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...

Clean Plate

Look at the bones!

Check, Please

(Here, Now) — There comes a time, in even the most epic of multi-course meals, when you must drain the last sip of Petrus, carefully fold the linen napkin, put it back on the well-appointed table and signal for the bill. No matter how sated you might be, how scintillating the conversation was, or how many smiles were shared, there’s a little bit of sadness too. Leaving is never easy. We all want the good times to keep on rolling along. But nothing lasts forever. So it is, after five glorious years of sharing our culinary adventures, we must beg our leave...

He Fed:

It’s weird. You wake up one day and realize it’s time to do something else. The thought seems to arrive from some alien sky, unbidden but no less true. It’s only later, in quiet contemplation, the reasons simmer to the surface like olive oil and garlic in a rustic sauce you’ve been preparing all your life. Maybe it’s a change of scenery, a transition in jobs, a reminder of mortality...all ticking in unison until there’s an audible CLICK, and the combination opens a new pathway.

I feel luckier than any man alive has any right to be. I’ve been daydreaming and sleepwalking a fantasy life, a non-stop parade of sensory delights, sometimes topped with tangerine-colored caviar. Although I am not a religious person, I can say I’ve felt blessed and truly honoured to have embarked on this project with my beautiful, intelligent and amazingly funny partner in life—my wife, Juliet. She keeps me centered when I’m prone to veer off course into dangerous territory. She makes me believe there is more to this life than mundane aspirations. She inspires me to hope there is something beyond this earth, this reality, this existence. Writing with her has been a great privilege.

We’ve been working on “He Fed, She Fed” for a while now. Years of actively seeking out new experiences, together. Bad meals that end in hilariously unrealistic disaster. Legendary, unique dinners with friends and famous people. Eye-opening, mind-blowing preparations of ingredients I never imagined I would come to love. I could drum up a droll excuse, that the lunches and brunches have worn me down, the colors run together until everything looks, smells, tastes the same. But that doesn’t scratch the surface. There is always something new to eat and drink.

So why give it all up? Well, when I heard that unmistakable CLICK, I was shown another path. My passion for reviewing things has lessened. My desire to create things has grown. It’s as simple as that. We recently wrapped up our gig at Grand Rapids Magazine, and it only seems natural to put our site in drydock as well. Perhaps not out to pasture, but definitely in stasis. Who knows when we’ll get the itch again, possibly to relate our travels through Belgium...?

Meantime, I’ll be concentrating on creation. I’m cooking on a regular basis now, something new for me, and exciting. The kitchen and pantry are whole uncharted worlds to be explored. Recently, I’ve amped up my homebrew skills by switching from extract to all grain brewing. This gets me out of my comfort zone and I'm curious to see how far I can take the hobby. Also, I’ve let my movie languish too long; time to finish it. Finally, my fiction writing muscles could use a good flex. There have been story and novel ideas floating around my head that need corralling.

I would like to thank our diligent, faithful readers...those who tagged along for our adventures...the wonderful servers who helped make our experiences memorable...and especially the cooks and chefs who shared their creations with us. We will miss you all.

She Fed:

And so it much as we’ve loved writing about our culinary adventures, it’s time for us to hit pause. Time for the two of us to have experiences without trying to frame them within a 500 word essay. Time to go out for dinner without taking a photo of each dish, without trying to remember the vintage and year of the wine. I gotta admit: it’s a bit freeing!

There isn’t one single reason or event that led us to this decision. It was a combination of several life changes. In less than 18 months we moved to a much smaller town, with far fewer dining options. We bought a new (old) house that needed (still needs) some renovating. As luck would have it, we got a last minute offer on our downtown Grand Rapids condo and sold it the afternoon before we closed on our current home. Jeremy changed jobs. Just two months ago, I accepted a new role within my company taking me off the culinary track and, more importantly, allowing me to be at home with nearly no overnight travel.

