Friday, March 26, 2010

Neighborhood spots - East and West

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As much as we’d like to believe that every meal we have is going to be a memorable one, the truth is that many of them are just good. Is it a crime to not have a restaurant that makes it onto Travel Channel or the Food Network. The chef may not be a well known James Beard nominee or even award winner. I’m a fan of the little places that serve their local neighborhoods and put out a good product every night, just as much as those grabbing national headlines.

I’ve pulled out a handful of short reviews that I think warrant a mention. Two are pizza places and two are small restaurants. Enjoy.

Brennan’s Colony
If there’s a definition of neighborhood restaurant/bar, this is it. You can walk into this place on any given night and it will be full or very close to full. The regular menu offers a wide array of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, etc. The beers on tap had a wide variety from domestic piss to imported piss to a few craft beers. (I got DH 60 minute).

I had a particularly difficult time trying to figure out what I wanted from the specials menu because it had so many things that sounded good. After being told how good the ribs were, I compromised and ordered the pulled pork sandwich. All I can say is that it was reasonably priced, good size, and tasted good. How can you complain about that? There’s a lot of competition that has cropped up in the area in the last few years and it’s still going strong. They have good food at a good price. Probably not worth a drive across town from the west side, but if you’re in the neighborhood it’s a great place to stop.

Brennan's Colony
2299 Lee Rd
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118
(216) 371-1010

Brennan's Colony on Urbanspoon

Papa Santi’s
This is a new takeout/delivery pizza place that opened about 3 or 4 months ago in Woodmere. (It sounds eerily similar to another popular pizzeria in Little Italy that I think is highly overrated.) Housed in the old Pizza Hut To Go space (near Kinko’s on Chagrin), Papa Santi’s fills a pizza void in the Woodmere/Orange/Pepperpike area.

On a night that I was flying solo I decided to give them a shot. On their website they’re described as “Sicilian Style”. When I think of Sicilian style I’m thinking square pizza, square pieces, and a butt load of dough. This is not that kind of pie. (Not that I’m complaining, as I think no human should consume that much dough in one sitting). I would describe it somewhere between bar style and Midwest style. The pizza I had (pepperoni and sausage) tasted fine but nothing I would make a special trip for. My guess is that it will fill the immediate area's need for birthday parties, football games, and sleepovers for years to come.

Papa Santi's
27521 Chagrin Blvd
Beachwood, OH 44122
(216) 896-9855

Papa Santi's on Urbanspoon

Johnny’s Little Bar
A couple months ago I stopped in and grabbed a burger with a friend. I think in my mind I may have romanticized the quality of the food there to better than it was. It wasn’t as good as I remembered it being. Had the quality dropped off? Was there something wrong with my brain that I didn’t know what good food tasted like?

I recently stopped in again to make sure I wasn’t crazy. It was while I was waiting for my burger that I realized the problem, the quality hadn’t slipped – I think Cleveland’s restaurants have just raised their burger game. There are now a lot of places that offer a high quality and imaginative hamburger now (even in the downtown area). Little Bar will never want for customers. The menu is a good value and the food is solid. If I could change anything it would be that they add one more server. I have always felt as if there are too many customers for the waitstaff to adequately handle.

Johnny's Little Bar
614 Frankfort Ave
Cleveland, OH 44113

(216) 861-2166

Little Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Big Guy’s Pizza

This Tremont pizza place is actually a takeout place that will serve pizza at Hotz’s Café (directly next door), if you want to sit down and eat. They effectively use Hotz’s as a shared dining room. I’m guessing that Hotz’s doesn’t mind this since it seems to be more bar than café.

I think the surrounding neighborhood represents the lion’s share of Big Guy’s business. Again, the pizza is in that Midwest/Bar Pizza genre. They do put what I remember them calling a “Garlic Bomb” (used to be a whole bulb, but now a half bulb of roasted garlic) in the middle of the pie. It smells awesome when you open the box, but you aren’t quite sure what to do with it once it comes time to eat. Are you supposed to squeeze the roasted garlic out of the skins onto the pizza? I don't know. It’s a decent pizza, but nothing I would make a special trip for.

