California Dreamin'

Our recent road trip took us from grilled octopus to SIDEWAYS steaks...

Roll Me Away Tonight

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

The Rain In Spain

From the archives: Our Christmas adventure in Barcelona...

Let The Good Times Roll

Cookie and LettersToJ show us how to throw a crawdaddy boil...

Best/Worst 2012

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

Granite City Food & Brewery

(Mishawaka, IN) — It isn’t often we find ourselves with a free weekend. Too frequently, there are projects around the house or friends we’ve neglected for far too long or a myriad other distractions which prevent us from enjoying time, just the two of us. So it’s a bit of a surprise when we wake up one Saturday morning with no immediate obligations. What to do? Well, we need some groceries, but rather than scooting over to the neighborhood store why not take a leisurely drive down south to Whole Foods? And we just happen to have a coupon for a free appetizer at the nearby Granite City Food & Brewery...

He Fed:

Granite City is impressively built, with solid furnishings and a rustic, brick ambiance. They produce a full roster of beers, and you can even peek into the tank chamber. By all outward appearances, this is a capable brewery. We’re greeted at the front desk with cheery smiles and a quick escort to a booth.

I whip out my free appetizer coupon and our server informs us we can choose any of the appetizers, even the most expensive. Nice! Although we’re enticed by the Asian Glazed Shrimp, we instead opt for the comforting Pretzels with Cheese Sauce, mainly because it’s cold and slightly drizzly out. We couldn’t have picked a better app, with big chunks of sea salt clinging to the freshly baked, soft pretzel sticks. Tear off a hunk and dip into the beer cheese...heaven. Somehow I manage to refrain from devouring every last stick.

I’m not in the mood for anything too fancy, but their Blue Peppercorn Burger is calling my name. I order it medium rare. The Angus patty comes perfectly cooked, served on a soft pretzel bun (more pretzel! all the pretzels!!!). Cheddar cheese melts over bacon strips, creamy bleu cheese dressing, and crispy onion strings. Now, I’m not a lover of onion rings or straws or strings or whatever on my burgers. They tend to get in the way. Usually. Not today, though. These have been sauteed or somehow tenderized so I can actually bite through them, rather than pull them off the sandwich with my teeth. As I bite into the burger, the spicy snap of the peppercorns greets me, cooled immediately by the bleu cheese. Oh, man, that’s a good burger!

The natural-cut fries taste good but are kind of floppy. I can pretty much knife-and-fork them through puddles of BBQ sauce without them ever leaving a memory. That’s fine, though; the burger is the superhero, the fry is the sidekick.

Believe it or not, I only have room for two beers. Their Batch 1000, a typical muddy midwest DIPA, clocks in at 8% ABV though it tastes much lighter. Their Falling Leaf is only 5.4% ABV yet has a more flavorful and surprising taste profile, with hints of lemon, tea leaf hops, and amber malt. I’m not overly impressed with their beers, but at least they’re more solid than most low-rung breweries.

She Fed:

I’ll admit, I’m not all that excited about grabbing lunch at a chain restaurant in a big mall. We’ve been incredibly fortunate over the years to meet several great chefs and dine in so many unique restaurants that hitting a chain just feels wrong. I remind myself about a Cali chef we know who confided his guilty pleasure of Cozy Shack rice pudding and buckets of KFC fried extra-crispy. I guess we all have our food sins and maybe a chain brewery isn’t the worst of the worst.

The menu is huge, both in size and in number of offerings. At least for the food, they only have five beers crafted in house and none of them strike me as particularly interesting. I order the Benny, a Bock—a “German Lager with a sweet toasted flavor”. It’s a solid beer and nice on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Not amazing, but also not disappointing.

Jeremy has a coupon (this story just gets better and better, right?) for a free app and we agree to share the house-baked Pretzels with Cheese Sauce. Warm hot rods of pretzel-y goodness dunked in a creamy hot cheese sauce? Perfect on a cold day and very comforting.