It’s funny because for the last year or so I’d been thinking of suggesting we taper off a bit. What started as an amusing adventure five years ago had become a bit of a chore. I struggled to meet our weekly deadlines during times of intense travel or heavy work. The irony is that the minute he suggested we consider pausing “He Fed, She Fed”, I immediately began second-guessing myself. Despite my complaining about deadlines and a little eye rolling as I call Jeremy “my editor”, it’s been tremendous fun to work with him on this endeavor over the years. I admire his keen eye and ability to write succinctly; he makes me a better writer.

But it’s time. Not time for goodbye, but more of a “good night.” We’ve been incredibly lucky to have met and befriended some of the most lauded and talented chefs in the world. People who truly care about food and sustainability; who support local farmers; who want to share their love of food with others. We’ve had chefs open their homes and their hearts to us. On the professional front, I’ve had the honor to work with legendary chefs, sommeliers and chocolatiers. I’ve made friendships I will always treasure and scored more than my fair share of autographed cookbooks. To say it’s been an inspiring, eye-opening and delicious trip would be an understatement.

Most surprising is how many of you read us regularly, comment on a particular post or try a restaurant we’ve mentioned. Frankly, I’m still gobsmacked anyone would give two flips about what we think about anything, let alone food and drink and travel. I actually get a little verklempt when I realize how loyal you’ve all been over the years. It’s truly humbling.

We’ve begun some new ventures. While Jeremy’s brewing beer and cooking at home more, I’ve started composting, making kombucha soda, and most recently, turning his spent grain into flour. I suspect we’ll have some interesting tales and recipes to share sometime in the future.

So in the spirit of “good night” and not “goodbye”, I’ll let the Beatles say it for me:

Good night, good night, everybody
Everybody everywhere
Good night

Thai Life

(Key West, FL) — Even though the previous evening was New Year’s Eve, we hadn’t made it to see the ball drop (or, in Key West’s case, the oversized high heel shoe containing a drag queen). So, tonight, we are well rested and hungry for something a bit different. A short walk away from our condo is a harbor offering respite for those who spent all day fishing. Floating alongside one of the overlong docks is a restaurant called Thai Life...

He Fed:

Our vacation is nearing the finish line. It’s been a relaxing week in Key West, and already I’m dreading a return to the snow and cold of Michigan. So what better way to store up some heat than spicy food?

The floating restaurant is a long, narrow barge permanently docked and glowing like some fisherman’s haven. Signs outside proclaim they can cook your catch and prepare it any way you like. Part of me wishes we had sought out a fishing adventure for Juliet, just so we could experience her catch fried up Thai style. Alas, we must make do with what the kitchen has in stock.

We are greeted somewhat cursorily and asked if we have reservations? Yes, thankfully, I had used OpenTable. “No problem, sit here,” our hostess commands, putting two laminated menus on a table before she scurries off. Turns out, the hostess is our waitress...actually, the only waitress. Two other workers called in sick and she is practically sprinting from one end of the boat to the other, shuttling orders. During our visit, she turns away at least four parties who do not have reservations.

While Juliet sips a local favorite, Corona, I decide to lager it up with cold bottle of Chang. I’m not really a fan of Thai beers, but they do pair well with spicy foods. Speaking of which, we need an appetizer! We focus immediately on the small Larb ($10), since I made a great rendition of it at home last month and have been craving it ever since. Thai Life’s version looks quite a bit different than mine, with rough cut red onions, mint leaves, lettuce, fish sauce, lime juice, chili flakes and minced pork. Some crunchy bits of sticky rice give it some texture. It’s spicy, tangy, puckery and fresh tasting, all at once. Taking turns, we scrape the plate until it’s empty. My only regret is that we didn’t order the large version.

