Monday, December 27, 2010

Now, which El Rodeo is this again?

It seems like there are a hundred El Rodeos scattered across central Indiana – and, indeed, the country. I can’t figure out if they’re all part of one large chain – a kind of Mexican McDonald’s – or if they’re independent restaurants that just happen to have really unoriginal names. In either case, my family and I decided to grab some grub at the El Rodeo near the intersection of I-65 and State Road 334 west of Zionsville today.

The first thing you’ll likely notice about this El Rodeo is that it seems fairly new – like it was built within the last couple of years or so. The outside is neat with good signage, and the inside is clean and well lit. There’s an outdoor seating area in front that looks like it would be fun in the summer. The interior is painted the traditional orange-red with southwestern-style murals encircling the dining room. Because it’s the Holiday Season right now, blooming poinsettias lined the walls, which looked very festive.

Like all restaurants of this sort, you get chips and salsa as soon as you sit down. Our chips came in white, red, and green, which I assume was for Christmas, but maybe they’re always that colorful. The salsa was good, pretty standard, but a little spicier than most. The queso dip was watery, but flavorfully hot. Because the server told me that the guacamole was made in-house, I decided to give it a try as well. It did seem fresh, but it was fairly tasteless nonetheless. It could have used some jalapeños or maybe a few more onions. It was certainly nowhere as good as the guacamole that I’m used to from El Sol de Tala out on east Washington Street. But maybe I’m spoiled!

Because it was lunchtime, I decided to try one of their lunch specials. I went with #7, which consisted of a burrito, an enchilada, and tamale. The tamale was a little cold in the middle, but was generously stuffed with shredded beef. There was a weird meat sauce covering the whole thing, though, which kind of masked the taste of the tamale itself. I’d have rather had it without the sauce. The enchilada and the burrito were good, both filled with spicy ground beef. I was happy with my choice, although I have to say that I think my dad made the best choice by ordering nachos al carbon. His nachos were loaded with shrimp, beef, chicken, and cheese, and they were absolutely delicious.

The service at El Rodeo was good. Our server was very nice and attentive, rushing to get us some extra napkins when the baby spilled some water. Actually, they accommodated the baby well over all, providing a stable high chair as well as a Styrofoam cup with a straw to make drinking easier for her. When we were getting ready to leave, they even picked her up and passed her around to say bye. For a minute, I thought we might have to leave her there!

Overall, El Rodeo provided us with some good, fresh Mexican food – just like at countless other Mexican places around Indianapolis (half of which are also called El Rodeo). There's really nothing on offer here that you can't get elsewhere, but if you're in the neighborhood and feel like eating Mexican, you could do worse. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here, but certainly it wasn't bad.

El Rodeo on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yes, St. Elmo Steak House is still good.

St. Elmo Steak House has been a downtown Indianapolis landmark since 1902, housed at its original location (127 South Illinois Street) for its entire existence. Dinner at St. Elmo makes you feel connected to the history of Indianapolis in a way that few other restaurants can boast. And, of course, the food is always top notch as well. So, when I was recently invited to attend a private party at St. Elmo, I jumped at the chance.

First, the atmosphere. St. Elmo is one of those old-school restaurants with dark wood walls, wrought-iron fixtures, and dim lighting. What else do you want from a classy steak place, right? Our group had reserved the one table located in the restaurant’s wine cellar, so we got to dine surrounded by 20,000 bottles of wine. Apparently this is the room where Peyton Manning eats after home games. Not being a sports fan, this meant nothing to me, but some of the other members of our party seemed enthused about that.

For my pre-meal cocktails, I ordered a pomegranate Martini and a Mojito. What can I say? I was in the mood for girly drinks. The Mojito was a little sour and didn’t contain many muddled mint leaves, but the Martini was quite good. We were served bread around this time, too, and all of it was tasty. There were onion rolls (stuffed with cooked onions) and some cheesy cracker-y things that I couldn’t get enough of.

Of course we all ordered St. Elmo’s famous Shrimp cocktails as our appetizers. You simply can’t come to St. Elmo and not at least try the shrimp cocktail! If you haven’t had one, picture the plumpest, freshest shrimp that you can get in Indiana smothered with house-made cocktail sauce loaded with freshly ground horseradish. The cocktail sauce can take your breath away, if you’re not careful. Best to start with just a little of the sauce and then work your way to a big bite. My sinuses were certainly clear by the time I’d finished my appetizer.

Next comes your choice of navy bean soup or tomato juice. I’m not sure what’s up with the tomato juice, but I guess it’s a St Elmo tradition. Needless to say, I went with the navy bean soup. When I think of navy beans (which isn’t all that often, really), I tend to think they’re bland. This soup was not bland, though. In fact it was delicious.

I skipped ordering a salad so I could go straight for the main event – the surf and turf. At St. Elmo, surf and turf means a lobster tail and 10 oz. filet mignon. I asked for my filet medium-rare and it came out perfect, nice and bloody in the middle. My lobster tail was excellent, too, although anything dipped in clarified butter is going to be good. One member of our party’s steak was a little over-cooked (she had ordered it medium-rare and it came out medium), so the server cheerfully sent it back to the kitchen and got her another one that was cooked to her specifications.

Because we were surrounded by one of the best wine collections in Indiana, we had to sample a bit of the ole vino. How could we resist all those bottles just staring us and whispering, “Drink me”? So, we decided to compare and contrast a few different types of cabernet sauvignon. We first shared a bottle from Quilceda Creek (Washington state), and then tried a pair of wines from Napa, Opus One and Lokoya. All three wines were fantastic, although I think the Opus One was my favorite.

After the excellent meal, I have to admit that the desserts were a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t crazy about either of the ones that I tried – the crème brûlée and the chocolate cake. The crème brûlée tasted good, but the sugar on the top hadn’t been completely caramelized, so I didn’t get to have the fun of cracking the hardened sugar. As for the chocolate cake, it was a little stiff, which made it seem like it had been frozen or something. I’m not saying that it had been frozen, mind you, just that it had that kind of texture. Although I didn’t get to try it, the cheesecake looked good. I wish I’d ordered that.

As for the service, it was uniformly excellent, from the hostess to our dedicated server to the bussers. When I joked with our server that I needed a cocktail umbrella for my pomegranate Martini, she laughed and said she wished they had them. Then she actually made one from a piece of paper, a staple, and a toothpick, and plopped it into my drink. Our entire party appreciated her great sense of humor and attentiveness.

Like all good steak places, St. Elmo is pricy. If you start getting wine, it can be really pricy. Still, for an occasional treat (especially if someone else is paying), it certainly makes a memorable dining experience. The food is delicious – and you simply can’t beat the atmosphere and history of the restaurant. If you can swing it, eating in the wine cellar makes the experience all the more special, too.

St. Elmo Steak House on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why I love Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company.

When I realized this weekend that Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company has been open at 615 Virginia Ave. for over a year now, I became a little embarrassed that I hadn’t yet discussed it here. Considering the amount of time I spend there and the number of times I swing by in a week, I kind of feel like I’ve overlooked my own living room. Simply put, I love CFCC. It is, hands-down, the best coffee shop in Fletcher Place/Fountain Square. In fact, I’d say it’s my favorite coffee shop in all of downtown Indy.