For my main, I opt for the Shrimp Taco Duo and a cup of the Northern Cheddar & Ale soup. I think I actually ordered the soup before we chose our shared app, because in retrospect this turns out to be a whole lotta dairy. The soup is tangier and obviously much thicker than the pretzel sauce, but not by much. What does save the soup is the warm croutons filled with caraway. I could swear they’re fresh out of the oven.

The tacos are quite good, with generous hunks of shrimp glazed with a sweet and spicy sauce. Just hot enough to make you pause and then just sweet enough to make you take another bite. There’s a spicy cream sauce and sprigs of cilantro on the tacos. I sprinkle each with some of the Spanish rice on the side for good measure.

While Granite City is certainly not The French Laundry, it offers a decent lunch and the service is very good. Confession: I like the tacos so much that I end up ordering them a few weeks later with the house DIPA when I find myself solo and in need of a quick lunch during a shopping trip.

Granite City Food & Brewery on Urbanspoon


(Chicago, IL) — Since Eataly Chicago opened last year, they’ve tweaked their format slightly, learning about the whims and predilections of their visitors and making changes in savvy ways. La Carne, for instance, used to house a much bigger space but has been relegated to part of the open-air piazza. Likewise, Baffo had been a dinner only venue but recently started serving lunch. As luck would have it, we’re free for lunch on this Sunday so gather up some friends to try this somewhat hidden eatery...

He Fed:

I’m a little nervous. Baffo has always seemed like the “fancy” restaurant in Eataly, so I’m expecting a high-end menu and stilted service. Cookie and LettersToJ are here with us, as is Mrs. Hoodie. We’ve been shopping upstairs in the retail space for a bit, but have worked up a mean hunger.

As expected, the space is filled with leather upholstery, dark wood, and white linen tablecloths, all exuding a refined yet casual atmosphere with a view to the partially open kitchen. A long bar stretches in one corner, looking out onto the street and seeming like a very comfortable place to enjoy a glass of red wine while tenderly stroking a lover’s hand.

We’re shown to a table that’s partially booth seating—my favorite kind, since you can either choose a stiff-backed chair or lounge on a sofa cushion. Almost everyone opts for a bloody mary; who am I to argue? Spicy, salty and slightly sweet, the tall iced drink comes adorned with a long skewer of pickled veggies and sausage. It’s the perfect pick-me-up after our lengthy visit to Lagunitas the previous day. Although this is more of a “brunch” refreshment, I still manage to polish it off in no time.

The pared-down lunch menu offers typical antipasti, primi, secondi, and contorni courses or a prix fixe menu for only $29 (plus $18 for wine pairings, if you’re so inclined). Not too shabby! After last night’s stellar multi-course adventure at North Pond, however, I opt to forego the prix fixe for two simple courses instead.

First, the polpo alla piastra ($18). It’s a gorgeous shallow bowl of charred octopus on a bed of marinated borlotti beans, drizzled with spicy limoncello vinaigrette and mixed with some olive oil to give the resulting “lake” a neon green glow. It’s one of the most gorgeous platings I’ve ever seen. The tentacles are tender and sweet with no bounce-back or fishy taste. I would kill to be able to cook octopus like this, never mind the brilliance of matching polpo with firm white beans and adding that tangy pop of lemon. Wowser. Worth every penny, and I happily share it around the table for others to try.

For my primi, I choose the simply titled gnocchi ($17). These little dumplings are tossed with a braised oxtail ragu with just a few herbs to lend a splash of verdure. Oh, bite is a fluffy pillow encased in silky, meaty sauce. Perfect preparation with well-balanced flavors. I’ve never had gnocchi that light and airy. And even though oxtail tends to be fatty, and restaurants often try to disguise it with a tannic red wine reduction, none of those are apparent here. For once, I finish every bite of what is ordinarily a very rich dish, yet I’m still wanting more.

There are some issues with service. Our waiter brings two courses to Cookie, when she clearly wanted three. For my part, after a double espresso, I am more than content. Next time we visit (as if I needed another reason to visit Eataly on a regular basis), I’ll be tempted to explore the dinner menu.

