We were in Atlanta recently for the annual CEDIA Expo held at the Georgia World Congress Center next to the Georgia Dome. This was the second of an originally scheduled three years that CEDIA was to be in Atlanta, but a number of problems - including reported muggings of some convention goers in the downtown area - brought an outcry to move the convention out of Atlanta sooner than later. We'll be returning to Indianapolis next year, which isn't so bad for me considering I can drive to Indianapolis.
With that said, we have stayed out in the Buckhead area of Atlanta the past two years. Buckhead is known for its upscale restaurants and upscale shopping. And it's pretty safe to walk the streets between the hotel and the restaurants in the evening. Actually, I didn't mind Atlanta all that much and wouldn't have been upset had we had to go back for another year. But, of course, I didn't spend any time downtown other than going to and coming from the Georgia World Congress Center.
Over the past couple of years, I've been charged with finding places for our team to eat in the evenings when we get together at trade shows. I was unceremoniously dumped in that capacity - much to my relief - after the debacle we went through at Rosemary's in Las Vegas. Actually, that wasn't the big reason. I just didn't want to put the time into the research of trying to find places that would please 10 to 14 people each meal. We have a couple guys who are pretty picky about where they want to eat. One guy would eat sushi every meal if he could, but he hates cooked fish. (Yeah, I know - you tell me.)
I got tired of having people bitch about the places I picked out - didn't matter if they were good or bad; Italian or steakhouses - there were always complaints. And I said I didn't want to be responsible for finding the restaurants any longer. That responsibility went to my colleague, Todd, who decided to try a place that he found on the Internet that was supposed to have some of the best Indian food in Atlanta - Panahar.
Actually, Panahar bills itself as a Bangladeshi restaurant, of which I'm not that big of an Indian food connoisseur to know the difference between Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine. And quite honestly, I've not been back to an Indian restaurant since we went to Raja in Atlanta last year. I don't know what to order when I go to those places and have to rely upon others who are much more well versed in Indian cuisine than I.
There were 12 of us who made the short trip (less than 3 miles from our hotel, but thanks to Atlanta traffic and an all too literal GPS system, it was a 20 minute drive) to a strip mall on Buford Highway (see map). 9 of us went in a van while the other 3 took a cab over to the restaurant. As we walked into the restaurant, one of the waiters informed us that Panahar was a "bring-your-own-bottle" establishment. Well, we were out of luck, or so it seemed. He informed us of a liquor store just across Buford Highway. Since I drove the van, I was told to go pick out some beer and some wine for the meal.
One of my colleagues who works for our Canadian company accompanied me to the liquor store which didn't have much to choose from. I ended up getting the only cold six pack they had of Singha beer, but I also picked up a couple sixers of the Sweetwater 420 pale ale beer and a sixer of a beer from a micro-brewery in Athens, GA called Terrapin Beer Company. They had a rye pale ale that sounded interesting (and it was pretty good). My colleague, Terry, picked out a couple of cheap red wines that they had to offer. We figured that if anyone bitched, they could have easily hopped in the van with us. But everyone seemed to be happy with our choices.
Initially, the manager of Panahar had told Todd that he wanted to have a "prix fixe" menu made up for us as he felt 12 guys would overwhelm their little kitchen if we ordered individually off Panahar's menu. But Todd explained that we usually order "family style" when it came to Indian/Bangladeshi food and the manager was relieved to hear that. So the food order had already been placed by the time we got back to the restaurant with the liquor.
The first thing to come out was something called Poori Shrimp Tee-ka. Poori is a bread that is puffed up in the oven and it comes out looking like a little pillow. You mash the middle of it and then in a very ritualistic way you line up the sauteed shrimp in one row along the near edge of the poori bread, then follow that with another line of the sauteed onions cooked with spices and herbs. Then you roll up the poori until it looks like a burrito and eat it like that. I have to say the taste sensation was fabulous.
Next came a soup appetizer called Mulligatawny. This soup had a pureed mixture of orange lentils (didn't know there was such a thing), peeled tomatoes, cumin and some secret herbs and spices. It reminded me of a Mexican tomatillo soup that I've had in the past. With the poori shrimp tee-ka and now the soup, Bangladeshi food sort of reminded me more of Mexican food than Indian food.
The soup was very, very good, as well.
Next came the main entrees - three or four different things to choose from. We had Dhaan-shaag - cubed meat (you had your choice of chicken, beef, lamb, shrimp and goat - yes, goat. And more on that later) that was cooked in the same sort of sauce that the Mulligatawny soup was in. We got some beef Dhann-shaag to start out. It was very good, as well.
Learning from my colleagues, I've found that tandoori is a staple of Indian food. Only at Panahar, they called it tondoori. I don't quite know the difference other than the spelling. Todd had ordered up some tondoori lamb for the meal. The tondoori lamb is on the left side of the place on top of the rice and peas. I've had it before and it's also very good to the taste. I'm not big on lamb to begin with, but the tondoori sauce is wonderful.
Bhoona Maang-sho is a seasoned spicy meat that is stir-fried with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes (on the right on the plate served over fried rice). Todd initially ordered up some of the beef Bhoona Maang-sho for the table. When that was finished he said, "Anybody up for trying the goat Bhoona Maang-sho?"
Todd married a Jamaican lady earlier this year and his in-laws had a Jamaican feast recently where goat was served. He said at first he was sort of repulsed, but it was seasoned and cooked to a point where it tasted surprisingly close to pork. I told him I'd give it a try as did one of our other colleagues and he ordered up an entree of the goat Bhoona Maang-sho.
By the way, in the upper part of the above picture is either mixed Naan or Keema Naan - we had both on the table. Naan is a soft flat bread that is made in Tandoori ovens. You can order it with onions, garlic, ground beef, cheese, even coconuts and raisins. We got an order of mixed Naan - a combination of cheese, onion and roasted garlic; and an order of the Keema Naan - the mixed beef version. Once again, it was very similar to a Mexican quesadilla in both style and taste.
The Bhoona Mang-sho with goat meat came out and I tried a piece of it. While it was similar to pork, it was also very fatty with over half the chunk that I spooned out of the dish laden with fat. I cut the fat off and tried the meat part. It wasn't bad, but I definitely would not order that as a main entree at any point in the future.
My colleagues made short work of nearly everything that was brought to the table. It looked like a fraternity feeding frenzy at the table with plates and bowls being passed back and forth, guys exclaiming, "Man, you've got to try this!", and approving grunts and groans as a new taste sensation was discovered with the next dish that was passed along.
While I'm warming up quickly to Indian food, I'm still not thinking that I'll be seeking it out very often while I'm on the road. Still, I know of at least two very good Indian restaurants in the Chicago area that I'd like to try at some point. The bottom line is that Panahar was very good - I don't know if it was better than Raja, but it was very good. I continue to be open to new types of cuisine and always on the look out for great taste sensations. But I'll pass on getting the goat in the future.
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'sin 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 menuat 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.
When I got up to pay my bill, Goldie Ingram asked me, "So, what do you think about our pork tenderloin?"
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 Macallan12 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.
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 listas 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 finished my steak and had one more bite of the potatoes before I let Anna take my plate away. She got a nice tip for the evening being very attentive, but not bugging me at the same time.
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.
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.
What I callDes 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 herebased 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 Farmand 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'sGerman 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 figurinesand 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'shas 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 Balvenie12 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 Fleetwoodis 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.
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.
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 menuand 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 Eclusierslocated 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 menusby 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.
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 Innon 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.
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.
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 Sanseion 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 menubecause 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.
Kihei Caffe(that's how they spell "cafe", I guess) is a funky little breakfast place along S. Kihei Road in Kihei. Situated right across the street from Kalama Beach Park - a favorite gathering point for sunset-watchers - this little outdoor restaurant has been serving up hearty breakfasts for locals and tourists alike for years. On the recommendation of one of the valets at the Grand Wailea, we tried Kihei Caffe one morning while we were on Maui.
Kihei Caffe is owned by Barry Allison and his mother, Bunny. Barry is a large, jovial guy who stands behind the counter taking orders and working as the cashier. Kihei Caffe opens at 5 a.m. each morning and features breakfast until they close at 3 p.m. They also serve a lunch menu that features burgers, sandwiches and salads, but they are most well-known for their down-home breakfasts.
We parked in the parking lot in Kalama Beach Park just after 9:30 one morning and walked across S. Kihei Rd. to Kihei Caffe (see map). The drill is pretty simple - you go into the little hole-in-the-wall area off the street and that's where you place your order with Barry. The menu is written on a chalk board hung at a slant from the ceiling. There is usually a long line to get into the place and sometimes a line of people waiting to grab a table out on the patio after they order. When your food is ready, a server comes out with the plates, calls out your name and gets your food to the table. Simple, right?
The problem is that Kihei Caffe has almost too much to choose from, you sometimes don't have enough time to figure out what you want. And Barry keeps the line moving. We were only sixth in line when we were there that morning and Cindy was having trouble figuring out what to get. Me - I'm pretty easy. Just give me a sausage, mushroom and cheese omelet and I'm fine. But Cindy didn't know if she wanted eggs, waffles, pancakes, fried rice, or what. They also had Mexican specialties such as huevos rancheros served on homemade tortillas from Barry Allison's Tortillas, Barry Allison's side business.
There was so much to choose from and Cindy was feeling rushed and people were lining up behind us and Cindy was beginning to panic because it was our turn and she didn't know what to get but she knew she better order something or the people behind her would get mad and what if that big guy behind the counter got mad at her for holding up the line and...
Whew! That's how Cindy felt when it came time for her to order. She ended up ordering the steak and eggs ("Eggs how?" is Barry's catch phrase.) and coffee. Like I say, I was pretty simple and boring - omelet, sausage, mushroom and Swiss cheese. Large glass of milk. Home fried potatoes came with both of our breakfasts. And ohhhh.... Look at those cinnamon rolls! Large homemade cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting were in a case on the counter. We had to have one of those.
We paid Barry at the counter (no credit cards, cash only) and took our coffee, milk and cinnamon roll outside to find a seat. We were lucky to find a small two seater table just outside the door. We sat down and Cindy was still flummoxed. "I didn't know what to get and I didn't want to hold up the line. So I just blurted out steak and eggs. I'm not even certain I want steak and eggs," she said in an exasperated tone.
The outdoor seating area at Kihei Caffe is a series of small tables under umbrellas. Being that it's on the main drag of Kihei, we sort of enjoyed the people watching while we ate the cinnamon roll and waited for our breakfast to show up at the table. And the cinnamon roll was as good as it looks in the above picture. It wasn't overly gooey, but it was loaded with cinnamon sugar and easily pulled apart or could be easily cut with a fork. I couldn't tell you the last time I had a cinnamon roll. And I've had some very good ones in my day, but the one at Kihei Caffe was one of the better ones I've had. It definitely rivaled some of the ones that I can get back home in the Quad Cities where the competition between restaurants with their cinnamon rolls rivals the competition between pizza places in Chicago, Italian restaurants in St. Louis, and barbecue places in Kansas City.
Soon after we finished our cinnamon roll, a waitress came out and called out my name. I turned around and waved at her and she brought our plates to the table. Presentation isn't a big thing at Kihei Caffe as our food was sort of just flopped onto our plates. But I'm not that picky about presentation at breakfast. Kihei Caffe is a breakfast joint, plain and simple. No fancy linen or fine china at this place.
My omelet was OK, except they forgot to put the Swiss cheese in the omelet. And it looked like the mushrooms weren't necessarily cooked with the omelet, but sort of thrown in on top as an afterthought. It was a little flavorless without the cheese, but I wasn't going to bitch. The home fried potatoes were greasy and somewhat overcooked. I wasn't going to eat them anyhow. Like I say, my omelet was just "OK".
Cindy approached her breakfast with a little apprehension. She could tell her eggs "over-easy" were over-cooked from the lack of yoke and the burnt edges. And just a quick look at the six ounce sirloin that was supposed to be medium in temperature was also over-cooked. She cut into the steak and it was like cutting into leather. She did eat the eggs, some of her potatoes and about two bites of the steak before she declared she was done. I said, "Are you sure? Do you want something else?"
She sort of went, "Ah... Nah. I'll just get something big at lunch to tide me over to dinner."
Cindy would give Kihei Caffe a "thumbs down" for her breakfast. I'd give it an "Eh..." for mine, although the highlight of the whole meal was the cinnamon roll. We contemplated getting a couple cinnamon rolls to take back to the hotel to put in the fridge in the room. But then we remembered that there was no refrigerator in the room. Oh well...
I know Kihei Caffe is known for their breakfasts, but it wasn't close to being one of the better places we visited while in Hawaii. It was a funky little place with down-home food that was average at best.
One of my more favorite restaurants in the Iowa City area over the years has been the Wig and Pen on the Coralville strip (see map). They feature good pizza and a baked pasta dish called 'Wigatoni' that is just outstanding. On a recent trip home from being out for a couple days, I was passing by Iowa City around 7:30 p.m. and decided to stop in for dinner at the Wig and Pen.
The Wig and Pen goes back to my days in college at the University of Iowa in the early to mid-80's when it was known as the Coaches Corner. It was a popular place with a lot of the local people before and after Iowa Hawkeye sporting events. I don't really remember ever getting food there when it was the Coaches Corner - it was more of a beer bar from what I remember. But in the 90's, they changed the concept and renamed it the Wig and Pen Pub, styled after an English-style pub. They remodeled both the inside and outside of the place, right down to the English-style phone booth by the front door.
The Wig and Pen still is a place for the locals to meet up at anytime, but it's suddenly found favor with a lot of the college kids that go to Iowa. On my visit, which was on a Thursday evening, I was expecting to see a number of older local guys sitting in the bar area after a round of golf. I was overly surprised to see the bar and the tables in the bar area full of college-aged people enjoying Wig and Pen's deep dish pizzas, sandwiches and other good food.
One of the waitresses took me to a booth just inside the dining room where she gave me a menuand took my beer order. I generally refuse to sit at a table at the Wig and Pen as they use plastic chairs instead of "real" chairs in the dining area. The dining room is sort of two rooms - one in the front with windows that look out onto the Coralville strip, the other in the back northeast side of the building. There's dark paneling with a lot of English beer signs on the walls and a cozy feel to the place. And they did a great job of re-building the Wig and Pen after the devastating floods of 2008. The Wig and Pen is pictured in the background on the right hand side of this picture, behind the white building. They had about seven feet of water through the building and it was shut down for about eight or nine months for clean-up and renovations.
There's also some discussion amongst the locals as to whether the Wig and Pen is in Iowa City or in Coralville. They have an Iowa City address, but they're just west of the corner of Hawkins Drive and Hwy 6 West, a.k.a. the Coralville Strip (or 2nd St., to Coralville residents). I've been told the dividing line for the two cities goes right through the Wig and Pen's bar area. The restrooms are rumored to be in Coralville while the rest of the place is in Iowa City. Nonetheless, everyone seems to say the Wig and Pen is in Coralville.
There are two other Wig and Pen locations - one in Iowa City on the east side of town; the other one recently opened in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines. God, I wish they would open one in the Quad Cities.
I pretty much knew what I wanted before I even went into the Wig and Pen that evening - Wigatoni! They take a combination of mostaccioli and rotini noodles and put them in a dish with your choice of mild or hot sausage and the Wig and Pen's homemade marinara sauce. It's then topped with mozzarella cheese and put into an over and baked at a high temperature for about 15 to 20 minutes. It's absolutely wonderful.
But I was sort of tempted to get one of Wig and Pen's thin crust pizzas. They're deep dish pizzas are very good, as well. It's also tough to pass up Wig and Pen's homemade onion rings, too. Their "guinea grinder" Italian sausage sandwich is very good (although the green peppers give me indigestion) and their baked reuben is also a very sandwich. But, no, I came in for Wigatoni - I was getting Wigatoni.
Given that they were pretty busy that evening, it took a little longer for me to get my Wigatoni - well over twenty minutes after I ordered it. But the wait was well worth it. Wig and Pen's Wigatoni has ample amounts of mozzarella on top, the chunks of sausage are large and plentiful, and I love the sweet marinara sauce. The cheese around the dish is caramelized and helps add to the overall flavor of the Wigatoni. Put a little parmesan cheese and hot pepper sprinkles on the top and it's a meal for the ages. About the only gripe I have about the Wigatoni is the amount of pasta noodles they use. They use a lot! I usually eat around the bulk of the pasta getting the chunks of sausage and the mozzarella while leaving a large portion of the pasta when I'm finished. It's tough to eat a full serving of Wigatoni in one sitting.