First things first, CFCC serves great, organic, fair-trade coffee; the Fletcher Place Blend is my favorite. Their specialty coffee drinks are great, too, made with freshly brewed espresso. They have awesome mochas (although I always order them with half the chocolate syrup so they’re a little less sweet), and they also make seasonal drinks such as pumpkin spice lattes in the fall and eggnog lattes around the holidays. They serve a selection of organic teas as well, but I haven’t been able to pull myself away from the coffee long enough to try any of the teas. As an added bonus, CFCC offers locally baked pastries from Circle City Sweets including brownies, cookies, and muffins. Personally, I can never get away without buying a cherry-almond strudel bar. If you do order one of those, however, be prepared to share it with someone or keep half for later because they are super-rich and buttery.

CFCC’s interior is stylish and laid-back, comfortable but with a modern sensibility. They’ve made the best of their rectangular space by putting a couple of larger tables in the front and lining the long wall with thinner tables. Nevertheless, they have also managed to squeeze in a cozy, comfortable hangout area in the back of the space. This back area makes a great place to work/write, especially given the free Wi-Fi.

Best of all, the coffee shop is staffed and managed by straight-up nice people. They run the shop as a not-for-profit and donate all of their tips to a different local charity each month such as Second Helpings, the Southeast Neighborhood Development (S.E.N.D.), and so forth; they let you know where your money will go with a little sign beside the tip jar. The staff is welcoming to people of all stripes, even learning their customers’ names and getting to know their drink preferences. Basically, you’ll never find a friendlier bunch of baristas. On weekends, CFCC often has a live band performing or hosts open mic nights. It’s also a great place for local artists to display their work. Overall, the coffee shop has really helped to pull together the resident’s of the Fletcher Place neighborhood, making us feel like one, big extended family.

The only thing that I could possibly hope for is an expansion of their hours. Currently, CFCC is open from 7 am to 7 pm Mondays through Thursdays, 7 am to 11 pm Fridays, 7 am to 9 pm Saturdays, and closed on Sundays. Those are certainly not bad hours, but I’d love to see them stay open later on weeknights and to expand with Sunday hours. Still, I understand that business may be slower on weeknights and that everyone needs a day off, so I can’t say that I blame them.

Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 6, 2010

I just don’t get Scotty’s Brewhouse.

There are so many things I don’t get about Scotty’s Brewhouse that I’m not sure where to start. First off, why are diners provided with rolled-up bathroom face towels instead of napkins? (That’s just gimmicky and weird.) Why is their menu designed to look like a fake issue of Sports Illustrated magazine? (The thing contains way too many pages for way too few items of interest. Where am I? The Cheescake Factory?) Most importantly, why in the world would Indianapolis need another boring restaurant/bar? (Within half a mile from Scotty’s is Alcatraz Brewing Company, The Ram Restaurant and Brewery, Champps Americana, Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, Jillian’s, Kilroy’s Bar & Grill, and even a freakin’ T.G.I. Friday's.) After eating at Scotty’s this weekend, all of those questions remain unanswered for me.

I have to admit, I got a bad feeling as soon as I entered the restaurant and saw the hostesses standing around wearing t-shirts and headsets and looking bored. I felt like I had stumbled into an Old Navy. The giant, flatscreen TVs covering pretty much every surface didn’t help, either. When one of the hostesses finally asked me how many were in my party, I told her and requested a booth. She began to lead us towards our table, which was situated directly beneath a bank of suspended TVs blaring a basketball game and right beside a large table full of rowdy sports fans. Because I don’t really care about basketball, I asked the hostess if we could sit a couple of booths down from the one she had assigned us so it would be quieter. “It’d be easier for us if you sit where we want you,” she replied. Well, by all means, make things easier on yourself! So much for customer service. Playing along, I shut up and sat where she wanted me. As soon as I slid into the booth I noticed that an overhead light was shining down on my face, blinding me like a spotlight. Now I couldn’t hear or see. At least I could still taste.

With that thought in mind I cracked open the complementary sports magazine – er, I mean the menu. After flipping through its 30 pages, I realized that they mainly offered the standard wraps, burgers, and salads. Also, they call themselves a brewhouse, but they don't actually brew any of their beers. Having said that, though, they do have an extensive list of bottled and draft beers, including quite a few from local breweries, which is nice. On the front page of the menu, the Scotty’s staff helpfully spotlighted their three signature items – their dill pickle chips, their “mo’fo’” hot sauce, and their Shewman burger (dressed with jalapeños, cheddar cheese, bacon, and peanut butter). The Triple XXX in West Lafayette has been putting peanut butter on burgers for years, but I’d never gotten up the nerve to try one. Tonight was the night, I decided! In fact, we decided to order all three signature items just to give Scotty’s a fair shake.

The dill pickle chips came quickly, which was good, but they were really, really greasy and slightly overcooked, which was bad. I wanted a paper napkin or something to try and press some of the grease out of those suckers, but all I had was my enormous face towel. Needless to say, I didn’t really care for the pickle chips (too salty, for one thing), although the horseradish dippin’ sauce was quite nice.

Next came our burgers, the atomic mo'fo' burger and the Shewman burger, both with tater tots. I tried the atomic mo'fo' burger, and thought it was just okay. The mo’fo’ sauce did not impress me. It was more sweet than hot. Much to my surprise, my burger was delicious, though! The peanut butter paired really well with the spiciness of the jalapeños, cooling them down. Who knew? Well, I guess the Triple XXX did…. The tots were good, too (I’m a sucker for tots), crunchy and golden brown. They were especially tasty with the horseradish sauce (which I’d held in reserve from the pickle chips).

Overall, I just don't see what this place offers that a million other restaurants don't already offer. The interior is obnoxious and loud, the food is just okay and not very original, and the staff is hit-and-miss. The one bright spot was our server. He was very good, even offering to bring us samples of beer to taste to help us make our drink selections. I suppose if you’re really into sports or just like the kind of place that has a mini TV in each booth and an ATM in the entryway, then this might be the restaurant for you. It’s just not for me. I’m not saying Scotty’s Brewhouse is terrible; it’s just shockingly average. I may start putting peanut butter on my hamburgers at home, though, so that’s something.

Scotty's Brewhouse on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hoaglin to stay, please.

There are a lot of places to eat on Mass Ave, but I’ve only tried about half of them thanks to Hoaglin To Go Café & Marketplace; whenever I’m within a three block radius of this place I am nearly always lured inside by its siren song (otherwise known as “the promise of a bacon-and-egg salad sandwich”).

But let’s start with breakfast. First off, Hoaglin To Go has the best bacon in town, hands-down. It is thick-cut and applewood-smoked. Yum. Best of all, if you order it crispy, it actually comes crispy! My favorite breakfast dish, though, is the homestyle bruléed oatmeal served with sweet cream butter and brown sugar. “Homestyle?” My mom never made oatmeal like that! The pancakes here are good, too, although eating a full stack is just too much for my poor belly. The daily breakfast specials are usually quite tasty. They almost always offer the country scramble (which consists of buttermilk biscuits and scrambled eggs buried under sausage gravy and cheddar cheese), which is awesome, even if it does kind of look like something you’d get at Le Peep. The “Big O” (their name for the omelette of the day) is quite often filled with good stuff; I especially like it when chili is involved. A rotating variety of quiches are available as well, so if you’re a quiche fan, you can’t go wrong here. One breakfast downside – the coffee at Hoaglin To Go is kind of disappointing. Oh, it’s alright, I suppose, but their Wild Horse Creek coffee pales in comparison to Hubbard & Cravens. I always specify the Earth & Sky variety (the milder blend) because the Black Lightning is way too dark for me. Also, it would be nice if the restaurant kept a couple copies of The Indianapolis Star lying around for breakfast patrons to share. As it is, if you want to read anything besides Up Down Town or The Word with your morning meal (and I can’t say I’d recommend reading either of those), you’ll have to remember to carry it in yourself.