Big Guy's Pizza
2539 W 10th St
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 436-8888

Big Guys Pizza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alan Wong's

Some food experiences burn such a vivid memory in your mind that they are destined to go down in your personal “Dining Hall of Fame”. I have been to Alan Wong’s twice now and I think it is safe to say that this an absolute must go restaurant when visiting Oahu.I often find that I remember bits and pieces of what I had when I’ve gone to memorable restaurants, but what about when you remember nearly every aspect of the dinner?

Both times we’ve gone we’ve requested a table on the terrace. The window runs the length of the room offering a sweeping panorama of everyday Honolulu. The outward view of the mountains with houses clinging to their steep slopes, a cityscape below, and the low hanging misty clouds set the tone for not kitschy luau fare, but a cuisine that is as representative of Hawaii as the scene outside its window.

A View over King Street

Upon our return to Hawaii, one thing was certain - we were going back to Alan Wong’s. This time we weren’t going to repeat a critical mistake we made the first time, which was eating too much for lunch. This time, having half starved ourselves, we sat down prepared to eat and to not commit the crime of leaving anything on our plates.

When I go to a nice restaurant I expect it to have a certain level of service, but the wait staff here is especially impressive. We peppered our waiter with a number of questions from the origin of the fish to the components of complex dishes. It was as if the chef himself was talking with us about his creations. The staff greeted us with personalized and signed “Happy Anniversary” menus. This is just one of the “little things” that cumulatively equates to a fantastic dining experience.

I will admit, on this trip I was as fat as I have ever been in my lifetime. The five course tasting menu would be a moderate challenge for the average person, but for someone with the stomach room I had this would be a breeze. Consisting of an Alan Wong’s greatest hits of sorts, the tasting menu offers up wide range of fan favorites (pictured below). While the price for the tasting is $75, I can say that relative to the tastings at other places doing this caliber of food it’s a more than reasonable price.

Appetizer Duo
"Soup and Sandwich"Chilled Vine Ripened Hamakua Springs Tomato Soup with Grilled Mozzarella Cheese, Foie Gras, Kalua Pig Sandwich
Crispy Won Ton Ahi Poke Balls, Avocado, Wasabi Sauce

Butter Poached Kona Lobster
with seafood dumpling, garlic black pepper gravy

Ginger Crusted Onaga
(pictured below)
organic hamakua mushrooms and corn, miso sesame vinaigrette

Twice Cooked Shortrib
soy braised and grilled "Kalbi" style, gingered shrimp, ko choo jang sauce

Dessert Duet
"Coconut Tapioca" passion fruit sorbet and fresh fruits

Michelle's "Candy Bar"
Hawaiian Salt Macadamia Nut Caramel, Chocolate Ganache

Da Bag (not part of tasting menu)

Regina started with “Da Bag,” which is worth it for the presentation alone. A giant foil wrapped dish is brought to the table (reminiscent of Jiffy Pop) and once pierced open by the server, you have steamed Clams with kalua Pig, shiitake mushrooms).

Ginger Crusted Onaga

If I could have one dish in all of Hawai’I it would be Alan Wong’s Ginger Crusted Onaga, Long-Tail Red Snapper with miso sesame vinaigrette, organically grown Hamakua mushrooms and Corn. I had it in my tasting menu and Regina ordered the full portion. This recipe is actually in the Alan Wong cookbook and came out surprisingly close to what is served in the restaurant, Onaga is just a pain to find in Ohio. This dish is an absolute monster.

Banana Split

While I had my hands full with my tasting menu, Regina decided on the New Wave "Banana Split" which consisted of mochi wrapped banana ice cream topped with chocolate-macadamia nut crunch, kula strawberry-hibiscus & coconut house made ice creams. They also surprised us with a complimentary dessert that had a "Happy Anniversary" message on it.

A Classy Gesture
One of the criticisms I often read about Alan Wong's is that the area around the restaurant is in is ugly. When people think of Hawai’i they don’t think of restaurants in the second story of an office building in the middle of a commercial district. Why should I have to get in a taxi and go there, when I can just walk to one of the many restaurants on Waikiki and get Hawaiian food?