She Fed:

Our foursome opts for Sunday brunch at Baffo, Eataly’s fine dining restaurant. I know we’d be just as happy parked at Birreria munching on small plates and swigging unique brews, but I’m looking forward to one last elegant meal to top off our foodie weekend in Chicago. Even better, the other Karla-with-a-K can join us today.

I expected last night’s dining extravaganza would have slowed us down today. A multi-course dinner with wine pairings at North Pond with a few delicious surprises thrown in by the incomparable Chef Bruce Sherman kept us out much too late. We might have been tempted to hit snooze a few times, but here we are—right on time in the lobby ready to walk a few blocks to brunch. We’ve even got time to spare and poke around Eataly a bit before heading down to Baffo.

It’s quiet and serene; a definite change of pace from the chaos of weekend shoppers and tourists upstairs. (After six visits to Eataly, I’m no longer a tourist, right?) Our waiter is great fun with a quick wit. So fun in fact that we invite him to sit with us a few times throughout the meal. For brunch, Baffo features a prix fixe menu with three courses including dessert and a separate menu from which you can order freestyle. Our table debates the merits of each option at length. This is the challenge with a five-top of food and wine lovers: it can take forever to decide who’s ordering what!

I decide to start with the Ricotta Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms. The blossoms are lightly battered and fried. The ricotta is filling is rich and decadent. Although I’m a sucker for anything cheese-filled, deep fry it and you’ve gilded the lily for me. It’s all so good, I even eat the little fresh tomato slices on the side and you all know how much I despise fresh tomatoes.

Next, I go for the Pasta with Roasted Eggplant Sauce. The simple tomato sauce and eggplant chunks are complemented with chunks of gooey fresh mozzarella and julienned basil. Is there anything better than fresh basil with a uncomplicated tomato sauce?

While others debate their third course, I seriously consider just ordering a second helping of the pasta. Or maybe another pasta. But something meatier sounds good today and I choose the Pork Chop with Broccoli Rabe. The bitter greens with the succulent fatty chop make a perfect pairing. I love that verdant, almost acrid taste of certain greens and these are divine. The chop is garnished with a gorgeous pile of herbaceous celery greens and a few pucker-inducing pickled tomatoes. I’m tempted to pick up the chop bone and gnaw it at the end of the meal but I don’t...though I think even Mario might approve.

After a weekend of decadence, we are ready to bid Chicago a fond adieu. Time to go home, eat clean, and cut back on the wine-soaked dinners. Until Eataly beckons again that is.

Baffo on Urbanspoon

Newport Mansions Wine & Food: Part 1

He Fed:

(Newport, RI) — Over the past six years or so, I’ve had the pleasure of attending many special events in faraway cities and states, courtesy of tagging along with my beautiful wife on her job. All that great food and exotic wine takes its toll, however, and I found myself declining repeat visitations to culinary destinations. I mean, how many times can you eat a spoonful of uni in Pebble Beach? I’ve become somewhat jaded and, frankly, bored by the all too familiar carnival of chefs, sommeliers, and gorgeous scenery. However, when Juliet invites me to Newport Mansions Wine & Food, I’m surprisingly excited to explore a new place...

Many long time readers and friends already know that I’m a writer of fiction, primarily, although I write primarily non-fiction these days. I guess that would be the definition of irony. Anyway, my writing influences are varied, having grown up during the heyday of Stephen King and Clive Barker, but no one captured my imagination more than Howard Phillips Lovecraft. His purple prose and near-taboo examination of the human condition, using mostly short form “weird” tales, somehow spoke to he has spoken to Barker and King, and countless others. Never mind all the goofy, yet wonderful, 80’s film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work—REANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, and CASTLE FREAK—the source material is full of dread and imagination without much humor. It is a bleak outlook on the human race.