We've tried to make Wigatoni at home on a couple of occasions, but it never turns out as good as when you can get at Wig and Pen. I don't know if it's the hot Italian sausage or the marinara sauce or what, but I don't think anything compares to Wigatoni at the Wig and Pen. I continue to be amazed that for being less than 60 miles away, no one in the Quad Cities has tried to duplicate what a place like the Wig and Pen does for their pizza, pasta and sandwiches. Then again, it's sort of tough to duplicate the real thing. That's why I think the Wig and Pen would be an immediate hit in the Quad Cities.
After our whale watching adventure earlier in the morning, we decided to drive up the west coast of Maui to a spot north of Lahaina - the tourist mecca for Maui - to have breakfast at The Gazebo. Someone who Cindy knows back in Iowa told her that we had to go to this place for breakfast at some point, but she also said that we had to be prepared for a wait as it can sometime be 45 minutes before you can get seated. We had the address and I punched it into the GPS and took off up to Napili.
Actually, The Gazebo is part of the Outrigger Napili Shores rental condos on the northwest side of Maui (see map). We were a little confused in that we pulled up to the address we'd programmed into the GPS and there was this hotel, but no restaurant in sight. Finally, Cindy noticed a small sign under the main sign for the Outrigger that simply said, "The Gazebo". We finally figured out that it was behind the condos near the shoreline. We parked in the lot of the rental condos and made our way back through to the pool area. Just beyond the pool area was the restaurant.
And yes, there was a line to get into the place. It was small and definitely not set up for a place to put your name in and just wait. You had to be in line and hanging around just to get in. But it afforded us both some time to individually step out and look around at the property. Actually, from what we could see from open curtains in some of the condos, it was a pretty nice place. And the views of the ocean didn't suck, either.
There's also a little gift shop area set up outside The Gazebo where Cindy was able to get her morning fix of coffee while we waited in line. Hawaiian coffee smells so good and I'm sure it tastes good, but caffeine makes me jumpy - and considering I haven't had much caffeine in the past 18 months, it would probably make me more jumpy now.
There's a great view from the point just beyond The Gazebo that looked out into Napili Bay and across the straits to the island of Molokai. Counting the two islands we were on and the two off-shore islands we'd already seen on Maui, Molokai was the fifth of the eight Hawaiian islands we'd seen on our trip. (We had a layover in Honolulu on Oahu, so we saw six of the eight islands during our trip.). It was a warm, yet windy morning that day with low clouds hanging over the east side of Molokai.
We finally got up close enough to the front to take a look at the menu that's encased in plastic near the front steps. The Gazebo opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. serving both breakfast and lunch. They're famous for their macadamia nut pancakes, a concoction that was first served up years ago by original owner Kimo Kiakona. Thousands of tourists over the years have tried the macadamia nut pancakes which have a heavenly whipped topping that some say is a combination of homemade whipped cream, maple syrup, sugar and chopped macadamia nuts. Some reports I've read on the stuff says that it's addicting with people coming in with jars just to scoop the topping off the pancakes into jars to take home with them.
The current owners of The Gazebo, Lucy and Jerry Corson, continue the macadamia nut pancakes along with a number of other breakfast specialties such as a combination of their macadamia nut, banana and pineapple pancakes, omelets and different variations of Eggs Benedict. Their lunch menu is pretty standard with salads, burgers and sandwiches.
The Gazebo is not large - seating possibly 55 people - so it's no wonder there's always a significant wait to get in. But like most of Hawaii, the pace on Maui is slow and no one's in a real hurry to get anywhere. It was actually about 35 minutes from the time we got there around 11 a.m. to the time we finally sat down. We figured a big breakfast would take care of us for both breakfast and lunch that day.
We were seated in a back area of the restaurant at a small table that looked out into the bay and across to Molokai. The chairs were the cheap plastic kind that are uncomfortable to me and sort of flimsy - even with my weight loss. Most of the restaurant is open-air, but we had louvered windows at our table that helped keep out the gusty winds from the Northeast that blew strong all week while we were on Maui.
Cindy had to go with the macadamia nut pancakes with white chocolate chips and she wanted a side of The Gazebo's fried rice. Their fried rice is unique in that they fry the rice up with Portuguese sausage (cured pork sausage with onions, garlic and paprika), ham chunks, peppers and instead of scrambling an egg with it, they put the egg on top - your choice of an omelet, or a fried or scrambled egg. She got the omelet on top of the fried rice. Cindy said, "This may be too much food, but if this is the last meal we'll have until tonight I may need it."
I went more simple - I got a Supreme omelet with three eggs filled with Portuguese sausage, bacon, mushrooms, onions, green pepper and Swiss cheese and a side of bacon. I figured that would hold me for the rest of the day.
Now, I've said in many of my earlier posts about our trip to Hawaii that breakfast is big on the islands - and the portions are equally as big. When they brought out our food and set it on the table, we barely had room for the large plates of food. This is Cindy's order in the above photos. The fried rice was a HALF-ORDER! It could have been enough for two meals.
My omelet was also good sized and it came with a side of fried potatoes and whole wheat toast. My bacon was a little too crispy for my taste, but edible. Portuguese sausage is an interesting concoction and it was pretty good with the omelet. But the Supreme Omelet was pretty good and I was happy with it. And, yes, that's a ton of black pepper on top - I like pepper on my eggs.
Cindy bit into a combination of the whipped macadamia nut topping and her pancakes. Her eyes lit up and she said, "Oh, my God! You've got to try this."
I can see why some people say the whipped topping The Gazebo puts on their macadamia nut pancakes is addicting. It was a rich and vibrant taste sensation. It was sweet, but not overly sugary. It did have sort of a maple syrup flavor to it, or maybe it was the combination of the maple syrup Cindy put on her pancakes along with the whipped topping. Either way, the macadamia nut pancakes were outstanding, definitely a taste explosion in the mouth.
Cindy soon found that her pancakes alone would have been sufficient for breakfast. I made short work of my omelet and bacon, foregoing the the toast and the fried potatoes just to help her finish her pancakes. They were so good that I wasn't going to allow them to go to waste. She made a little bit of a dent in the fried rice, leaving the bulk of it on her plate. I tried a couple bites of it and it was pretty good. However, sort of like biscuits and gravy, I don't get the appeal of fried rice as a breakfast dish. I'm sure it's popular in Hawaii because nearly every place we went to for breakfast had some sort of variation of fried rice on the menu. But it wouldn't be the first thing I'd get. Sort of like the Loco Moko that I got at the Hawaiian Style Cafe on the Big Island. Yeah, it was interesting, but not something that I'd get again for breakfast.
I'd say The Gazebo was above average average compared to some of the breakfast places we'd eaten at during our trip. My omelet was good, but not the best I've had. The macadamia nut/white chocolate pancakes, however, were everything they were said to be - rich, huge, filling and wonderful. You certainly don't get cheated on portions at The Gazebo. And while I don't like to waste food, I was happy to leave a large portion of the fried rice on the table. The service was good, the view was excellent and if you can get around the pesky - and brave - sparrows who try to dive in to steal a morsel of food off your plate, the ambiance of The Gazebo was wonderful. I'm glad we made the trip up to the northwest side of the island for breakfast that day. It's sort of tough to find, but well worth the trip if you can go.
We had driven by Spices on South Kihei Road a number of times during our visit to Maui and I was sort of intrigued by the open air restaurant connected to the Maui Coast Hotel. We did a little homework from our hotel room (even with a horrible internet connection) and thought Spices sounded pretty interesting. We decided to go there for dinner one warm Hawaiian evening.
Spices wasn't far from our hotel - about a 10 minute drive to the restaurant (see map). There wasn't a lot of people in the place when we got in about 7:30. We were seated next to the open ledge looking out onto S. Kihei Rd. That was sort of a mistake because it was sometimes loud with traffic and exhaust fumes permeating the air.
The dining room was open and airy with a number of tables throughout the place. There was a small bar in the corner and a nice little outdoor fountain with a few tables near it. No one was seated outside that evening. The decor was sort of a contemporary Hawaiian theme. It was very comfortable.
Our waiter was a pretty nice guy and very good at his trade. We were given menusand we ordered up a couple drinks - I had a Kona Big Wave Golden Ale and Cindy had a mai tai. I also looked over Spices very short wine list trying to find a nice white wine to go with dinner. There wasn't much to be had. I finally ordered a Kendall-Jackson chardonnay.
We looked over the menu on line before coming to Spices and there were a lot of intriguing things to try. One thing was the garlic clams - a pound of fresh clams sauteed in butter and garlic. We decided to try that as an appetizer.
The waiter brought out the clams and the wine and we dug in to the plate. The clams were *OK*, really nothing special. I would have thought the taste sensation would have been a little better given that they were sauteed in butter and garlic, but they didn't really have much pizazz. It was rather disappointing.
We ordered up dinner after the clams were gone. One thing that jumped out at me when I first looked at their menu on-line earlier in the day was the mahi mahi piccata. They take fresh mahi mahi and cook it like a veal or chicken piccata with a light breading, then cooking it with a butter wine sauce with mushrooms and capers. They served it on a bed of rice with a side of fresh steamed veggies. Now, THAT sounded interesting to me.
Cindy was torn between Spices' Hawaiian-style mahi mahi - they take a mahi mahi filet and encrust it in macadamia nuts and top it with a tropical fruit salsa - or the special that evening which was baked opakapaka, which is also known as "pink snapper". Opakapaka is plentiful all over the tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean, but they seem to grow rather large around Hawaii. Cindy decided to try the opakapaka and it was served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes.
It really wasn't all that long before our entrees showed up at the table. Cindy's opakapaka was a large filet that had a light cream sauce on top. Three grilled shrimp came with the fish which was served on some steamed vegetables. Cindy said the opakapaka was "good", but not great. I tried a bite and it was good.
My mahi mahi piccata was overly disappointing. It was nowhere close to being a true piccata-style meal. The piccata sauce was more of a glaze and the fish was overcooked and dry. It just wasn't very good. The veggies were good, however. They weren't overcooked or lifeless to the taste. Sadly, it was a mediocre meal compared to other places we were at while we were in Hawaii.
Since we tried Spices, I've read reviews from travelers on some web sites that denigrated the food at the place. I will say the waiter we had was very good and very attentive, but the level of service and the atmosphere at Spices is the draw. I understand they have very good breakfasts at Spices, but my dinner was pedestrian, at best. Cindy's opakapaka was good, much better than what I had. But overall, Spices was probably the worst meal we had while we were in Hawaii. That's too bad as the place seemed to have a lot of potential.
Before we went to Maui, we talked to a number of people who had been there before. Nearly everyone said, "You have to absolutely go to Mama's Fish House for dinner at some point." Everyone raved about how great the food was there. When we got to Maui, the consensus among the locals was that it was tough to beat Mama's Fish House for the best fish on the island. Even before our visit to Mama's, our expectations were high.
In the late 1950's, Floyd and Doris Christenson decided to turn in their staid life in San Diego for a sailing trip around Polynesia. For three years, the Christenson's lived in French Polynesia learning about island cuisines and how to prepare different types of fish that were caught by natives. It was in Polynesia where their daughter and son were born. And while they were in French Polynesia, Floyd Christenson landed a bit part in "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando.
The family eventually moved to a home on the north shore of Maui. In 1973, the Christenson's bought an old nightclub on Ku'au Cove and renovated it into a restaurant. They leased the building to Hilda Costa who was the original "Mama". Costa ran the restaurant for three years before leaving the restaurant to the Christenson's.
The Christenson's eventually turned the restaurant into one of the best seafood restaurants - a favorite spot for tourists and celebrities, alike. Over the years, Mama's Fish House has hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Reba McEntire, Roger Clemens, Ann-Margret and a large number of performers and professional athletes. A number of autographed portraits of famous people who dined at Mama's Fish House were on the walls near the bar area of the place. Some of the regulars in Mama's Fish House are actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson who, we were told, have houses in the hills just up from the restaurant. (As an aside - Willie Nelson owns Charley's restaurant in Pa'ia and has a home not far from there.)
Today, Karen Christenson Marshall, Floyd and Doris' oldest child, runs the day-to-day operation of the restaurant. Doris and Floyd show up periodically and Doris loves to tell stories of the times they sailed around Polynesia.
Mama's Fish House only prepares freshly caught seafood at their restaurant. They contract fishermen in the area to catch a bounty of different types of Pacific Ocean fish. On the menu for that evening, they list the type of fish, who caught it and where it was caught. That's kind of a nice touch to recognize the fishermen who put in long hours to put the fish on the tables at Mama's.
Mama's decor is definitely island-themed with a Polynesian feel to the place. Mama's Fish House employs their own in-house designer, Bill Kohl, who continually updates the items in the place from the antique doors to the knick-knacks around the place.
The Christenson's have also bought up property around the original Mama's Fish House over the years and they now feature nine cottages for nightly rentals - all designed on the inside by Bill Kohl. The cottages feature a number of amenities and run between $175 and $595 a night. Four of the cottages are ocean front properties while the other five are called "garden cottages".
The head chef at Mama's Fish House is Perry Bateman (right). Bateman, in his early 40's, has been with the Christenson's since he was 19. He was never trained to be a chef, but picked up a lot of his skills on the job. He started out on the hot line in the kitchen, then worked his way up to sous chef. Bateman took over the kitchen at Mama's when he was 30 and has a good grasp of Hawaiian style cooking. Growing up, his family owned a restaurant on Maui - the only one that was serving true Hawaiian cuisine at the time. Bateman's knowledge of the ingredients that go into Hawaiian cuisine "is what makes Mama's work," Karen Christenson Marshall once said in an interview. One of Bateman's signature meals is an "Upcountry style" dish featuring fresh fish, tomato, avocado and caramelized onions grown on Maui. Bateman's - and Mama's - motto is "Quality before price".
It was on our way back from the Road to Hana on the Hana Highway on the north side of the island (see map) and we stopped in about 5:30 for an early dinner. Actually, we were pretty hungry because we had a big breakfast, but really nothing other some snacks on our trek to Hana and back. Plus, Cindy needed a drink after the drive back from Hana - something that she hardly ever asks for these days.
After leaving our car at the complimentary valet parking up front, we made our way around the ocean front side of the building to the hostess stand. Since it was relatively early when we got into Mama's Fish House, there was little to no wait to get a table. We were seated in an area near the bar, but nowhere close to the open windows that faced the ocean. That was sort of disappointing, but we sort of figured out a little later on as to why that may have been the case.
We were dressed rather casually - even casual for Hawaii. I was in a black "Iowa" t-shirt and shorts. Cindy was in an orange sleeveless top - stylish, but still pretty casual. We had always changed our shirts before we went out for the evening - me usually into a Hawaiian or button-down short sleeve shirt - and Cindy in a nice top. Since we were just coming back from Hana and had dressed down on purpose thinking that we'd stop and frolic in one of the many pools along the Road to Hana, we didn't want to go back all the way to the hotel, change clothes and then drive 23 miles back to Mama's Fish House.
We noticed similarly dressed people around us and when we both got up to go to the restroom at various points, we both noticed people who were more nattily dressed seated in the dining rooms with the open windows looking out to the tree-drenched beach and the ocean beyond. We just figured they wanted to keep the "riff-raff" in one area and put the classy folks in another. And as I always tell Cindy, the money coming from our jeans or shorts spends just as well as money that comes from a pair of wool or cotton slacks.
Our waitress came around to greet us and asked us if we wanted anything to drink right off the bat. Cindy laughed and said, "Mai tai!" I told her to make it two. When she brought them back, Cindy's eyes got pretty big. They were served in these large mugs and filled to the top. I was liking this place already.
The menu at Mama's Fish House was rather interesting with a mix of traditional Hawaiian food and fresh seafood. They had deep-sea caught ahi tuna, monchong caught off Kona, mahi mahi caught not far from Mama's off the north shore of Maui. They also had something called "lau lau" - mahi mahi, Pacific salmon, pork and lu'au leaf cooked in ti leaves, South Pacific style. That sounded rather interesting to say the least.