When we had the pleasure of meeting Alan last year we asked him, “What’s the deal with King Street? How did you end up choosing that place?” He told us that an owner of a local fast food chain told him that King St. was prime real estate. He said that all of the people that lived in those houses up against the mountains had mortgages that were paid for and would support a high end restaurant that put out a great product. Alan told us that he has had offers to go to other locations but would never think of leaving his beloved King St. location.

The first time I came Wong’s restaurant I was afraid it was going to be a tourist trap with cartoony Hawaiian food. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This food is an aggregate of Oahu’s diverse cultural influences (Korean, Chinese, Polynesian, and Japanese). The product is decidedly local and of tremendous quality, the flavors are authentic, and service is the definition of the aloha spirit. The experience Alan and his staff offer is as real as the view outside the King St. terrace window.

Alan Wong's
1857 S King St
Honolulu, HI 96826
(808) 949-2526

Alan Wong's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'Stino da Napoli

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My wife and I have a mutual admiration for many things food related, one thing we don’t agree on is a love for eggplant. She loves it. I detest it.

She’s constantly in search of the latest and greatest preparations whether it’s Antonio’s Eggplant Stack in Parma, Allegro Grille's Eggplant whatever in Philadelphia, or the Eggplant sandwich at Primo’s Hoagies, (found all over SE Pennsylvania and South Jersey). For her, happiness is finding a new eggplant dish to place into the Eggplant Pantheon.

Food favorites are the stuff road trips are made of. We didn’t really have to travel all that far, (from east side to west) but it isn’t exactly around the corner. On Friday night we went to ‘Stino da Napoli in Rocky River, for dinner. Friday wasn’t just any night; it was the only night they serve the eggplant special. As far as food favorites go, eggplant is a top five food favorite for Regina.

‘Stino (short for Augustino) da Napoli is nestled in the same cozy little strip as one our favorites – Tartine Bistro. The front door opens in the central portion of the restaurant with the kitchen directly behind the hostess stand. This central area (where they also process take-out orders) is flanked on both sides by dining rooms. The décor itself is fairly minimal without being too stark. The tables are fairly close together, so if you have a loud neighbor there is the possibility that you will hear every word they have to say. (We had the fortune of having such a party and now we know their opinion on what the Cavs’ chances are of keeping LeBron James.)

Since we had someplace to go afterward we knew this was going to be a quick dinner for us. As the entrees were being delivered to the surrounding tables, we realized the portions were fairly sizable. For this dinner we decided just to stick with entrees. Regina went with the Friday Special Eggplant Parmigiana, which consisted of baked eggplant slices with light tomato sauce, parmigiano and fresh mozzarella cheese ($13.50). She thought it was good, but in Stino’s defense there is a particular kind of eggplant dish with minimal breading and very thin slices that she tends lean toward. This particular eggplant is a very traditional preparation (a tad bit more breading with thicker slices) that draws rave reviews from all over the city.

I opted for the Spaghetti Al Fumo Del Vesuvio, (a traditional Neopolitan tomato sauce with smoked bacon, onion, and fresh cream). I thought I’d be feeling the bacon a little more, but it wasn’t meant to be. This was definitely a case of my eyes reading the description and ignoring what my stomach likes.

If I had one regret, it's that we didn't have time for dessert. As we ate dinner these wonderful lemony looking desserts were staring right at me as they were escorted to their awaiting suitors.

Italian is many things to many people. ‘Stino da Napoli, I think, falls into traditional Italian group. The entrees are certainly in the affordable range; most, if not all, of the entrees fall in the under $20 price point. This little restaurant is much loved by the surrounding area. When we went to leave there were a number of people waiting to be seated. ‘Stino da Napoli offers good food at a good price.

'Stino da Napoli
19070 Old Detroit Rd
Rocky River, OH 44116
(440) 331-3944

Stino Da Napoli on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In Defense of the Food Truck

This is a letter to the City of Cleveland in support of Christopher Hodgson and Jeremy Esterly in their quest to (I assume) allow food trucks the ability to park on the street. As I understand that under current rules they are sequestered to only private property.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to you in regards to the notable absence of food trucks here in Cleveland. Over the last ten years we have seen the culinary landscape bloom into what can only be described as one of the best cities in the Midwest to enjoy great food. We really are blessed to have such a great collection of independently owned restaurants.