Which brings us to lunchtime and my favorite item on the menu, the rather dramatically named “Bacon & Eggs - The Sandwich.” I feel like it needs an exclamation point after its name. “Bacon & Eggs - The Sandwich!” As I mentioned above, the bacon here really is good. When you pair that bacon with “Indy’s best egg salad,” you get culinary alchemy undreamt of since peanut butter met jelly. And the chicken salads are all good, too. There are usually three available, although the curried one is probably my favorite. (Its neon yellow color is just a bonus.) They used to have an autumn chicken salad that had walnuts and dried cranberries in it that I loved, but they did away with that variety. The bread here is quality, but it can sometimes be a little jagged for my mouth (I’m so sensitive), so I usually order my sandwiches as wraps. The sole exception to that rule is the BMLT (bacon, mozzarella, lettuce, and tomato), another of my favorites. Eating the BMLT as a wrap just seems somehow… wrong. So, on the days when I order that sandwich, I willingly face the terror of sharp bread. As for the side dishes, I tend to stick with the potato chips. I know, I know, potato chips as a side seems kind of “meh” at a place like this, but the other sides haven’t wowed me either. I tried their asparagus-tomato-blue cheese salad once, and really didn’t care for it. It was bitter and bland and certainly not worth the $2.75 up-charge.

Do be advised that the café is pretty small – and sometimes there are quite a few people walking around ordering to-go dishes from the deli area. I’d say the dining area is cozy on the best of days and cramped on the worst. Don’t even bother to come here on a football Sunday (unless you eat breakfast early) because you’ll invariably have to wait in line behind a crowd of people in blue shirts. The interior design of the place is trendy and contemporary – it reminds me of places I’ve eaten in New York and Chicago – although the owner's taste in art tends toward the elongated-stick-figures-painted-over-floral-patterns variety. Those paintings are not really my thing, although a lot of people in Indy seem to dig on stuff like that. The servers are hit and miss as well. They have several who are excellent and on-the-ball, but there are one or two who (although very nice people, I’m sure) are just not very good at their jobs. Also, as alluded to earlier, prices are a bit on the steep side.

Hoaglin To Go Cafe & Marketplace on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are all gardens in Italy this tasty?

Iozzo’s Garden of Italy has become one of my favorite lunch spots over the past year or so. Located just south of Shapiro’s in the same historic building that used to house the late, lamented Café at Ray, this Italian restaurant already had quite a bit of history behind it’s name when it opened in 2009. The original Iozzo’s restaurant (a downtown hotspot in the 1930s) was owned and operated by the owner of the current iteration’s great grandfather. Iozzo’s Garden of Italy seeks to honor the original restaurant by taking inspirations and recipes from it. Based on the quality of the food served at Iozzo’s Garden of Italy, I would imagine that the original is, indeed, honored.

Having eaten lunch at Iozzo’s Garden of Italy more times than I can count, I think I’ve achieved my goal of sampling every dish on the menu. I can die happy now. My favorites are the lasagna (topped with both a red and a white sauce), the orzo portabella (stuffed with mushroom-y goodness), the chicken Parmesan sandwich (thick and juicy), and the fettuccini Alfredo with shrimp (simply delicious). A few dishes have disappointed me, although they’re in the minority. I didn’t care for the cheese ravioli, for instance, because it’s stuffed with smoked mozzarella and I don’t like the flavor of smoke. I’m also not overly fond of the pizzas here (I think it’s the crust I don’t like), although judging by the number of them that I usually see dotting the tables of my fellow diners, I think I’m in the minority on that one. Most dishes come with a small house salad, which is fresh and tasty, especially when paired with the house balsamic vinaigrette. The daily specials are almost always a hit as well, helping to expand the menu for regulars like me. On my last visit, the special was a crab risotto that was creamy, cheesy, crabby, and perfectly cooked. Iozzo’s Garden of Italy also features a full bar for all of you drunkards out there. The bar serves a wide variety of wine and beer, of course, as a well as a selection of specialty mixed drinks.

Thankfully, the appeal of the restaurant doesn’t begin and end with the delicious food. The service is uniformly good and the staff friendly. The dining room is upscale and classy with exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, white tablecloths, blown-glass light fixtures, candles on the tables, and so forth. The walls are decorated with oversized black-and-white vintage images of members of the Iozzo family as well as the original Iozzo’s restaurant. It’s a cozy and welcoming environment that makes me want to curl up and eat a bowl of spaghetti. When the weather’s nice, there are also two options for al fresco dining – on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant or in the beautiful, walled-in garden behind the restaurant. The garden is choice number 1, obviously, but the sidewalk tables do have their appeal as well. In fact, on a couple of occasions I’ve stopped by just to sit out in front of the restaurant and sip a cappuccino. It’s very Soprano’s. Without the killing and cussing, of course.

Iozzo's Garden of Italy on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 15, 2010

Patachou (Gesundheit!) on the Park

When a foolish former mayor of Indianapolis gave Simon Property Group half of one of the city's most beautiful public parks as a spot for their corporate headquarters a few years back, I was ticked. Still, at least Simon’s monument to Americans’ love of cheesy shopping malls provided a spot for a downtown Patachou. That makes the sacrifice of Indy green space on the altar of Corporate America hurt a little less, doesn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t, but Patachou on the Park serves up one hell of a breakfast anyway. In fact, going to the restaurant and getting an omelette and some coffee has become something of a Sunday morning ritual for me. So, what keeps me coming back to Patachou despite my lingering irritation about losing a large chunk of our public park to Simon? Three things: the food, the staff, and the atmosphere.

For me, the food at Patachou is all about breakfast, specifically the omelettes. All five of their Patachou namesake omelettes are good, although the Hippie with a Benz is far-and-away my favorite. Stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and feta cheese, the Hippie with a Benz is my omelette dream come true (even if I did think it was called the “Hippie with the Bends” for the first year or so that I ate here). One word of warning regarding the omelettes – a couple of my friends really dislike the omelettes here, saying that they are thin and watery. I disagree, obviously, but because I’ve heard this complaint from more than one person, I suppose it bears mentioning. The kitchen also offers a specially priced omelette of the day each day, but those are very rarely appealing, nearly always featuring the most tasteless turkey sausage that I’ve ever had the misfortune to put into my mouth. Stay away from the turkey sausage! Stick to the namesake omelettes! I did recently discover the broken yolk sandwich with bacon and avocado, which is challenging the Hippie with a Benz’s hold on my stomach. The self-serve coffee at Patachou is delicious as well. I tend to try whatever crazy flavored kind is on offer (cinnadoodle, banana cream pie, chocolate fudge, etc.), but most of my friends stick to the non-flavored stuff, which they say is quite good. As a sweet counterpoint to my omelette, I always choose the cinnamon toast as my side. Yes, I know that cinnamon toast is something I can make at home, but the way Patachou does it – topping thick, pillowy slices of bread with loads of melty butter, cinnamon, and sugar – is exceptional. One of my friends actually asks for extra cinnamon/sugar, which is brought to him in a bowl so he can really go crazy. Unfortunately, the lunch menu here isn’t really my bag. Their chicken salad is kind of bland and their egg salad pales in comparison to Hoaglin To Go’s. My default lunch order has become the ham and brie wrap, which is pretty tasty. Thankfully, they serve breakfast all day, so it’s not as if I’m ever forced to eat off their lunch menu. If you do go for lunch, steer clear of the side of lightly dressed field greens. I ordered the salad once and felt like I was eating a pile of bitter grass. They do have a delicious tomato artichoke soup, though, and their deserts are uniformly good – especially the carrot cake.

