I had some reservations about telling you about Jolane's Cafe in Glenview, IL mainly because it's owned by the Abt family, the same people who are my biggest account - Abt Electronics. Jolane's is part of the Abt Design Center which is a small shopping area just to the south of the mammoth Abt store on Milwaukee Ave. (see map). I was at Abt Electronics for a weekend event recently and a handful of us went over to Jolane's for lunch.
I had the food from Jolane's Cafe on a couple occasions before, but had never actually eaten in the place. When I did training for Focal and Cambridge Audio last summer, I had some food catered in for the event. It was primarily appetizer food and such, and it was pretty good. And at an event Abt Electronics had last fall, they had catered in some food from Jolane's to help feed the people working the event. I had a sandwich that was pretty good.
Jolane's is named after the mother of the owner of Abt Electronics, Bob Abt. Jolane - a.k.a. Jewel - emigrated to America from Austria at the age of six. A very self-sufficient and independent woman, she was one of the first women to own a car in Chicago in the 1920's. She traveled alone to Cuba during the height of the Depression in the early 30's. In 1934, she met and married Dave Abt and two years later they opened their first electronics store in the Logan Square area in Chicago.
Jewel's "can-do" attitude is what helped put Abt Electronics on the map. After retiring from working at the store well into her 70's, she continued her independent streak by taking an Alaskan cruise at the age of 84 and going to Japan by herself at the age of 90. Jewel Abt died in 2002 just short of her 97th birthday leaving a legacy that the Abt family carries on in her name with Jolane's Cafe.
Designed to be a restaurant that is similar to a European Cafe, Jolane's opened in the fall of 2008 offering gourmet coffees and teas, pastries and baked goods, a nice selection of wines and specialty drinks, and full lunch menu and dinner menu to choose from. The main dining room is cozy and inviting, and Jolane's features a sun room/bar atrium that is open, light and airy. John Collante is the executive chef at Jolane's and Jay Jones is the manager. I've worked with Jay on a couple of occasions as I had some food catered in for the Abt crew during trainings. He's a good guy and very thorough in his approach.
Five of us went over to Jolane's for lunch - a couple friends of mine who work for Mitsubishi and Martin Logan, and a couple sales guys from Abt. We decided to eat in the sunny and warm atrium area. Actually, when Jolane's was originally built, an outdoor patio stood where the atrium is today. I understand a little over a year ago the Abt's decided to enclose the outdoor seating area with sort of a "greenhouse" feel to the place. I asked one of the sales guys from Abt if it got hot out in the atrium in the summertime and he said, "Oh, yeah. So much that the air conditioning has a hard time of keeping up."
I was told by the guys that Jolane's makes a mean bloody mary and we all decided to get one for lunch. They're served in 16 oz. glasses with a bunch of munchie additions including a boiled peeled shrimp, a bleu cheese stuffed olive and a slice of salami. Yep, salami in a bloody mary. It wasn't bad, but a little weak in taste for me.
I wasn't overly certain what I wanted to have. I'd had breakfast earlier in the day fully anticipating that I wouldn't have time for lunch, so I wasn't overly hungry. One of Jolane's featured items at lunch that day was their Philly cheese steak sandwich with a chipotle dressing. A couple of the guys ordered that. My friend from Mitsubishi got the black angus cheese burger and my friend from Martin Logan got the roasted chicken sandwich topped with bleu cheese.
I hemmed and hawed for a moment between the chipotle lime chicken wrap - chunks of grilled chicken breast with bacon bits, avocado, lettuce and a chipotle lime dressing wrapped in a tortilla shell - and the Harvest tuna sandwich - a tuna salad sandwich mixed with chunks of tomato and cucumber, then served on a multi-grain bread. Not too exciting, but that's what I ended up going with. A side of Jolane's homemade potato chips came with the sandwich.
When the food finally showed up (it took over 25 minutes for the food to get to our table), the Harvest tuna salad sandwich was a big one. It nearly filled the plate and left little room for the potato chips. And that was fine with me - I can give or take potato chips, and, quite honestly, Jolane's homemade potato chips weren't anything special. The tuna sandwich was OK, as well. Nothing special, nothing that jumped out on the taste buds, it was just a nice sandwich.
What I should have gotten was the black angus burger. My friend told me, "Oh, man! Yeah, it's good." It was thick and juicy, served on a pretzel roll and he got cheddar cheese on top of it. The cheese was oozing down the sides of the burger. (Update - I did get the burger on my next visit about a week ago. It was actually very good.)
The nice thing about eating at Jolane's with guys from Abt Electronics is that we got a 15% discount for eating there. And that was appreciated because the bill can get to get a little on the high side for lunch. I paid for lunch for one of the Abt guys and with a tip it came to about $31 bucks. And that was with the discount.
The next day, the Abt's catered food in from Jolane's for their employees and for the manufacturers reps that were working the event. I went upstairs to their employee dining area with a longtime friend who is now working for Audioquest cables and they had a number of things to choose from - one of which was the chipotle lime chicken wrap. I immediately selected that.
And I'm glad I did. The taste sensations in the wrap were much more forward than what I had the day before with the tuna sandwich. It was actually pretty good. And it was large - I couldn't finish the whole thing, but I did make sure to pick out the tender grilled chicken breast chunks before I put it down.
As we were sitting there enjoying our lunch, Mike Abt (pictured left) came by and asked if he could sit with us. Mike Abt is Bob Abt's son and the "number one" son when it comes to running the company with his dad. I've gotten to know Mike over the past couple of months and he's a very nice guy. I asked him how Jolane's was doing for the family and he said, "Well, we had a lot of problems finding the right manager for the first few months. We went through, I don't know, three or four before we found the right guy."
He continued, "Food-wise, it's good. Service-wise, it's getting much better. Money-wise... Well..." He admitted that the overhead at Jolane's was an on-going battle. "It's not quite the money drain it was initially, but it's getting better."
I told him that any new restaurant was going to experience some money problems until it got a foothold and he said, "And we knew that, too. We just didn't expect it to continue for as long as it did. That's one of the reasons we worked through so many managers. I think we've got the right guy in place now."
While I did like the chicken chipotle lime wrap, the tuna sandwich I had at Jolane's was average, at best. But, then again, there's really not a lot that you can do to a regular tuna sandwich unless you're able to doctor up the tuna salad with ground horseradish or cajun seasonings, like I do at home. I can't say that Jolane's was outstanding, but it's a nice place to go for lunch while you're over shopping at Abt Electronics or at one of the nearby design stores. That's why I initially said that I had some reservations about talking about Jolane's because I wasn't going to suck up and say it was outstanding. But it's good enough that I'm sure that I'll be back there many times over the coming years as we continue to grow our business with Abt.
Staying in downtown Milwaukee one evening, I decided to walk over to the venerable Karl Ratzsch's for dinner. Karl Ratzsch's has been around since just after the turn of the 20th century and you'll get a lot of debate as to which German restaurant is better in Milwaukee - Kegel's Inn, Mader's or Karl Ratzsch's. Well, I was going to find out on my own.
The restaurant opened in 1904 as Hermann's Cafe, run by German chef Otto Hermann. After a few years, Hermann's step-daughter, Helen, moved to Milwaukee to help in the cafe. In the mid-1910's, a young German man by the name of Karl Ratzsch was touring the U.S. when World War I broke out in Europe. Deciding not to go back to Germany to fight in the war, Ratzsch settled in Milwaukee and began to work in the restaurant. Helen and the young Karl Ratzsch soon became an item, but it took them 10 years of courtship to tie the knot.
After they married, Karl and Helen bought the cafe from Otto Hermann, changed the name and moved it to it's present day location (see map). "Mama" and "Papa" Ratzsch continued to work in the restaurant until they sold it to their son, Karl, Jr. in 1962. Karl, Jr. ran the restaurant until the mid-90's when he sold it to his son, Josef. Josef, in turn, sold the restaurant in 2003 to longtime employees, Tom Andera, John Poulos and Judy Hazard, who, collectively, have nearly 90 years of working experience at Karl Ratzsch's. The ownership team continues to provide the same food and service that people have come to trust for over 100 years.
It was a 10 minute walk from my hotel to Karl Ratzsch's on a brisk winter evening in Milwaukee with the wind cutting through my winter jacket. By the time I got to the restaurant, I was ready to warm up. There were a handful of people in the ornate dining area, but I decided to pull up a seat at the bar. The bar area is decorated with a number of antique beer steins that Helen Ratzsch collected over the years. Some of them, including the big ones in the window of the bar area (above right), are pretty darn cool.
As I was going over the menu, another waitress came, Dawn, over and told me that she'd be taking care of me for the evening. She told me of a couple specials they had that evening - one of which was a combination of weiner schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, served with red cabbage. Oh, man! I about stopped right there and ordered that, but I knew I had to look through the full menu before I made up my mind.
In addition to Old World German foods on the menu - such as sauerbraten, rouladen, roast duck and pork shanks - Karl Ratzsch's also offers a number of European specialities such as Chicken a al Poulos, named for chef John Poulos and it features a grilled chicken breast with both a white cream and marinara sauce, then stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and feta cheese. That certainly caught my attention.
Karl Ratzsch's also features seafood and steaks, and on Saturday nights they serve a 12 oz. or 18 oz. beef prime rib.
But some other things on the menu also made my stomach do jumping jacks -
Koningsberger Klopse - veal, beef and pork meatballs in a lemon caper sauce.
Black Forest Veal - a breaded veal cutlet layered with smoked pork, Swiss cheese, spinach, and mushroom sauce, served over spätzle.
Wiener Schnitzel a la Holstein - a breaded veal cutlet topped with fried egg, anchovies and capers served with steamed vegetables and potato dumpling.
It all sounded so good and I was having a lot of problems. After the second time Dawn came back to take my order, I decided to go with the wiener schnitzel and Hungarian goulash combination. I also got a cup of their liver dumpling soup and a basket of rolls and toasted bread chips was served with the meal.
The cup of liver dumpling soup came out first. The liver meatball was different in taste from other liver dumplings I've had in the past. I didn't know if I cared for the taste or texture at first, but decided that different is good - it allowed me to try something new. The liver dumpling fell apart easily in the broth, it was very moist and tender. I will have to say that it was above average overall.
Not long after finishing my liver dumpling soup and getting another Spaten, my waitress brought out the main entree. It was a lot of food! The wiener schnitzel was a pretty good sized cutlet and the portion of the Hungarian goulash was heaping and heavy ladled over the spatzle. The wiener schnitzel was, well, it was OK. It wasn't the best I've ever had and it was a little dry in taste. A sauce would have helped it, but on its own it was just OK.
However, the Hungarian goulash was excellent. There were large chunks of beef and vegetables in a rich sauce that had a slight tinge of paprika. I've always like the Hungarian goulash over at Mader's. I'll have to say the Hungarian goulash at Karl Ratzsch's was even better. But, oh! Was it so filling!
I can see why people have trouble when they debate the merits of the big three German restaurants in Milwaukee. I think the wiener schnitzel at Mader's is better than Karl Ratzch's. But the Hungarian goulash at Karl Ratzsch's is better than Mader's. However, overall I feel that Kegel's Inn is the best value of all three. I guess the bottom line is that you can't go wrong with any one of the three. But the menu at Karl Ratzsch's intrigues me enough to want to go back and try some of the interesting food at some point in time.
One of my "foodie" buddies from Chicago told me a long time ago, "Man, you've got to go to The Publican. Oh, buddy, is it good!" And knowing how eclectic and snobbish his tastes are, for him to rave about a place like The Publican, well, it has to be damned good. It turned out that one evening on a recent visit to Chicago I was able to try the place thanks to a little inside juice from one of my dealers. So, here's the story on my visit to The Publican.
The Publican burst on the scene a little over two years ago offering European style dining - a gastropub, if you will - with farm to table foods, eclectic beers and an English-style pub with tiered tables where people can have drinks on one level, food on another and be able to lean on for conversations. The Publican is the culmination of a joint effort of restaurateurs Terry Alexander (Mia Francesca), Paul Kahan (Blackbird), Eduard Seitan (Blackbird, avec), and Donnie Madia (Blackbird). The group also is involved with trendy nightspots, Big Star and The Violet Hour.
Kahan (right) is the executive chef and Brian Huston is the chef de cuisine at The Publican. The menu features a number of entrees of pork from an organic farm outside of Dyersville, IA - Becker Lane Organic Farm. Kahan and Huston also feature a variety of oysters on the half shell, octopus from the Marshall Islands, Maine mussels and smoked salmon from Scotland. I was told the pork rinds are to die for. I'm not big on pork rinds, but I vowed to try some that evening.
The Publican also boasts over 100 eclectic beers from around the world. The beer director at The Publican - Michael McAvena - is in his late 20's, but has earned the reputation as being able to pick the best beers to compliment the food. Every bartender, server and manager at The Publican have also completed the first level of the Cicerone beer server certification course. They are part of a group of over 3000 people world-wide who have a distinct knowledge of beers, which beers to pair with what foods and the proper way to serve such eclectic beers. Ooooo.... I was gonna LOVE this place!
The Publican can be pretty tough to get into. On the weekends, lines will form out the door on W. Fulton Ave (see map). Even through the week, it's somewhat difficult to get into the place. But I had an "in" that evening - courtesy of my buddies who work at Decibel Audio.
The guys at Decibel Audio know their restaurants pretty well. They were the ones that turned me on to the very good Mirai Sushi restaurant last year. It turns out that they did the sound systems in nearly all the restaurants affiliated with The Publican, including the system at The Publican. I was in Chicago recently to do a training for the guys at Decibel Audio and after we were finished I offered to take them out to dinner. They had mentioned The Publican in passing and I said, "Yeah, I've heard a lot about that place. I'd like to go there."
Adam, the manager, said, "It may be tough to get into. It's a pretty popular place. I can call down there, though, and see if Katie (the manager) can get us in." A quick phone call to The Publican and the next thing you know Adam says, "OK, she can get us a table in 20 minutes."
It was a 10 minute drive to The Publican and about a five minute drive around looking for a parking space before we finally found one on a side street a couple blocks away. Parking in the area can be pretty tough - it's primarily a warehouse district - so valet parking is available at the door. But we didn't valet the car that night.
Upon entering the restaurant, there were hugs all around for the Decibel Audio boys from Katie, the manager, and Katie, the hostess that evening. Katie, the manager, playfully admonished them. "You guys haven't come to see us lately! We've missed you!"
Our table wasn't quite ready yet, so Katie, the hostess, asked if we'd like to go to the pub area and get a beer while we waited. The tables in the pub are nice and high, very sturdy and actually sort of comfortable to lean upon. They have hooks under the lowest tier so you can hang your coat up while you drink your beers.
The waitress in the bar area gave us a beer menu to look over. The menu is very heavy on Belgian-style beers and I'm not big on Belgian-style beers. And I didn't recognize nearly any of the beers on the menu. Some were high alcohol content, some had prices as high as $17 to $22 for a 12 oz. bottle. One beer - Goose Island's Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout - was $65 for a 22 oz. bottle. And it is rare - it was bottled just once in 2010 and permanently retired after that.
I settled on a Krankshaft Kolsch beer from Chicago's Metropolitan Brewery. It was a nice light-bodied blond ale that didn't fill me up before dinner. The other guys got some Belgian beers that I was not familiar with in the least. Adam was telling me about the sound system in the place and the troubles they had in making sure it would work properly in the large room. "This room is so loud when you get a ton of people in here. We had to find that right balance of making sure the music could be heard, but not make it so loud that it was going to be competition with people's conversations," he told me over a beer. "It's bad enough competition to have a conversation with someone across the table with all the other people talking in here." It was, indeed, a pretty loud place.
The decor at The Publican is akin to a Scandinavian beer hall - if there is such a thing. There's a long community table in the middle of the room with booths off to the side. Each booth has a heavy gate-like door that swings open to allow people in and out of the booth. That's where Katie eventually sat us.
We had a couple waiters working with us that evening, both of whom knew the guys from Decibel Audio. One of the waiters brought over a plate of assorted sliced hams, complements of Katie, the manager. The plate featured razor thin slices of a sweet country ham from Tennessee, a mild tasting ham from Iowa, and a smoked and forward tasting ham from Spain. The Publican's peasant bread and goat cream butter was served with the sliced hams. Oh, man. I was in heaven already! The Spanish ham was out of this world.
On top of the complementary plate of hams, Katie also sent over a complementary fruit salad for us to try. The combination of the greens and the mangos were a wonderful taste sensation.
Most of the entrees at The Publican can be shared and that's what we decided we'd do that evening. They had so much to offer and I wanted to try so much. We just began to order things and keep ordering as we went along.
The first two items brought to our table were the chef's choice of oysters on the half shell and a duck confit with shredded pork shoulder and jam appetizer (left). It was just outstanding. You scooped it on to a piece of bread and it was out of this world. In fact, if I really knew what was in it, I probably wouldn't have ordered it. But one of the guys knew what it was and he said it was great. And it was. It was going to take a lot to make the meal better than it already was.
The oysters - four each from Maine, Rhode Island and Washington state - were OK. They weren't the best oysters I've ever had and weren't large in size and a little gritty. But as I said they were just OK. One thing that they didn't serve with the oysters was Tabasco sauce or horseradish. But they did have their own style of shrimp sauce that came with the oysters.
The next thing that came out was a big bucket of steamed Maine mussels (below left). About half of them didn't open up (don't try and pry open the ones that didn't open) and another handful were barely open. I threw caution to the wind and ate a couple that were barely open. I could tell one wasn't edible, but it was too late. It was down the hatch. Later that evening, my gastro-intestinal system confirmed my earlier fear. But you don't want to hear about that. But the ones that were open were good and the sauce they cooked the mussels in was out of this world. We dipped peasant bread in the sauce and ate it, it was so good.
We had also ordered up the country ribs - but Adam warned me before we got them, "They're not what you think." When they brought them to the table, I was sort of surprised to see what were basically barbecued Illinois pork chops (above right). There was enough for each of us to get a couple three bites and it was very good. The pork was tender, the rub they used was sort of spicy, but not overpowering. On its own, it would have been a very good meal.
Are you still with me? I know this is getting long, but you've got to hang on just a bit longer to see what was the highlight of the evening.
The Publican has the most outrageous appetizers and sides on their menu. The pork rinds (below left) were as good as advertised. (They also comped us on the pork rinds because they forgot to bring them out when we first ordered them.) Served in a paper wrapper, they were spicy and mouth-meltingly good. And, oh, so rich and filling. Thankfully they came late in the meal when we'd already had mussels and ribs and oysters and... We would have never been able to eat much else had we gorged on the pork rinds. Like I said, I'm not big on pork rinds, but the ones at The Publican were outstanding.
But even better was something that was so stupidly simple that I could just kick myself for never having this before. It was an appetizer/side of two eggs cooked sunny side up placed on top of a plate of french fries (above right). Then you chopped the egg up on the fries. It was unbelievable. First of all, we all surmised the french fries were probably cooked in duck fat because they had a great taste on their own. But the egg whites and yolk on the fries were just outstanding. I almost ordered another plate of those, but we'd had so much food.
We had one other dish that I don't quite remember what it was. I believe it was a sweetbread (pictured right), but it wasn't served the way they describe in the menu. This was more of a side or appetizer than a main entree as described in the menu. But it was also very good. Really, it was all good, although the mussels were a tad disappointing (but the sauce more than made up for that), and the oysters were, once again, just OK.
The 2011 Michelin Guide for Chicago came out just before Christmas and I got a copy of the book for myself. The Publican was named a "Bib Gourmand" restaurant in the book, literally an honorable mention from Michelin for restaurants that are a great value, but still don't garner a Michelin star rating. The Publican was a great value - for four of us along with beers, the bill came to under $40 a person. Of course, we were comped on three items that would have brought the price up about $30 bucks more. But still, you can easily get a great meal with appetizers for two for under $100 bucks at The Publican. My snobbish foodie buddy was right on about the food at The Publican - overall, it was outstanding.
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in New York City has been one of the most popular eating destinations in the Big Apple for nearly 20 years. Flay's combination of traditional American foods coupled with the robust taste sensations of Southwestern cuisine has wowed diners and critics alike for years. A couple of the guys in my company had to be in Las Vegas last year for a small trade show and they ended up eating at the Las Vegas Mesa Grill located in Caesar's Palace. They declared it "fantastic" and said that we had to eat there during our recent trip to Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. On a Friday night, we did just that.
Anybody who knows anything about cooking or dining out is probably familiar with Bobby Flay. He's been involved in a number of television programs over the years, he's the author of nine cookbooks, he has a line of gourmet sauces and rubs, and that's not counting the three Mesa Grill restaurants he owns (including the Mesa Grill at the fabulous Atlantis resort/casino in the Bahamas), Bobby Flay Steak in Atlantic City, the Bar Americain restaurants in New York City and Connecticut, and Bobby's Burger Palace - a gourmet burger restaurant with five locations in the Northeast.
Flay opened the Las Vegas Mesa Grill in 2004 bringing his style of American/Southwest cuisine to, well, the Southwest. Flay has always been particularly fond of grilling and the menu at the Mesa Grill in Las Vegas is certainly indicative of that with such entrees as a New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, ancho chile-honey glazed salmon, a bone-in chipotle glazed rib-eye, and a mango and spice crusted tuna steak all done over a wood-fire grill. Mesa Grill also has a number of wood-fire oven roasted specialties as well. One of my colleagues got the New Mexican-spice rubbed pork loin on his visit last April. He said he immediately thought of me when he got it.
The only problem is that we had a large group again - a couple three guys in our company were off doing their own thing with other obligations that evening, but the rest of us invited a couple guys each from the French companies of Micromega and Devialet to dinner that night giving us a total party of 12. And because there were 12 of us, we had to go off a prix fixe menu once again. And this menu was very small (Mesa Grill's regular menu isn't large to begin with) and included a coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin filet, the mango - spice crusted ahi tuna steak, and 16 spice chicken with a mango and garlic sauce. That's it. No New Mexican-spiced pork tenderloin. My colleague, Ian, who had that before knew that I was crest-fallen. That's the only thing I wanted to try on the menu.
I sort of shook my head and swallowed hard. I knew that Flay's grilling style is pretty good and being a griller myself I decided to go with the coffee-rubbed filet. I didn't know how the coffee rub would go with the beef, but at that point in time it was the lesser of all evils of what was made available to us on the menu.
We were limited to two appetizers - the tiger shrimp with roasted garlic corn tamale, and the Yucatan chicken tacos. Actually, the tiger shrimp with roasted garlic corn tamale was pretty good. That's what I ended up getting (apologies for the poor picture - but you get the idea). The shrimp were good sized, the garlic corn tamale was a great taste sensation and I was pleasantly surprised. I was really hoping that the rest of the meal was just as good.
Once again, having a large group it was difficult for everyone to visit with everyone else. The language barrier came into play, as well, with the French talking in their native tongue amongst themselves and with our guys from Montreal. There's nothing wrong with that in my book, but it makes for a lot of awkward looks, pauses and head turning during the evening. We've been told that it's best for the Americans to fan out at a table and not congregate at one end as to not offend our guests. But when everyone around me is talking French, there's a lot of idle time at the table. I try not take out my Blackberry and do a little surfing for scores or news, but it's pretty tough not to in those instances.
Our main entrees came out and I really didn't know what to expect from my coffee-rubbed tenderloin. I like the taste of coffee, but I'm not a coffee drinker. And the idea of eating ground coffee is not all that appetizing. (But I will say that one of the secret ingredients in my mom's spaghetti sauce recipe was ground coffee.) The coffee on the beef tenderloin at Mesa Grill was part of a heavy sauce that enveloped the piece of meat. It was a little overpowering in taste, I have to say. The steak was a tad over-cooked, but it was still tender and flavorful. At least, what I could taste of the beef over the coffee rub/sauce.
My colleague, Michael, got the mango-spice crusted ahi tuna steak. It was seared and served rare. Three large clams came on the side with it. Michael said, "Oh, it's very good. The spices zing it up a bit."
He said he was thinking about getting the coffee-rubbed filet, but decided to go the seafood route. His definitely looked - and sounded - better than my steak did.
I'm not certain anyone at the table got the chicken entree that was offered on the prix fixe menu. My colleagues Ian and Simon said that it would have been much better to order off the menu as they both thought it wasn't as good as during their visit last April.
Dessert was also included in the meal and that evening we were given Mesa Grill's Poached Pear Buttermilk Upside Down Cake topped with a butterscotch sauce and a scoop of spiced ice cream. Actually, it was very good. A nice little night cap to the meal.
As you can probably figure out by now I was pretty disappointed in my meal at Mesa Grill. It's not that the coffee-rubbed filet was bad - it was actually pretty good. But I couldn't order what I really wanted and that was a major disappointment. We decided if we came back and we had a large group, we'd just make reservations for two or three tables of six people. That way we'd be able to order exactly what we want off the menu and quite probably have a better dining experience.
It was a pleasant surprise to find out that the venerable Montreal Mediterranean seafood restaurant - Estiatorios Milos - was going to open in Las Vegas before our recent visit to the Consumer Electronics Show. (Read about my visit to the Montreal location here.) "Milos" (or the correct pronunciation "Milosh") has become "the" spot for my Montreal-based company to to take guests to dinner when they come in from out of town. It's a family-style Greek/Mediterranean restaurant where fresh fish is flown in daily and you can literally pick your fish for your meal as they lay in the iced case by the kitchen. It's really a fun time.
The Las Vegas edition of Milos opened in mid-December when the new Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino opened. We understood the project was about three months behind schedule, but already Milos was a tough ticket to get into. When my colleague Todd made reservations for us even before they opened the doors, we couldn't get a group of 12 into Milos until after 8 p.m. on the Wednesday evening before the start of the show the next day.
Estiatorios Milos in Las Vegas stays true to the philosophy from it's flagship restaurant in Montreal (with locations also in New York City and in Athens). Owner Costas Spiliadis (pictured right) brings his "fresh is first" philosophy to Las Vegas with the freshest fish brought in daily and fresh produce brought in from Southern California two or three times a week. But the simple presentation is still the highlight of Milos menu. While they feature their freshly caught fish on a daily basis, they serve it with a minimum amount of flair and pomp. Spiliadis feels the food should be the focal point - the center, if you will - of the meal without any additives to take the natural taste of the food away. Since Spiliadis opened Estiatorios Milos in 1979, he has never cooked with butter - only pure Grecian olive oil. Butter masks the real taste of the food, according to Spiliadis. Olive oil will help bring out the natural taste.
We drove from the Mirage down a very congested Las Vegas Blvd. to the Cosmopolitan for dinner that evening. Even though the Cosmopolitan is just down the street from the Mirage (see map), it's still too far of a walk. Well, actually we could have walked it and it may have been just as fast as if we drove and valet parked the vehicle. Then there was the obligatory walk through the casino at the Cosmo, up two flights and past a number of no-name stores before we finally found Milos in a corner on the third level of the entertainment area. It turned out that we could have used the east side entrance of the Cosmo instead of driving around to the "front" of the hotel which is literally on the opposite side of the Las Vegas Strip. It would have saved us a 10 minute walk from valet parking at the front of hotel to the restaurant which overlooked the Strip.
We were seated at a table near the center of the restaurant - which is much larger than the original Montreal location - just after 8 p.m. The hostess asked us if we were familiar with Milos and nearly everyone at the table sort of chuckled and said, "Oh, yeah!" Todd explained to the hostess that most of us were from Montreal and that nearly all of us had eaten at the original one in the past. She said, "Oh, great! That will save me about 10 minutes of explanation!"
We were brought out complementary baskets of Milos' grilled bread served with their house olive oil and fresh rosemary. The olive oil comes from a Spiliadis family-owned olive farm in Greece and it's bottled with the name "My Sister's Olive Oil". And it is out of this world - some of the best available. One of my colleagues from Montreal asked one of our waitresses if the olive oil was available to buy. She said there was a small shop on a lower level of the mall at the Cosmo that sold it. A couple of us stopped in after the meal to get a bottle but were stopped in our tracks when we found that a 12 oz. bottle sold for $35 bucks. Ow! I can get a 2 liter container of extra virgin Spanish olive oil at Caputo's in the Chicago area for the same money. Still, it was so good it was tempting to buy.
The head chef soon came over and introduced himself. He said, "I understand that you all are from Montreal? You're very familiar with Milos?"
Todd said, "Well, we're not all from Montreal, but we've all eaten at Milos."
My boss, Daniel, immediately said, "No, I don't think that's necessary. I think we want to do a whole fish with a bunch of appetizers."
The chef and Daniel huddled for a moment. The chef explained some of the freshest whole fish that they had to offer that evening. He told Daniel that he had about a 10 to 12 pound Mediterranean red snapper that would easily feed our group. Daniel agreed to that. He also ordered up ample amounts of Milos signature appetizers including the wonderful grilled octopus, calimari, and the Milos Special - thin slices of deep-fried zucchini, strips of eggplant and saganaki cheese served with tzatiki sauce. He also ordered up a couple bottles of a Greek 2009 Domaine Katsaros Chardonnay. We were set.
From the first appearance of the appetizers, we found that the Las Vegas version of Milos was different from the one in Montreal. While the Milos Special was similar in taste, it was much smaller in size and quantity. The calimari was absolutely spectacular, but we were very disappointed in the grilled octopus. The grilled octopus pieces in Montreal are very large - about the size of a half dollar and about an inch in depth. The ones at Milos in Las Vegas were barely the size of a nickel and about 3/8" of an inch deep. They were still wonderful to the taste, but I was highly disappointed in the size of them.
The staff began to set up the serving area and the fish was soon brought out to the table. The chef cut, chopped and de-boned the fish and served it on plates to us. Now, I've had bad luck with red snapper the last few times I've gotten it and I was sort of disappointed to find that we were getting red snapper that evening. I held out hope that it wouldn't be dry and overcooked - exactly as it has been the previous times I've gotten it over the past two or three years. Once again, disappointment set in from the first bite as I found the fish to be well overcooked and dry. Even my colleague, Todd, commented afterward, "The fish was a little dry, wasn't it?" Yes, it certainly was.
The high point of the meal, however, was the fact that I got to try my very first fish cheek. One of my colleagues told me on my first visit to Milos in Montreal that the fish cheek was considered a delicacy. It's generally moist and flavorful with a non-fishy taste to it. There was a fish cheek laying on the plate, someone offered it to me and I took it. It was exactly as described and it was the best thing I ate all night.
Well, that is, if you don't count the scrumptious desserts at Milos. Like my previous visit to the one in Montreal, we had a potpourri of desserts brought to the table. The homemade baklava is just out of this world, some of the best - if not THE best - baklava I've ever had. The key lime tort was just as good as I remember from the original Milos, and the loukoumades are sinfully great. Loukoumades is a traditional Greek dessert consisting of deep fried dough (arteries hardening as we speak) that are topped with pure honey and mixed with thyme, cinnamon and almonds. OH, my GOD!!! I'm glad I didn't eat much of the fish or it would have spoiled the dessert.
While there are a lot of similarities with the Las Vegas Estiatorios Milos and the original one in Montreal, the one in Montreal is still the better of the two. It could also very well be that they're still trying to shake the cobwebs out of the system in Las Vegas, too. It had only been open for about three weeks and I'm a firm believer that you need to be open for three months before any critical dining should take place. But we decided that it was good enough to give it a try at next year's CES and we will undoubtedly be back.
I've been prodded by a number of people who regularly read Road Tips to travel to nearby De Witt, IA so I can give my observations on the pork tenderloin sandwich at TC's Point After. Their tenderloin garnered 2nd Place in the annual Iowa Pork Producers Association "Best Tenderloin in Iowa" contest in 2009 behind Goldie's in Prairie City (see the post about my visit to Goldie's here). I've been meaning to go up to TC's for a tenderloin, but never had the time - or actually, made the time.
Recently, a good friend of mine, Curt Buchmeier, called and said that he was staying in De Witt for a couple nights while he was selling Yellow Pages ads for Hanson Directory out of my old hometown of Newton, IA. It had been years since we'd seen each other, so we worked it out where could meet at TC's for dinner that night. Cindy and I hopped in the car and drove the short distance up to De Witt and TC's Point After (see map).
Chuck Cox was a salesman on the road for over 15 years when he became fed up with overnight travel and mediocre restaurants where the kitchen always seemed to close too early for him. He said to himself, "If I ever open a restaurant, it would have extended kitchen hours so someone can get a sandwich at 10:30 at night if they want it." Chuck's dream to open a bar/restaurant came true when he bought a small building in downtown De Witt and with the help of his wife, daughter and three sons, they remodeled the place into a nice little family oriented sports bar. He named the place by combining the initials of his childrens names (Tracey, Todd, Terry, Tony) with a sports theme - hence, TC's Point After. Cox populated the walls with sports memorabilia including a lot of Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears items. A shelf above the bar holds helmets from various high school football teams around the area.
Cox opened a second location in the Village of East Davenport a little over 20 years ago, but it only lasted a couple three years. If I remember right, he closed up that location and moved it to the Hilltop Campus Village area of Davenport. That place, too, eventually closed and he focused his efforts on the De Witt location.
Being a big Cubs fan, Cox became friends with Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins (pictured at right with Cox). I don't remember what the connection between the two was, but Jenkins regularly comes to De Witt for fund raisers and outings with Cox. At the Cubs Spring Training facility in Mesa, AZ, Jenkins helps Cox sell battered pork chop sandwiches called "Fergie's Big Bite". They're the same pork chop sandwiches that TC's Point After sells in De Witt.
A couple years ago, Cox sold TC's Point After to his long time general manager Michele Bowers. Cox still comes in on a daily basis when he's in town, but sits on the other side of the bar in a chair with his name on the back of it. Cox's grandson, Christopher, remains the head cook at the place.
The pork chop sandwich that TC's is famous for - dubbed Chuckie's Famous Tenderloin - was actually developed by Cox's wife and daughter. They take a whole pork loin and cut of about a six ounce center portion of pork, run it through a tenderizer front and back, and then coat it with a secret homemade batter. It's deep fried and served on a bun. I'd heard so much about TC's pork tenderloin that I couldn't wait to try it.
We met Curt around 7 p.m. and took a table in the far back of the dining room at TC's. It had been over 10 years since we seen one another and probably four years since we'd last talked, so catching up was the first thing on the agenda. Well, that and drinking a number of beers. Cindy didn't feel like drinking that evening, so she just had water. It turned out good for me as one beer turned into three, which turned into six, which turned into... Well, let's just say that I was grateful that she went along so she could drive me home that night.
The menu at TC's Point After features a number of steaks, chops and seafood, as well as a number of salads and side dishes to choose from. In addition to the famous tenderloin sandwich, TC's has an extensive list of appetizers, burgers and other sandwiches. They also feature nightly specials on a regular basis.
Cindy was getting hungry and we still hadn't really opened our menus as we were talking non-stop back and forth about what had been going on with our lives. Cindy took the initiative and ordered up a plate of TC's Hat Trick - a combination of onion rings, cheese sticks, fried mushrooms and cauliflower. It didn't take long for the plate to show up and I have to say that while I usually don't eat much deep fried food like this, everything that I sampled in the Hat Trick was very good. It was a pleasant start to the evening.
We finally decided we'd better order up food for dinner as we'd been there over an hour and Curt and I were completely pounding back the beers, having a very large time. I knew exactly what I was going to have - the tenderloin with onions and pickles. I had my choice of either regular fries or waffle fries - I took the regular ones - and a small side of cole slaw came with the sandwich.
Cindy contemplated getting the grilled chicken sandwich, but she instead opted for the Black and Bleu Burger - a six ounce beef patty topped with bleu cheese and cracked black pepper. That really sounded good to me, as well. She got the waffle fries with her meal.
The special that evening was the "surf and turf" combo - a 6 oz. beef tenderloin filet with three shrimp coated in TC's homemade batter and deep fried. Curt ordered the special and when asked how he wanted his steak cooked, he replied, "Just walk it through a warm room. I like my steaks about as rare as possible." Ah! A man after my own heart! A baked potato came with his meal.
We continued to have more beers and lots of laughs up to the time we got our food delivered to our table. I was very happy to see that the tenderloin (above right) wasn't pounded to a paper thin width and spread out so that it hung over the bun by six inches in each direction. While it was still bigger than the bun, it wasn't unmanageable to pick up and eat.
Cindy's black and bleu burger (above left) looked pretty good, but I thought they sort of skimped on the bleu cheese on top of the patty. But Curt's surf and turf combo looked pretty damn good. The battered shrimp looked pretty tasty and the small filet looked a little bigger than 6 oz. The waitress asked Curt to cut into his steak to make sure that it was cooked rare enough for him. We both agreed that it was overcooked a bit - but it was rare in the middle. I said, "I think they cooked it about a minute too long on both sides." Curt said he'd still eat it anyway.
Cindy just shook her head and said, "You guys are nuts. That steak is perfectly cooked!"
I said, "Well, yeah. That is, if he ordered it medium rare."
My tenderloin was just outstanding. One of the better pork tenderloin sandwiches I've ever had. I thought it was even better than Goldie's tenderloin - the pork tenderloin TC's lost out to in 2009. And I thought it was even better than the 2010 winner, Buck's Bar in Mitchellville (click here to see the post on my visit to Buck's). But I'm more partial to a battered pork chop sandwich rather than a breaded one. I think a breaded tenderloin dries out quickly during the cooking process. The tenderloin at TC's was moist and tender, but most of all it had some thickness to it. With the onions, pickles and yellow mustard on top, it was very tough to beat.
