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Our first forray into sushi didn't go quite as well as expected...

The Rain In Spain

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Let The Good Times Roll

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Best/Worst 2012

We recount the very best adventures we had and the lowest of the low...

Osteria Rossa

(Grand Rapids, MI) — Even though we no longer live in Grand Rapids, we still keep up with the city’s ebb and flow, relying on our friends to let us know when there’s a new establishment that might pique our interest. So it is with Osteria Rossa, a freshly-opened Italian restaurant downtown. Claiming the “Warmth of the Mitten, Soul of the Boot” it sounds like the perfect place to meet some close acquaintances for dinner...

He Fed:

There’s something so fun about getting a group of familiar folks together at a communal table, trusting one another to order certain dishes or wines and sharing all of it over laughter and gentle conversation. I’m excited about tonight because it’s a beautiful evening, we’re being joined by friends I’ve not seen in many months, and the enticing scent of wood fired pizza is wafting from the wide-flung entrance. Our compatriots arrive almost simultaneously, disbursing hugs and smiles with generosity. We go in, where our table is being assembled. Juliet and I strategically place ourselves at either end, where we can squeeze the most out of our limited time with the group.

The litany of orders commences with the friendly and very efficient waitress deferring to me. Thankfully, I have JoJo by my side; we make a great team when it comes to balancing the selections. I immediately order the Octopus starter (and not a moment too soon; there is only one left!) while JoJo wisely commands one of each Crostini, plus Fresh Mozzarella. The Field and Fire bread is suitably sturdy, if not a skooch too toasted for my taste, topped with various ingredients: roasted mushroom; whipped baccala; spring pea-ricotta; caponata; and pork-cherry mostarda. I love the grainy texture and sweet pop of the pea-ricotta, and the caponata is a riot of veggies that almost make you consider giving up meat. Almost. I bypass the other varieties, and spare only a bite of the creamy, firm mozz—savoring the balsamic drizzle and pickled onions—but right now I only have eye-teeth for my old, tentacled lover. Amid white beans, Calabrian chili oil, lemon conserva, arugula, and pickled fennel, the octopus is properly firm yet tender to chew. The scorched suckers crackle between my teeth satisfyingly. I barely register the fact there’s another round of salads and a meatball dish? More for them, I suppose...and more of this exquisite cephalopod for me.

Someone gets the bright idea to do a pizza course. Who am I to argue? We get a traditional Margherita, a very non-traditional Apple, the flesh-laden Carne, and the vegetarian delight Fungi. The crust on each is fire-singed and yeasty, soulful. Although I’m not ecstatic about taleggio cheese, I have to admit it’s well-paired with roasted apple, pine nuts, pickled red onions, and arugula. My slice of the Carne is quite good as well, with tangy tomato sauce and salty pork sausage playing off one another. The pepperoni is crispier than I care for, though. I eyeball the other two pies, but I’m trying to pace myself.

We’re already deep into a second bottle of red wine (Lamuri, I believe) and it’s decided we will now try sides. Small skillets begin to appear from the kitchen. I’m too timid to try the Wood Roasted Mushrooms but everyone else seems to dig them. Roasted Root vegetables are my favorite, a sweet helping of turnips, carrots, and parsnips sprinkled with warm walnuts. Roasted Potatoes are buttery and delicious, parsley like confetti on top with salt, pepper, and parmesan. I’m totally in love with the Polenta, a whipped hillock with ground corn and cream, slivers of parmesan on top. There’s another medley of tomatoes, asparagus, and zucchini but I somehow miss a bite.

Finally, it’s time to order our mains. Thanks to a friend who works at another restaurant in town, I know exactly what to order: Agnolotti. Thick tubes of rolled pasta, like cream-colored islands in a lagoon of guanciale broth, encase bacon-polenta while Roman artichokes, asparagus, and pale pea shoots lounge languidly atop. One bite transports me back to Rome, where a few quality ingredients in the talented hands of a mindful chef can transmit a state of mind, a point-of-view. I take my time with the remainder. For once, I am probably not the first one done with his meal.

Dessert is out of the question, though I do crave a double espresso to “fill in the cracks”. Contentedly, I sip the hot brew and reflect on our repast. In olden days, I’ve been reluctant to participate in pass-the-plate sharing dinners. But tonight I feel positively worldly after tasting here and there, rather than hunkering over my food like a caveman with a hunk of wooly mammoth. Our eclectic mix of friends has a lot to do with that, but Osteria Rossa contributes its fair share to that sense of comradery, that familiarity, that love.

She Fed:

We always look forward to dinner with friends in Grand Rapids and tonight we are lucky to have several join us at Osteria Rossa. In the interest of full disclosure, we absolutely adore The Divine Miss H, a server and friend who works at Osteria Rossa. In fact, before meeting up with our large dinner group, we grab a quick glass of bubbles with her at the Downtown Market to get a few fab tips on the house specialities.

Each couple in our group of eight arrives within minutes of each other. Over the course of three hours, we essentially order 85% of the menu. Jeremy and I position ourselves at each end of the table to that we can “divide and conquer”; it’s hard when we only get to see our pals a few times a year now instead of a few times a month. This seems like a good way to catch up with everyone so we can share stories during our 80 mile drive home tonight.

Most of the ordering happens at Jeremy’s end of the table and I’m only hearing snatches and bits of what’s being ordered. In no time, bottles of wine are being poured and platters of food descend on the table. We have one of each Crostini variety: Roasted Mushroom, Whipped Baccala (dried salt cod), Spring-Pea Ricotta, Caponata, and Pork-Cherry Mostarda. Our server wisely brings extra servings of toasted bread before we even dig in. The only spread I don’t try is the ricotta with spring peas, given my aversion to anything with peas in it. The baccala is creamy and reminds me of the brandade I devoured in Paris. The roasted mushroom is garlicky while the caponata is tangy, like sweet-n-sour eggplant. My favorite is the mostarda with it’s shredded pork, sweet cherries, and pucker-inducing mustard overtones.

More starters arrive...the Octopus, cooked to perfection and served with pickled fennel, white beans, arugula, and a chile oil; tender and comforting Meatballs with tomato sauce, Parm and ricotta salata; unexpectedly chewy and firm housemade Fresh Mozzarella with roasted peppers and pickled red onion; and the Farm Salad with bacon, goat cheese, a fried egg and apple-maple vinaigrette. For me the salad is the stand-out. When it comes back around the table, I don’t hesitate to grab the remaining romaine and radicchio leaves.

Someone’s ordered four pizzas for the table to share! The Funghi with roasted mushrooms, goat cheese and truffle oil is as lush and decadent as it sounds. A scattering of pickled fennel helps cut the richness. The Apple pizza has taleggio cheese (one of my faves), pine nuts, and roasted apple slices. It’s divine and again...really lux. I end up grabbing a very small piece of the Carne with pepperoni, sausage, and caramelized onions. The tomato sauce is so fresh and bright; I want to gobble it all up, but I can’t and I even pass on a slice of the Margherita pie as well. It’s just all too much.

They have a whitefish special with apples I’m considering for dinner when one of the servers brings it to the table explaining “the kitchen accidentally made an extra serving of this and we thought you all might want to try it.” The dish is amazing, with two large planks of lightly battered whitefish and small cubes of apple and parsnip. I would never think to pair apples with fish. As I pass the dish to be shared by the table, I’m tempted to order another one as my dinner.

