Monday, January 31, 2011

Iaria's: It may rhyme with "diarrhea's," but don’t hold that against it.

I have a real soft spot for Iaria's Italian Restaurant. The fact that I live just a block or so away from it might have some influence on my opinion, but I don't think I'm too biased. Iaria's serves good, reasonably priced Italian food in a friendly atmosphere. As an added bonus, the restaurant has a unique sense of history to go along with the tasty vittles; it was first opened in 1933 and has been owned/managed by four generations of Iarias.

With its yellow bricks and neon signs, the outside of Iaria's is kind of a throwback, reminding me of the 1950s. (Not that I was alive then, mind you.) The interior is divided into two distinct sections at opposite ends of the building - the family dining room and the bar. Both the bar and the dining room feature booths and tables decorated in the traditional Italian colors of red, green, and white. The vibe is informal, more like a diner than a fancy schmancy dinner place. The wait staff is always friendly and warm. When you're here, you're family. No, wait. That's the Olive Garden. Anyway, the Olive Garden slogan holds true at Iaria's as well.

Iaria's serves many excellent dishes, including the meat ravioli, chicken drogato, and chicken piccata (ask for it with capers). The cheese tortellini served in tomato-cream sauce is probably my favorite, though. All dinners come with house-made minestrone soup and a salad. The salad is pretty standard, but you can jazz it up with some of Iaria's awesome house-made Roquefort dressing. This stuff is great, chunky and thick instead of runny and watery. I usually use half of it on my salad and then eat the other half with the complimentary warm bread. If you don't have any of the Roquefort dressing (shame on you), then the bread is best dipped in some olive oil. Personally, I like to sprinkle some Parmesan cheese and pepper on top of my oil before I dip.

If you’re not in the mood for a full dinner, Iaria’s also has great sandwiches and pizzas. The tenderloin, Italian sausage (locally made and spicy), and meatball sandwiches are all excellent, although sometimes the rolls can be a little hard for my tender mouth. As for the pizzas, Iaria’s serves theirs on crispy, cracker-thin crusts that I love. Topped with olive oil, basil, mozzarella, garlic, and tomatoes, their Margherita pizza is the best in Indy. The bianco pizza (made with Alfredo sauce, grilled chicken, bacon, and Provolone cheese) is another of my favorites, although it is pretty rich, so plan to take half home.

Iaria’s serves lunch and dinner daily, but they're closed Sundays and Mondays. If I had one wish, it would be that they would be open on Mondays so I could order carry-out when I don't feel like cooking on Monday nights, but I suppose the hard-working folks at Iaria's deserve a weekend, too.

Iaria's Italian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Gimme Sahm more. (Yeah, I’m not very proud of that one.)

Sahm’s Tavern is the latest addition to the Sahm’s restaurant chain in and around Indianapolis. This new downtown location has been open for several months in the first floor of the historic Gibson Building at the corner of Michigan and Capitol. Don’t let the downtown location worry you; there’s plenty of free parking in the lot adjacent to the building reserved especially for patrons of the tavern.

The exterior of the restaurant is no great shakes, but the inside’s wrought-iron candelabras and dark wood paneling, trim, and floorboards do a good job emulating the look of a traditional, cozy English pub. There are even a couple of brick archways that span the length of the room, adding a little drama. The inside seating is mainly booths, which I love, although there are also a few tables. An outdoor patio will add additional seating in the summer, but I’ve not seen anyone brave the cold to sit outside just yet.

“So, what’s good here to eat?” you might be asking. The short answer is – everything I’ve tried. I’ve eaten at Sahm’s several times and I’ve only had one complaint. (More on that in the next paragraph.) Thankfully, Sahm’s Tavern offers the same great selection of sandwiches, soups, salads, and specialties as the other Sahm’s restaurants. Of course the burgers are fantastic! My favorite is the black and bleu burger (it’s blackened with Cajun spices and then topped with bleu cheese crumbles, Dijon mustard sauce, and bacon), but I also really like the burger portabella (which is smothered in sautéed portabella mushrooms and mozzarella cheese). The buffalo chicken sandwich is a winner, too. All of the sandwiches are served on delicious toasted knot buns and come with one of twenty-one side dishes. I usually choose the cup of chili or the onion rings for my side, but the breaded cauliflower is good, too.