Cindy said she liked her burger, as well. It looked a little over-cooked for my taste, but she said it was fine for her. I may have to try the black and bleu burger on a later trip to TC's.
And Curt was happy with his steak. The battered shrimp were very rich and he still had some of his steak left when he said he was finished with his meal. The steak did look good and I noticed that a number of people that were in TC's that night got steak or prime rib for their dinners. I may have to go back and try a steak at some point. If that's the case, I'll have to go back three times because I'll want to get another pork tenderloin sandwich.
A couple of Curt's colleagues were in TC's that night, as well. One of them was an old softball teammate from my days back in Newton, Brian Flattery. Brian joined us after dinner and we caught up on stuff in and around my hometown. Brian quit drinking 25 years ago and, as I said earlier, Cindy wasn't drinking that evening. That's OK - Curty Wayne and I more than made up for them. It was well past 11:30 when Curt walked over with two Bud Light bottles for me and a Fat Tire in a 24 ounce mug for him. I protested and he said, "C'mon, Wilbur! We only get together once every, what? Ten years? You can have a couple more beers with me!" We proceeded to drink those and when Curt got up to go to the bathroom, unbeknownst to me he ordered one more beer for both of us. When the waitress brought the beers to the table, I said, "That's it! This is absolutely the last one! I've got to go home!"
It was after midnight when we left TC's. Thankfully for both Curt and I, we had designated drivers. Brian took Curt back to the hotel and Cindy drove the 25 minutes it took for us to get back home. It was really great to catch up with an old friend. Cindy and I made a promise that we'd do our best to get to Des Moines some weekend to get together with Curt and his wife.
I just have to say that the pork tenderloin at TC's lived up to the raves I've heard about it for years. While TC's isn't a large place and it's not much when it comes to decor if you're not a sports fan, I was overly happy with every aspect of our visit. Quite honestly, I didn't really know what to expect, but I was pleasant surprised at how good everything was - the food, the service, just the homey-ness of the place. Oh, yeah. We'll go back to TC's for more food at some point.
During our stay at the Hotel Burnham, Cindy's principal goal was to have tea at the Atwood Cafe, the in-house restaurant at the Burnham. Actually, that's been her goal for quite sometime. She fell in love with the decor at the Atwood Cafe on an earlier look through a few years ago and thought it would be sort of quaint to have tea there. The only problem is that she couldn't get anyone to go with her. I told her that I'd at least have lunch at the Atwood Cafe, but sitting drinking tea wasn't very high on my list of things to do.
The Atwood Cafe is named after architect Charles Atwood who designed the upper floors of the Reliance Building in the late 19th Century. Atwood was a protégé of Daniel Burnham (the person who the Hotel Burnham is named after) and John Root who designed the first level of the building. After the Kimpton Hotel chain bought the building in the late 20th Century to turn it into the Hotel Burnham, they brought in the Puccini Group- a San Francisco design company that specializes in the planning, building and operations of upscale restaurants situated in fine hotels - to oversee all aspects of the Atwood Cafe for the Kimpton chain.
Heather Terhune was the original chef at the Atwood before she moved over to Sable, the restaurant within the Hotel Palomar in the River North neighborhood - also a Kimpton property. Derek Simcik, born in Greece to American parents, took over as the Executive Chef of the Atwood Cafe in 2010. Simcik's educational background was primarily as a pastry chef, but he worked his way up to chef du cuisine at Jackson 20, a Kimpton restaurant that is located inside the upscale Hotel Monaco hotel in Alexandria, VA. He moved to Chicago early last year to take over as the executive chef at the Atwood Cafe.
The decor of the Atwood Cafe is rather unique. Situated on the corner of the Hotel Burnham, the restaurant features large windows that afford great street views along Washington and State Streets (see map). The high ceilings, various colors of red, yellow and black abound throughout the restaurant. Persian rugs over intricately designed flooring, tasteful lighting with etched diamond patterns in the sconces and elaborate chandeliers give the Atwood an elegant art deco feeling like you're transported back to the 1930's and 40's. The lobby of the Burnham is an extension of the Atwood Cafe with that space used as more of a waiting area for the restaurant. There's a small bar in the corner of the Atwood where you can get your drinks, then retire to the lobby of the hotel to wait for your table.
After Cindy and I checked in to the Hotel Burnham on her birthday weekend, we decided to head just down the street to Daley Plaza and the Christkindlmarket that has become a Chicago holiday tradition. It was colder than hell out, though and the market was packed - elbows to assholes, as my cousin so colorfully describes large crowds. We decided to go back to the hotel to warm up and get lunch at the Atwood Cafe. We got to the lobby and there was still a number of people who waiting to get seats in the restaurant and the restaurant only served lunch up until 2:30 (it was 1:45). We went up to our rooms to drop off our coats and I called down to the restaurant to see if we could get our names on the waiting list. The man who answered the phone told me that they weren't taking reservations for lunch any longer, but he said, "Since you're staying in the hotel, we have two seats that just opened up at the bar. I'll hold them for you if you like."
Cindy has an aversion about eating at bars, especially at fine restaurants, but this time she said, "Yeah, go for it." Less than two minutes later we were settling in at the bar and looking over the lunch time menu at the Atwood Cafe. The lunch menu consists of a handful of salads, sandwiches and main entrees with a much smaller and less diverse selection of what the Atwood Cafe has on its dinner menu. The Atwood Cafe also serves breakfast Monday thru Saturday, and features a popular brunch on Sunday's.
The first thing that caught my eye on the menu at the Atwood Cafe were the prices. Sheesh! It was not cheap! Pan fried lake trout was $18 bucks, a chicken salad sandwich was $15, and an Ahi Tuna salad in Asian slaw with a soy/wasabi dressing was $18. Woo! My wallet was going to get a workout.
The bartender asked if we wanted a drink. Cindy got a glass of the house cabernet and I got a bottle of the New Holland Mad Hatter India Pale Ale. I'd never had it before and it was pretty good. But it had better be - the Atwood charged me $6.00 a bottle for the beer. Ouch! I was beginning to wonder if the food was going to be worth the price.
With not much on the menu and time running out as to being able to order lunch, we were a little rushed in our decision. I ended up getting the Wagyu beef patty - a gourmet cheeseburger topped with Big Ed's gouda (Big's Ed's is from a line of gourmet cheeses from the Saxon Homestead Creamery, a small boutique-style dairy operation outside of Milwaukee), pickled onions, a slice of heirloom tomato, a bib of butter lettuce and Russian dressing on a sesame-seed brioche. It sounded pretty damn good. And at $17 bucks, it had better be!
Cindy got the chef's selection of the day - a half-sandwich and a bowl of soup for $15 bucks. The sandwich was a glorified ham and cheese sandwich and the soup was a homemade cream of asparagus. All right - that was fine. We were eating at the Atwood and Cindy was happy.
As we waited for our meal, we were situated right near where the shelves of tea leaves were stored at the cafe. They must have had seven or eight different types of teas to choose from including black tea, green tea, white tea (I'd never heard of white tea before, but Cindy had) and herbal teas. Also, the Atwood Cafe is widely known for their extensive "sweets" menu and some of the elaborate desserts were passing by us in a constant stream. The sweet potato bread pudding looked especially scrumptious.
Our lunch got set down in front of us about 20 minutes after we ordered and I was ready to eat. I have to tell you, the presentation on the burger was not overly impressive. But from the first bite, I have to say that it was just wonderful. Now, I've had gourmet burgers before, but I can easily say that NONE of them were as good as the Wagyu beef burger I had at the Cafe Atwood. I devoured the burger, not even offering Cindy a bite (much to her dismay). But the beef was cooked perfectly, the pickled onions were a great taste sensation, the bun was to die for and the Russian dressing was a great complement to the whole burger. Even the heirloom tomato tasted fresh like it had just been picked out of a garden out back. It was, by far, the best gourmet burger I've ever had.
There isn't much to say about Cindy's grilled ham and cheese sandwich other than they used Black Forest ham and a gourmet Swiss cheese on the sandwich. The soup, according to Cindy, was pretty good. She wished she would have gotten the burger instead.
We were tempted by getting some desserts - especially the sweet potato bread pudding - but decided to pass on it for now. The bill for tip and drinks was hefty - over $50 bucks for lunch. Not quite your average lunch counter greasy spoon. But as Cindy said, "Hey! It was the best gourmet burger you've ever had, so you've got that goin' for you!"
We went back in to the Atwood Cafe for brunch the next day. Once again, it wasn't anything overly special - I got the homemade corned beef hash with two eggs over easy and toast for $15 bucks. Whoa! And the corned beef hash, while good, was not worth the price of the meal. Cindy got the Eggs Benedict - $14 bucks for that dish. She did notice that the Wagyu burger was on the brunch menu as were a lot of non-breakfast items. But she decided to go the breakfast route at 9:15 a.m. She said the Eggs Benedict were good, but not worth the price.
All right, so we went to the Atwood Cafe, but Cindy never had tea on either of our visits. I'm sure she'll want to go back at some point for her tea in the afternoon on a visit to downtown Chicago at some point in the future. Overall, it was the best gourmet burger I've ever had. But the value vs. quality of food was not very good. The best thing was the burger, but the breakfast and Cindy's lunch were vastly overpriced for what it really was. You're definitely paying for the ambiance and frills at the Atwood Cafe. But it's still kind of a neat place to go. That is, if you're prepared to spend some money.
When we were in Chicago recently for Cindy's birthday, I really didn't have much of a plan as far as dinner was concerned. I'd never really stayed in the heart of the Loop that much before and wasn't familiar with the restaurants in the area. Most of the places I was familiar with were up in the River North area of downtown Chicago. However, it turned out that there were a number of restaurants within walking distance of the Hotel Burnham. In fact, the choices were almost too many as we were having trouble figuring out what exactly it was that we were hungry for. It turned out that two of the Rosebud family of restaurants - Rosebud Prime and Rosebud Theater District - were less than a five minute walk from the hotel. Since it was a bone chilling night, we decided to walk over to Rosebud Prime and get a steak.
I saw the address for Rosebud Prime - 1 S. Dearborn (see map) - and we walked around the block and down to the corner of Dearborn and Madison. The only problem was that 1 S. Dearborn was a 40 story skyscraper with a large lobby with no signs of a restaurant. We took a quick look around the lobby to see if there was a sign for Rosebud Prime. There wasn't. Cindy was getting cold and she said, "OK, what do we do now? I'm getting cold and I'm hungry." If you know my wife, cold and hungry is a unpleasant combination that I try to rectify as soon as possible. I looked caddy-cornered across Madison and saw the sign for Rosebud Theater District. I decided to cut our losses and head over to that Rosebud.
Now, we've been to the original Rosebud on Taylor Street (see that post here) and to the Rosebud on Rush (see that post here). The Rosebud restaurants are a small chain of 11 restaurants located around the Chicagoland area. They range from elaborate and elegant restaurants to the small "grab and go' Rosebud Express located near the Rosebud Theater District. The original Rosebud opened in 1977 and owner/founder Alex Dana oversees a staff that has grown to over 500 people. Brian Wright is Dana's longtime corporate chef, having been the executive chef at Carmine's, another Rosebud restaurant. Wright is responsible for the menu at all Rosebud restaurants and oversees the executive chefs at each location.
The Rosebud Theater District is located in the lobby of the Three First National Plaza building just west of Dearborn on Madison (see map). We walked up to the hostess stand to take a look at the menu and decided to just eat there, although our hearts were looking for some beef.
The Rosebud Theater District has a spacious dining area with an ornate ceiling. Contrary to the picture at right, the lighting was very subdued that evening. We were seated at a small table between two larger parties who were just getting their main entrees as we were seated. The table to my right was a little boisterous with a couple loud-mouthed guys trying to out-do each other with stories they were telling to their group as their dates mousily sat there and let them go on and on. Cindy looked at me and gave me a pained look as she sort of glanced over at the table after one guy was loudly telling a rather off-color story. Rosebud Theater District was a pretty classy place and this guy was acting like he was in a neighborhood bar with his old frat buddies.
Our waitress for the evening, Marina, came over to greet us. She asked if we needed anything to drink off the bat and I said that we were probably just going to get some wine. The only problem is that the lighting at Rosebud Theater District was very dim and I didn't take my reading glasses with me. The wine list had very small type and I was having a ton of problems reading the menu. In fact, we didn't take any pictures of the place because it was so dark in there that a flash would have been overly obnoxious. I ended up focusing enough to be able to order a bottle of the 2003 Monsanto Chianti Classico Reserva, a nice medium-bodied Italian blend from Tuscany.
Cindy was having a lot of problems trying to figure out what to get for her meal. She still was thinking steak, but the menu at the Rosebud Theater District was more geared to traditional Italian fare. One thing I noticed was that the menu at this particular Rosebud was condensed compared to other Rosebud's we've been in. My guess is that a lot of people are probably looking to eat quickly getting a meal before or after a show or during the lunch hour. The menu still had some of the staples of Rosebud's core selection - four veal dishes, a handful of pasta offerings, five chicken entrees and some steak and seafood dishes. The menu was definitely designed for fast decisions of entrees that were quick to make - you could tell by the "No substitutions, please" in bold letters at the bottom. Sort of an elegant fast food place, to put it more precisely.
The problem was that we were still flummoxed trying to figure out what we wanted. Marina came with the wine and we still weren't ready to order. I didn't know if I wanted pasta or veal or chicken or what. Cindy was having the exact same trouble. I was looking hard at the penne pasta with broccoli and sausage. The Chicken Parmesan was calling my name, as well. And you just can't go wrong with Rosebud's Veal Francese - an egg battered piece of veal, simmered in a white wine and lemon sauce. Marina came back a second time and we STILL weren't ready to order.
By this time, the large groups on either side of us were finishing up and leaving to go to a show. We suddenly had a large area all to ourselves. Marina came back a third time and this time we were ready to go. Cindy ordered the Veal Milanese - a breaded piece of veal, pan-fried and served with a side of arugula and tomatoes and a small side of penne pasta with their homemade marinara. It was basically an Italian version of weinerschnitzel. When Marina turned to me for my order, I said, "I'm torn between the Chicken Parmesan and the Veal Francese."
Marina said, "I really like the Chicken Parmesan. I'm not big on the veal as much as I am the chicken." I took her personal recommendation to heart and promptly ordered...
The Veal Francese. A side of the penne pasta with the marinara sauce came with the veal.
Now, if you're looking for a quick meal in Chicago - a good quick meal - I can tell you the Rosebud Theater District is the place to go. It wasn't more than 10 minutes after we ordered before Marina brought our entrees to the table. Cindy exclaimed, "That was quick!"
I said, "This place is designed to get people in and out rather quickly." But it's also the type of place where you can dawdle after dinner if you like.
My visit to the Rosebud on Rush about three years ago didn't go too well with the veal dish I'd ordered there. But the Veal Francese at Rosebud Theater District was just outstanding. The veal was tender and tasty, the egg-batter wasn't overbearing. But the white wine lemon sauce was to die for. After I made short work of my veal, I sopped up the sauce with the homemade Italian bread. It was a wonderful taste sensation, to say the least.
Cindy was equally impressed with her Veal Milanese. She gave me a couple bites and it was very good. But I really liked my Veal Francese better. The penne pasta with the marinara was pretty average, but that was OK. We weren't there for the complementary sides.
We decided to finish off the night with sharing a hunk of Rosebud's homemade tiramisu. While it wasn't the best tiramisu I've had, it was still very good. It was a nice finish to a very good meal.
Since we were the only table Marina had at that point in the evening, we were able to chat with her as we took our last bites of the tiramisu. She had a thick Eastern European accent and it turned out that she was from Serbia. She said that she went to school in Greece to study as a child psychologist. During the time she was going to school in Greece, she also helped run a restaurant. "I worked my way up to being the manager of a small restaurant. It was great experience for me because if the child psychology thing didn't work out, I had the basics of running a restaurant."
Marina moved to Chicago in July and had been at Rosebud Theater District for about three months. She was having some problems finding work as a social worker, either as a public or private worker. "But I don't mind this," she said as she waved her arms toward the spacious dining area at Rosebud Theater District. "I could stay here and be happy. Maybe I'm more happy to be working in restaurants."
After we paid our bill, we walked back over to 1 S. Dearborn to see if we could find Rosebud Prime. Just down the street and recessed back in the outside corner of the building, we saw some colored lights. About a 30 foot walk further than where we'd walked before, we were able to plainly see the sign for Rosebud Prime. Cindy said, "Well, I was happy with my meal. We'll just have to come back in to Chicago sometime, stay at the Burnham again and walk over to Rosebud Prime."
And I agreed with her. I'm glad we went to Rosebud Theater District that evening. Our meal was outstanding, Marina was a great server and the food was served very quickly without the pitfalls that can pop up with quick made meals. It was another overly positive visit to another Rosebud restaurant.
I've been meaning to take the guys from Decibel Audio out for dinner at some point. They're one of my largest dealers and great guys, to boot. I made a point to schedule my meeting with them late in the day and then go out to dinner afterward. The only problem is that there are many, many great restaurants in the vicinity near Decibel Audio, so the choices were overwhelming. One of the guys said, "Well, we could do Japanese."
I asked, "What kind of Japanese?"
He said, "Sushi. There's a great place called Mirai Sushi over on Division Street, but it's a little pricey."
I replied, "Let's go. You guys deserve it."
Now, if the name Decibel Audio rings a bell for some of you movie buffs, it's because the name was featured prominently in the John Cusack film, High Fidelity. Many of the scenes were filmed in the same neighborhood on N. Milwaukee where Decibel Audio is located and Cusack wore a Decibel Audio t-shirt during a number of scenes. I never put the two together until a couple years after I began to call on Decibel Audio and I happened to see the movie. The guys at Decibel Audio said they got inundated by requests for the same t-shirt, so they ended up printing tons of them. "It was our best selling unit of sale," Adam, the general manager, told me at one time. They continue to sell them on their web site and while sales aren't as brisk as they once were, they still sell a handful of them each month.
But, as I'm prone to do with this blog, I digress...
Mirai Sushi is a hip, upscale urban sushi restaurant that is part of a number of hip urban restaurants, clubs, galleries and shops that permeate the Division at Damon area in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago (see map). Former club owner and Korean native Miae Lim (left) opened Mirai Sushi in 1998 and it immediately became the critics choice for the best sushi in Chicago.
Five years later with partners Jonathan Segal, Jeffrey Beers and Rick Wahlstedt, the group opened Japonais in Chicago. The group - minus Segal - opened Japonais locations in New York City and Las Vegas. I've eaten at the Japonais in Las Vegas three times (click here to see the entry of my last visit to Japonais in Las Vegas). I was highly disappointed during my last visit to Japonais with both the food and the service. I related my experience to the guys at Decibel when they told me that Mirai Sushi was the incubator for Japonais and I said, "I think Japonais is highly overrated."
One of the guys said, "I think the same thing about the one in Chicago. It's gone down hill over the past couple of years." I was hoping the same wouldn't be said about Mirai Sushi.
One of the problems with the Wicker Park neighborhood around Mirai is that there is little to no parking available, especially at night when the clubs and restaurants warm up. Thankfully, Mirai did offer valet parking for $10 bucks (plus a two dollar tip for the valet). It was cheaper than taking a cab to and from the restaurant, though.
We didn't have reservations at Mirai, but we were able to get in and get a table when we got there around 8:15 that evening. We each got a menu and ordered up Asahi beers for the table. The place was hopping with a number of people in the dining area. There is a sake lounge upstairs in Mirai, but I didn't really notice a lot of people coming or going from the stairway. I understand that Mirai can get a little crazy on the weekends - I thought it was sort of loud for a Tuesday night.
Boy, where to start. First of all, I didn't think the prices for Mirai's sushi was all that expensive, at least compared to other sushi places I've been to. Their selection of hot Japanese dishes, specialty rolls and nigiri sushi was rather light - it was definitely not a long list of items to choose from. But most of what they had sounded great and were what I'd end up ordering at most sushi places. I did have to get some help from the guys on some of the specialty rolls they had.
One of those specialty rolls - the spicy octopus - came highly recommended. They put spicy octopus inside a rice roll and then top it with a small piece of tuna sashimi. The guys said it was "outstanding". We signed up for one of those along with what Mirai called "tuna tuna salmon" - poached salmon with double helpings of tuna in a roll. We also picked out a spicy tuna roll for starters.
Surprisingly, two of the specialty rolls - the spicy tuna and the spicy octopus - came out very quickly. It was one of the quickest servings after I've ordered I've ever had at a sushi restaurant. I remarked, "I hope this isn't fast food sushi where they make it up in advance."
But from the first taste, I didn't have to worry whether when it was made. The spicy octopus with the tuna on top was just outstanding. And the spicy tuna rolls were also excellent. We had just finished up the two specialty rolls and the "tuna tuna salmon" showed up at the table. It took a little longer because of the poaching of the salmon. That roll, too, was just outstanding. Not as good as the spicy octopus, but still a very good roll.
We wanted to order up some nigiri sushi along with another spicy octopus roll. This time we also ordered a harime roll - fluke and ponzu fish with soft shell crab off to the side. I ordered a couple pieces each of the smoked Scottish salmon, the hamachi (Japanese yellow tail), the ebi (black tiger shrimp), and the toro (fatty tuna). The other guys ordered stuff like eel, soy marinated salmon, regular tuna and squid. I was up for a sushi feast that evening. And the guys from Decibel deserved a nice meal from me.
While we waited for the nigirl to show up, we talked about other restaurants they liked in the area. The new 2011 Michelin Guide for Chicago had just come out and we were talking about having to pick one up just to see what they said about restaurants we were familiar with and what new restaurants we could find in the book. Since this is the first ever Michelin Guide for Chicago, it was making quite a stir with "foodies" in and around the Chicago area.
Our waitress, who was very good, came over to inform me that they were out of the toro that evening. "We just ran out," she said. Somewhat crestfallen, I changed my order to the chutoro, or the medium fatty tuna. She went away, but a minute later she came back and excitedly said, "Guess what? We have two pieces of the toro left! Would you still like them?"
Absolutely! And I'm glad they had them because they were some of the best fatty tuna that I've ever had. And the smoked Scottish salmon was "melt-in-your-mouth" great, as well. Some yellow tail that I've had in the past gets to be sort of mushy and sort of fishy in taste, but the yellow tail at Mirai was very fresh and flavorful with a nice texture with the bite. Of course, we made short work of the spicy Octopus roll. And the hirame roll with the soft shell crab on the side was just outstanding, too. Quite seriously, I could have gotten another one of those, but I knew I'd hit my limit on sushi for the evening.
It's amazing that a land-locked city like Chicago can get such great sushi. But fresh fish is flown into the city on a daily basis from all over the world. One of the guys from Decibel was telling me that rumor has it that the Hare Krishna's control the distribution of fish to 90% of the sushi restaurants in Chicago. I don't know if that's true, but there's a lot of great sushi places in Chicago. Sometimes I take Chicago for granted just because we live close enough and I'm in there quite a bit. But Mirai Sushi was one of the best sushi restaurants I've ever visited. It was much better than its sister restaurant, Japonais. I'm looking forward to trying some new places with the guys from Decibel Audio.
Claddagh (pronounced "CLAW-duh) Irish Pubs are a chain of upscale authentic Irish pubs with 15 locations throughout the Midwest. About four years ago, I had a brief entry on Road Tips about the original Claddagh in downtown Indianapolis (see that entry here). I've had beers at a couple three Claddagh's during my travels and had always meant to eat at one, but had never gotten around to do so even though I've certainly had the opportunity to do so. It was a cold evening in Madison and I didn't feel like venturing far from the hotel that evening. The Claddagh Irish Pub was a short journey from my hotel and I figured some good ol' Irish comfort food would be in order that evening.
One of the big reasons the Claddagh pubs appear to be authentic Irish pubs is that they were started by an Irishman and an American who lived in Ireland for a time. Kevin Blair was an Cleveland-area native who worked for a number of years for the Taco Bell corporation when it was owned by Pepsi. He was hired in the mid-90's to go to work at the Supermacs fast food chain in Ireland. During Blair's stay in Ireland, he loved the feel of the Irish pubs and the many friends that he met while frequenting those pubs. The Irish have a term - craic (pronounced "crack") that describes a place that is fun, lively and friendly. Blair decided that the United States needed authentic Irish pubs with "craic".
Blair talked Supermacs chairman Patrick McDonagh to help him start a chain of upscale Irish pubs in the Midwestern United States. In 2001, the first Claddagh Irish Pub opened in Indianapolis. Both Blair and McDonagh were looking at aggressive growth during the first few years growing the chain to nearly 20 locations. However, like most partnerships, this one went sour with McDonagh withholding funds to keep the company from expanding while trying to force Blair to sell his shares. McDonagh had already invested over $20 million dollars into the Claddagh chain and wasn't willing to invest more money for expansion. Lawsuits and court dates ensued and the chain eventually declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. McDonagh's CDG Acquisitions group came in and bought the assets for $10 million dollars in 2008, about an estimated third of the value of the Claddagh chain.
By the way, the Claddagh Irish Pubs get their name from a small fishing village - Claddagh - that was legendary for the friendliness of the people who lived there. Many writers lived in Claddagh over the years (Claddagh is now part of Galway, Ireland - home to Pat McDonagh) and they wrote about the hospitality they received from the townspeople during their stay.
Each Claddagh Irish Pub has a dining area, a bar and a handful of small rooms that feature overstuffed chairs giving the place sort of a cozy feel, allowing patrons to sit down with friends in a comfortable setting and enjoy a Guinness or a Jameson whiskey. The dark wood walls and broad-beamed ceilings give Claddagh pubs an authentic Irish pub look.
I rolled into the parking lot of the Greenway Station shopping center in Middleton where the Claddagh is located (see map) around 7:30 p.m. The Claddagh is located next to Cheeseburger in Paradise, the Jimmy Buffett-owned chain of upscale burger joints (click here to see my entry on Cheeseburger in Paradise) and the parking lot in front of the businesses were full of cars. I was able to find a spot and I went in to get a seat at the bar.
The first thing I noticed behind the bar at the Claddagh was where there should have been bottles of different types of liquor, there were nothing but bottles of Jameson whiskey. Yes, I was definitely in an Irish pub! The bartender came over and asked if I wanted a menu. I got a Smithwick's as I perused through the selection they had at the Claddagh and glanced up at a football game and a hockey match they had on the flat panel televisions behind the bar.
Claddagh Irish Pubs have a wide selection of authentic Irish food including Shepherd's Pie, fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish beef stew. They also have some American-based foods with an Irish twist such as the Guinness barbecued ribs made with a Guinness bar barbecue sauce, the Jameson burger that's topped with a Jameson sauce, along with the normal staples - steaks, chicken and a couple of pasta dishes.
I needed a "stick-to-my-ribs" dinner as it was cold and I was having trouble warming up. I thought about the Chicken Kildare - a garlic encrusted chicken breast filled with spinach, mushrooms and Irish rasher (a type of Irish bacon). The bangers and champ sounded good, too - Irish sausages served over Irish champ (baked potatoes) and topped with an onion gravy. But what I ended up getting was the old fashioned meat loaf, topped with a sweet glaze and then served with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of vegetables. For a starter - and to help warm me up - I got a cup of the Guinness onion soup, basically a French onion soup that is made with a Guinness beer stock.
I was seated next to a guy from Indianapolis who was in Madison on business and we got to talking. He was a really nice guy, in his mid-to-late 30's, I'm guessing. He said, "We've got three Claddagh's in the Indy area. When I go on the road to Columbus, Cleveland or Cincinnati I always go to the Claddagh's there. It's like a home away from home." He said this was his first trip to Madison and he was surprised to find a Claddagh near his hotel. Some people like that familiarity with their restaurants, I would rather explore. Although, I have to admit that it's getting tiresome to find new and exciting places in some locations.
The Guinness onion soup was very good - a large crouton was on top along with an ample amount of Swiss cheese. Large onion chunks were in the broth that had a hint of a taste of Guinness to it. Actually, a bowl of the soup alone would have been a good meal.
The bartender brought out my plate to me and I sort of looked at it funny. It certainly didn't look like meat loaf to me - and it wasn't. It was the Irish beef stew. It looked very good, but it wasn't what I ordered. I got the bartender's attention and pointed out that I think I got the wrong meal. He said, "You had the beef stew, right?" I said, no, I had the meat loaf. "Ah! Yes, the meat loaf!" He said he'd get me the right meal straight away. That's the problem with people who don't write down your order - they space out from the time they take your order and then enter it into the system. But he did give me a free beer for waiting.
And the wait was worth it. I was served two large slices of meat loaf that had a nice smoky glaze on top the slices. There was a little bit of a heavy beef gravy on the slices of meat loaf, but the mashed potatoes were swimming in the gravy - just as I like it. The vegetables were a medley of broccoli, cauliflower and carrott slices.
Everything was very good - the meat loaf was flavorful and hearty, the mashed potatoes were real and the rich, thick gravy was a great compliment to the meat and potatoes. The vegetables were also cooked perfectly with a little bit of a crunch with each bite. The meal was exactly what I was looking for - generous portions of good ol' comfort food on a cold late fall evening.
The guy from Indy next to me had the Shepherd's pie. "I've tried the meat loaf before," he said. "I like it, but I think these guys make about the best Shepherd's pie I've ever had in the States."
After I finished what I could of the meal, I sat at the bar savoring my meal, watching the football game and enjoying one more Smithwick's. The guy from Indy had polished off his Shepherd's pie and had ordered the bread pudding for dessert. On the menu, the bread pudding comes under the heading of "split to share" desserts. And it was huge, easily covering an 8" dessert plate. And this guy was going to eat the whole thing! And he did! I said, "Jesus, buddy! You need to watch it! I was your size one time and when I started traveling on the road that's when I started to gain weight. When you have a company credit card and you're in a city far from home, it's not hard to over-indulge."
He said, "Oh, I know it. I've gained 15 pounds over the past couple of years. This (pointing at the bread pudding) doesn't help, but it's so darned good that I have to indulge myself every once in a while."
I'm glad I finally got to try the food at one after stopping in for just the beer on my previous visits. The meat loaf was very good, the portions were generous, the Smithwick's was great (any place that has Smithwick's on tap is OK by me) and the service - other than screwing up my order - was adequate. There are Claddagh Irish Pubs in four of the cities that I travel to and now that I know that the food is very good, I'll go back at some point when I just need the feel of some comfort food in my tummy.
I had a meeting with a potential dealer in Springfield, IL recently and afterward I decided to grab a bite to eat at a place I'd heard about for quite sometime, but had never been to before - D'Arcy's Pint on the west side of the Capitol City of Illinois. (See map) D'Arcy's is a large Irish bar/restaurant that is famous for one of the culinary treats in Springfield - the horseshoe sandwich. More on the horseshoe later.
D'Arcy's Pint began in 1998 when co-owners Glenn Merriman and Hallie Pierceall opened in a shopping center on MacArthur Blvd. - the main North-South road through Springfield. It quickly became one of the best places in the area to get good food and a cold beer in a fun and inviting environment. It became so popular that just seven years after they opened they moved to a larger location in a building that features two bars and two dining areas along with an outdoor beer garden.
D'Arcy's Pint features a full menu, but they claim to have the best horseshoe sandwich in Springfield. The horseshoe sandwich is indigenous to Springfield as the history of the food dates back to the late 1920's. Legend has it that a Springfield man, Steve Tomko, came up with the idea of the horseshoe. But historians around Springfield refute his claims and say that a chef by the name of Joe Schweska came up with the idea - or actually, he got the basic idea from his wife.
Schweska was the chef at the old Leland Hotel in downtown Springfield. He was talking to his wife about coming up with something new to put on the lunch menu at his restaurant in the hotel. She suggested doing something that used a Welsh Rarebit sauce on top. Schweska cut a piece of ham into the shape of a horseshoe, placed it on a couple pieces of bread, then topped it with potatoes and the cheese, mustard, Worcestershire sauce that is the basis for a Welsh Rarebit sauce. (Picture courtesy of Roadfood.com)
Schweska eventually moved away and Tomko began to take credit for creating the horseshoe sandwich. But older people remember Tomko as a dishwasher in the kitchen where Schweska was the cook. Nonetheless, wherever Tomko went to work at a restaurant in Springfield, he served a horseshoe sandwich. They were so popular that a number of restaurants around Springfield came up with their own horseshoe sandwich. D'Arcy's Pint is no exception.
But I didn't think I'd care much for a horseshoe sandwich. It is sort of like a "slinger" in St. Louis and a "Magic Mountain" in the Quad Cities - a bunch of stuff thrown together on a plate and served with a cheese sauce. Some places use a white cheese sauce on their horseshoe sandwiches, others will use a cheddar cheese sauce. It just didn't appeal to me at all. No, I wanted something much different than a horseshoe sandwich that day.
It was about 1:30 when I got into D'Arcy's Pint that afternoon and I was surprised to find the place packed with people. As I said, there are two dining areas in the place and both the west and east dining areas were full. There was a handful of people waiting to get a table. The hostess told me there was a spot at the bar in the east dining room if I wanted to eat there. I had no problem with that and I took the last chair available at the very ornate bar.
The menu at D'Arcy's Pint features a number of appetizers, soups and salads for starters. The bulk of the menu is typical bar food that you'd find at an Irish-themed restaurant - pot roast sandwich, cheese steak sandwich, fish and chips, and reubens. They also featured a number of burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. D'Arcy's Pint also served pizzas and after 4 p.m. they had a dinner menu that featured Irish fare such as Shepherd's Pie, corned beef and cabbage, and a traditional Irish "boxty" - a potato pancake that is stuffed with things like corned beef and cabbage and grilled in a pan. They also have steaks, seafood and chicken items on the dinner menu, as well.
I was torn between the reuben and the Irish-American B.L.T. Darcy's had on the menu. When my bartender asked me if I was ready to order, I told her that I was torn between the reuben and the B.L.T. The guy next to me - obviously a regular - turned and said, "Oh, buddy. Get the reuben. It's the best around."
An unsolicited recommendation is always welcome. I went with the reuben. The bartender asked me if I wanted to upgrade from chips to french fries for $1.50. Sure, what the hell. I also ordered up a Smithwick's to go along with the lunch.
When my sandwich showed up, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lightly grilled, swirled marble rye reuben on my plate. The french fries were nothing special and probably not worth the $1.50 up charge. The sandwich was good sized and full of tender corned beef. As I usually do, I asked for a side of 1000 Island dressing to go along with the sandwich. Some reubens don't have enough 1000 Island dressing on them and I like to dip the reuben into more dressing. I was surprised to find that I was charged - I believe - 50 cents for a 1 oz. container of 1000 Island dressing. I found it somewhat amusing and perplexing at the same time that they charged me for the small amount of dressing they gave me.
But that minor experience didn't take away from the taste of the sandwich. The guy sitting next to me didn't steer me wrong - the reuben at D'Arcy's Pint was as good as he said it was. The corned beef was lean and flavorful, there was a generous amount of sauerkraut and cheese on top, the bread was just fabulous - I'm hoping that it was homemade or - at the very least - made by a local baker for D'Arcy's Pint. The bread was thick and held together even with all the moist fixings inside.
Before I left, I had to use the restroom. I took a look inside the west side dining room and saw that it was equally as large as the one on the east side. However, the bar was much smaller with a short three-sided bar with high backed chairs. I found out later that this particular bar was originally in one of Springfield's original ice cream soda shoppes - the Sugar Bowl - that was in business from 1927 to 1959. I found it rather interesting and sort of neat that they were using an old time ice cream shoppes counter as a bar.
My reuben sandwich, the beer and a tip for the bartender came to just a bit over $15 bucks. Sort of expensive for lunch, but it was a large sandwich with a lot of meat. I'm still sort of amused that they charged me for extra dressing, and the fries weren't worth the $1.50 up charge. But, overall, it was not that big of a deal. I don't know if I'll land that dealer in Springfield, but at least I know of a good restaurant/bar to grab a quick sandwich while I'm in town. D'Arcy's Pint did not disappoint.
A shout out today to an old friend, Tim Lake, who used to live in St. Louis years ago and who now lives just outside of Birmingham, AL. He's a regular reader of Road Tips and we had a back and forth about my post on Amaghetti's (see that post here) a while back. I was trying to remember the name of the little place where I got a sandwich similar to Amaghetti's "Special" sandwich. I finally remembered the place - Mama Toscana's. Tim was telling me of a place on the Hill that had good sandwiches and an "out of sight" gyro - Anthonino's Taverna. I told him I didn't know where it was. He said, "Oh, man! As much as you're on The Hill, you've had to drive right by it."
Turns out that I have driven past Anthonino's many times, but never stopped in. On a recent trip to St. Louis I stopped in for lunch one day.
Anthonino's Taverna is what you'd call an Italian/Greek restaurant and that's a reflection on the owners, Rosario and Anthony Scarato. Their father is Italian, while their mother is Greek. Both Scarato boys grew up in the restaurant business as their father, Bob, owned his own restaurant - Athen's Cafe - for 20 years. Anthonino's (which is "Little Anthony" in Italian) began in 2004, housed in a building that was built back in the 1930's. The Scarato's are on hand all the time and their father, sometimes helps out as the host.
Anthonino's Taverna has a great neighborhood tavern feel to the place. While it's not overly huge, there's a large bar as you come walking in with a number of tables along the big window up front. The "L"-shaped dining room allows for small groups to push tables together, or for a quick bite for two on a date night. The place is bright with a lot of festive paint colors on the walls.