Lovecraft was born, lived, and died in Providence, Rhode Island. So, after a couple beers at Union Station Brewery, I manage to convince Juliet to visit his gravesite. It’s a symbolic gesture, since I don’t really believe in all the spiritual gobbledygook. It’s not as though ol’ H.P. himself will come rising out of the ground and ask me how my vacation is going. Still, I feel compelled to cross off this bucket list item.

We get lucky, with an absolutely gorgeous late-summer/early-fall day full of sunshine (maybe too much sunshine, as the photos of the headstone are nearly washed out) and poetic, fluffy clouds scudding overhead. Beneath the not-yet-turned tree boughs, emerald shadows obscure the grounds until your eyes dim. Although we had heard the cemetery watchmen don’t like seekers of Lovecraft’s grave (of which there are a frequent many), we encounter none to stop us. We experience a moment of impending doom, however, when a white cargo van pulls up alongside, but rather than an old codger brandishing a shovel at us, we’re treated to a gaggle of black leather clad heavy metalheads who have also come to take photos and pose graveside. Juliet and I wait patiently until they wander to other parts of the cemetery, and just about that time an older lady rides up on a bike. She inquires whether this is Lovecraft’s headstone, explaining that she always wondered where it was after her daughter gave her some of the author’s stories to read. I am allowed more than a few minutes of geek-speak, as she patiently listens to my reasoning why Lovecraft may be the most important American writer of the last 100 years.

After the other onlookers have left, we take a few photos and soak in the verdant landscape. Previous visitors have left coins and cards and other sundry objects on the grave marker, but I don’t see the point of paying physical tribute. Lovecraft lives on in his words, and in his disciples. I thank my wife for humoring me, then we head back to the hotel to prepare for Newport Mansions Wine & Food.

Usually during these events, there are many different seminars being presented by world-famous sommeliers and chefs, and I must attend them alone because Juliet is working. Today is a bit different. Not only is the seminar about cheese, it is presented by Lou Di Palo, a shop owner from New York. And my wife is available this afternoon, so she joins me!

The seminar is slow to set up, as per the usual at these shindigs, and there is a congregation of impatient attendees behind us. (One of the reasons I’m so disenchanted with these events is the sense of entitlement and general rudeness of the privileged attendees, who can well afford the tickets but act as though they are being robbed if they miss even a second of the proceedings.) After some dramatic shenanigans of pulling on locked doors and loudly sighing in exasperation, the room is opened.

We sit near the back. In front of each of us is a placemat upon which has been placed seven wine pours—three white, four red—and a small plate of four cheeses and three meats. A dollop of honey and a basket of crackers promises a palate cleansing between tastings.

Lou Di Palo is a natural-born speaker, proffering his wisdom with typical New York Italian “no bullshit” pragmatism colored with lengthy personal stories about the origination of that wine, the method by which this cheese was produced, and his visits to the suppliers. Vastly entertaining, Lou tends to let time get away from him, so we’re nearly rushing through the tastes. Some folks can’t keep up and there is some minor confusion about which wine should be sampled next. Still, it’s a lot of fun; the wines are top notch and the salumi (meat and cheese) is damn tasty.

The meats include prosciutto di Parma, thinly-sliced pork loin, and mortadella. Cheeses include asiago, piave, and Grana Padano (my favorite).

Stay tuned for Part 2: Wine and Rosecliff cocktail party, plus an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting!

Local 121

(Providence, RI) — We’ve settled in to our hotel room after a nice afternoon of strolling through Swan Point Cemetery, where we encountered a cargo van filled with heavy metal enthusiasts and a curious biker at H.P. Lovecraft’s gravesite. There is still some time before dinner; our OpenTable reservations at Local 121 aren’t for a while yet. Perhaps unwisely, we have a drink at the hotel bar, along with some sriracha chicken wings, so by the time we’re due to walk to dinner, neither of us is feeling up to a multi-course meal...

He Fed:

Providence at night, at the knife’s edge of summer, is a beautiful place and time. It reminds me of walking around Austin or Seattle, with gaggles of students cheerfully goose-stepping on their way to a neon bar where progressive folk wafts out on waves of spilled PBR and deep fried chicken fingers. Where you can hear a pretty girl’s high-pitched, margarita-softened laugh, followed immediately by the low rumble of loose talk from her date. I find my hand straying toward Juliet’s. Her skin feels smooth and familiar, my thumb brushing her knuckles, that reciprocal squeeze.