As for my one complaint, it was about the soup of the day (loaded baked potato soup) late one afternoon. By that time of day, the soup had become thick, clumpy, and, well, not good. I wasn’t going to send it back, but my server noticed that I hadn’t eaten much of it and insisted on bringing me something else. So, I tried the Alaskan clam chowder, which was delicious. If you can judge a restaurant on how they handle their missteps, then the grade for Sahm’s Tavern in this one instance would have to be an “A.”

Being a bar, the tavern also offers a wide variety of beers, many on tap. I usually order a Guinness to go with my burgers, but they have lighter beers for all of you stout-haters, too. Oh, and don’t even think about leaving without trying a slice of Sahm’s “world famous” sour cream coffee cake. It’s worth the hype.

Sahm's Tavern on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pancake Pantry Party!

I’m visiting my sister, brother-in-law, and niece in Nashville, Tennessee this week. Because they’ve only lived in the city for around seven months, we decided to give one of the local touristy restaurants a try today. The Pancake Pantry, which calls itself “A Nashville Tradition,” seemed to fit the bill.

Located in Hillsboro Village, a pedestrian-friendly strip of stores and restaurants just a few miles southwest of downtown, parking for the restaurant was kind of a mess. Thankfully, after searching for a while, we managed to snag a spot in a nearby pay lot that gives you the first hour and a half for free. After we walked around to the front of the restaurant, we saw a line stretching out the front door and around the corner. Because the Pancake Pantry is a popular breakfast spot, waiting in a long, outdoor line is, apparently, part of the experience. Thankfully we arrived rather late in the day (around 1:00) and only had to wait 10 or 15 minutes to get out of the cold winter air. In reality, the line looks worse than it really is; everyone just stands outside because there's absolutely no waiting area inside. To keep you warm while you wait, the restaurant even offers self-serve coffee for people in line, which is a nice touch.

The interior of the restaurant has light walls and dark beams, which reminded me of a German hunting lodge (without all the antlers, of course). The clientele appeared to be made up mainly of college kids, probably because of the restaurant’s proximity to Vanderbilt University and Belmont University. In contrast to the young customers, the servers were mainly white-haired grandma types. Our server, for example, was a sweet lady who was quick with the coffee refills and happy to help us choose our meals. She told us that the sweet potato pancakes were her favorites and that she didn’t care for the potato pancakes (which, she told us, are not like latkes but are, instead, made from potato flour).

After taking some time to peruse the long list of specialty pancakes, I decided to go with the apricot-lemon delight pancakes. My brother-in-law ordered the Georgia peach pancakes while my sister went with the pigs in blankets. The restaurant has an extensive kid’s menu, so we ordered “bears in the snow” (bear-shaped pancakes served over chocolate chips and dusted in powdered sugar) for my niece. While we waited for our food, I continued chugging coffee while my sister sipped a cup of cocoa, which she gave high marks. The wait did seem a little long (around twenty minutes), but it was certainly acceptable. We were just surprised it took that long to make pancakes, although the place was pretty busy.

As for the food, it was good! My sister’s pigs and blankets were tasty, if fairly standard. Let’s be honest, though – there’s only so much you can do to that dish. Still, she enjoyed them and ate them all up. They came with warm maple syrup served in a Heinz 57 bottle with an olive oil-type spout, which was kind of interesting. My brother-in-law and I both had over-the-top, sweet pancakes topped with whipped cream and served cold. After eating half of my apricot-lemon delight pancakes I had to call it quits, wishing for bacon or something savory to counteract the overwhelming sweetness. They were really good, don’t get me wrong, but just too much for me. My brother-in-law, who has a bigger sweet tooth than I do, ate all of his Georgia peach pancakes. We both agreed that we liked how the sweet pancakes were served cold; it was kind of refreshing. As for my niece’s food, the bear-shaped pancakes were cute and tasted good, but I’m not sure our choice of chocolate chips for a baby was a wise one. She ended up with melted chocolate all over her hands and face.

Overall, the Pancake Pantry was good and I'm glad we went, but I'm also glad we didn't have to wait in line for too awfully long. If the wait had been much longer, I’m not sure I would have felt it had been worth it. At the end of the day, the restaurant is serving pancakes. Good pancakes, sure, but nothing that incredible.