It was just after noon when I walked into Anthonino's. One of the waitresses greeted me up front. I told her it was just me and she said, "Would you like to sit at the bar?" Well, sure! That definitely worked for me. 50's and 60's - era jazz was playing on the sound system in the place.
Anthonino's menu reflects the wide and varied recipes the two brothers bring to the table. Their appetizer menu is deep with Italian staples like toasted ravioli, calimari and antipasti, but they also feature a number of Greek appetizers such as spanakopita - feta cheese and spinach wrapped in phyllo dough, slices of gyro meat with homemade tzatziki sauce, and baby dalmathes - grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice along with feta, peppers and pita.
Their salad menu features a house salad that is similar to those you'll find at many other Hill area restaurants, only they use a Greek dressing to top it off. They also have a Caesar Salad and your choice of toppings for any of the salads including gyro meat, chicken or sauteed portabella mushrooms.
Anthonino's has a full dinner menu consisting of both Italian and Greek specialties. In fact, the readers of River Front Times in St. Louis voted Antonino's the best Greek restaurant in the St. Louis area for 2010. But they also have a very large selection of Italian pasta specialties such as Tutti Mare, beef tortellini in both a marinara or a cream sauce with peas and capocola, and something called Pasta Puttanesca - pasta topped with tomatoes, capers, onions, kalamata olives, anchovies and oregano with garlic olive oil. Oh, man! My stomach is doing back flips as I'm writing this.
As a surprise to me, Anthonino's also features hand-tossed pizzas on their menu including a number of specialty pizzas with a little Greek flair to them. A larger group seated at a larger table back toward the restrooms had a couple pizzas on their tables for lunch. While Anthonino's pizza isn't the thin crust like a St. Louis-style pizza, it's definitely not overly thick. It looked delicious.
But I was after a gyro. My friend, Tim, moved from St. Louis to near Cincinnati about five years ago before moving on to Birmingham. His wife's family still lives in the St. Louis area and he told me, "Anthonino's has the best gyro I've ever had. I have to stop each time we're back in St. Louis to get one." He said he became hooked on them just after Anthonino's opened up over six years ago and said he's found nothing like them anywhere.
Anthonino's gyros are part of a lengthy sandwich menu featuring burgers, Italian and Greek sandwiches, fish sandwiches, and their own take on the submarine sandwich. One thing Tim told me to do was to order the gyro with feta cheese. And that's exactly what I ordered. I had my choice of a side and I saw that for a $2.50 up-charge I could get one of Anthonino's house salad. I took that instead of fries.
The salad was, in a word, wonderful. It had fresh tomatoes, kalamata olives, pepperocini and sweet red onions with fresh lettuce topped with a creamy feta cheese dressing. I would have been happy just to get a large house salad it was so good.
Less than 10 minutes after I finished my salad, my gyro was brought out to me wrapped in foil and topped with a generous amount of feta cheese and tzatziki sauce with large slices of tomatoes and red onions mixed in. It was huge! I had to make cuts and eat the first part of it with my fork and knife. But even after that I was having to take big bites just to get into the heart of the gyro.
I wasn't overly enthused about the feta cheese on my gyro, however. Too much feta can be overpowering and this was a little too much for me. And some of the meat slices were a little charred like they had been left on the spit too long. But the meat that was not overcooked was moist and tender and had a really good flavor to it. And the pita bread shell they used at Anthonino's was also very good - great flavor and not too chewy.
Was it the best gyro I've ever had? Probably not - but, then again, it may be one of the most authentic gyros I've ever had. Next time I go and get a gyro at Anthonino's I'll probably ask for a little bit of feta - that was almost too much for me.
But overall, I really liked Anthonino's. Not only for the gyro, but for the ambiance, the service and the overall neighborhood feel to the place. From the moment I stepped into the place, I liked the warmness of the place. It made me wish that I had a neighborhood bar/restaurant like Anthonino's within walking distance of where I live - or even just a short drive from my home. There's a lot of great little bars and restaurants on the Hill, but Anthonino's Taverna has suddenly shot to the top of my list of the place I'd most like to get a beer and sandwich.
Today, I give a shout out to Ryan Davis and his wife, RaeChelle. I met them earlier this summer during a baseball outing we had here in the Quad Cities. RaeChelle Davis is the news anchor for WQAD, the local ABC affiliate, and is paired along side with another casual friend of mine, Jason Fechner. The Davis' grew up in Kansas City and went to school at Western Kentucky. We talked about places in and around K.C., how beautiful the campus was at WKU, and, of course, my visit to Mariah's in Bowling Green, KY. (See the post on Mariah's here.) We began to talk about restaurants around the greater Kansas City area and I was telling them about Oklahoma Joe's and how much I liked it. RaeChelle asked me, "Have you ever been to Jose Pepper's in Overland Park?"
I told her that it didn't ring a bell. She said, "Oh, my GOD! They have the best Mexican food in the whole world! When ever we go back home, we always stop at Jose Pepper's!" She was describing this cheese sauce at the place - escindada con queso - that was simply to die for. As she was describing the taste sensation to me, I thought Ryan was going to cry. Anything that good deserved a visit.
I was in Kansas City recently and got into my hotel in Overland Park just after 9 p.m. one evening. I looked up Jose Pepper's on my GPS and found that it was only 1.3 miles away. I threw my bags in the room and programmed the GPS to take me to Jose Pepper's. In a long and round-about way (my GPS has a tendency to do that rather than use the real world approach of taking a left turn instead of three right turns) I found Jose Pepper's (see map).
I immediately realized that I'd been there before.
About six years ago, I had just put on a new dealer in Overland Park. It was after closing time one night and I asked some of the sales crew if they wanted to go out and get something to eat. They suggested this Mexican restaurant that was tucked back in the corner of a strip mall off of Metcalf Ave. I remember the food was outrageously good and the margaritas were some of the best I'd ever had. The problem was that on subsequent trips to Kansas City and hankering for Mexican food I couldn't remember the name of the place. I had an idea as to where it was and driving up and down Metcalf I couldn't seem to find it. I figured that it probably went out of business.
However, this recent night when I found it, I realized that one of the big reasons why I couldn't find it was because it was hidden by a big bank at the corner of 103rd and Metcalf. Sure enough, there it was. I couldn't remember the name of the place (as I usually can't), but I can sure remember the food and, generally, where it is.
Jose Pepper's is actually a small local chain of Mexican Food restaurants under the J.P.'s Southwestern Cuisine banner. The parent company of J.P.'s Southwestern Cuisine is North Star restaurants which runs 8 Jose Pepper's throughout Kansas City, one in Topeka and one in Wichita, and the Cactus Grill in suburban Leawood, KS. (click here to see all the locations.) The original Jose Pepper's - the one at 103rd and Metcalf - opened in 1988.
Jose Pepper's has been getting some local notoriety lately - and not for the best type of P.R. They just settled a sexual harassment lawsuit that was brought on by an 18-year-old waitress who accused a former assistant manager at the Cactus Grill of inappropriately touching her and making sexual suggestions.
And earlier this year, a judge decided that a class action suit against the chain could go forward after Jose Pepper's was found in violation of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act by printing more than five numbers of a customer's credit card number on their receipt. The lawsuit covers over 45,000 transactions between December of 2006 and December of 2007. The lawsuit could award each person who used their credit card at a Jose Pepper's or at the Cactus Grill during that period up to $1000. Understandably, Jose Pepper's lawyers say the lawsuit would be "annihilating" to the chain, but the judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
Well, I certainly didn't care about any lawsuits when I got into Jose Pepper's around 9:15 p.m. There were a few people in the bar area and just a handful of people in the dining room. I contemplated sitting in the bar and having dinner, but I ended up going for a booth along the wall in the dining room. The hostess guided me to the table, dropped off the menu and told me that they had a 2 for 1 special on Patron margaritas - $10 bucks for two 28 oz. margaritas. I immediately signed up for one of those. A young man brought over some fresh corn chips and salsa to get me started.
The menu at Jose Pepper's features a number of authentic Mexican foods including enchiladas, chimichangas, tamales - even seafood tacos featuring grilled mahi or shrimp. Oooo... I remember this place now. They had GREAT mahi tacos! San Diego style with the cabbage. Ummm.... That's why I kept trying to find the place.
The original hostess - also a waitress - brought my first margarita to the table. She said that another waitress would be helping me out. Not long after that, a younger girl - well below 20 years old - with braces on her teeth timidly approached me to see if I was ready to order.
I was leaning toward getting the fish tacos, but I'd also been looking over the combination plates. The one that really caught my eye was the number 4 combo - a shredded beef hard shell taco, a pork tamale and a cheese enchilada. Only I asked if I could substitute a beef enchilada instead of the cheese enchilada. The young girl said, "Oh, gee. I don't really know if we can. I can ask." I also got an order of the espinaca con queso cheese sauce.
I'd downed my first margarita and was ready for the second one. When the young waitress brought out the espinaca, I asked her to bring me the second margarita. She said, "I'll get someone to get that for you." It dawned on me that since she was under 21 she couldn't serve me a drink. The first waitress/hostess brought me my other margarita.
I do have to say that the espinaca con queso was absolutely outstanding and sinfully rich. The chunks of peppers they put in the cheese sauce gave it a little kick, but not enough that deterred from the overall taste sensation. While the bowl wasn't all that big, it was way too much for one person to eat. But I did take a large chunk of cheese sauce out of the bowl.
I never really knew if the substitution I requested would make it to my plate or not. The waitress basically forgot about me and the food took an excruciatingly (it's a word - I looked it up) long time to get to my table. I was hoping that it was because the food was good and authentic, and not pre-made and micro-waved like you find at some Mexican restaurants. Finally, about 20 minutes after I ordered, my food showed up. The wait was worth it.
She was able to make the substitution of the cheese enchilada for the beef enchilada and the seasoning on the beef was outstanding. But the highlights of the meal were the pork tamale and the shredded beef taco, which was placed in its very own holder.
The pork tamale was just this side of heaven - flavorful, a nice corn meal outer shell with loads of seasoned sliced pork meat inside. The pork literally melted in my mouth. I'm not big on really doughy tamales, but this one was not that oppressive. It was sensational.
For as much as I like grilled fish tacos, I'm about as big a sucker for shredded beef tacos. And the shredded beef taco at Jose Pepper's was no exception. The beef was tender and ripe with flavor. The taco shell was nice and crunchy. It was as close to the perfect taco that one could ask for. You're much more likely to find a shredded beef taco on the menu than one that features ground beef. This one was 4 star taco.
I couldn't finish my meal - I left a good portion of the corn meal dough tamale on the plate, but picked out the pork. I made quick work of the shredded beef taco and finished what I could of the beef enchilada. The meal was exactly what I remembered it to be six years prior - completely outstanding.
I will say that the biggest drawback was the service at Jose Pepper's. It took too long for the food to come and I was almost over-gorged on the chips and espinaca con queso dip by the time it finally showed up. Also, having an underaged girl serving me while I was ordering drinks was a minor hassle. (I ordered a Dos Equis beer when she brought me out my food and the other waitress didn't get it to me until my meal was nearly finished.) But the food was just outstanding and it was tough to beat the $5 dollar 28 oz. Patron margaritas. Times two.
I certainly have to thank Ryan and RaeChelle for mentioning Jose Pepper's. And I'm overly glad that I was able to find it once again. Now that I know what I'm looking for and where it is, it will be a staple during my trips to K.C. - just like Oklahoma Joe's has become for me. I just hope that class action lawsuit doesn't hurt them in the long run.
As I said in my entry for Panahar in Atlanta nearly a month ago here on Road Tips, I let my colleague Todd come up with the places where we were going to eat while we were in town for the annual CEDIA Expo this past September. Todd wasn't too adventurous as we ended up eating at three of the same places we ate at during our visit a year ago - One Star Ranch for barbecue, Atlanta Fish Market for seafood (actually, the guys from Cambridge Audio picked that place again), and Bones for steaks. I just wanted to do an update as to how all three restaurants fared in our return visit.
Our first night in Atlanta was the evening we visited One Star Ranch again (see my previous entry here). Everyone was overly impressed with the barbecue there last year, as was I. We had a group of 10 of us that visited One Star Ranch this year, up from the six or so that went last year. And it was just as good as it was during my first visit a number of years ago with my friend Eric Van Fossen who turned me on to place, and as it was last year.
Last year, I had to order two dinners just to get a taste of the brisket and pulled pork. This year, our waitress (who was very good and overly helpful) suggested that I get the pork ribs appetizer and then a meal of my choice. I ordered the beef brisket along with the pork ribs. It was perfect, exactly what I wanted. I got a side of their baked beans and the Brunswick stew - a "low-country" soup that features chicken, pork, potatoes and other veggies in a thick and rich brown sauce that is a favorite of the coastal areas along Georgia and South Carolina. Of course, we had to get three or four orders of One Star Ranch's sinfully great onion rings, as well. It was all very good.
Also last year, I lamented that I didn't have a camera to take a picture of one of the big-assed beef ribs that One Star Ranch is so famous for. Now that I have a camera phone I was able to get a picture of one on a plate. Realizing that a shot of a couple on a plate may not be the best perspective of the size of the ribs, I got one of my colleague Ian holding one the beef ribs, as well. It's literally bone-in steak.
But One Star Ranch was, indeed, very good again. Fun place, great service and one of the culinary highlights of our trip to Atlanta.
For the second year in a row, the guys from Cambridge Audio took us out to dinner at the Atlanta Fish Market on Saturday evening (see my previous entry here). Last year, I ordered the blackened red snapper that I wasn't overly happy with. However, Paul Masson from Cambridge Audio had ordered the blackened halibut last year and it was great. I had it in my mind that I would order that on this trip.
I wish I hadn't.
The halibut was not very good on my visit. I got a side of pureed sweet potatoes and a bowl of their seafood gumbo to start. Unfortunately, the gumbo and the sweet potatoes were the highlight of the meal. Once again, I don't know if the halibut was overcooked or what the deal was. But it didn't taste very good.
What I should of gotten was this - the special that evening that included shrimp, lobster and soft crab. About four or five guys got the special and they declared it out of this world. I did have a bite of the shrimp from one of my colleagues and I almost started to cry. I damn near ordered another dinner for myself.
OK, so my two visits to Atlanta Fish Market weren't very good. I was telling my friend Eric that I was disappointed in my meal once again. He said that while the Fish Market has reached the "venerable" stage in regard to its standing among other Atlanta area restaurants, just being "OK" seems to be the standard review he hears from people who have been there. It could be that the Atlanta Fish Market has literally "jumped the shark".
On to our last night in Atlanta, the great and also venerable steak house, Bones. (See my entry on Bones from last year here.) I will say that Todd hit a grand slam homer on this one this year. He arranged for us to have a private dining room in the lower level of Bones - a wonderful little place where we could talk business, laugh at stuff and devour large amounts of beef in our own little world. We had two young men waiting on us dressed in their white jackets, white shirts with black ties and black pants.
We all shared sides of mac and cheese, sauteed mushrooms, truffle butter mashed potatoes and Bones' great onion rings. My boss, Daniel, picked out some great wine and the meal was just an overall hit. Bones is simply one of the finest steak houses I've ever encountered in my travels.
We did also eat again at Fogo de Choa, the Brazilian steak house in Buckhead one evening, as well. But there's really nothing to add to my experience there (Read my entry from last year on Fogo de Choa here). It's good and dependable. And I always overeat when I go there.
With CEDIA moving to Indianapolis next year, it will probably be a long time before I get back to Atlanta to try any restaurants. If I do make it back, I'll stay away from the Atlanta Fish Market and probably Fogo de Choa (if I'm in the mood for Brazilian steak houses there's a Fogo in Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Kansas City - all places that I travel to on a regular basis). But I would crawl back to Bones and happily make a stop at One Star Ranch. I'll certainly have fond memories of my visits to those two places.
While it's tough for me to write about sushi bars and restaurants, it's even more difficult to write about the ones that stick out in my travels. For a sushi place to get a mention on Road Tips, it has to be outstanding in both selection, menu ingenuity, service and taste. On my recent trip to Atlanta, I found a place that hits all those marks in credentials - Sushi Bar Yu-Ka, located in the Buckhead section of Atlanta (see map).
Actually, my colleague, Chris, found this place last year during one of his walking trips near our hotel. He stopped in to get a taste and said that it was surprisingly good. Chris is a sushi connoisseur, so when he says sushi is surprisingly good, it's got to be damn good.
Sushi Bar Yu-Ka is located the southeast corner of a strip mall just off of Piedmont in the Buckhead Triangle bordered by Piedmont, Roswell and Peachtree streets. (I have long gotten over my aversion to eating at restaurants in strip malls.) It was a five minute walk from our hotel, the Doubletree Buckhead. There was a large group of us that evening - 12 of us in total, including a couple guys from Focal Loudspeakers. Nearly everyone in our company likes sushi with the notable exception of my colleague Ian who views sushi as "fish bait". But he was assured that Sushi Bar Yu-Ka did have "real food" that could be ordered.
The decor of Sushi Bar Yu-Ka has sort of a contemporary look with bright walls with minimal artwork and pictures - nothing garish, to say the least. The only thing that looked out of place were the flat panel televisions that were found in a couple corners. The light oak tables are overly sturdy and the chairs have comfortable cloth-padded seats. The place is well lit and features a three-sided sushi bar with three or four sushi chefs working feverously over the chopping boards. We had made reservations and our large table in the corner was waiting for us when we arrived.
I immediately ordered an Asahi beer and opened the menu to see what they had to offer. Of course, they had the regular sushi (with the vinegar rice), as well as sashimi (just the fish alone). And they had a number of interesting sushi rolls to choose from including the Oishi roll which featured tuna, shrimp, rice and a spicy mustard sauce; the Lotus roll which was tuna, yellowtail, and a dash of aioli sauce wrapped in a seaweed ring; and the Volcano - spicy tuna with fried crawfish. I thought about getting the Volcano, but I'd rather have fresh crawfish versus the fried stuff.
I ordered up a plate of the spicy tuna roll, some toro (fatty tuna), sake (salmon) and a spicy tuna roll. And that was just to start off. After a small bowl of miso soup there was quite a wait before our sushi began to show up at the table. Actually, Ian had ordered a teriyaki steak with some steamed vegetables. His steak showed up well before the sushi came out. (To Sushi Bar Yu-Ka's defense - it was about 3/4's full when we were in there. And we ordered a LOT of sushi at our table.) I was able to down the first large bottle of Asahi and a good portion of a second bottle before my sushi plate showed up.
The wait was well worth it. The toro was very, very good - fresh and flavorful. It was a little chewy, but I've learned the more chewy toro is, the better it tastes. The sake was also very good - flavorful, tender, very fresh. But the spicy tuna rolls were absolutely great. They had a wonderful taste sensation and combined with soy sauce and the very good wasabi, the taste sensation just knocked my socks off.
Round two saw me order another spicy tuna roll, some ebi (shrimp sushi), smoked sake (smoked salmon), and some maguro (regular tuna). While it didn't take as long to get that plate, it was still about 15 minutes before it arrived in front of me. The smoked salmon was excellent, the maguro was just outstanding, but the ebi was just sort of "eh!". By the time I was down to about five pieces of sushi/spicy tuna roll left, I had hit the proverbial sushi wall. I had experienced sushi overload - a very pleasant place to be.
The guys from Focal picked up the check that night - and I understood that the bill was pretty reasonable for 12 people. Sushi Bar Yu-ka also features a number of lunchtime specials for the people who work in the Buckhead area.
Chris was right - Sushi Bar Yu-Ka was surprisingly good. Just be prepared to wait for your food if it's busy, however. It's still too bad I was only able to experience it just once.
I recently met a former colleague who is now a small business owner in the audio/video - custom installation field for lunch at Tucker's Place in West St. Louis County in the greater St. Louis metro area. It had been years since I'd eaten at Tucker's Place and was somewhat pleasantly surprised to have him suggest meeting there.
My first trip to Tucker's Place was for a dinner with a former boss and sales manager who were riding my butt about something around 16 years ago. I don't quite remember why they were ganging up on me, but they must have figured that by treating me to a steak dinner it would light a fire under me. I remember the steak was good, but nothing special. I found out later on that Tucker's Place is a very economical and high value restaurant in the St. Louis area. My boss at that time was notoriously cheap and it made perfect sense to me much later on that he would take me to Tucker's Place. By the way, the steak dinner didn't work - I ended up leaving that company about six months later to take a better job with a competing rep firm based out of St. Peters, MO.
There are three Tucker's Place restaurants in the greater St. Louis area. The original one opened in Soulard in 1982 (see map) and there is another one in South County (see map). Tucker's Place has won numerous local awards for best steak/steakhouse and best value restaurant over the past number of years.
It was about 12:30 when I met up with my guest at Tucker's Place just off of Wood's Mills Road on Manchester (see map). We both had appointments out in West County and he thought it would be a good place to meet for lunch. We were met by a hostess who told us she had one table open for lunch, a small two-seater that was up against the wall in the dining room just off the bar area. The place was packed with both business-types and older people who were looking for a good lunch at a low price.
The lunch menu was pretty basic with a couple three steaks to choose from. In addition to steaks, Tucker's Place is also known for their pork chops and grilled chicken breasts, as well as a handful of seafood entrees to choose from. Each day, Tucker's Place features a special "sandwich of the day", but they have their mouth-watering burger available each day through the week. The special that day was the Philly cheese steak sandwich. That was tempting, but I ended up getting the cheeseburger for lunch - the Tucker Burger. The Tucker Burger starts out with a 9 oz. ground beef patty, flame broiled to order and topped with your choice of cheese. I ordered Pepper Jack cheese on my medium burger.
My guest ordered up the Philly cheese steak sandwich. We contemplated getting an order of (from what I remember) their mouthwatering beer-battered onion rings, but my guest thought that a sandwich and a salad would be good enough for him. After gaining about 10 pounds back from the nearly 50 that I lost, I decided that it was probably best for me to go the salad route, as well. We both ordered side salads with Tucker's Place's homemade lemon pepper dressing.
I had noticed Tucker's Place also had pizza on their menu and as we were enjoying our salads, I noticed that a table near us had a pizza brought out to them. It didn't look like the paper thin crust like you find at most St. Louis area pizza places, but it wasn't a thicker, spongy crust either. Actually, it looked quite good. I may have to go back to Tucker's Place to try the pizza at some point.
After finishing our salads, of which the lemon pepper dressing over the fresh greens proved to be very tasty, our sandwiches came out. My burger was served open faced with the top of a large sesame seeded kaiser roll off to the side. There was a generous amount of pepper jack cheese on top of the burger patty. A slice of tomato, some bib lettuce, pickles and a raw onion slice was served along with the burger.
From the first bite, I was very impressed with the burger. It was lean, yet still juicy. The center was pink, but not too raw. I would have called it more medium-rare than medium, but I wasn't going to complain. The bun - which is a big determination as to the overall taste of any burger - was very good. It was light, but chewy. The only problem is that it didn't hold together very well and the burger got a little messy as each bite made it smaller. I had to ask for more napkins from our waitress. It was easily a three napkin burger.
My guest's Philly cheese steak sandwich was declared to be "good". He said that he's had better cheese steak sandwiches, but for the price ($8.45 for the sandwich, side salad and a glass of iced tea) he thought it was a great value. I, too, thought my burger (same price, only I just had water for my lunch) was a very good value. I've had burgers that were much higher priced that didn't come close to the taste and quality of the burger I had at Tucker's Place.
Tucker's Place has been a favorite of St. Louis area residents for a number of years. The service is good, but not like you'd find at an upper scale restaurant, which is totally understandable. My guest, who is about as big a "foodie" as I am, reiterated that the Tucker's Place restaurants are a great value with above average food. Based on the steak that I had a number of years ago and the burger that I had on my last visit, I would have to agree. It's not a 5 star restaurant, but I'd certainly give Tucker's Place 3 1/2 stars.
Always on the lookout for new places to try when we all meet up for trade shows, the guys in our company went out to Miller Union one evening after a long day at the annual CEDIA Expo in Atlanta this past September. One of my colleagues had read about Miller Union and their commitment to prepare and serve food raised by local farmers and fishermen. We decided that it would be a good place to try.
Miller Union (see map) is situated in Atlanta's west side area which, at one point, was a hard-scrabble warehouse/stockyards area that has since been gentrified with upscale urban housing, an arts district, shops and restaurants. Miller Union occupies what was the old Miller Union Stockyards, one of the central areas of Atlanta where people went to buy horses and mules for transportation and farm work before and just after the turn of the 20th century. It would be akin to modern day automobile "mega marts" where up to 8 different dealerships are placed within a large shopping complex. While the area is going more upscale, there are still a number of warehouses in the area as evident by the number of semi trucks that were moving through the area as we enjoyed our dinner.
The owners of Miller Union, Neal McCarthy and Steven Satterfield, are Atlanta restaurant industry veterans. McCarthy was the longtime general manager and sommilier at Sotto Sotto, while Satterfield (right) was the executive sous chef at Watershed, a contemporary Southern restaurant in suburban Decatur that's co-owned by Emily Saliers of the Atlanta based duo Indigo Girls. When McCarthy and Satterfield opened Miller Union in 2009, they joined a growing number of American contemporary "farm-to-table" restaurants that are popping up in the Atlanta area.
After parking with the valet out front (the area is full of dance clubs that get packed after 9 p.m., so the valet parking was a must) we walked into Miller Union with a large group of 12 just after 7 p.m. Our table wasn't ready yet so we whiled away the time at the bar. I was able to enjoy a couple of the Terrapin Rye Pale Ale's that I had first had when we had dinner at Panahar a couple nights previously.
The decor of Miller Union could be described as contemporary industrial rustic - all three elements were prevalent in the interior of the place. The place featured a couple three intimate dining areas and a small bar area (pictured below) that got pretty tight when a lot of people were waiting for a table.
After about a half-hour wait, we were seated outdoors at a table that was not designed for 12 people. Actually 8 people - 3 on each side and one at each end - was the practical number to seat at that table. It became very evident after a few moments that this would not do for such a large group. My colleague, Todd, spoke with the hostess and she told him that this was the only table they had to offer. Todd asked to speak to the manager and he had a short chat with Neal McCarthy. When Todd came back he said, "They're going to accommodate us."
A table for four opened up right behind us and four from our group went and sat at that table. When I asked Todd how he was able to get an extra table so quickly, he said, "I told the manager that we were probably going to drink a shit-load of expensive wine tonight and we wanted to be comfortable in doing so." That obviously got his attention.
The dinner menu at Miller Union that evening featured regular items such as a pan-seared duck breast, sauteed quail, lamb sausage and a griddle fried chicken breast. The special that evening was a broasted pork loin served on Southern vegetables. It all sounded very good.
And the pork loin is what I ordered, along with a soup of the day that was, I believe, a sweet potato soup, if I remember correctly. Everyone ordered something a little different, but a couple of my colleagues ordered the duck breast. Multiple bottles of a Cote Rotie red wine from the Rhone Valley wine region in France were placed on the table for us to enjoy.
After the soup, our main entries were brought out to us. The presentation was just wonderful and the food looked delectible. And it was. My pork loin (above left) was resting on a combination of sweet corn, asparagus, fresh okra and tomatoes - a very Southern touch for my meal. And the pork was tender and flavorful, and the loin size was just enough for a full meal, but not enough to make me feel too full at the end of the meal. But full enough that I passed on dessert when it was offered.
My colleague John got the lamb sausage served over a bed of mixed vegetable succotash (above right). He said it was very good. But the highlight at the table was the pan-seared duck breast served over a Southern succotash of sweet corn and shelled beans (right). My colleague Simon got that along with one of the other guys at our table. Simon is a big fan of duck (I'm not as much) and he was raving about how great the duck breast tasted and how it was prepared. One of the guys at the smaller table also got the duck and all three who got it raved about the taste after the meal was over.
One of the guys at our table got the pan-cooked New York strip along with a side of polenta and brussels sprouts. He was lamenting his choice because of how the guys who got the duck were going nuts over their meals. He said, "My steak is OK, but I should have gotten the duck."
After the meal, a handful of guys ordered dessert. As I said, I passed, but I did have a bite of the dark chocolate fudge brownie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was decadently rich and flavorful, but I'm certainly glad I didn't get one for myself. A couple of the others tried the apple-pecan cake topped with scoop of a caramel-honey ice cream. I did try the ice cream - which was out of this world - but I'm not big on either apples or pecans.
All in all, I'd have to say my meal at Miller Union was very good. Compared to other places we ate at during our stay in Atlanta, Miller Union was the most unique in terms of decor and menu. The service was top-notch and after we were able to get a second table for our group the experience was very comfortable. About the only complaint I would have for Miller Union were the number of semi's that continued to roll past the restaurant throughout our meal. With a stop sign just by the outdoor seating area, there was a lot of starting and stopping of semi's that caused us to have to stop in mid-sentence during conversation as it was too loud. But with the wood floors and the contemporary industrial decor in the main dining areas, it would have been constantly loud inside. The sound of the semi's rolling past while dining outside on a beautiful Georgia evening versus having to scream across the table inside was a nice trade-off.
For the last eight years, the Iowa Pork Producers have been handing out the award for the Best Pork Tenderloin in Iowa to restaurants and bars around the state. So far, I've written about visiting Augusta in Oxford, IA and trying their 2008 award winning pork tenderloin (click here to see that entry); and recently I posted an entry on Goldie's Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City, IA (click here to see that entry) and trying the 2009 winning tenderloin. The 2010 winner was recently announced and the Iowa Pork Producers awarded the best tenderloin of this year to Buck's Bar in Mitchellville, IA - about 20 miles east of Des Moines (see map). I was coming back from a couple three days up in Minneapolis with a side trip to Ames for a meeting when I decided to stop into Buck's Bar for a tenderloin on my way home.
It just so happens that one of my sisters lives in Mitchellville, about three blocks from Buck's Bar. I called her up before I left Ames and asked her if she was home. She said she was and wondered why I asked. I said, "Well, I want to try a tenderloin from Buck's Bar and I wondered if you wanted to join me for a beer."
She said, "Oh! I just had a leftover tenderloin from Buck's for lunch! Sure, I'll meet you there."
It was about 45 minutes later when I pulled up in front of Buck's Bar in Mitchellville (see map). My sister was sitting on a bench in front of the place waiting for me to show up. It was about 3:30 p.m. when I got there, saving up my appetite for a Buck's tenderloin through the course of the day.
Buck's Bar is a relatively new place. My sister explained that the original owner had built the place about three years ago, but went through a nasty divorce from his wife at the time. The bar had opened, closed, then reopened about nine months ago under the ownership of Buck Bos. It was sort of nice on the inside - open and well-lit with some tables and booths interspersed throughout the place. There was a pool table and some other games that you'd find in any small town bar. The bar area featured a three-sided bar with comfortable high-back seats.
My sister discribed Buck Bos as a nice guy who is sort of a player with the ladies. "He has a big smile and very white teeth. He's always wearing Hawaiian or tropical shirts. When I go to the State Fair, it seems I always run into him partying with a bunch of ladies at the beer tents."
Sounds like my kind of guy. I wanted to meet him after that, but he wasn't in his place that afternoon. My sister and I sat at the bar and we were greeted by a tall, slender blond-haired bartender. She asked us if we needed menus. I said, "I understand that you guys have the award winning tenderloin for this year."
She said, "Well, yes, we do! Would you like to try one?"
Absolutely! My sister was still full from her lunch a couple hours before and she just had a beer while we caught up on what's been going on with our lives.
About 10 minutes after I ordered the tenderloin, the bartender brought it out. It was a thin, breaded tenderloin cut in half with raw onion rings and pickles off to the side. A side of fries came with the sandwich, but I wasn't interested.
It turns out that Buck Bos gets his pork from the same place Brad Magg at Goldie's gets his tenderloins - from the Fareway store in Altoona. (Mitchellville and Prairie City are only about seven miles apart as the crow flies, and about a 15 minute drive between the two communities.) The only difference, as it was explained to me by the bartender, is that Fareway does all the processing of the tenderloins for Goldie's - cutting, tenderizing, etc. - while Buck buys the pork tenderloin, does his own cutting and hand tenderizes them with a cook's hammer. "Buck was using this thing that looked like a mallet at first," the bartender said to me. "But then he got this big cook's hammer and he can really flatten them out."
While the tenderloin was large and hanging over the bun, it wasn't so flat and huge that the taste had been literally hammered out of it. I've said many times that too often I've run across pork tenderloin sandwiches at restaurants where they're literally two sizes too large for the bun. When they hammer 'em out to be that large in area, they also hammer the juiciness out of them, too. Buck's tenderloin was big, but not big enough to make them dry in taste.
Now, I'm not usually big on breaded tenderloins - I like a good unbreaded, grilled tenderloin for a sandwich from time to time. Buck's breaded tenderloin was good, better in my opinion than the one at Goldie's. But as I confessed to the bartender after she asked how my tenderloin was, neither Buck's nor Goldie's could hold a candle to the Augusta in Oxford. The breading at Augusta was better - it's more of a batter breading, I believe. The bartender said, "We had a couple in from Creston the other day trying the sandwich and they said they liked the battered tenderloins better than the breaded ones."
The pork tenderloin at Augusta in Oxford is still the best restaurant pork tenderloin sandwich I've ever had.
It's not that the tenderloin at Buck's was bad - far from it. But I've had similar tenderloins at any number of places across the state over the years. I honestly don't know how the Iowa Pork Producers can judge how one tenderloin is better than another. The breading on Buck's tenderloin was better than the one at Goldie's, but quite honestly they're all pretty much the same. But Buck Bos gets to wear the crown of having the Best Tenderloin in Iowa for a year and they've already seen a spike in business since they were named the 2010 award winners in early October. And, quite honestly, other than getting the tenderloin, Buck's seems like a cool place to just hang out and have a beer. I may have to stop more often to have a cold one with my sister as I pass by Mitchellville on my way to wherever.
(Update - My sister told me in August of 2011 that Buck's had closed its doors. Rumors I've heard had something to do about a divorce, but I didn't think Buck was married. In any event, the reigning Best Pork Tenderloin in Iowa is no longer available.)
Courtesy Diner in St. Louis can be categorized as nothing but an institution to late night partiers who are looking to ward off the impending next day hangover with some greasy food served at 3:00 a.m. It's an endearing slice of culinary life to thousands of people who have eaten "Slingers", cheeseburgers and other greasy specialties over the years. I've always wanted to try the Courtesy Diner at some point and I actually had a breakfast meeting recently at the one on Hampton, not far from Forest Park.
There are two Courtesy Diner locations in St. Louis - the one on Hampton (see map); and the original location on Kingshighway (see map) which has been opened for, geez, from what I can tell, well over 50 years. In doing some research for the Courtesy Diner, I found that it was once part of a chain of little places known as either Courtesy Sandwich Shop or Courtesy Chili. There appeared to be around 30 Courtesy Sandwich Shops in New York, Maryland and a few other eastern states at one time or another. There used to be a Courtesy Diner on S. Broadway in St. Louis until the late 90's. The last one in the chain was the Kingshighway location, owned by Larry Rugg of Restaurants Unlimited, Inc.
Rugg - who also owns the Country Fixin's Restaurant in Wentzville, MO, a handful of Hen House Restaurants in Illinois, and the former O.T. Hodge Chili Shoppe in St. Louis' Union Station - opened the Hampton location in February of 1999 on the site of an old gas station. He wanted to keep the concept constant with the location on Kingshighway - open 24/7 with breakfast served anytime, a great juke box, and good comfort food at reasonable prices. It was an immediate hit with the late night dining crowd who came over from the bars in the Central West End to satisfy their alcohol fueled appetites.
Courtesy Diner's signature dish is the Slinger - two eggs, hash browns and chili on a hamburger patty. Some people like to order cheddar cheese and onions on top. Or for the people who are really hungry, the Super Slinger comes with the above along with either beef burrito or a tamale on top of everything. Actually, it sounds a lot like the Magic Mountain/Volcano from Ross' Restaurant in Bettendorf, IA which has become a late night staple for many of us here in the Quad Cities.
Courtesy Diner's main menu consists of burgers, sandwiches, chicken fried steak, and about 10 different variations of chili served plain, with macaroni, with a burrito, with a tamale, or with hash browns. Their breakfast anytime has - of course - the Slinger, as well as eggs, omelets, pancakes, french toast, and biscuits and gravy. The menu is pretty straight forward and doesn't vary all that much.
I had a 9:00 a.m. meeting with a gentleman who was looking to get into the audio business with a concept of a home entertainment system. We'd talked a couple times before and while he seemed enthusiastic about the concept, I didn't really know if it would work or not even with the drawn out business plan that he had forwarded to me before the meeting. I told him that I was staying at the Hampton Inn in Forest Park and he suggested meeting up at the Courtesy Diner. I was completely up for that.
As I walked into the Courtesy Diner, it was pure Americana in the place. John Mellencamp was playing on the juke box, a row of booths lined the windows while a row of stools sat in front of the counter. It was clean and spiffy inside, and the place was lively with some families, two couples who had driven there on motorcycles, a handful of single people sitting at the counter and other various mid-morning visitors. I took a booth in the far back of the restaurant. The waitress, who had a sore foot, hobbled over to me to drop off menus and asked if I wanted coffee from the pot she was holding. I told her, "No coffee, but I'm waiting on someone else." She hobbled back to grab another menu and sort of tossed it on the table across from me. She didn't have an attitude, I didn't think. I'm sure she was not happy having to work on a sore foot. You gotta take that in stride in places like Courtesy Diner.