But as usual, I cave to porcine pleasures and order up the highly recommended Porchetta, a sausage stuffed cut of pork belly. I know I’ve been kvetching about how rich everything is, but sausage-stuffed pork belly? Come on, can you blame me? The presentation is absolutely gorgeous with two lovely large discs of pork perched atop a mound of creamy polenta, pickled cipollini onions, cutiepie little patty pans and zucchini, and a generous schmear of Michigan ramp salsa verde. The salt and the fat of the meat with the velvety polenta and the verdant ramp salsa is the best bite of the night for me. And I take about 20 more before I have to put the fork and knife down.

But wait, there’s one of every veggie side to try—Roasted Root Vegetables, Sauteed Rapini, Roasted Potatoes, Polenta, and Wood-Roasted Mushrooms. I try a few mushies and they’re grand. But I’m too full and can’t eat another bite. I sip my wine and slowly slip into a food coma while a few brave folks soldier through gelato.

Osteria Rossa on Urbanspoon

Plank's Tavern

(Saint Joseph, MI) — The Inn at Harbor Shores is a hotel oasis of unrolled, bright green sod near the delta where the Paw Paw River flows into the Saint Joseph River before emptying into Lake Michigan. It’s a well-placed beacon of quality construction that, when you view it from nearby highway 63, entices you to stop for a cool drink at the water’s edge. Thankfully, it also has a full service restaurant called Planks...

He Fed:

At first, I’m expecting Planks to be one of those all-in-one hotel restaurants where they serve all three meals because they have to—the breakfast is buffet, the lunch is limited, and dinner feels perfunctory. We've all stayed at these places, I'm sure, where you're stuck with what they serve because there's nothing else within walking distance. However, I’m struck by the decent (not exemplary) beer taps on display at the front bar. The main dining room, too, is somewhat isolated from general lobby traffic with a vaguely nautical theme, solid furniture, tastefully muted decorations, and a lot of light streaming through the windows. The outdoor patio looks inviting, though the weather isn’t conducive to sitting outside today.

One glance at the menu and I know we’re in for something different. Ratatouille rubs elbows with grilled ribs; shrimp and grits lounges alongside sage grilled scallops. Color me intrigued! After thoughtful sips of our drinks (mine, a Perrin Grapefruit IPA), we agree to share the Plank’s Grilled Cheese as a starter. Between lightly crisp sourdough is a gooey admixture of confit duck thigh and aged gruyere. A small bowl of thick, smoked tomato sauce is placed on the side. I dip an edge of the sandwich in the sauce and take a bite.

Fireworks. Trains going into tunnels. Rockets red glare. Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”.

I can hardly contain my excitement. Somehow I manage to not eat the whole thing before Juliet can get her share. Chef Tim Hendren knows his way around a grilled cheese!

Next up, I get a bowl of soup du jour: Carrot Bisque. It’s a bold and creamy spoonful. Salt is a tad too heavy-handed; still, I’d rather have it leaning on this side of the salt fence than the usual bland concoctions you’ll find at other West Michigan restaurants.

For my main, I opt for Chicken & Waffles. It’s actually just one monster waffle, infused with thyme and apple chunks. A thick bacon bourbon maple syrup glistens over it all...which is a good thing. The chicken is just a bit overdone, dry, so the syrup helps enliven the dish. I’m able to enjoy the sweet, savory interplay until the halfway mark. After that, the dryness gets to me. If the poultry were just a skooch juicier, this would have been one of my favorite meals.

Every new restaurant needs some time to find a rhythm and Planks is no exception. I feel slightly rushed by our server, who inquires too frequently about our decision making process and the food practically ejects from the kitchen in rapid-fire quick challenge succession. Don’t bring me my soup when we’re still working on the app! And don’t bring me my main course if I have a spoonful of soup halfway to my mouth! Still, I will gladly crawl through broken glass to have another bite of that phenomenal grilled cheese.

She Fed:

As we enter, the first thing I notice is how bright and airy the bar area and lobby are. The whole place still has a tell-tale “new building” smell. The space is beautiful with lots of warm wood and floor-to-ceiling views of the water. The hostesses (there are three tonight) greet us warmly. It’s a bit breezy so we opt to sit inside, though there are a few folks braving the chill on the waterfront patio.

While I usually start a meal with a glass of bubbles, tonight I’m in the mood for a cocktail and order the Sparkling Tarragon Gin Lemonade. It’s incredibly light and refreshing, not at all sweet or cloying. The gin gives it a verdant, slightly piney taste which partners wonderfully with the puckery, effervescent lemonade. The slightly licorice-like aftertaste of tarragon is delightful. These could be dangerous!

We split an order Plank’s Grilled Cheese, griddled sourdough bread stuffed with shredded duck thigh and smoked gruyere. It’s cut into fourths and served with a side of smoky and slightly sweet tomato sauce. It’s one of the best grilled cheeses I’ve ever had and the tomato sauce is highly addictive. I know Jeremy truly likes something when he asks, “Do you think you could make this same sauce at home?” The duck is rich, not the least bit gamey, and the tang of the sourdough cuts through the meaty cheesy loveliness of it all.

I don’t know what I’m thinking, but I order up the Golden Onion Soup, a hefty broth packed with sweet yellow onions and topped with toast and smoked mozzarella. I’ve never had onion soup with this many onions in it; it’s more like an onion stew really. The gooey smoked mozz is amazing, though I’m pretty well “dairied” out for the week!

A fellow foodie and self-proclaimed “fish ‘n chips snob” has highly recommended Plank’s version—the Walleye Fish & Chips. I’m a sucker for walleye and anything fried, so I order it up, asking for it on the crispy side per his advice. (He’s had it slightly undercooked there on occasion—ugh!) The fish and chips are outstanding. The fries are better than most, with a tasty seasoning including some herbs. The ginormous walleye filet is mild and flaky with a light batter. Best of all, it’s perfectly cooked; no gloppy raw batter to be found. The tartar sauce is housemade and quite good, but I prefer the fish with a heavy squeeze of lemon.

Our server has trouble finding the Chardonnay I order and accidentally brings a Pinot Grigio. Also, the service is quite rushed. While the restaurant isn’t packed, the servers are speeding guests through. We have three courses in just over an hour; a more leisurely pace would have been more enjoyable and might have resulted in wine and beer sales for them. No worries, in looking at their brunch menu, I suspect we will be back some weekend morning for the bottomless mimosas. No rushing please!

Plank's Tavern on the Water on Urbanspoon

Mark III Grille & Bar

(Saint Joseph, MI) — Considering our house is still without electricity—after a vicious storm blew through the area, knocking down trees and power lines—we deem it wise to seek sustenance where the food might actually be cooked. A nearby restaurant called Mark III Grille & Bar seems busy most of the time, so we decide to investigate. Ignoring the fact there’s a motel just behind the tavern, we manage to snag a parking spot in the bustling lot...

He Fed:

My expectations are set realistically even before I walk in the door. Mark III has the air of a roadhouse you’ll find in most small towns, a bar that’s evolved into a family restaurant but still has the earmarks of a watering hole. I mean, one can only imagine the late night revelries that transitioned from barstool to motel room in the late 70’s.

