Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Having a Morel of a Good Time

Readers of the blog might recall that I wrote about my Aunt Mary Ann’s Four-Layer Whiskey Cake last Christmas, even giving away the prized, secret recipe. I got a lot of good feedback on that post, so I’ve decided to periodically write about other family food traditions, too. For this week, I’ll be discussing that most elusive of all fungi – and a true Hoosier springtime rite of passage – the morel.

First off, just what are morels? Morels are hollow, edible mushrooms that feature a honeycomb-like upper portion on top of a smooth, white stem. There are a few different types of morels including black morels, yellow (or white) morels, and the small-top, long-stem “woodsies” (or, less politely, “peckerheads”). Some people (mainly my mom) also insist that there are gray morels, but I think those “gray” ones are really just lighter black morels. In Indiana, we usually start finding black morels in late March/early April. The white morels and woodsies start popping up a little later, in late April/early May. By mid-May, the crop of morels is gone for another year. The short harvest time is one reason why morels are so prized. The other reason they’re so prized is their flavor. If you’ve never eaten a morel, you’re really missing out. It’s hard to describe the unique taste – earthy and nutty and surprisingly meaty.

So, they taste good. But how do you clean and cook them, anyway? Simple! First off, make sure your mushrooms are fresh. If you’re not buying them in season or going out into the woods and finding them yourself, don’t even bother. Never buy those little expensive containers of dried morels at the supermarket! Yuck. Assuming you’ve got a mess (that’s what we always call a group of mushrooms, for some reason) of fresh morels, all you’ve got to do is clean and fry the little suckers. Simply slice them in half from top to bottom and briefly rinse each half in cold, running water to get any bugs or dirt out of them. Extensive washing or (God forbid) soaking the morels will just ruin them, so don’t go overboard with the water.

After you’ve halved and rinsed your morels, it’s time to do the cooking. My family believes in keeping this simple, so we just throw some flour, salt, and pepper in a bag and then toss the morels into that mixture, shaking them until they’re lightly covered. Next, we heat some olive oil and butter in a pan until it’s hot. Then we sauté the morels until they are crispy on the outside but not burnt. We usually eat our fried morels on their own or perhaps on some simple white bread. If we’re feeling adventurous, we might pair the mushrooms with eggs or eat them on top of a cheeseburger.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tex-Mex Taqueria

Getting food from a restaurant housed in the same building as a gas station isn’t the most appealing idea in the world. But for tacos from Tex-Mex Taqueria, I’ll brave the diesel fumes every time. Located just south of Lilly Corporate Center in the same building as the Phillips 66 gas station at East and Prospect Streets, Tex-Mex offers authentic tacos, tortas (Mexican sandwiches), tostadas, and more. I'll admit right up front that I haven’t tried anything but the tacos here. They’re so good that I’ve not seen any reason to branch out!

Tacos at Tex-Mex come on soft corn tortillas and are loaded with your choice of meat, diced onions, and chopped cilantro. They also give you a lime wedge and two varieties of sauce, a red and a green. The green is my favorite because it’s hotter and more flavorful. I usually go with tacos al pastor (marinated pork), but I’ve enjoyed the steak, chicken, and chorizo tacos as well. Tex-Mex also serves excellent guacamole (on par with the guacamole they serve at El Sol de Tala) that tastes like they just finished mashing the avocados. It is fresh and light, although I could handle a little more heat; maybe I’ll order it with extra jalapeños next time.

The process of ordering food here can be a little confusing for the first-timer, but it’s not really too complicated. Part of the restaurant is also a Mexican grocery store. To order food, just head into the grocery store and ask the cashier to see the menu. She’ll give you a laminated menu and you can order from that. She’ll ring it all up, you’ll pay her, and then she’ll give you a ticket. Give that ticket to the guy in the kitchen through the service window in the restaurant area. Then have a seat until they call for you to come get your fresh Mexican food. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. There is a small dining area where you can have a seat at a booth and eat your food, but I always get my tacos to go. I figure there’s no need to hang around the gas station any longer than necessary!

Tex-Mex is open daily from 9:00 am to 10:00 pm. This place isn’t fancy, but it can really make for a cheap and delicious dinner – especially on Wednesdays when tacos are only $1 apiece.

Tex Mex Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lunch with Mrs. Colonel at Claudia Sanders Dinner House

After Colonel Sanders sold his interest in Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1964, he decided to create another chicken restaurant. In a chivalrous move, the Colonel named the new restaurant after his wife – and so the Claudia Sanders Dinner House was born. Who knew? My friends from Louisville knew, that’s who! In fact, on my recent visit to that fair city, they suggested that we drive the half hour to the town of Shelbyville, Kentucky for a kitschy lunch at Claudia Sanders Dinner House.