With Pink Floyd now playing on the juke box, my meeting guest showed up not long after that and we exchanged pleasantries as the waitress came over with the pot of coffee. My guest heartily turned over his cup and said to me, "They actually have very good coffee here."
My first breakfast at Courtesy Diner consisted of a couple eggs over easy with a side of bacon and whole wheat toast. My guest got a bowl of their oatmeal - "I'm trying to watch my weight and Courtesy Diner has good oatmeal."
While the eggs and bacon were nothing special, it was a good value at $3.75. I had a large glass of milk that was $1.25, so my total breakfast was just over $5.00 with tax. Along with my guest's oatmeal, coffee and a tip for the waitress hobbling around on a sore foot, the total bill came to just under $11 bucks. Pretty reasonable for a breakfast meeting, I have to say. One thing to note - take cash. Courtesy Diner doesn't take credit cards.
A couple days later, I decided to go back to Courtesy Diner by myself and try one of their omelets. I ordered up a sausage and cheese omelet on this visit with a side of bacon and a glass of milk. And while the omelet was good, it was far from the best I've ever had. But it was served quickly and efficiently, allowing me to get on my way a lot quicker than I'd would had I gotten breakfast at a larger national chain.
But it's the ambiance and history of the Courtesy Diner that makes the place unique. If you know going in that the place is a greasy spoon restaurant, that helps add to the charm of the place. While the Courtesy Diner isn't going to win many culinary awards, it's still a favorite with thousands of St. Louis area residents who want breakfast at either 2:30 in the afternoon or 2:30 in the morning. I don't come across a lot of places like the Courtesy Diner in my travels, but I wouldn't mind if I did. It's not fancy, the food is serviceable. To use an over-used modern cliché - the Courtesy Diner is what it is.
The Charcoal Oven on Golf Road in Skokie, IL (see map) is one of those places that I've passed a number of times, wondered what it would be like, but have never stopped in. It looks like an old time supper club like you'd find out in the middle of nowhere in the rural Midwest. I happened to be staying just down the street from the restaurant a couple months ago and decided to give the place a try for dinner one evening.
I walked into the restaurant as two men were walking out. It was early - around 6:45 p.m. - and I was the only one in the place, save for a lone man sitting at the bar talking to the bartender. It turned out the bartender was the owner - Rich Franco - whose wife, Maria, is the daughter of the previous owner, Phill Georgouses.
Maria Franco came out and asked if I wanted to sit at the bar or in the dining room. Considering there wasn't anyone in the dining room - and it was getting into the meat of the dinner hour - I thought two things. 1) It would be kind of cool sitting in the dining room all by myself. And 2) Why am I the only one in here? I began to regret my decision.
I sat in an old style three-sided booth with a white linen tablecloth over the table. Maria handed me a menu and I immediately asked her if this place was an old style supper club that, at one time, was out in the country. She said, "Oh, most definitely!"
She told me the story of how the original business was built in 1928 - called The Oasis. It was basically a gin joint out in the country toward the end of Prohibition. When Prohibition ended in 1933, The Oasis flourished as a hot spot for good food and flowing drinks. It later became known as The Little Club and was a favorite hangout for Northwestern University students fleeing Evanston to drink when it was a dry town up to the mid-60's. The Little Club was just outside the Evanston city limits.
Phill Georgouses began to work as a busboy and waiter at The Little Club before World War II. Phil was called to duty during the war, but he came back in 1946 to work at the place. He ended up buying the Oasis in 1948. In the mid-60's, Phill put in a kitchen to serve Greek-styled meals and steaks and changed the name to The Charcoal Oven. Rich and Maria took over the business when Phill retired a few years ago. Many of the Greek-styled recipes that the Georgouses family had are still on the menu and I understand that Phill still checks in from time to time.
The dining room had that old time supper club feel to it. Subdued lighting, tasteful decor, Frank Sinatra playing in the background. It was like walking back into the 50's or 60's. Maria said that the city of Skokie literally grew up around the restaurant. "This was the place to go for an elegant meal," she said. "But now, there's just so many choices in the area. But we weren't going to change one bit."
In addition to their Greek chicken, steaks and chops, The Charcoal Oven has a variety of homemade soups and salads topped with their own in-house dressing. Sonia Carlson has been making the soups and salad dressings at The Charcoal Oven for over 30 years. I sort of like that kind of consistency.
While the menu isn't very deep, it did have a handful of great sounding meals to choose from. Maria said they were famous for their Greek chicken - a marinated chicken breast that is lightly breaded and baked in the oven with lemon, garlic and oregano. She said their butt steak was also a favorite. And they were somewhat famous for their baby back ribs with their own homemade sauce.
They did have a special on a sirloin steak that evening - a 16 oz. cut with a couple sides for $21.95. I signed up for that - rare. The sides were The Charcoal Oven's homemade potato chips and sauteed green beans with onions. I also got a cup of the homemade lentil vegetable soup and a salad with their homemade Danish bleu cheese dressing. Maria said she'd get it right out.
Sure enough, Maria first brought out the cup of soup and a fresh baked bread roll brushed with butter. Both the soup and the bread were very yummy. I'm not big on lentil soup, but this was very good.
After I finished the soup, she brought out the Danish bleu cheese salad. It was OK, rather bland in taste compared to other bleu cheese dressings I've had. But the lettuce was fresh and tasty.
The salad was done for about five minutes and Maria brought out the 16 oz. sirloin, but it certainly looked larger than 16 oz. I cut into it and it was a perfect rare for me. The homemade potato chips were interesting, but good. And the sauteed green beans with the onion slices were absolutely fabulous.
I began to work into the steak and I found that a good portion of the steak was full of gristle. What meat I could cut out of the steak was tender and flavorful, but the large amount of gristle was a downer to the meal. I know it's the luck of the draw when it comes to meat like sirloin whether or not you'll have a lot of gristle. My number came up this time.
Maria came out and saw that I had a lot of gristle in the steak. She immediately volunteered to get another piece of meat for me. I said, "Oh, God, no. Don't worry. I wouldn't have been able to finish this whole steak had it not had ANY gristle in it. This is fine."
She said, "Are you sure?"
I said, "Yep, just the luck of the draw."
She was so nice and throughout the meal I continued to be the only person in the place. Not that it was bad - it was above average, overall. Maria did tell me that the place usually is much more busy on the weekend (it was a Wednesday night when I was in there) and it was a beautiful night out. People were probably hanging at home, doing yard work and cooking out that evening.
About three weeks ago, a friend of mine who works at Music Direct in Chicago had posted on Facebook that he had gone to The Charcoal Oven with his wife. I talked to him after that and told him that I, too, had recently visited the place. He said, "We lived not far from that place from 1968 thru 1977. We'd always pass it on the way to my aunt's house, but we never stopped in. I was always intrigued with the place and so my wife and I decided to go there for dinner."
He told me he had the Greek chicken and he said, "It was WONDERFUL! I was torn between getting the special that night, which was a ribeye steak, and the Greek chicken. She told me to get the Greek chicken. I'm glad I did."
With my recent addition of Abt Electronics as one of my dealers, I'll be spending a lot of time in the Glenview/Skokie area of Chicago, probably staying just down the street from The Charcoal Oven on occasion. I'll need to get back there to try the Greek chicken and I'll probably also try one of their steaks again, as well. I love old supper clubs like The Charcoal Oven and I'll definitely go back.
My cousin used to live in Milwaukee on the grounds of the Veteran's Administration Medical Center when he was the canteen manager there for over 15 years. Not far from where he lived was a German restaurant that he turned us on to - Kegel's Inn on National Ave. in near suburban West Allis. (see map) From the first time I went there a number of years ago, I thought Kegel's Inn had some of the best German food I'd ever had anywhere. Since I'd gone to Mader's in downtown Milwaukee earlier this summer, I decided to try Kegel's Inn for lunch on a recent visit to Milwaukee.
Kegel's Inn has been around since December of 1924 when Austrian immigrants John and Anna Kegel opened what was termed back then as a "soft-drink parlor" which in reality was a Prohibition-era speakeasy serving customers home-brewed beer and whiskey. A free meal of German sausages and other specialties was served to the people who ordered drinks.
After Prohibition was repealed, the Kegel's constructed a new restaurant at the present day site. John and Anna Kegel's son, John, Jr. ran the establishment from 1947 to 1955. His brother, George, and George's wife, operated the restaurant from 1955 to 1966. John Kegel, Jr. and his wife, Ruth, came back to run the place from 1966 until they retired in 1991. Today, Rob and Jim Kegel are the third generation of Kegel's to run the establishment. In fact, it was Jim Kegel who greeted me and sat me in the dining room when I stopped in earlier this summer.
The decor of the restaurant has a decidedly old world feel to the place. The bar area as you walk in features a long walnut bar with ornamental steins placed on a shelf over a couple of mirrored walls on the back side of the bar. Wooden-beamed ceilings hovered over antique lights with walls covered in old time paintings. Kegel's Inn has always had a cozy and inviting feel to the place.
As Jim Kegel seated me at a smaller table in the dining room, he asked if he could get me something to drink. I had finished all my calls for the day and decided that a cold beer would be good at that point. I asked for a Warsteiner, but I was informed that Kegel's Inn didn't carry Warsteiner. Jim Kegel said, "We have Spaten lager on tap." I said I'd have that. He dropped off a lunch menu for me to look at for the time being.
A waitress came back with the Spaten and said, "OK, so we have a bet. What part of Chicago are you from?"
I looked at her quizzingly and said, "I'm from the Quad Cities of Iowa. Davenport, to be exact."
She turned back to Jim Kegel and said, "He's not from Chicago!"
He came back over to the table and said, "Darn. I just lost 25 cents." He explained that Warsteiner was a very popular beer in Chicago and it really isn't in Milwaukee. "I can usually tell if someone is from Chicago either by the way they talk or if they order Warsteiner," he told me. "For some reason, Warsteiner doesn't really sell very well in Milwaukee."
I don't know. I don't think I've ever had a Warsteiner in Chicago. I think the first time I had it was in the Quad Cities a number of years ago.
The lunch menu at Kegel's Inn is smaller and not quite the same as their dinner menu. But the lunch menu still has a number of the staples that make Kegel's Inn so popular with the locals in the greater Milwaukee area - Roast Pork Shank, Stuffed Beef Tenderloin, Sauerbraten, Beef Rouladen. It's always difficult to figure out what to get when I venture into Kegel's Inn.
I ended up ordering the Sauerbraten with a side of Kegel's Inn famous red cabbage and a dumpling. For starters, I got a cup of their Chicken Dumpling soup. The lunch portions are much smaller (and subsequently cheaper) than the dinner portions, so I knew the lunch wouldn't sit heavy in my stomach.
Not long after I ordered, the waitress brought out the cup of Chicken Dumpling soup which was very good. And almost as soon as I finished my cup of soup she brought out the Sauerbraten, covered in Kegel's Inn homemade red wine and ginger gravy sauce. The portions of the Sauerbraten, dumpling and red cabbage were more than enough for a lunch time meal. Anything more and I would have wanted to take a long nap.
And the Sauerbraten was just as good as I remembered it to be. It had been quite some time since I'd been into Kegel's Inn and I silently wondered why as I eagerly ate my lunch. The Sauerbraten is marinated for 10 days, then oven roasted to give it extreme tenderness. The red wine and ginger gravy is an outstanding compliment to the meat. It was an outstanding meal.
Kegel's Inn may not be as famous as Mader's or Karl Ratzsch's, the two landmark German restaurants in Milwaukee. But I have to say that the food at Kegel's Inn rivals or even surpasses what I've had at Mader's in the past. I still need to try Karl Ratzsch's at some point - maybe during an upcoming trip to Milwaukee this fall. But pound for pound and dollar for dollar, it's tough to beat Kegel's Inn for great German food.
One of the first people I met after I moved to the Quad Cities nearly 20 years ago turned me onto a little Greek gyro place in Moline called Uncle Pete's. He told me, "They have the best gyro's in the Quad City." Quite honestly, I haven't found another place that sells gyros that even comes close - even the Greek guys who come in for the annual street fest in downtown Davenport don't come close to Uncle Pete's. Over the years, Uncle Pete's has turned into a favorite dining spot of ours.
Uncle Pete's is named after Pete Panouses (below left), a big bear of a guy who was the original owner since 1982. Originally at South Park Mall, Pete and his wife, Kathy, operated a little 32-seat "hole-in-the-wall" location on the Avenue of the Cities in Moline. It could get crowded in Uncle Pete's with people waiting for in-house and to-go orders. But the food was always good. We always used Uncle Pete's as the measuring stick against any other gyros we'd encounter during our travels. And we've found time and time again that Uncle Pete's is hard to beat.
Just after Christmas in 2006, Pete Panouses passed away. His son, Chris (above right), had been working in the family business and had been in managing the place while Pete held court at a little table near the cash register talking to longtime friends and customers when they came in. Other than a large picture of Pete on the wall and his obituary hanging next to it, you couldn't tell if there were any changes going on with the restaurant. Uncle Pete's gyros continued to be the best in town.
Last year, ALDI grocery stores bought the little strip mall that Uncle Pete's was housed in. They were going to tear down the strip mall and put up a grocery store. Chris Panouses had to scramble and find a new place. He wanted to stay within a mile of the original Uncle Pete's location and found some land just up the road a bit (closer for us, actually, from our home in Davenport). It was there he built the new and improved Uncle Pete's restaurant, nearly tripling the seating to 80 in the process. He had hoped to be open by February 1 as they had to vacate the old place by the first of March. But delays in the building of the new restaurant forced him to shut down operations for seven weeks before he was finally able to re-open in the new location in late April.
Not only has the seating increased, but it allowed Panouses to increase the number of items on his menu. He's introduced Italian beef sandwiches, a reuben sandwich and a steak sandwich to the menu. The prices on the gyros have gone up modestly since the move, but they pack them with so much gyro meat it's still a great value.
Cindy and I were over in Moline one Saturday earlier this summer and we had passed the new location of Uncle Pete's (see map). It had been early February since I'd been in - Cindy had been over to the new location a couple of times when I would be on the road. While the old location was sort of recessed and off the street - it was tough to see if you didn't know it was there - the new building stands much closer to the street and the signage is large and easy to see. And Uncle Pete's has a large parking lot that they don't have to share as they had to with two or three other businesses in the old strip mall.
As we walked in, the first thing I noticed was how large the dining room was. There were a number of tables and booths throughout the place - a lot nicer tables and chairs, I might add, than what the Panouses family had at the old location. But that also helped with the ambiance of the old place. The new and improved Uncle Pete's was very nice.
And just like at the old place, you place your orders at Uncle Pete's at the counter - although the counter at the new location is just as you walk in the door from the parking lot. The counter of the old place was in the back of the restaurant and you had to walk through diners just to get your order place. Once again, it was one of those things you just did to get a good gyro from Uncle Pete's.
The menu is located behind the counter, even helping with the correct pronunciation of gyros (YEE-roes). They have two sizes of gyros at Uncle Pete's - the regular and the super. The super comes with an extra container of tzatziki sauce, which, I was told, comes from a family recipe handed down through Kathy Panouses' family. The super gyro is my usual order at Uncle Pete's. While they do have good french fries, a super gyro is usually the only thing I need when I'm there.
Cindy ordered up a regular gyro and an order of Uncle Pete's fries which are more like steak fries than thin French fries. Uncle Pete's slathers on the tzatziki sauce on the regular gyro and you usually don't need to get another container. But if you do want one, it's 50 cents extra.
We found a table and waited for our number to be called. When the girl called out our number, I went up and got our gyros and a ton of napkins as you'll usually need them when you eat an Uncle Pete's gyro. Wrapped in wax paper and served on a paper plate, Uncle Pete's gyros haven't changed since my first visit in 1991. Look at the amount of gyro meat they put on their super gyro. You have to use a fork and knife - plastic, naturally, at Uncle Pete's - to eat some of the gyro meat before you can pick up the pita shell and eat it.
The gyro meat at Uncle Pete's is always cooked just right - not too overdone or undercooked. Too many times at other gyro places they slice off the gyro meat from the spit and let it sit on a tray under a heat lamp, over cooking the strips. Uncle Pete's sort of does the same thing, but as quick as they go through gyros, the meat doesn't stay in the tray all that long. The onions on the gyros at Uncle Pete's are always fresh and strong, and while the tomatoes are of the common salad bar variety that you find in most restaurants, they still put a lot of slices on their gyros.
Since I didn't have any breakfast that day, I made short work of my super gyro. Thank God the taste and quality didn't change with the move to the new location. I helped Cindy with a few of her fries and they were the same as the old location. Many times when a restaurant has moved to a new location, there's something that changes in the quality of the food. Other than a lot more seating and a new building, I can't see much of anything that changed at the new Uncle Pete's.
Chris Panouses was quoted in a couple of the local papers as saying that it was a shock for him to have to leave the old location. They'd gotten into a comfort zone at the old place and leaving the old location was "really emotional." But as good as business has been for him at his new location, I'm sure he's not missing the old place one bit. Uncle Pete's is still closed on Sunday's, but the rest of the time you can find some of the best gyros you'll ever eat anywhere over in Moline. And even though I haven't had one yet, I understand Uncle Pete's has a good burger, too. I'll have to give that a try at some point, but it's certainly tough to go to Uncle Pete's and not order a gyro.
Since 2003, the Iowa Pork Producers Association has staged a contest where they invite people to nominate restaurants who they believe has the best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich in the state. I tried the 2008 winner - Augusta in Oxford, IA, just outside of Iowa City and not far from Cedar Rapids. And I was plenty impressed with their pork tenderloin sandwich. In 2009, the winner of the best pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa was a small sandwich/ice cream shop in Prairie City - Goldie's Ice Cream Shoppe - not far from where I grew up in the Newton/Kellogg area, and a 20 minute drive from Des Moines thanks to a four-lane highway that now connects SE Iowa with the greater Des Moines area. On a trip back home from Kansas earlier this past summer, I stopped into Goldie's to see if their tenderloin sandwich stacked up.
I found out that there is somewhat of a personal connection between the owner of Goldie's - Brad Magg (pictured at right) - and myself. It turns out that Magg's mother, Marilee, and I graduated together from Newton High School back in the 1970's and we were pretty good friends during that time. Time and circumstances have caused Marilee and I to not connect for over 30 years, so it was sort of interesting that I found out her son was the one behind Goldie's.
Brad Magg started out cooking when he was an early teenager, baking cookies and pies and selling them to people in and around the NW Jasper County area. He turned that into a catering business by the time he was 15, then after graduating from high school he earned a degree from the Iowa Culinary Institute at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny.
A month before he got his degree, Magg, along with his mother and his father, Gary, bought the ice cream shop in Prairie City from Golda Ingram - the "Goldie" of Goldie's. Before the Magg's bought the place, Goldie's was nothing more than a seasonal ice cream shop. When Brad Magg came in, he expanded the building, added food to the menu and kept the place open year round. The young Magg kept Goldie Ingram on board where she continues to work four days a week.
While the ingredients for the breading that Magg uses on his tenderloins is a secret, he fully acknowledges that he buys all of his pork cutlets at the Fareway store in nearby Altoona. Fairway usually has some top quality meat to choose from. The Altoona Fareway cuts and tenderizes each of the loins for Goldie's.
In addition to the pork tenderloins that have suddenly given them a measure of fame, Goldie's also has a grilled pork tenderloin sandwich, a marinated pork loin sandwich, a hot ham and Swiss cheese sandwich and an Italian sausage sandwich. In fact, the pork used for the Italian sausage sandwich and the beef for the hamburgers at Goldie's come from the Magg family farm and are processed at a small butcher shop in Magg's hometown of Mingo, IA.
It was a lazy summer afternoon when I pulled into Prairie City. Highway 163 now by-passes the small rural town, but Goldie's is on what used to be the main route through the city when 163 was a two-lane road (see map). Goldie's is not unlike any other small restaurant/ice cream shop in any small Iowa town. The outside is tidy and neat, the parking lots are on either side of the building and there's not much as far as signage along the road to alert you that you've arrived.
I walked into Goldie's and there were a couple farmers in there having mid-afternoon coffee, clearly eying the out-of-towner walking through the door. While there were tables and booths in the place, I took a seat at the old fashioned soda bar counter and took a quick look at the menu that was placed behind the napkin holder. An older woman - who happened to be Goldie Ingram - and a couple of the girls working in the place were having a mid-afternoon snack at a table along the west wall. Another young lady asked me if I knew what I wanted and I didn't hesitate - "You guys won the best pork tenderloin award this past year. I'm here to give it a shot."
She said, "Well, all righty, then!" She asked if I wanted anything on it and I told her yellow mustard, pickles and onions. I never use any tomato-based products on a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, not even barbecue sauce.
While I waited, a lady came in to get some soft-serve ice cream. I also noticed they had a number of homemade pie slices in a couple holders on the counter. The "special" board above the back soda bar touted the different types of pie and ice cream Goldie's had available that day. It was a slice of small town living that I certainly remembered when I was growing up.
Since I was the only one in there getting food at that point (the farmers had long gone, figuring the stranger wasn't anyone to trifle with), my breaded pork tenderloin showed up in just a bit over five minutes. The sandwich came out open-faced with a ton of pickles and a sliced red onion with a kosher dill spear on the side. I put a little mustard on the sandwich and I took a bite.
Now, I've had a number of breaded pork tenderloins over the year - I live in Iowa, for God's sake. Some are just thin and huge, hanging well over the bun and impossible to eat without a knife and fork. Those, I've found, are usually not that good. The ones that are just a bit bigger than the bun are usually the best. And that was the size of the Goldie's breaded pork tenderloin. The only problem was that their pork tenderloin sandwich was average, at best. I mean, it was good, but it certainly didn't open my eyes like the tenderloin at Augusta did when I tried it after they won the 2008 award. It was OK, but far from the best breaded pork tenderloin I've ever had.
I had to be honest. "It was good," I said. "But, I really can't say it was the best I ever had."
While I'm happy for Marilee and her son, I walked away from Goldie's thinking that if this was the best tenderloin in the state of Iowa for the year 2009 there had to be some pretty average places that were nominated. Still, Goldie's is a slice of small-town life where you can go and get a good sandwich at a reasonable price and know that it just isn't going to suck. But at the same time, it's not going to be "knock-your-socks-off" great. If you find yourself going by Prairie City during the middle part of the day, it won't hurt to stop in to Goldie's and get something to eat.
At one point in time, The Captain's Table in Moline was THE place to eat in the Quad Cities when it came to special occasions, impressing a date, or hosting a high profile business meal. Unfortunately, that was many years - and a few owners - ago. However, the current incarnation of The Captain's Table has been creating a little buzz, locally. For my birthday dinner a while back, Cindy and I decided to head over there to give the place a try.
It had been a long time since I was last in The Captain's Table. Cindy had been in more recently when she was there with the local chapter of the Blue Thong Society. She told me it was "OK to pretty good, but still nothing special." I'd read a couple of different things in the local papers about the place since it had been bought and re-opened last summer by Peter Harman, aka "The Food Guru", who owns (or has owned) restaurants in Iowa City, Davenport, Burlington, IA and Macomb, IL. Harman said his goal would be to bring back the classic menu that made The Captain's Table a stalwart in the Quad City restaurant scene for years.
The Captain's Table started in 1974 as a small steakhouse/supper club next to the Marquis Harbor on River Drive in Moline (see map). Local businessman Jim Sweet ran the marina and restaurant for years before selling the place in late 1990's to American Marine out of La Crosse, WI. The time between 1974 and 1998 were the golden years for the restaurant. Their steaks, chops, fresh seafood and especially their homemade clam chowder were part of the finest in upscale dining the area had to offer. The Captain's Table looked out over the marina and the Mississippi River and was a popular place for locals to dine in the summer, as well as in the winter. Cindy and I had many memorable meals at The Captain's Table during the years Jim Sweet was the owner.
After Jim Sweet sold the restaurant and marina, American Marine leased out the restaurant to a handful of people since then. I do know that the Heart of America group leased the restaurant for a while - the same people that own the popular Machine Shed restaurants that are found throughout the Midwest (and based in Moline). And that's about the time The Captain's Table began to go downhill. Service got bad, the menu changed drastically, the food was not very good, and the homey, welcoming feel the Sweet's had given to the place sort of dissipated. It was just another corporate-run restaurant with no soul.
Heart of America got out of their lease in 2003, but it was taken over by the chef of the restaurant, Mark Luciani. But by that time, any momentum the original Captain's Table had was pretty much gone. Luciani tried tinkering with the menu, but nothing seemed to bring the magic back. With a surge of finer restaurants in the area and the economic downturn in 2008, Luciani closed the restaurant in February of 2009.
American Marine then got into talks with Peter Harman to come over and revive the restaurant. Harman's group leased the restaurant and re-opened the place in July of 2009, not long after he had closed his Graze location in Davenport. Many of the employees from Graze went over to The Captain's Table. American Marine remains the owner of the place, and we were told Harman is more of a consultant who comes to the restaurant once or twice a week to meet with G.M. William Black who runs the day-to-day operations.
It was a beautiful evening, cool, yet clear, when we got to The Captain's Table. Since it was the middle of the week, we had no problem getting in. One thing that I'd noticed since my last visit, oh, maybe three years ago, was that they had put in a nice little outdoor patio with heavy metal chairs and tables that overlooks the harbor and the river. It was too cool to eat outdoors that evening, but there were a couple tables occupied with people having drinks, but dressed in heavier coats.
The original Captain's Table was a long, narrow dining room with huge booths that featured large windows that looked out toward the river. Before Sweet sold the place in the late 90's, he expanded the restaurant to include a large bar area that had a nautical theme to the place. There was also a little watchtower added to the place that allowed people to go up and get a better view of the upstream bend in the Mississippi River.
The original dining room has changed a little from the first time I visited the place nearly 19 years ago after I moved to the Quad Cities. It's more light in the place with white walls and ceilings versus the dark walls and ceilings of the original Captain's Table. The host that evening took us to one of the large window booths and gave us our menus to look over. There wasn't a lot of people in the restaurant and we noticed there was only one waitress working - Nancy, a pleasant 40-something lady who was working her butt off trying to keep up with the orders and requests.
I was still on a Hawaii hang-over and saw they had mai-tai's on their cocktail and wine menu. Nancy came to ask us what we wanted to drink and I told her that we were probably going to get a bottle of wine, but in the meantime I wanted a mai-tai. She went to get my mai-tai and I looked over the limited wine list The Captain's Table had to offer. I decided to get a bottle of the Frei Brothers merlot, a little over-priced at $36 bucks. I've seen the same wine at restaurants in larger cities at lower prices.
Nancy brought out the mai-tai and it was more fruity than boozy. Definitely not like what we had out in Hawaii. But as Cindy reminded me, "We're not in Hawaii. We're in Illinois!"
The host who seated us brought out the bottle of wine and opened it for us. I was actually looking for a hearty cabernet that evening, but they only had two on the menu. I sort of expressed my astonishment that they only had two cabs on the wine list. He said, "Our wine list is evolving. We feel we have about the best values in wine right now. The Louis Martini cabernet is very good." I had to disagree with him. I find the Louis Martini cab to be over-priced and over-rated. There's a number of better cabs at lower prices that they could choose from.
In fact, the original Captain's Table was where we were turned on to one of our favorite California wines, Judd's Hill. Cindy and I were treated to dinner at The Captain's Table about 14 years ago by Jeremy Burkhardt, the president and former owner of SpeakerCraft. That was back when The Captain's Table had a very extensive wine list. Jeremy was blown away when he saw Judd's Hill on the wine list and we had two bottles of their cabernet that evening. Cindy still talks about the night Jeremy took us to dinner at The Captain's Table because she got a little tipsy and Jeremy and I ended up closing down the new bar that evening drinking top shelf Scotch.
The menu was an interesting mix of beef, chicken, seafood and pork chops. Prime rib was available only on Friday and Saturday nights - the same as the original Captain's Table. The steaks were limited to a couple different sizes of tenderloin filets, a rib-eye and a strip steak dubbed "The El Cheapo". A strip steak sounded pretty good, but the name of it completely turned me off. It was the cheapest steak on the menu - $17.99, if you can call that cheap. But I was leery of how good of cut the "El Cheapo" would be. Plus, I couldn't bring myself to order the "El Cheapo" by name. Cindy said, "Just order it as the strip steak!"
"Yeah," I said. "But she'll probably come back and say, 'Oh, the El Cheapo?' And say it loud enough that the restaurant will know I'm a cheapskate!"
Cindy just laughed.
There were a number of seafood entrees on the menu. Cindy was definitely getting seafood that evening and the choices ranged from grilled shrimp, sauteed scallops, broiled salmon, baked haddock in a cheese sauce, herb encrusted sea bass, sesame seed seared ahi tuna, and their famous brown sugar salmon where they top the salmon with brown sugar and Boetje's mustard and bake it in the oven. However, the special that evening was sea bass bruschetta - their house-made bruschetta topped with grilled sea bass, then baked and finished with a garlic sauce. Cindy couldn't pass that up.
I went with the 9 oz. filet with a side of bearnaise sauce. We also decided to get a side of The Captain's Table's own macaroni and cheese. We also got a Captain's Salad that featured mixed greens, tomatoes, onions, provolone cheese, parmesan and topped with their house vinaigrette that is served family style at the table. In addition to all that, we also decided to give a couple of their soups a try. I ordered the gumbo and Cindy got the clam chowder.
There was a point in time when the Quad Cities would rival New England for the quality of their clam chowder. about four or five restaurants in the area had some world-class clam chowder. I had a guy I used to work for back in the 80's who visited the Boston area many times (and ended up moving there) and who used to travel to the Quad Cities for business before I joined his firm. He once told me, "I don't know what it is, but the clam chowder in the Quad Cities is on par with some of the chowder that I've had in New England." It was very good. And "was" is the operative term, here.
Since the original Captain's Table was sold by Jim Sweet, a few other fine dining restaurants in the area went out of business. All of them had great clam chowder. Jim Sweet and his son eventually bought a place on the Davenport riverfront called The Boat House, not far from where we live (and a place we occasionally go to, but the prices are high and the value is not that great), and their clam chowder was revived there. Sweet has since sold The Boat House and the clam chowder is definitely not the same as it was when the Sweet's were involved.
And the present day clam chowder at The Captain's Table is just OK. Cindy had it the time she was there with the Blue Thong Society and she said it was better than what the previous incarnation of The Captain's Table had to offer. But it still wasn't like the clam chowder in the hey-day of Jim Sweet's ownership.
My gumbo, too, was just OK. It really wasn't anything special and I had to put a bunch of Tabasco into it to kick it up a notch in the heat scale. While it was thick and there were large chunks of andouille sausage, tomatoes, okra and other stuff, I've made better gumbo at home.
Nancy brought out our salad in a large bowl that looked more like a center piece presentation than something you'd want to eat. There were four cherry tomatoes that were equally spaced on top with shaved provolone and parmesan sprinkled on top. And for a weird effect, they placed cheese-flavored Goldfish crackers on top. I don't like Goldfish cheese crackers on their own, why would I like them on a salad? I had a couple bites of the salad with them on top, but knocked them off after I found the taste to be distracting. The house-made vinaigrette was also OK, nothing special at all.
Our main entrees soon arrived. My 9 oz filet was a generous 9 ounces, I'll tell you that. It was a thick cut of tenderloin and quick possibly more toward 12 to 14 ounces in size. It was cooked a perfect rare for me.
(Here is a back story with rare steak at The Captain's Table just after Heart of America took over the restaurant. About 12 years ago, I was traveling with Frank Sterns who was the VP for Sales at Niles Audio, a prestigious custom audio/video company based out of Miami. It was my first trip with him and I was trying to impress him. So, I took him to The Captain's Table and Frank ordered a New York strip, rare. The waitress brought it out and it was cooked medium-well. Frank asked to send the steak back and the waitress left with his steak. She came back out and said, "We're all out of New York strips." He asked for a filet. She said, "We're out of filets, too." She said they had rib-eyes, but he wanted something lean. I was embarrassed to no end that evening. I had never had any problem with The Captain's Table at anytime and the night was a disaster.)
The bearnaise sauce they served on the side (you better ask for it that way or they'll serve it over the filet) was pedestrian and bland. It didn't do anything to enhance the taste of the meat. The steak, on its own, was juicy, tender and tasty. You really don't need the bearnaise sauce on it.
Cindy's sea bass bruschetta was very, very good. She gave me a bite of it and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the taste. It had a wonderful garlic finish to the taste and the brushetta was also very good. While I was happy with my steak alone, Cindy was overly happy with her sea bass.
The mac and cheese side that we got was sort of like the bearnaise sauce - bland and lifeless. The dish was very cheesy, but there was no taste sensation to the cheese. I think we both had a couple bites and decided to just concentrate on our main entrees.
After we finished our dinners, Nancy tried to tempt us with The Captain's Table's desserts including a coconut key lime pie, their homemade cheesecake with triple berry sauce, an angel food cake parfait with the same triple berry sauce, and a chocolate brownie sundae. The cheesecake was tempting, but between the gumbo, salad, steak and a couple bites of the mac and cheese, I was done. We asked for our bill and lingered a bit to finish our wine and savor our meal.
There were some things very good about The Captain's Table - our entrees were very good and Nancy's service was also very efficient, considering she was the only one working the dining room that evening. The salad was OK, as was the gumbo and clam chowder. The mac and cheese was bland and disappointing. And the wine list was also very disappointing. But with the great view of the river, the over-sized booths with large wooden tables, and a history of providing good food - most of the time - since the 70's, The Captain's Table rated as slightly above average in my book. While I do give Harman some points in trying to capture the former allure of the original Captain's Table during Jim Sweet's era, he'll still have a long way to go to achieve just that.
A couple years ago, I took my dealer in Fargo out to dinner at Rescan, a wonderful Italian restaurant in the hip downtown area. Before we went out to dinner, we met his wife for drinks at a place called the Silver Moon Supper Club - an upscale supper club that had opened just a couple weeks before. I told him that at some point I wanted to take him out for dinner at the Silver Moon. On my annual trip to Fargo this past summer, I did just that.
Monte Jones was a North Dakota farm boy who was obviously out of place in the upper plains. After graduating from high school, he took off for New York City and became a dancer and choreographer. After living in New York City for nearly 30 years, Monte moved back to Fargo, sensing a change in the attitudes of the city. With Fargo being a small, yet somewhat cosmopolitan city in the middle of nowhere, Jones opened up a fine dining establishment called Monte's Downtown. It was a big hit with the well-to-do locals and the people who came into town to do business.
Let's go back to the 1940's. That's when a supper club by the name of the Silver Moon opened in Moorhead, MN, just across the Red River of the North from Fargo. From the early 40's until 1969, the Silver Moon was a grand old-style supper club - the kind of place where people would go for special dinners. Monte Jones' mother used to work in the Silver Moon when he was growing up. Jones and his partner, Jerry Erbstoesser, decided to open an extravagant supper club in downtown Fargo based in part on the old Silver Moon in Moorhead.
The building that houses the Silver Moon was originally built in 1917 for a company that used the four floors and the basement as a warehouse for dry goods including clothing, linens, sheets, blankets and bedspreads. The building was a warehouse for nearly 70 years before the space was no longer useful. The building languished for about 20 years used for various things before a group of investors bought the space in 2007 turning the upper floors into loft residencies and allowing Jones and Erbstoesser to put the Silver Moon Supper Club on the main floor.
Jones and Erbstoesser envisioned a retro-styled restaurant, full of art deco and art moderne touches including clam shell booths, a water wall and a private eating area called Salon Privé. They enlisted the help of Chef Josh Smith to come up with an interesting and varied menu - one that changes seasonally based upon locally grown foods found in the area. Because of that concept, the Silver Moon's menu changes constantly and there's always bound to be something different to eat each time you go to the place.
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived into Fargo. My dealer and his people were out working on a job site and were running late. I ended up at a place for a couple three beers before he joined me after getting cleaned up. We sat and talked business for a little while before we decided to head over to the Silver Moon on Roberts Street (see map). My dealer's wife had been planning on joining us for dinner as were his two workers, but none of them were there when we showed up at 8 p.m.
My dealer and I had a drink at the bar - a nice little modern style U-shaped bar with the bartender in a vest and black tie. The owner, Monte Jones, whom I'd met on my previous visit to the place, came over to greet my dealer, whose wife and he are regular visitors to both the Silver Moon and to Monte's. My dealer reintroduced me to Monte and I told him that I was looking forward to dinner that evening.
One of my dealer's workers showed up about 8:30 and his wife finally showed about 10 minutes later. The third worker had called and begged off saying that he was too tired to come out to dinner. I told my dealer, "Man, you must have worked him pretty hard!"
My dealer said, "Oh, we were running wire in attic and crawl spaces today. It was brutally hot in some of those spaces."
The four of us sat at one of the Silver Moon's signature clam shell booths. Personally, I don't care for booths like that - it's like you're on display for the rest of the restaurant, watching you eat and carry on in conversation. But it was late in the evening and only a handful of people were in the restaurant.
The Silver Moon also usually has someone in playing the baby grand piano that's up on a little riser in the main dining area. But that night it sat silent. When my dealer's wife inquired about that with Monte, he said that during the summer months he's been only having someone come in during the weekends. "When the schools get back in session this fall (North Dakota State University and Minnesota State - Moorhead), we'll get our regular group of players to come back in."
Our waitress came out and gave us menus. I also ordered up a bottle of wine - and I have to admit that things get very fuzzy from here on out. I'd had a few beers before we showed up to the restaurant, then a couple more while we were waiting. I usually go back to the room and make notes of what we had to eat or drink at the restaurant, but I didn't get back to my hotel until 11:30 p.m. and I had a 5 a.m. wake-up call for a 7 a.m. flight out of Fargo that morning. I immediately went to bed.