If you go to any of the truly great food cities across the country there is one common denominator – the presence of food trucks. When going to places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and even smaller cities like New Haven, CT; you will notice they all have a large presence of food trucks.

Why do people love these mobile kitchens so much?

1. You can go to the food, or the food can come to you. If I live in Shaker Heights that truck might be in University Circle a couple days out of the week. This is much closer than if say it was a free standing restaurant in Westlake. When it coincides with other local happenings such as the Cleveland Film Festival, sporting events, or concerts it makes for a great night out.

2. It expresses the local tastes of the city. The city of Los Angeles has numerous Mexican inspired trucks which showcase the city’s proximity to, and appreciation for, Mexico and the food of its people. What would Cleveland’s be? Well, the only truck I know of in Cleveland (Seti’s Polish Boys) has managed to make it on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”. People come to cities seeking these things out because they are so unique. The hot dog carts that are downtown do not reflect anything about Cleveland. You can plop that cart down in any city across the country and it’s still just a hot dog cart.

3. They’re an affordable luxury. These are hard economic times in Cleveland. Not everyone can afford to eat at the nice restaurants. The items sold from a truck represent the same thoughtfulness and craftsmanship you would get at a restaurant, but at a fraction of the price. It can even be as simple as a $3 snack in the middle of the afternoon. Even though budgets are tight, there is a joy that comes from taking a walk with a coworker and sharing something as simple as a quick sandwich.

4. Much cheaper to open than a restaurant. Most sous chefs and line cooks dream of one day opening their own restaurant someday. The dream however requires massive investment in kitchens, dining rooms, equipment, etc. A food truck allows for a much leaner operation. This creates an opportunity for people that otherwise could not afford to finance an entire restaurant.

5. The possibilities are much greater in a truck than a cart. In defense of the hot dog carts, this is Cleveland; the elements don’t allow for much creativity when you’re being blown around by wind, rain, snow, and cold air. A truck allows an owner to shelter themselves and the food from the elements. I’ve been to trucks in New York City who are perfectly comfortable in the middle of December. They can also have a variety of different foods without worrying about limiting themselves to what they can fit in a food cart.

6. It adds to the pedestrian experience. This adds instant buzz to the area immediately around the truck. This is the kind of thing that piques people’s curiosity. They can easily see a truck. If there is a line of people waiting next to it then they really get curious. (They might just drive by and decide to park their car to see what all the commotion is about.) With the viral nature of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, trucks are able to generate buzz around the city just by announcing where they’re going to be that day. If orchestrated to coincide with a local event it offers a symbiosis for both the truck and the event.

I’ve seen enough of these things work successfully to know that this is an idea that would be absolutely huge in a town with a hankering for good food at good prices. There is no doubt in my mind that if allowed on the streets of Cleveland many more would follow. With startup costs that are a fraction of what a medium to high end restaurant, there is no doubt in my mind that the talent in our city’s kitchens would soon follow. Take care in your consideration – the city’s kitchens are watching.



Friday, March 12, 2010

Lent, Legends, Ass, Heat, and Mangalitsa

I think the thing I like most about Lent is that for one day of the week it makes you do something out of the ordinary. When Friday comes I usually find myself considering parts of the menu I don’t normally look at. I’m a sucker for meat and I admit it. Going to a fish fry just does not excite me in the least. Ask most people what a memorable night out is, and I’m sure a trip to the local “chippy” isn’t going be near the top of the list.

Tonight I hit up Battiste & Dupree in South Euclid. The crawfish etouffee is absolute money. If you haven’t been here you’ve got to try it. Junior Battiste is a no nonsense former military man who cranks out the most authentic Cajun fare in the city. The kitchen (which you can see from the counter) is SPOTLESS. I usually order carry-out, typically calling a half an hour before I want to pick it up. While waiting for my order a lady told me her son will only eat Junior's fried chicken. My interest is now piqued. I now have to go back for the fried chicken. This place is a hidden gem.