From the wooden wainscoting to the antebellum-style grand staircase to the period furniture to the brass chandeliers to the creepy painting of Claudia and the Colonel to the ultraconservative religious pamphlets in the foyer (thanks to the local megachurch), you’ll know as soon as you walk into this place that the average patron is decidedly over 65.

But we didn't drive all the way to Shelbyville for the ambiance; we came for the food. Which makes it disappointing to say that nothing I ate at the restaurant impressed me. The best part of the meal was the yeast rolls, which were so slathered in hot butter that they were effectively deep-fried. How can you go wrong with deep-fried bread? Other than that, everything was only so-so at best, perhaps rising to the standards of chain cafeterias like MCL. Because of the restaurant's connection to Colonel Sanders, I was especially disappointed in the fried chicken. I ordered the dark meat special, which consisted of two legs and a thigh with a couple of sides. The chicken was unremarkable and overcooked. I tried some white meat from my friend's chicken breast special and found that the white meat was even worse than the dark, dry and choke-inducing. I had to have a swig of sweet tea to wash it down. As for the sides, the chicken and dumplings were okay, but the mashed potatoes tasted suspiciously like instant. And there's a special level of Hell reserved for the "corn pudding," which was a bowl of what looked like pre-chewed/pre-digested chunks of corn in some sort of creamy sauce. It was not appetizing. On the plus side, it's probably easy to eat without teeth.

One of my two friends who did not order chicken opted for a chef salad while the other ordered Claudia Sanders' take on a Hot Brown (which consisted of layers of ham and turkey on toast smothered in cheese sauce then broiled and topped with tomatoes). There were no complaints about the chef salad, which was huge and filling. As for the Hot Brown, my friend said it was all right, but that it wasn't as good as many of the other Hot Browns he's had around the area (including at the Hot Brown's birthplace, the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville).

On balance, I'm a little conflicted about Claudia Sanders Dinner House. I didn't care for the food and would never want to go back, but I'm not sorry we went. After all, going there provided us with a nice country drive from Louisville and a meal at a cheesy, fake plantation. If that's what you're looking for, this place might be worth a visit. Just don't expect great food or a very lively crowd.

Claudia Sanders Dinner House on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Good Morning Mama’s Cafe

Housed in the most attractive converted gas station I’ve ever seen, Good Morning Mama’s Café serves up tasty breakfast food in a bright and cheery environment. The inside of the place is decked out in a 1950s theme that will appeal to you if you have some sense of nostalgia for the 50s. Personally, I don’t care for the 50s, so the Betty Boop cutouts, the murals of Hawaii, and the jukebox playing classic rock kind of turned me off. If the weather had been a bit warmer, I would have requested a seat on the outdoor patio/courtyard, which looks very nice and avoids the Elvis tunes. Still, the décor is certainly not a deal-breaker, just not my cup of tea.

As for the menu at Good Morning Mama’s Café, it’s actually quite substantial, offering both breakfast and lunch items. Because I was there in the morning, I stuck to the breakfast menu, which includes all of the standard dishes (pancakes, French toast, omelets, scrambles, biscuits and gravy, etc.), but also throws in a few curve balls from the 1950s as well, such as a fried Spam omelet, Hawaiian loco moco (rice, hamburger patty, fried egg, and brown gravy), eggs in purgatory (eggs simmered in Pomodoro sauce), and Elvis’ favorite sandwich (peanut butter, bacon, and banana). For their coffee, they serve locally produced Hubbard and Cravens brand, which is fantastic.

At my recent visit, my friend and I decided to try one savory breakfast dish and one sweet breakfast dish. As such, we ordered the stuffed burrito Sonoma (filled with eggs, bacon, chorizo, jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, cheese and topped with Rancheros sauce and sour cream) and the java French toast (made with coffee-flavored egg batter and topped with toasted pecans, powdered sugar, and cinnamon butter). The burrito was really good, offering a nice blend of ingredients. The sour cream on top helped to cool down the chorizo and jalapeños. As for the French toast, it was fine, although neither of us tasted any coffee flavor; it just tasted like your standard French toast with pecans and cinnamon butter on top. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was pretty sweet on its own, so I ate most of it without maple syrup. I tried the last piece with a little maple syrup on top, which pushed it into Sweetnessoverloadville for me.

All in all, I liked Good Morning Mama’s Café well enough. I’d go back, as long as there isn’t a line. The day I went, the place was pretty empty, which was nice, but I’ve heard it can get really busy on the weekend. I don’t think I’d be willing to wait for anything here – although I am kind of intrigued by those eggs in purgatory….