The wait staff here is great from top to bottom. In the years that I’ve been eating here, I’ve never had a complaint about a host or server. On the one or two times that there has been a mistake with my order, my server has always taken care of it immediately and with no attitude. Now that I’m a regular, I know most of the servers by name and always enjoy catching up with them – when they have time for small talk, that is! They're often too busy.

As for the atmosphere, it’s sophisticated but not stuffy. The walls are all painted in warm colors and the modern furniture is comfy. The tables feature real flowers in bud vases – always a nice touch for a Sunday morning. Best of all, the restaurant rotates the art along the back wall, featuring the work of a variety of local artists. In general, my fellow diners are a mellow bunch of downtowners just chilling out/recovering from their Saturday night. Things can get a little tricky in the autumn, though, thanks to the Colts. On home football game days, the clientele at the restaurant is entirely different and the place gets crowded very early (don’t bother coming after 10:00). Parking, always a problem, is impossible on home game days, too.

So, good food, great staff, nice atmosphere. What more could you want from a breakfast spot? Well, I suppose you could want your public park back, but I think that ship has sailed.

UPDATE: The interior of Patachou on the Park has been changed. Gone are the warm colors that I liked so well, replaced by grays and blacks. It looks more like a night club now and less like a cozy restaurant. They also seem to have stopped displaying local art, opting instead for generic prints and dozens and dozens of "reviews" all framed and hung side by side in rows - kind of like the proclamations by that mean Head Mistress lady in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Obviously, I'm not a fan of the updates. The food is still pretty much the same, but the new Corporate look has really turned me off.

Patachou on the Park on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Loft Restaurant at Trader’s Point Creamery

Having grown up in a small town surrounded by farmland, I sometimes get an urge to ditch Indianapolis’ semi-bustling downtown area and return to the quieter parts of Indiana. To get to any real rural scenery, however, you’ve got to drive for 45 minutes to an hour away from the city on an interstate highway. Fortunately, the area surrounding Trader’s Point Creamery presents a reasonable facsimile of the country – and it’s just 15 to 20 minutes northwest of downtown.

Hidden down a quiet, shady road just minutes from I-465, Trader’s Point Creamery’s rustic setting is the first thing you’ll appreciate about the Loft Restaurant, although it probably won’t be the last. The restaurant is housed in a converted three-story barn surrounded by acres of pastures and mooing cows. After heading through the little milk/cheese shop on the first floor, you climb up a set of rough-hewn stairs to reach the dining room, which is located, appropriately enough, in the loft of the barn. The white table clothes on the tables contrast with the exposed wooden beams and soaring ceiling, making you wonder what, exactly, you’re in for.

Upon being seated, my friends and I ordered iced teas, which were served to us in Ball jars. I’m a sucker for that…. Our server was pleasant and attentive, checking on us a couple of times to see if we were ready to order our lunches or if we needed more time with the menu. The lunch menu was not that extensive (made up mainly of salads and sandwiches), so it didn’t take us long to make our choices. I ordered the lunch special, which was a 100% grass-fed beef burger topped with blue cheese and bacon. One of my friends ordered a burger as well, although he chose to have avocado on it, and my other friend ordered the grilled cheese sandwich which was composed of whole-wheat bread grilled with raw milk Cheddar cheese. All three of us chose fresh cottage cheese as our side. Hey, we were at a creamery! What were we going to get? Potato chips?

After we ordered, we waited. And waited. It was kind of a long wait, to be honest. But we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be, so we just chilled out, sipped our teas, and examined the wheels of cheese stacked behind glass. When the food finally did come, we all agreed that it was worth the delay. I had ordered my burger medium-rare, and I was glad I did. It was delicious! And the blue cheese was generous and tasty. My compatriots scarfed their sandwiches down as well. The grilled cheese looked amazing, toasted to a golden brown with loads of Cheddar oozing out the side. The cottage cheese side dish was good, too, but its richness was a bit much. A little dab’ll do ya. None of us were able to finish his/her portion. In the future, it would be wiser to only have one person at the table order the cottage cheese and then share with the others.

Having finished our lunches, we decided that we could not leave the restaurant without first visiting the dairy bar for milkshakes. Two of us ordered chocolate shakes made with white milk and one of us ordered the sickly indulgent chocolate/chocolate shake. As always, the milkshakes were fantastic. One of my friends described the flavor of his shake as tasting “like grass and fat,” which is pretty apt. That description was a compliment, by the way! While I was slurping my shake, I even sucked up a couple of chunks of milk fat. Mmmmm…. Chewy milkshakes….

As a whole, I enjoyed my meal at the Loft Restaurant. The food was good, albeit a little expensive, and the server for our meal was fine. No complaints there. And of course the ambiance was nice. There’s nothing like eating in a big old barn to bring you back to your roots. My only complaint would be the kids who work at the dairy bar. I say “kids” because they all looked like they were in high school to me. Although the milkshakes they made were fantastic, their demeanor was a little too “youthful” for me. I felt like I was being served by teenage girls at a Dairy Queen instead of employees of a nice restaurant. Also, the prices for the milkshakes are completely outrageous. Don’t get me wrong, though – they are certainly worth the high price for an occasional splurge.

The restaurant is open for lunch every day, but they also serve dinner, Saturday breakfast, and Sunday brunch. I’ve only been there for lunch, but I would like to try the dinner menu soon.

Loft Restaurant at Traders Point Creamery on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 1, 2010

Stick this in your Boca.

On a recent visit to Cincinnati, one of my friends and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Boca, which we had heard was one of the best restaurants in the city. The restuarant has valet parking out front, but being the can-do sort of people we are (not to mention a little cheap), we parked a few blocks away in the surrounding neighborhood and walked. Because we had reservations, we were seated almost immediately, despite the fact that it was a busy night. The restaurant itself is very nice, classy and warm, but I won’t lie – there is a little bit of a “snoot factor” going on with some of the clientele. It seemed like a lot of the other folks there were trying a bit too hard to look and act rich, which can be a turn-off. And it’s not a young place. Most of the diners were over 50 with the face lift scars to prove it.

Thankfully, the snoot factor fell to zero when our server showed up. He was very down-to-earth, not to mention extremely knowledgeable about the food. After he explained to us what dishes were on the 7-course tasting menu that evening, my friend and I decided to splurge and go with that, although we did mention that we were a little disappointed that Boca’s signature grilled Caesar salad was missing from the tasting menu that night. Our server gave us a wink and said he’d see what he could do. A few minutes later he showed up with two small plates of the grilled Caesar salads, making our 7-course meal into an 8-course one.

So, the 8 course in order, then!