We find the tavern entrance into Local 121 unerringly. The good looking bartender grins at us from the dimness, welcoming, as we pass by headed toward the bright dining room. Our table is immediately ready, a small two-top in close quarters with other diners, but not too confining. The restaurant proclaims to serve “locally harvested food and drink”; the menu bears this out with entries like New England Clam Chowder, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and Cavendish Farms Quail. Those crazy good chicken wings at the hotel bar, though, have taken their sticky-sweet-hot toll. We both agree to take it easy, which means no individual appetizers or dessert.

Instead, we ask our server—an affable, talkative gal who clues us in that the proprietor is a senator from Rhode Island (and, indeed, he is wandering the dining area, talking with customers and filling water glasses)—to start us with the Northeast Artisanal Cheese Trio. I also start with a local brew, the Trinity IPA, which is a solid, “muddy” style. Before our cheese arrives, we are presented with the amuse bouche: a small piece of brioche topped with cream cheese, cucumber, raw salmon, and a bit of dill. Delicious!

The cheese wedges are small, consisting of a softened raw cow’s milk that is lightly pungent, yet sweet when dipped in honey; a pecorino style sheep’s milk, salty and sharp, paired with rhubarb marmalade; and a goat milk almost like swiss, but singing of the grassy hilltops when coated with bright green herb oil. A pie shaped slice of fig and some fresh-baked bread help vary the tasting.

For my main, I somehow bypass the Silver Fox Rabbit and instead decide to spoil my inner vegetarian with Beluga Lentils. As the dish is placed in front of me, I think, “Oh, someone’s made a mistake. This is a piece of fish!” It is not, however; instead, the chef has cleverly disguised a well-broiled cut of zucchini as if it were salmon or cod. The plating is impressive, with the chimichurri surrounding an island of plump, black lentils, with a lone spear of wrinkled, baked carrot leaning liked driftwood. Not surprisingly, it is as good to eat as it looks. The zucchini pops with sweet, juicy flavor, contrasting with the slightly bitter beans. The carrot is like candy. I want to eat a plate of them.

Finally, I am pleased with myself to have chosen vegetarian...until I glance to my left. The lady at my elbow has ordered the rabbit, and it looks incredible, done three ways. Alas, our trip is too short for another visit to Local 121 but if I ever find myself out this way again, you better believe I’ll be hopping on the Silver Fox bandwagon!

She Fed:

We arrive to find the restaurant nearly empty, though it fills to capacity within 30 minutes. The atmosphere is warm and friendly; it’s a small place, but artfully placed mirrors on the walls make it seem roomy.

Before we’ve spent too much time with the menu, the chef sends out an amuse bouche of salmon crudo with brioche crouton, cucumber, cream cheese and fresh dill. It’s a clean, fun bite with eggy rich bread and crisp veg. The sparkling rosé I’ve ordered pairs well and goes down way too easy. In truth, I could eat a platter of there such a thing as amuse bouches? Amuse bouche beaucoup?

I’d really like to try the Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Jeremy even suggests it. But indulging in this delicacy the night before we head to a three day food and wine festival seems silly. There’s always a few booths foisting the foie at these events, so we behave and go instead with the Artisanal Cheese Trio.

The challenge is after spending so many nights at the charcuterie counter at Reserve, we’re relatively spoiled for meat or cheese. Tonight’s selections are absolutely lovely, but there’s no real surprises with the cheese itself. A raw cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk and dry goat’s milk—all are very tasty. What’s fun and unique are the accompaniments. Lavender honey with one, rhubarb jam with another, and an herbal Spanish olive oil with another. I’ve never been served olive oil with cheese before. We play mix and match with the cheeses, breads, and accoutrements ‘til the cheese runs out and our glasses are dry.