Good Morning Mama's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Proof (on Main) is in the Pudding.

Proof on Main, the restaurant attached to Louisville’s popular (and awesome) hotel/art gallery 21c, is filled with funky and fun art such as a metallic green walrus, a projected video of a person eating from an oversized bowl and spoon, a painting of a woman walking on water, and a wall-mounted elk head made entirely from old shoes. Given the avant-garde artwork, I expected that the restaurant would serve innovative cuisine to match; so, at my recent visit, I was a little surprised by the rather traditional menu. Aside from the artwork, the dining room, too, was fairly typical of many high-end restaurants – white tablecloths, candles on the tables, subdued lighting, and so on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I felt like the restaurant couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be contemporary and cool or traditional and formal. This slight confusion was also reflected in the clientele, which seemed pretty evenly split between hip, young foodies and overdressed older folks. (When your server’s wearing blue jeans, a suit and tie seems unnecessary to me.)

But enough about the atmosphere. On to the food! As soon as you’re seated at Proof on Main, the server brings you a small hunk of a baguette. The bread was good and tasted fresh, but you only get one piece, so you better savor it. I ordered iced tea, which came out accompanied by a small carafe of simple syrup (in case I wanted my tea sweetened), which I thought was a nice touch.

To start, we decided to try the ham hock soup made with peas, bulgur, and a poached egg. Louisville is (sort of) the south so we figured they’d make a mean ham hock soup. Unfortunately, we were wrong. The ham in the soup was tender and flavorful and the egg was an interesting idea, but the broth was very bland and the peas were barely cooked. The broth was so thin and tasteless that it reminded me of dishwater. Breaking the egg yolk and mixing it into the broth (along with copious amounts of salt) kind of helped, but I still wasn’t a fan. After this disappointing first course, I wasn’t sure what else to expect.

Thankfully, the food got much, much better after the soup course. I ordered tonnarelli pasta mixed with ramps, fiddleheads, lemon, and breadcrumbs. It was delicious. The fiddleheads added just the right kind of bitter to the light, lemony sauce, balancing the dish. Because tonnarelli noodles are square and because they were served al dente, they kind of reminded me of ramen. And I mean that in the best possible way! My friend went with the roasted halibut, which was served with Yukon gold confit, Marcona almonds, chorizo, and ramp leaves. His fish was really good, perfectly cooked and delicious, although the potatoes were a bit underdone. We also split a side of Brussels sprouts cooked with house-made pancetta and vermouth. These were also very good. We didn’t leave a single sprout in the bowl. For desert, we opted to share an espresso, dark chocolate, and orange pot du crème. This was nice, very rich and chocolate-y, although I didn’t taste the orange. I’m glad we shared it because I don’t think I could have handled the richness on my own. A bite or two made for the perfect finale, though.

The staff members at Proof on Main were, by and large, friendly and warm. Our server was fantastic, offering advice on where else we should visit in Louisville and even providing driving directions. Another server (who was not assigned to my table) did snap at me when I got up to use the restroom, but he just seemed kind of bitchy in general, so I won’t hold that against the place.

The bill (which wasn’t really that high – about $40 apiece) came with a side of cotton candy and a postcard about the art. We split the cotton candy and I pocketed the postcard.

Overall, my experience at Proof on Main was a positive one. The food (aside from the soup) was good, the service was great, and the art made for some nice visual stimulation. Given the number of reportedly excellent, independent restaurants in Louisville that I have yet to try, though, I doubt I’ll be back to Proof on Main anytime soon. Still, I imagine I’ll make my way around to a second visit at some point down the road.

Proof on Main on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 11, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods to Mama’s House We Go.

Mama’s House Korean Restaurant, located on the far east side of Indy on Pendleton Pike, is a bit of a hike for me from downtown. When I’m in the mood for Korean food, though, I always make the drive because I just can’t settle for anywhere else. Housed in a strip mall by a liquor store and near a “gentlemen’s” club, the restaurant isn’t particularly fancy, but, in my experience, it serves the best Korean food in town.

If you haven’t eaten at a Korean barbecue before, come to Mama’s House prepared for an experience. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can sit at a special table with an exhaust hood and a built-in grill so you can cook your own meat over a bowl of hot coals. I’m usually too lazy for this, though, opting to sit at a regular table and letting the experts in the kitchen cook my food for me. Next, be prepared for the dozen or so bowls of various banchan (side dishes) that arrive with dinner, all of which are meant to be shared. You’ll no doubt be served traditional cabbage kimchi as well as cooked white rice, but don’t be shy trying some of the other, surprisingly tasty items such as pickled garlic gloves, fish cakes, and breaded zucchini slices.