We started off ordering Mama's onaga ceviche appetizer. Ceviche is something we were introduced to in Mexico a number of years ago. They take chunks of freshly caught fish and is marinated in lime juice for up to 12 hours. The acid from the lime juice literally cooks the fish and the taste is - well, it's killer. And the onaga ceviche at Mama's goes a step further as they also marinate it with cilantro and chili pepper. It sounded just as good as it tasted. It was served with a chunk of avocado and fried banana slices. It was absolutely mind-blowing. We almost ordered another one.
A lady seated at a table near us was served something that looked absolutely scrumptious. Cindy couldn't keep her eyes off her plate. Cindy finally asked the woman, "I'm sorry, but what is that?"
The lady turned to Cindy and said, "It's the stuffed mahi mahi. And it is wonderful!"
And that's what Cindy ended up ordering. It's stuffed with lobster and crab meat along with sweet Maui onions. It's then rolled in a macadamia nut mixture and cooked to give it a nice light crust. Grilled asparagus spears and a rice pilaf came on the side with the stuffed fish. Cindy was hooked when it mentioned the macadamia nut crust. It was sort of expensive - about $40 bucks. But, hey we were on vacation.
I ordered the seared ahi tuna for my dinner. It's quickly grilled with a peppercorn/Hamakua mushroom sauce and served with a side of breadfruit-mashed potatoes.
We also ordered a bottle of white wine from Mama's interesting wine list. They featured a number of obscure wines - ones I was definitely not familiar with. And I have to say that I can't remember what kind of wine I ordered for our dinner although it was pretty good and went very well with our meal.
Our main meals came out and the presentation on the plates was exquisite. We were so hungry by this point we just dug in. I have to say my ahi tuna with the peppercorn/mushroom sauce was very good. I don't know if it was the best I've had, but the fish was very fresh and very tasty.
Cindy's stuffed mahi mahi was outstanding. We traded bites and we decided that even though the ahi tuna was very good, the stuffed mahi mahi was out of this world. The macadamia nut crust was light and didn't overpower the fish. But the lobster, crab and onion stuffing was a great taste combination with the mahi mahi. Cindy was literally in heaven.
Our waitress, who was very good in a laid back sort of way, came around to check on us. She asked how our meals were and I think Cindy and I both answered, "Great!" at the same time.
Of course, we had to have dessert after that fine meal. One thing that jumped out at me was the crème brulee made with lilikoi. I was addicted to anything that had lilikoi in it and I told Cindy I wanted to try one of those. Our waitress offered to bring us one of Mama's signature desserts - a homemade tropical fruit sorbet with ice cream - as a complimentary gesture. Cindy and I sort of looked at one another, shrugged our shoulders and said, "Sure!"
The crème brulee was just orgasmic. I don't know if I'd ever had a crème brulee that had such a forward citrus taste to it. We made very short work of the dessert. The fruit sorbet/ice cream dish was very good, as well. But it was nowhere as good as the crème brulee with lilikoi.
After we paid our bill (over $200 with a nice tip for the waitress - it wasn't cheap) we took a walk around the property so Cindy could get some pictures of flowers, Polynesian sculptures, tiki torches and a Hawaiian canoe that was planted on the beach. The wind was still coming in rather briskly off the ocean, but it wasn't as bad as it was earlier in the evening. With the sun setting behind the mountain that sits on Maui's north side, it was getting sort of dark under the abundance of palm trees that surrounded Mama's Fish House. It was sort of neat to be the deep shade with a lot of blue skies and fluffy clouds off in the distance.
Cindy also bought some of Mama's Hawaiian blend coffee beans that they sold at the outdoor hostess stand. I don't know if it was any different from the other Hawaiian coffee that she bought at other places, but she just was wanting some memento from Mama's Fish House.
We were overly thrilled with our visit to Mama's Fish House. We knew going in that our expectations could be too high given the glowing reports we'd received before our visit. But everything we heard from people stood up to the test and more. I really can't think of one thing I can bitch about Mama's Fish House. Oh, maybe I could bitch about the sudden downpour as we were waiting for our car. I felt bad to send the valet running out to get our car and bring it to the waiting area. Bad enough to give the soaking wet guy a $5 buck tip. But I later decided I should have only given him $2 bucks because the seat was wet from him dripping on it.
But that was it! Mama's Fish House is a great place to eat. Highly recommended by Cindy and I if you ever get to Maui.
I was excited to visit this place when I was in Montreal recently. Estiatorios Milos - or mostly known as just Milos - is a place that some of my colleagues have visited in the past but I've never had the chance to go. So when I was told we were going to eat at Milos one evening during our company meeting in Montreal, I immediately said, "Yes!"
Estiatorios Milos is the flagship restaurant of Costas Spiliadis' restaurant empire that stretches from Montreal to New York to Athens. Spiliadis, a Greek immigrant, came to New York as a 19 year old student. After school, he moved to Montreal and opened a night club. In 1980, he changed the night club into a Greek restaurant that served only the freshest fish available.
One story about Spiliadis during his early days of running Milos - he would only buy fresh and good looking fish - something that wasn't readily available in Montreal at the time. Spiliadis would drive to New York City and shop at the Fulton Fish Market three times a week. He brought the fish back with him to Montreal and waited for the customers to show up. They didn't. Spiliadis wouldn't freeze the fish - he knew freezing the fish would compromise the taste - so he ended up giving the fish away to the stray cats hanging around outside in the alley.
But people eventually came and Milos thrived. Eventually, Spiliadis would have fresh fish flown in almost every day from Greece, caught by family fishermen - on hooks, not caught in nets to cut down on wasting fish - that he befriended over the years. He also has a number of fresh North Atlantic seafood to offer, as well. Spiliadis eventually opened a Milos on 55th St. in New York and a Milos in his home country of Greece.
Estiatorios Milos is located on avenue du Parc in central Montreal (see map). It's an area of Montreal where a lot of immigrants from all over the world end up living and there's a large number of ethnic restaurants in the area. Milos is housed in a non-descript building that has sort of a contemporary industrial look on the facade. 10 of us, including my colleagues and the husband and wife team that heads up Siltech and Crystalcables from The Netherlands, descended upon Milos one cool Montreal evening.
We took a table toward the back of the restaurant where an ice shelf filled with fresh seafood showed what we could get that evening. While the menu features a number of fresh seafood entrees, they also feature prix fixe courses for dinner, along with a family style offering of whole fish that is basted in olive oil pressed from olives grown on Spiliadis' family estate in Greece, then lightly grilled. My boss made the decision to do just that for our main course that evening. He ordered the grilled red snapper and the grilled sea bass.
Milos offers a wide variety of Greek wines on their wine list. They also feature some interesting wines from France, Italy and a smattering of California wines, as well. Milos has been lauded by a number of wine magazines as having one of the best selections of wine in Montreal. Spiliadis also owns Cava Spiliadis, a noted wine store that imports and sells Greek wines. Since we were going to be eating seafood that evening, my boss ordered up bottles of the 2007 Tsaktsarlis Domaine Bibila Chora, a Greek chardonnay that was light, but flavorful with the seafood.
We also ordered a large round of appetizers before the main entree was brought to the table. The first thing to come out were a couple plates of pan-fried zucchini and pan-fried egg plant with pan-fried Saganaki cheesewedges and sides of tzatziki - the Greek cucumber sauce that is more known to go with gyros. The cheese, I understand, comes from farms about 45 miles to the west of Montreal and it was excellent. We had three plates of that for the whole table and, quite honestly, I was sorry to take my last bite when it was gone. The Saganaki cheese was just great.
Our next round of appetizers consisted of fried calimari served with a zesty tomato creme sauce. The calimari was absolutely wonderful - lightly breaded and lightly fried with a wonderful batter coating the outside. The tomato creme sauce gave the calimari a little more spark to the taste.
Not stopping with just two appetizers (I love it when we go out to eat as a company - we're all "foodies" in our group), we had a couple heaping plates of grilled octopus. Now, I'm not big on octopus, but Milos' octopus is flown in from Greece, caught in the waters off Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. My colleague, Todd, coaxed me to have a bite of the octopus appetizers and I was pleasantly surprised with the taste. The octopus is served cut into bite sized pieces on the large plate and it didn't taste like any octopus I've had before. It had a sort of smokey, grilled taste to it that wasn't overpowering and rather pleasant. It was hell to look at, but it was wonderful to eat.
It wasn't long after we finished off the octopus platters that our fish showed up at the table. Here's a picture of the presentation. The red snapper is at the top, the sea bass below. Some of the more adventurous members of our party fought over the cheek of the fish - supposedly a delicacy in some countries. I was happy with just trying some of the flaky filets they cut up and served with olive oil.
The sea bass was very good. It was grilled perfectly, it wasn't fishy tasting at all, it was light and flavorful. The red snapper, however, was disappointing. It was over-cooked and somewhat chewy. I didn't care for the red snapper as much as I liked the sea bass. Everyone agreed the snapper was over-cooked. Given that my last two or three experiences with red snapper have not been favorable, I will probably never order it again if it's offered on a menu.
Of course, after dinner we had to have dessert. Milos' dessert menufeatures a number of traditional Greek desserts, as well as fresh fruit, a Key Lime tart and cheesecake. One thing they have are Loukoumades - basically Greek beignets that are deep-fried and then sprinkled with cinnamon and chopped almonds along with a thyme-honey concoction that you can drizzle on top. Although I wasn't all that hungry after dinner, we ordered up a little bit of everything including the Loukoumades, the Key Lime tart and we couldn't pass up Milos' own homemade Baklava. I'm a sucker for good Baklava.
And I wasn't disappointed in the least with any of the desserts. We shared a little bit of everything at the table. The Loukoumades were surprisingly good. They had a wonderful sweet cinnamon taste to them. I don't usually care much for almonds, but the nut taste was subdued. The Key Lime tart was OK - sort of a fluffy Key Lime pie, mainly. But the Baklava was some of the best I'd ever had. Light and flaky, the homemade Baklava was just out of this world. By the time the last Baklava was eaten, I was stuffed. But I seriously considered ordering up another batch just to take back to the hotel with us.
Other than the over-cooked red snapper, Milos lived up to my lofty expectations. My colleagues had talked in glowing terms about the food at Milos and, overall, it didn't disappoint. I can easily see why Milos is one of the top international restaurants in Montreal and why it has spawned a number of imitators over the years.
On the recommendation of our bartender at the Bistro Molokini at the Grand Wailea, we had sushi at Isana on our first night on Maui. We had told her that we were thinking about going to the Sansei location up the way in Kihei. She told us, "Sansei is very good, but I sort of like the atmosphere at Isana better. And for me, it's difficult to choose between the two as to which has better sushi. They're both very good." So it was off to Isana that evening.
Isana bills itself as the largest Korean restaurant on Maui. Hmmm... A Korean restaurant that serves sushi? I guess I didn't know that sushi was served in Korea. But, then again, I don't make it to Korean restaurants all that much, as in ever. So what did I know? Our bartender did tell us that Isana was a little more funky in its decor. "Sansei is definitely upscale compared to Isana, but it has a great funky vibe to the place."
We found Isana on South Kihei Road (see map) and walked in around 7:30. We went to the small sushi bar and took the last two seats that were open. Cindy ordered up a green tea right off the bat and I got a large bottle of Sapporo. That was a good sign - they had Japanese beer. Our waitress offered us a regular menu, but we declined and looked over the sushi menu. In addition to sushi and traditional Korean food, Isana also has a Korean Barbecue menu.
We immediately ordered a couple of spicy tuna roll to get things started. The bartender at the Grand Wailea was right - Isana had a funky kind of vibe to the place. There were a lot of neon signs throughout the place. There was a second floor to the restaurant and on the landing heading up to the upper floor there was a wall-mounted carving of two humpback whales. I don't believe anyone was dining upstairs that evening as it looked pretty dark up there.
By the time the spicy tuna rolls showed up, we were ready to order up regular sushi. We tried their maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellow tail), shake (salmon), shiromi (red snapper) and both ebi (sushi) and amaebi (sweet shrimp). I asked our sushi chef if they had any smoked salmon and he gruffly said, "Only fresh fish." Oh, OK. That's fine with me.
The area around the sushi bar was rather festive with a lot of laughing and drinking going on. We were having a good time and I was getting a little plowed on the Sapporo. I only had two, but I think the effects of the mai tais and the previous beers I had back at the hotel, along with the lack of any substantive food since breakfast was starting to get the best of me. When our large tray of sushi showed up, I was ready to quit drinking and start eating.
And the sushi was very good, as advertised. I was very impressed with the maguro tuna, so much that I ordered four more pieces along with four more of the shake salmon. The tuna was very fresh and it melted in our mouths. The red snapper was OK, but the yellow tail had great flavor to it and was easy to chew. The sweet shrimp was not as good as the regular shrimp. The waitress kept checking on us for drinks and the sushi chef was pleasant enough when we were eating to see how we were doing.
Isana was a little expensive - total cost of the sushi and drinks were well over $100 bucks. I thought it to be a little higher priced than Sansei, but the quality of the food was on par. I don't know if the tuna at Isana was as good as Sansei, and I was a little disappointed they didn't have smoked salmon, but sushi purists point out that sushi should be fresh fish only. So Isana was more of a purists type of place.
A few days later, we saw the bartender at the Bistro Molokini back at the hotel and thanked her for steering us toward Isana. She said, "It is a funky place, but it has some great sushi, doesn't it?"
On our first full day on Maui, we ventured out into the Kihei area just north of our hotel. We decided to go to breakfast at a place one of the valet guys at the Grand Wailea suggested - Stella Blues Cafe. Being a pretty popular place, it showed up as a pre-programmed destination for food on my Garmin GPS. I hit a couple buttons on the screen and we were soon headed in that direction.
Stella Blues Cafe is the brainchild of Ray Enis and his wife, Janie. In 1986, the Enis' opened the first bagel shop on Maui. Bagels at that time were about as foriegn to the Hawaiian Islands as poi would be to a New Yorker. They gave away hundreds of bagels initially just to get the locals to try them. After bagels caught on, their bagel shop had great business.
Ray and Janie sold their business in 1990 and traveled to Thailand to experience life in that country. After about a year in Thailand, they moved back to Maui and decided to open another restaurant, this time with a Grateful Dead-theme to it. Ray named the place after his favorite Grateful Dead song, "Stella Blue".
The place was an immediate hit in a culture where breakfast and home-cooked meals were big. The small restaurant could only accommodate about 40 people and the wait was sometimes about 45 minutes to an hour. In 1998, the Enis' moved across the street to a new location in the Azeka Mauka strip mall that effectively gave them an additional 250 seats. The decorated the place with Grateful Dead memorabilia and continued to stress that "laid back" feel to the place. Daily operations are handled by Ray Enis' son, Kyle Boverman.
It was around 9:30 when we got into Stella Blues. It's sort of tucked back in a corner of a strip mall with ample parking out front (see map). We had our choice of eating inside the main dining room, or outside on the patio. We decided to do the outside seating.
It was really a no-brainer. It was a beautiful morning. The early morning Maui sun was beating down, so we sat at a table that had a large umbrella near an area that had a retractable awning that would allow people to sit there even in the rain. The patio area was spacious and comfortable with metal grated tables and chairs. The patio epitomized Stella Blues laid-back feel.
Looking over the breakfast menu at Stella Blues Cafe, their selection wasn't overly large, but it was pretty impressive. They also had a special that day - a fruit crepe that featured a variety of berries topped with homemade whipped cream. That's what Cindy ordered along with a half-stack of Stella Blues' pancakes. "Just to try them out," she said. She knew I'd help her eat them.
I was torn between a lot of things on the menu. It was down to getting a sausage, mushroom and cheese omelet or their French toast. The French toast is Maui sweet bread dipped in a vanilla and cinnamon egg batter, then grilled to a golden brown. I couldn't resist. I went with the French toast with a side of bacon.
They were pretty busy at Stella Blues and service was a little slow. It took us about 10 minutes before our waitress came back to take our order after she brought coffee for Cindy. It was another 25 minutes - easy - before our food showed up. But the wait was well worth it.
The French toast featured 3 thick slices of bread and I had my choice of maple syrup or lilikoi. I alternated using both types of syrup. There's just something magical about lilikoi syrup.
Cindy's crepe with the variety of berries was big. The pancakes weren't going to get close to half-way eaten. But she said the crepe was very good. I took a couple bites of the pancake with some lilikoi syrup on them. They were a little thick for my taste, but they were still pretty good.