Bonus course: Grilled Caesar salad consisting of whole romaine lettuce fire-grilled with a balsamic garlic/anchovy emulsion and parmigiano reggiano cheese served with a side of grilled bread and olive oil. Boy, am I glad we mentioned to our server that wanted to try this because it was delicious! The entire, rectangular salad was actually grilled over an open flame, giving the outside layer of lettuce a slight char. The balsamic garlic/anchovy emulsion was light, but gave the salad that salty/anchovy-y bite that every good Caesar salad needs. The bread served alongside the salad was fine, but the olive oil was really outstanding, fresh and flavorful with a bit of a fruity aftertaste. We asked the waiter what brand it was and he told us Divina. We told him we loved it, and he laughed and said that everyone loved it.

1st course: Yellowtail crudo with diced avocado and cucumber brunoise, topped with micro wasabi sprouts. I’m usually not much of a raw fish fan, but this crudo was quite nice. The texture, one of the things that can put me off on raw fish, was good, the fish fresh and firm.

2nd course: Pan-seared scallops on a bed of caramelized Brussels sprouts and greens drizzled with brown butter truffle vinaigrette and topped with parmigiano reggiano. I love scallops, but in this dish, those little mollusks played second fiddle to the Brussels sprouts. The Brussels sprouts, one of Boca’s signature dishes, were simply amazing. They were sweet but not too sweet and melted in your mouth like butter. What’s a scallop?

3rd course: Quail, rabbit, and pistachio mortadella-filled tortellini with mushroom and boar ragout. Having grown up in rural Indiana, I am quite used to eating fresh, wild game (including rabbits and quail), so I was really looking forward to discovering how a gourmet restaurant would dress up those rather rustic ingredients. I was disappointed with this dish. The flavor was okay, but I found the dish a little bland overall. I actually had to add salt, which is unusual for me. This was easily my least favorite of the courses.

4th course: Seared wild striped bass served with sautéed spinach and leeks, pommes anna with piccata sauce, and caper fruit. I tend to be an easy mark for anything served with a piccata sauce. Having said that, this wasn’t my favorite dish on the menu. Maybe I’m just not a fish guy? Anyway, I believe this was the first time I’ve eaten caper fruit rather than pickled caper buds. I kind of missed the salty little buds, to be honest.

5th course: Crisped pork belly on bianco risotto with bordelaise sauce. I think I’m starting to love pork belly. It’s just so flavorful! And nice and crispy is my favorite way to eat it. This pork belly was cooked well and the risotto was delicious, not too firm but not too mushy.

6th course: Wood-grilled lamb shank on greens and lamb cassoulet. The lamb was good, but I’m just not a huge lamb fan. Oh, and for those not in the know, “cassoulet” is just a fancy word for cooked beans. Not too exciting.

7th course: Ah, dessert! I was quite pleased that a dessert trio of mascarpone cheesecake, flourless chocolate torte, and soup-spoon crème brûlée was on the menu that night. The more sweet stuff to try, the better. The stand-out dessert for me was the mascarpone cheesecake, which was rich but not heavy. The flourless chocolate torte was good, too, but I’ve had cakes like it at many other restaurants. As for the crème brûlée, it was fairly typical as well, but the presentation (it was served in a large soup spoon) was interesting.

At the end of the meal, our server brought us a little container of olive oil to go because we had been such fans of the Divina brand. He explained that you could buy Divina at Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati, but that we might not be able to find it in Indy, so it was his gift to us.

Overall, I really enjoyed my evening at Boca. The food was delicious, the waiter was great, and the ambiance was nice. It’s not the kind of place that I’ll be rushing back to, simply because the price is a bit steep, but if you want to celebrate a special night or if you’re just passing through Cincinnati and are looking for a really good meal, you can’t go wrong at Boca.

Boca on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 25, 2010

No need to dye these Rootz.

Square Rootz Deli, the latest eatery to open in Fountain Square, has been serving lunch and dinner for a few months, which means it's ripe for reviewing! Located directly across Prospect St. from the Fountain Square Theatre Building in the space formerly occupied by Pulse Magazine, the deli is easy to find. Just look for the yellow sign sandwiched between Maria's Pizza and The Hero House. See what I did there? "Sandwiched"? Because it's a sandwich shop? Yeah, moving on....

Stepping inside Square Rootz will probably make you feel like you've been invited to a backyard tiki party at one of your cooler friends' houses. The tables are covered with mismatched plastic tablecloths featuring flamingos and mai tais, and the ceiling is draped with strings of clear party bulbs. The walls are painted with retro-style diamonds, overlapping in a variety of bright colors, and vintage vinyl albums are for sale along one wall. The overall feel of the deli is vibrant and funky. Plus there's local art on display. What could be better than that?

But I'm not here (just) for the decor. What about the food, baby? If you were a fan of either of the previous restaurants with which owner Jeff Reuter was involved (Joe Reuzar’s Deli and J.S. Reutz Cafe), you'll see some similarities at Square Rootz - and that' a good thing. The deli serves a wide variety of sandwiches (with names like "Uncle Larry" and "Grahamwich") all made from high quality ingredients and served with your choice of a side dish or potato chips. You can create your own sandwiches any way you want them, too, of course. There are also hot lunches/dinners on order plus house-made desserts. And, of course, Jeff's famous meatloaf is always available. If you're waxing nostalgic for grade school, you can even get a "school meal" served on a lunchroom tray with white or chocolate milk.

I've been to Square Rootz twice for lunch now. The first time, I ordered "Dustin's BLT" wrap, which was stuffed to the gills with thick strips of bacon, fresh tomatoes, and crisp lettuce, and then held together by spinach dip. It was delicious. On my most recent trip, I couldn't resist ordering the "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses" sandwich (mozzarella cheese, provolone cheese, apple slices, and honey mustard dressing grilled on whole wheat bread), mainly because of the name. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a good play on words. I was an English major! As for the sandwich, I'm not usually a fan of combining apples with cheese, but it really worked for me here. The apples were sliced nice and thin, which made them almost taste like another kind of (sweet) cheese. I'm also not a big dressing-on-sandwiches guy, but I was okay with the tangy honey mustard; still, next time I order the cheese and apple sandwich, I'll probably ask them to hold the dressing. The highlight of my second visit was the slice of house-made almond cake that I scarfed down in about 10 seconds flat. The cake was super-moist with just the right amount of icing. It went well with the bottle of Boylans Black Cherry Soda I ordered, too.

I'll definitely be heading back to Square Rootz to eat my way through the lunch menu. Jeff says that he will hosting evenings of live music as well, so I guess I'm going to have to stop in for dinner, too. He also hints that he may be bringing back the infamous "Nancy Drew" sandwich, the ingredients of which change on a daily basis. I always love a good mystery.

Square Rootz Deli on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 18, 2010

I've found my Niche. It's in St. Louis.

Even though it was over a year ago now, my meal at Niche in St. Louis still ranks as one of the best dining experiences of my life. Everything just came together perfectly, providing me with a meal I’ll never forget.

Located along cozy Sidney Street in the historic Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis, Niche presents itself well right from the word “go.” The ambiance in the restaurant itself is warm and surprisingly unpretentious (given that it’s a “fine dining” sort of place), and the staff is friendly and welcoming. I had made reservations through OpenTable, and the hostess was ready for my friend and me as soon as we arrived, showing us to our table promptly.

We managed to sample a wide variety of dishes over the evening, and not a single one disappointed. We started with a snack of cheese bread, which was the least glamorous thing we ate all evening. But what can you expect? It’s cheese bread! We then moved on to the appetizers themselves, ordering pan-fried pig’s head and sweetbreads. A pig’s head and calf glands may not sound particularly appetizing to less-adventurous eaters, but I can assure you that both appetizers were delicious. I had never had sweetbreads before, and they were melt-in-your-mouth amazing. As we were finishing our dishes, our server informed us that the chef was going to send us an extra appetizer of Vitello tonnato as well and some palate-cleansing lemongrass-chamomile sorbet as a way of saying thanks for making the trip from Indy. We were floored by his generosity and happily scarfed down both treats.