For my main, I can’t pass up the opportunity to try their Beef Massaman ($17). It’s a deceptively small bowl of white, lumpy curry. I stir in some white rice, bending my face over the bowl to sniff the delightfully sweet and spicy odors wafting upward. My first spoonful brings a blast of coconut, onion, beef and peanuts. On the back end is a lingering, mischievous dance of cardamom, cinnamon and curry. The second spoon brings big chunks of potato, again spiced enticingly. I plow ahead and the bowl seems not to empty, although I am becoming full. Somehow, I make it to the end...with help from a second bottle of Chang.

We finish up our drinks while looking out over the harbour. Fish surface occasionally, rippling the water for a moment before diving again. Pelicans swoop down to skim and score a slower water dweller. Our server thanks us for our patience. Now that the dinner hour has dwindled, most of the patrons have left, and fewer hungry patrons are bothering her without reservations, she almost seems lonely. Nevertheless, we are anxious to return to our temporary home and enjoy what few hours we have left to enjoy this temperate clime.

She Fed:

Jeremy and I both love Thai food so we’re eager to try this highly recommended Thai eatery. It’s a “floating restaurant”, essentially a boat (complete with a second story) permanently anchored at the dock. After a week of temperatures in the upper 80’s and extremely high humidity, tonight is relatively temperate with a light breeze. It makes the short walk from our rental condo pleasant. And after walking several miles each day, a mere half mile walk to dinner is a real treat!

We arrive to find the place close to capacity. The server hollers as she passes with a huge tray piled high with platters of food, “You two got a reservation?” When we tell her we do, she tells us it will be a minute. Throughout the evening we see her yell at approaching customers, asking if they have reservations, while delivering dinners throughout the restaurant. When she approaches our table to take orders, her voice is at a normal tone and she’s perfectly friendly. It becomes apparent quickly that she’s the only server on the boat and we later learn that someone called in sick tonight, leaving them short-staffed.

Thai Life is anchored near a charter fishing service and a series of rental slips. As we sip our beers, there is a fair amount of boat traffic returning from a day out on the water. As the boats pull in to their dock, the restaurant bobs and rocks in the light wake. After working aviation, I rarely get motion sick but this movement takes some getting used to. The boat traffic slows as night falls, however.

We begin with a small Pork Larb Salad and a bowl of Shrimp Tom Kha Soup ($9). Both are favorites of mine and Thai Life does not disappoint. The larb is addictive with spicy pork, verdant mint and cilantro, and pungent red onions on a bed of greens. The soup is so comforting with coconut milk, lemongrass, and sweet shrimp. Jeremy’s not as enamored with Tom Kha as me so I get the lion’s share of the soup and am in heaven.

So I know I should be brave and order a whole fish or something, but honestly I just want the Shrimp Pad Thai ($17). I’ve been on a quest to see how much shrimp I can eat on this vacation (the answer is A LOT) and I’m not stopping tonight. It’s probably the best pad Thai I’ve ever had, with a generous amount of good-sized shrimp. So pink, so sweet...what’s not to love about Key West? The noodles are cooked perfectly, while the bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and green onions give it a little crunch. I eat one layer of noodles and then give the next one a sprinkle of peanuts and a squirt of fresh lime. It’s divine!

I’m not sure why I find Thai food so comforting and homey as it wasn’t something I grew up with. For whatever reason, I rank Thai right up there with pasta and mashed potatoes when I am need of comfort. The food tonight has been absolutely amazing. We ordered everything “American Hot” on their scale of Mild, Medium, American Hot, Thai Hot and while it was indeed hot, it wasn’t overly so. Well worth checking out...just be sure to make a reservation!

Thai Life on Urbanspoon

Firefly Southern Kitchen

(Key West, FL) — The day was...sultry. Hot, anyway. In fact, Key West is much warmer than predicted and certainly more humid. A cold beer out on a deck sounds pretty good for lunch, so we amble down from our rented condo closer to the action on Duval. We’ve heard good things about a place called Firefly Southern Kitchen; the cool, white exterior looks to be a balm against the glaring sun so we go inside for respite from the equatorial climes...