Still, the place has always seemed busy so it’s definitely a neighborhood favorite. Just inside is a dark foyer with a fireplace and restrooms. A narrow corridor leads to the host stand. Toward the front of the building is the bar, with requisite televisions tuned to sports and news. In the rear are separate dining rooms with functional tables and booths. The servers are efficiently hustling back and forth from the kitchen to the customer. Our waitress is clearly overtaxed but her sense of humor buoys our interaction. Finally, after many apologies for the slowness of the service, it is we who must assure her that we’re in no hurry and everything’s fine.

Curiously, the menu is heavy on Mexican dishes. This is perplexing because directly across the street is an arguably more authentic Mexican restaurant. Otherwise, it’s typical roadhouse fare: steak, ribs, chicken, shrimp, salads. Nothing out of the ordinary, unless you count The Steak Bomb! which is a monstrous burrito stuffed with a 10 ounce New York Strip.

We begin with guacamole, topped with fresh diced tomatoes. It’s undeniably fresh avocado chunked and pulped, but it’s also bland. A dash of salt helps immensely. Too, the tortilla chips taste somewhat stale. Time to move on to the main course.

I’m in no mood for beef tonight and recently had Mexican for lunch, so decide on the Grilled Chicken Salad. The poultry is slightly dry, but breast meat usually is, even when marinated. Among the ingredients, kidney beans are an odd choice but red onion, black olives, hard boiled egg, green peppers, tomato and carrots are expected. I enjoy the jalapeno honey mustard dressing; it alleviates the arid chicken and adds just the right amount of sweet heat. Overall, it’s a salad that fills the gut but I’m not writing poetry about it.

By the end of the meal, I’ve already forgotten most of the details. If I’m in the mood for a quick beer, I might hit the bar sometime, but otherwise I’ll find nourishment elsewhere.

She Fed:

Since we’ve moved here to St. Joe last autumn, we’ve driven by the Mark III multiple times a day. We both pass by on our way to and from work and wondered for the last nine months what the pace was like inside.

Now to be honest, we’ve heard mixed reviews from friends. Their opinions ran the gamut from “they have great bar food” to “their burgers are decent” to “it’s awful, don’t go.” Not exactly raves, I realize, but their parking lot is perpetually packed so we figure they’re doing something right. We’ve lost power to the house due to a big storm, so tonight seems like the perfect night to let someone else cook.

Despite the full parking lot, we find a spot with no trouble. It’s a few minutes wait for a table and we quickly learn pretty much everyone else here has no electricity at home either. Our server immediately sets expectations that the kitchen is backed up and service is a tad slow. I let her know as long as she keeps us in drinks there will be no complaining.

We start with some guacamole to go with the chips and salsa that are automatically placed on the table. The guac is bland so we end up mixing some salsa in to give it a kick. Since we know there will be a bit of a wait, Jeremy opts for a beer and I go with a margarita on the rocks.

The margaritas are overly sweet, clearly there’s no real citrus juice here, but they’re also damn strong and after all day without power I gotta admit—I’ve got a taste for tequila. In fact, I manage to down three of them tonight.

I’ve been eating a lot of veggies all day in an attempt to use up the fresh food from the fridge before it goes bad. Jeremy’s going to have a salad, but I want a chimichanga with ground beef. It’s smothered in spicy cheese sauce and comes with a side of rice and refried beans. Yes, the beans are clearly right out of the can. The lettuce is iceberg and I’m pretty sure the rice was once frozen. Overall, it’s a pretty mediocre meal.

The storm has raised havoc in our town and on our new home. Tonight I’m perfectly content with ho-hum Mexican fare and margaritas made from a sugary mix. Not every meal can be a life-changing experience, after all. Sometimes a frosty beer and a plate of nachos fits the bill perfectly.

Mark III Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

LakeHouse by Cravings

(Saint Joseph, MI) — Many moons ago, when we were attempting to acclimate to the Saint Joe area, we made the fateful mistake of stopping in for a beer and a bite at a Mexican restaurant that seemed to have it all—bright neon lights, a sprawling deck, and a fantastic view of Lake Michigan. Poor service, inauthentic food, and a lingering spilled cerveza stench sank that experience. Mere months ago, however, one of our favorite local restaurants decided to take over the space and thus this new ship was launched, christened LakeHouse by Cravings...

He Fed:

I still feel a little guilty about talking Juliet into eating at the old Mexican restaurant, particularly since she’d warned me not to expect much. That meal crouches in the dark recesses of my skull like an emerald-eyed spider, ready to pounce whenever I’m too quick to pick another eatery and my wife is raising her eyebrows.

Tonight, I’m expecting a much better experience. We pull up and already I can tell this is a quality redux, the garish color scheme replaced by stateful white paint with black trim. It almost has a plantation or Key West feel. We go inside to the bar (where I can smell the ghost of spilled beer, but not anywhere near what it had been) and enjoy a quick drink while waiting for our dinner compatriots, new friends, to join. Soon, we are shown to a table in one of the dining room areas. A fireplace set in one wall promises ambiance and comfort when the weather turns cold.

I’m digging on the Perrin Grapefruit IPA, eventually shifting gears to Tapistry’s Enigma. We make small talk and eagerly peruse the menu. It is a well-rounded, seafood-oriented lineup with nothing too out of the ordinary. Together, we agree to split two appetizers: Bang Bang Shrimp and Seafood Risotto Croquettes. The shrimp turns out to be of the popcorn species, half dollar size curls lightly breaded and tossed in a spicy sauce. It’s a familiar dish that doesn’t deviate from the formula. I find myself longing for prawns instead, but these are fine. The croquettes, on the other hand, are beyond the norm. Stuffed with scallops, shrimp, and clams, these discs of fried risotto are salty sweet, contrasted nicely with the drizzled chipotle aioli. (Speaking of aioli, I do get slightly turned off when I see that same uniform squiggle adorning other dishes. It might taste good, but seeing it replicated on dish after dish only makes me suspect a lack of creativity.)

Before our main course, I’m able to try a cup of their Tomato Basil soup. It’s creamy and thick, just a whisper of velvety herbaceousness under all that sweet pureed tomato. The cup drained away steadily until the spoon rattled against the ceramic like a bone picked clean at cannibal’s last supper.

Our waitress rattles off the evening’s specials and, as you might expect, I’m sunk even before I can fully contemplate the rest of the menu. I mean, when else am I going to be able to try an Oyster and Brie stuffed Pork Chop? And did I mention they come with a side of jalapeno cornbread fritters? Yeah, I really have no choice, do I?

I cut into the bone-in chop with my knife. The pork is prepared exactly, still pink at the bone. Juices flow onto the plate. Grey oyster meat slips out, more like clams, swimming in thick clots of melted cheese. With no trepidation, I test a forkful... Amazing! Natural salts commingle, anchored by the juicy pig. Happily, I keep at it until full. All of my fears about lack of creativity dissipate.

Our companions are satisfied with their choices too—Jambalaya and Parmesan Encrusted Whitefish. Satisfied, we all lean back and finish our drinks, chatting until it's time to head home, and the sun sinks low over the lake. Already, we're considering our next trip. We may have a new favorite place!