For our mains, my friend ordered the pork duo with crispy pork belly and I ordered the seared scallops. My scallops were great, but I ended up being a little jealous of the pork. The one bite of crispy pork belly that I sampled made me want more! For desert, I ordered a scoop of the house-made horchata ice cream and a scoop of the house-made vanilla malt ice cream, both of which rocked my world. My friend had the liquid chocolate cake with house-made “Orange Julius” ice cream topped with Pop Rocks. The cake was rich and moist and the Pop Rocks helped enliven the tasty orange ice cream by sizzling in your mouth with each bite.

Basically, everything was awesome. Every dish came out perfectly timed and prepared with little wait between the courses. Our waitress was on-the-ball and quick-with-the-banter, which I always like. The chef even came out to our table at the end of our meal to ask us how we had enjoyed our food.

When the bill arrived, we were surprised at how reasonable the price was, given the artistry of the food. According to Niche’s website, it looks like they are currently running a special where you can get a three-course meal for just $40. I really must think of a reason to visit St. Louis soon…. Heck, I suppose eating at Niche is reason enough!

Niche on Urbanspoon

Wishing the best for Santorini Greek Kitchen!

Given last week’s devastating fire at Santorini Greek Kitchen, one of my favorite places to eat in Fountain Square, this might seem like a bad time to review the restaurant. Au contraire, mon frère! This is the perfect time to show my appreciation to the years of fattening food I’ve enjoyed at Santorini and to wish the owners, Jeanette and Taki, a speedy rebuild.

The first time I ever ate at Santorini was in 2001 or 2002, back when the restaurant was still in its “quaint” Shelby Street location. Since that first taste of their delicious gyro, I have found myself compelled to stop in once a month or so, which means that I’ve now sampled most of the menu. But let’s talk about their gyros first, since that is what drew me in 'lo those many years ago. They are – in a word shamelessly stolen from Will Ferrell/James Lipton’s interview of Alec Baldwin/Charles Nelson Riley – scrumtrulescent. The gyro meat (a combination of lamb and beef) is flavorful and never dry and is served atop a golden-brown, warm pita, lightly toasty on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside. They top the gyro with tomato, onions, and a tangy tzaziki sauce. You can get a Greek salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, onions, olives, and feta cheese dressed with oil and vinegar) with it, if you like, but I usually choose the fries. Now, I’m not a French fry guy, in general, so it’s really saying something that I pick the fries over the salad. Santorini’s fries are excellent, crispy and cooked to perfection.

After you’ve eaten the gyro a few times, you’ll probably want to broaden your Greek horizons a bit. As far as I can tell, you can’t go wrong at Santorini. The “half and half,” which consists of half a spanakopita (spinach pie) and half a tiropita (cheese pie) is great because you get to try both of their delicious pies without being totally overwhelmed by the ultra-rich cheese one. The pasticchio is an excellent choice as well, especially if you’re really hungry. It’s basically a Greek-style lasagna made with layers of pasta, seasoned ground beef, tomato sauce, and cheese. If you don’t mind dealing with chicken bones, chicken oregano is awesome, too. Even the spaghetti, which is topped with a red sauce and slices of their gyro meat, is worth a go; I’ve ordered it more than once.

As for appetizers, I will admit that the hummus here is not my favorite in Indy, but their baba ganoush more than makes up for that one deficit. Eggplant dishes can sometimes be, well, snotty, but the baba ganoush here has an excellent texture and is nicely spiced. And, of course, you can’t get away without ordering at least one plate of saganaki, the famous flaming goat cheese. Kids, especially, will love seeing the server light the cheese on fire, sending a fountain of flame toward the ceiling and prompting a hearty “Opa!” from the other diners.

I always like to end my meal at Santorini by sharing a warm plate of galaktabouriko (a desert that consists of sweet custard sandwiched between layers of phyllo dough and dusted with cinnamon) with my friends. Their baklava is tasty, too, of course, but I just can’t get away from the galaktabouriko. It tastes like the Greek version of good ole Hoosier sugar cream pie!

Writing this review has made me very hungry for Santorini’s brand of Greek food. I wish I could go there today for lunch, but, alas, it will be a few months before they’re up and running again. Let’s hope they’ve got the place back in shape before their annual Christmas Eve dinner!

UPDATE: Yay! Santorini Greek Kitchen is up and running again in their original Fountain Square location (rebuilt and refurbished, obviously). I went for dinner on their first week back, and I am happy to report that the reworked space is much brighter and seems more open. The food is as delicious as ever, of course.

Santorini Greek Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 11, 2010

Naisa Pan-Asian Café

I never thought that I liked Chinese food. Oh, I can choke down some Beef and Broccoli or Moo Shu Pork when forced to by friends (some friends), but I’ve never really enjoyed or craved the stuff. And don’t even get me started on the canned La Choy “Chicken Chow Mein” that my mom used to make us eat. I still have nightmares about those water chestnuts….

A little over a year ago, though, my perception of Chinese food changed. That’s when I first visited Naisa Pan-Asian Café shortly after it opened in Fountain Square. I’ve been a regular ever since. What keeps me coming back? Three things. The food, the people, and the atmosphere.

First, the food. Every dish is made from scratch and cooked to order. You won’t find any nasty day-old food kept warm under a heat lamp here. And Naisa offers quite a few dishes that you just can’t get at most Chinese places. Their Golden Sunrise, for example, is a combination of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, and scallions cooked together in a light sauce and then served in a lidded clay bowl with a side of rice. It is amazing. Seasonal dishes like the Dry Sautéed String Beans with Shrimp really pop, too, although I fear I’ve seen the last of the string beans for this year. If you like the old stand-by dishes, you can get most of them here as well, freshly made and tasty. General Tso’s Chicken, Garlic-Chili Chicken, Spring Rolls, and Seafood Cheese Wontons (Crab Rangoons) are all on the menu and delicious. My personal favorite appetizer is the Vegetable Dumplings. The spinach-infused dough is made fresh in house and then stuffed with a mix of carrots, cabbage, and other veggies. They are great fried, but steamed is good, too, if you’re trying to be healthy.

As for the people, well, they’re just good folks. Christina and her husband Andy are the heart and soul of the place. Christina is almost always out front greeting diners while Andy is usually in the back. They are Fountain Square residents, and Christina is always ready to swap a tale or two. They primarily employee students from Herron School of Art as their servers, which means there’s never a lack of personality from the waiters and waitresses, either. I’ve had quite a few excellent conversations about art history or indie rock while downing a bowl of Wonton Soup.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is stylish and laid back. If you remember the restaurant that occupied the building before, you’ll be shocked to find that the space is completely unrecognizable. Tall, dark, wooden furniture and red/orange walls set the tone, and the stained concrete floor carries the warmth downward. It’s clear that someone spent some time thinking about the overall design up front before a can of paint was opened. You can always count of seeing some interesting art from Herron students too, some from the servers themselves. I think it’s great that Christina gives the students a chance to have their work viewed by the public. In the not-too-distant future, Christina tells me that she has plans to build a raised, wooden area in the front window where diners will be able to sit on the floor while they eat. Sounds cool!