There was no-way we could finish everything. I still had about half of my French toast, well over half of the 1/2 stack of pancakes and Cindy had a lot of her crepe left. Our waitress came around and asked if we wanted anything boxed up. We declined, although we could have eaten what we had left over for breakfast the next morning. But there was no way we could warm everything up being in a hotel room with no oven or even a microwave. Plus, we just knew it wouldn't taste as good reheated.
We liked Stella Blues Cafe a lot. The food was good and overly plentiful. The restaurant also features a varied dinner menu and live music on Friday and Saturday nights which features a four-course meal with the show. We were tempted to go back, but with all the various dining options in the area, we just didn't do it. Still, Stella Blues was one of the better meals we had on Maui. It got two thumbs up from Cindy and me.
As I've pointed out in many posts regarding Mexican food restaurants in the Quad Cities, we are blessed to have a number of very good places that serve authentic Mexican cuisine. One that has been around for over six years is La Flama in Moline. They recently moved to a larger spot in downtown Moline - one that used to house the former Brown Bottle restaurant. We went there recently on a Sunday night when neither of us felt like cooking.
Juan, Alex and Martin Garcia moved from Mexico to the Quad Cities in 1998 and worked in various restaurants around the area. In 2004, the brothers opened La Flama in a small building on 5th Ave. in Moline. It became one of the more popular places for authentic Mexican food in the Quad Cities. A couple years ago, the brothers opened Papi's Bar and Bites on Kimberly Road in Bettendorf, not far from our house. They bring in food from La Flama and serve it on the menu there. We drive by it all the time, but have not yet gone in.
The Garcia brothers (right) moved to their new location (see map) just a block down the street from their old location in January of this year. Their old location had seating up to 100 patrons, but the new location effectively more than doubles the capacity. Friday nights is La Flama's "Salsa Dance Night" with a D.J. who plays salsa, merengue, and cha-cha-cha music. The basically move the tables out of the way on the floor and turn it into a dance club. We've gone by the place on Friday night and it's usually packed.
A City of Moline parking ramp is located directly behind La Flama and you can park there for free after 5 p.m. There's a rear entry to La Flama coming out of the parking garage. We got into the restaurant around 7:30 that one Sunday evening and we didn't realize that they closed at 8 p.m. on Sundays. We got a hostess to seat us and she gave us menus to look over. Both Cindy and I ordered margaritas. It wasn't long before a young guy brought us chips and salsa.
The food found on the menu at La Flama is typical of what you find with other authentic Mexican restaurants around the Quad Cities. One thing that is rather unique is their selection of soups, including pozole - shredded pork in a red chile broth with hominy. It's topped with lettuce and onion and served with tortilla chips. They also feature the Mexican staple, sope. They take a large hand-made tortilla and fill it with beans, deep fry it and then top it with anejo cheese, sour cream and guacamole. You can also add chorizo and potatoes or steak and onions to a sope, as well.
La Flama also features lengua - basically beef tongue. They boil slices of beef tongue in herbs and spices, then top it in tomatillo salsa. You can also get lengua tacos, as well. I'm not quite that brave enough to try beef tongue, although the Mexicans rave about the stuff.
Cindy was certain that we'd eaten at the original La Flama before. She may have eaten there at some point, but I was overly certain I had not. She said, "I don't think you liked it. That's why I was surprised that you wanted to come here tonight." I assured her that I had never eaten at La Flama before.
Our waitress brought out our margaritas and took our order. We had eaten heavily for breakfast and it was one of those lazy Sunday days where we really didn't do much to work up much of an appetite before dinner. I was pretty basic - I went with an order of beef tacos, although I almost went with the pork carnitas tacos. I wasn't overly hungry, so I thought three small tacos would be fine.
Cindy ordered up a single beef and bean burrito, topped with melted colby cheese. We figured between the chips and salsa and what we ordered for dinner, we'd be fine.
And the chips and salsa was pretty good at La Flama. It didn't stick out as anything remarkable. It was pretty much about the same as you find at other Mexican restaurants.
But the margaritas - hoo boy! Were they packed with tequila! Cindy took a drink of hers, sputtered, opened her eyes real wide and said, "Oh, my God! These things are lethal!"
I took a drink of mine and was taken aback by the amount of tequila in mine. I like tequila, but this was almost overpowering. I said, "I'm glad I didn't order a double shot in my margarita. It would have been like drinking tequila on the rocks!"
It was getting close to closing time, so they got our food out to us in a hurry. The tacos were soft flour tortillas with beef and what appeared to be potatoes mixed in. They were topped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and anejo cheese. I took a bite and realized that, yes, it was small chopped potatoes in with the beef. The beef had some strange seasoning, as well. I couldn't quite put my finger on what exactly was in the beef, but it was - well - different. I'm not certain that I liked it all that much. I was suddenly wishing that I'd gone with my first impulse and gotten the pork carnitas tacos.
Cindy said her beef and bean burrito was "OK". She said, "This is pretty basic and quite honestly that's all I really wanted this evening."
But everything was reasonably priced, including the margaritas. With a tip for our very helpful waitress, the bill came to just over $20 bucks. I'm not overly certain that I liked La Flama as much as I do some of the other good Mexican restaurants in the Moline area. But a lot of people must like it as they had a good crowd up to closing time on that Sunday night. And the place is doing great business since they moved to their new location. I may have to go back and try their carnitas taco at some point. Then I can determine if I really like the place or not.
Chef Peter Merriman's signature restaurant - Merriman's in Waimea, HI - may have been the first place in Hawaii to address the concept of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. When it opened in 1988, Merriman concept was to use home-grown, organic foods found on the islands, along with grass-fed beef from the ranches around Waimea, and to incorporate only the freshest caught fish into his daily menu. For over 20 years, Merriman's has been popular with tourists and locals alike seeking the finest in Hawaiian Regional Cuisine - a cuisine that didn't really exist 25 years ago.
For years and years, the term "Hawaiian food" meant the stuff tourists got a traditional lu'au - kalua pork, lomilomi salmon (grilled salmon with onions and tomatoes), chicken lu'au (chicken with spinach, onion and garlic), and, of course, poi, which is basically the paste from pounded taro roots. When Merriman arrived in 1983 to be the chef at the Mauna Lani Resort, he found the island had a bountiful harvest of food to choose from. He found ultra sweet corn that was grown by farmers on the east side of the Big Island, there were coconut trees near the hotel that he would climb to get coconuts for a special coconut sauce he used on fish, and he began a relationship with a number of organic farmers and growers on the island.
Merriman and his wife, Vicki, opened Merriman's with the idea of fusing all these great home-grown foods into a menu that showed off the best of what Hawaii had to offer. In the meantime, he used his relationship with the ranchers, farmers and fishermen to ask them to try different types of things to grow and catch. This led to different types of fruits and vegetables, as well as interesting and new species of fresh fish to show up on his menu. Merriman's suddenly became a gourmet heaven with the burgeoning "foodie" population.
After our lunch at Merriman's Market Cafe, not far from our hotel, I did a little research into Merriman's place in Waimea. As I said in my earlier post on his cafe in the Kings' Shops shopping center in Waikoloa Beach, Merriman also has a handful of other restaurants that he's involved in, including a Merriman's on both Maui and on the island of Kauai. It sounded like the Merriman's on Maui was an exquisitely upscale restaurant from some of the things we were reading about. But the one in Waimea could be described as upscale casual. On our last night on the Big Island we decided to go to Waimea for a good dinner at Merriman's.
I had a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt on that evening, Cindy had a nice top and chinos when we went out. It was warm when we left the hotel, temps were in the upper 70's, but we knew up in Waimea it would be cold and rainy. It was. The temperature dropped 20 degrees and there was a light rain by the time we pulled into the restaurants parking lot on the west end of town (see map).
The decor of Merriman's is contemporary Hawaiian - it has a high ceiling with narrow wood beams across the room. There was subdued lighting along the edges of the ceiling, with dimly lit chandeliers hanging toward the middle of the room - bright enough to allow you to easily read the menu. Small palm trees in large pots were interspersed in the dining room that sat about 80 people. The tables and booths along the walls were all adorned with heavy linen table cloths. It was a nice place to say the least.
It was about 7:30 when we got there and there was one table open - a large six-seater near the open kitchen and the small bar area. Actually, I can't even really call it a bar as much as it was a station where the bartender mixed drinks and put them on a five foot long pick-up bar. The hostess took us to the table and while it was large for two people. It was either that, or the hostess said it would be about a 20 minute wait for a regular table. Cindy thought it would be fine, so we sat there and she gave us the menus for that evening.
We were told that Peter Merriman doesn't work all that much at the restaurant any longer, he's running the small empire of restaurants from his home on Maui. The executive chef of Merriman's in Waimea is Neil Murphy (right) who has a long resume of working in fine restaurants before he joined the Merriman's staff. Prior to coming to Hawaii to be the chef at Merriman's, Murphy worked at a number of high-end New York City restaurants including Aureole and Symphony Cafe. He was the chef de cuisine at the famed Park Avenue Cafefor eight years before coming to the Big Island.
Our waitress - wait a minute - *waiter* for the evening came out to great us. Her name was Robyn and she was a short blond, 20-something gal who grew up in Alaska. As we found out later on, Robyn had a degree in forestry, but decided to come to Hawaii to just bum around for awhile a few years ago. One thing led to another and she ended up as a waiter at Merriman's. All the waiters - both men and women - are called just that. Each was dressed snappy in black trousers covered with heavy aprons, white button down shirts with ties. In fact, each of them were given the title of "Professional Waiter", as it showed on the business card Robyn gave me before we left that evening. I'd never had a waiter or waitress give me a business card before.
I looked thorough the impressive wine list Merriman's had to offer. Robyn said apologized about the shortness of wine list - the book was ten pages. "I know our wine list isn't as extensive as other places," she said. "But we have a great sommelier here and he can give you some recommendations on some of the wine."
I told her, "I don't think that would be necessary, but you shouldn't sell this wine list short. Compared to some other fine restaurants I've been to, this is pretty impressive." Since we were in the middle of ranching country on the Big Island, I figured I get a steak that evening. Cindy was, no doubt, going to get seafood, but she said she wanted to go with a red wine for the evening. I ended up picking out the Castillo Labistada Rioja Reserva, a 2001 varietal from Spain. Actually, the prices on their wine list were pretty reasonable. A 2005 Jordan Cabernet was $99 bucks - I've paid up to $120 for that on the mainland. They also had a Whitehall Lane 2005 cab for $89. But the Castillo Rioja was a little over-priced at $64 bucks. But I like a good Rioja and the Rioja Reservas are aged for three years in oak barrels compared to just one year for regular riojas.
The menuat Merriman's is eclectic, to say the least. While there's not a lot to choose on it, there's a lot of diverse and interesting items to choose from. As I said, Merriman's features grass-fed Hawaiian-raised beef, fresh fish from the ocean, and organically homegrown, and when possible - chemical free - vegetables and fruits. They have an interesting list of appetizers including a kalua pig and sweet Hawaiian onion quesadilla; macadamia encrusted grilled shrimp; and their house cured smoked bacon served with sweet bread French toast with a Kona coffee barbecue sauce. How wild is that!
For dinner, as I said, I was looking for some grass-fed beef and they had a few things to offer including a filet; a bone-in New York strip with Szechuan pepper sauce and herb butter, and their version of Steak Diane with sauteed Hamakua mushrooms. Man, it all sounded good.
Cindy, of course, was looking at their seafood offerings which included Merriman's original wok charred Ahi tuna - charred on the outside, but rare inside. I almost jumped at that, honestly. They also had a prepared Ono fish, as well as a ponzu (a fruity sauce found primarily in Japanese cuisine) marinated mahi mahi that was sauteed with sesame seasoned shiitake mushrooms, hearts of palm and sweet Maui onions. That sounded great, too.
What I should have done is ordered Merriman's Mixed Plate - a small tenderloin medallion with the mahi mahi and the ahi tuna. But Cindy beat me to it. I was sort of surprised that she went with that as she had been disdaining beef all week long during our first few days on the Big Island. But Robyn said, "Oh, you'll like that."
Cindy smiled and said, "Oh, I know!"
What I ended up getting was the large (12 oz) grass-fed beef tenderloin filet with a tomato, sweet onion and beet chutney on the side. However, before that I ordered Merriman's tomato salad with fresh basil, blue cheese, anchovy, capers, lime and olive oil. As good as the tomatoes were on the burger I had previously at Merriman's Market Cafe, I could only imagine how good this salad would be.
I said, "Cindy, that has mushrooms with the fish."
She said, "That's OK, I'll just put 'em off to the side and let you have them."
For her starter, Cindy got the Hawaiian grown lettuce salad with Maui sweet onions in a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. She thought about getting the Caesar salad, but opted to go with the basic salad instead.
And just as I hoped it would be, the tomato salad was out of this world. I don't know if it's the soil on top of volcanic rock or the long growing season or what, but Hawaiian tomatoes were absolutely the best I've ever had. I grow some pretty good tasting tomatoes back home, but these were just unbelievable in their taste. They didn't have that overly acidic taste that some tomatoes can have. They're almost sweet and very juicy. If the state agriculture department didn't scan bags and suitcases for vegetables and fruits, I would have smuggled home a dozen or so. Along with the fresh anchovies, blue cheese and the fresh basil - which is grown outside of Merriman's in their own herb garden - it was a taste explosion in my mouth. It was just unbelievable.
Robyn and another waiter brought out our main entrees later in the evening, setting them in front of us at the same time. I had ordered my filet rare and it was a little over-cooked. Actually, it would have been a little over-cooked as a medium-rare. But it was tender and juicy. Grass-fed beef doesn't have the same taste as the corn-fed beef I'm accustomed to back in Iowa. But as Cindy pointed out, they probably aren't injecting the cows on steroids or whatever out in Hawaii. Still, it was pretty good.
However, Cindy's mahi mahi, wok charred ahi and the filet medallion was "the bomb". She gave me little bites of the fish and it was just heavenly. She said, "Honey, this is just unbelievable. I'm so spoiled on fish here in Hawaii I don't know how I'm going to be able to eat fish when we get back home."
The Castillo Rioja Reserva was a great complement to the meal. I love a good Rioja and the Castillo was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't overpowering or bold, but had a nice finish that lingered for a moment. It went well with the seafood, as well.
As we finished up our meal, Robyn came around to see if we wanted dessert. When she talked about the passion fruit mousse, I asked, "Is that the same thing as lilikoi?"
She said, "Passion fruit is from the same family as lilikoi, very similar, but not as tart."
We were sort of full from dinner, but I decided to give the passion fruit mousse a try. Shortbread macadamia nut cookies came on the side. I was sort of "eh" when it came to macadamia nuts before I got to Hawaii. However, we found some in a can - the Mauna Loa brand of macadamia nuts - and I was hooked. But, oh! Macadamia nuts are so rich! I could only eat a handful before my stomach would say, "Whoa, hang on there!" (We brought four cases of six cans of the Mauna Loa brand macadamia nuts back home with us.)
The passion fruit mousse was light and not as tart as the lilikoi as she said. It was very good. And the shortbread macadamia cookies were killer. I said, "Cindy, we need to find the recipe for these cookies." (We did - see it here. We haven't made them yet, but I want to wait for a special occasion.)
The crowd had filtered out by the time we were finishing up, so that afforded Robyn some time to visit with us. She asked how dinner was and I told her that we've had some outstanding meals with great service on our visit to the Big Island and this was no exception. I said, "My steak was a little over-cooked, however."
She said, "Well, why didn't you say something? I would have gotten you a new steak."
I told her it was more medium-rare-medium than rare-medium as I usually like my steaks. "It was no big deal," I said. "I wasn't going to quibble over meat temperature tonight." She apologized again and said, "Well, next time you guys come back, I'll give you free desserts." (What is it with these places giving out free desserts? I know tourism is down in Hawaii, but that was the second high end restaurant that offered to pick up our dessert if we came back.)
Cindy said, "Unfortunately, this is our last night on this island. We're going to Maui tomorrow."
Robyn took out her card, put "Free desserts w/purchase of entrees" on the back of it and handed it to me. "If someday you ever make it back to the Big Island, please do stop in and see us again."
Yes, if we ever do make it out to the Big Island again, we will stop at Merriman's. It was expensive, but we have a tendency to splurge on vacation. I don't know if it was the finest meal we had while on the Big Island, but it was very, very good.