She Fed:

There’s been lots of buzz since the announcement of Craving’s taking over this space. When it was the dark and drab El Cozumel, I was continually underwhelmed by the food, service, and interior. But what an amazing transformation! The space is bright, airy, and welcoming. Stained carpets have been replaced with gleaming hardwood. New Palladian windows let in both sunlight and gorgeous views of Lake Michigan. The walls are creamy beige and light grey. It’s hard to believe this is the same space.

We arrive a few minutes early, bellying up to the bar. I plan on wine with dinner so just have an ice water while Jeremy orders a Perrin Grapefruit IPA. Our dinner companions arrive just a few minutes later. We cash out and head to our table.

Our foursome chooses to split a few starters; I love dining out with people who suggest splitting a few apps. It’s a mood killer when someone at the table announces, “I don’t like to share my food.” Entrees I get, but starters are meant to be shared, right? Each appetizer sounds better than the next. We order the Bang Bang Shrimp and the Seafood Risotto Croquettes. I opt for a glass of Mind Bender Chardonnay, figuring a bit of oakiness will work with fish and seafood tonight.

The apps arrive and we all dig in with gusto. I temporarily forget we’ve ordered risotto croquettes and think I’m biting into a crab cake. The texture throws me for a loop, until Jeremy reminds me what they are—scallops, clams and shrimp combined with risotto. The spicy aioli drizzled over each croquette is really yummy and our table quickly divides the final croquette into fourths so we can each have one final bite.

The shrimp are those tiny ones that are easy to overcook. However the crunch of the breading with the spicy-sweet sauce is slightly addictive and I keep going back for more. I think larger but fewer shrimp would be a better offering. I’d rather have 2-3 fabulous shrimp than a mountain of ho-hum ones.

Our waitress confides that the Parmesan Crusted Whitefish and Lake Perch are the two most popular entrees. I’ve been eyeballing the perch so it’s an easy choice. It comes with soup or the Garden Mixed Greens, which turns out to be one of the tastiest salads I’ve ever had with red onions, spiced pecans, dried cherries, feta, and a champagne vinaigrette.

The main courses arrive quickly and everything is plated beautifully, though I think the whitefish one of our companions orders is by far the prettiest plate. (Check out the photos for the Seafood Jambalaya, too—gorgeous!) My perch is very lightly breaded and absolutely divine with a squeeze of lemon, no need for the tartar sauce The garlic mashed potatoes are disappointingly bland and actually tasteless. The broccoli, however is cooked expertly and after those big apps and a fab salad, fish and broccoli is perfect.

The service tonight has been top-notch, attentive without being intrusive or overbearing. Rumor has it they’ll be putting in a tiki bar on the deck this summer. And for me, a tiki bar with Lake Michigan views overrides bland mashed potatoes every time!

LakeHouse By Cravings on Urbanspoon


(Sawyer, MI) — Now that we’re mug club members, our trips to Greenbush Brewing get us to Sawyer quite regularly. Right next door is a small restaurant with the placard reading Fitzgerald’s out front. Throughout the winter, we’ve been past, thinking it was probably one of those Irish pub places and since Greenbush has such good grub, why would we pay much attention? Well, never judge a book, as they say. Recently, we noticed a sign announcing their new menu. One peek and we knew we’d have to visit soon...

He Fed:

Our first attempt at dining with Fitzgerald’s ended disastrously. We were mighty hungry on that fateful Wednesday. After snapping some photos of the building, I anxiously tugged at the front door...only it was locked. Evidently, during the off-season(?) they closed on hump day. Despite their website proclaiming a full 7 day work week, a chalkboard on the door begged to differ. We shrugged and went next door for some beer and pizza.

On this Thursday, we tried again. This time they are open. A handful of loud-talkers sit at the monstrous bar, so we opt to sit outside on the patio. Our hostess turns out to be our waitress too, and it’s her first week on the job! We promise to be gentle, taking a few minutes to acquaint ourselves with the menu. I begin with a New Holland Mad Hatter, not my favorite IPA but scratched the hop itch. I love the tall glass it’s poured in, and the larger 20 ounce beers are delivered in towering glass mugs; the one pint is enough for me tonight, though.

Just as we’re considering which appetizer to order, the sun sets and a chill creeps in. We confer, then gather our stuff and shamble inside where it’s warmer. Juliet is up for Pan-Roasted Calamari or Seared Haloumi. Since I know I’ll be getting tentacles for dinner, I agree to try the cheese. Three small bricks are served atop a small frisee salad. I also spy capers and a vinaigrette that turns out to be lime cilantro, though not as demonstrative as that served at Cravings. The cheese is salty, crispy and although garlic is on the ingredient list, I don’t detect it. I’m comforted and satisfied with the app, though $9 may be a buck or two too steep for the portion.

Also on the appetizer menu is Grilled Baby Octopus, but it’s available as an entree too. That’s up my alley! (In truth, I picked this dish almost a month ago. Rabbit is my second choice, but I overhear another server say it’s unavailable this evening. Whew!) When my dinner arrives, I’m struck by the sheer amount of octopus on the plate. Blackened tentacles and suckers piled high atop another batch of greens, drizzled with lemon vinaigrette, feta cheese, and olives. Yowza! My first bite encounters a firm yet not rubbery chunk of meat. There’s just a slight “sea” taste that is not unpleasant. I do prefer my octopi more tender (like Baker & Banker’s preparation) though the charred bits are delightfully crunchy. The cheese and olives add just the right Mediterranean touch. Again, $21 is probably a couple dollars overpriced, but I’m happy overall.

I’m craving coffee and they have Lavazza espresso, so I order a cuppa. And what goes better with hot joe than Sticky Toffee Pudding? Except, maybe Sticky Toffee Pudding with a scoop of Vanilla Bean ice cream? It’s the perfect capper to a solid meal. Our charming waitress asks for constructive criticism before she brings the bill. I point out she neglected to inform us of the specials. It didn’t matter in the long run, since I’d already decided what I was eating, but it would have been nice to know. She took the comment with grace, and I assured her we’d be back on a regular basis. After all, I need to find out if the rabbit is really as good as it sounds on paper.

She Fed:

Despite the sting of driving to Fitzgerald’s on a Wednesday only to find them closed (their website is obviously not kept up to date), we give them a second chance and head on down for dinner one weeknight. There’s only a handful of patrons inside and no one’s on the patio, so we we opt for al fresco dining. Unfortunately, it’s chillier than we realized so we head back inside after a few minutes.

Our server is cute as a button and explains she’s new. She asks us to please be patient with her as she’s still learning the menu and tells us she will do her best. Through the course of the evening she holds her own and takes great care of us, save for forgetting to tell us the evening’s specials. At the end of the meal, she asks us point blank for any feedback or suggestions we have for her improvement. I don’t think I’ve ever had a server take such an openly proactive approach and I just think she’s a gem.

I’m hankering for a buttery, oaky Chardonnay and order a glass of the J Lohr. I know big Chards have fallen out of favor, but every once in a while it’s what I crave. We decide to share an order of the Seared Haloumi as a starter. It’s lightly browned, served over mixed greens with capers and a tangy vinaigrette. The saltiness of haloumi is always a treat and this one’s no exception. The capers give it a nice piquant bite and my wine goes down way too easy with this dish.