Speaking of Lenten options…
I spent this last week out on the east coast. After taking the ferry from Port Jefferson, LI to Bridgeport, CT I decided to take the short drive up to New Haven and pay Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria a visit. Held in high esteem by the pizza man himself (Ed Levine) I had to try their signature pizza that has white sauce and freshly shucked clams. I was totally blown away by how good this pie was. The white sauce plays in the background as you enjoy the brininess of the clams coated with Parmesan and herbs. (I spent the next night in Yonkers where an outpost has opened and I can safely say that the more conventional pie with pepperoni, sausage, and mozzarella is worth a trip, as well.)

Speaking of Legends…
There are times that these well publicized places meet the lofty expectations set by the broadcast media as well as print and the internet. I stopped at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, NJ and I can assure you that had the expectation been set at “above average” it would have been a disappointment, (even if they did come with a delicious sweet relish). They serve hot dogs that are in the deep fryer so long that they split (hence the name “rippers”). The dining room is dirty, service sucked, and hot the dogs tasted like ass.

Speaking of Ass…
Looking for dessert, I took mine down to the Waffle & Dinges truck after I saw the insane crowd inside of Milk Bar. If you’ve never had a liege waffle you don’t know what you’re missing. These are not the typical waffles made from a bowl of runny batter. The liege waffle is actually made with a dough that has pearl sugar in it. When the heavy European irons hit a specific temperature the sugar is transformed into a crispy caramelized coating on the waffle. Delicious. Top one of these suckers with Speculoos, a lighter version of peanut putter with hints of cinnamon and caramel, and you have an awesome dessert for about $5. With the relative heat wave that was in full swing that night, the East Village alive with foot traffic. There’s something about the first real break in the weather that seems to make for an exciting night out.

Speaking Heat…
Ever since I read Bill Buford’s Heat I’ve wanted to learn how to break down a whole hog. Last night while I was taking a piss at the Greenhouse Tavern I saw an advert on the wall offering a hog butchering class. I went upstairs and signed up for that, (right after I washed my hands). Considering the Mosefund Mangalitsa Pigstock 2010 teaching seam butchery would have set me back 7 and a half bills (this is on my list of things to see), GHT’s conventional butchery class is a relative bargain at just one.

Speaking of Mangalitsa…
I met some friends of mine at Momofuku Noodle Bar for dinner. I was gobsmacked when they told me the dinner special for the night – Mangalitsa pork short rib on a bed of mustard tossed cabbage. If I had to describe this extra fatty pork, it would be "foie gras pork". This is why I love Noodle Bar. There’s a ton of stuff on that menu that just kicks ass, but they get some great ingredients in and take it to a new level of kick assetude.

Speaking of Great Ingredients, Mangalitsa Pork, and Kick Assetude…
The Chef’s Garden has it monthly Earth to Table dinner featuring Mosefund Mangalitsa Pork. While the pork itself is not impossible to find, the challenge is what to actually do with it. Since the fat is such a large part of the attraction (a chop appears to be half fat, half meat) a conventional recipe might not do the pork justice. I’m excited to see what Chef James Briscone (winner of Food Network’s Chopped) has planned for the evening. The on-the-fly nature of the show has me eagerly awaiting Briscone’s creations that result from the unique selection of vegetables and pork. As of a few weeks ago the dinner was already half full. If you’re interested in going you can get more information here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Macky's Kahuku Sweet Shrimp Truck

Make sure to check here for more Hawai'i posts!

If you head east along the North Shore of Oahu you’ll find number of shrimp farms. It was from these farms that famed shrimp trucks of Oahu were spawned. There are still stands that actually sell shrimp right in front of the farms. The trucks, however, have been mobilized throughout the island to sell their bounty.

We decided on Mackey’s Kahuku Sweet Shrimp Truck because of the proximity to where we were staying and some of the recommendations from Chowhound. Since we were going to Alan Wong’s that night I wanted to make sure I cleared plenty of stomach room for the evening’s feast. (I had lunch at Grass Skirt Grill before our last Alan Wong’s dinner and wasn’t even hungry at 7.) The shrimp truck would be the perfect solution to my dinner dilemma as long as I didn’t finish the rice.