The last full day we were on the Big Island of Hawaii, we took a road trip up to the northern part of the island to scout for places to take pictures later in the evening of the full moon rising out of the ocean. However, much of the north and northeastern part of the island was shrouded in clouds that were producing some heavy rains along with some strong winds. It's amazing that we could drive about 10 miles north of our hotel along the coast and the temperature would drop and it began to rain. All the while we could look in the rearview mirror and see sunshine behind us.
We eventually ended up in Waimea and went to a place that we'd read about in some travel books - Tako Taco. Actually, we'd read in a couple books that Tako Taco had closed, but a couple others said that it had re-opened. I figured a Mexican food place in Hawaii ought to have some righteous fish tacos, so we decided to give it a shot.
From what I could gather from doing some research on Tako Taco was that it was originally a small taco shop in Waimea that offered what would be called "Hawaiianized Mexican Food". Actually, their food was a fusion of Mexican, Island and Asian cuisine. A lot of travel books we had read on the old place raved about the inventive nature of their Mexican food.
Tako Taco opened around 2002 and moved to their present day location in 2007 (see map). But they soon went out of business - much to the dismay of locals and tourists, alike. That's when Tom Kerns, a former brewmaster from Oregon, came into the picture.
Kerns' (pictured right) career in the restaurant business began when he worked at McNemamins, a chain of brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest. Kerns eventually landed in the Phillipines where he helped open a brewpub there. Liking the south Pacific lifestyle, Kerns came to Hawaii and opened up the Fish and Game Brewing Company on the island of Maui about 11 years ago. It quickly became one of the more popular destinations for food and beer in the Lahaina area.
Kerns also became a hero to many beer enthusiasts on the Hawaiian Islands when he drafted legislation that would allow brewpubs to sell growler containers (one gallon jugs of beer) and kegs directly to their customers. We noticed a small shack directly outside the Kona Brewing Company that was selling growlers to people when we were there earlier on our visit.
Eventually, the Maui Brewing Company was looking for a brewpub/restaurant to feature their beer and they bought out Kerns and turned the Fish and Game Brewing Company in the Maui Brewing Co. brewpub. Kerns "retired" with his wife to the highlands around Waimea looking for his next opportunity. His goal was to open another brewpub and looked at a number of places around his home in Waimea for a place to do so.
When Tako Taco went out of business, the wheels began to turn for Kerns and his wife, Jayne. The Kerns bought the building and resurrected the old cantina style restaurant with an eye on serving the same style of healthy Mexican/Island food, along with serving some of his own beers. The Kerns bought what was an old motorcycle shop behind the Tako Taco building and began to put brewing equipment in the building. The capacity of brewing in the building isn't huge - their 10 barrel system will brew about 500 barrels of beer annually. But Kerns hopes to grow that part of the business in the future.
Kerns image of taking Tako Taco and turning it into a brewpub came to fruition in August of 2008. However, the signage is sort of confusing as it's both called Tako Taco and also Big Island Brewhaus. Turns out the official name of the place is Tako Taco Taqueria Big Island Brewhaus. Sort of wordy for name of a resturant, don't you think? Either way, the place is open and they offer pretty much the same menu as the old Tako Taco and a number of different in-house brewed beers.
Actually, we tried to get into Tako Taco earlier in the afternoon, but there was no place to park in the rather small parking lot. Given that it was raining, we didn't want to park the car across the road and walk to the restaurant. We decided to drive around for a bit and then come back. When we did get back just after 2 p.m. there was a place to park.
The outside of the building features a bamboo fence that houses a beer garden the Kerns built to help give the restaurant sort of a neighborhood brewpub feel. But walking into the restaurant, it was far from a brewpub atmosphere. It was like they had taken a Mexican cantina and dropped it in the middle of the Pacific. There were a number of tables and chairs all through the place, a small bar upfront with a multitude of beers on tap - not only their own beers, but beers from the Kona Brewery, Stella Artois and Heinekin. For some reason, Heinekin is big in Hawaii. It's sort of an island staple like Spam.
We took a seat at a table near the front counter. Above the counter is the menu for the place (click on the picture for a closer look at their menu). It's not an extensive menu, but it offered a lot of different variations of Island-Mex food. We didn't know if there was waitress service, so we sort of sat there for a moment. Finally a girl behind the counter said, "You have to order up here." Oh, OK. That's fine.
We weren't overly hungry, even though it had been nearly five hours since we'd had breakfast. I really just wanted to try some of their fish tacos. Their fish tacos are fresh catch, usually ono, spearfish or some other light white fish. They came with cabbage on the side and a homemade black bean salsa on the top. I ordered a couple of those.
Cindy always loves chile rellenos, so she ordered one of those. She also wanted some chips and salsa, but unlike most Mexican restaurants on the mainland, Tako Taco charges for their homemade ships and salsa. But that was OK - the chips were very good and very fresh, while the red and green salsas they provided were excellent as well. Both had a hint of heat to them, the green more so than the red.
For drinks, something caught my eye - lilikoi margaritas. Instead of the regular margarita mix, Tako Taco uses lilikoi juice in this variation of the margarita. Since lilikoi was like heroin to me, I had to try one. Cindy follwed suit and ordered one, as well.
And the margaritas were out of this world. I don't know what it is about the taste of lilikoi, but I was absolutely hooked on it. I quickly down my margarita and went back up to order another one. By that time, our food was brought out to our table.
While the tacos weren't overly huge, there was a lot of grilled fish on the double corn tortillas. The cabbage was fresh and went well with the fish. What grabbed my attention was the black bean salsa they put on the fish. Man, it had a spicy peppery taste to it. It almost overpowered the taste of the fish, but it had a really good spicy finish on the tongue. About the time I really needed to take a drink, the girl behind the counter came out with my second lilikoi margarita. The combination of the lilikoi and the spicy black bean salsa was a taste sensation like no other I'd ever had.
Cindy was sort of confused with her chile relleno. Unlike most chile rellenos she's had in the past, it didn't come with a tomato-based sauce on the top. There was chopped lettuce topped with a mild salsa served on the side. She just used some of the red salsa that was provided for our chips. She seemed to like the chile relleno calling it "different".
Between the chips and salsa, the two lilikoi margaritas and the two fish tacos, I was pretty stuffed. I got up to look around the place and I noticed an autographed picture of Elton John on the wall. Turns out he had eaten at Tako Taco at some point in time. I don't know if it was during the current incarnation of the restaurant or if it was back during the previous owner's tenure. Either way, I thought it was sort of ironic that I had eaten in at least two places that Elton John has eaten at before, the other being Raja in Atlanta.
I don't know if the food at Tako Tako was really good or if it was just really different as compared to the usual Mexican food we get back on the mainland. The fish tacos were good, but not overly outstanding. Cindy said her chili relleno was good, but she's had better. The lilikoi margaritas were outstanding - I wish I could find lilikoi juice on the mainland. And the homemade chips and salsa was above average. I liked the atmosphere of the place, but I thought the people working there were a little distant. Overall, it was a good experience at Tako Taco. I don't know if I'd go back there for the food, but I'd crawl back there for the lilikoi margaritas.
(Update - Since our trip to Tako Taco, Kerns has opened his brewpub - Big Island Brewhaus - that also serves the same Mexican food.)
Staying at an all-inclusive resort has never appealed to us. We like to explore the areas where we stay, and that usually means looking for good restaurants. We've heard reports from friends who have stayed at all-inclusive places and we've all heard the food isn't bad, but it's not great. It's generally sanitized and dumbed-down for the tourists. While our hotel - the Hilton Waikoloa Village - wasn't an all-inclusive resort, it did feature a number of restaurants to choose from. We were sort of thinking that we should spend some bucks in at least one restaurant for dinner during out stay there and we chose the Kamuela Provision Company.
Actually, we almost didn't go to the Kamuela Provision Company. We really didn't know about it until we stumbled upon the place during a walk around the property at the resort one afternoon. It was situated about as far from our room as you could get at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. We were walking around the pool at the Lagoon tower and we sort of stumbled into it along a path that traced the rocky, black lava cliff that jutted out into the Pacific. It had a wonderful little patio that looked out onto the sea and the sound of waves crashing up against the rocks gave it a great tropical sea feeling. And it was a popular place for dinner when the sun would set into the sea. We stopped to look at one of their menus they had posted by the front of the restaurant and it featured primarily steaks and seafood. Cindy said, "Well, this place certainly looks interesting."
We had been thinking of going to an Italian restaurant at the Hilton that we'd heard about - Donatoni's. The restaurant wasn't far from our room in the Ocean tower, but we noticed that there was a two-sided sign out in front of the restaurant. On one side it said, "Donatoni's", but you could spin it around and it said, "Bella Vista". One day the sign would say, "Donatoni's", but later in the day or the next day, we'd see "Bella Vista" on the sign. We were sort of confused about that. But we'd read so many good things about Donatoni's that we really wanted to give it a try. But once Cindy saw the Kamuela Provision Company, her choices of hotel restaurants began to waver.
After a long day of doing nothing - the perfect type of day for me on a vacation - we decided to hit the Malolo Lounge for a couple drinks before dinner. Our favorite waitress, April, was asking us what we were going to do for dinner that evening. I said, "I think we're gonna try Donatoni's for some Italian tonight."
She sort of stopped and said, "Oh! Donatoni's is closed."
Cindy said, "Closed?!"
April said that it had been closed for about a year. "Their lease ran out with the hotel," she explained. "That space is now used for like private parties and private dinners, primarily for the weddings that we have here."
I said, "Oh, that explains the double-sided sign that said 'Donatoni's' on one side and 'Bella Vista' on the other."
April said, "Yeah, I don't quite understand why they do that or why they even have 'Donatoni's' still on the sign."
Cindy turned to me and said, "Good! Then we can go to the Provision Company for dinner."
April replied, "The Kamuela Provision Company here on the property? Oh, that's really good." And she smiled and said, "And it's really romantic." Cindy was hooked.
We asked April if we needed reservations and she told us that there wasn't a lot of people staying at the Hilton, so we probably didn't need to worry about that. We had noticed that all week long that it appeared there wasn't a lot of people staying there the week we were there. April said, "I think our occupancy rate has been way down because we've been slow here in the lounge all week long. But it's supposed to get busy starting this weekend."
(Clayton Homes out of Tennessee - which is also a Berkshire-Hathaway company - was scheduled to begin a convention of sales managers the next week and each sales manager could bring their family with them. A lot of them were coming in on Friday and Saturday. I think they brought something like 800 people.)
April said that the Kamuela Provision Company is usually packed with diners on the patio right about sunset. "But if you want to wait and eat later, you should be able to get right in."
We went back to our room to freshened up and change clothes and we took a leisurely walk through the lush tropical grounds of the hotel over to the Kamuela Provision Company, stopping to watch the sunset dive into the ocean. Hawaiian sunsets are just spectacular.
We checked in at the hostess stand and she asked if we wanted to eat inside or out. Cindy wanted to eat outside and the hostess said we'd have about a 15 to 20 minute wait. We sat at the bar and Cindy got a glass of white wine while I enjoyed a couple of - you guessed it - Kona Big Wave Golden Ales.
It wasn't quite 20 minutes when the hostess came and got us at the bar. The dining room at the Kamuela Provision Company was sort of cozy, but the two main rooms weren't small. The lights were subdued and the motif was sort of a high-end tropical theme. But there was - maybe - four tables filled in the dining room. All the action was, indeed, outside on the patio.
We were seated outside at a table that looked out onto the ocean. The sky was becoming a deep violet with the last light of setting sun on the horizon and a bright moon rising above Mauna Kea to the east. We noticed there were about four tables for two people set up on what was the walkway that we had passed on our first journey past the Kamuela Provision Company. Even though it had an unobstructed view of the ocean, people could easily just walk past, just inches from their table. Cindy said, "God, I'm not certain I'd want to be sitting out there with people walking past all the time."
Turned out that not a lot of people were out walking along the point at that time of the evening. And only two fof the four tables along the walkway were occupied.
We were looking through our menuswhen our waiter for the evening, Oly, came to introduce himself. He was a personable young guy who was born in California to Samoan parents. He was a pretty well built guy and said that he was a pretty good football player in high school. "I had about a dozen scholarship offers to some big schools, but I blew out my knee in my second game of my senior season. I never played football again," he told us later that evening.
He said his father and mother had divorced when he was young. After high school he moved out to Hawaii to live with his dad and go to college. "College lasted about six months and I moved out on my own soon after that," he told us. "That was about 11 years ago. Now I have a wife and two beautiful daughters and I can't imagine doing anything else than what I'm doing right now." He certainly seemed to like his job.
We started off getting a bottle of the Grgich Hills Fume Blanc that was reasonably priced at around $55 bucks. We noticed wine prices in Hawaii were about 10 to 15 percent higher than what we'd see in restaurants on the mainland. But we sort of expected that when we were in Hawaii.
Oly came back to explain some things about the menu. He said all of the seafood was fresh catch, usually earlier that day. The steaks on the menu featured Hawaiian grass-fed beef, or they would fly fresh beef from the mainland and cut their own steaks two or three times a week. Their featured entree was an 8 oz. grilled beef tenderloin filet with tempura lobster. They had a number of appetizers and salads to choose from, as well.
He gave us the specials for that evening and one was a striped sea bass, caught fresh that morning, fileted and grilled in a butter sauce, then topped with sauteed butterfly shrimp and finished with a light cream sauce. Cindy perked up when she heard that. Buttermilk mashed potatoes came on the side. Or Oly said that we could substitute the side with any one of their signature sides they offered such as sweet potato hash, wilted spinach or edamame succotash. Cindy ordered the special with the buttermilk mashed potatoes.
I was sort of thinking either steak or seafood. I asked Oly, "What's the most popular seafood item on the menu?"
He didn't hesitate when he answered, "The KPC ocean platter." It featured the catch of the day, which was ono that evening, along with oysters, shrimp and scallops. And you had your choice for either grilled or fried seafood on the plate. He said, "Get it grilled and we put this house made remoulade sauce on top of everything. It's my favorite." I ordered that with a side of sweet hash potatoes.
A salad came with the dinner - Cindy got a small traditional Caesar salad, while I asked Oly if I could substitute my salad for the KPC tomato salad - locally grown heirloom tomatoes with sweet Hawaiian onions, topped with crumbled feta cheese and a white balsamic macadamia nut vinaigrette. He said there would be a slight up-charge, but I didn't care. Hawaii had some of the best tasting tomatoes I've ever had in my life.
And my tomato salad was excellent. There's something about the taste of tomatoes while we were in Hawaii that just set me off. They were juicy and flavorful, not acidic like tomatoes on the mainland can be. I really liked the white balsamic macadamia nut vinaigrette, as well. It was a great compliment to the tomatoes and sweet onion slices.
Cindy said her Caesar salad was very good, as well. The Caesar dressing was very good and definitely house made. The lettuce was crisp and crunchy, the way Cindy likes her salad greens.
While we waited for dinner, we noticed the tables had begun to turn over to new diners. A lot of the people who were there earlier for the sunset had begun to leave and a number of Japanese diners came to the patio deck to enjoy their dinner. The Hilton Waikoloa Village catered to Japanese tourists with signage and menus printed in both English and Japanese. We were suddenly a minority on the patio with Japanese diners, but that was no big deal at all. Cindy said, "Maybe Japanese people are like Europeans and like to eat later in the evening."
Oly brought our food out and I was sort of surprised with the size of the plate for the KPC ocean platter. It was larger than what I expected. The ono was grilled with a seasoning and butter sauce, and there were five large butterflied shrimp, about the same number of grilled oysters and about a half dozen medium sized grilled scallops on top with the cream sauce poured over all that. And it was just excellent. The ono was light and flavorful, and the cream sauce went very well with the seafood, especially when I squeezed some lemon juice on top of everything. The sweet potato hash was *OK*, but I was much more interested in the seafood.
Cindy's striped sea bass was also very good. We exchanged bites of our food and I think I liked her sea bass better than my ono. As we were eating, Cindy said, "God, Will, I don't know how I'm ever going to be able to eat seafood when we get back home. This is just so fresh and flavorful. We'll never get anything like this back in Iowa."
After we finished our meals, Oly came out to tempt us with dessert. He was talking about their coconut cream pie and I told him I didn't like coconut all that much. I love the smell of coconut, but not the taste. Cindy does like coconut and she was interested in that. He said, "Listen, I never really liked coconut either until I had this pie when I first started here about 8 years ago. Now it's my favorite."
He described a few other desserts and I stopped him when he was described their Hawaiian lilikoi cheesecake served with passion fruit. I said, "Ooooo... That sounds great. I really like lilikoi and anything that has lilikoi in it." We ordered that with two forks.