The beef comes with truffled polenta and I just keep returning to it. I’m such a sucker for comfort foods. The addition of creamed spinach and lobster mushrooms entices me further so I opt for the Beef Tri-Tip. When the plates arrive, I am relieved to see it’s not a massive portion. Two squares of medium rare beef sit atop a gorgeous puddle of the polenta. Lobster mushroom slices adorn the edges of the plate, as do two quenelles (those fancy football-shaped portions) of spinach.

In my usual approach, I take one perfect bite with a bit of everything and then proceed to taste each component on its own. The beef is chewy but not tough. It’s got great meaty flavor, ever so slightly grassy or gamey? Maybe it’s what the cow ate on the farm or am I being a total pompous foodie ass? In any case, it’s a damn good steak. The spinach isn’t the runny creamy variety. It’s sturdy but lush with all the flavor of a steakhouse creamed spinach in just a few small bites. The highlight is the velvety polenta, spiked with just the right amount of truffle bits. Not overpowering, a little truffle goes a long way. There’s a fun little Parmesan crisp as a garnish that I gobble up with daubs of polenta on it. The glass of house Cabernet is divine and it’s hard to not order a second glass as dessert.

Local 121 has been amazing. I wish we’d arrived with bigger appetites and I’d love to come back to try all their starters, including that Nose-to-Tail Charcuterie board!

Local 121 on Urbanspoon

Union Station Brewery

(Providence, RI) — It’s our first day in Providence, having landed at the airport without incident and hungry for a bit of lunch after checking into our hotel. Downtown is a short walk away, where Google Maps leads us to an alehouse called John Harvard’s or Union Station Brewery, depending on which website you believe. Nevertheless, we’re curious to see what kind of beer they make in these parts and the open patio under the cloudless, sunny sky seems like just the place to cool our heels...

He Fed:

Truth is, I’ve been wanting to get to Providence for a long time. After all, H.P. Lovecraft, one of my favorite and influential authors, grew up here and is buried here. In fact, we plan to visit the grave after lunch! The excitement is nearly too much to bear; thankfully, Union Station has many different beers on tap to calm my nerves.

We score an outdoor table just before the lunchtime crowd from the nearby university swarms in. It’s a gorgeous day and I immediately relax as I peruse the menu. A sampler of their draughts seems appropriate, along with calamari to start. The styles of beer are pretty standard, including a pilsner, a golden ale, an IPA, a copper amber, and the ubiquitous black IPA. They’re all pretty good, but nothing I’ll try to clone at home. The squid, however, is way better than expected. Tender rings are lightly breaded and mixed with cherry peppers, balsamic, parmesan, scallions, and shallots on a bed of wild greens. Pomodoro sauce and chili flakes give it a spicy tang.

About this time, someone up the stairs at the street level bus stop begins shouting. It sounds like a madman—perhaps one who read an ancient tome he should not have—preaching to the masses, warning them against an impending invasion from faceless invaders beyond space and time. People gather round and stare, until finally the police show up to escort him away. Applause all around.

Back to our quiet meal, I find the burgers section calling my name. Specifically, the “Big Poppah” sounds too good to pass up. A medium rare patty arrives on a brioche bun with a deep fried jalapeno popper, avocado, white cheddar, and chipotle aioli. It’s a huge mouthful but I’m up to the task. Although the avocado is a curious addition, and I’m not sure it adds much, the burger is solid. Hand cut fries, likewise, are slightly elevated tavern fare with just the right amount of crisp-to-soft ratio.

A quick run indoors shows me what I suspect: there are different beers available! The bartender recognizes my heartstruck look and offers free samples of those I haven’t yet tried. One sip of the exceptional dry hopped IPA in cask and I go back outside to let Juliet know we’ll be staying for at least one more pint. This restive repast is exactly the fuel for mind and body before we head out for the shadowy, tree-lined pathways at Swan Point Cemetery.