Da Truck

As we pulled into the parking lot where Mackey’s is parked I noticed a stretch limousine pulling in. If you’re familiar with the limousines then you know where I’m going with this. Japanese tourists pile into stretch limos and stop at various tourist destinations. It seems kind of strange when you first see it, but I guess it makes sense once you realize most probably can’t read the street signs. You’ll see a group roll out of the car, snap pictures of Banzai Pipeline, and then climb back in until they get the next tourist spot. It’s just kind of funny that it’s a stretch limo bumping around these famous surf spots.

So I hurried up, slammed the car in park, and hopped into the line at Macky’s before the limo could find a spot. (Nothing sucks worse than getting stuck behind a group of ten people.) The operation itself is very efficient; the only have five different plates along with smoothies, fruit plates, and Kuhuku corn (which I wasn’t aware of).

Butter Garlic Plate

I opted for the Butter Garlic Shrimp Plate (there’s also Coconut Shrimp, Lemon Pepper, Spicy Hot, and Original). With the plate I got, I’d say there were about 8 shrimp, two pieces of pineapple, a couple scoops, and a small salad for $12. I thought the shrimp and the pineapple were good. I could have done without the rest of the stuff. Looking back I wish I had gotten Spicy Hot Shrimp plate just because I’m a sucker for all things spicy.

Macky’s is actually a great way to enjoy the beautiful setting in Hale’iwa. They’ve set up a few tables complete with tents, an outdoor sink, and facilities. Everything is cooked fresh. It isn’t like there’s a heat lamp that this stuff is sitting under.

Maybe they can serve chicken, too.

Macky's Kahuku Sweet Shrimp Truck
66-632 Kamehameha Hwy
Haleiwa, HI 96712

(808) 780-1071

Macky's Kahuku Sweet Shrimp on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 1, 2010

Haleiwa Eats

Make sure to check here for more Hawai'i posts!

Hale’iwa (hah lay EE vuh) is my favorite spot on the planet. For me this sleepy little town sums up the Hawaiian experience. Sandwiched between what is known as Da Country and the infamous surf of The North Shore, this old plantation town offers up the largest collection of stores and restaurants on this side of Oahu. Without crossing the central mountains of the island, the short stretch of muddy Kamehameha Highway represents the best collection of restaurants.

When we had driven through town earlier in the day we noticed a little Thai place called Haleiwa Eats. I can’t say for sure how long it had been there but we didn’t remember it being the year before. Still feeling pretty full from our visit to Matsugen, we figured we’d order a few things and how it was.

Housed in one of the M Yoshida buildings circa 1923, Haleiwa Eats sits a couple doors down from the famed Matsumoto Shave Ice. The interior was decorated with a tasteful blend of Thai and Hawaiian charm. The strings of small lights added whimsy to what I can only to describe comfortable setting. This worth noting as the buildings themselves are somewhat unforgiving as it relates to comfort and acoustics.

I’ve been to plenty of well decorated restaurants to realize that you only score so many points for appearances, but Haleiwa Eats backs up its first impression with good solid food. We took the easy way out and ordered the summer rolls for appetizer ($5). They were good (they are alas summer rolls). For her entrée Regina opted for the Monsoon Shrimp ($17, sautéed shrimp Thai garlic shrimp served over cucumber and tomato with a side of rice). Looking at the picture I’m guessing Regina requested the peanut sauce.

Monsoon Shrimp

I was very intrigued by the Siam Beef Platter ($15, beef with chili basil sauce w/ string beans, zucchini, and onions). I loved the beef. I actually knew I’d love the beef, but the surprise was the veggies that came with it. The inclusion of the green beans had thrown me off a little bit but I thought they were actually really good with the crunch of the peanuts.

Siam Beef Platter

We love the isolation of The North Shore, but it makes it so much better knowing that there is an affordable option, by Hawaiian standards, so close to where we were staying. In the end the bill was less than $50. It’s a great place to try if you’re in this neck of the woods and licking your wounds from a high priced Honolulu dinner.

Haleiwa Eats
66-079 Kamehameha Hwy
Haleiwa, HI 96712
(808) 637-4247

Haleiwa Eats on Urbanspoon