When Oly came out with the dessert he had the cheesecake - and a piece of the coconut cream pie. He said, "Look, I'm not gonna charge you guys for the coconut cream pie. I just want you to try it. If you don't like it, leave it and enjoy the cheesecake."
Well, I did try the coconut cream pie and it was very good. It didn't have the overpowering coconut taste that I've had in similar pies in the past. But I have to tell you - the Hawaiian lilikoi cheesecake was just outstanding. Oh my God! Lilikoi, to me, was fast becoming like heroin to a junkie. There's just something about the sweet fruity taste of lilikoi that sends me over the edge.
After we finished, Oly came back to the table to talk with us for a few minutes. I told him that the coconut cream pie was surprisingly good, but the Hawaiian lilikoi cheesecake was to die for. He told us, "Look, I know there are a lot of great places to eat around here, but I'd really like you folks to come back before you leave. Even if it's just for dessert. And dessert will be on me, my treat." He said he didn't work Sunday or Monday nights, so he said we could come back on the weekend and he'd take care of us. I couldn't pass up a chance at another piece of that Hawaiian lilikoi cheesecake.
Unfortunately, that Saturday was the tsunami warning and after the hotel let guests back on to the property none of the restaurants were open. They had a free buffet in one of the ballrooms to feed people who didn't want to leave the property to go get dinner. So we never went back to see Oly and get our free dessert.
The food at the Kamuela Provision Company was very good - surprisingly good for a hotel resort restaurant. Oly's service was very personable and efficient. He was a talker, but he knew when to let us enjoy our food and the surroundings. We were overly happy with our meal and Cindy said, "Geez, could you imagine if we'd gone to Donatoni's instead of this place? I'm glad Donatoni's was closed or we wouldn't have found out how good this place was."
We dawdled a bit after dinner, enjoying the waves crashing onto the rocks, easily visible from a nearly full moon coming up from behind us. Oly wasn't in any hurry to kick us out to turn the table, we had spent a lot of money with him and gave him a handsome tip for his service. And it was a great, relaxed and slow walk back to our room well across the resort property. Life couldn't get much better than that evening in Hawaii.
One day for lunch, we ventured over to the Kings' Shops shopping place near our hotel at the Waikoloa Beach Resort looking for a place to eat. We decided to try Merriman's Market Cafe, a casual restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean cuisine using locally grown produce and meat, and featuring freshly caught seafood.
Merriman's Market Cafe is part of a family of restaurants owned by restaurateur/chef Peter Merriman. Merriman arrived in Hawaii in the early 80's to become the executive chef at a resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. He quickly found that traditional Hawaiian food left a lot to be desired, considering most of the native food was found at traditional lu'aus. And it wasn't all that great. He began to experiment with innovative dishes that featured the bountiful harvest of what the island could produce, both on the land and from the sea. His combination of taste sensations from locally grown foods garnered him a following with burgeoning "foodies".
In 1988, Merriman (right) and his wife, Vicki, opened their first restaurant, Merriman's, in the middle of ranching country in Waimea. Merriman developed a relationship with local growers and ranchers to get the finest foods available for his restaurant. Merriman's quickly became a destination for tourists and locals who were looking for the best in Hawaiian regional food. It was one of the first gourmet restaurants on the Big Island.
In 1991, Merriman and 11 other Hawaii-based chefs got together to establish what is called Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. Instead of distorting Hawaiian cuisine with frozen, flown-in food from the mainland to appease the taste buds of tourists, Merriman and his fellow chefs combined to come up with recipes that featured the best of what Hawaii had to offer - from the soil, from the ranches and from the sea. Suddenly, Hawaii Regional Cuisine meant more than kalua pork and lomi salmon served buffet style at a lu'au. The concept has allowed these innovative chefs to make Hawaii not only a beach paradise destation, but a food destination, as well.
In the early 90's, Merriman teamed with the TS Restaurant group to open the Hula Grill on Maui. They opened a second Hula Grill in Honolulu after that. Merriman's Market Cafe opened in 2003. And in addition to his Merriman's restaurant on the Big Island, he also has Merriman's locations on Maui and Kauai.
Merriman's Market Cafe has a nice little dining room, but a spacious outdoor dining area with tables under large umbrella's that shade diners from the intense Kohala Coast sun that shines over 300 days a year. We took one of the last available tables outdoors when we went that one afternoon. Our hostess gave us our menus and a waiter was over quickly to take our drink orders.
The lunch menuat Merriman's Market Cafe isn't all that extensive, but it was interesting, nonetheless. The dinner menu is much more lengthy with pasta dishes, ribs, gourmet pizza, and grass-fed beef. They also feature nightly seafood and beef specials, along with a pretty good selection of tapas for appetizers.
At lunch, they also feature a couple of specials. One of the specials that day was a Greek salad topped with a freshly caught spearfish that is grilled in a Moroccan tagine-roasted marinade of garlic and ginger. That's what Cindy ordered.
I'd been sort of hankering for a good burger since we got on the island, but I soon found that good burger joints are really tough to find in Hawaii. Merriman's had a 1/2 pound Market Cafe cheese burger that was topped with white cheddar cheese. I went with that. The waiter asked me, "Would you like bacon and sauteed ali'i mushrooms on that?" I asked him what ali'i mushrooms were and he said they were a Hawaiian grown mushroom. He said, "They're really good grilled and put on top of the burger." How could I say no after that?
It was a great afternoon, nice and warm with a gentle breeze blowing through the outdoor seating area. I was enjoying a few cold Kona Big Wave Golden Ales while Cindy was sipping on a glass of one of their very dry white house wines. I should have found out what it was as she offered me a sip and it was very good.
Our food came out and I was surprised by the size of the burger and the amount of bacon and mushrooms they put on top. There was a large leaf of fresh lettuce and a large, juicy tomato under the fresh sourdough bun. My God, it may have been the best tomato I've ever tasted! Everything about the burger was just great. It was one of the finest gourmet burgers I've ever tasted.
Garlic and chive seasoned french fries came with the burger. I usually don't go for fries all that much, but these were too good to pass up. I was having an exceptional lunch at Merriman's Market Cafe.
Cindy's Greek salad with the grilled spearfish was also wonderful. She gave me a couple bites of her salad and fish in return for some french fries. The fish had a great taste to it, light and flaky. And the Greek salad dressing was so overly flavorful, yet not overpowering. We were having a great lunch.
After lunch, our waiter was trying to tempt us with treats from their dessert menu. Merriman's Market Cafe featured their own gelato cart just outside the outdoor seating area near the mall's promenade. Cindy wanted to try some gelato, but only if I'd help her eat some. I only wanted lemon gelato and it turned out they were out of the lemon flavor. We ended up passing on the dessert, although I do have to say the chocolate Grand Marnier creme brulee sounded pretty interesting.
But quite honestly, we had enough food to satiate us until dinner later that evening. Cindy loved her salad and my burger at Merriman's Market Cafe was outstanding. In fact, when we were talking to our favorite bar waitress back at the hotel, April, she told us she thought everything that Merriman's Market Cafe had to offer was wonderful - including the burger. "I think it's the best burger on the island," she told us after we'd been there. That was the only burger I had when I was on the Big Island and if that was the best in the eyes of a local, that was fine with me.
After our experience at Merriman's Market Cafe, we made a conscious effort to have dinner at Merriman's primary restaurant in Waimea. We did and look for our experience there in an upcoming Road Tips post very soon.
While on the Big Island, for dinner one evening we stayed close to the hotel and had a meal at Buzz's Sand Trap, a restaurant at the Beach Golf Course which is part of the Waikoloa Beach Resort. We had seen a sign for the place, but figured that it was not much more than a "19th Hole" bar and grill since it was part of the golf course. We soon found out it was far from that.
Buzz's Sand Trap opened in August of 2009 in what was the old Beach Grill restaurant. The owner, Richard "Dickie" Furtado, comes from a long family line of restaurant owners with restaurants on The Big Island, Maui and Oahu. Furtado's father, Dick, ran the famous Big Island restaurant Bobbie's Steak and Lobster that was on the waterfront in Hilo for years. Dick Furtado's daugther, Bobby Lou, opened Buzz's Original Steak House in 1959 on Oahu with her husband, Raymond "Buzz" Schnieder. Dickie Furtado's sister, Julie, also owned a restaurant. And he has a niece and nephew in the restaurant business, as well.
While attending the University of Hawaii, Dickie Furtado worked at Buzz's Original Steak House and decided to head to San Francisco to learn how to become a chef. Dickie Furtado eventually came back to Hawaii and opened three restaurants in Maui. He sold all three just after the turn of the century.
An opportunity arose to open a restaurant in the Waikoloa Beach Resort property and Dickie Furtado decided to capitalize on the popularity and longevity of the "Buzz's" name by naming his new restaurant Buzz's Sand Trap. The restaurant specializes in kiawe (sort of a Hawaiian mesquite) wood-grilled meats and seafood. Although it does have some of the same specialties from Buzz's Original Steak House, Dickie Furtado has a number of his own recipes for Buzz's Sand Trap.
Buzz's Sand Trap was highly recommended by our favorite concierge at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Rick. I'm tellin' ya - the guy never steered us in a wrong direction when it came to restaurants. He told us that Buzz's Sand Trap was "literally just over there," pointing just to the south and east of the property. Rick said it was walking distance, but a little bit of a hike. We thought we'd just drive over to the place since we really didn't know where we were going. It turned out that Rick was right - it was an easy walk from the Hilton (see map). Buzz's Sand Trap is part of the clubhouse at the Beach Golf Course at the Waikoloa Beach Resort and it has a spacious parking lot.
We got into the place around 7:30 and the hostess met us at her stand just outside the door. She asked if we had reservations and I asked back, "Do we need them?" (That's a minor pet-peeve of mine when it comes to restaurants. I know that their first instinct is to ask if a patron has a reservation if they have some on their books. But why can't they ask, "Two for dinner? Do you have a reservation?") She said we didn't and she went inside to check what sort of seating we could get. She came back and took us past the small bar area up front to a table over in a corner of the restaurant near the front of the dining area and gave us our menus. The restaurant was about 1/3 full.
Buzz's Sand Trap opens at 3:30 each day for happy hour. They feature a number of "pupu's" - the Hawaiian term for appetizer - including hot or cold artichoke hearts, escargot and ahi tuna ceviche (a lime-juice marinated tuna that cooks in the citric acid of the juice). Buzz's Sand Trap also has a short list of beers and wines to choose from, as well as just about any drink you want to order.
The entree menu at Buzz's Sand Trap isn't all that extensive, but it did have some interesting choices. Of course, they had steaks and seafood, but they also featured lobster, rack of lamb, and baby back ribs. They had a light meal menu - the "short course" - that featured clams and meatloaf.
Our waiter came over to let us know the "catch of the day" was mahi mahi and they prepare it three different ways - poached Oriental style with garlic, ginger sauce, green onions and peanut oil; dredged in a panko flour and sauteed; or grilled over kiawe wood. I don't know if Cindy heard him say anything after that. She was getting the kiawe grilled mahi mahi.
I was sort of torn as to what to get. I kept hearing these great stories about the grass-fed ranch beef they grew on the Big Island. And Buzz's Sand Trap featured a ribeye, a strip steak and a tenderloin filet on their menu. And you could get your choice of sauces to go with them, if you want. One sauce was called "Sinatra Style" - a favorite of Frank Sinatra's when he would visit Buzz's Original Steak House on Oahu. It was olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, capers and chopped garlic. It sounded interesting. They also had a peppercorn sauce that was Worcestershire sauce, cognac and whole peppercorns. I'm a sucker for a good peppercorn sauce.
But something caught my eye - the kiawe-grilled rosemary garlic encrusted bone-in pork chop. I don't get to eat pork that much at home - Cindy has some sort of weird thing about grilled pork at home - so I like to get it when we go out to eat. The rosemary encrusted pork chop sounded good for me.
With our meals, we had our choice of soup or Buzz's Sand Trap's salad bar. With her kiawe grilled mahi mahi, Cindy got a bowl of the Portuguese vegetable bean soup. I went with the salad bar. We also decided to get a bottle of the Parducci sauvignon blanc. I got a Big Wave Golden Ale to start off (I'd had a couple mai tai's and a couple beers back at the hotel before we came over).
Our waiter brought out Cindy's soup and she offered me a bite. It was basically a vegetable soup with black beans. And it was pretty tasty. I finished up my beer as the waiter finally brought the bottle of wine to the table. I waited for him to open it before I went to the salad bar. Buzz's Sand Trap's salad bar wasn't overly big, but it did have enough different items to choose from to make a good sized salad plate. One of the homemade dressing choices they had was their Hawaiian dressing - a lilikoi-infused French dressing that was very, very good.
The atmosphere at Buzz's Sand Trap was very relaxed, let sort of elegant. The dress code was not overly casual - you still needed to wear a collared shirt to be seated. But it didn't seem stuffy in the least. The lighting was subdued and conversations didn't carry in the dining area. It was a pretty romantic place, actually.
We did notice, however, that the service was a little spotty. Our waiter was distracted a couple times and didn't get our bottle of wine to our table very quickly. I was just finishing up my salad when our entrees came out. And Cindy needed something after our dinner was served, but we couldn't find our waiter. I don't care for waiters or waitresses who don't check back within five to ten minutes after you've been served. Sometimes they come too soon to ask how the food is and you haven't even taken a bite.
When my plate was placed in front of me, I was surprised to see not one rosemary garlic encrusted pork chops, but TWO! I thought, "How can I finish both of these?" But from the first bite I made up my mind that I was going to give it the old college try. The pork chops were moist and not overcooked. The rosemary was a little overpowering as I really couldn't taste much garlic on the meat. But the kiawe-mesquite flavor was very good. On the side I had a pile of garlic-mashed potatoes and a stir-fried vegetable medley. I had a couple bites of the garlic-mashed potatoes and they were very good. Not as full of garlic that I like, but they were still very good.
Cindy offered me a bite of her grilled mahi mahi. It was very light and flaky, cooked medium-rare and had that good kiawe flavor to it. I liked it very much, as did Cindy. She got a side of steamed cauliflower, broccoli and snow peas along with her meal.
We were enjoying our dinner when another couple was seated at the table next to us. They were looking through the menu and shaking their head somewhat disapprovingly of what they were finding. When our waiter - who was their waiter - came to greet them, the lady asked, "Is this the same as the Buzz's Steak House in Honolulu?"
The waiter said this place was owned by the brother of the owner of Buzz's Steak House, but that was really the only affiliation. The waiter stepped away - not coming to our table, of course - and suddenly the couple fell into a heavy discussion. Suddenly, they both stood up, placed the their napkins on the table and left. I looked at the menu for Buzz's Steak House on line afterward and it didn't seem to be much larger - all that different, for that matter - than Buzz's Sand Trap. But they left anyway.
And, quite honestly, it was their loss. I thought the food at Buzz's Sand Trap was very good. I liked the pork chops and was able to finish the bulk of the meat on the bones. Cindy's mahi mahi was cooked wonderfully and she enjoyed them immensely. Other than the spotty service (the waiter didn't even ask us if we wanted dessert), the whole experience was pretty enjoyable. Rick the concierge had told us that the prices were pretty good at Buzz's Sand Trap and he was spot on with that, as well. It was a lot of food for the money we paid, quite possibly one of the best bargains while we were in Hawaii. Buzz's Sand Trap was a good place to get a meal at a good price on the Big Island.
As I've said on a couple of occasions when writing in "Road Tips", the Quad City area is blessed with an abundance of authentic Mexican food restaurants. One place that just opened recently is La Primavera in downtown Moline (see map). Actually, La Primavera is also the name of the grocery store run by Yolanda and Angel Vargas just down the street from the restaurant. They had a little 20 seat restaurant in the back of the store where they served tacos and tortas. They became so popular that they opened up a full service restaurant a few doors to the west. (Photos courtesy of the Quad City Times)
As a little girl, Yolanda Vargas sold chickens from a road side stand in her native Mexico. She immigrated to the U.S. in the 80's and settled in Chicago. She eventually made it to Davenport to work in a friend's Mexican grocery. In 1989, Yolanda opened her first small store in Moline. Within three years, business was so good that she moved to a larger location. In 1999, the business expanded again and moved to its present day location on 6th Ave. in Moline (see map). Actually, the second location for the store was right next to where La Primavera restaurant is today.