So, I can't remember what kind of wine we got, but I do know it was red. But I was the only one going to have beef that night - everyone else went with a seafood entree. The night before in Dickinson, I broke up my two night streak of having steaks, going with some chicken dish at an Applebee's when I took my dealer and his crew out for dinner. (My Dickinson dealer closes his doors at 9 p.m. and anything close to a fine dining restaurant in Dickinson closes at 9 p.m. - that's why we ate at Applebee's.)
Three courses came with the dinner - salad, main entree and a dessert. I ended up getting the Silver Moon's New York strip - rare - with a side of garlic mashed potatoes. As I said, my guests all got seafood. I do remember that my dealer got the shrimp and risotto entree, but I can't for the life remember what the other two got.
The presentation at the Silver Moon is very good. My steak was resting on a bed of asparagus spears with a small grilled onion slice on top. From what I remember about the meal, it was very good. Our waitress was also very good, she had a great sense of humor and took care of us very well.
After dinner, our waitress came around and showed us the dessert menu. Something caught my eye on the dessert menu - the after dinner drinks. And for $15 bucks they had a three-Scotch flight of drinks - the Macallan 12 year; the Macallan 15 year aged in fine oak barrels; and the 18 year Highland Park. Now, I really have to tell you that at that point in the evening - close to 11 p.m. - I certainly didn't need that. But for $15 bucks to have all three fine Scotch whiskeys I really couldn't pass it up. I ended up passing on getting dessert and got the Scotch instead. Let me tell you, I was feeling no pain at that point, but lingered a little longer in the shower the next morning after my 5 a.m. wake up call at the hotel.
So, from what I remember about the Silver Moon Supper Club - my steak was very good, the service was wonderful, whatever wine we had was very good, Monte Jones was a great host and the Scotch at the end of the night - which I didn't need, but had anyway - was a nice closer to the evening. I wish I could get up to Fargo more often, but being that it's a nine hour drive - minimum - and a 3.5 hour plane trip (with a stop at Minneapolis-St. Paul to change planes), I just can't get up there as much. But the way the economy in North Dakota is going, there's business to be had and I may be getting up there more often than once a year. That way I can go back to places like The Silver Moon Supper Club and hopefully remember more about my meal.
(Update - It wasn't long after my entry about the Silver Moon that Monte Jones shut the place down. I know a lot of people were unhappy about his decision. It was actually a cool place and one that would have worked well in a much larger metro area, but maybe not so much in Fargo.)
I had set up a morning appointment with a dealer in Minot, ND and arrived the evening before. I stayed at a Fairfield Inn on the outskirts of the town and the choices for restaurants in the immediate area were limited to chains, such as Buffalo Wings and Rings - a knock-off of Buffalo Wild Wings; and Paradiso - a North Dakota five-location chain of Mexican restaurants. I asked the young lady at the front desk of the Fairfield Inn where I could get a really good meal in town. She didn't hesitate and replied, "Oh, you'll want to go to 10 North Main. It's downtown and it's very good. It's, by far, the best restaurant for miles around." She gave me quick directions and I took off toward downtown Minot.
Even beyond the restaurants around the hotel, there's not much to choose from in Minot. And that's probably why four guys who grew up in Minot chose to open a fine dining establishment in town. Friends Chad Schmidt, Jon Peterson, Josh Duhamel and Lance Behm opened the restaurant in January of 2005. Schmidt is the managing partner of the restaurant while Peterson is the chef. Behm is a local Minot dentist and Duhamel, well, he's a somewhat famous Hollywood actor.
Josh Duhamel (pronounced Duh-MEL) grew up in Minot and has starred in the movie "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!" (he played Tad Hamilton), as well as in both of the Transformers movies (a third Transformers movie is coming out next year). For four seasons, Duhamel was also seen on the television drama "Las Vegas". But he's possibly most famous as being the husband of Stacy Ferguson, a.k.a. "Fergie" who fronted the group "The Black Eyed Peas". I understand that Duhamel and Fergie make it back to Minot from time to time (I believe his parents - his father was an advertising salesman and his mother was a teacher - still live in town) and dine at 10 North Main when in town. As one of my dealers in North Dakota told me, "I can't believe a guy from North Dakota married Fergie!"
"Good Food and Nice Drinks" is the motto for 10 North Main. It's situated in a building - at 10 North Main, naturally - just across from the Soo Line Train and Transportation Museum in downtown Minot (see map). The exterior of the building is a mixture of brick, stained glass windows on the first level and large tinted windows that light up the second level of the restaurants.
It was just after 8 p.m. on a warm North Dakota evening when I stopped into 10 North Main. Two 20-something girls were at the hostess stand and I remarked to them, "I understand this is the best restaurant in Minot."
They sort of looked at one of another and one of the girls said, "Well, yeah, I guess so." It was not quite the ringing endorsement I expected to hear after my statement. One of the girls took me to a two-seat table along a short wall and dropped off a menu. My waitress for the evening, Anna - a cherub-faced young lady with pig tails in her hair - came by to greet me. If someone were to say, "Show me a typical, wholesome North Dakota girl", Anna would be the one. I told her that I would probably have some wine with dinner, but for the time being I really needed a Bud Light. Well, actually, I needed two. It had been a long drive out to Minot from Grand Forks.
The interior of the restaurant was warm and inviting giving it a very laid back feel to the place. The dining room was segmented into three areas - I sat in the middle area - and there was a small bar area in the front corner of the restaurant with one of the stained glass windows helping provide light to the bar. I'm not good at describing furnishings, but the place sort of had a contemporary antique look to it - if there is such a thing.
The menu at 10 North Main was an interesting mix of beef, pasta dishes, smoked entrees including smoked duck and smoked pheasant, and a handful of both seafood and fresh water fish entrees to choose from. I was hoping the food would be as good as the menu was making it sound.
Anna came back and told me that they were out of prime rib for the evening - that was fine, I wasn't going to do prime rib - and she told me of a couple specials that I immediately lost interest in. I told her that I needed a little time to look through the menu and she went to wait on other people. I was looking at a couple three items on the menu. First on my list of interest was the bison New York strip - a 12 oz. lean piece of North Dakota-raised bison, seasoned and grilled over white oak wood. But I'd had a steak the night before at The Toasted Frog in Grand Forks and I wasn't certain I wanted steak two nights in a row.
I was also looking at getting a half rack of the smoked baby-back ribs at 10 North Main. The menu said they topped the ribs with a homemade "sweet and snarky" barbecue sauce. I was tempted to find out what sweet and snarky tasted like. Lastly, I thought briefly about getting the Chilean sea bass - a sauteed sea bass filet served with asparagus. But thinking that it's a long way from Chile to Minot, ND, I decided to stay local.
Anna came back and I told her that I wanted to start out with 10 North Main's caprese salad, then I had to quickly decide between the bison strip steak or the ribs. If it's cooked right, bison steaks are pretty damn good. I was hoping that would be the case and I ordered the bison steak - rare. A side of garlic-mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley also came with the steak.
I asked Anna to leave the wine list as I was probably going to get a glass of wine or two with my meal. The wine list was surprising featuring dozens of very good wines at somewhat reasonable prices. Also surprising was the amount of wines they featured by the glass. A full bottle of the Liberty School cabernet was $25 dollars, a fair price for a good-valued wine that we like to drink at home from time to time. I knew I couldn't drink a full bottle of wine, but one of the many wines by the glass they featured at 10 North Main was the Liberty School cab for $7.00. When Anna came back with my caprese salad and a basket of bread, I told her that I'd like a glass of that. "Good choice," she said as she scribbled down my wine order.
The caprese salad was good, but not quite as good as the one I had in Grand Forks the night before. The tomatoes weren't as ripened as the one at The Toasted Frog, but 10 North Main's caprese salad had a hefty amount of fresh basil on top and a lot more mozzarella cheese than the one from Grand Forks. The fresh basil and wonderful mozzarella more than made up for the under-ripened tomatoes.
I do also want to mention the homemade bread with the garlic/parmesan butter at 10 North Main. Outstanding! I made short work of the two pieces Anna had brought out with the salad and was afraid to get more because I didn't want to be eating bread instead of my steak. Actually, what was more addicting was the garlic/parmesan butter. I slathered both pieces with the butter and happily wolfed it down.
Not long after I finished my caprese salad, Anna brought out my steak. I thought it looked sort of small for a 12 oz. steak, but there wasn't really anything I could do about it. I was also afraid that it was over-cooked from the char-marks on the outside. But I cut into the steak and it was definitely rare.
I'm glad I got the bison strip because after the bad cut of meat I had at The Toasted Frog the night before I needed a good piece of beef to make things right in my world. And it was a great piece of meat - tender, lean and about as juicy as a piece of bison can be. The seasoning on the steak was sort of a mixture of salt, garlic, pepper and some other spices. It worked well with the taste of the meat.
The garlic mashed potatoes were OK, nothing really special to get excited about. I had a couple bites of potatoes and a couple bites of the vegetable medley. The medley of sliced carrots, zucchini, broccoli and cauliflower were cooked just right - warm, yet with a crunch with each bite.
I was thoroughly impressed with my meal at 10 North Main. This is a restaurant that could easily hold it's own in a much larger city. I'm hoping that the people in Minot know just how good this place is and don't take it for granted. In a city full of buffet and family restaurants, along with fast food and regional chain establishments, 10 North Main stands out as being one of the best restaurants in not only the city of Minot, but in the whole state of North Dakota.
Earlier this summer, I took my annual trip to North Dakota to see some of our regular dealers and to interview some potential dealers in some towns I had not been to before. One of those towns was Grand Forks. I flew into Fargo, then drove a rental car to spend the night there.
The city of Grand Forks is a quiet little Upper Plains community of about 60,000 with another 30,000 people living in the greater Grand Forks/E. Grand Forks, MN area. It's home to the University of North Dakota, a surprisingly wonderful little campus of about 12,000 students. I had a chance to drive around the town to take in the sights. From what I understand, the town has changed dramatically over the past few years.
In April and May of 1997, Grand Forks went through a horrific flood that forced the evacuation of over 90% of their residents. The Red River of the North, fed by an abundance of snow melt in South Dakota, Minnesota and southern North Dakota, flooded five feet over forecasts sending tons of water over makeshift dams and levees that were built to hold back the water. A fire triggered by a natural gas leak laid waste to entire blocks of downtown buildings. After the flood waters receded in May, Grand Forks looked like a war zone with burnt out buildings, deserted homes and a thick muck of mud left over from the flooding.
Amazingly, the downtown area has come back strong with new buildings, parkways and housing. Some buildings were refurbished from their former shells and, quite honestly, it looks like nothing really happened there. But there are high water marks at various places around the downtown area showing where the Red River had gotten up to. Some marks are between 12 to 15 feet above the ground.
With that said, a handful of restaurants have popped up in downtown Grand Forks. One such restaurant, Sanders 1907, I was told was one of the top restaurants - if not THE top restaurant - in the state of North Dakota. Well, of course, I've had bad luck with picking my restaurants this summer and as I pulled up in front of Sanders 1907, I found it was closed. (They're closed on Mondays.) Oh well...
There was a pizza place just around the corner - Rhombus Guys - but it was a small place with a lot of people inside. I didn't think I really wanted a pizza in North Dakota all that much, either. I drove around the downtown area for a bit and I drove past another place that looked interesting - The Toasted Frog. I parked just down the street and made my way into the restaurant.
Located on N. 3rd St. (see map), The Toasted Frog is situated in a building that was originally built during the late 19th century and has housed a number of businesses over the years. After the downtown was renovated, the building stood empty for a few years until it was purchased by Grand Forks natives Jon Holth and Shawn Clapp. Clapp and Holth both had extensive experience in the restaurant business - both had worked at Sanders 1907 and then had ventured up the Red River (the Red River flows from south to north) to Fargo where they managed the restaurant and lounge at the Hotel Donaldson, a high-end boutique hotel in the downtown area of Fargo. Clapp and Holth opened The Toasted Frog in May of 2006 and as of this summer they were looking to open a second location in Bismarck.
The menu at The Toasted Frog is pretty eclectic including steaks, seafood and Asian-style spare ribs. They have some interesting sandwiches such as the open-faced pheasant melt and the Moroccan-spiced lamb burger. The restaurant also offers a number of wood-fired pizzas on their menu. They also have something like lavosh- thin-rolled flat bread that they fill with interesting concoctions such as pheasant confit, a lavosh with a combination of different types of seafood such as shrimp, crab meat and scallops along with some vegetables, and a spinach and havarti cheese lavosh.
The restaurant features a dining room with exposed brick walls with a number of high tables in the middle with lower tables along the wall. Large windows and contemporary industrial lights hanging from the ceiling allow for an abundance of light to filter into the room. The exposed kitchen area is in the far back of the restaurant. You could easily see the chef and assistants laboring over the grill. The bar area is off to the side just as you walk into The Toasted Frog. It had about eight to ten seats and a flat-screen television had ESPN on. I decided to sit at the bar and enjoy my meal there.
In addition to a number of top-shelf vodka, bourbon and Scotch they had on the shelf at The Toasted Frog, they also had a pretty extensive and impressive wine list. I looked through it for a bit, but decided that I really wanted to drink beer that evening. Surprisingly, they had Bell's Two Hearted Ale on tap. I didn't know that Bell's came as far west as North Dakota. I ordered up one of those from the amiable bartender while I perused the menu.
One of the first things that jumped out at me on the menu were the fish tacos. I'd had a lot of fish tacos at a number of restaurants this summer and I don't want to say that I was burnt out on them. But I was sort of leery of getting fish tacos in Grand Forks, ND considering they were made from grilled mahi mahi. Now, grilled walleye fish tacos may have gotten more of my attention.
The bartender came over and said that their feature entree that evening was their New York strip steak, marinated in garlic oil and rosemary herbs. I had been looking at that on the menu, as well. I asked him about the fish tacos and he said, "Oh, they're very good. They're one of our top items on the menu."
Well, I was torn between the steak and the fish tacos. I decided to go with the geographic rule on this one - we're closer to beef lots in North Dakota than we are the sea. I went with the steak - rare. I also noticed they had a caprice salad on the menu and I ordered that, as well.
The caprice salad was absolutely wonderful. The tomatoes were overly ripe and meaty. The basil was fresh and the red onion slices were very forward and pungent. I have to say the caprice salad was one of the better ones I've ever had - including some from much larger and more prestigious restaurants.
A waiter brought my steak to the bar and it looked pretty good. It was a large strip steak (14 oz.) resting on a bed of broccolini. Wasabi and garlic mashed potatoes were off to the side. The outside of the steak was charred and I was a little skeptical if it were truly rare. But I cut into it and it was a wonderful cool red in the middle.
The only problem was that the steak was overly gristled. I had trouble finding parts of the steak that didn't have a full piece of gristle in the bite. I would say a good third of the steak was full of gristle. Sometimes you get a steak that isn't a good cut of meat. My number came up that night. What I could eat of the steak, it was very good, however.
The wasabi and garlic mashed potatoes were good, but I couldn't really get much of either a wasabi or a garlic taste to them. The broccolini were cooked spot on, still having a little crunch to the stalks.
The bartender asked how my steak was and I told him that it was full of gristle. He sort of cringed and said, "Well, that's no good. Do you want me to get you another steak?"
I told him that wasn't necessary. At $22 bucks, the steak was a bargain. So he told me he'd buy a couple beers for me. That was nice, considering the beers were $3.75 a glass. But looking back, I should have gotten the fish tacos.
I dawdled at the bar after dinner watching a ball game on ESPN and having a couple more Bell's Two Hearted Ales. The dining room had begun to empty out and I was the only person at the bar. The bartender did a good job of taking care of me that evening and he got a nice tip.
Other than the steak being full of gristle, I had a good meal and a good dining experience at The Toasted Frog. Each time I've had to change plans while looking for restaurants this summer that were either closed for the evening, burned down or gone out of business, Plan B or even Plan C has turned out to be a good choice. I was glad to come across The Toasted Frog. It was a surprisingly good place and one that I would think would work well in larger metro areas.
Trying to impress a potential custom audio/video dealer in the Kansas City area earlier this summer, we agreed on dinner for four of his staff at Bristol Seafood Grill in suburban Leawood, KS (see map). I'd eaten at the Bristol location in St. Louis a number of years ago and I do remember it as being very good. I was sort of surprised to see one in suburban Kansas City and wondered if it were part of the same family as the one in St. Louis.
Yep, it sure is. In fact, there are four Bristol Seafood Grill's these days - the one in the Creve Coeur area of St. Louis, a location in the far western St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon, one in downtown Kansas City in the new Power and Light District near the Sprint Center, and the one we went to located in the Town Center Plaza in Leawood. The original Bristol Seafood Grill location was in the Country Club Plaza of Kansas City, but that closed up in 1995 (more on that later).
The four Bristol locations are owned by the Houlihan's corporation, the Kansas City-based restaurant chain with 97 locations in 20 states that had been in and out of financial trouble in the late 90's and right after the turn of the century. In addition to the Bristol and Houlihan's restaurants under their corporate umbrella, the restaurant company also owns J. Gilberts, a very good Kansas City-area steakhouse that I wrote about here; the Devon Seafood Grill with locations in Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Hershey, PA; the Braxton Seafood Grill in the Oak Brook Center in suburban Chicago; and Chequers Seafood Grill in Atlanta. The Devon, Braxton and Chequers Seafood Grills all have the same concept and theme as the Bristol Seafood restaurants.
Like the others, the Bristol Seafood Grill is more of an upscale casual restaurant. The bar area is usually full of people and can get very loud at times, while the dining area is more subdued with sturdy chairs and heavy tables covered with white linen. The executive chef of the Leawood location is Dan Uche, overseeing a staff that makes a number of delectable items to choose from.
A couple of the people were late for our 6 p.m. meeting - one was having car trouble, the other - the owner - was still on a job site. I sat down with two of the people who I'd known for years and years from working in the audio/video industry, catching up on old times. The person with car trouble showed up about 6:30 and we were still waiting on the owner. We decided to order a couple appetizers - Bristol's tuna sushi rolls and a double order of their famous crab cakes. Our waiter, who was a very agreeable fellow, was already getting high marks for his sense of humor and his attentive nature.
The center piece of the dining room was this wonderful stained glass dome that was situated right over the top of the room. I was told that the glass dome was in the original Bristol restaurant in the Plaza area of Kansas City, but that restaurant shut down in 1995 because of a dispute with the then landlord of the property. When they decided to build a location in Leawood in 2006, they actually pulled the dome off the old building, crated it up and then helicoptered the crate out to the Leawood location where it was put on top of the existing building. The light filtering through the stained glass dome gave the main dining area a nice warm glow.
It fully appeared the owner was knee-deep in his work, but did tell one of the people that he'd be there as soon as he could, even if it were just to drop by for a bit. And the person with car trouble said that he'd probably only be able to stay for a drink and some appetizers as he needed to attend to his automotive problems. The other two guests and I decided to just to go ahead and order up our food and worry about getting something for the owner a little later on.
Our appetizers showed up at the table and the tuna sushi rolls was just excellent. The crab cakes were large and rich - one of my guests said, "I usually order a double order of them for dinner, they're so good."
And they're filling! I ate one and I thought there would be no way I could eat a double order of these!
The guest with the car trouble excused himself to leave, and one of the others made a quick call to see where the boss was. He was still more than an hour away from leaving and it would have still been a 45 minute drive to the Bristol. He told us to go ahead and order something and he'd worry about getting something when he got there.
The menu at Bristol Seafood Grill is very extensive with fresh fish, steaks, pasta and even their rendition of a shrimp enchilada. There were a couple nightly specials, but I was sort of looking at the Big Eye tuna from Hawaii. Usually, the Bristol's seafood selections are cooked over a mesquite flame, but our waiter had a blackened cajun special that evening. I asked him if I could get the Big Eye tuna rare, but blackened and he said, "We can do anything you like with it, sir!"
I said, "Could you take it out back and drag it through the parking lot, then slam it against the building a couple times?"
The waiter feigned indignation. "Our seafood is already handled roughly, sir! That's what makes it so tender!" He was a great guy. I got mashed sweet potatoes and a vegetable medley for my sides.
One of the guests order the seared scallops served with a lemon-asparagus risotto. And the other person ordered the swordfish special along with roasted yellow russet potatoes and asparagus.
The Bristol's wine list is also pretty extensive with a number of very good wines from a number of vineyards from the Pacific Coast, Australia, New Zealand, France and Italy. Since everyone was having seafood, I went with a bottle of the Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc from 2008, a light and dry wine that I particularly love with seafood. I thought it to be a little over priced at $46 bucks, however. But Bristol was an upscale place and the entrees weren't all that cheap either.
After talking a little shop and going over some things about their business for a little bit, our entrees showed up at the table. My blackened Big Eye tuna had a nice sear around the edges, topped with a generous amount of Cajun seasonings. My knife went easily through the fish and from the first bite I was in heaven. The combination of the spicy seasonings and the freshness of the fish set off a party on my taste buds. It was absolutely fabulous. And very surprising, considering the great seafood dishes I had in Hawaii. The fish I had at Bristol that night easily beat one or two where I had seafood in Hawaii.
My one guest said his scallops were very good, as well. "I usually get the double order of crab cakes, but I wanted to try something else tonight. These are great."
My other guest was fully satisfied with her swordfish. "I don't know how they get the fish so fresh here in Kansas City," she said. "But I've never had a bad meal at Bristol."
Toward the end of dinner, one of my guest's cellphone rang. It was the boss, he was on his way and would be there in 20 minutes. We ordered up an order of crab cakes and a salad for him so he'd have it as soon as he walked in.
He did come in about 25 minutes later, apologizing profusely for missing a good portion of the evening. But I fully understood. He had a big job that he needed to complete for a client and even if that meant skipping out on the dinner meeting, so be it. But we talked business as he ate his salad and crab cakes. And that continued well into the evening and up to the time that Bristol was getting ready to close at 10 p.m.
Although nothing was finalized or agreed upon that evening, I think the meeting went about as well as it could have considering the circumstances. But I will say the meal at Bristol Seafood Grill was just excellent. I remember it being good when I first ate at the one in St. Louis over 20 years ago. My blackened Big Eye tuna was just stellar and the service was outstanding. I gave the waiter a little extra tip as we basically rented a table for six for the night with only three people sitting at it most of the evening.
Before we left, the general manager - Phil - came over to see how the evening was. I told him that it was one of the more pleasurable dining experiences in my travels. He told us to come back and see them again.
I'm hoping to land this dealer in the Kansas City area because they're located not far from the Bristol Seafood Grill. And I wouldn't mind going back there again at some point.
On a recent visit to Minneapolis, I was up for some Mexican food one evening. Being out on the South side of town, I decided to try one of my all-time favorite Mexican restaurants, Tejas. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be shut down! I'm not having too much luck with restaurants this summer! Turns out Tejas shut down at the end of 2009 when the owner's lease ran out and the landlord was going to be jacking up the rent significantly.
I ended up going somewhere else that evening, but the next night I still had a hankering for Mexican food. I was going to head over Pepitos, a pretty good Mexican restaurant that I've visited a couple of times in the past. I was heading up Nicollet Ave. heading toward Pepitos when a large sign in a small strip mall on the Northwest side of the corner of W 66th and Nicollet caught my eye - El Tejaban (see map). It looked interesting enough that it made me turn around and go back to check it out.
El Tejaban (which roughly translates into "Mexican Hut" in English) has been in business since 2008 when the current owners bought the long time Morelos restaurant at the same location in what is officially Richfield. El Tejaban's signature items on their menu are made in authentic Mexican molcajete's - authentic serving bowls that date back to the Aztecs and are used primarily to grind spices, to make salsa or guacamole in, or as a bowl to served fresh made Mexican dishes.
The interior of El Tejaban is similar to a lot of Mexican restaurants, but was full of authentic Mexican artwork and a handful of antiques. It was well lit, but was shy on customers the night I was in. I was able to get a booth in the main dining area right away. The bar area in the back has a large neon sign above it that signifies it as a "Tequila Bar". I was given a menu and began to look through it.
In addition to mocajete's, El Tejaban has the usual Mexican fare with a nice authentic touch to the food. They feature a number of specials for both drink and food through the week. That night I was lucky - it was two for one margaritas that evening.
The one thing that I also noticed about El Tejaban's very extensive menu of authentic Mexican food was that they didn't offer many combination dishes. I wanted to try a couple three things on the menu, but they were generally full dinners. Their "ala carte" selections weren't overly extensive, but I knew I'd be able to find something.
A young man brought out a basket of chips and two different types of salsa. There was a regular tomato-based salsa, but the other one was rather intriguing. It was sort of an orange color and had some spices that I really couldn't put my finger on as to what they were. But I have to say it was very good - a very pleasurable taste sensation that I don't think I'd ever had before. The orange salsa was so good I was afraid I'd fill up on that and some chips before my main entree showed up.
A good sign about El Tejaban was that I appeared to be the only Anglo in the place. A family in the booth next to me was speaking in Spanish and I heard the waiter greet some new customers in Spanish, as well. I've learned long ago that if there are more Hispanic's in a Mexican restaurant, it must be very authentic.
I finally did find something on the menu that appealed to me - well, actually, a lot of stuff appealed to me, but I was looking for a sampler of things to try. I did find a combination on the menu of a beef chile relleno, a beef enchilada with a green chile sauce and a beef taco. For good measure, I ended up getting a pork taco ala carte.
One of the good things about the 2 for 1 margaritas at El Tejaban, the waiter brought them out one at a time. The first one was pretty damn good - it had been a long day. It went down rather quickly and he brought the second one out. By the time I had that one down, my food came out. I signed up for another 2 for 1 special on the margaritas.
The first thing that caught my eye were the large portions El Tejaban offers. The chile relleno was very big and was drizzled with a chipotle cheese topping. The enchilada had an abundance of a homemade green chile sauce and was topped with a small red onion ring. And both the beef and pork tacos were over flowing with meat, cheese, chopped lettuce and chopped tomatoes. The presentation looked scrumptious. I tried a little bit of both the orange and the regular tomato salsa on the tacos. I would love to get the recipe for that orange colored salsa at El Tejaban.
There was no way that I was going to be able to finish the whole meal, but I made a significant dent into the portions. The chile relleno was a pleasant surprise in that it was stuffed with beef and cheese - most Mexican restaurants I've encountered just do a cheese-stuffed chile relleno. I really liked the beef and cheese chile relleno at El Tejaban - it reminded me of the old Raul's restaurant in Des Moines. Raul's had the absolute best chile rellenos stuffed with beef and cheese, dipped in an egg batter and deep-fried to a golden brown. The chile rellenos at El Tejaban were very similar.
The pork was a little overcooked on the pork taco, but both the beef enchilada and the beef taco were very good. I especially liked the green chile sauce - very flavorful and I laid waste to the chile relleno and the enchilada, eating about half each of the tacos. Between the food, the chips and now up to my fourth margarita at El Tejaban, I was stuffed!
Overall, I was thoroughly happy with my food and my experience at El Tejaban. I was pleasantly surprised to find the place and I was happy that I took a chance on a place that I had no idea what I was getting into. It just looked inviting to me as I drove by. The service was good, the food was very authentic and very good, and I certainly dug the 2 for 1 margaritas. El Tejaban goes on the list for good Minneapolis Mexican restaurants.
Update - Sept. 2015 - El Tejaban moved across the street in 2014 from their original location. It's now on the east side of Nicollet just north of 66th Street. (see map) The same sign that was on the other building adorns the front of their new location and the dining area is open, festive and well-lit. The food is still as good as it ever was.
What I call Des Moines style tacos are unique in that a handful of local places over the years will deep fry the flour tortilla shell giving it a fluffy and somewhat crunchy contour. Some places would actually roll the beef and into the shell and pop it down in a fryer for about 15 to 20 seconds. Unfortunately two of my favorite places that used to do their tacos that way - Lil' Nips Taco Village and Raul's - are long out of business. However, there is one establishment in Des Moines that still deep fries the flour tortillas - Tasty Tacos.
Tasty Tacos began in 1961 in what is described as a little "hole-in-the-wall" location in Des Moines. Richard and Antonia Mosqueda built the business from their first location into now five locations around the greater Des Moines area. A sixth location is expected to open in north suburban Ankeny this summer. The Mosqueda family is still involved with the business. Rick Mosqueda is the overall manager of the business, but is also well known in the Des Moines area as being a drummer for a number of blues-style bands over the years. Rick's brother, Andre, is a long-time disc-jockey who has his own local blues show on a local radio station in Des Moines. The food at Tasty Tacos is not very different from the time I first visited one of their places nearly 30 years ago.
I got into Des Moines late one evening and was looking for something quick before I checked into my hotel near the Des Moines Airport. I immediately thought about the Tasty Taco location on SE 14th St., a couple three miles east of where I was staying (see map). It was just before 9 p.m. when I pulled into the place. A worker was mopping the floor in part of the restaurant and a younger couple was enjoying their food toward the back of the place.
I knew exactly what I wanted when I got to the front counter and looked up at the menu - two original beef tacos. You can also get Tasty Tacos' original taco with refried beans, chicken or steak. Tasty Taco is more of a fast-food type of Mexican restaurant with a limited variety of Mexican food such as burritos, enchiladas, nachos and tostadas.
It was about a three minute wait before my number was called and I went up to the counter and picked up my tacos. The tacos came out in a plastic basket on top of wax paper - nothing fancy in the presentation, that's for sure. The shells were puffed up the way that I like them, but with a little crunchy texture to the outside edges. They were stuffed with ample amounts of seasoned ground beef, lettuce and shredded cheese. With the addition of some of their homemade salsa, the tacos had a little spicy kick to them. The taste and texture of the taco shell at Tasty Tacos is what sets them apart from other places that sell tacos. I just like that deep fried shell giving the taco a little more heft to the overall taste and feel of the shell.
Now, Tasty Taco is far from having what I would call authentic Mexican food. And there are a number of places in the Des Moines area that have a great selection of Mexican items on their menu. Lord knows there's enough Taco John's and Taco Bell fast food restaurants in the area. Tasty Taco's niche is right in between the national fast food and the local authentic restaurants and at a much better value. Tasty Tacos may have originated the deep fried taco shell in Des Moines. But if Lil' Nips and Raul's were still open, I would have to call Tasty Tacos my third favorite deep fried flour taco in the Des Moines area. But since Tasty Taco is the only one remaining, they - by default - make my favorite deep fried flour taco in Des Moines. And that's not a back-handed compliment to the restaurant - Tasty Taco's original flour tacos are still consistently very good and a nice treat for me from time to time. The Mosqueda family has been doing this for nearly 50 years and there's something to be said about consistency.
I was visiting the head of the audio department at American TV in Madison earlier this summer and asked him out for lunch. He gave me two options - one, kind of a dive bar that had lunch specials; or two, a place across the Beltway expressway from the main American TV store called Bonfyre American Grille (see map). "It's a little more upscale," he told me as he climbed in my car. I said upscale was fine with me.
Initially, I thought it was the same place as Axel's Bonfire, a place I've written about here and here based out of the Twin Cities. But after looking at how Bonfyre spells the name with a "y" instead of an "i", I figured out they weren't the same. But quite honestly, there were a ton of similarities between the two.
Actually, I wouldn't call Bonfyre as much upscale as much as I'd call it American contemporary, very similar to Axel's Bonfire in Minnesota where they cook the food over open flame. Located in the Arbor Gate Center, it's quickly become one of the hotter spots to eat in Madison. Parking at peak times can be a little rough - we drove around for about three minutes looking for a space to open up during the height of the lunch rush.
Bonfyre American Grille's owner is Alfredo Teuschler, a local restaurateur who also owns the upscale Eno Vino wine bar and restaurant. Teuschler used to own a Houlihan's franchise on the west end of town and was a co-owner in the elegant Cloud 9 when it was open in Madison. Teuschler opened Bonfyre in the latter part of 2009 and it has been one of the more welcome additions on an already crowded restaurant scene in Madison.
The hostess took us to our table located near the front window of the restaurant that had a not so nice view of the parking lot and the Beltway beyond. We took a look at the lunch menus and discussed ever so briefly about getting a Capital Supper Club beer for lunch. The American TV guy has also fallen in love with Capital beers. The Capital Supper Club is suddenly my favorite summertime beer. It has a taste that is not all that far away from the old Leinenkugel Northwoods Lager that I loved so much when it was available. But after coming to the realization that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to go back to talk to staffers and other upper management at American TV with beer on our breaths, we reluctantly passed on getting a cold one with lunch.
The lunch menu at Bonfyre isn't much different from the dinner menu in terms of selection. The main difference between the two are the combinations offered during the lunch portion of the day. For between $9 and $12 dollars you get your choice of a variety of half-sandwiches, chicken entrees, jambalaya, grilled shrimp and other items along with a salad or a cup of soup. A number of the items are full entrees on the dinner menu.
One thing Bonfyre did have was fish tacos. Yep, good ol' grilled fish tacos topped with cabbage, a creamy chipotle dressing with pico de gallo and refried beans served on the side. I know I'm getting sort of boring with the fish taco thing, but I'm on some sort of a personal quest to find great fish tacos - sort of the same way that I always get sausage, pepperoni and mushroom on my pizza when I find a new pizza place. I need to have some sort of a measuring stick when it comes to the things I'm eating. I ended up ordering the fish tacos combo with a salad.
My guest ordered the jambalaya combo for lunch, however he asked if he could get a wedge salad instead of a regular salad. The waitress said, "Sure! There would be a $2.00 upcharge, but we can make it happen."
"Uh, hang on a second," I said as I stopped her from walking away. "Change mine to a wedge salad, as well."
Thankfully, the wedge salads were small - much smaller than what you'd find with a regular wedge salad. Actually, I didn't know if that was their regular wedge salad or a lunch time size. But it was very manageable in size. And the homemade creamy blue cheese dressing was very good. The blue cheese chunks were huge and very forward in taste. I wondered if they were using Maytag Blue Cheese in the dressing.
When the waitress came back to check on us, I asked her if they used Maytag Blue Cheese in their dressing. She said she didn't know, but she would find out. A couple moments later, she came back and said, "I asked the chef if it was Maytag Blue Cheese in the dressing and he said, 'Absolutely!' " She said one of their signature appetizers is the homemade potato chips topped with Maytag blue and jalapeno jack cheeses.
I commenced to tell the waitress and my guest that I grew up in Newton, IA - home of the Maytag Dairy Farm and Maytag Blue Cheese. About how they used to sentence every fifth grade class in the Newton Community School District with tours of the facility and how bad it smelled. My guest was laughing and he said, "Well, yeah! It's cultured and moldy cheese! It was bound to smell horrible." I told them that it was a good 20 years after that before I began to like blue cheese.
Our entrees came out not long after and I had a couple of large fish tacos filled with a grilled white fish with a cabbage mix and the chipotle cream sauce. And I will say they were very, very good. The fish was fresh, light and had a nice charred taste to it. The chipotle cream sauce added a little subtle kick to the tacos.
My guest's jambalaya was interesting looking - not quite the jambalaya I've seen, but more of a rice dish with a tomato-based sauce and five or six large grilled shrimp placed on top. He said it was good, however, and made a large dent into it before declaring himself rather full.
A manager from Bonfyre came over and asked us, "Which one of you is from Newton, IA?" I told him I was and he said that he had actually toured the Maytag Dairy Farm a few years ago. I quickly told him the story of being a 10-year-old going through the dairy and the being exposed to the cheese vats and how horrible it smelled. He said, "That's sort of weird that they'd make little kids go through the dairy. Yeah, it smells pretty horrific in that vat room. I can imagine that a little kid would probably be turned off with blue cheese if they smelled it during the processing."
I thought Bonfyre was pretty good. My fish tacos were above average, I did like the wedge salad and the service was good, as well. It was a very pleasant experience and I thought, overall, Bonfyre was a very good, dynamic restaurant. It's nice to have another option for dinner in Madison and Bonfyre is not far from the core of dealers that I call on in the city. I was impressed.
On a recent trip up through Wisconsin, I was having a particularly hard time with restaurants of choice. One evening in LaCrosse, I had hoped to eat at a Cajun restaurant in the downtown area. But when I walked in, it was dark and empty. A guy came up from the back and I said, "Are you open?"
He said, "The power's out. We lost our power about an hour ago and there's no telling when it will come back on. Power's out all over downtown." Well, that pretty much put a kibosh on my second and third option for eating in downtown LaCrosse that evening, so I ended up at a Buffalo Wild Wings near my hotel. As you probably know, my number one rule while traveling is to never eat at a chain - especially a chain that I can eat at while I'm home. But of all the chains, I do like BW3 pretty well.
A couple days later on a trip between Green Bay and Milwaukee, I stopped into Port Washington, WI anticipating a great dinner at Smith Brothers Fish Shanty. As I pulled up in front of the restaurant I looked inside and saw an empty shell. It turns out Smith Brothers Fish Shanty had gone out of business about three years ago. Could it be that long since I'd last been there? I guess it had.
I then pulled out my list of places that were given to me by Bob and Casey Kelly as to recommendations of Milwaukee eateries they gave their wedding guests last year. I found a place on the near north side of Milwaukee called Pizza Man, a great little pizza place that was highly recommended by Milwaukee native Casey. As I pulled up in front of where my GPS directed me to Pizza Man, I encountered an empty lot. No Pizza Man. No building. Nothing. I found out the next day that Pizza Man had suffered a horrible fire in January of this year. They had to tear the building down and at last report were still looking to re-open at another location.