For dinner, I’m torn between the Smoked Half Chicken or the Grilled or Poached Salmon. You don’t see many places offering poached salmon these days and this one’s served chilled with infused lentils (which are also offered as a vegetarian option on their own) or with the veggie and potato of the day. Chilled poached salmon always reminds me of Easter brunch with my grandparents in Phoenix. Every year I’d visit them for a week and we’d go to a fancy hotel for brunch after church on Easter. There was always leg of lamb carved to order and huge platters of chilled poached salmon, both of which I would eat entirely too much of.

I decide to make my choice based on what the veg and potato of the day is. When our server shares it’s roasted asparagus and cheesy mashed potatoes, I know I’ve got to go with the chicken. It’s a huge plate and I end up taking the dark meat home. (I see great leftovers ahead!) The chicken is smoked over cherrywood and while the white meat is slightly dry, daubing it in the creamy potatoes is absolutely divine. The mashed potatoes have large chunks of potato remaining, which is fine by me as I love lumpy mashers. They’re buttery and rich. Jeremy sneaks a few bites of them even. The asparagus are those big thick stalks, not the puny skinny ones a lot of places pass off. They’re ever so slightly charred from roasting and incredibly tasty. Such a comforting dinner!

Jeremy surprises me by ordering desert. I have no business eating another bite, but the Bourbon Cherry Gelato sounds so good I order a scoop. It’s gritty, full of cherry fiber, and lacking any trace of bourbon flavor. I stick with my liquid dessert—the Chard. Despite the lackluster gelato, I know we will be back to give the patio another try!

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PBFW: My Last Supper, The Next Course

(Pebble Beach, CA) — The Seventh Annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine event is winding down. Cookie and SheFed have cavorted through wine seminars, seafood luncheons, and dinners prepared by star chefs. Now, before they can pack their bags, they must attend a final meal. The multi-course feast is based on Melanie Dunea's book MY LAST SUPPER, THE NEXT COURSE and features a who's who cavalcade of famous chefs...

She Fed:

Although the pace has slowed a bit after a full schedule on Friday, it is day three of PBFW and Juliet and I are still ready for more. We spend the morning at cooking demonstrations, followed by the Lexus Grand Tasting for lunch. After a quick nap for this tired BBQtea, it’s off to My Last Supper, The Next Course. Determined to grab an hor d'oeuvres or two, we arrive at a respectable hour but unlike our success at lunch we are only able to nab a few. I grab a bit of burrata by Nancy Silverton served with caviar, red onion, egg, and chives. The caviar is a perfect complement to the creamy burrata, and the finish of fresh chives and subtle red onion makes me wish there were more to go around. I can certainly see why so few are making it to our side of the room, so I am glad to secure a fried crab and tofu cake by Susur Lee. This crispy little bite has a lovely tofu texture with a mild seafood flavor; the Indian spiced tomato jam is sweet and spicy, rounding out quite a few textures and flavors in one small spoon. I watch other trays, including one with champagne, pass by just out of reach. I guess you can’t win them all…

We make our way to the dining room where we are greeted by our MC for the evening, photographer Melanie Dunea. Over the course of the evening Melanie does a fine job introducing us to each of the chefs, reviewing their last supper choices, and entertaining us with a story or two from their photo shoot. Our first course is Jonathan Waxman’s avocado crab salad alongside Arietta, On The White Keys sauvignon blanc. We are presented with a lovely little stack of avocado and crab dressed with a scattering of microgreens. The avocados are creamy and so much more flavorful than the ones we find in Michigan. I did uncover a couple shards of crab shell, but I can look past that for the sweet fresh crab. The clean sauvignon blanc blend is a light, fresh complement to the dish, making the entire course feel like quintessential California.

I am not sure about our second course of the evening. The menu tells us we will have an X.O. Spiral with Far Niente Chardonnay. We are presented a strange looking roll alongside a dollop of sauce and a piece of seaweed topped with two small squares. I’m not a shy eater so I dig in. The roll has a rubbery texture and a distinctive seafood flavor. The square bits are some kind of pickle, and after a nibble of the seaweed I conclude this is d├ęcor rather than a component of the dish. We wait patiently for Paul Liebrandt to take the stage and explain what we just consumed. It turns out the roll was pork, abalone, lobster, and a couple other shellfish. Fortunately, the wine is delicious so I sip on the chard and contemplate my first abalone experience, hoping the next will be more memorable as this one was just odd.

We are offered our next course of coffee and cinnamon marinated squab breast with Brooks Red Letter Pinot Noir. The squab is rich with flavors of earthy game, cinnamon, and coffee which perfectly complements the chicken liver pate, turnip cake, crispy taro, and apricot mustard. It is a small course, but the heartiness of the poultry, liver, and red wine is as satisfying as a large plate. I scoop the liver with pieces of squab and drag the bite across the plate to collect as much of the mustard and sauce as possible with each bite.

Our next course has everyone at the table guessing at the simple, “Southern Feast” callout on the menu. Early on, I pondered the chances that this would include black-eyed peas and corn bread. Wouldn’t that be something at PBFW? The sommelier pours glasses of Trefethen Family Dragon’s Tooth, a big fruity red I am thoroughly enjoying even before the feast arrives. It turns out Tyler Florence is the man who makes dreams come true. Shortly after the wine, a team of servers arrive with plates of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, cornbread, greens, and pickled beets; our table literally cheers at the sight of this family style dinner. We are all portioned out two large pieces of fried chicken and spoonfuls of the sides. The chicken is everything one could want in fried chicken: juicy, crispy, peppery, herby perfection. I can’t see bacon on the plate but I can taste it in the spoon bread. Home style cooking is a welcome treat after so many extravagant courses.

I am admittedly not optimistic for dessert. I am good with the almond cornetto and the yogurt gelato, but strawberry rhubarb compote is a challenge for my palette. The dessert is paired with Dolce from Napa Valley, a sweet wine bursting with flavors and freshness. Although not a strawberry fan, I give it a try and find it rather pleasant. The compote isn’t overly sweet, coupled with tartness of the yogurt I find this quite refreshing. A surprisingly perfect end to a wonderful meal!

She Fed:

It’s our last multi-course meal at Pebble Beach Food & Wine and I’m excited about the chef line-up for this evening. Nancy Silverton, Paul Liebrandt, Susur Lee, Jonathan Waxman, and Tyler Florence are each turning out a small bite and a course for tonight’s dinner. Add amazing wine pairings and how can you go wrong?

By not having enough of the small plates to accommodate your guests, it turns out. We’re able to snag the Crispy Shrimp, a tofu and crab cake with a spicy tomato jam, but most of the other offerings listed are nowhere to be seen. I don’t see Waxman’s Shrimp Toast, Florence’s Pork Belly Biscuits with strawberries, or Liebrandt’s Parmesan Croquant. At one point, several servers walk through the crowd with piping hot platters of deep fried calamari accompanied by marinara. It tastes pretty mediocre, like what you could find in any bar back home. I get the feeling something went wrong in the kitchen and they just grabbed a few bags from the deep freeze to placate ticket holders. The real disappointment is in missing the Double Magnums of Champagne Lanson Black Label. It’s highly rated among the wine publications. The only problem...there’s no way to get through the throngs of people to get a glass. Blurgh!