He Fed:

I’m already sweating as we enter the restaurant. In the spacious dining room, ceiling fans turn lazily and the air conditioning is non-existent. There are a couple families finishing up brunch, filling the space with noise and activity, and heat. We ask to sit outside, upstairs, on the deck overlooking the street. At least up here, we receive the occasional caress of tropical breezes while planes fly overhead every twenty minutes or so, zipping along the blue ether in noisy contrast to puffy white clouds. The skyline is a collage of rooftops, palm trees, and humming power lines.

I’m not a fan of brunch menus, but Juliet is, and I know she adores southern cooking so I’m game. But not before I inquire about the draft list. Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat ($8) sounds very refreshing, so I order a pint. It is gloriously packed full of citrus and sun, sweat dripping off the chilled glass. I nearly forget it is mid-80’s out there, and hotter on the sidewalk.

Juliet suggests we could use a salad, after days of a deep fried foods and meat-centric diet. I’m game. The Pickled Pear Salad ($10) includes candied walnuts, bleu cheese crumbles, and balsamic vinaigrette over mixed greens. It is puckery sweet with just a touch of “old shoe” (not necessarily a bad thing). I love the crunch of the nuts in contrast to the creamy cheese. Together, we polish off the plate, running our forks through the remaining balsamic syrup.

For my lunch, I choose the Spicy Chicken ($13). Over a honey biscuit smeared with spicy sauce, a fried boneless chicken breast is laid, draped with ghost pepper cheese. Now, I like spicy food but this sandwich almost does me in. The ghost peppers bring tears to my eyes and that bright red sauce, applied in modicum, offers no solace. I find the chicken to be somewhat dry; fat or juice might have helped assuage the burning. I’m a trooper, though, and manage to finish it off with assistance from an additional pint of Stone Levitation Ale ($7). The malty beer coats my tongue like a fireproof blanket and I can feel my body temperature regaining equilibrium.

I do take a taste of Juliet’s Biscuits & Gravy ($10), finding it comforting and well balanced, yet unremarkable. I am surprised neither of us settled on the Chicken and Waffles ($14). At the very least, I thought she’d lunge at the Southern Fried Shrimp Sandwich ($14) or Cast-Iron Shrimp and Grits ($15). Oh well, maybe next time.

Now that the wind has picked up, we are slightly reluctant to give up our perch. Slowly, we sip our beverages, until departure can no longer be delayed. Bill paid, we duck our heads back out into the sunshine and turn toward Duval to seek out more adventures at Sloppy Joe’s and Hog’s Breath, while the scent of the ocean follows us down the road.

She Fed:

While our condo is located in a quiet part of town, it’s a bit of a hike to any of the popular restaurants near Duval Street. About a mile to most, but with temps in the upper 80’s and humidity levels reaching 90%, it makes for a sticky walk! I’ve pretty much resigned myself to looking flushed (“vacation glow?”) and wearing moisture-wicking fabrics throughout our stay.

We arrive to find a few picnic tables out front, but the sun is blazing down on them. Too much for these pasty Midwesterners! We opt for the covered deck upstairs and immediately order two ice waters. Luckily, there are ceiling fans on the deck as well to help wick away a little moisture. I’m in the mood for bubbles, but the thought of Champagne doesn’t appeal despite the fact that we’re here for brunch. At Jeremy’s suggestion, I order the Green Goblin Cider ($10), an English cider aged in oak barrels. It’s not overly sweet, with a fair amount of tannins and woodiness—perfect for a scorching day!

We agree to split the Pickled Pear Salad and are pleased to find the pears have been spiced with lots of cinnamon, clove and star anise. These pears remind me of the pickled rhubarb Jeremy made over the summer. Slightly sweet, but also tangy with a bit of pucker. There’s a generous serving of mixed leaf lettuce—red and green—candied walnuts, and blue cheese, all coated with a light balsamic vinaigrette. It’s an incredibly tasty salad and we darn near lick the plate clean between the two of us.