So, with that sort of luck that week I thought I'd just go to my hotel in downtown Milwaukee, check in and head over to the always good and always reliable Mader's German restaurant for dinner that evening on historic N. Old World 3rd St. a block from the Bradley Center (see map).
Mader's is probably the best known German restaurant in a city that has some world class German restaurants. In fact, at one point Mader's was voted the most famous German restaurant in the United States. Since 1902, Mader's has been serving up some of the best German cuisine anywhere. It wasn't until Prohibition hit in 1919 that founder Charles Mader put more of an emphasis on food. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Mader's was the first place to serve beer in Beer City USA.
Charles Mader's sons, Gustave and George, took over the restaurant after the death of their father in 1938. When World War II came around, the Mader brothers de-emphasized the German concept to the restaurant, but that didn't hurt their overall business.
In the late 50's, George Mader passed away and Gus took over the full operation of Mader's. In 1961, Gus' son, Victor, enrolled in the restaurant management program at Michigan State University. After graduation, Victor traveled Europe and learned first hand about the German cuisine his grandfather's homeland offered. In 1964, Victor came back to work in the family business. Victor continues to run the business today.
In the mid-70's, Victor Mader, along with his wife, Wendy, began to accumulate a number of artifacts and artwork dating back to the late medieval period of history. Over the past 30 plus years, the Mader's have collected everything from suits of armor, weapons, statues and artwork to display at the restaurant. Today, Mader's has over $3 million dollars worth of antiques and art on display throughout the restaurant.
Also, Mader's has the distinction of being one of the world's largest dealers for Hummel figurines and authentic German-made decorative collectible beer steins. Their second floor is home to their gift shop that houses these large collections. However, Mader's will also set up a small shop to sell steins and figurines at Summerfest each year.
It was about 8:30 when I got into Mader's. While there's a number of places to park in a parking garage near the restaurant, Mader's also has a large valet parking lot with a covered area that allows customers to stay dry as they get out of their vehicles.
The dining room was about half full when I checked in with the hostess. I noticed that nary a person was in the bar area - the Knights Bar. I asked if I could sit in there and the hostess led me to the bar and dropped off a menu for me to look through. The female bartender, dressed in a German style dress with black tights - same as the waitress' attire - asked me if I wanted something to drink. I took a quick look to see what they had to offer on tap and saw Spaten Oktoberfest. Spaten now makes their Oktoberfest available year round. And I do like their Oktoberfest.
When she brought me my stein of beer, she also brought me a basket of Mader's famous onion rolls. These light, fluffy and soft rolls are just addicting. I devoured both rolls almost right away, they were so good. The taste sensation of the rolls brought back memories of my previous visits to Mader's.
It had been quite sometime since I'd last been in Mader's. I'm trying to think the exact last time, but I think it was on my first trip to Milwaukee with my present company nearly 8 years ago. My first trip to Mader's was a memorable one - I rode up from Chicago after the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1988 (back when there used to be a Summer C.E.S. in Chicago) with my then boss and a dealer of his and his wife. The dealer was based in St. Louis but had grown up in Milwaukee and had always been raving about how great the food was at Mader's. I believe I had the sauerbrauten that time and I remember it being just excellent.
I believe I had the weiner schnitzel on my last visit, so I was looking at something else to get that evening. I had talked to my cousin who used to live in Milwaukee earlier in the evening to inform him of Smith Brothers Fish Shanty closing down and I told him that I was just going to cut my losses in trying to find a new place that night and just go over to Mader's. He said, "I do like their Hungarian goulash a lot."
Mader's Hungarian Beef Goulash starts with braised sirloin tips cooked in a sauce with Hungarian paprika (Mader's gets their spices from The Spice House, whose original location is just a couple three doors down from the restaurant), and caramelized onions in a rich brown sauce. It's served over homemade spaetzel and served with a side of spinach.
I had also looked at getting Mader's Sauerbraten again - they marinate the beef for 10 days and oven roasted. It's then topped with a Bavarian ginger sauce. Oh, man. That just sounds great!
I was so torn between a number of items including Mader's Bavarian Sausage Platter - they have a simmered knackwurst and a grilled bratwurst with a slice of Mader's Kassler Rippchen (smoked pork chop) and a side of sauerkraut and a potato dumpling. (Mader's is also located literally across the street from Usinger's - my favorite sausage maker on this planet. Usinger's provides Mader's with their sausages.) Plus, the Beef and Mushroom Strudel - marinated beef sauerbraten with grilled onions, sauteed mushrooms and smoked ham added into a rolled up pastry and baked with cheese, then topped Mader's Bavarian brown ginger sauce.
Oh, man - I've got to quit writing this blog on an empty stomach. My gut is literally doing jumping-jacks right now.
I took the cue from my cousin - I ended up getting the Hungarian beef goulash. And I'm glad I did. It was just superb. The braised sirloin tips were very, very tender. The paprika and onion sauce was just absolutely fabulous, as well. I didn't get much of a hint of paprika - I would have used more in the sauce - but that was fine with me. The spaetzel was very good, as well. The little bit of spinach on top of the beef sauce was sort of limp and lifeless, both in presentation and taste. But there was no doubt about the Hungarian goulash. It was just fabulous.
Of course, I had another onion roll with dinner and I had to have a couple more beers before I left. With a nice tip for the waitress/bartender, it came to around $50 bucks for dinner at Mader's - not a cheap place to eat by any means. But when you're heralded as being the best German restaurant in not only Milwaukee, but in the U.S., I suppose you can get a premium price for your meals.
I still think Kegel's Inn in West Milwaukee (a place I've visited many times in the past, but for some reason I don't have an entry on Kegel's on Road Tips) is a better value than Mader's. And there are some locals who feel Karl Ratzsch's has better German/Bavarian food than Mader's. I'll have to try that place some day. I'll be in Milwaukee a lot over the next few months and I'll have to give those places a try and report back. But they'll have to really bring their "A" game if they're going to beat Mader's.
I have a good Cambridge Audio dealer in Milwaukee and I wanted to reward them one evening a few weeks ago with a nice meal at a restaurant of their choice. They've turned me on to a number of great restaurants - and equally great dive bars - in the Milwaukee area over the years. They proposed going to a west side Cajun restaurant that's been open for about three years called Maxie's Southern Comfort. I was not familiar with Maxie's - Crawdaddy's was probably the best known Cajun restaurant in the great Milwaukee area - but I'm always up for finding a new Cajun restaurant to try.
Maxie's Southern Comfort is located just off Interstate 94 at the 68th St. exit, just west of Miller Park (see map). This is actually the second location for Maxie's - the other location is actually in far off Ithaca, NY. (Click here to see the Ithaca Maxie's web site.)
Maxie's is the brain child of Chick and Dewi Evans, an earthy couple who opened their Ithaca location in 1999. Chick and a good friend, Dan Sidner, a Milwaukee-native, graduated from Cornell University in the 1980's. Both went on to work in restaurants after school - Chick worked for the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant corporation as well as for restaurants in New Mexico and Colorado, while Dan's restaurant journeys took him to North Carolina, Texas and Washington State running high-end restaurants.
From 1997 to 2003, Dan ran a high-end Italian restaurant in the Vail area before moving back to Wisconsin. Joining forces with the Evans, Sidner and his wife, Allison, decided to bring Maxie's Southern Comfort to Milwaukee and bought what was an old neighborhood meat market in Wauwautosa. They hired Joe Muench - a veteran chef in the Milwaukee area - as the executive chef, and Sally (Sal) Anschuetz as their restaurant manager and they opened the doors in 2007.
Maxie's Southern Comfort is more than just a Cajun restaurant. They also specialize in Carolina "low country" cuisine as well as Southern-style barbecue offerings. Their menu is a diverse sampling of those cuisines along with a few contemporary offerings and some vegetarian items, as well. Maxie's also has an ever-changing wine and libation list that includes seasonal beers served on tap. One of the beers they had on tap was Bell's Oberon wheat ale. I'm not big on wheat beer, but I do like the Bell's Oberon in the summertime.
It was around 7:30 p.m. when we got into Maxie's. A large parking lot is situated across the street from the restaurant and the neighborhood looks like it was once a thriving little area. Just to the east of Maxie's are a couple of neighborhood dive bars the guys pointed out to me. "I've spent many a night in both of those places," one of my guests told me.
They had reservations for four in advance of our dinner - one of the guys ended up that he couldn't make the dinner. I'm glad they did make reservations because the place was packed. We were seated at a table right next to the bar and up against the west wall of the restaurant. With a wood-beamed ceiling and hard floors, the place was very loud. While it was difficult to carry on a conversation, it wasn't impossible.
Our waitress showed up with a "shadow" waitress - a newbie hire who was learning the ropes of working at Maxie's. She got our drink order - I had to have a Bell's Oberon, one of the other guys got the same, while the other just got an ice-tea for the moment. While Maxie's Southern Comfort did have a nice wine list, I've never been big on drinking wine with Southern or Cajun cuisine.
While we looked at the menu, our waitress told us they had a couple specials that evening - one was blackened catfish special and the other was a slow-cooked beef brisket served with Maxie's homemade barbecue sauce. I was intrigued by the brisket, but I was also looking at some of the Cajun items they had on the menu.
One of my guests asked, "Do you like oysters?" I told him I did. He said, "They have a great selection of oysters here." And, indeed, they did. They had oysters from the Pacific Northwest, New England and Canadian Maritime regions. We decided to get a couple dozen oysters on the half-shells - one dozen Rhode Island oysters and one dozen Maine oysters. Actually, the Rhode Island oysters were smaller and a little salty -but still good. The Maine oysters were big, meaty and had a great taste to them. And the oysters were served with a cup of dark vinegar - something I've never tried with oysters before. It was an interesting taste compared to the usual horseradish/Tabasco sauce I use on my oysters.
When it came down to ordering dinner, I was really torn between the brisket special, the blackened-seared ahi tuna, and the jambalaya. I told our waitress, "I'm having trouble here. I really want to try the brisket, but the jambalaya is just yelling at me. Is there a way that I can get a sample of the brisket?" She said she would have to check. She came back in a little bit and she said, "Yeah, we can get you a sample, but there would be an upcharge." I told her that was fine. And for good measure, I got a cup of the gumbo to try, as well.
One of the guys got Maxie's grits and shrimp, a half-order for $13.95. He got a dinner salad to tide him over as he only had a couple three of the oysters. "Not much of an oyster guy," he said. My other guest ended up getting the blackened catfish special.
A few moments later, the waitress brought out the gumbo, salad and the brisket sampler. Well, the brisket sampler was more than a sampler - it was a heaping plate of pulled beef brisket swimming in their homemade sauce. It was way more than I wanted, so I shared it with the other guys. It was OK, not exactly the best I've ever had, but it was good. The sauce was thick and smoky in flavor and the meat was a little tough. We all agreed we were glad we didn't get the brisket dinner. Then again, as one of the guys pointed out, as large as the amount of brisket that we got on the sampler plate was, we may have gotten the dinner. I never did check to see what they charged us for the "sample."
My gumbo was much better. Large chunks of chicken and andoullie sausage were prevalent in the gumbo and while they advertised that it had crawfish in the gumbo, I don't know if I actually came across any crawfish meat. But it was thick and tasty and with a little bit of Tabasco added it had a nice kick to the taste.
A while later, our main entrees showed up. I had a heaping plate of jambalaya - much more than I knew I could finish. But it had a lot shrimp, andoullie and chicken mixed in with the rice and the creole sauce. On its own, it had a lot of zip to the taste. But with more Tabasco to kick it up a notch, I really liked the jambalaya.
The guy who got the grits and shrimp was lucky that he got the half-order. It was almost too much for him to eat. He said, "My wife and I can hardly eat a whole order of grits and shrimp, so I knew that I wouldn't have any chance at eating a whole plate."
And my guest who ordered the blackened catfish said it was great, as always. "I live about four blocks from here and my girlfriend and I walk up here all the time," he said. "I've had this catfish before and it's consistently very good."
After a very good and satisfying dinner for all three of us, the two waitresses tried to tempt us with some dessert offerings. I was too stuffed - as I initially predicted I couldn't finish my whole jambalaya dinner - but I did propose looking over the list of Scotch for a night cap. We all decided to each get a snifter of The Balvenie 12 year single malt to finish off the evening. It was a great end to a very good meal.
While I thought the brisket was average, I was still happy I got a taste. But I will say the gumbo and the jambalaya at Maxie's Southern Comfort were well above average compared to other places I've tried. I think the overall experience at Maxie's was also well above average - I guess you could call it as high-end Southern cooking. The service was very good, especially with two waitresses helping us out. While the dining room was sort of loud, it was still manageable. And the food was very good. That's what I like about these guys in Milwaukee - they turned me on to another great restaurant in the city.
Earlier this summer, my colleague, John, flew to Chicago to help with a presentation for a dealer of ours in Evanston. The presentation was the next morning, so the night before we stayed in downtown Evanston and walked to a place I've wanted to try for quite sometime - Davis Street Fishmarket at the corner of Davis and Hinman (see map). I'd always heard the food was good and that night we were going to find out.
The Davis Street Fishmarket is part of the Clean Plate Club restaurant group owned by Mathew David, Larry Huber and Eardley Firth. Other restaurants under the Clean Plate Club shingle include the highly-acclaimed Pete Miller's Steakhouse in Evanston and in far north suburban Wheeling, and Merle's #1 Barbecue in Evanston. Linda Diguardi is the G.M. of the Davis Street Fishmarket while Firth handles the Executive Chef chores for the restaurant.
The Davis Street Fishmarket was the first of the Clean Plate Club restaurants opening in 1985. Merle's #1 Barbecue opened in 1992 while Pete Miller's in Evanston opened two years later. Pete Miller's is known in the Chicagoland area as not only having some of the best steaks around, but the restaurant is also known as having some of the top contemporary jazz performers grace its stage on a nightly basis. I've wanted to try both Pete Miller's and Merle's #1 Barbecue and if this dealer in Evanston works out, I'm hoping to have that chance at some point in the future.
It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel to Davis Street Fishmarket on a beautiful summer evening. John hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast and since his stomach was still on Eastern time he wanted to get an early dinner. We were seated in a booth in the dining room just around 6:30 local time and the place was far from packed. Both of us ordered up an Anchor Steam beer and took a look at the menu to see what they had to offer.
Davis Street Fishmarket has a lot of their fish flown in daily from the East, West and Gulf coasts. Chef Eardley Firth comes up with a number of nightly specials based upon what types of fish he gets in that particular day. But the restaurant also has a consistent menu that features shellfish, Cajun specialties, seafood pasta dishes, steaks and, of course, seafood entrees.
The first thing that caught our eye was the Prince Edward Island Malpeque oysters on the half shell. We immediately signed up for a dozen of those. The only problem is that the waiter misunderstood us and brought out a half-dozen. We said, "Oh, no. We said we wanted a dozen." He apologized and said he'd get another half-dozen and adjust our bill to reflect the dozen price versus the half-dozen price. The oysters were big and meaty, adding a little fresh ground horseradish and some Tabasco they were outstanding.
With such an extensive menu, I was torn between a number of items. They had a couple of specials that evening that sounded pretty good, but I was also looking at the blackened fish tacos, the Louisiana seafood chili (basically, Davis Street Fishmarket's answer to jambalaya), and the sesame seared ahi tuna served with wasabi mashed potatoes. Like I've said many times on this blog, I'm a sucker for good fish tacos. I had to try their blackened fish tacos. They came topped with red cabbage and a spicy remoulade sauce, along with a side of red beans and rice along with pico de gallo.
John, too, was torn between a number of items. He said, "I'm sure the fish is great here, but I'm sort of looking at getting a big ol' Midwestern piece of beef!" But he ended up going 180 degrees away from his thinking and ended up getting the Maryland crab cakes served with a side of honey mustard sauce and a corn relish. Garlic mashed potatoes came with his meal.
Since it wasn't all that busy, our entrees showed up rather quickly. My blackened fish tacos were served open-faced with the remoulade sauce drizzled on top of the fish and the red cabbage. The red beans and rice was served in a cup on the side. The fish was fresh and the blackened spices with the remoulade sauce gave the tacos a nice kick. I even scooped a little bit of the red beans and rice onto a couple of the tacos to give them a little more of a diversified taste.
John said that his crab cakes were very good. They were very large and - according to John - very rich. He had trouble finishing both of them, but he was able to get through them. He said, "I still find it somewhat surprising of all the good of seafood I've had in the Midwest over the years. These taste just as good as some of the crab cakes I get on the Eastern seaboard."
We were both overly impressed with our experience at Davis Street Fishmarket. The food was excellent and the service was adequate. Our waiter was neither pushy nor was he invisible. The decor was contemporary, yet subdued. It was a very relaxing meal. I'll have to put Davis Street Fishmarket on the top of my list of Evanston restaurants that I've tried so far. I'm hoping to try more over the next couple three years.
Cindy and I had decided to go back up to historic downtown Galena at some point in the summertime after our visit there over her birthday back in December. While the downtown was all lit up and festive for the Christmas holiday, we decided we'd like to go back up some Saturday afternoon when the weather was warm, walk the streets, then have dinner at one of the restaurants the town has to offer. I'd known about Vinny Vanucchi's from reviews and talking to people who had eaten there in the past. While most of the people I'd talked to and from the reviews I read tabbed the restaurant as very good, I still had a little bit of trepidation about going there. Something just kept telling me it was more of a tourist trap than anything. But Cindy wanted to go there, so we ended up dining there one night earlier this summer.
Vinny Vanucchi's is part of the CoCo Enterprises group of restaurants that are owned by Jack and Deb Coulter. In addition to Vinny Vanucchi's, the Coulters also run One Eleven Main in downtown Galena, and Frank O'Dowd's Irish Pub which is connected to The Irish Cottage boutique hotel they own and run with Jack's cousin Basil Conroy on the east side of Galena. Vinny Vanucchi's opened in 1992 in historic downtown Galena. A second Vinny's restaurant is scheduled to open this month in Dubuque, IA.
Many of Vinny Vanucchi's recipes are family recipes from Deb Coulter's side of the family which was part Italian. Deb's grandmother Lucille LaCorte Finnen was a second-generation Sicilian who was born in Chicago in the mid-20's. Deb's family lived below "Nana Lu" and she remembers the great smells of Italian/Sicilian food that her grandmother would cook when Deb was a little girl. Deb took many of those handed-down family recipes and turned them into the basics of the main menu at Vinny Vanucchi's today.
Chef Robin Fleetwood is the executive chef at Vinny Vanucchi's bringing years of experience to the kitchen at Vinny's. Fleetwood grew up in the Midwest and learned how to cook at an early age from his mother. As a couple stints in the Navy as a cook aboard a naval vessel, Fleetwood traveled the world learning about different types of cuisine. Upon his discharge from the Navy, Fleetwood went to cooking school and became a full-fledged chef. Fleetwood makes the food at Vinny's from scratch, using only the freshest ingredients in his food. He features a series of "seasonal items" on his menu, procuring locally grown items during the course of the year.
Vinny Vanucchi's is located on Main Street in downtown Galena, situated on a hillside with steps that go up to the restaurant (see map). Actually, the back of Vinny's abuts up to S. Bench Street and parking is more readily available on that street than on Main Street. We parked up on Bench Street and took the steps down to Vinny's hostess stand. They feature outdoor seating at Vinny's, but the tables were full that nice evening. Our hostess took us to the upper level of Vinny Vanucchi's and we were seated at a table against a brick wall in a small dining area that featured three four-person booths and three two-person tables.
The dining room was uncomfortably warm. Our waiter came around with a basket of Vinny's signature Italian bread with infused garlic oil and Cindy told him that she thought the room was awfully warm. For Cindy to say that - she's perpetually cold even when it's 72 degrees outside - the room was almost unbearable for me. He said, "Yes, it does seem to be a little warm up here. I believe it was getting too cold for some patrons earlier and we may have shut down the air conditioning. Let me go check on that."
As we sweated while we looked through the menu, Cindy took a piece of the Italian bread with the infused garlic oil. She said, "Oh, my God! This is great bread!" And it was. We made short work of the basket of bread - there were only like four pieces in the basket. But we were careful not to order any more right away so it wouldn't fill us up before the main entree hit the table.
I looked through the wine list which wasn't extensive and was sort of mediocre. We both decided we were going to get something with a tomato sauce for the evening's meal and I ordered up a bottle of the Chateau St. Jean Cabernet, a medium-priced wine out of the Sonoma Valley vineyards.
Actually, the dinner menu at Vinny's was far from pedestrian with a number of Italian dishes to choose from. The menu featured eight different types of fettuccine dishes, baked and stuffed pasta dishes, different types of chicken and veal entrees and a handful of house specialties such as Seafood Italiano - a "Nana Lu" inspired dish that featured shrimp, scallops, lobster and Surimi crabmeat in a cream sauce and topped with three cheeses. There was also something called Pollo Compomare - boneless chicken breast sautéed with broccoli, mushrooms and tomatoes in a cream sauce with wine, lemon, garlic and a hot sauce, then served over a bed of pasta. Cindy almost got that until she realized it had mushrooms in it and the sauce may have resembled cream of mushroom soup - a big no-no in her diet (tracing back to her days of growing up with all different types of meals featuring cream of mushroom soup).
One thing that caught my eye on the feature menu was the baked sausage ragu - penne pasta, spicy Italian sausage, green peppers and mushrooms that is slowly cooked in Vinny's homemade marinara sauce, then topped with mozzarella and parmesan and baked in the oven. That's what I ended up getting.
Cindy was in a quandary because the descriptions of the food on the menu all sounded very good to her. She ended up opting for the Chicken Vinito - a boneless chicken breast sautéed with a combination of artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and fresh basil, then served with a tomato-cream sauce over linguini. A family style Italian salad came with the meal, as well.
By the time we'd ordered, we felt the cool breeze of the air conditioner kick in. It had begun to get more comfortable in the dining room and it was fine within 15 minutes.
Our salad came to the table, served in a large bowl and topped with a homemade vinaigrette. It was OK, at best. The vinaigrette really didn't knock my socks off with its taste sensation. But the greens and chopped veggies they had were fresh and flavorful. It was an average salad.
Our main entrees showed up soon after we finished our salads and I was sort of astounded at the large portion of the baked sausage ragu that landed in front of me. There was going to be no way that I would be able to finish even half of the entree. So I decided to concentrate on the sausage, veggies and the cheese in the dish and have a few bites of the penne pasta along the way. I will say the entree was pretty good - surprisingly good, considering that I had some preconceived notions about Vinny's before I sat down. The sausage tasted like it was home made and had a nice kick in taste, the mushrooms were fresh and I really liked the sweet and tangy marinara sauce that Vinny Vanucchi's makes.
Cindy said that her Chicken Vinito was "very good." It wasn't over-cooked and the sauce didn't detract from the overall taste. The chicken breast was large and there were ample helpings of the artichoke hearts along with it. The basil was very fresh and I could easily smell it from across the table.
We ate what we could, but decided not to take any of what we had left home. Cindy always said, "Italian food never tastes as good after it's been boxed up and reheated." And with pasta dishes, she's usually right. I had made a huge dent in my dinner, leaving only about half the dish full of penne pasta. It wasn't worth boxing up penne pasta.
OK, so I was pleasantly surprised with Vinny Vanucchi's. It didn't quite have the tourist-trap ring to the place once we got in there. The service was adequate, the food was above average and we liked the ambiance of the place. There's some other places in Galena that I'd like to try, but if you're hungry for family style Italian food, Vinny Vanucchi's would be a place to try.
Hub 51 in downtown Chicago is a place I've read about and recently had the chance to try during a lunch meeting with the General Manager from Music Direct in Chicago. My colleague, John, had flown in from New York to help me with a presentation with a new dealer in the northern suburbs and we decided to visit Music Direct for a lunch time visit. We invited the G.M. out to lunch. Josh knows that my number one rule when it comes to dining in Chicago is "no national chain restaurants!" He directed me to the corner of West Hubbard and N. Dearborn in the River North area of downtown Chicago (see map). Actually, it's not very far from the Hilton Garden Inn in River North that I like to stay at when I have to stay downtown.
Hub 51 gets its name from the address - 51 W. Hubbard. The inside of the building looks like it may have been an old garage at one point in time. It features high ceilings, exposed ductwork, an outside wall that faces the street that looks like two large garage doors and sort of a contemporary industrial decor. It's also somewhat loud and, as I was told, always busy - even in the middle of the afternoon. Hub 51 features valet parking for $8 bucks during the lunch time - a bargain considering some of the high prices of the parking garages in the area. Hub 51 is the brainchild of two young guys who have a legacy in the Chicago restaurant world - R.J. Melman and younger brother Jerrod Melman. If you're familiar with Chicago restaurants, there's no doubt you recognize the Melman name. The Melman brothers are the sons of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants Rich Melman whose 40 year career has given the Chicago area (and branching out to other large metro areas across the nation) restaurants such as Maggiano's, Shaw's Crab House, Wildfire, and Osterio Via Stato. Lettuce Entertainment has nearly 40 different restaurants under their umbrella - many of which I've eaten at, and enjoyed, for many years. R.J. and Jerrod worked in a number of the Lettuce Entertain You establishments over the years. In fact, R.J. Melman was named after Rich Melman's original restaurant - R.J. Grunts. While Hub 51 is part of the Lettuce Entertain You network of restaurants, it should be pointed out that Dad had no input on the restaurant. His boys have their hand prints and signatures throughout the restaurant. The menucould be called a fusion of Japanese, Mexican and American food. Hub 51 features sushi, tacos, large sandwiches, steaks and seafood. Of course, it's not your typical tacos, but a variety consisting of steak, grilled chicken, grilled fish or pork tacos. The sandwiches are billed as being "two-handed" and consisting of huge burgers, a "knife-cut" BLT, and an ahi tuna sandwich. They also feature beef tenderloin kabobs, pulled pork platter, braised ribs, and daily seafood specials that are caught "off-the-hook" rather than in nets. For the light eaters, Hub 51 also has a number of salads to choose from. We arrived at Hub 51 around 12:30 and while the place was full of diners, we were able to get in right away into a table tucked in the back corner of the place. Our waiter came around and gave us lunch menus for us to look over. The lunch menu features a number of sandwiches, sushi rolls (regular sushi doesn't begin until later in the day, and about six luncheon features including Chilean sea bass, grilled Amish chicken breast, and their chicken enchilada stack. If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that I'm a sucker for good fish tacos. Not the kind that are basically breaded white-fish fish sticks, deep-fried, then put on to a taco shell. I like the grilled fish tacos served with cabbage, a sweet and spicy sauce and drizzled with lime juice. It turned out Hub 51 had those tacos on their menu. While I was tempted to try the green chile cheeseburger or the huge BLT, I kept going back and looking at the fish tacos. But I'd had fish tacos the night before and I ended up ordering the pulled pork tacos instead. I can come back the next time I'm staying in downtown Chicago for the fish tacos. John was torn between a number of items, as well. He finally ended up ordering the lunch sandwich special that day, a grilled chicken sandwich with avocado, cheese and a Mexican salsa topping. Josh asked us if we liked sushi. Well, of course we do! He said, "They have this tuna appetizer that they marinade the tuna in a ginger sauce and serve it with crispy rice and sort of a lime-infused tomato salsa. It's just unbelievable." He went ahead and ordered that for us and he ordered the grilled chicken tacos. He told me, "I've got the fish tacos here. And they are excellent. But I always seem to order the same thing when I go to restaurants and I wanted to break up the monotony today." The shakishaki tuna appetizer that Josh ordered up was everything he said it would be. The tuna was sushi-grade rare and the tomato salsa was a great compliment to the meal. I especially enjoyed the taste of the tuna in the ginger marinade. We laid waste to that appetizer in less than five minutes. As we waited for our lunch to show up, we talked about a myriad of topics that seem to be affecting the consumer electronics industry today - from politics, to the Internet, to the proliferation of big box retailers taking over the market, to long-time brick-and-mortar businesses having to reinvent themselves. We all agreed that if we had to do it over again in our lives, we would have steered clear of the consumer electronics industry. But as John pointed out, "We're here and we may not be getting rich, but it's still fun." Our lunch came out and the waiter sat the pulled pork tacos down in front of me. The presentation was very good with a number of different items to throw onto the tacos with the pork. There was salsa and rice, a little guacamole, refried beans and a sort of dark sauce that went well with the pork. I have to say the pork tacos at Hub 51 were just excellent. I thought the pork looked a little over-cooked at first, but it was tender and very flavorful. It's hard to find good pork tacos in the Midwest, even though some of the best pork comes from Iowa and Illinois. But Hub 51's pork tacos were some of the best I've ever had. Both John and Josh said their lunches were outstanding, as well. Josh's chicken tacos were very similar to my pork tacos. And John's grilled chicken sandwich looked very good, too. And he said as much a couple times through the meal. Hub 51 is an expense-check meal as it is not cheap. It was close to $100 bucks with drinks and tip for the meal. But Music Direct has become a solid business partner with us and our relationship gets stronger with each visit. So the meal was worth it. But just like any good restaurant in the heart of any big city in America, you're going to pay for it. I would have been more upset had the lunch not been that good, but Hub 51 was very, very good. Hub 51 is the new trendy place to be and to be seen at in Chicago. I'm glad Josh brought us here for lunch since I'd read nothing but good things about the place. The food is good and interesting, and they seem to do a great job in trying to please everyone with a little bit of everything on their menus. Yes, the next time I go back to Hub 51, it will be for the fish tacos.
Hub 51 gets its name from the address - 51 W. Hubbard. The inside of the building looks like it may have been an old garage at one point in time. It features high ceilings, exposed ductwork, an outside wall that faces the street that looks like two large garage doors and sort of a contemporary industrial decor. It's also somewhat loud and, as I was told, always busy - even in the middle of the afternoon. Hub 51 features valet parking for $8 bucks during the lunch time - a bargain considering some of the high prices of the parking garages in the area.
Hub 51 is the brainchild of two young guys who have a legacy in the Chicago restaurant world - R.J. Melman and younger brother Jerrod Melman. If you're familiar with Chicago restaurants, there's no doubt you recognize the Melman name. The Melman brothers are the sons of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants Rich Melman whose 40 year career has given the Chicago area (and branching out to other large metro areas across the nation) restaurants such as Maggiano's, Shaw's Crab House, Wildfire, and Osterio Via Stato. Lettuce Entertainment has nearly 40 different restaurants under their umbrella - many of which I've eaten at, and enjoyed, for many years.
R.J. and Jerrod worked in a number of the Lettuce Entertain You establishments over the years. In fact, R.J. Melman was named after Rich Melman's original restaurant - R.J. Grunts. While Hub 51 is part of the Lettuce Entertain You network of restaurants, it should be pointed out that Dad had no input on the restaurant. His boys have their hand prints and signatures throughout the restaurant.
The menucould be called a fusion of Japanese, Mexican and American food. Hub 51 features sushi, tacos, large sandwiches, steaks and seafood. Of course, it's not your typical tacos, but a variety consisting of steak, grilled chicken, grilled fish or pork tacos. The sandwiches are billed as being "two-handed" and consisting of huge burgers, a "knife-cut" BLT, and an ahi tuna sandwich. They also feature beef tenderloin kabobs, pulled pork platter, braised ribs, and daily seafood specials that are caught "off-the-hook" rather than in nets. For the light eaters, Hub 51 also has a number of salads to choose from.
We arrived at Hub 51 around 12:30 and while the place was full of diners, we were able to get in right away into a table tucked in the back corner of the place. Our waiter came around and gave us lunch menus for us to look over. The lunch menu features a number of sandwiches, sushi rolls (regular sushi doesn't begin until later in the day, and about six luncheon features including Chilean sea bass, grilled Amish chicken breast, and their chicken enchilada stack.
If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that I'm a sucker for good fish tacos. Not the kind that are basically breaded white-fish fish sticks, deep-fried, then put on to a taco shell. I like the grilled fish tacos served with cabbage, a sweet and spicy sauce and drizzled with lime juice. It turned out Hub 51 had those tacos on their menu. While I was tempted to try the green chile cheeseburger or the huge BLT, I kept going back and looking at the fish tacos. But I'd had fish tacos the night before and I ended up ordering the pulled pork tacos instead. I can come back the next time I'm staying in downtown Chicago for the fish tacos.
John was torn between a number of items, as well. He finally ended up ordering the lunch sandwich special that day, a grilled chicken sandwich with avocado, cheese and a Mexican salsa topping. Josh asked us if we liked sushi. Well, of course we do! He said, "They have this tuna appetizer that they marinade the tuna in a ginger sauce and serve it with crispy rice and sort of a lime-infused tomato salsa. It's just unbelievable." He went ahead and ordered that for us and he ordered the grilled chicken tacos. He told me, "I've got the fish tacos here. And they are excellent. But I always seem to order the same thing when I go to restaurants and I wanted to break up the monotony today."
The shakishaki tuna appetizer that Josh ordered up was everything he said it would be. The tuna was sushi-grade rare and the tomato salsa was a great compliment to the meal. I especially enjoyed the taste of the tuna in the ginger marinade. We laid waste to that appetizer in less than five minutes.
As we waited for our lunch to show up, we talked about a myriad of topics that seem to be affecting the consumer electronics industry today - from politics, to the Internet, to the proliferation of big box retailers taking over the market, to long-time brick-and-mortar businesses having to reinvent themselves. We all agreed that if we had to do it over again in our lives, we would have steered clear of the consumer electronics industry. But as John pointed out, "We're here and we may not be getting rich, but it's still fun."
Our lunch came out and the waiter sat the pulled pork tacos down in front of me. The presentation was very good with a number of different items to throw onto the tacos with the pork. There was salsa and rice, a little guacamole, refried beans and a sort of dark sauce that went well with the pork.
I have to say the pork tacos at Hub 51 were just excellent. I thought the pork looked a little over-cooked at first, but it was tender and very flavorful. It's hard to find good pork tacos in the Midwest, even though some of the best pork comes from Iowa and Illinois. But Hub 51's pork tacos were some of the best I've ever had.
Both John and Josh said their lunches were outstanding, as well. Josh's chicken tacos were very similar to my pork tacos. And John's grilled chicken sandwich looked very good, too. And he said as much a couple times through the meal.
Hub 51 is an expense-check meal as it is not cheap. It was close to $100 bucks with drinks and tip for the meal. But Music Direct has become a solid business partner with us and our relationship gets stronger with each visit. So the meal was worth it. But just like any good restaurant in the heart of any big city in America, you're going to pay for it. I would have been more upset had the lunch not been that good, but Hub 51 was very, very good.
Hub 51 is the new trendy place to be and to be seen at in Chicago. I'm glad Josh brought us here for lunch since I'd read nothing but good things about the place. The food is good and interesting, and they seem to do a great job in trying to please everyone with a little bit of everything on their menus. Yes, the next time I go back to Hub 51, it will be for the fish tacos.
(Update - The Iowa Pork Producers Association has awarded Breitbach's with the coveted "Best Pork Loin Sandwich in Iowa" for 2012. Here's Road Tips take on the pork loin sandwich from the summer of 2010.)
Breitbach's Country Dining is located in little Balltown, IA which is situated high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Northeast Iowa (see map). (Above - the panaramic view of the Mississippi River valley from behind Breitbach's.) Breitbach's has been a family owned restaurant/tavern since back in the 1860's, but it's history goes back to 1852 when it began as a stage coach stop. Recently, Breitbach's has suffered from two devastating fires - one in December of 2007 and another one in October of 2008. But they've rebuilt both times and continue to serve country style meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cindy turned me on to Breitbach's a number of years ago when we were out on a weekend drive in NE Iowa, going around to see some of the places her family was from and places she used to visit as a little girl. That one and only visit, I forget what I had for dinner, but Cindy had grilled shrimp. The only problem was that there were these little metal flakes on the shrimp. When we brought it to the attention of the waitress, she quickly took the shrimp away. It wasn't long before more grilled shrimp - a LOT more grilled shrimp - came to the table. And stopping by to apologize was Mike Breitbach, the owner of the place. He comped Cindy's meal that evening with a promise that we'd make it back at some point. We always had planned on going back, but just never got around to do it. However, I had to drive up to La Crosse earlier this summer and I had a chance to stop in to Breitbach's for lunch.
Mike Breitbach (right) is the fifth-generation owner of Breitbach's. His great-great grandfather, Jacob Breitbach, worked at the stage coach stop that served food and beer to weary travelers heading up the Mississippi River to Minneapolis. In 1862, the elder Breitbach bought the establishment from the previous owner and it's been in the Breitbach family ever since. Breitbach's Country Dining is said to be the oldest continuous restaurant/tavern in the state of Iowa. And with Mike's kids and - I was told - grandkids working in the restaurant, there would be now eight generations of Breitbach's who have helped out in the place.
On Christmas Eve of 2007, a fire engulfed Breitbach's restaurant. (For that story, click here.) Mike Breitbach and his wife, Cindy, decided almost immediately to rebuild the restaurant. With the help of local contractors and volunteers, they rebuilt the place from the ground up. They redecorated with vintage antiques and large dining rooms with wood-beamed ceilings. The Breitbach's would have loved to have installed a water-sprinkler system throughout the restaurant, but Balltown doesn't have a city water system - the residents get their water from wells. Installing a pressurized sprinkler system in the restaurant would have been too expensive.