As for entrees, I’ve not had a bad experience yet. Some of my favorite dishes are pork sauté (sliced pork braised with onions, peppers, scallions, and carrots in a spicy red chili sauce), chop chae (glass noodles sautéed with vegetables and beef), and some of that old, Korean standby, boolgogee (sliced beef marinated in a special sauce). The boolgogee here is exceptionally good, super-tender and flavorful. Another one of my favorite Mama’s House specialties is dolsoet bebeem bop, which is a rice dish topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables, chili pepper paste, and a raw egg, all served in a hot stone bowl. This meal requires a little work because you have to stir up all the ingredients with your chopsticks so that the egg cooks against the sides of the piping hot bowl. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, though; the servers are quite good about giving instructions and have even taken control of my inadequate dolsoet bebeem bop stirring on a couple of occasions.

Mama's House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Oceanaire: Still Floating (Although Not As High).

I don’t usually discuss national chain restaurants here on the blog, but I decided I’d make an exception for Oceanaire Seafood Room. I have been a fan of Indianapolis’ branch of Oceanaire since it opened downtown six or seven years ago. The fresh, delicious seafood and the classy dining room always have me coming back for more. Unfortunately, my most recent visit didn’t quite live up to my memories. I still enjoyed my dinner, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t as blown away as I have been in the past.

One thing about Oceanaire that never fails to impress me is the interior. The art-deco-style touches; mounted, colorful fish; red, leather booths; and white, linen table clothes always make me feel like I’ve stepped back in time and onto a luxury cruise ship in the 1930s. Sitting on the second-floor balcony overlooking the dining room/bar area is always a treat. Heck, even the white-tiled bathroom has panache.

At my last visit, my friend and I were seated on the main floor near the front windows. As soon as we sat down, our waiter brought us a loaf of fresh, warm bread with butter and a relish tray, which was nice. He also stunk of cigarette smoke and told us about his bad hangover, which wasn’t that nice. I also noticed that the pickled herring, my favorite part of the relish tray, was missing. We asked our waiter about it, and he explained that you now have to request the fish because they had been throwing away too much pickled herring. This was the first sign that the flagging economy has impacted even this relatively high-end restaurant, but there were others. (For one thing, the leather booths are starting to look rather tattered and worn. For another, the bathrooms used to feature real towels, iced-down urinals, and complimentary Old Spice and mouthwash, but none of those things was visible at my last visit.)

Even with these cost-cutting measures, the food was still tasty. As usual, I felt compelled to start my meal with a cup of the restaurant’s excellent clam chowder. The soup is just the right consistency (not too thick, not too thin) and packed with clammy goodness. Moving on to mains, I decided to order Maine diver scallops piccata with pine nut gremolata, and my friend went with mussels cooked with white wine, butter, and shallots and served with matchstick fries. We also decided to order a side of hash browns à la Oceanaire (which just means they’re cooked with Tabasco sauce, onions, and bacon) to share.

I was very pleased with my scallops – except for a handful of soggy croutons sprinkled on top. Even with the mushy croutons, the mix of capers and pine nuts was delicious, woody and salty, and worked really well with the perfectly cooked scallops. The mussels were nice, too, quite flavorful thanks to the shallots, butter, and wine. As a bonus, the mussels came with a couple pieces of toasted bread, which was a good way to soak up the broth. The fries were fine, but nothing to write home about; they were basically the same kind that you'd get at Steak ’N Shake. As for the hash browns, they were very greasy, which is to be expected, I suppose. They were also much hotter and spicier than I remembered, though, actually burning my mouth from the copious amounts of Tabasco. Because they were so greasy and spicy, they weren’t very enjoyable to eat. I probably wouldn’t get them again.

When it came time for dessert, we decided to be piggish; we both ordered a helping of the decadent Valrhona chocolate mousse. The mousse was delicious, as always, although I really could have done without the whipped cream on top getting in the way of my chocolate. Also, the mousse is VERY rich, too rich for me to finish, in fact. We probably should have split one order.

So, overall, I still like Indy’s Oceanaire. It may be showing its age a bit and it may have had to make a few concessions to the recession, but it still serves some good food. Yes, it can be a tad expensive, but, for my money, it’s still the best seafood place in town. Of course, we are in a land-locked state (I don't count Lake Michigan), so that's not saying a whole lot.

Oceanaire Seafood Room on Urbanspoon