Firefly specializes in Southern food, so pretty much everything on the menu appeals to me. Fried chicken with waffles, shrimp and grits, chicken-fried all sounds divine. I notice two kinds of biscuits on the menu—a “honey biscuit” and a “cathead biscuit.” While the honey biscuit needs no explanation, I gotta ask about the cathead. Our server explains it’s quite big, about the size of a cat’s head. Alright then.

If you’ve read our past adventures, you know I’m a sucker for Biscuits & Gravy ($10). This one comes with a cathead biscuit. After our walk and the salad, I’m feeling like I can justify a big ‘ole biscuit smothered in house-made sausage gravy. Which is exactly what it is. (You need to watch the video to appreciate the size of this beast.) Despite it’s enormous size, the biscuit is light and fluffy, with a nice crisp exterior protecting it from some of the best sausage gravy I’ve ever had. Velvety and luscious with nubs of slightly spicy sausage, I could gobble this whole thing up and take a nap right here.

But common sense prevails, for once at least. I leave more on the plate than I’d like. We sip the last of our drinks, actually enjoying the heat, grateful we’re not freezing our bonzos off back home in Michigan. We head out into the afternoon sun to see what the day holds.

Firefly Key West on Urbanspoon

Santiago's Bodega

(Key West, FL) — We are in the throes of vacation, having spent a relaxing Christmas with family near Daytona Beach then motoring down the coast until we arrive for a week, just the two of us, in Key West. Shorts, tee shirts, and sandals are the uniform, no matter where you go, no matter where you might have dinner reservations. After a couple days to acclimate to the warmer-than-anticipated weather and get some touristy sightseeing out of the way, we strike out for a tapas place called Santiago’s Bodega...

He Fed:

I’m more relaxed than I have any right to be. Sure, the long trek down to the Keys seemingly took forever but once we arrived, there was nothing to do except soak up the sun, the heat, and some cold brew. Tonight, we’re headed for a tapas dinner at Santiago’s Bodega. We’ve heard nothing but good things from other folks familiar with the area, so I’m excited.

After a leisurely stroll, we arrive to a shade-drenched building with rough-hewn signs posted outside the entrance, and a warm glow emanating from within. Immediately inside the entrance is the host stand, where a frenetic gentleman is fielding incessant phone calls, all the while sparing a few words for us and trying to snag menus before seating us. The restaurant is a flurry of controlled chaos. My relaxed attitude slips away, to be replaced by anxious worry.

Somehow, we get seated at a four-top inside, which I love because it gives us room to spread out without having to balance plates or water glasses. Soon, our server arrives and delivers his well-rehearsed spiel. He’s a friendly guy, but constantly distracted and clumsy. While wiping our table, he smacks my fork onto the floor; while adjusting the furniture, he knocks the empty chair next to me into my knee.

Santiago’s Bodega makes their own Sangria, so we opt for a pitcher to share. It is deliciously refreshing, with virtually no sweetness and a light body. Chunks of green apple add just an extra touch of tartness. Off to a good start! While we sip, we peruse the menu and strategize. A parade of small plates seems the way to go.

Green Beans are the first to arrive. Served cold, the beans are served French style with shreds of prosciutto and gruyere, coated in a lemon-caper vinaigrette. My first bite is electrifying...tangy, sweet and crunchy. Yowza! I’ve never had beans as good as these.

Next up, the nightly special: Chipotle Mole Beef Tacos. The meat is so tender, it practically melts in my mouth, while the pepper’s high spice level is masterfully offset by the mole’s soulful depths. Again, I’ve rarely experienced this level of complexity in fancy restaurant dishes, let alone in a taco.