The doors open and the masses pour in; despite the chaos we find our assigned table quickly. We receive generous pours of Arietta’s On the White Keys, a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend from Napa. I’m learning to love white wines again (after an overdose of oaky Chards) and this white is crisp and citrusy with just a hint of oak. It’s a fabulous accompaniment to Waxman’s Dungeness Crab Cocktail. I can’t think of when I felt more indulgent—okay, probably during last night’s dinner—but sipping a great California white and noshing on a beautiful stack of luscious avocado with fresh crab meat is pure heaven. No wonder Californians are so damn happy all the time. The sunshine, the great wine, and the fresh food!

Next up is Liebrandt’s XO Spiral, which has no description and looks a bit like fruit roll ups and bologna. (If you haven’t yet, please check out the photos of this dinner!) Half of our table hesitates before digging in and a few folks refuse to try it until Chef steps to the podium to tell us what it is. Turns out the “bologna” is a pork, abalone, lobster, and scallop terrine accompanied by seaweed and pickled veggies. Unfortunately, the scrawny dish pales in comparison to the decadent crab we just devoured and our entire table is underwhelmed. The bright notes of the Far Niente Estate Chardonnay do not disappoint, however.

I’ve never been a huge fan of squab, but I am a fan of Susur Lee and want to dig into his Coffee & Cinnamon-Marinated Squab Breast with apricot mustard, pate and turnip cake. The earthiness of the pate and squab along with the sweet mustard and spices of the marinade are just out of this world. The turnip cake is a nice canvas for all the lush juices left on the plate. Another wine I’m beginning to love is Pinot Noir. They always seemed so wimpy to me, compared to the big bold Cabs I love so much. But the Brooks Red Letter Pinot from the Willamette Valley stands right up to this rich dish.

At some point during these events, I crave “normal” food. Something homey and comforting. Tyler Florence’s course is listed as “Southern Feast” which leaves us all guessing. It’s paired with Trefethen Family Vineyards Dragon Tooth, a big Napa red with notes of berries and smoke. I wager we’re getting beef of some kind. Cookie leans over and whispers “What I wouldn’t give for black eyes peas and corn bread right now!” and we both giggle at the thought. Which is right about the time a seriously long line of servers stream to our table, first among all the tables in the room for some reason, and presents platters of southern fried chicken, black eyes peas, stewed tomatoes, corn pudding, pickled beets, and creamed collards.

It’s no exaggeration to say our table breaks into spontaneous applause and boisterous cheering. Chef Tyler Florence served fried chicken at a pricey dinner at Pebble Beach Food & Wine! And I think we’re all just a little bit in love with him for it. All of the sides are incredible but the fried chicken, with slivers of fresh herbs in the batter, is the clear favorite of the evening.

Finally, dessert. An Almond Cornetto with yogurt gelato and rhubarb strawberry compote from Silverton. Like a warm cookie with melty ice cream over top. A dessert wine, Dolce from Napa is paired, but it’s too sweet for me and I enjoy the dregs of my Dragon’s Tooth. Still licking my fingers from that incredible fried chicken. Mind blown.

PBFW: Stars of L.A.

(Pebble Beach, CA) — Our good friend Cookie returns to fill in for HeFed, relating her experience joining SheFed on the West Coast for Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2014. After a shaky start at the Masters of the Sea event, the gals get gussied up for an evening meal prepared by the likes of Rory Hermann, Timothy Hollingsworth, Walter Manzke, Ori Menashe, Jon Shook and Michael Voltaggio...

She Fed:

I hope the afterlife looks like the patio at Spanish Bay. There is something magical about sipping a glass of scotch next to a fire while an elderly man in a kilt plays the bagpipes atop a hill overlooking the ocean. Toss in some photo ops with celebrity chefs and a couple gals can easily lose track of time and be late for dinner.

This is my excuse for missing the hors d’oeuvres and I’m sticking to it. As we take our seats and obtain our first glance at the menu I know we missed out on some wonderful bites: house made charcuterie; oysters; beef tartare; pancakes with steelhead roe; and beef tendon. I take solace in our first wine of the evening, Chateau d’Esclans, Cotes de Provence Rose en Magnum, 2012. It is a lovely rose full of fruit and minerals with a clean finish.

Our first course arrives shortly after the wine: black Russian river osetra caviar over sunchoke panna cotta, with celery branch gelee, pickled apples, young onions, and petit red watercress. The texture is a bit strange, but I love the bright pop of freshness with the salty snap of caviar. The panna cotta is hiding a yellow layer that is faintly citrus, though I can’t be certain. Between sips of the perfectly paired rose I do my best to scoop a bit of each layer with the tiny mother-of-pearl spoon until my bowl is practically licked clean.

Up next is the third hamachi offering of the day. This variation is served with a light vinaigrette, diced apples, shaved radishes, and micro greens alongside a buttery 2012 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay. I have initial concerns about the radish and vinegar dominating the flavors, but the fish is so incredibly fresh and stands up well against the other elements of the dish. The sommelier arrives with generous pours of Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir. I love this fruit-forward red but my excitement for the wine is soon trumped by my excitement over the next dish...carrot and ricotta quadretti with rabbit ragu.

This is the best pasta I have ever eaten and it’s cheeky and fun to boot. The quadretti is rolled thick with the perfect amount of toothy chew. The ragu tastes like something you would expect someone’s sweet old Grammy to have cooked all day in a countryside home. That is, if you know any grandmas with the skills of Ori Menashe. The tender rabbit is richly flavorful, combining perfectly with the green lentils, and the carrot tops add just enough parsley-like freshness to the dish. A light sprinkling of salty cheese tops this hearty offering and I can’t think of anything I would add or take away from the plate. I would like more, perhaps on the patio, with a bottle of that awesome pinot...

I’m doubtful anything can stand up to that last course, but the Roasted Sonoma Duck paired with Clos Dubreuil Saint Emilion 2004 Bordeaux holds its own. This duck more than makes up for the lunchtime duck disappointment. We are presented with two pieces—one slice of rare breast with perfectly crispy skin over greens, and a slice of ground duck with porcini mushroom stuffed in flaky pastry. This dish could have easily weighed me down with the earthiness of fowl, mushrooms, greens, and Bordeaux, but they balance well and leave me entirely content to move on to the dessert course.

Out comes the sommelier with Joseph Phelps Vineyards Eisrebe, then the servers with corn flake flan. The flan is potted with a layer of fermented blueberries, coconut granola, and frozen yogurt. Plainly put, it is delicious and goes well with the wine. Most notably this dish explored a variety of textures: cold, crunchy, soft, squishy. Mine ends up mostly mixed, to grab a bit of each element with every bit. With dessert finished, I lean back and savor the honey and apricot flavors of my last few sips of ice wine. What a day!