Naisa serves carry-out, but they no longer delivery. If you live reasonably close by and don’t feel like eating in, it is definitely worth it to call in your order and pick it up.

Let me leave you with two words: “bubble” and “tea.” I’ve been trying to convince Christina to serve bubble tea since the first week she opened, but she’s afraid there’s no market for it here in Indy. I recently discovered that there is a bubble tea shop at the Opry Mills Shopping Mall in Nashville, TN. If Nashville can support a bubble tea place, I’m sure we can as well! Once thirsty bikers, runners, and rollerbladers start whizzing by Naisa’s storefront on the Cultural Trail, they’re going to need refreshing beverages. I’m just sayin’.

Naisa Pan-Asian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito: The name’s a mouthful – and so are the sandwiches!

As a resident of the Fletcher Place neighborhood in downtown Indy, I make it my business to check out any and all restaurants that open in my neck of the woods. Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito, located at the intersection of College and Virginia, has been open for just around a month now, and I finally got around to giving it a spin last week. (By the way, for those of you not in the know, a torta is a Mexican-style sandwich.) All I can say is, “Welcome to Fletcher Place, Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito!”

As soon as you see this restaurant, you know it’s going to be fun. The exterior is painted with bright yellows and oranges, making it stand out against the rest of the red building. The colors carry through to the inside as well, where dance-y Spanish-language tunes greet you. The restaurant itself is small. Some might say cramped, but I prefer cozy. The owners are friendly and make you feel right at home, like one of the family. When you sit down they bring you a dish of spicy peanuts to snack on. They also bring bowls of salsa verde and pickled jalapeños, but those are to be used as condiments for whatever tortas or tacos (yes, they have tacos, too) you order.

Half of the tortas on the menu are named for famous people and the other half for countries. From the famous people’s side of the menu, we tried the Shakira (breaded steak, chorizo, and mozzarella cheese) and the Luis Miguel (ham, chorizo, and mozzarella cheese). I had heard of Shakira, but I had no idea who Luis Miguel was. (A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that he is a Mexican singer, producer, and songwriter.) From the countries’ side we tried the Cubana, which contains basically every item on the menu including a fried egg, a hot dog, and three kinds of cheese.

All three were delicious. All tortas include tomato, avocado, and jalapeños, unless you don't want any or all of those things. They are served on huge buns that are baked fresh every morning at a bakery on Washington St. As I said, they were all awesome, but the Cubana was my favorite. One of these suckers is more than enough! The melty cheese combined with the various meats and the egg and the avocado was simply amazing. I’m craving one right now! Even the hot dog (which is split down the middle and grilled) added to the deliciousness of the sandwich.

A cold beer would have been awesome with one of these spicy tortas, but the owner told me that they have no plans to serve alcohol. She said that some diners actually order their sandwiches, run next door to the Dugout tavern for a beer, and then come back to eat. Speaking of beverages, there is one other bonus to eating here – they serve bottled Mexican Cokes that are made with real sugar instead of corn syrup. Yum.

When I asked about the menu and why they decided to name some of the sandwiches after famous people, the owner explained that she and her husband used to own a torta shop in Chicago where famous folks actually used to eat. She hopes to cultivate that clientele here as well. Her first target is Helio Castroneves. If Helio knows a good sandwich from a Dancing with the Stars reunion show, then he’ll get his butt to Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito ASAP! C'mon, Helio. Do it for the children.

Tortas Guicho Dominguez y el Cubanito on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mesh on Mass Avenue: Better than Scholars Inn, anyway.

I was not a fan of Scholars Inn, especially after they decided to rebrand the place as “SI.” Weren’t they aware of Sports Illustrated? Anyway, my feelings on that now-defunct restaurant are neither here nor there because today I’m writing about the new restaurant that has taken up residence inside the bones of SI, Mesh on Mass Avenue. Yeah, I know, “Mesh” isn’t a great name. As a child of the 80s, my mind automatically goes to this:

Undeterred by the questionable name, however, I decided to give Mesh on Mass Avenue a try this past weekend. And I’m glad I did. It wasn’t a perfect dining experience, but, overall, it was nice. Given that they’ve only been open for a month or so, I’d say “nice” is a good sign of things to come.

The first thing I noticed about Mesh was that it still looks quite a bit like Scholars Inn with one major exception – they’ve painted the interior from top to bottom. The choice of browns and earth tones is a big improvement over SI’s garish blues and turquoises. Because it was a beautiful night, we asked to sit outside, which means I didn’t get a chance to nose around inside the restaurant or go upstairs. The outdoor seating area was comfortable and cozy, though, with a roaring fireplace that should keep diners warm well into fall. There was a lack of lighting outside, which made it kind of difficult to see your food at times, but I suppose a little darkness is preferable to having a spotlight shine in your face.

Our server arrived promptly to take our drink orders. She was fun and communicative, but never annoying. I gave her a little good-natured ribbing at one point and she replied, “Watch it! I'm feisty!” I like that in a server. After taking our drink orders, she left water on the table in an old-fashioned stopper-topped glass bottle, which was a nice touch. We tried two different cocktails, the Hemingway daiquiri and the bourbon peach smash. I can’t say that I was crazy about either of them. The Hemingway daiquiri was kind of sour (it was made with grapefruit juice) and a little too rummy for me while the bourbon peach smash didn’t really make much of an impression. Maybe it’s just me, but when I order girly cocktails, I expect them to be a little bit sweet, which neither of these drinks was. Our server did bring the daiquiri out in a cocktail shaker and shook it tableside, which I thought was another nice touch. One final word of warning on the beverages – the iced tea comes from a soda fountain; it is not fresh-brewed tea. As a person who cannot stomach fountain tea, I was unpleasantly surprised when I tasted it.

As a starter, all diners at Mesh get a basket of bread with an olive oil/vinegar dip. This was delicious. I’m not sure if they bake the bread in house or not, but it certainly tasted like it, warm and fluffy. And the dip was quite flavorful as well. For an appetizer, we ordered (at the suggestion of our server) the wild mushroom strudel. She did not steer us wrong! The strudel was a mushroom-lover’s delight wrapped inside a puff pastry and topped with a savory cream sauce. The strudel was paired with a lightly dressed salad, which I thought would be odd, but I actually ended up liking. The crispness of the lettuce made a good counterpart to the richness of the rest of the dish.

I decided to start my meal with a wedge salad. I was hoping for a towering, standing wedge salad covered with tons of blue cheese (like my favorite wedge salad at Bonge’s Tavern). This was not that. No, this was a lazy wedge salad that had collapsed onto its side. It was drizzled with vinaigrette and just had a few, stray pieces of blue cheese on it. As Obi-Wan said to the storm trooper, “This is not the wedge salad you're looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.” The lobster bisque, on the other hand, was pretty dang good. A little salty, maybe, but not bad.

Next we waited for our entrées. And waited. The kitchen service was rather slow. It wasn’t intolerable, by any means, but if I had been in a rush, I would have been stressing. As the time between courses lengthened, our server even said something like, “I’m going to have to go back there and knock some heads together.” She did say she was feisty! When the entrées finally did come, they were worth the wait. The scallops were cooked to perfection and tasted great, although the spinach risotto they were served on was a tad underdone. I had to pick a few pieces of crunchy rice from my teeth. The pork belly entrée was good, as well, even if the pork belly itself was not as crispy as I like it. Still, it paired well with the beans. Once again, though, some of the beans were undercooked. Was this a running theme, perhaps?