So, guess what? Breitbach's Country Dining went through ANOTHER devastating fire in October of 2008, less than five months after they'd reopened and exactly 10 months to the day after the first fire. (For that story, click here.) While a gas leak was found to be the cause for the first fire in December, authorities weren't sure what caused the second fire. A number of framed newspaper pages and articles on both fires adorn the wall of a hallway between Breitbach's bar area and one of their dining rooms.
After a second fire, Mike Breitbach wasn't too certain that he wanted to rebuild. He was still waiting to get the final verdict from his insurance company who was doing a thorough investigation of the first fire. The second fire was investigated by up to 50 insurance inspectors who combed through the rubble for any sign of what may have started the fire. I've since heard that the second fire may have been started by faulty electrical wiring, but that wasn't the definitive ruling of the probe. In any event, arson was ruled out.
The Breitbach's eventually decided to rebuild, buoyed by the support of longtime customers and friends in the area. Breitbach's new restaurant opened in the Spring of 2009. It features a large bar area and three large dining rooms. The main dining room also features a buffet area for lunch through the week, a full buffet on Friday and Saturday nights, and a breakfast buffet on Sunday mornings followed by a brunch buffet on Sunday starting at 11.
Balltown is so small that it basically has one main road through town. It's on this main road that Breitbach's sits next to. They have a large parking lot in back, although a large semi and a bus were parking in the lots making it difficult to maneuver around them. I went in and was greeting by a young hostess who showed me to a table.
I sat in one of the dining rooms toward the back of the place. A smaller dining room off to the side was host to a group of motorcyclists who had driven their U.S. flag-adorned bikes to Breitbach's for lunch. I was given a lunch menu and while I thought about going through the buffet, I ended up thinking about just getting a sandwich for my lunch. While they don't really have deli sandwiches, per se, Breitbach's serves up basic fried or grilled items burgers, chicken sandwiches, BLT's, tuna melts and tenderloin sandwiches. I'm guessing the buffet is the go-to item on the menu during the lunch hours and that's why they don't go much further than the basics on their menu.
I thought the fried pork tenderloin sounded good. The waitress told me they use the same batter on their tenderloins as they put on their fried chicken. I prefer a battered pork tenderloin than a breaded one. I will say that I looked at the fried chicken on the buffet and thought it looked pretty good. I ended up getting the fried pork tenderloin with onion rings.
And I'm glad I did. The tenderloin was very, very good. A top notch sandwich, indeed. The batter was light and they didn't pound the tenderloin beforehand to squash it out into an uneatable size. The bun was lightly toasted and wasn't dried out in the least. The onion rings were *OK* - nothing special. I'm sure they were of the frozen variety that Breitbach's buy from a food purveyor.
After lunch, I walked around the inside of Breitbach's to take a closer look at things. Mike Breitbach had been running around the place, helping bus tables, pointing things out to the wait staff, and talking with what appeared to be long-time customers of his restaurant. I wanted to ask Mike if there were any changes he did to the restaurant between the first and second fire. You know, you put up a new building and about four months later you're thinking, "Well, if I had to do it over again, I would have done it this way." I didn't know if it would be tacky to ask him such a question. And he sort of disappeared into the kitchen, so I never did get the chance to ask him. And thinking back, it's probably for the better.
Outside Breitbach's, they have a large beer garden behind the restaurant. It actually looked rather nice with heavy walnut oil-stained tables and benches, a heavy roof over the top and a number of hanging baskets through out the garden. There was a garden area just to the east of that with a number of ornamental plants and flowers. It looked like a great place to hang out on a warm Friday afternoon during an Iowa summer.
You can tell that it's a labor of love for Mike Breitbach and his restaurant. When we first met him years ago when we had a problem with Cindy's meal, you could tell he was a genuinely nice guy who cared about his customers first and foremost. Joking with his customers during my visit tells me that even getting hit in the stomach twice in less than a year he's been able to pull through and carry on a tradition that began in the mid-1800's. While their food overall is average to above home-style cooking, I felt the pork tenderloin sandwich was one of the best I've had. It's tough to beat Breitbach's for a small slice of Americana high above the bluffs along the Mississippi River in NE Iowa.
The Essen Haus is one of the more highly regarded German restaurants in the Midwest. Since 1983, the restaurant has served up some of the finest German fare along with American favorites. They feature nearly 20 German beers on tap and offer well over 200 other types of bottled beer from all over the world. I took one of my dealers out to dinner there on a recent trip to Madison. It had been years since I'd last been in the Essen Haus and I was really looking forward to it.
Local entrepreneur Bob Worm opened the Essen Haus in September 1983 - just in time for their first Oktoberfest celebration. The building in which the Essen Haus is located dates back to the early 1860's in a historic area in downtown Madison known as the Old Settlement neighborhood. Part of the building contained the Germania Hotel which was said to house German immigrants as they arrived in Wisconsin.
In the 40's and 50's, the very popular Hoffman House - which, at the time, was THE fine dining restaurant in Madison - was in the building in which the Essen Haus is in today. Seven Hoffman brothers ended up running a total of 18 Hoffman House restaurants in Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. In the mid-70's, they sold the restaurants to Green Giant - the same Green Giant vegetable company - and Green Giant was, in turn, bought by Pillsbury. Pillsbury ended up selling off all the restaurants and the original Madison location was closed.
For a while, Hoffman House became the Wilson Street Dinner Theater, but that didn't go over all that well. Bob Worm came in and decided to put in an authentic German restaurant/beer hall complete with large tables for group and family-style eating. In addition to the Essen Haus, Worm also owns and operates the Ruby Marie Hotel next to the Essen Haus, as well as the adjoining Come Back In and The Up North Pub, two smaller pub-style places.
The Essen Haus is located on the Southeast side of the downtown area not far from Lake Monona (see map). There's a large parking lot behind the restaurant and it was nearly full from all the people in the establishments in and around the Essen Haus. The restaurant was pretty full, but we were able to get a table near the front of the restaurant on a step-up landing that provided a good view of the German band playing on the stage.
As we looked over our menus, we enjoyed the German Polka music provided by the Steve Meisner Band. People were dancing and the music was very good. And it wasn't all that loud, so we were able to carry on a conversation with no problem. Even with the ornamental dark wood trim throughout the place, it was easy to hear my guest talk from across the table.
Like I said, it had been years since I was in the restaurant and I forgot how large the main dining room at the Essen Haus. And there is an adjoining dining room to the side that can easily seat over 100 people. The Essen Haus is a popular place and has brisk business nearly every evening.
In addition to the Essen Haus being decorated in authentic German decor, the restaurant features one of the largest collections of ornamental beer steins in the U.S. They also have a shop of beer steins, glasses and "boots" called The Germania Collection that is located in the corner of the old Germania building. They also have porcelain figurines, decorative plates, nut crackers and other assorted items tied to German heritage.
Of course, we had to have beer. I ordered a Spaten lager. A LITER of Spaten lager. And another waitress brought out a basket with a couple large homemade, piping hot pretzels with a side of horseradish and this outrageously great German mustard. It was sort of mixture of sweetness, a sour flavor and some spiciness to the mustard. My guest told me, "I usually don't like mustard all that much, but I love this stuff!" I asked our waitress if any were available for sale and she said she didn't think so. But she did give me a small container of it before I left. (Even keeping it cool overnight, it had lost some of its taste sensation. It wasn't as good as when it was originally served.)
I was really torn between a number of items at the Essen Haus. From the Sauerbraten to their Huhner (chicken) Schnitzel, everything sounded so damn yummy. I'd gotten the Rahm (pork chop) Schnitzel on a prior visit and I was tempted to get that again. But this time I ended up ordering the Schweinelendchen in a Pfefferam Sauce - pork tips sauteed with mushrooms and onions, then topped with a spicy pepper cream sauce. I ordered spaetzle and red cabbage as my side. A small dinner salad came with the meal, but I was more interested in trying their liver dumpling soup. I got that as a substitute for my salad.
My guest was equally torn between a number of items. He said, "I usually get the sampler when I can't make up my mind (smoked Thuringer sausage, Schweine Braten and a smoked pork chop). Or I get the Rinder Rouladen (I almost got that - strips of beef wrapped around smoked bacon, mustard, onion, ground veal pork and a pickle, then topped with a mustard gravy). But I'm gonna go with something different tonight."
He ordered up the Weiner Schnitzel - breaded veal cutlets pan-fried in a butter/lemon sauce and served with a side of sauerkraut and German potatoes. "My wife likes the Weiner Schnitzel here," he said. "I've never had it, so I guess I'm gonna try it now."
My guest got a salad with ranch dressing and that was brought to my table along with my cup of liver dumpling soup. There was a nice large ball of ground liver in the cup - I'm not big on liver, period. But I do like liver dumpling soup. Go figure. And the Essen Haus' liver dumpling soup was very good. I made quick work of the soup and it wasn't long after I finished that our main entrees were brought to the table.
My Schweinelendenchen was absolutely fabulous. The pork tips were moist and tender. The taste of the pork hadn't been cooked out of it, either. The mushrooms were more prevalent in the sauce than the onions and they were very fresh, as well. And the sauce, well, it was just out of this world. It had a nice little spiciness to the taste and was very good when I dipped a piece of the rye bread into it.
My guest liked his Weiner Schnitzel. He said, "I normally don't get veal all that much, but my wife loves it. I've had bites of hers in the past and this is very good." There was a nice coating of breading over the veal, but not enough that it overpowered the taste of the meat.
In addition to regular German fare on the menu, the Essen Haus features prime rib on Thursday and Saturday, and fish on Wednesday and Fridays. They also have a number of steaks on their menu including a whisky peppercorn steak that my guest told me was "to die for". He said, "If you like the pepper sauce on your pork tips, you really need to try the whisky peppercorn steak." I'll have to try that on my next visit.
With a large German-heritage population in Wisconsin, I certainly do like the Germanic style beers that they brew in the handful of breweries around the state. But there are also some great German restaurants, as well, and the Essen Haus is one of the best in the state. Heck, it's one of the best in the Midwest. We had great service, great food, wonderful beer and listened to some pretty good German music. Everyone has a good time at the Essen Haus. It's no small wonder why it's packed nearly every day.
I have a dealer in Indianapolis that I like to take out to dinner from time to time, mainly because these guys have turned me on to some pretty fine places to eat in the Indianapolis area. This time around, one of the sales guys was given the task to find a place for us to go. He was told by his manager, "Will has two rules - no national chains and it has to have good beer." The sales guy immediately came up with Brugge Brasserie in the Broad Ripple Village section of Indianapolis (see map).
Brugge Brasserie is named after the Belgian city of Bruges, but is spelled and pronounced (broo-gha) in the traditional Flemish way. It opened in April of 2005 and was the areas first European-style "gastro-pub" - basically a pub that serves better than average and unusual cuisine. Brugge's signature dish is Moules Frites - mussels and french fries. The mussels are delivered in a large steaming bucket and the fries are wrapped in paper. You have your choices of dipping sauces for the mushrooms.
Brugge Brasserie is also a brewpub specializing in homemade Belgian-style beers. I'm not big on Belgian beers, but I was definitely willing to give Brugge's brews a try. Brewmaster Ted Miller, who is also the managing partner of Brugge with his wife, Shannon Stone, has years of experience as a brewer and has installed brewing equipment in brewpubs all over the world. Miller and Stone, who grew up in Indianapolis, had their first son while working overseas. When he got to be school-aged, they wanted to move back to Indiana and raise their son. But Miller also had a hankering to open a brewpub/restaurant. He called on some old high school friends to help out.
Actor Abe Benrubi (right) was a high school classmate of Miller's at Indianapolis' Broad Ripple High School, just walking distance from where Brugge is today. Benrubi is one of those actors where you may not remember his name, but you definitely remember his face. His first break came with a recurring role in the TV sitcom Parker Lewis Can't Lose. Over the years, he's acted in other television shows such as Men in Trees and Wings(where he played Roy Biggins' gay son), and in movies such as Twister, George of the Jungle and Miss Congeniality 2. He's also done a lot of voice-over work for animated television shows and movies. But he's best known as Jerry Markovic on the NBC drama "ER".
Miller and Stone graduated with Benrubi in 1987. Along with fellow classmate Eli Schloss, they recruited two other investors - Charlie Midgley, who Miller met in Taiwan in 2001 while Miller was working for a start-up Taiwanese telephone company; and Rene Stoltz, who was Luxembourg's commercial and economic counselor for Taiwan. Midgely joked that he gave Miller the money "just to shut him up" because he talked about opening up his own place all the time. Each of the investors share an equal 1/6th stake in Brugge.
The original Brugge occupied the bottom floor of a building on E. Westfield Boulevard, next to the Monon Bike Trail in Broad Ripple. Business was great right from the start, and in 2008 they expanded into the upper floor of the building providing more dining space and outside seating.
And because the beers at Brugge were so popular, they soon ran out of brewing space at the facility. The investors eventually bought a small defunct brewery in Terry Haute in 2007. After some bureaucratic red tape that they had to cut through, Brugge beers are now found on tap at a number of fine restaurants throughout Indiana.
After an evening product training at the store, four of us drove over to Broad Ripple, sort of the entertainment/restaurant/bar district of Indianapolis on the north side of the city. Parking is at a premium in Broad Ripple, especially in the evening. Although there are a few parking spots in front of Brugge Brasserie, I opted to park in a public lot caddy-cornered across from the restaurant for $5 bucks. It was easy in and easy out.
We got into the restaurant just before 8 p.m. and it was very busy. We decided to sit outside on the lower level which is covered by the upstairs outside dining area. There was a threat of rain and our waitress warned us that if it did start to rain, we'd get wet as there were spaces between the wood flooring on the second level deck. We decided to take our chances and keep sitting outside. Thankfully, it didn't rain.
The menu at Brugge is very unique. In addition to their famous Moules Frites, they have a number of combinations of traditional Belgian/Flemish crepes at Brugge. They feature crepes made with grilled chicken, ham and swiss, caviar, duck, thai curry beef and grilled artichokes and portobello mushrooms. It all sounded very interesting. But we needed beer first.
Brugge's signature beer is their Tripel de Ripple - a high-alcohol content beer that they'll only let you drink just two of because they're so strong. They have a handful of other Belgian-style beers they brew both in house and at their brewery in Terre Haute. The one I went with was called Belgian Black Ale - or affectionately known in house as "The Black". It's brewed with 8 different types of malts, molasses, poplar tree syrup, dark sugar, chocolate, vanilla, coffee and some orange peels. It was actually very, very good. Surprisingly good. Like I say, I'm not big on Belgian-style beers, but I did like The Black very much.
Our first order of business was to get an order of Moules Frites - the mussels are 2 pounds of Prince Edward Island blue mussels, the kind my colleague Todd used to dig for in the sand at low tide as a boy growing up on P.E.I. There are various ways to get the mussels prepared - from the Classic style, steamed in dry reisling wine with fish stock and herbs; to the spicy red dragons chili pepper or Thai curry mussels. But we went with the mouth-watering Provencal style - they steam the mussels in French butter and herbs, along with shallots and garlic and a French chardonnay wine.
A side of fries - you choice of either small, large or l'enorme - come with it along with your choice of dipping sauces for the fries. There are nearly a dozen different types of dipping sauces - all homemade - mayonnaise, sweet chili, fresh herb pesto, hot curry, blue cheese and poplar syrup and French dijon. We ordered up four different sauces - roasted garlic, horseradish, ketchup, and sea salt and sherry vinegar.
I took a picture of the mussels after our waitress brought them to our table and I sent it to my colleague, Todd. It's not that great of a picture because of the steam rising out of the pot. But Todd immediately recognized the signature blue tint on the inside of the mussel shells. He texted me back and said, "P.E.I. blue mussels! Yum!" And they were yummy. The Provencal style of steaming them was just wonderful. I almost ordered up another bucket because they were so good. But that would have really cut into our main entrees because the mussels were so rich.
Now, I have to say that I'm not big on French fries that much any longer. I find the taste of them to be somewhat bland and lifeless. I don't know what Brugge does with their French fries but on their own they were very good. It has to be the oil in which they fry them. Even without any of the very scrumptious homemade dipping sauces we ordered, the frites at Brugge were some of the best I've ever had. And I've had some very good ones during my travels to Montreal and to France.
It was time to order up our main entrees, which consisted of crepes. We all went in different directions. One of my guests ordered the pan-roasted duck crepe, another went with the thai curry beef crepe and the other one got the Belgian wit (white) beer battered cod crepe. I almost went with the thai curry beef crepe, as well. But I was also torn between the roasted pork crepe and the grilled chicken crepe. In the end, I went with the roasted pork crepe - slow-roasted shredded pork served with goat cheese and a homemade mustard sauce. Our waitress smiled at me and said, "Good choice! That's my favorite!" I don't know if it was, but she was doing her best to get a big tip tonight.
I was on my third Black ale by the time the crepes showed up. We'd also ordered a couple more large sizes of fries to go along with our crepes and some more dipping sauces to try. I'm doing my best to broaden my gastronomic horizons, but I was a little apprehensive about having a pork filled crepe for my main entree. The only crepes I'd ever had in my life were like blueberry or cream cheese crepes for breakfast. But from the first bite, all my apprehension went out the window.
The pork was tender and flavorful. The goat cheese was a little too much, but it wasn't a deal breaker. And I did like the dijon-style mustard they put on the crepe, as well. The crepes weren't small, by any means. But they were very, very good. Yes, I guess you can have crepes for dinner, as well.
Each of my guests all voiced their approval with their crepes. The guy who got the duck crepe said it was "just outstanding". The sales guy who suggested the place got the Thai curry beef crepe. He said, "I've had six or seven different crepes here at Brugge, but this is my favorite."
My guest who got the beer-battered cod told me, "I have to say that it's much better than I expected. I'm worried that beer-battered fish will come out sort of greasy and flavorless. But this is very good."
The annual CEDIA Exposition is coming back to Indianapolis in 2011 and I'm sure it will be up to me to come up with a number of restaurants for us to eat at during our week in the city. I've already told my colleagues that Brugge will be on the top of the list for a unique dining experience. It was surprisingly very good in many different ways. I liked the beer, the crepes were very good, and the mussels and fries were out of this world. I may just go back there on my next trip to Indy and have a bucket of Moules Frites - Provencal-style - by myself!
Another "tapas" style restaurant we went to while I was up in Montreal for company meetings was a place called Grange Wine + Bouffe (Wine and Beef). It was very similar to Pullman, the restaurant we'd visited after I had arrived in Montreal. While the concept wasn't much different, the decor decidedly was.
Dave Bernier and Martin Beauchamb are partners in Grange. They also own the wildly popular Cafe des Eclusiers located on the St. Lawrence River near the port of Montreal, not far from Grange. Cafe des Eclusiers boasts that they have the largest outdoor patio in Montreal and it's probably true as the large patio overlooks the river. The story has it that Bernier was traveling through Europe looking for different varieties of wine to buy and bring back to Cafe des Eclusiers. He found a number of rather small and rustic restaurants that served small portions of food along with great wine. Upon his return, he talked Beauchamb into opening up a small restaurant similar to the ones he encountered during his trip.
Grange Vin + Bouffe is located in a section of the city known as Old-Montreal, just a couple blocks from the St. Lawrence (see map). It's an area that's going through some gentrification, but it's also an area where it can get pretty rough after dark. It was about six in the evening when we pulled up in front of Grange.
As I said with Pullman, their decor is sort of a contemporary industrial motif that gives it an edgy feel to the place. With Grange, it's more of a contemporary rustic decor - sort of like they'd found an old barn, cleaned it up, put in some nice tables and chairs and opened a restaurant. There was a lot of brick and wood throughout the place, old light bulbs that hung from cables strung from the ceiling, but there was sort of a homey feeling to the restaurant. (The bar area of Grange - below left.)
There were eight of us that evening and we settled around a large table near the good sized bar toward the back of the restaurant. In the picture above and to the right, here is my colleague, Todd, patiently waiting for the rest of us to show up.
When we did all show up, we were given menus by our waiter. Once again, I deferred to my colleague Ian who is much more well-versed in European wines than I certainly am. And he picked out a winner - a 2005 Le Filigare Maria Vittoria chianti classico reserva from Italy. It was robust and overly flavorful. I love wines that just "pop" in your mouth when you take a full drink.
Grange's head chef Tommy Matteau specializes in Quebec terroir cuisine - something that I sort of found is pretty popular in Montreal during my visit. The concept is very similar to what is served at a French auberge- basically a small country in that only serves food grown, raised or caught in the immediate area. There are dishes that feature braised piglet shanks, grilled portobello mushrooms with Manchego cheese, and barbecued duck breast. Grange also featured a raw bar that served freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell, chilled shrimp and an interesting concoction of fresh snow crab, served on watercress and then topped with lime infused tomatoes.
I just let the Quebecers in our group order stuff up. We got a little bit of everything - Foie Gras mousse with pistachios and a sort of jelly; cognac beef tartar, mini bison burgers, and green bean poutine. Poutine (peu-TIN) is sort of the regional "comfort food" in Quebec. It consists of french fries mixed in with cheese curds and topped with a brown gravy. I've had it, it's OK. Grange's green bean poutine had, naturally, green beans instead of french fries, then they mixed in caramelized onions and cheese curds before topping it with not brown gravy but with a dijonnaise and marjoram sauce. It was actually pretty good.
We also got some roasted pickled beets with grilled slices of chorizo sausage, mixed with goat cheese and hazelnuts and topped with real honey. That was pretty good, too. An interesting dish we got was the marinated octopus and shrimp, mixed with white beans. I was a little apprehensive about the octopus, but it was actually very good.
We kept ordering stuff - salmon tartar, semi-cooked foie gras served on gingerbread chips, and some oysters. We even ordered up more of our favorites like the beef tartar and the mini bison burgers. It was all very, very good.
The restaurants in Montreal expand my horizons when it comes to innovative gastronomic taste explosions. Grange Vin + Bouffe was one more example of "outside the box" thinking that gives many restaurants in Montreal a cutting edge quality to their menus. You just can't find restaurants like this in the Midwest. Or maybe there's some in Chicago, but I certainly haven't found them yet.
Our last night in Montreal recently, our boss, Daniel, took the sales managers out to a fairly new restaurant that he wanted to try - Le Restaurant Apollo et Traiteur. Apollo, as it's normally called by the locals in Montreal, is the concept of chef Giovanni Apollo, a fairly well-known local caterer (traiteur is French for caterer) who specializes in organic or "food from the land" for his menus. There are actually two Apollo restaurants nearly across from one another - Le Bistro Apollo - and Le Restaurant Apollo that we went to. A little more about that later.
Giovanni Apollo is somewhat famous in the world of gastronomy. Known for his cooking classes, his catering business and now his two restaurants, Apollo champions the concept of molecular cuisine by focusing on a food group and then making a number of tapas-style offerings out of that one particular group. For example, he may have fresh salmon one evening and he'll make four different styles of salmon to try. That same evening, he may have fresh pheasant and he comes up with four different ways to prepare the wild game. Nearly every evening, Apollo has beef, seafood, venison and wild game foods on the menu.
Giovanni Apollo has also tapped into the "fast food" market for urban professionals who don't have time to make lunch or dinner, but who want high quality food to enjoy. He makes a number of fresh foods that are either bought as fresh or frozen for dining later on. Apollo also has two rooms in a nearby hotel that he uses for catering functions such as weddings, corporate events and other occasions.
But Le Restaurant Apollo is his big draw. In a recent article in a Montreal newspaper, Le Restaurant Apollo was named one of the Top 10 restaurants in the city. That's saying an awful lot considering there is some world-class dining in Montreal. And that's also why Daniel wanted to try the restaurant out.
After a long day of meetings, we drove down to the Little Italy section of Montreal and we parked along Boul Saint-Laurent near the two Apollo restaurants (see map). We made the mistake of walking into the bistro on the west side of Boul Saint-Laurent thinking that was the place, but the maitre d' - in broken English - informed us that we were looking for the restaurant across the street and down a couple doors.
After we finally figured out where we were supposed to go, we were seated at a long table in front of a floor to ceiling window with etched glass at the bottom which looked out onto Boul Saint-Laurent and the busy pedestrian traffic that continually walked by. I'm glad that we had at least three French speaking people at our table because the maitre d' and the waiter spoke NO English, whatsoever.
Le Restaurant Apollo offers no alcohol service, but encourages patrons to bring their own bottles. Daniel had dipped into his wine cellar at home and brought along three bottles of a great French wine that he'd picked up on one of his trips to Focal. The wine was Madiniere blend from the Yves Cuilleron winery in the Cote Rotie region of France. It was very, very good. It had a full body and left a great taste on the palate. In doing some research on the wine, I found that it was also not very cheap. So I have to thank Daniel for being so gracious and generous for sharing some of this outstanding wine with us.
One of my colleagues doesn't care for wine all that much, so Simon picked up some of the local beer for us to have, as well. One of the beers he brought was "La Fin du Monde", which translates into "The End of the World". It's a Belgian-style golden ale from the Unibroue micro-brewery in Chambley, Quebec. It was full-bodied and had a kick to it - Unibroue's triple fermentation process gave it a 9% alcohol content by volume. In comparison, most American mainstream beers have a 3.2 to 5.0 alcohol content. I'm generally not big on Belgian-style ales, but it was very good.
The menu for Le Restaurant Apollo was pretty simple - it was on a chalk board that was taken to each table by the waiter. However, it was in French and even though I can generally read some French and get an idea as to what the word is in English, this was a little further outside of my vocabulary. Todd and Simon even had a little bit of trouble coming up with English translations to some of the items they had on the menu. But we were able to just get through it all right.
The menu for Le Restaurant Apollo was pretty simple - it was on a chalk board that was taken to each table by the waiter. However, it was in French and even though I can generally read some French and get an idea as to what the word is in English, this was a little further outside of my vocabulary. Todd and Simon even had a little bit of trouble coming up with English translations to some of the items they had on the menu. But we were able to just get through it all right.
Daniel decided to just start picking out some things and bring them to the table tapas-style. That way we'd have a little bit of everything to share and pass around the table.
Daniel, in French, ordered up a lot of things. I sometimes can pick up French conversations, but he and the waiter were talking too fast so I couldn't understand what they were saying. Finally, he told us, "I ordered duck, beef, venison, veal, scallops, and salmon. That should get us started." Boy, I'll say - and THEN some!
The duck was the first thing to come out. The waiter brought three different settings with duck dishes (right). Quite honestly, other than foie gras and just regular duck breast meat, I didn't know what I was eating. And it was probably for the better.
The duck was prepared four different ways and served on a wooden tray. From the first bite of the foie gras, well, it was soon a free-for-all with guys fighting to get the last morsel of food from the trays. It was actually great fun. The taste sensations were overwhelming and we made short work of the duck.
The scallops and the beef were brought next. The beef had a carpaccio, small tenderloin medallions in a mushroom wine sauce and a couple of other preparations. The scallops were big and meaty and served with sort of a liver pate on one plate. They, too were very good.
The veal, salmon and venison came out last and we were just going to town on the food as fast as the waiter could bring it out. The veal (left) featured a grilled shank, small tenderloins and thin strips that were in a red wine reduced brown sauce. It was unbelievable.
The salmon featured a couple of sushi-style offerings and sort of salmon-mousse that was also excellent. The venison, compared to the other dishes, was rather tame and somewhat gamey in taste. It was definitely more tough to chew and didn't have quite the taste explosion that I found with the other preparations.
We all agreed that we needed more food (there were 8 of us), so we decided the duck, the salmon and the beef had to come back to the table. Daniel ordered three more each of those dishes. I'm sure the people at Apollo had to wonder about those crazy guys up front ordering more food and having a good time laughing in between bites.
By the time we fought over and finished the final morsel of the excellent food at Apollo, the waiter came out with a dessert menu. Honestly, I wasn't interested in any more food, but they did have creme brulee. Actually what they did was to bring six small desserts per tray that featured the creme brulee, a fruit parfait, a chocolate hot dog in a pastry (seriously - take a closer look at at the hot dog shaped thing when you click on the picture!), and three other things that I don't quite remember what they were. Daniel ordered three trays of desserts. The creme brulee was very good and the chocolate hot dog was interesting, but also good. The chocolate hot dog was something called an "inspiration pastry" that French chefs will come up with when they want to make an interesting dessert.
We had more than enough food, more than enough wine and the dessert just sent me over the top at Apollo. I've eaten at some unusual and great restaurants during my nearly 8 years of working for my company. But I can honestly say that Apollo was one of the more unique restaurants I've been to given the menu, the food preparation, the presentation and the overall experience at the place. I'm still shaking my head over the numerous taste sensations I experienced that evening. It was truly one of the all-time gastronomical highlights of my life.
Montreal is a unique city in that they have a lot of European-influenced restaurants throughout the city. For a very late lunch on the first day I was in the city recently, some of my colleagues and I ate at a trendy wine/appetizer bar called Pullman in the central part of Montreal.
When I arrived in Montreal, I was sort of hungry. I didn't have breakfast because I had a scheduled 8:30 a.m. flight out of the Quad City Airport in Moline and I had a 11:00 a.m. connecting flight out of O'Hare to Montreal. I figured I'd have no problem getting something to eat at O'Hare before I flew on to Montreal. But the plane coming in to Moline to take us to Chicago didn't arrive at the gate in Moline until 9:10 and we didn't back out of the gate until 9:45.
By the time we landed in Chicago and deplaned, it was 10:35 a.m. The connecting flight was in the F gates of Terminal 2 - I had come into the C gates of Terminal 1 at O'Hare. I had 25 minutes to get all the way across the airport. Thankfully, there's an inter-terminal bus between the C and E concourses that boarded right next to the gate I came into from Moline. I was able to hop aboard that and make it over to the E concourse and then walked to my flight on the F concourse. They were boarding for the flight to Montreal - I was the last one on the flight. So, I didn't get a chance to get anything to eat.
A quick two hours later, I'm in Montreal. I whizzed through customs - the new international terminal at Montreal's Trudeau Airport (it was known as Dorval the previous times I'd flown in) was much more efficient than the old international terminal. The only fear I had was that my bag didn't make it to Montreal. Long story short - after waiting for a half-hour before the bags from my flight did get on the carousel, my bag was there and I was out the door through the secondary customs area meeting up with my colleague, Ian, who had flown in to Montreal from his home in Toronto.
We were both hungry, but we had to first meet up with some of our other colleagues at a cigar place in downtown Montreal. Since Cuban cigars are legal in Canada, a couple of my American colleagues love to go to these "cigar bars" to try a fat Cuban cigar. I'm not a smoker, but I wasn't going to bitch. Actually, the place we went to - La Casa del Habano - was pretty neat. If I were a smoker, I would have dove in and enjoyed an authentic Cuban cigar, myself.
La Casa del Habano (see map) featured two large humidor rooms where the temperature and humidity were kept constant. In fact, an associate would have to let you into the locked humidors to keep the atmosphere constant in the rooms. After you make your selection, you pay for the cigars and then you're invited to retreat into the bar area in the back of the establishment. There's a small four seater bar and about a dozen overstuffed chairs and couches to sit on. I was worried that my clothes would wreak of tobacco, but there's a strong air-filtration system in the room and with about 10 guys in the room (including four of my colleagues) smoking big ol' cigars, I couldn't tell I had been anywhere near tobacco when I peeled off my clothes getting ready for bed later that evening.
One of the joys of the place was that they had an impressive selection of Scotch to choose from. While I didn't partake in the smoking of authentic Cuban cigars, I did treat myself to a couple glasses of Oban whisky. It was fun catching up with everyone and I didn't mind that my stomach was still rumbling due to not having any food in it for nearly 20 hours.
Actually, La Casa del Habano is a world-wide chain with locations in 55 countries on six continents. Of course, there are none in the U.S. I can almost imagine the flood of locations opening across the country once the Cuban blockade is lifted. It's actually a pretty neat place and a pretty neat concept, even though the amount of smokers continues to drop.
OK, so I told you all that to get to the nitty-gritty - my visit to Pullman. We met up with our Montreal colleague, Simon at the trendy little wine bar in the central part of Montreal on Ave. du Parc (Park Ave.) (see map). The concept of Pullman is simple. They had a ton of great wines from around the world available either by the bottle or by the glass, and a menu of appetizer including cheese, nuts, small sandwiches, and something called "foie gras cookies." I sort of wanted to try those.
Pullman opened about seven years ago, housed in a building that is over 130 years old. Co-owners Catherine Belanger and Bruno Braen also owned a small restaurant in Montreal's "Little Italy" district, "Le Petite Italien". Braen's main job, however, is as an architect and designer of interiors for restaurants. Braen's design for Pullman is somewhat of a contemporary industrial feel. Lots of a hard edges, unconventional chairs and a combination of wood, metal and ceramic are found throughout the restaurant. The center piece of the restaurant is the wine goblet chandelier that hangs from the ceiling over the main bar.
Pullman is named after George Pullman, the inventor of the sleeping rail car and the luxury rail car. A picture of Pullman hangs just inside the front door in the main bar area. I think the concept of the Pullman is supposed to be sort of like being on a Pullman luxury rail car, although I didn't quite pick that up on my visit. In fact, I don't even know if there's a Montreal connection with George Pullman. The naming of the restaurant after Pullman is somewhat of a curious deal.
Belanger and Braen have traveled the world in search of some of the best wines they can find. The bulk of the wines on the wine list at Pullman I was unfamiliar with. In fact, my colleague, Ian, is pretty well versed in Italian and French wines and he wasn't overly familiar with many of the wines, either. "A few things I recognize," he said, "but I'm clueless on most of these."
We took a seat in a booth on the upper level of Pullman and I really didn't care what we got - I was hungry. The menu was basically a sheet of paper that you checked off for the dishes you wanted. There were a lot of interesting things I wanted to try. We sort of discussed what they had on the menu and decided to order up a little bit of everything.
We ordered up a couple of bottles of an Italian chianti I wasn't familiar with, and a French red - Mas de Gourgonnier Rouge Les Baux de Provence. Then we ordered a slew of appetizers to tide us over until dinner. Our waitress, a cute and petite French-Canadian blonde, was pleasant and funny, even though her English was a little choppy. My colleagues, Simon and Todd, are both fluent in French, however, and they made sure she got our orders correct.
What we ordered were the mini-bison burgers that were served with matchstick potato fries. The bison burgers were lean and a little dry, but it was no matter to me. I was hungry and I probably would have eaten fried liver at that point. But they were pretty good, so good that we got another order of them.
Another thing that we ordered again after devouring the first plate was the venison tartare that came with homemade potato chips. The venison tartare had a garlic/lemon/spicy taste to it and was served with some capers. The venison tartare went quickly, to the point that we were fighting over the last bit with both plates that came out.
We also got an order of fried calimari and onion rings - breaded and deep fried big chunks of calimari with Pullman's lightly breaded onion rings. Both the calimari and the onion rings were not all that greasy, and they had a nice taste to them.
Another interesting thing that I tried was the Russian-style Gravlax. Gravlax is basically raw salmon that has been seasoned with salt, dill weed and sugar and wrapped and cured for about 24 to 48 hours. Gravlax began in Sweden where the fishermen would literally bury the fish in the sand and the sea salt would cure the raw salmon. The Russian-style Gravlax at Pullman was served with caviar on a small piece of bread. It was damn good!
One other thing that we got were some port-steeped cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches. Port-steeped cheddar consists of a high grade of sharp cheddar cheese, then they steep, or saturate, the cheese in a sweet port wine to give it an extra zip in taste. Those little things were very good, as well.
While some people may equate a place like Pullman as a tapas bar, the food on them menu at the restaurant is far from the typical Spanish tapas restaurant. However, there is some similarities in that both Pullman and a tapas bar will use indigenous ingredients that are grown, caught or raised in the area. Pullman was a rather unique place for me and one that I enjoyed immensely. The food was good, the wine was great, the local scenery (read: the local women) was wonderful. I really like experiencing new things when I'm on the road and Pullman was definitely a new thing for me.
A casual acquaintance of mine who I run into a couple three times a year in the Quad Cities - WQAD news anchor Jason Fechner - was telling me a while back about this hole-in-the-wall lounge in downtown Chicago that he's known about since his days in college. The name - CND Gyros and Lounge - was intriguing enough. What Jason stressed to me was that it was the quintessential dive bar with great gyros and burgers. "This is the kind of place you'd love," he told me one evening over a couple beers during the Christmas holiday last December. I made it my mission to give it a shot at some point.
I was in downtown Chicago one evening in late January, staying at the Hilton Garden Inn on East Grand at State. Jason had told me that CND Gyros was on East Grand just east of Michigan Ave. (East Grand goes underneath Michigan Ave.) It was about a five minute walk on a cool night when I went there around 8:30 p.m. It turned out that the lounge was open until 10 p.m., but I was told by the raspy-voiced lady behind the bar that when food orders are slow, they'll close the kitchen early sometimes. Ohhh, OK. I ended up walking back to the hotel and having dinner at the Weber Grill Restaurant, so the evening wasn't a total waste.
I was back in Chicago in the Spring and happened to stay at the Hilton Garden Inn again. This time, it was a warm evening as I walked down busy East Grand to CND Gyros and Lounge (see map). The place is situated just to the east of the corner of N. St. Clair and East Grand, right next to the Volare Restaurant, an Italian restaurant that is favored by the local population. (I really need to try Volare at some point.)
CND Gyros and Lounge is owned and operated by John Xamplas, a Grecian immigrant who has run the place for years and years. How the "CND" name came about borders on legend. The story I got is that when Xamplas bought the business a guy by the name of Chris owned the building next door. Xamplas couldn't come up with a name for his place, so he decided to call it "Chris Next Door" or shortened to CND. I don't know if that's the true story, but that's the one I heard.