She Fed:

I’ve got a weekday off with my husband in beautiful Providence. The weather is absolutely gorgeous with clear sunny skies, a light wind, and no humidity. It’s a great day for a quick walk so we strike out to Union Station for some beers and a leisurely lunch. There’s seating galore on the beautiful brick courtyard patio and we snatch a table in the shade.

Our server is efficient and somewhat friendly, warming up bit by bit throughout our visit. Given Jeremy’s excitement over this brewpub, I’m a little surprised by the limited beer offerings. Only five beers to choose from? Sadly enough we discover later there are a few more beers available on tap, they just aren’t listed on the menu our server gave us.

We start with the Union Station Calamari featuring shallots, cherry peppers, tomato sauce, Parmesan and chili flakes. It’s served on a bed of mixed greens and turns out to be one of the best calamari dishes I’ve ever had. And considering Jeremy orders calamari often, this is saying a lot! The shallots are caramelized and sweet. The peppers and chili flakes give a nice kick of heat. The tomato sauce is fresh and flavorful, while the addition of greens is unusual but delicious. Best of all, these are very lightly breaded and not too greasy or heavily battered.

Evidently, though, I’m in the mood for more breading as I order the Fish and Chips at the waitress’ recommendation. Two gigantic planks of ale-battered whitefish are served with coleslaw and tartar sauce. The whitefish is mild and sweet with the lightest hint of beer in the breading. The tartar is from a jar and the slaw is overpowered by onions; I skip both. Since I’m already throwing caution to the wind with fried calamari and fish, I skip the chips and opt instead for the Mashed Potatoes Brulee, another dish recommended by our server. It’s not so much a brulee as it is a ramekin of mashed potatoes swirled with sour cream, topped with bread crumbs, and briefly broiled. I do love mashed potatoes and these are fine. Nothing special, despite the swirls and breadcrumbs. In fact, they’re still a bit cold at the bottom of the dish. Maybe a bit more time under the broiler is needed.

None of the beers really stood out to me, but in all honesty I’m not the beer connoisseur. That’s Jeremy’s role. Now, on the other hand, if you need an opinion on mashed potatoes...

Union Station Brewery on Urbanspoon

Michael Symon's Roast

(Detroit, MI) — We are winging our way to Rhode Island tomorrow and flying out of Detroit. As luck would have it, our brother lives out that way. Is he free for dinner? Miraculously, with his busy schedule, yes! Some sage advice from our friend Vandy points us in the general direction of Michael Symon’s Roast, located downtown. After dodging some rush hour traffic, we arrive and valet park before heading inside...

He Fed:

I’m probably overly-excited because we’re being joined by my brother, and these days we so seldom get the opportunity to hang out, since we’re each living on opposite sides of the state. Additionally, I’ve heard good things about Roast and can’t wait to try the cuisine. There’s some kind of traffic snarl (later, we learn there was a relatively minor fender bender), but we manage to squeak through. My bro has already arrived, so we head in.

Despite being a few minutes early, our table is ready. The hostess leads us to a spacious booth in the lounge area. We are none too picky, though I am curious why they seat us in the bar area when the dining room isn’t exactly to capacity. It’s cool, just weird. I’m always wondering what rules are at play at any given restaurant. The lounge is very nice, with quality construction, a mixture of dark wood, leather, stainless steel, and glass lending some class. It does feel a bit like a spacious hotel bar, though.

Our server is friendly, yet firm, and you can tell she’s very analytical about pleasing us but also keeping to a timeline. We start off with drinks; I am happy to see MMMKay, an Indian pale lager from Short’s Brewing, on draught. The starters section of the menu is chock full of good stuff, from Crispy Lamb Sweetbreads to Roasted Marrow. Somehow, we achieve consensus of Beef Tartare, an Artisan Cheese Plate, and Lamb Ribs.

Although I thought the tartare would steal the show, I’m not crazy about their chopped-boiled-egg approach or the cabbage chips which are far from the promised sauerkraut. A raw cow’s milk cheese, paired with walnuts, orange marmalade, wine soaked pear slices and a blueberry honey reduction sauce nearly steals the show. However, the ribs are roasted nicely and slathered with yogurt, cilantro and lime. They are the clear winner at the onset.