Pancake Pantry on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tavern on South

The Tavern on South is the latest Indianapolis restaurant staking its existence on hungry Colts fans. Luckily for the tavern, it has one of the best football-related locations in the city, just one block west of Lucas Oil Stadium. According to our server, the proximity has been working; the place has been packed on home game days. But location isn’t all that the Tavern on South has going for it. The food I tried at a recent visit was better than what you can get at most of the downtown bars, and the restaurant boasts a second-floor deck that should make for beautiful outside dining in warm weather. In addition, the tavern is close to both the newly expanded Indiana Convention Center and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which should help bring in diners year round.

Being a tavern, one side of the restaurant is dominated by bar, which serves a wide selection of draft beers including choices from Indianapolis’s own Sun King Brewery. Luckily, I visited the restaurant on a Wednesday when draft beer pints are just $3.75, so, I decided to try two different beers, Beaks's Best Bitter (brewed by the New Albanian Brewing Company in New Albany, IN) and Milk Stout (brewed by the Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, CO). They were both excellent, but the Beak’s Best Bitter was my favorite, hoppy and refreshing. The non-bar side of the restaurant features a mix of booths and tables and is decorated with vintage pictures of local sports teams and events, including the Indianapolis Indians baseball team and the Indy 500. Most interesting to me, however, was the photo of Indianapolis’s entry into the Negro American League, the Indianapolis Clowns, which, at one time, counted both Hank Aaron and Toni Stone (the first female professional baseball player) among its ranks.

Primed by the good beer, I was ready for some good food, and, by and large, that’s what I got. Although I was in the mood for a sandwich, the $5 pizzas (specially priced from 4:00 to 7:00 weekdays) nearly tempted me away. Ultimately, I decided to stick to my guns and order the Tavern Tenderloin Sliders (two panko-crusted pork tenderloins served with mustard aioli, lettuce, pickle, and red onion on pretzel rolls) and a cup of Mushroom Cappuccino Soup. My soup arrived promptly and was quite good, mushroom-y and smooth with a dollop of cream at its center. The tenderloin sandwiches were the real stars of the show, though. The pork was lightly breaded and fried so it was crispy on the outside but tender and juicy on the inside. They actually reminded me of the freshly pounded tenderloins that my mom cooks instead of the overly breaded, deep-fried ones served by many restaurants. The pretzel rolls were a nice touch, too, really adding flavor to every bite. Sandwiches at the Tavern on South are served with a side of kettle chips, unless you opt to pay extra for something else. Usually I’m not a fan of serving potato chips as a side because, well, I don’t really care for chips and it just seems kind of cheap. Fortunately, the chips here are the exception, house-made and dusted with a mix of spices. I ate all of my chips, which might be a first. Dessert was the one disappointment of the meal. I decided to try the “cookies and cream,” which turned out to be two hard chocolate chip cookies stuck together with cinnamon ice cream and paired with a glass containing a coconut milk shake. The only part of that dish that I liked was the ice cream. Overall, though, I was happy with what I ate and drank at the Tavern on South. Next time I think I’ll try the “Tavern Smoked” Bison Burger. It was calling my name….

Oh, one more thing. I don’t want to get political, but I do think I should mention that I was seated across from a TV spewing Fox News throughout my entire meal, which is not exactly an appetizing sight. In my view, restaurateurs should save the openly biased “news” networks for home and tune the public TVs to ESPN or CNN or something else that won’t immediately alienate half of their customers. Being forced to watch Donald Trump expound on his political views is almost enough to make me reconsider a second visit to any restaurant.

Tavern on South on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 10, 2011

Zest! has never once made me think of soap.

I’ve eaten breakfast at Zest! Exciting Food Creations a couple of times in the past, but haven’t taken the time to write a review. After my most recent visit, I decided I’d take the time.

The first thing you’ll probably notice when you walk into Zest! is how cheery and open the space is. The walls are painted in bright, vibrant hues and the tables are decorated with fresh flowers. These colorful touches go some way towards earning the exclamation point in the restaurant’s name. As an added bonus, each table is covered with a paper tablecloth that kids (or the kid-at-heart, in my case) can decorate using the provided crayons. Fun!

The dining area is actually made up of several rooms, some of which are cozier than others. My friend and I were seated in the very front room last week, which seems more like a patio than someplace I’d like to eat. Because of our proximity to the front door, I felt like we were seated in the entryway – an entryway that was quite chilly on a snowy winter’s day. The metal garden furniture that they were using as dining room tables and chairs certainly didn’t help to warm me up. The chill in the air made our food and coffee cool off quickly, but our excellent server was always near to give us a warm-up on the coffee. There wasn’t much he could do about the lukewarm food, though.