Overall, I enjoyed my dinner at Mesh. Most of the food was good, and the atmosphere and excellent service made up for the few missteps and the wait. I’ll definitely give this place another try a few months down the road when they’ve had time to work out the kinks.

Just for fun, here are two more images of people wearing mesh shirts.

What were people in the 80s thinking?

Mesh on Mass Avenue on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'll have a sweet tea and a Fat Hen, please.

I just got back from a week-long family trip to South Carolina's Kiawah Island, which is just 15 miles southeast of Charleston. I've often heard that Charleston is home to some of the best restaurants in the country, although I've never been able to verify that claim for myself during previous visits to the city because my family does not contain the most adventurous eaters. In the past, I've always been restricted to eating at the tourist-y seafood spots such as Charleston Crab House and A.W. Shucks. Not bad places to eat, necessarily, but not too adventurous, either.

This year, though, my family and I were planning to celebrate a milestone birthday for my mom (21, if anyone wants to know), so I insisted that we not go to the Charleston equivalent of Red Lobster for the occassion. My sister, who stresses out easily, requested that I not book us a reservation in the downtown area, which restricted me a bit. Nevertheless, I did manage to find a highly rated little eatery right on Johns Island called The Fat Hen. It seemed like just the kind of place I was looking for. Not too laid back, but not at all formal. The menu on their website showed off a variety of fairly traditional dishes that wouldn't scare the pickier eaters, but with a certain, as the French (and Dr. Evil) say, I-don't-know-what.

We were not disappointed! From the moment we showed up (a few minutes early, I might add) for our reservation, we felt at home. The restaurant is cozy with the look of a house - complete with a screened-in front porch. We were immediately greeted by the friendly staff and shown to our table where we were served sweet tea in Ball jars. Because it was my mom's special day, the chef came out to wish her a happy birthday and to tell her to save room for dessert, which was quite a nice touch. Our waiter was fantastic, explaining each item on the menu and even telling us where the locally grown produce had originated. He was personable and knowledgable about the cuisine, and really seemed to be enjoying his job. He even brought out a plate of various citrus fruits for my 11-month-old niece so we could all laugh at her as she had her first taste of a fresh lemon.

As for the food, everything I tried was delicious, although some dishes were better than others (obviously). Luckily, I made nothing but good choices. I started with the fried green tomatoes with goat cheese, pepper relish, and tomato jam. I've had fried green tomatoes before and never been crazy about them, but, being in the South, I thought I'd give them another try. And, boy, am I glad I did! I could have eaten a huge plate of these as my meal! The tomatoes were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside with a great falvor, and the goat cheese added a nice richness to the dish. They were even a little spicy (thanks to the peppers), which I loved. Delicious. My father raved about his sautéed oysters as well, even sopping up all of the sauce with a piece of bread. And my mom, quite the French onion soup connoisseur, gave the soup a big thumb's up.

For my main, I chose the flounder nicoise, which was quite good as well. It was served with fresh herbs, capers, olives, and tomatoes all over a bed of bacon cheese grits. How can you go wrong with those ingredients! The salty capers paired with the well-cooked flounder really made my night. Because I was so into my own dish, I didn't really try many of the other mains, but everyone at the table gave their dishes high marks. Probably the least satisfied was my sister, who ordered the scallop gratineee. She was really wanting to taste the scallops, I think, instead of the heavy mushroom cream sauce that coated the dish. To be fair, the waiter has warned her that the dish was one of his least favorites and that it was not really a scallop-lover's dish. She said it was good, but she would have preferred a lighter meal. She was warned!

For dessert, the family opted to order three dishes and pass them around. The chef sent my mom a slice of humingbird cake with a lit candle in it, so that was one. We chose profiteroles and a warm berry crumble as our other two. I had never had hummingbird cake (which is basically a layer cake full of chopped pecans, crushed pineapple, and mashed bananas) before, so I was interested to try that. It was not my favorite, to be honest. It seemed like something my grandma would bake, which certainly isn't bad, but not blow-your-mind exciting. My dad loved the profiteroles (his choice for dessert), extolling the virtues of their chocolate cream filling, but I am just not a big fan of the little pastries. My favorite desert, by far, was the berry crumble. It was chock full of fresh, locally harvested berries and was served with a scoop of house-made ice cream. Yum. I considered ordering another crumble just for myself, but thought better of it.

All in all, we had a wonderful evening. In fact, my mom said it was one of her best birthdays in years. Best of all, the bill was not as high as I was expecting. I'd say I got off pretty easily, actually! Next time I'm in Charleston or visiting Kiawah Island, I will definitely return to the Fat Hen. I need some more of those fried green tomatoes....

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

I want to like the Red Lion Grog House....

I love Fountain Square. It's just across the highway from my front door, so I obviously want the area to do well. It's already got some great restaurants (Naisa Pan-Asian Cafe, Siam Square, the Shelbi Street Cafe and Bistro, Maria's Pizza, etc.), and the impending Cultural Trail should help enliven Fountain Square even more. All of which makes it difficult for me to admit that I'm not really feeling one of the area's newer eateries, the Red Lion Grog House.

To be honest, I'm surprised I don't dig the place. I used to live in England and I love pub grub and good beer, so it seems like the Red Lion Grog House would be right up my alley. I think the trouble began the first time I went there for dinner and they didn't yet have their liquour license. Now, I'm not one of those people that HAS to have alcohol with their meals, but I was really looking forward to some draft Strongbow. To say that I was a little let down that a "grog house" didn't have alcohol available would be fair. Still, I stuck around and ordered dinner anyway. It was just okay. I ordered toad in the hole as an appetizer and and shephard's pie as my main. My friends tried the fish and chips and the chicken tikka masala. Although I can't say that any of us were thrilled with our food, the only thing that was actively bad was the toad in the hole. When I've had toad in the hole in the past, it has consisted of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter cooked in a pan in the oven. The toad in the hole served to me at the Red Lion Grog House was more like a chewy roll with a small sausage stuck in the middle. I can't be sure, but it tasted pre-made, like someone just pullled it out of the freezer and reheated it. Not good.

A few months later, I decided to try the Red Lion Grog House again. I called to make sure they now had their liquor license, first, of course. My experience this time wasn't as bad (the beer helped), but I was still not sold on the place. The Scotch eggs did make a much more palatable appetizer than the toad in the hole, though, and the yummy curry sauce helped enliven my chips. The bangers and mash were alright, too. I've been back one other time since then, and enjoyed what I ate/drank well enough.

So, if visits 2 and 3 to the Red Lion were fine, then why am I not giving it a glowing review? I think the problem is that it's just mediocre. It's hard to get too excited by the place, really. The food is just okay and seems kind of expensive, to me, for what it is. If I pay $20 for dinner, I'd like it to be memorable (hopefully in a good way). Unfortunately, the food here is just forgettable. Another problem for me is the layout of the restaurant. When I think "English pub," I think cozy. Nooks and crannies. The Red Lion Grog House is basically a hallway - one long hallway with very little on the walls, which causes echoes and general noisiness. One positive, though, is that my servers have always been nice and performed their jobs well. I've never had any complaints in that regard.

Will I give the Red Lion Grog House another try? Probably. It's too close to my house for me to not wander over and have a beer every once in a while. Will I take visitors there to show them how good the restaurants in Fountain Square can be? Absolutely not.

Red Lion Grog House on Urbanspoon