The menu for the restaurant is located in the front window of the restaurant/lounge. Not only is CND Gyros known for their gyros and burgers, they also have a homemade chili that is supposed to be pretty good. "Behind our gyros, our chili is the second best seller on the menu," the same raspy-voiced bartender told me. They also have something called a "Gyro Melt" - a Texas Toast sandwich with gyro meat topped with grilled cheese and cheddar cheese. While the Gyro Melt sounded interesting, I wanted to give their regular gyro a try.
I walked in and the kitchen was open this time. Not knowing the drill at the place, I stepped up to the counter at the kitchen under the "Order Here" sign and ordered a gyro. The guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted a "gyro sandwich or a gyro platter." The gyro platter basically came with french fries. No, I'll just get the regular gyro.
While he made up my gyro, an elderly guy came to take my money. It turned out this was John Xamplas, the owner. On the right is a picture of John behind the counter.
What I really wanted was to have a beer in the lounge area of the restaurant. I figured that they made the food up front and then you had to order the beer at the bar. I got my gyro - it was in a plain brown paper bag - and I went to the bar to order an Old Style. "Bottle or draw, darlin'," the raspy-voiced bartender asked. I got it in a bottle. It wasn't cheap - $3.50 a bottle. Yow! But, yes, I was in downtown Chicago and it certainly beat the $7.00 bottles of beer I was buying out in Hawaii.
I found a table in the back of the place and sat down to eat my gyro. Actually, instead of a gyro on a flat piece of pita, this was more of a pita pocket. Two chunks of tomatoes were at the top and the tsaksiki sauce was served in a cup on the side. The pita pocket was stuffed full of the gyro meat and I have to say it was very good. The meat was a little salty, but the onions were fresh and forward tasting. It was pretty damn good. Equally impressive was the cold beer. Now, I like cold beer. And the beer at CND Gyros was ice cold. It was a great compliment to the very good gyro I finished in rather quickly. There was a great stained glass ceiling light above the bar area. Behind the bar was cluttered with lottery tickets, signs and notices, liquor bottles and a line up of beer bottles of the brands they sold. You could tell from conversations going on between the bartender and some of the people seated at the bar these were regulars who were there. Jason was right. It was the exact kind of joint that I love - a homey, comfortable dive bar that just happened to have very good gyros. It's far from fancy, but it's not a skid row slum bar, either. I'm not certain they've changed the decor or many of the fixtures since when they first took over the place. And that's helps add to the charm of CND Gyros and Lounge. It's not a tourist destination by any stretch, but I can see why the locals in Chicago keep coming back for the great gyros and cold beer. I may have to come back in the winter and try a bowl of chili with a cold beer. Actually, that doesn't sound too bad in the middle of the summer.
I decided to go back up to the bar and have another beer. There weren't many people in the place, only a handful of people eating gyros. I understand that it can get pretty packed during the lunch hour and later in the evening, especially on weekends when they have karaoke on Friday nights. I ordered up another ice cold beer from the friendly bartender and took a good look around the place. Even though there were pennants, team pictures and other sports memorabilia on the walls of CND Gyro and Lounge, they had a sitcom on a regular national network on the two televisions behind the bar. I thought it was rather strange considering the Cubs were playing on television that evening.
I found a table in the back of the place and sat down to eat my gyro. Actually, instead of a gyro on a flat piece of pita, this was more of a pita pocket. Two chunks of tomatoes were at the top and the tsaksiki sauce was served in a cup on the side. The pita pocket was stuffed full of the gyro meat and I have to say it was very good. The meat was a little salty, but the onions were fresh and forward tasting. It was pretty damn good.
Equally impressive was the cold beer. Now, I like cold beer. And the beer at CND Gyros was ice cold. It was a great compliment to the very good gyro I finished in rather quickly.
There was a great stained glass ceiling light above the bar area. Behind the bar was cluttered with lottery tickets, signs and notices, liquor bottles and a line up of beer bottles of the brands they sold. You could tell from conversations going on between the bartender and some of the people seated at the bar these were regulars who were there.
Jason was right. It was the exact kind of joint that I love - a homey, comfortable dive bar that just happened to have very good gyros. It's far from fancy, but it's not a skid row slum bar, either. I'm not certain they've changed the decor or many of the fixtures since when they first took over the place. And that's helps add to the charm of CND Gyros and Lounge. It's not a tourist destination by any stretch, but I can see why the locals in Chicago keep coming back for the great gyros and cold beer. I may have to come back in the winter and try a bowl of chili with a cold beer. Actually, that doesn't sound too bad in the middle of the summer.
(Update - Jason went into Chicago on August 21 for one last meal at CND Gyros. As his comment below states, the owner, John Xamplas decided 37 years was long enough. It's not that he wanted to close, but his lease expired and the building had been sold to a new landlord - a new landlord who obviously saw the old building has being more of a liability than an asset. Jason told me it was a bittersweet occasion - one that he'd remember for years. I'm glad that I was able to, at least, have one experience at CND Gyros.)
I really wish I could remember the name of our favorite valet at the Grand Wailea. He really gave us some great tips on places to eat during our stay on Maui. One place that he told us about early during our visit was a place in Kihei called Cuatro. He categorized it as a "boutique restaurant" with a fusion of Pacific, Latin and Mediterranean cuisines. He told us, "I think it's the best place to eat in the area. And there are some pretty good places to eat around here." On our last full night on Maui and in Hawaii, we took him up on his recommendation and had dinner at Cuatro.
Cuatro has been in business less than two years. The owner/chef of the restaurant is Eric Arbogast (left), who is a veteran of many Maui restaurants. The last place he worked at was at the Sansei on Maui, which just happens to be next door in the Kihei Town Center shopping complex (see map). With the help of Sansei's owner, Dave "D.K." Kodama, Arbogast opened his restaurant in late 2008. In 2009, it was voted "Best New Restaurant" by readers of the Maui News.
We were told by our valet friend at the Grand Wailea that we really needed reservations to Cuatro as it was a tiny place that sat less than 40 people total. I called the restaurant the afternoon before we ate there and requested a table for two around 7:30. The man on the end of the phone said, "I can do 7 p.m., but may have trouble at 7:30." I told him 7:00 p.m. would be fine.
We were actually a little early for our reservation, but the manager, Brad, seated us at a table in the corner of the cozy little restaurant. We were given menus and told that our waiter would be with us shortly. Our waiter, a 50-something man by the name of George, stopped by to greet us and to let us know he'd be with us shortly. There was something strangely familiar about George. It was like I had known him at some point in my life, he looked so familiar.
George came back with a sampling of something Eric Arbogast had come up with in the kitchen, homemade won ton chips with a spicy mango salsa. It was very good, a pleasant surprise to start our meal at Cuatro.
The name Cuatro comes from the term Puerto Ricans call a four-string guitar, similar to an ukulele. In the 1800's, a number of Puerto Ricans emigrated to Hawaii and Cuatro pays homage to the Puerto Rican heritage that is found throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
George told us about the food at Cuatro - it features a strong Southwestern and Mexican influence, blending bits of Asia, the Mediterranean and Hawaiian cuisines within. He said, "A lot of people thought our chef was nuts when he blended all these cuisines together, but I think you'll find that he does a pretty good job of pulling it off."
George heartily recommended one of Cuatro's number of interesting appetizers. The spicy tuna nachos had already caught my eye. He said, "The won ton chips that I brought out to you earlier? We take those same chips and add spicy sushi-grade tuna and then we drizzle some aioli truffle sauce, Latin cilantro and an avacado relish on top." I told him it sounded great. "It is," he replied in a matter of fact way. We signed up for one of those.
We were looking through the very small wine list at Cuatro. George said that up until about a year ago, it was a "Bring-Your-Own-Bottle" place. "We don't have much room here for much of a wine selection. So the ones we have on our limited menu are top-notch." I ended up ordering a Kris Pinot Grigio out of Italy that turned out to be a great compliment to our meal that evening.
While we waited on our appetizer, we looked through the menu and our mouth watered at all the selections. Their feature item is a fresh "catch-of-the-day" and you have your choice of preparation - 1) House style (blackened with Mexican spices topped with a beurre blanc - French for "white butter" - sauce and salsa verde, served with fresh veggies, rice pilaf with an avacado pico de gallo.) 2) Maui-terranean style (grilled fish topped with a basil infused beurre blanc sauce and a balsamic syrup, served with garlic mashed potatoes and a tomato-caper relish.) 3) Roasted style (fish roasted with chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers, served with a basmati pilaf with fresh veggies.) And 4) Classic style (sauteed with rock shrimp in a lemon caper butter sauce, served with white truffled mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus.) Each way sounded delicious.
Cuatro also featured a teriyaki marinated steak, a Mexican-style marinated pork entree and roasted chicken breast stuffed with green chiles, ham and pepper jack cheese. Oh, man! I could have ordered anything prepared any way on the menu and been overly happy. It all sounded so good and so interesting.
Our spicy tuna nachos came out and they were everything George promised they would be. The spicy tuna was fresh and wonderful, the won ton chips were light and crispy, just like the ones we had gotten as a welcoming gesture from George, and the cilantro pesto and avacado relish for dipping was just outstanding. I could have easily ordered up a couple more of those, the spicy tuna nachos were so good. And the sauces that we either dipped or put on top of the won ton chips and spicy tuna were outstanding, as well. I couldn't decide with sauce I liked the best.
George let us know that they had two fresh caught fish featured that evening - mahi mahi and ahi tuna. I normally don't eat chicken when we go out to a restaurant, but I really was intrigued by the stuffed chicken breast. But I then realized that I could probably make something like that at home. And when would I be back in Hawaii to have such fresh fish? I decided to get the ahi tuna - house style. Cindy didn't hesitate when he told us the fish selections - she got the mahi mahi, roasted with the veggies and served with the basmati.
Cuatro was very busy and packed. Brad, the manager, greeted a number of people who were obviously regulars to the place. It had a nice, homey feel to the place. The lighting was subdued, but bright enough so you could easily read the menu and get a gander at your meal. Other than the view of the parking lot of the strip mall, the restaurant was a great little place.
George brought out our main entrees and we dug in. The ahi tuna was cooked exactly as I like - seared with a lot pink inside. Large cilantro leaves garnished the top of the fish. The blackened Mexican spices gave the fish a mighty kick on the taste buds, but not over-powering so you couldn't enjoy the taste. Putting a little of the avacado pico de gallo on the fish helped tame the spiciness. It was actually pretty good. The beurre blanc sauce gave the ahi tuna a nice finish, as well. I had an adequate helping of steamed green beans and healthy amount of rice on the plate. I was much more interested in the fish.
Cindy's mahi mahi (above at right) was - in her words - "out of this world." The combination of the tomatoes, onions, garlic and roasted peppers helped enhance the taste of the fish. She also got a nice garnish of cilantro on top. She was overly happy with what she got.
As we finished up the meal, George came out with a dessert menu. Actually, we were pretty stuffed but he described this dessert where they take vanilla ice cream, top it with crushed macadamia nuts, then drizzled with a butterscotch topping, then they finalize it off by putting fresh raspberries, blackberries and blueberries with sliced bananas on top of all that. Cindy gave me that look of "C'mon! Let's try that!" Cindy finally said, "We'll take that with two spoons."
I'm glad she ordered it because it was wonderful. I'm a sucker for anything with butterscotch on it. I developed a taste and a strong liking of macadamia nuts while in Hawaii. And blueberries with ice cream is one of my all-time guilty pleasures. I don't care for bananas, so I let Cindy eat the banana slices. But the rest of it was outstanding. A wonderful end to a wonderful meal.
George, our waiter, spent some time with us as we were getting ready to leave. I told him that he looked so familiar and I tried to tie us together at some point in our lives. He lived in San Diego for years before moving his family out to Hawaii about 14 years ago. I asked him if he had ever been in the audio business, if he'd ever done this or that, but nothing was coming up. He said, "I guess I'm one of those unique characters where people think they know me from somewhere, but they really don't." His overall service and table demeanor were both excellent. He got a handsome tip from us.
The next afternoon as we were leaving the hotel, our favorite valet happened to be out front. I walked up to him and handed him a $10 dollar bill and thanked him for all his great suggestions for restaurants while we were there. I told him that we had made it to Cuatro the night before. "How did you like it," he asked.
I told him, "We've eaten at a lot of great restaurants on our trip to Hawaii. But Cuatro may have been the best of them all."
He said, "I'm glad you enjoyed it."
I shook his hand, wished him good luck and told him we hoped to see him again. We got in the car and drove away.
And with that, our trip to Hawaii came to an all too rapid end.
I work with a group of guys who seem to have a ravenous taste for sushi. One of my colleagues is so weird about fish that he loves sushi, but hates any cooked fish. One of the guys in our office outside of Montreal was telling us about this little sushi place that wasn't far from our headquarters. He said, "You wouldn't think by looking at this place that they have some great sushi, but they do." He handed me a take-out menu from Okinawa, the little sushi place. I was pretty impressed by the amount of different types of sushi they had to offer. I told him it looked good. Then he said, "Maybe we should go there for lunch today." I certainly couldn't say no.
During our lunch break from training on the Siltech and Crystal cable lines, a group of 10 of us went over to Okinawa to have some sushi. My colleague was right - from the outside, Okinawa didn't look like much. It wasn't anything more than a hole in the wall in the middle of a strip mall less than a mile - or for our Canadian friends - about a kilometer from our office (see map). But if anything is more constant, I've found that some of the best restaurants aren't all that inviting from the outside, while some bad places to eat are spic and span on the facade.
They tried their best to make the inside of Okinawa reminiscent of a traditional Japanese restaurant. There was a lot of bamboo fixtures and three private dining rooms where people would sit at a low table with their shoes off in the tradition of fine Japanese cuisine. While the menu had some beef, chicken and pork dishes, we were there for the sushi. There was a small sushi station toward the back of the restaurant.
Now, going to a sushi restaurant with a big group is sort of confusing to me. I don't know if I need to order for myself, if we're ordering for the group or whatever. We finally decided to team up in twos to order the sushi, I was paired with my colleague, Chris - the guy who loves sushi, but hates cooked fish. I know, it's weird.
I had a big breakfast earlier in the day back at the hotel, so I wasn't overly hungry. I decided not to get sushi but go with the sashimi - basically sushi without rice. I didn't want the rice to get me stuffed in a hurry. Chris ordered up sushi when we filled out the order form that we shared. I got a spicy tuna roll, however, as a start, then I picked out tuna, yellowtail, salmon, smoked salmon, sweet shrimp and something I don't see very often on a sushi menu, halibut. Given Montreal's proximity to the North Atlantic, I figured the halibut would be very good.
I really wanted to go with a Japanese beer with my sushi - they had both Asahi or Sapporo in bottles at Okinawa. But I was afraid of getting tired for the afternoon session. The husband and wife couple from Siltech/Crystal, Edwin and Gabi, had a 6 p.m. flight schedule to go back to the Netherlands, so they didn't have any problem ordering up beers to go with their massive amounts of sushi that they ordered. Edwin said, "We'll need to eat a lot of food now because we probably won't eat again until tomorrow after we get home."
The only problem with sushi places is the anticipation and the wait of getting good sushi. They usually bring the specialty rolls out first, but at Okinawa, they didn't. It was about 20 minutes before sushi and sashimi began to show up at the table. And by that time I was ready.
There was a time that I thought that sushi was nothing more than cut bait. I didn't really begin to like sushi until about 15 years ago. Since then, I've become somewhat of a sushi connoisseur - or as my wife and I like to joke, we're sushi whores. I immediately know when the sushi isn't that great - it doesn't have the wholesome taste or chewy texture that good sushi should have. From the first bite of my tuna sashimi, I knew that the sushi at Okinawa was outstanding.
My colleagues, Jon and Chris, eat a lot more sushi on the road than I do (they cover the west coast for our company). Both thought the sushi was great. One of my Montreal colleagues, Todd, who also eats a lot of sushi, yelled down the table to me, "Isn't this great? And it's cheap!" He and some other guys from the office go to Okinawa all the time.
My boss, Daniel, was seated next to me. He leaned over and said, "We have some very good sushi places in Montreal. But this is one of the best we've found."
A couple three of the guys had sushi for appetizers, but ended up getting teriyaki-marinated strip steaks for their lunch. Each steak wasn't very thick, less than a half-inch thick, but my colleague, Ian, said that it was "pretty damn good." The steaks smelled great when they brought them out to the table.
We had some fun at Edwin and Gabi's expense when they brought out a huge bamboo boat filled with sushi that covered our end of the table. It was so huge that they couldn't maneuver it to get to the multitudes of sushi they'd ordered. Gabi was gingerly trying to move it around and she ended up knocking over Chris' water glass which emptied into our much smaller sushi platter. She felt so bad that she immediately ordered up more sushi and sashimi for Chris and I. Quite honestly, it was no big deal for me. Since I was having sashimi with no rice, I was fine. But Chris' sushi got pretty soggy.
Anytime we get together to eat sushi, it's just a free-for-all with people offering samples of what they are having, or people jumping up with a pair of chop sticks to scrounge something off of someone else's plate. Todd offered me a bite of his unagi - which was fresh eel sushi. I declined, saying that eel wasn't quite a delicacy for me. He said, "No, no! You've got to try this. This is the best eel I've ever had!"
I tried it and, yeah, it was pretty good. Not good enough for me to order the next time we go to Okinawa - or at any other sushi restaurant, for that matter. But it was pretty tasty. Todd popped another one in his mouth and made a satiated "Mmmmmmmm....." sound with his mouth full of unagi sushi.
I was overly impressed with the sushi at Okinawa. As they say, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and you shouldn't judge restaurants by their outside appearance. I trust the judgment and the expertise of my colleagues when they tell me Okinawa is one of the best places for sushi in the greater Montreal area. It was very, very good.
On the suggestion from one of the concierge's at the Grand Wailea, we tried out a Kihei restaurant popular with the locals and tourists called Cafe O'Lei. It sort of sounded like it could be a mix between a Hawaiian and Mexican restaurant - sort of like Tako Taco on the Big Island. But it turned out to be a nice contemporary steak and seafood restaurant that had some creative ideas for their food. We decided to have dinner there one evening.
Cafe O'Lei has been around for a number of years, but not all of them have been at the Kihei location in an upstairs spot in the Rainbow Mall on S. Kihei Road (see map). Chef/owners Michael and Dana Pastula have run five other Cafe O'Lei-style restaurants over the years working their way from the towns on the north side of Maui to the southwest side of the island. In addition to Cafe O'Lei, the Pastula's also run the Ma'alaea Grill near the harbor where we went on our whale watching tour. In addition to their restaurants, the Pastula's also own a popular catering business.
We soon found out how popular Cafe O'Lei was as we got there just after 7 p.m. and found that it would be a minimum 30 minute wait. We sort of hemmed and hawed for a moment, then decided that we would stay. The hostess stand is just inside the front door and there's a small waiting area. I asked if there was a bar inside and the hostess said there was. The only problem was that it wasn't in direct sight of the hostess stand. I told her we'd be at the bar and to not forget about us.
The circular-shaped bar in the center of the contemporary main dining room was full of people having drinks and appetizers. Some people were opting to have their dinner at the bar. Cindy has this thing about having dinner at the bar, especially in nice places - and Cafe O'Lei was a nice place. There was a large dining room with a smaller dining area in the back corner of the restaurant. In the back of the main dining room was a sushi bar which was interestingly void of any people.
We found one stool that was open at the bar and Cindy sat on that while I stood next to her. She ordered a glass of the house chardonnay and I got a Kona Big Wave Golden Ale (I'm tellin' ya - I loved that beer!). We were sort of hanging out for a while waiting for our table and talking about our day and what we were going to do the next day. There were two bartenders working - a male and a female - and they were busy as can be. And they gave off this sort of uncomfortable vibe like they weren't very friendly people.
After about 15 minutes, the male bartender comes up to us and brusquely said, "You're gonna have to move, folks."
I said, "Excuse me?"
He said, "Are you waiting for a table?"
"Yes, we are," I replied.
"Well, you're gonna have to move. We've got people who want to sit here and eat."
I looked at Cindy and then back at the bartender. "You're kidding me," I exclaimed.
He said, "No sir. We need your seat."
Cindy said, "Where are we supposed to move to?"
He looked down toward the other end of the bar and he said, "I'll set you up down there."
Another waiter brought a chair - a lower chair than what they had at the bar - and sat it down near a glass case on the end of the bar. Cindy said, "That's just stupid and plain rude. We're paying customers, aren't we?"
I said, "We must not be the right kind of paying customers."
We made our way down to the other end of the bar, but not before the female bartender screamed at me, "Sir! You have to close out your tab before you leave the bar!"
I spun around and said, "I'm not leaving! Your partner made us move! You have more important people that need our spots at that end of the bar!"
Cindy sat in this chair that barely allowed her to see the top of the bar. I was standing next to her and next to a group of people having drinks and appetizers. One of the ladies in the group said, "Did they really make you move?"
I said, "Oh, yeah. Someone more important needed our spot to eat."
She said, "Well, that was sort of rude!"
Cindy exclaimed, "I said the same thing!"
We noticed that the staff was somewhat falling all over themselves to seat the three people who took up what was really just one spot at the bar. Two more high bar chairs were produced out of nowhere by the staff and the three people - two men and a lady - sat down at the other end of the bar being greeted warmly by the bartenders and a couple of the waiters. Cindy said, "They really must be some important people."
The lady next to me said, "Naw, I recognize them. They're just some locals. Probably friends of the bartenders."
The small group next to us, three women and a man, got to talking with us. It turned out they were in management at the Wailea Marriott which was located next to our hotel. We told them we were staying at the Grand Wailea and one lady said, "Oh, yes. That's a beautiful place. We have a number of friends who work over there. The hospitality community on Maui is pretty close knit."
I will say that the bartender did comp us a free beer and a glass of wine for moving us out of our spots at the end of the bar. He still wasn't very personable about the ordeal, but the free beer and wine helped soften our feelings.
After about 40 minutes, one of the hostesses came to get us and took us into the smaller dining room in the back of the restaurant. We were seated at a small table for two. Directly behind Cindy was a refrigerated wine cabinet. While it wasn't a huge imposition, more than once while we were seated there a waiter would have to drop in behind Cindy and grab a bottle of wine.
Our waiter was originally from Colorado working in the restaurant business back there. He was the manager of a place in the mountains and he fell in love with one of his waitresses - a young Hawaiian girl who was working at his restaurant in the summertime. When she moved back to Hawaii to finish her last year of school, he sold everything, pulled up stakes and moved to Hawaii to be with her. "That was 13 years and two little boys ago," he told us.
He gave us some time to look over the menu which included a potpourri of items including steaks, lamb chops, chicken, pasta, seafood and even roast duck. There was a large number of salads and appetizers to choose from, as well. Their wine list wasn't much to be impressed with, so I just stuck with my beer for the time being, thinking that I'd get a glass of wine with my meal.
After a while, our waiter came back to check on us and we were ready to order. Cindy wasn't about to break from her tradition of having seafood at nearly every dinner so she ordered up the blackened mahi mahi served with a papaya salsa and seared in a butter-ginger sauce with Cajun seasonings. She also ordered a small Caesar salad.
I was torn between a couple three things - the Western Australia lobster tail sounded good, but Cindy pointed out to me that it was probably frozen. I also looked at getting the baked Pacific Zarzuella which featured clams, mussels, shrimp with roma tomatoes in a garlic/saffron sauce. But in the end, I decided to try the beef tenderloin medallions served with foie gras in a mushroom/cabernet sauce with shallots and thyme served with buttermilk mashed potatoes. The waiter told me the beef was grass-fed Hawaiian beef and I ordered it rare. He said, "Are you from Europe?"
I said, "No, Iowa. But I work with Europeans who love their beef rare."
He asked if I wanted a salad and I noticed they had a tomato salad on the menu. I asked if the tomatoes were from Maui and he said, "We get them from an organic farm on the east side of the island. They're wonderful." I signed up for that.
Not long after we ordered, he brought our salads out. I have to say my tomato salad was just outstanding. There is something about Hawaiian tomatoes that are so delicious. It was topped with roquefort cheese crumbles, sweet Maui onion slices and a small amount of greens. Then a basil vinaigrette was drizzled over the top. The tomatoes were sweet and juicy. Oh, man. I could have just eaten tomatoes all night.
Cindy said her Caesar salad was "pretty good". She thought the Caesar dressing was a little weak, but the salad greens were crisp and fresh.
Our main entrees came out in a timely fashion. I had two medium sized filet medallions with the mushroom/cabernet sauce on top with the foie gras and the mashed potatoes sort of sitting underneath. The tenderloins were cooked a little more medium-rare than rare, but that's OK. Better than having them more medium than medium-rare. The meat was tender and flavorful, and the mushroom/cabernet sauce was very good. There was a hint of thyme and shallots in the sauce.
The foie gras, not as good as I've had in France, was still palatable. I offered Cindy a bite of the foie gras, but she declined. "I don't know if I'd care for duck liver," she said. I told her I didn't think it sounded all that appetizing either before I had my first bite of it, but I'm hooked on good foie gras. Cafe O'Lei's foie gras was good, but not great.
Cindy really liked her blackened mahi mahi. It was light and flaky and the Cajun seasonings didn't overpower the taste. She especially liked the papaya salsa and the hint of ginger in the taste of the fish from cooking it in the butter and ginger. She had a side of steamed vegetables that she said were cooked just right. They were fresh and still had a little crispness to the bite.
Our waiter did a pretty good job with us. He was a little too chatty and that delayed his service to us and his other tables. But it wasn't anything that was out of line. The place was busy and he was working the tables for a better tip, I'm sure.
When we returned to the hotel, our favorite valet was waiting for us to take our car. He said, "Where did you guys go tonight." We told him Cafe O'Lei and he asked how we liked it. Cindy said, "It was good. It wasn't the best we've had, but it was good."
He told us, "Did you get the recommendation from the concierges? I don't know what they have going on with Cafe O'Lei, but they seem to steer a lot of people toward that place."
He said that while Cafe O'Lei was good, there were other restaurants that he thought were better. And he gave us the name of one that he highly recommended and which we tried on our last night on Maui. That entry will come up next week, saving the best for the last blog entry on our visit to Hawaii.
As our time wound down on our trip to Hawaii, we began to feel that we really didn't spend as much time on Maui as we really wanted to. While we were sort of ready to leave the Big Island after a week to get to Maui, we knew before we went back home that we'd left a lot of exploring on the table in Maui - especially when it came to finding restaurants. We had a lot of great suggestions from the valets who would bring our car around each morning at the Grand Wailea. On the last day we were there, we asked one of our favorite valets where we should go for breakfast. He said, "Have you tried Gannon's? It's just down the road up in the clubhouse for the Wailea Golf Club's Emerald and Gold courses." He told us it was wonderful and we should give it a try. This valet hadn't steered us wrong so far, so we took off for Gannon's.
Bev Gannon is one of the dozen Hawaiian chefs who founded the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement back in the 1990's. Using island-raised ingredients in her foods, Gannon quickly became one of the more popular chefs on the Hawaiian Islands as she rose through the ranks of owning her own catering business that specialized in lu'au's for large companies, to opening the heralded Hali`imaile General Store in 1988 in Maui's upcountry area. Gannon and her husband, Joe, opened the popular Joe's in the Wailea area in the 1990's. In 2009, the Gannon's took over the Seawatch restaurant at the Wailea Golf Course and it became the fourth flag under the Bev Gannon Restaurant group. Bev Gannon is also the executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines and her recipes are used for meals for first-class passengers.
The Gannon Restaurants attract a large number of celebrities who have enjoyed her family style Hawaiian Regional Cuisine at the Hali'imaile General Store or the contemporary American dishes (with a Hawaiian flair) at both Joe's and at Gannon's. In fact, Joe and Bev Gannon have a history in show business - Bev Gannon was the tour manager for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Ben Vereen for a number of years. And Joe Gannon was well-known in the music industry as being one of the top stage and lighting designers for acts such as Alice Cooper, Julio Iglesias, Barry Manilow and Luther Vandross. Before that, Gannon was in a folk group with the original members of the Kingston Trio, but left the group before they made it big with their first hit song, "(Hang Down Your Head) Tom Dooley". However, Gannon ended up becoming the Kingston Trio's first manager.
Joe Gannon first met Bev when she was working with Liza Minelli in the 70's. A few years later, Bev had left the music industry to study the culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in London. After she graduated, she moved back to her native Dallas and opened her catering business - Celebrations Catering - in the garage of her house. One day, a chance meeting with Joe Gannon in Dallas led to a relationship that took them both to Maui for a vacation in the late 70's. Joe had already fallen in love with the islands during a stint in the Navy, and Bev saw the potential for moving her catering business to Hawaii. Joe and Bev were married on Maui in 1980 and eventually moved there and opened up shop. Their daughter, Teresa, is also involved in the family business, making desserts for the restaurant named after her father.
It was a right hand turn out of the Grand Wailea, then a drive of about a half-mile before a left hand turn that took us to the entrance of the Wailea Golf Club and up to Gannon's that morning (see map). There's a large parking lot off to the side of the main entrance of the clubhouse. Go into the main clubhouse, walk through the large lobby/atrium and then go to the right corner of the room. The entrance to Gannon's is right there.
We were greeted by a hostess and we were escorted through the spacious contemporary dining room toward the patio. The chairs, tables and and columns were heavy dark wood fixtures with wonderful views of the Emerald course to the south. There is a three-sided red bar with a high chairs surrounding the bar. They had college basketball and golf on the flat screen televisions behind the bar. As an aside - I'm a big sports fan, but it's sort of weird to me to wake up on a Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m. in Hawaii and tip-off of a college basketball game from the East Coast is just moments away. While in Hawaii, I had trouble getting into televised sporting events that were in prime time back home, but were shown at 3 p.m. in Hawaii. I wasn't about to be sitting in a bar or a hotel room in Hawaii watching a game in the middle of a beautiful afternoon.
We were seated at an all-weather wooden table overlooking the golf course, the Pacific Ocean and the island of Kahoolawe and the Molokini crater. The view was just spectacular. I had trouble focusing on the menu because of how beautiful the view was. With the sun to our back, the blue deep blue water was just mesmerizing. I could have sat there for hours just looking out to the ocean and watching the golfers on the first green of the Emerald Course.
The breakfast menu at Gannon's wasn't all that large, but it was certainly interesting. Most of the offerings were the normal fare - omelets, eggs made to order, mixed fruits and berries. But they also had their own version of the island breakfast staple Loco Moko, plus you could order burgers, french fries and onion rings for breakfast. The one thing that I saw right off the bat was Gannon's Maui sweet bread French Toast. It was topped with a fresh blueberry compote. I'm a sucker for blueberries. I ordered that and got a side of bacon along with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a large milk.
Cindy ordered a bowl of fresh fruit berries and had the eggs benedict with salmon and capers. She also had orange juice and she got her coffee to get her going in the morning.
Our breakfast came out not long after we ordered (there weren't a lot of people there for breakfast) and we were soon looking at the scrumptious breakfast our waitress brought us. My French toast featured three thick half-slices of Maui sweet bread with an ample amount of blueberry compote drizzled on top. I don't think I've ever had any combination of French Toast and blueberries, so I was ready to give it a try. My side of bacon consisted of five thick slices of bacon. Compared to other places where I got a side of bacon during our trip to Hawaii, five thick strips for $4 bucks was a bargain.
Cindy's eggs benedict with salmon came with a side of home potatoes. And the bowl of fresh fruit berries was huge. She had no problem with me helping her eat the large, fresh blueberries in the bowl.
My french toast was just excellent. The bread was fresh and chewy, the blueberry compote was syrup-like as I've found with some blueberry compote I've had in the past and there was a nice hint of cinnamon/sugar on the bread. It was just excellent. And the bacon was very good, as well. They must have hog farms on the Hawaiian Islands because of the kalua pork and other pork dishes that we encountered while on vacation. But we certainly never saw any.
Cindy said her eggs benedict were also very good. "These may be the best eggs benedict I've ever had," she exclaimed. The poached eggs were cooked not a second too short or too long, the salmon wasn't as fishy tasting as she'd experienced in the past, and the hollandaise sauce was rich and creamy. Along with the fresh fruit berries, she was very happy with her breakfast.
Gannon's was another winner the valet came up with for us. Before we left, we took a look at the dinner menu and were sort of dismayed that we didn't have dinner there at least once while we were on Maui. While breakfast wasn't all that cheap - over $40 bucks with a nice tip for our waitress - it was very, very good. Gannon's was probably the best breakfast we had while we were on vacation - and we had a number of very good to excellent breakfasts. So my goal now it to one day be able to make it back to Maui and enjoy a meal at each of Bev Gannon's restaurants.
When I think of Italian restaurant chains, I think of Olive Garden, Carraba's or Macaroni Grill - all three places that seem to be popular with people, but there is probably much better Italian food in the vicinity if you just looked. That's why I went to Pacini with a little bit of apprehension when we went out for lunch on my recent trip to Montreal.
Pacini is a 25-restaurant chain with franchise locations throughout Quebec. The first Pacini was opened nearly 30 years ago by Pierre Marc Trembley. Trembley began to sell franchises for Pacini locations about 20 years ago. In April, Pacini opened a 26th location - the first one outside of Quebec in Calgary. The Pacini restaurants in Quebec and Calgary now employ close to 900 people and have revenues of over $34 million (Canadian) annually.
One of the big draws for Pacini is their trademarked "Bread Bar". These "bars a pain" as they're known in French feature a number of fresh baked breads, sliced and put in baskets to choose from. The customer then gets their choice of a number of different types of butter - herb butter, garlic butter, plain butter, etc. - and then they can toast the bread on a open flame grill. It's a unique concept and definitely one that I've never encountered before.
Another unique thing about Pacini is that they actually run their own culinary school in the small Italian town of Bassano del Grappa situated near Venice. Noted Italian chef Frederick St.-Aubin heads "L'Acadamie Culinaire Pacini". Not only is the culinary school a source for chefs for Pacini, it also acts as a test kitchen for many of the dishes that either have been or will be featured at Pacini restaurants. I don't think they're doing that at Olive Garden these days.
We took a couple vehicles to the Pacini location in suburban Repentigny, near our office northeast of Montreal (see map). The Repentigny Pacini is located in a strip mall that looks similar to any strip mall you'd find across America - only everything was signed in French (the northeast side of Montreal is highly French Canadian). A brisk lunch crowd was in the contemporary decored restaurant. There were 10 of us for lunch and we took two large table next to each other - half of the group sitting in booth seats, the remaining number of us sitting on comfortable and sturdy chairs.
The menu at Pacini is very diverse with rich pasta dishes, rustic pizzas and also features a number of breakfast specialties - something you don't expect at an Italian restaurant. All orders at Pacini come with your choice of soups of the day and the unlimited Bread Bar. One of my colleagues, Todd, said, "The food is pretty good for a chain. But the Bread Bar is the draw."
The waiter brought out lunch menus for us to look over, but after a quick conversation in French with my boss, Daniel, he went back and retrieved the full dinner menu. Daniel said, "The lunch menu is sort of limited and they'll make anything at anytime here." All right, that was fine with me.
I'd had a pretty good sized breakfast just about three hours prior so I wasn't looking to get anything heavy for lunch. One thing that caught my eye was the Salade Italienne, Pacini's Italian Salad that featured mixed lettuce greens topped with artichoke hearts, spicy capicollo ham, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes. They finish the salad off with a balasamic and roasted garlic dressing. While others at the table were going with a pasta dish, I thought that would be enough for me. I also had my choice of the soup du joir, so I went with a cup of the cream of broccoli soup.
Then it was time for the bread bar. I went up with my colleague, Todd, and he showed me the drill. They have a cabinet that houses about six different types of sliced bread stored behind glass doors. You pick your bread and then you have your choice of differently types of whipped butter with seasonings to put on the bread. Once you get your choice of bread and spread on your choice of butter, you turn to this open grill with a fan hood above the grill. One side of the grill is hotter than the other as the gas is turned up a little more for a quicker toasting. But I also found that the butter will drip off more so than if you do it on the cooler side of the grill. The bread was soft and fresh and I went with a slice of the sesame seed and a slice of the roasted onion bread. I put the herb butter on the sesame seed slice and the garlic butter on the roasted onion slice. It was a pretty neat concept - and I wondered why I hadn't seen something like that in the States.
My cream of broccoli soup was good, served in a small cup. I could dip my bread in the soup cup and it was even more delicious. And it wasn't long before our entrees, including my salad showed up at the table.
The plate of lettuce and toppings was overly generous. The greens were fresh as were the artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. I especially liked the spicy capicollo they had. It was deli fresh and very good.
I was asking some of my colleagues if their pasta dishes were good. My colleague from the San Francisco Bay Area, Jon - who had the fettuccine linguine topped with shrimp - said, "Yeah, mine's very good! Surprisingly very good." My other colleagues were in agreement. The pasta dishes did look good. My colleague, Simon, who is from Montreal, told me, "Pacini's not the best Italian in town, but for a quick lunch fix it's pretty good."
Yeah, I would say Pacini was pretty good. I thoroughly enjoyed my salad as it reminded me of a St. Louis-style salad with wonderful flavor and generous portions. Pacini may not be the first choice for Italian for me if I were to go back to Montreal on my own and search out a good Italian restaurant, but if nothing else was available and you were hungry, Pacini would work just great. It sparkles against the countless and faceless Italian restaurant chains we have in the states.