She Fed:

We arrive to dinner to find the 2002 Roederer Estate L'Ermitage flowing freely. I have vowed to not overindulge tonight as I have two full days of work ahead this weekend. Not to destroy the image that all we do at these food and wine events is sip champagne and eat bonbons in between spa appointments, but in reality there’s a fair amount of work to be done. Hmmm...considering that I’m working all weekend maybe I’m due for some sparkling wine! I take a healthy sip, nice and yeasty with tiny assertive bubbles. I’m reminded of apple pie, not in a sweet pastry way, but more with undertones of fall apples and baked pie crust.

Our large group is spread out over two tables and we are quickly served up the first course of Black Russian River Osetra Caviar with Sunchoke Panna Cotta, Celery Gelee, Pickled Apples, Young Onions and Red Watercress. I’ll admit the texture of panna cotta can sometimes give me the squirms if it’s too rubbery and this one takes a few seconds to get used to. But the caviar is amazing and the contrast of bright verdant flavors, pickled apples and mellow panna cotta is lovely with the roe. It’s paired with 2012 Chateau d'Esclans Rose, in a magnum no less which just adds to the “ooh la la” vibe. Stars of LA indeed!

Next is a generous pile of Hamachi with Galbi Vinaigrette and Pink Lady Apple with a hefty pour of 2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. The galbi gives the hamachi a sweet and spicy flavor, much like Korean barbeque. The cubes of apple are sweet while the thinly sliced radishes and pea shoots give some crunch and a peppery bite. I would never be able to pair a wine with this dish on my own, but the chard is citrusy and slightly floral with enough body to stand up to these substantial flavors. I forget how great chardonnay can be when it hasn’t been overly oaked.

Carrot & Ricotta Quadretti is presented next, little squares of carrot pasta with rabbit ragu, carrot puree and rosemary. The pairing of rabbit and carrots seems almost too clever until I take a bite. The pasta is slightly chewy and luxuriant with egg yolks while the ragu is rich and meaty. This is highbrow comfort food and it warms me to the bones. I want this dish in the fall, in front of a fire with my husband. Along with a bottle of the wine, a 2011 Domaine de La Cote Pinot Noir which compliments the meaty pasta perfectly. Everyone at our table is raving about this dish, as are the surrounding tables, and I think we all would have cheered if someone asked for seconds.

Our final savory course is Roast Sonoma Duck with Porcini Mushroom. After the mealy duck at today’s luncheon, I’m a little skittish, but this offering is much better, tender and juicy. The porcinis are actually a duxelle wrapped in buttery puff pastry and combined with the duck it’s just impossible to stop eating, despite our protests of being too full. The 2004 Clos Dubreuil Saint-Emilion is deeply plush, one of those big velvety reds I so adore. Once again, I find a kind word to the sommelier will get a girl a generous refill.

A Corn Flake Flan is served in a repurposed jar, topped with coconut granola, fermented blueberries and frozen yogurt snow. The playfulness of eating dessert out of a jar at Pebble Beach Food & Wine provides a bit of levity. The flan tastes like the milk left in the cereal bowl of my childhood. I take one taste of the Joseph Phelps Eisrebe, and while I enjoy the sweet pineapple and pear notes, it’s just too much for me and skip the rest.

Our bellies are full and we are spent, though a few folks opt for more drinks and dancing at the After Party. Me? It’s time to toddle to bed and prepare for a full Saturday of work. I’ll be dreaming of the Carrot & Ricotta Quadretti.

PBFW: Masters of the Sea

(Pebble Beach, CA) — Despite a brutal winter and lagging springtime, HeFed opted to skip this year's trek to Pebble Beach and focus on settling in at the new homestead. In his place, the irrepressible Cookie agreed to accompany SheFed to the west coast and experience all that a Food & Wine event has to offer. Two whirlwind days—filled with travel delays, In-n-Out Burger, and an 18 hole scramble on the legendary links—are followed by a serene luncheon prepared by Masters of The Sea...

She Fed:

Friday morning in Pebble Beach carries the promise of a day of foodie extravagance. My appetite is whetted at Carla Hall’s morning cooking demonstration as I sit in the back of the room taking in all the wonderful smells. After a quick meet and greet with Chef Hall we head to Roy’s, anxious to see what indulgences await us at the Masters of the Sea lunch.

We are escorted to the patio where we grab a glass of Rodney Strong 2012 Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc as the appetizers make their way into the crowd. Despite what feels like a shark frenzy surrounding servers carrying trays of hors d'oeuvres, we manage to grab a bite of each. Maple glazed seared scallops with hasty pudding; beef tartare with bone marrow and crostini; hamachi with yuzu shallot marmalade and osetra caviar; and artichoke soup demitasse with Maine lobster...every bite is delicious. Truth be told, I would gladly stand on the deck eating scallops and hamachi for the next three hours but onward we go to the dining room.

Practically every seat at Roy’s offers a gorgeous view of the bay. We settle in at a table of Juliet’s colleagues and await the first course. To my delight, we are in for more hamachi. This version is served with crispy shallots, lime, and Thai basil alongside a glass of Davis Bynum 2012 River West Chardonnay. The buttery fish is perfectly balanced by the tartness of lime and peppery basil. I am admittedly not a huge fan of chardonnay, but the David Bynum is clean and light and pairs perfectly with the fish. There may be chardonnay hope for me yet!

Up next, we are served Muscovy Duck Breast with Rodney Strong 2012 Estate Pinot Noir. I want to love this dish, but the texture of the duck is mealy. Also, the description promises morel mushrooms but the dish delivers what I am guessing were black chanterelles. Fortunately the creamy peppery pasta, crispy kale, and 24 hour tomatoes go well with the pinot and are good enough to stand alone without the duck.

Our third course is breast of squab with oysters served with Rodney Strong 2011 Symmetry Red Meritage. The panko and herb-coated oysters are fried perfectly crisp; the squab is lovely when dredged through the rich sauce; and the fresh watercress balances out the heaviness of the other components. However, the star of this plate is the pigeon leg. It is salty, crispy, bursting with rich flavors, and goes wonderfully with the Bordeaux-style Symmetry. I’m not sure how much finger food they serve at Roy’s but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I picked it up and nibbled every last edible bit from the bone.

We make it to dessert with just enough room left for Chocolate-Port Xiao Long Bao and coconut panna cotta served with Rodney Strong 2008 A True Gentleman’s Port. Our group is raving about the xiao long bao, but I find it too doughy for my liking. The chocolate filling is nice with the port, but I cannot get over the flavor of raw dough. I spoon into the panna cotta and find my happy place. The texture is silky smooth and light. I abandon the xiao long bao and end a fabulous meal with light flavors of fresh coconut.

I can’t wait to see what the rest of the weekend brings!
She Fed:

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a few of the Friday lunches at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, but never one at Roy’s, the sushi and seafood place at The Inn at Spanish Bay. Since Jeremy’s not the biggest fish eater, we’d opt for a Belgian beer lunch or something similar in the past. But Cookie’s more adventurous so we give it a try.

One complaint about these multi-course meals is the passed appetizers never make it to the entire group. There's always a hoard of people who position themselves by the service entrance to the luncheon and then they gobble up all the goodies on the platter. I’ve seen people eat three and four of the same tidbit, clearly oblivious to the crowds behind them waiting patiently for their chance to enjoy a bite. That kind of behaviour just reeks of bad manners, though I’m biased because I’m usually one of the people at the back of the crowd trying to figure out what the hell everyone else is eating.