Not only does Yolanda Vargas have a wide variety of Mexican foods in her grocery store, she also sells items such as clothing, Mexican-made goods and magazines. She also has a thriving distribution business for her fresh produce that she delivers to other stores and restaurants around the Quad City area. We go over there from time to time to get tortillas, authentic cuts of Mexican meats, limes and fresh produce when we're going to have a good homemade Mexican dinner.
La Primavera restaurant is run by Yolanda's and Angel's daughter, Claudia, and their son, Erick. It's housed in an old corner building that was once the very popular Glenn Moore's supper club years ago. Most recently, it was a Mexican restaurant called Chino's. I didn't care for the place all that much, but Cindy seemed to like it. She always wanted to go there, but I always balked at going back. Eventually, it went out of business a couple years ago.
The Vargas family came in and renovated the interior of the restaurant and painted the walls in festive colors. A huge old picture of the corner of 15th St. and 6th Ave. showing the building is on the wall. They replaced the spartan and shabby tables and chairs that were in Chino's with new booths and sturdy tables and heavy chairs. There's a small bar area toward the back of the restaurant.
We took a seat in one of the booths and the menus were on the table. The lighting is somewhat subdued in the place and I didn't have my glasses with me. I could hardly read the menu. The print was small and it was a red colored font against an orange background. I told Cindy, "I can't read this." My eyes finally focused enough that I was able to make out some of the things on the menu. Cindy, who wears contacts, wasn't having any problem reading the menu.
A waiter brought a basket of chips while we waited. Another waiter, who we figured to be Erick Vargas, came over to take our drink order. I got a Sol beer while he coerced Cindy into one of their special margaritas. "It's not overly sweet like other places," he said. "We don't use all that syrup in our margaritas."
It must have been a made from scratch margarita because it took quite a while for him to bring Cindy's to the table. By the time he got back with it, we were ready to order our food. Cindy ordered the steak especial, a thin slice of grilled beef steak with sides of grilled veggies, Mexican rice and refried beans. Cindy also has a soft spot for chile rellenos and she asked our waiter if she could get one ala carte. He said it was no problem.
I ordered the combination - a taco with your choice of meat, an enchilada and a tostada. I also ordered one "perna" taco - perna (Pee-air-na) is a type of pork that is marinated and cooked in mild juices and spices. I had to give that a try. For my taco with the combination, I ordered carne asada.
I will say that Cindy's margarita was worth the wait. It wasn't as sweet and syrupy as you find at other Mexican restaurants. It had a refreshing tart taste and had a generous amount of tequila. I sort of wondered what their special margaritas were like considering this one was pretty damn good.
We had finished our basket of chips and another waiter came over to see if we wanted any more. I hesitated, knowing that we'd be having a lot of food coming out in a short bit. But Cindy said, "Yes." He brought more chips and a second bottle of salsa. He told us, "You look like people who enjoy the hotter stuff. This is a little more spicy than the first bottle."
I wouldn't say it was overly more spicy than the first bottle, but it did have a little zip with a spicy aftertaste. I liked it immediately.
Not long after that, our waiter brought out Cindy's chile relleno. He explained that it was an authentic chile relleno from an old family recipe they got from relatives in Guadalajara. It was adorned with an avacado slice on top. Now, I forgot to bring in my new camera phone so I could get a picture of it, but it was worthy of a pic. Cindy used to chastise me for bringing my old Blackberry into restaurants, so it was by force of habit that I didn't bring my phone in with me that evening.
I will say that Cindy's chile relleno was very good. Cindy went so far as to call it "the best chile relleno I've ever had." It was a hefty poblano pepper with a very good brown sauce on top. I had a couple bites and it was very good.
Actually, I'm glad that we had the second basket of chips and that I had a couple bites of Cindy's chile relleno because it was quite some time before the rest of our food showed up at the table. Business was steady at the restaurant, but it wasn't overly busy. From the time we initially ordered our food, a couple came in, sat down, ordered, ate their food and left all before our main order showed up. I thought it to be a little strange that they brought out the chile relleno well in advance of the rest of the order. But quite honestly, we were in no hurry. It was a pretty relaxing environment.
When our food finally did show up, well there was a lot of it. Cindy's steak was pretty good sized, not all that thick, but it covered a large portion of her plate with the grilled onions and peppers on top. She said, "My God, I'm not going to be able to eat all this!"
The waiter had forgotten my carne asada taco and he went back to get one for me. In the meantime, I had the perna taco. Their version of tacos come with the meat, chopped onions and chopped cilantro on a couple small soft corn tortillas. No cheese. It was pretty good - a little dry, but still OK. The carne asada taco, after he brought it out, was similar. It wasn't bad, but I can't call it the best I've had.
My enchilada was a rather pedestrian cheese enchilada and the tostada was topped with refried beans and white cheese. Once again, it was OK, nothing special. I determined that if we went back, I wouldn't order the combination again.
Cindy's steak, on the other hand, was flavorful and tender. One thing that I liked about the waiter is that he would explain some of the dishes to the customers. He told us the steak is marinated in juices and spices (sort of like the "perna" pork) before grilling. Cindy thought the steak was just wonderful. But as she said it was way too much food - especially after a chile relleno and a couple baskets of chips. She didn't touch her rice or refried beans and hardly touched her grilled onions and peppers. And she wasn't able to finish the whole steak.
While our waiter was a nice guy, service was pretty slow. We were finished for quite some time before we were able to get his attention to get us our bill. He said, "Ah! We have it up front." I also thought that to be sort of weird as he was giving checks to other tables. OK, that's fine.
For all we got, including three beers and an a margarita, the bill came to just over $40 bucks. I thought that to be rather high for a Mexican restaurant. At first I thought they'd miscalculated, but after further review the bill was correct. Cindy's steak was $11.99 and her ala carte chile relleno was $4.50. My combination was $6.95 and my ala carte taco was $2.50. I guess it adds up fast when you order a lot of food to try.
All in all, La Primavera was good, but not outstanding in my book. Cindy, however, loved the food, loved our waiter, and loved the decor. We'll go back again and I'll have something different the next time around. Hopefully, it will be better than what I had on my first visit.
(Update - We noticed that they have shut down this location during a trip over to Moline late in 2011. However, they are still preparing food in their little restaurant in the La Primavera store just down the street on 6th Ave. We've eaten there once. Tacos are OK, but the menu is limited.)
When the Tsunami warnings were issued when we were on the Big Island, it basically screwed up our plans of having breakfast that morning at Harbor Grillin the northwest coastal village of Kawaihae (Ka-WHY-hey), just up the coast from our hotel in the Waikoloa Beach Resort. Harbor Grill had come as a top recommendation for both breakfast and dinner from Rick, the concierge at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Since we couldn't make it for breakfast earlier in the day, we decided to go up for dinner instead that evening. It was about a 15 minute drive from our hotel to Kawaihae on a beautiful Hawaiian evening.
The Harbor Grill is one of two sister restaurants side-by-side just off the highway coming into Kawaihae (see map). The more casual Seafood Bar occupies the upper floor above a handful of small businesses just to the south of the Harbor Grill. The Harbor Grill is the more elegant of the two with a somewhat antique nautical theme to the decor of the restaurant. The owner of both restaurants - James "Popeye" Brisson - is sort of a local character around Kawaihae. Brisson and his wife, Carolyn, have collected a number of old nautical artifacts and pictures and have done a wonderful job in incorporating them into a 1930's Hawaiian style building.
It was far from busy that evening at The Harbor Grill, quite possibly from the fall out of the tsunami warning earlier in the day. The Harbor Grill had a few tables on an outside patio, but it looked more inviting inside. We were seated at a table back in the corner and given menus to look over.
The chef and manager of the Harbor Grill, Darcy Ambrosia, features a number of fresh seafood dishes along with grass-fed Hawaiian-raised beef. While the menu isn't extensive, it's interesting with pasta, steaks, ribs and, of course, seafood cooked in many different ways.
Our waiter came out and introduced himself. I was sort of surprised when he said his name. I asked again and he said what I thought he said the first time. His name was "Lurch". Lurch, like in the Addams Family. I said, "Really? Is that a nickname?"
He said, "No sir. That's my given name."
I said, "Really?" I didn't mean to be incredulous, but I'd never heard that name given to a person before. I asked him, "Are you German?"
He said, "Well, I grew up outside of Cincinnati, but it is a German name."
Cindy said, "That's kinda neat!"
Lurch said, "Yeah, well, it's a great conversation starter with the ladies."
Lurch told us that he had been in Hawaii for 13 years. He said that even though he gets back to the mainland from time to time to see his family, "this is home."
We immediately ordered up a shrimp cocktail and I wanted a mai tai. Lurch said, "We have the best mai tai's on the island. Guaranteed." I had to sign up for one of those. Cindy wanted wine, so she ordered a glass of the Renato Pinot Grigio.
When Lurch brought the mai tai out, it was the deepest, darkest color for a mai tai that I'd seen on the island. Cindy thought they put Grand Marnier in their mai tai, but it was the real 151-proof dark rum. Lurch told me that along with the pineapple juice, they put lilikoi juice into their mai tai's. It was absolutely as good as promised. But you've really got to watch your intake with mai tai's. This one was very good and a second one was almost ordered, but I decided to back off and get a Kona Big Wave Golden Ale after I finished the mai tai.
We were sort of stuck as what to get. Lurch brought out the shrimp cocktail and told us of the special that evening. They had a shinomo fresh-catch that evening. Shinomo is sort of a broad-nosed swordfish that's lighter and more flaky than swordfish. He said it could be grilled, steamed or grilled with cajun seasonings and served with stir-fried veggies and smashed potatoes. That sounded pretty good.
Cindy was asking about the Red Thai Seafood Curry that was on the menu. Lurch explained that it was a combination of a fresh-catch fish - that day it was ono - along with scallops, mussels and Thai veggies in a slightly spicy red curry sauce. Cindy said, "Oh, that sounds good. That's what I'm gonna have."
I was torn between getting a steak or seafood and I asked Lurch to re-describe the fresh catch special that evening. When he got to the cajun seasoning part, I said, "Sold. That sounds great."
It was a 20 minute wait between our order and getting the food to or tables. That afforded me another chance to have a Big Wave Golden Ale. I was probably going to get a glass of wine with dinner, but the Big Wave Golden Ale was so light and refreshing as a beer that I couldn't pass up ordering another before the meal came out.
Lurch brought our meals out and I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the shinomo that was on the plate. It was covered with tons of cajun spices - just as I like - and served with a creamy lilikoi sauce. From the first bite to the last, it was just outstanding. The taste sensations that exploded in my mouth were intense, but not overpowering. The creamy lilikoi sauce knocked some of the spiciness out of the fish, but didn't detract from the overall taste.
Cindy said that her Red Thai Curry Seafood was equally wonderful. We traded bites back and forth and I just loved that slightly spicy curry sauce they used on her entree. The ono was light, yet had a lot of flavor. We were in culinary heaven with this meal.
Lurch came out and offered us a dessert menu. We were pretty full from dinner, but one thing caught my eye - a frosted lemon shortbread bar with a side of vanilla ice cream. Cindy sort of protested, but when I reminded her we were on vacation, she said, "OK, bring us that and a couple spoons or forks or whatever." And it, too was very good. The lemon bar was very rich, but really had a great forward lemon taste.
Our meal at the Harbor Grill was one of the finest we had during our time in Hawaii, and we had a lot of great meals. Not only was the food top-notch, the atmosphere was elegant, but relaxed, and our waiter - Lurch - was overly attentive, but knew when to leave us alone. We did get one of their breakfast menus to take with us and I'm sort of upset that we never took the time to try out their Hawaiian sweet bread French toast with orange zest. We'll just have to come back and try it at some point in the future, I guess.
(Update - In doing some research for linking some of the Road Tips entry to Urbanspoon, I found that Harbor Grill is now closed. I hope Lurch found a job at another restaurant.)
I love finding old restaurants that are well known by the locals. During a recent trip to Chicago, I took a dealer of ours out to lunch at Via Veneto, a place that he was familiar with. Located on Lincoln Ave. in the far northwest side of the city in the Lincolnwood neighborhood (see map), I figured that I'd probably driven by the place a few times but had never really noticed it.
Tony Barbanente is the owner and head chef at Via Veneto. The restaurant has been in business for over 20 years, first with a location on Peterson Ave. and then in its present day location. The Barbanente family is involved in a number of upscale Italian restaurants in the Chicago area including the former La Donna restaurant, Amore Mioin Hoffman Estates and a new Mexican restaurant, Deseo, that will open this spring. The Barbanente's hail from the southeastern coast of Italy from the village of Mola di Bari. Many of the recipes they use in their restaurants come from their grandmother who was Sicilian. The ingredients they use at Via Veneto are fresh and they make their own pasta each day.
Parking for Via Veneto is available on the side streets off of Lincoln in a comfortable residential area. It was just after noon when we pulled up to Via Veneto and had to park a long block away from the restaurant. It was about a two minute walk to the restaurant from where we parked.
We were seated in Via Veneto's main dining room, a comfortable room with natural light coming through the windows. The sturdy tables were covered with white table cloths and the chairs were heavy and comfortable. We were given lunch menus by the hostess and a basket of fresh bread. Parmesan, oil and vinegar were available on the table.
Our waitress, a pleasant middle-aged woman, came over to ask us if we wanted any thing to drink. I asked my guest, Ricardo, if he wanted any wine with lunch. He said, "No, I'd better not. Wine will make me sleepy and I've got a lot of stuff to do this afternoon."
Ricardo warned me that the portions at Via Veneto were generous. I'd had a pretty good sized breakfast that morning, not thinking that we'd be going out for lunch. I really didn't want any pasta, even though some of the pasta dishes sounded pretty sweet. Actually, the lunch menu had a lot to choose from. The dinner menu at Via Veneto isn't much different from the lunch menu.
Ricardo, who is Phillipine by birth, ordered first and he got an appetizer of Carpaccio del Polpo - or in plain English, Octopus. He said, "Oh, man. This is good. You've got to give it a try." I wasn't too hopped up about eating cooked octopus, but I told him I'd give it a go. For his main entree, he got the mostaccoili lunch special - homemade mostaccioili pasta in Via Veneto's homemade marinara sauce. I ended up ordering one of their house salads and I got the veal piccata. I figured the veal - although plentiful - would be easy enough to eat after the big breakfast I had.
Our waitress brought out my salad and Ricardo's Carpaccio del Polpo. Well, it was certainly unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. It was swimming in a sauce of garlic, parsley and olive oil. Ricardo cut off a chunk and put it on my bread plate. I ate a couple bites and while it wasn't bad, I just don't overly care for the rubbery texture of octopus. Ricardo, however, was in heaven. "Oh, man! This is so good. This is exactly like what we used to have when I was growing up."
While my salad wasn't quite as interesting as Ricardo's octopus appetizer, it was still pretty good. I was happy with the basic oil and vinegar Italian dressing they had on the salad. Along with the homemade bread, it was a nice start to the meal.
Our entrees came out and Ricardo certainly wasn't kidding when he said the portions were generous at Via Veneto. I had three good sized pieces of veal topped with a lemon piccata sauce and capers. A broccoli and cauliflower crown along with sliced carrots garnished the plate. Before I took my first bite, I could tell this was going to be pretty damn good as it smelled just wonderful. And after my first bite, I knew that it was good. Very good. No, it was excellent. It was some of the best veal piccata I'd ever had. The veal was tender, the lemon piccata sauce was pungent, but it wasn't overpowering to the taste. The veal piccata was certainly a surprising pleasure.
Ricardo proclaimed his mostaccioli to be "excellent" as well. He said that he really liked their marinara sauce at Via Veneto. He said, "I don't quite know what they do, but it's great. I've tried to replicate it at home, and I can get it close. But they're using some things that I can't quite figure out."
All in all, my meal at Via Veneto was outstanding. I told Ricardo that this was the kind of place my wife would like to go to. We're both big on old world style Italian restaurants, run by real Italians who know how to cook. I told him that I'd have to bring my wife back to Via Veneto at some point. It's a hidden gem that I'm happy to have finally found.