But enough about the cold and the furniture! How was the food? Overall, pretty dang good (with one exception). I ordered the double sausage-sausage gravy, and, for my money, it lived up to the hype. The gravy was thin-ish, not clumpy, and contained lots and lots of delicious sausage. I think the gravy might have had cheese melted into it or something, too, because it was an odd orange-y color. Some people might think it’s too runny, but I actually prefer thin gravy over the thick, clumpy stuff that many restaurant serve. The gravy was generously ladled over top of three biscuits, which were crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Because of their golden-brown coloring and the crunchiness of their outer layer, the biscuits almost seemed like they’d been deep-fried. That’s a good thing. My friend ordered the “Uptown” omelet, which was filled with herbs, tomatoes, and white cheddar. He enjoyed the omelet. I gave it a try and thought it was good, too, although it wasn’t my favorite omelet in Indy. As for the bad, my friend’s omelet came with a side dish called “cowboy potatoes.” Basically, it consisted of some cooked potatoes with a cheesy, milky kind of sauce over them, kind of like au gratin potatoes. Now, I’m not a fan of au gratin potatoes, so I was predisposed to not like the dish from the start. My friend, on the other hand, likes au gratin potatoes, but even he had trouble eating the cowboy potatoes. Why? Because mixed in with the chopped potatoes were a bunch of soggy, undercooked French fries straight from the freezer and still cold in the middle. My friend ate what he could of the dish, but left a pile of French fries on one corner of his plate.

Aside from the cowboy potatoes (which weren’t mine, anyway), I was happy with the meal. Zest! serves breakfast and lunch (including omelets, burgers, fish tacos, quiches, salads, etc.) all day until 5:00, at which point they become a somewhat fancier dinner restaurant. I am curious to try their dinner menu some time, so I may have to do another review of the restaurant in a few months’ time.

Zest Exciting Food Creations on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Aunt Mary Ann’s Four-Layer Whiskey Cake

I'm going to do something a little different on the blog today. Instead of giving my thoughts on a restaurant, I'm going to present a very special holiday recipe. Every year around Christmastime, my Aunt Mary Ann makes a four-layer whiskey cake that my dad simply loves. It's a winter tradition that dates back to when he was just a kid. Unfortunately, my Aunt Mary Ann passed away last month. For most of her life, Aunt Mary Ann held the secret recipe for her whiskey cake close to her chest, never revealing how to make it. A couple of years back, though, she decided to open up and share the recipe with the family. While she was alive, none of us had attempted to make it, preferring to let her tackle her famous dessert. This year, though, my mom and I decided to put the recipe into practice to scratch my dad's yearly whiskey cake itch. Here's a picture of my brother, my dad, and me with the final result:

The cake turned out really well! Aunt Mary Ann always used one package of red candied cherries and one package of green to make the cake appear even more festive, but we could only find the green variety. Nevertheless, dad said that it tasted nearly as good as Aunt Mary Ann's own cakes. (Hey, it was only our first try!)

So, as a tribute to Aunt Mary Ann, here is the recipe that was secret for so long. I think she'd like the idea that people all over the world can now try her famous dessert.

Aunt Mary Ann’s Four-Layer Whiskey Cake


Cake Layers:
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/4 cups sifted flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
8 egg whites

8 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
2 cups chopped pecans
2 cups finely chopped, seeded currants
1 3/4 cup shredded coconut
2 cups of finely chopped candied cherries
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (or a little more if you’re feeling boozy) whiskey


1. First you need to make the four, thin cakes so they can cool while you whip up the icing. So, start out by creaming the cup of butter with an electric mixer and then gradually mixing in the 2 cups of sugar. Beat the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, and then mix in the 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

2. This is where it gets tough. There are a lot of dry ingredients to mix in! Using the electric mixer, slowly add the 3 1/4 cups sifted flour, the 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and the 3/4 teaspoon salt. To keep the batter at a manageable consistency, alternate adding the dry ingredients with splashes of the 1 cup of milk. After you’ve got all the dry ingredients and all the milk mixed in, continue beating the batter until it’s smooth.

