form, and walked into the entrance of the gymnasium/cafeteria/fellowship hall. Once there, I was greeted and shown to a table.

After sitting for only a minute, one of the church volunteers approached me with a tray containing fresh bread slices and a choice between applesauce and coleslaw. I selected the coleslaw, placed my drink order, and proceeded to walk up to the front of the hall and queue up behind roughly fifteen other people.

After getting all of the food for which I had paid, I return to the table and began dutifully photographing all of it. Here was a shot of my entire meal:

Fried Fish Dinner
The table at which I had been placed was already populated by two other sets of couples. When I began taking pictures, one of the other diners at my table sort of laughed/snickered and said, "I don't have to take pictures to remember what the food tastes like!" I briefly thought about engaging him, but then thought the better of it and just let the comment lie. You have to pick your battles and this was one I didn't feel was worth the effort.

The one thing I remembered as being outstanding from last year's visit was the bread. As you stand in line waiting to be served, you invariably ended up walking past the table where a volunteer was slicing the bread fresh and inserting each slice into it's own waxed paper envelop. This year's dinner was no exception. It was fresh, it was tasty, and it had a wonderful chew to both the crust and crumb. If Queen of Heaven succeeded nowhere else, they absolutely rule when it came to their choice in bread. Sadly, this was the high point.

Having enjoyed the bread, next up on the tasting docket was the Fried Fish:

Fried Fish
I seem to remember the fried fish from last year being the second brightest point of that meal. This time around, the fish looked nicely fried and golden brown on the outside, but the slightest pressure or touch yielded very greasy fingers. The coating was crisp and nicely seasoned, but once I tasted the fish, I was longing for a bit of seasoning. While the standard fried fish dinner came with three pieces, I ate the first and about half of the second before giving up.

Here was a shot of the interior of the fish:

Interior of Fried Fish
In an interesting turn of events, while the first piece of fish I ate was decent in turns of moisture, the second piece was much drier and less enjoyable. Considering that they had come from the same batch on the same side of the chafing dish, this was a little worrisome. Overall, I think the execution of the fish dropped a bit this year.

New on my plate this year were the Roasted Potatoes:

Roasted Potatoes
While I was excited to see some herbs sprinkled on these potatoes (the very thing for which I dinged Annunciation's version), sadly these had none of the magic that came from a properly roasted potato. The potatoes were lacking any crispy exterior, although the interior was definitely creamy enough. Additionally, these lacked seasoning. To their credit, they weren't unsalted, just undersalted. For a boiled or steamed potato, this would have worked well. Roasted? Not so much.

Next up on the plate was the Macaroni and Cheese:

Macaroni and Cheese
This was the one item I was eager to see if it had improved from last year. I figured it really could only improve (I mean, I gave it a 'D' last year). As soon as the woman working the chafing dish scooped my portion and placed it on my plate, I knew that this was going to be deja vu all over again. And it was. Apparently, completely overcooked, mushy pasta was how they like to serve it at Queen of Heaven. While the macaroni and cheese had a decent cheese flavor, the pasta was BEYOND done. I took approximately two bites, one to register my first impression and the second to confirm it. I left the rest.

The next item I tried on my plate were the Pierogi with Fried Onions:

Potato Pierogi with Fried Onions
While the pierogi looked slightly different than the ones from last year, they also looked 100% uniform and resembled the standard Mrs. T's frozen product that I can get year round at the grocery store. One bite of these potato-filled dumplings confirmed my suspicions. The onions, while somewhat fried, still had a bit of raw crunch to them and didn't do that much in adding any sweetness to the pierogi. All in all, as was my assessment last year, average.

The final component on my tray tonight was the Coleslaw:

This dish intrigued me last year and it intrigued me this year. I asked my the woman delivering this side dish if it was homemade (I kind of guessed that it was last year) and she gave me the most incredulous look and said, "I have no idea if it is homemade." Still, based on the irregularity of the cut on the vegetables, it looks homemade. And, just like last year, the dressing was very light and sank to the bottom of the cup. It would be easy to think this was a mayonnaise-less dressing because it didn't taste heavy, but the scant milky dressing at the bottom of the cup would beg to differ with that conclusion. While this was certainly better than standard food service coleslaw, it didn't really sing either.

My meal now complete, I gathered my personal affects and headed outside, convinced that what I had experienced at Queen of Heaven's fish fry last year was indeed an accurate reflection. While the fish suffered a bit this year, the pierogi were still average, the macaroni and cheese was still sub-par, the coleslaw was still intriguing, and the fresh bread still remained the best part of the entire meal.

Here are the current rankings so far from best overall to worst overall as well as an individual grade for each of the major elements on the plate.

1. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (Akron): Fish, B+; Macaroni and Cheese, B; Coleslaw, C; Roasted Potatoes, B; Baklava, A-
2. Queen of Heaven Catholic Church (Green): Fish, C+; Macaroni and Cheese, D; Roasted Potatoes, C; Pierogi, C; Coleslaw, B-
3. Our Lady of Guadalupe (Macedonia): Fish, B-; Pierogi, D+; French Fries, C; Coleslaw, C
4. St. Mary Church (Hudson): Fish, D+; Pierogi, C-; French Fries, B
Related Posts with Thumbnails