For my main, I opt for the Duck Gnocchi. Served on a skinny plate, looking like a pasta braid, the colorful dish exploits pops of mandarin orange, red chips of fresno pepper, buttery folds of gnocchi flecked with herbs, and slices of green pear, all on a puree of parsnip. One forkful tells me it’s an expertly prepared, rustic meal that screams Michigan. As such, it doesn’t delve into unknown or risky territory. It is comfort food, well prepared.

Sides include grilled mushrooms (of which I do not partake); roasted Brussels sprouts (which seem too heavily dosed with soy); and breadcrumb crusted macaroni and cheese (a couple bites of which satisfy my need for cheddar). I do admire the solitary bite of my brother’s smoked pork chop, and I sneak a nibble from Juliet’s “beast of the day” suckling pig served Southern style with black-eyed peas.

As we turn in our valet ticket and pay the dinner bill, I’m somewhat torn. On one hand, the food is pretty good. On the other, I’m not exactly blown away by the creativity or depth of flavor. Sure, plating is phenomenal, but taste? I guess I expected something more bombastic from an Iron Chef.

She Fed:

Valet parking right outside Roast’s entrance makes dealing with downtown Detroit traffic (and impatient city drivers) a breeze. We are seated quickly in a semi-circular booth, which always seem so cozy and welcoming. The restaurant’s interior is filled with leather-paneled columns, tree limbs still clad in bark, and soft glowing lights.

We’re a threesome of big eaters and food-lovers, so it’s no surprise that we over-order, starting with the Artisanal Cheese of the day, Lamb Ribs, and Beef Tartare. The raw cow’s milk cheese wedge is ginormous, served with blueberry honey, orange marmalade, and spiced pecans. It’s a super creamy, slightly ripe cheese and I love it schmeared on some of the multi-grain bread, still warm in the basket. (The bread, by the way, is incredible. Every variety I try is crusty and delicious. Some of the best I’ve ever had.)

The Steak Tartare has visible chunks of hardboiled egg and capers. It’s served with housemade sauerkraut. The tartare is flavorful and I love the texture of the hardboiled eggs, but the sauerkraut is disappointingly tame.

The Lamb Ribs are hefty with a crisp outer layer that snaps when bitten into. Underneath lies rich flavorful meat, tender at the bone. The garnishes of yogurt, cilantro and lime wedges make me pine for pita bread! This is my favorite appetizer of the night.

I have been avoiding meat for over a week to justify ordering a big juicy steak, but when our server explains the Roast Beast of the day is braised pulled pork with black eyed peas, collards, and spicy green beans, I know I’ve got try it!

As if that weren’t enough, Bryan and I agree to order sides of Mac & Cheese, Brussels Sprouts, and Wild Mushrooms. Kudos to Jeremy for recognizing we don’t need sides after those generous starters. But, you know me...I think the sides at a steakhouse are the best part.

The entrees arrive first and we all dig in. Jeremy’s Gnocchi in duck ragu is tasty, but there’s not much duck in sight. My pulled pork is solid, but I’ve had better pulled pork closer to home. (I am admittedly a snob when it comes to all things porcine.) The collards, beans, and black eyed peas are divine and I dunk yet another slice of warm bread in the sauce collecting at the bottom of my dish. We all decide Bryan’s Smoked Pork chop is the clear winner. It’s juicy, earthy from the smoke, and sitting on a huge pile of creamy polenta.

The sides are all quite good, but nothing too innovative. Creamy macaroni and cheese with toasted breadcrumbs, roasted Brussels sprouts with a tangy vinaigrette (maybe too tangy), and sauteed wild mushrooms, nice and caramelized. We’re so stuffed we barely make a dent in the sides and end up leaving much of our entrees on the plate as well.

We probably wouldn’t drive this far again just for dinner, but Roast made for a fun and delicious meal before a morning flight out of Detroit Metro.

Roast on Urbanspoon

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