3. In another bowl, beat the 8 egg whites with an electric mixer on high speed until they’re stiff but not totally dry. This took me a while…. Also, make sure you save the 8 egg yolks because you’re going to need those for the icing!

4. After you’ve beaten your egg whites into the proper consistency, fold them into the cake batter with a spatula. The batter will be thick.

5. Spoon the batter evenly into four round, 9-inch, pre-greased baking pans and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let them stand in their pans for 5 minutes before turning the cakes out on a wire cooling rack.

6. While the cakes are cooling, you can make the icing! Beat the 8 egg yolks (I told you to save them, remember?) with a fork and put them in a saucepan with the 1 1/4 cups sugar and the 1/2 cup of butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes or until the sugar is all dissolved and the mixture has thickened slightly.

7. Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients (2 cups chopped pecans, 2 cups currants, 1 3/4 cup shredded coconut, 2 cups candied cherries, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and – of course – the whiskey). After you’ve stirred everything in, let the icing stand until it’s cold.

8. After it has cooled, spread the icing between the four cake layers as well as the on the top and sides of the cake.

9. Store the cake in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days before serving it to allow the cake to ripen. Be forewarned: some of your friends and family will love this cake and demand that it be made every year while others will tell you it is disgusting. It’s kind of a polarizing dessert.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I need to give Cafe Zuppa another try.

I’ve been meaning to try Cafe Zuppa for a while now. Over its one year of existence, I’ve heard nothing but good things about both its breakfast and lunch menus. So, flush with the holidays, I decided that yesterday would be the day to give the place a go.

I think I may have chosen a bad day. You see, yesterday was a Sunday, and on Sundays Cafe Zuppa doesn’t offer their full menus; instead, they set up a brunch buffet that contains many of their most popular items and costs $11.45/person. That’s certainly a reasonable price for a buffet that includes breakfast food, a few lunch dishes, coffee, juices, fresh fruit, scones, and even deserts. Therefore, despite my reservations about buffet dining, my friends and I decided to give the brunch set-up a try. Unfortunately, Cafe Zuppa’s buffet didn’t manage to overcome the problems that I have with buffets in general – that is, the food items tend to get old and cold before they reach my mouth.

Let me start with the positives. First, I really liked the scrambled eggs, even though they were room temperature. They were light and airy, just the way I like ’em. I even dressed mine up with a little salsa, some cheddar cheese, and a dollop of sour cream. Delicious. I bet the omelets served on weekdays here are quite good! The bacon was also pretty tasty, although it was not as crispy as I like it. Another casualty of the buffet-style arrangement, I guess. The new potatoes were okay, too, creamy and somewhat warm.

I wasn’t a fan of the pancakes, although, again, I blame that on the fact that they were pre-cooked and waiting on a warming tray more than I blame the cooks. They were small and thick and contained an apple slice at the center. I bet they’d be nice fresh, but they were kind of gummy and rubbery from being out too long. It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to have a small grill set up to make the pancakes to-order, or maybe even a waffle iron to make waffles. But I’m no restaurateur, so maybe not. Surprisingly, given that the name of the restaurant features the Italian word for “soup” in it, I didn’t really care for the three soups on offer yesterday. The split pea and veggie soups were bland. The tomato and red pepper bisque was good, but it certainly didn’t have me doing back flips. Actually, nearly every dish was underseasoned, which I suppose makes sense for a buffet; you don’t want to put too much salt on things, given the dietary restrictions faced by many folks.

Overall, the meal reminded me of a breakfast buffet at a nice hotel. It wasn’t offensively bad or anything, but nothing really impressed me, either. Needless to say, I won't be going back for the brunch buffet, but I would still like to try Cafe Zuppa for a weekday breakfast or lunch sometime. As I said above, I have a feeling that most of the things I didn’t care for were symptoms of the buffet set-up and not of the restaurant or the food in general. I still hold out hope! Surely all the good things I’ve heard weren’t just exaggerations. (Yeah, yeah, don’t call you “Shirley.”)

To end on a positive note, the staff was very nice. Our busser was friendly and fast, as were the folks manning the buffet line. Oh, and I also liked the art they had on display. I’m not sure if the pieces are by a local artist or not, but they showed a good sense of humor. There was one painting of The Thing (from The Fantastic Four) wearing a monocle and another of a bunch of Fisher Price toys with a little Woody Allen toy hidden in their midst. C’mon. How can you beat that?

Cafe Zuppa on Urbanspoon