The weather is divine today and we are led to the expansive terrace overlooking the golf course and the ocean while we wait. Somehow Karla and I end up near front of the crowd. We get our pick of every single passed bite and I must admit, I have to fight the urge to try seconds of a few things. A cone of pale green creamy artichoke soup with a Maine lobster claw warms the belly. The beef tartare with marrow and House of Parliament sauce on crispy crostini spurs the appetite. But my favorite is the ginormous sea scallop atop creamy hasty pudding (think “grits”). I skip the hamachi with caviar for some inexplicable reason, but do have a refill on the Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc, a crispy clean refresher.

We find our table and the next 90 minutes are filled with four sublime courses, each paired with a Rodney Strong wine. We begin with the Davis Bynum River West Chardonnay and the California Yellowtail with crispy shallot and Thai basil. The fish could surely win over even the biggest sushi hater.

Next is Muscovy Duck Breast with cavatelli in a morel mushroom sauce and slow roasted tomatoes. The duck is mealy and pasty, reminding me of the beef liver from my childhood. Blurgh! But the pasta and tomatoes are lovely, as is Strong’s Estate Pinot Noir. There are a few chanterelle mushrooms on the plate as well and I wolf them down, leaving the duck intact.

I’ve never been a huge fan of squab, but the Breast of Squab with Oysters in a red wine sauce with pigeon leg and watercress is absolutely divine. The roasted pigeon leg is ridiculously good as are the breaded oysters. One of my favorite wines is poured: Rodney Strong Symmetry Meritage. This is when chatting up the sommelier pays off and I find myself with a very generous refill.

Our final course is a Chocolate-Port Xiao Long Bao with coconut panna cotta, olallieberries, and an almond cookie. It’s paired with Strong’s A True Gentleman’s Port, which we actually have in our home bar. The story behind the port is quite moving and it’s hard to not get a little misty after enjoying a wine-soaked luncheon prepared by world-class chefs while overlooking the stunning coastline.

We raise our glasses to the chefs and sommeliers with this final drink. Cin Cin!

Silver Beach Pizza

(Saint Joseph, MI) — After a long weekend of birthday debauchery in Chicago, we’re both looking forward to getting home and settling in to normal life again. Our train is due to arrive back in West Michigan right around dinner time. So, where to eat? Luckily the train station in Saint Joseph is also home to a local favorite: Silver Beach Pizza...

He Fed:

Even bad pizza is good pizza. So the saying goes, and I’m as guilty as the next guy of settling for bad when I’m in the mood for pizza. It’s one of those dishes that almost always satisfies, even when you know the dough and toppings are cheap. Thankfully, I know Silver Beach Pizza is one of the good ones. Juliet has brought home a cardboard box or two, and while I’ve enjoyed the meal, it hasn’t been particularly memorable. Until tonight, I’ve never visited the restaurant proper; I’m hoping for fresh pizza to make an impression.

We hop off the train and stow our luggage in the Prius (parked in the lot over the weekend). Then we head inside, where it’s warm and not too busy for a Sunday night. We’re shown a comfy booth and given menus. Soon, our young waiter appears to take our drink orders. Admittedly, as I’m wont to do, I hold his feet to the fire when he trips up on the beer offerings. Good thing I do; Instead of the familiar Michigan draughts, I manage to pry vital information out of him through careful questioning. It’s not on the menu, but they have Stone Brewing Company Matt’s Burning Rosids on tap!!! It’s an imperial cherrywood smoked saison that is complex, sweet and malty.

And what better to go with such a high-octane beer than some Frickles? It might have a fancy name for an appetizer, but it’s just deep fried pickles. Or so we assume. They never arrive, thanks to our less than attentive waiter (who has already proved his ineptitude with lackluster beer knowledge). Despite his offering to rush an order later, we decline and opt to try them another time.

Thinking of leftovers already, we agree to order two pizzas. Juliet does not hesitate to hone in on The Carousel and I choose The Hawaiian. Some folks don’t like pineapple on pizza, but I’m just as adventuresome about food as I am about beer. Secretly, I’m patting myself on the back for picking the best pie. How can a pizza named after a merry-go-round trump Canadian bacon? Easily, as it turns out.

My Hawaiian is pretty good, but not quite the salty-sweet combo I’d craved. The toppings haven’t melded very much and the cheese slides off too easily. The Carousel, however, is phenomenal. Pepperoni, sausage, ham, bell peppers and mushrooms seem like common toppings but the interplay works some kind of miracle. Heck, I even enjoy the thin, freshly-baked crust (ordinarily, I prefer thick dough). Shamefaced, I eat more of her pizza than mine.

By the time we’re through, there’s less Carousel than Hawaiian, yet plenty to take home for lunches. We make a mental note to avoid our waiter next time and carry our cardboard box out into the night. It’s good to be home, with full bellies and smoked cherrywood on our tongues.

She Fed:

Having worked in St. Joseph for nearly seven years, I’ve had more than my fair share of Silver Beach Pizza. Even though we moved here seven months ago, Jeremy and I haven’t made time to get there. Something about five months of ice storms, white outs, and record snowfall kept us from venturing down to the beach. But tonight our train from Chicago stops at the Amtrak station which is conveniently co-located with SBP and we decide to grab dinner before heading home.

There’s a bit of confusion at the host stand as the student employees try to figure out where to seat us. After a bit of turmoil, we’re led to a booth and our waiter shows up almost immediately. He’s cute as a button and easily up-sells us from a 12 ounce pour to schooners of beer. We order the Frickles, fried pickles, to share while we decide which pizza to choose. Later we discover our server forgot to enter the Frickle order. In the end it’s a good thing as we decide to share two smaller pizzas instead of one big one. As usual, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a creature of habit continually gravitating to simple comfort foods, familiar tastes and textures, and my favorite stand-bys. I have to admit, every time I’ve been to Silver Beach Pizza I have The Carousel with pepperoni, sausage, ham, green bell pepper and mushrooms. I’m usually not a fan of green peppers—they’re too acrid for me. But I like them on this particular pizza.

My other new fave at Silver Beach is to ask for extra sauce. It’s a trick I learned from Santi, a new but dear Chicago/Paw Paw Lake pal who knows his pizza! Their sauce isn’t overly wet or runny, but very thick and incredibly savory, packed with herbs. When you order extra sauce the server will ask if you want it on the crust with the first layer of sauce or on all the toppings, which leads me to believe there’s a gaggle of fans who request this regularly.

In addition to The Carousel, we order The Hawaiian with Canadian bacon, pineapple, and white onions. Without extra sauce because Jeremy’s more than a little skeptical the additional sauce will make the pizza floppy and wet.

We’re on our second schooner when the pizzas arrive and both pies are divine. Finally I’m trying something other than The Carousel, which is fabulous for the record, and Jeremy’s a convert to the extra sauce option.

Since this initial dining in experience at Silver Beach Pizza, I’ve grabbed a few take-out pizzas on the way home from the office and I think it’s the best pizza in town. The Sicilian with sausage, salami, pepperoni, green olives, and basil is a new favorite. Stop by in the summer to enjoy a view of the beach, an icy schooner and a fabulous pie...with extra sauce of course.

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