Patatas Bravas follow. Covered in melted parmesan and spicy tomato sauce, the fried chunks of potato are simple and relatively unassuming. There’s a nice tang to the sauce, but otherwise it’s not that different from similar versions I’ve had elsewhere. The Croquettas, however, are another triumph. Mashed potatoes, provolone cheese and ground prosciutto form overlarge balls of deep fried goodness, generously seasoned with cayenne. Dipped into the scallion sour cream, these are hot and cool at the same time, tantalizingly spicy yet earthy and comforting.

Our final choice, Brussel Sprouts, are an unnecessary addition. Already, we are nearing fullness. Drizzled in balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with pine nuts, and coated with a thin layer of parmesan cheese, the leafy greens have been roasted and sauteed in brown butter. My taste buds are blown by this time, so I only try a couple bites. They are good, but unremarkable.

We finish off the sangria and briefly consider ordering more tacos to go. Common sense wins out, though; we pay up and burn off some calories on the walk home instead. Despite the spotty service and frenzied atmosphere, unique food preparation makes Santiago’s Bodega a required destination in Key West.

She Fed:

My hopes are high for dinner tonight, as this restaurant is the most recommended by everyone we know who’s been to Key West. As we approach the entrance, it’s controlled chaos at best with a line of people waiting for tables, a man begging to get a late night reservation for a large group, and an ever-ringing phone. At one point the exasperated host tells a caller they’re booked solid for the next two weeks. Luckily, we have reservations and are immediately seated.

Our server is friendly and knows how to chat up the tourists without being phony. When we tell him we’re from Michigan he immediately asks “State or Michigan” which makes me like him even more. We’re not sure if we want beer or wine and Alan suggests a pitcher of the Red Sangria. Sold!

The menu is huge and it all sounds divine. After indulging in a big prime rib dinner over the holidays, I want some veggies. I steer us towards the Green Beans and Brussel Sprouts while Jeremy favors spuds with Patatas Bravas and Croquettas. We both agree we’ve got to try the taco of the day: Mole Beef with Chipotle.

The Green Beans are very lightly cooked so they’re still crisp; I later hear Alan tell another table the kitchen quick sautees the green beans for 60 seconds and then plunges them in an ice bath. They’re tossed in a lemon-caper vinaigrette with strips of gruyere (which almost look like wax beans) and prosciutto. This is easily my favorite dish of the evening, with the tangy dressing cutting the richness of the cheese and meat while fancying up simple green beans.

During a vacation in Barcelona a few winters back, we consumed Patatas Bravas nearly every single day. Spain’s version of the French fry—deep fried potato cubes served with housemade aioli and romesco, a puree of almonds, garlic, bread cubes and tomato sauce—it was a delicious afternoon treat with a glass of wine in between sightseeing ventures. These Patatas Bravas are served with spicy tomato sauce drizzled over the potatoes and a generous sprinkle of manchego. One bite and I’m remembering our afternoon at the Picasso museum. Divine!

The smell wafting from the plate of tacos is incredible and we immediately dig in. The beef is rich and spicy, with a mole that’s not too overpowering. The tacos are dressed with tender green cilantro shoots and minced white onion which adds a little crunch. A squeeze of lime and it’s absolute heaven. We vow to place a second order as our dessert.

The Croquettas arrive next, two large pan-fried orbs of mashed potatoes with ground prosciutto, provolone and cayenne. They’re served with a side of scallion spiked sour cream. The crispy coating adds some interest, but these taste essentially like a twice-baked potato. Nice but nothing special.

As the Brussel Sprouts appear, we realize there will be no second order of tacos for dessert as we’re both getting full. Indeed, we‘re unable to even finish the veggies, which is a shame because they’re damn good. The sprouts are sweet and crunchy, oven roasted with a balsamic glaze, pine nuts and Parm.

Our pitcher of Red Sangria has lasted us through the meal with enough left for final refill. It’s not an overly sweet sangria and the bits of fruit are a nice treat. I declare these some of the best tapas I’ve had outside of Spain. We toddle out into the warm night air dreaming of small plates and big appetites.

Santiago's Bodega on Urbanspoon

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