A guy who works for one of my dealers in the Chicago area spent some time in Hawaii a few years ago and he gave me some good suggestions of where to go and where to eat. One of the places he told us to visit while in/on Hawaii was Sansei Seafood and Sushi Restaurant. There are four Sansei's in Hawaii - one on Oahu, two on Maui and one on the Big Island. It turned out the one on the Big Island was in the Queen's Marketplace shops near our hotel in the Wiakoloa Beach Resort area. We had hoped to be able to get to Sansei the night we arrived in Hawaii, but a delay at the rental car agency (thanks to a very stupid person in line ahead of us) and a long detour to our hotel pretty much ruled out getting there before they closed. So our first full night on Hawaii we went to Sansei.
Sansei is part of the D.K. Restaurantsgroup that also features d.k Steak House, Hiroshi and Vino - all highly acclaimed restaurants throughout the Hawaiian Islands. "D.K." are the initials of Dave "D.K." Kodama, the founder and owner of the D.K. restaurants. Kodama is a native Hawaiian who left the University of Hawaii in 1979 and ended up as a bartender in Seattle. Kodama fell in love with the restaurant business and thought it would be a more fun profession than being an engineer.
After 3 years in Seattle, Kodama ended up in Aspen, CO, working at a number of restaurants, learning the business and getting valuable culinary training on the job. He ended up moving back to Hawaii in 1996 and opened his first Sansei in the Kapalua Resort north of Lahaina on Maui. Sansei specializes in fresh seafood and serving locally grown foods. It's sort of a contemporary Pan-asian seafood restaurant that also has sushi.
It was about a three minute drive from the Hilton Waikoloa Village hotel to the Queen's Marketplace shopping center (see map). Sansei is located on the far east end of the open air shops. We had a short wait while the hostess took a phone call, but we were in no hurry. We asked if we could just sit at the sushi bar and she happily took us over to the bar, seated us and gave us menus.
The restaurant, itself, was a nice mix of contemporary Hawaiian and Asian themes. It wasn't a huge place, but there was a dining area off to the side of the main room. The main dining room featured the sushi bar. The atmosphere was relaxed, upscale casual and sort of romantic. It wasn't overly busy at the restaurant, which was sort of nice.
We figured we'd just do sushi for our visit, so I asked for a sushi menu. Our sushi chef was a native mainlander who had been in Hawaii for about 15 years. During our trip to Hawaii, we talked to a lot of restaurant workers, waiters, hotel valets, salespeople, etc. who were obviously not native Hawaiians just to see what their story was and how they ended up in Hawaii. We heard all different types of stories from guys who followed girls out to Hawaii, guys who came out for a couple months and just stayed for the past 19 years, and from people who needed to start their lives over. As one waiter told us one evening, "Hawaii is really full of misfits, people who may not have fit in back home on the mainland, or who are getting away from whatever problems they faced in their past. This is the ultimate "misfit island."
The sushi chef at Sansei was no exception. He had worked at the original Sansei on Maui after coming out from the mainland "to drink and stay tan". He moved to this location three years ago when it first opened. He said, "My life is pretty simple here. If I'm not at work, I'm usually in a bar somewhere. And if I'm not at work or at a bar, I'm sleeping. That's my life." While some people may think that was sort of sad, I secretly envied the guy. No concerns, no worries, no responsibilities.
We immediately ordered up a spicy tuna roll and something that Cindy wanted to try something called the "69 Roll". It's a California roll (crab, avocado, cucumber) rolled inside out and topped with unagi (fresh water eel) and salmon roe. It was interesting, to say the least. The spicy tuna rolls were much better.
We had regular salmon and smoked salmon sushi, along with tuna and sweet shrimp sushi. The prices weren't bad - averaging around $3.50 to $4.00 for two pieces of sushi. The tuna was a little more expensive - I believe it was $8.00 for two pieces of sushi. But that was still cheaper than many mainland sushi restaurants.
And the fish was so fresh that... Well, I have to say that I'd never had tuna - any type of tuna sushi - that tasted that good. It was like they had caught the fish, filet'ed it out on the boat and served it - all within 15 minutes. It literally melted in our mouths. And the smoked salmon was - by far - the best smoked salmon I'd ever had. We ended up ordering two more pieces of the tuna and smoked salmon, along with another spicy tuna roll for good measure.
We figured we'd eat at Sansei a couple more times when we were on both Hawaii and on Maui, but for multiple reasons - such as too many good choices of restaurants - we never did. But the place certainly served our sushi craving needs. It was some of the best sushi I've ever had. No, I'll go even further and say it was the best sushi I ever had. And it wasn't all that expensive. With a generous tip for the sushi chef and our waitress that served us our drinks, it still came to under $100 bucks. It was just excellent.
A few months ago, I was told by a friend who worked at an audio store in Omaha that I had to try out a relatively new place called Brewburgers. I happened to be out in Omaha recently and stayed at a hotel right next to Brewburgers. It was an easy walk across the parking lot to the restaurant. I even met up with an old friend who was working just down the road from the place and he joined me for a sandwich and a few beers.
Brewburgers pretty much sums up what the restaurant is all about - burgers and brews. They have a somewhat extensive beer list at the restaurant and feature over a dozen specialty burgers including a "build your own" burger where you can name your own toppings, cheese or sauces. But their most famous sandwich is called the Old Fashioned - Montreal-style Jewish smoked beef brisket, thinly sliced and piled on Rye bread. You can also get either Havarti or Swiss cheese on it if you like.
Brewburgers is housed in what was the old Nebraska Beef steak house - a place that I ate in many times in the past, but hadn't been in there for quite a while. The steak house closed in 2005 and the building sat idle for over two years. Montreal native Yves Menard bought the building in 2007 and renovated the restaurant into somewhat of a sports bar/restaurant. Menard is well-known in the Omaha area as he is the chef/owner of Charlie's on the Lake, a nice upscale restaurant that I've been to a couple times before, but, once again, have not been there for a number of years.
Growing up in Montreal, Menard remembered the great smoked brisket sandwiches the Jewish deli's would make - places like Schwartz's Deli and the recently closed Ben's De Luxe Delicatessen. He always wanted to bring that style of sandwich to Omaha. Brewburgers opened in October of 2007 and the sandwiches were an immediate hit. They cure the brisket for up to five days in a combination of water and spice brine. They then smoke the brisket for an hour and a half every day in their smoker behind the building, then they put it in the oven at 250 degrees for three hours. After that, they put it back in the refrigerator to cool overnight and then they serve it the next day.
Brewburgers is very well lit, but other than a number of sports logos and a few televisions put on the walls, it didn't look much different from the old steak house. The hostess seated me in a booth - a very uncomfortable booth that looked like it had been chewed up by a knife. The bar area was close by and there was a local loud-mouthed idiot doing his very best "Larry the Cable Guy" impression. Only, I don't think it was an impression as much as it was the guy just being an idiot. I had a couple three Boulder Buffalo Gold beers while I was waiting for my buddy to show up as he got off work around 8:30. My waitress asked me if I wanted to get any appetizers while I was waiting, but even though some of the things on the menu looked interesting, I was fine with the beer.
My buddy showed up and he said, "This is the first time I've been in here." I told him that another guy I know had told me about this place and I had to try the Old Fashioned sandwich. He looked at the menu for the description and he said, "Oh, that's sort of like a reuben. I think I'm going to get a burger instead."
He ordered the Maverick burger - they take chopped onions and mix it in with the beef patty - then they top it with jack cheese. He got cole slaw as his side. I got the Old Fashioned with swiss and got a side salad with peppercorn ranch.
It wasn't long before his burger and my sandwich came out. Actually, there wasn't much to my sandwich. It was a basic beef brisket sandwich with swiss cheese on rye. But the taste was very good - I could taste that they cured the beef brisket in all-spice which gave it a sort of sweet taste, similar to a good corned beef. The meat was very lean and juicy and it was very tender. I made rather quick work of the sandwich as it wasn't all that big.
My buddy said his burger was "good" and it looked interesting. I decided that I needed to come back sometime to get a burger - something that I could make from the listing of toppings, cheeses and sauces they offer.
I thought the Old Fashioned sandwich at Brewburgers was good, but a little expensive ($8.95) for what it was. While doing some research for this entry, I found that Guy Fieri from The Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" visited the place and had a segment on Brewburgers Old Fashioned sandwich. You can see it on You Tube by clicking here. He was impressed with the sandwich, but I don't know if the one he had was as the same sized as what I had. But overall, Brewburger's Old Fashioned sandwich was pretty good. I will try the burger the next time I'm in. If it's good, I'll be sure to let you know.
Breakfast is big on Hawaii. Nearly every restaurant we encountered served breakfast - even at some of the more fancy places we dined. On the recommendation of Rick, a concierge at the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort, he directed us up into the "hill" country on the north side of the Big Island for breakfast one morning at Hawaiian Style Cafe in Waimea. He said, "Be prepared, the portions are huge!"
As we were leaving the hotel, one of the valets brought our car around and he asked, "Where are you headed today?" I told him we were going up to Waimea to go have breakfast. "The Hawaiian Style Cafe," he excitedly replied. "Oh, man. The pancakes up there are the size of hubcaps! And they're really good! I'm so jealous!"
It's about a 20 mile drive up to Waimea from the Hilton resort (see map). And up is the operative term here. After driving along the shoreline up to the intersection, you turn right and immediately begin a gradual ascent into the hills. After a couple miles a sign along the side of the road informed we were at an elevation of 500 feet. A couple more miles we came across a sign that said we were at 1000 feet. This went on until we got on the outskirts of Waimea where a sign told us that we were at 2500 feet, nearly a half mile above sea level. And the temperature had changed, as well. We had the top down on the way up - the temperature was in the lower 80's when we left the hotel. But when we got to Waimea, it was a cool 69 degrees. Cindy had turned on the heat as we pulled into town.
We found the Hawaiian Style Cafe on the main road coming into Waimea (see map) in a small old-style strip mall that featured a travel agency and a motorcycle shop. We were able to find one of the few parking spots in front of the restaurant, but we also found out later that there was parking in the rear of the building.
The restaurant is owned by Guy and Gina Kao'o, who also have second jobs in the area. Guy oversees the food for lu'aus at a couple local hotels, including the Marriott Waikoloa Village resort next to the Hilton; while Gina is a local realtor in Waimea. The restaurant opens at 7 a.m. and serves breakfast and then lunch until 2 p.m. - or when they run out of food.
It was a short wait (we had to put our name on a list just inside the door) while we got a booth in the corner in the front area of the restaurant. The place is truly a hole-in-the-wall joint with a three-sided bar, small back eating area, one bathroom for the restaurant (it also serves as a laundry room), and a number of local pictures and magazine covers adorning the wall. The waitress gave us our menus and pointed out the specials on the wall near the kitchen. The place was a flurry of activity with people coming and going and large portions of food on plates being brought out from the kitchen. It was almost dizzying.
We weren't overly certain what to get. They had a number of Hawaiian dishes for breakfast including something called a Loco Moco. We found that most Hawaiian breakfast places had their own style of a Loco Moco. The legend of the Loco Moco began in the late 40's at the Lincoln Grill in Hilo. A bunch of hungry young men came into the restaurant one day, but told the owner, Nancy Inouye, that they didn't have a lot of money. She had a lot of rice left over and fried up some hamburger patties. She put the hamburgers on the rice, then a fried egg on top and, for good measure she put brown gravy on top of all that. It was a hit and immediately became a great "pig-out" food whether it be at 7:30 in the morning or at 1:30 in the morning when the bars were closing up.
Another thing that was on the menu that I wasn't familiar with was Portuguese sausage. It's sort of like chorizo, seasoned with onions, garlic and paprika. It's rather mild and somewhat bland compared to the pork sausage I'm used to back in the Midwest. They featured a number of items on the menu paired with Portuguese sausage.
Spam is also huge in Hawaii. I don't quite understand why, but it is. Spam is a staple on the breakfast menu of many restaurants. I thought, "Well, while we're in Hawaii I have to try SOMETHING with Spam in it." And the Hawaiian Style Cafe featured a Spam, mushroom, grilled onions and cheese omelet. I ordered that. With it came a side of hash browns and then I got my pick of an additional side of either pancakes or fried rice. I took the pancakes. Oh, and I also got a side of whole wheat toast. I knew this was going to be a lot of food just from what I was seeing coming out from the kitchen.
Cindy ordered more simple - she got a couple eggs over easy, but then she also got a side of kalua pork hash. Kalua is a slow-roasting method that is indigenous to Hawaii. Usually, the pork butt is seasoned with salt and wrapped in leafs from a ti plant. It's placed in the ground, usually over lava rocks, and slow-cooked until it's tender and the meat begins to fall apart. Kalua pork has sort of a fruity taste to it, probably from the ti leaves. And it's served at lu'aus. But it was difficult to find at many restaurants in Hawaii. The waitress at the Hawaiian Style Cafe told us that they'll have a Kalua pork special from time to time, but they didn't have any that day, other than in the hash. Cindy also got a side of fried rice that had ham and egg in it.
It didn't take long before our food came out to the table. And I'm sure the expression on our faces when the waitress set our plates down in front of us wasn't the first time she'd seen the bulging eyes and heard the "Oh, my GOD!!" expression. The portions WERE huge! The pancakes were as advertised - almost a foot in diameter. I knew immediately there was no way in hell that I'd ever finish even HALF of what they served me.
I tried some of Cindy's Kalua pork hash. It was very good. The Kalua pork had sort of a sweet and fruity taste to it. The pork was tender and excellent. (I found out later on that they make Kalua pork omelets. I was kicking myself for not getting one of those.)
We did make a significant dent into the food. The Spam omelet was, well, interesting. It wasn't bad, but I can't say that I'm a huge fan of Spam. But when in Hawaii, do as the Hawaiians, I guess. They fried the Spam and chunked it up when they put it in the omelet, sort of like how they'd do it with sausage. But it was an interesting combination in the omelet along with the mushrooms and onions.
The pancakes weren't bad, either. They were a little more thick that what I like, but they were still pretty darn good. In addition to maple syrup, they also had lilikoisyrup. Lilikoi is sort of a Hawaiian passion fruit that I fell in love with while we were there. They put lilikoi in everything from syrups, juices, jellies, and even a mixer in drinks. We had some awesome desserts with lilikoi while we were in Hawaii, as well. On the pancakes, the lilikoi syrup was sort of sweet and fruity. I should have gone to a store to look for some to take back home with us.
And quite unintentionally, we made it back to the Hawaiian Style Cafe on the day we were evacuated from our hotel during the tsunami warning that I talked about earlier. We were looking for this other restaurant we were told about by Rick at the Hilton, but with the traffic in and around Waimea that day, we just decided to cut our losses and go back to the Hawaiian Style Cafe. This time, in keeping with my "do as the Hawaiians do" theme, I ordered a Loco Moco.
I can see why some people like the Loco Moco. It's definitely a "stick to your ribs" type of meal. I can't say that it was my favorite, but it was interesting. The hamburger patties were a little overcooked and dry, but the gravy helped get them down. The Loco Moco sort of reminded me of something that is served at Ross' Restaurant in the Quad Cities - the Magic Mountain. They take a couple pieces of Texas Toast, top it with loose hamburger meat, then top it with French fries or hash browns (your choice), then they top it with cheddar cheese. And if you want a snow-capped Magic Mountain, order onions on the top. For the truly adventurous - like me - you can get a Volcano at Ross'. Instead of topping the plate with cheese, they top it with their spicy chili. But Ross' is another story for another time.
This time, Cindy went to the "specials" board they had on the wall and ordered the 12 oz. Rib Eye steak. She said, "I don't know if we'll get back to the hotel tonight and a lot of places may be closed up if the waves do hit this islands. This may be my last meal until sometime tomorrow." True to form, she couldn't eat all of her steak along with the two eggs and fried rice on the side. This time they boxed up Cindy's steak. We figured we may have to share what was left later on, but thankfully, we didn't have to.
All in all, the Hawaiian Style Cafe was very good and very interesting. I really wanted to try the Spaghetti omelet, but figured that would be a little weird. It was probably the most authentic Hawaiian restaurant we ate at when we were visiting the state. Overall, the service was great, the food was interesting and if you don't mind a little wait from time to time, it's an excellent place to get breakfast on the Big Island. The Hawaiian Style Cafe was one of our favorite places while we were in Hawaii and more than once since we've been back we've remarked how cool it would be if we could go to Hawaiian Style Cafe for a quick breakfast. But we'd have to be in Hawaii to do that. Ah, the memories...
By the way, bring cash if you go to the Hawaiian Style Cafe. They don't take credit cards, but they do have an ATM machine in the restaurant.