Sunday, May 29, 2011

Taking a Break at Recess

If you haven’t been to Recess yet, the set-up of the restaurant might need a little explaining. Basically, the place serves just one pre-set, multi-course, price-fixed meal each night. You may have a choice between two dishes for some courses, but, in general, everyone eats the same thing – whatever Chef Greg Hardesty has decided to cook up that evening. They post the dinner menu to their website each day so you can take a look, decide if what they’re serving is your cup of tea, and make reservations, if you’re interested.

Last night, for example, my three friends and I had a choice for our first course between a spring vegetable soup topped with pecorino cheese or a mixed greens salad with shaved fennel, grape tomatoes, and blue cheese. I went with the soup while my friends all chose the salad. Based on our reactions to the dishes, I chose… poorly. (Yes, that’s a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I couldn’t help myself!) They all enjoyed their salads, saying they were light and fresh and delightfully fennel-icious. My soup, on the other hand, was merely adequate. It was thin, filled with root vegetables, and kind of reminded me of Campbell’s.

Slightly disappointed, I headed into course number two. Thankfully, there was just one option here – Alaskan halibut with cumin-roasted carrots and onions, avocado-lime puree, and fried taro root – so I couldn’t make a bad choice. Now this, this was delicious. As one of my friends commented in a faux British accent, “The flavor and texture of the halibut were spot on.” The taro root on top was salty and crunchy and the avocado purée was simply awesome. I could have eaten three more servings of this!

For our next course, we were again offered a choice of two dishes – panko-crusted black bass with mashed potatoes, wilted greens, and a roasted-garlic/tomato jus or lamb ribeye with cheddar macaroni and cheese, wilted greens, and red wine sauce. I stuck with the majority on this one and went with the fish dish. Only one of us chose the lamb. The sea bass was – like the halibut – perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside. Chef Greg certainly knows how to cook fish! I was a little dubious about serving fish atop wilted greens and mashed potatoes, but I was totally wrong. The greens were wilted, yes, but not mushy, and they tasted really good with the potatoes. The one of us who had the lamb ribeye love it, too; he said it was tender and juicy. It did look good, cooked to medium-rare, taken off the bone, and pre-sliced.

For dessert, we were presented with a “cuatro leches” cake, which was described as a traditional tres leches cake with the addition of buttermilk for some kick. The cake was pretty good, but it was more like a pound cake, heavier and denser than any tres leches cake I’ve ever had. Also, it wasn’t as milk-soaked as I was expecting, which kind of disappointed me. It was a lackluster ending to a good meal.

So, overall, I liked the food at Recess, but only two of the four courses really blew me away. For $56/person – not including drinks or a tip – that’s not really good enough to lure me back again anytime soon. Maybe on my next birthday – if the menu on that day appeals to me.

Recess on Urbanspoon

Brunchin’ It Up at Iozzo’s Garden of Italy

I already reviewed Iozzo’s Garden of Italy’s lunch/dinner menu in an earlier blog post, but the restaurant recently introduced a Sunday brunch, giving me the perfect excuse to revisit this delicious local eatery. The new brunch menu is only available on Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and includes some items from their usual menu (such as spaghetti, chicken Marsala, and lobster ravioli) as well as special breakfast dishes (like several types of egg scrambles, a few different Benedicts, oatmeal brûlée, and strawberry ricotta pancakes).

At my recent visit, my friend and I arrived early on a warm spring day and asked to sit in the back courtyard. The staff was happy to accommodate and set us up at a shady table near the burbling fountain. If you haven’t eaten in Iozzo’s garden before, you’re really missing out; it’s a lovely oasis of calm right in the heart of downtown. We both ordered coffees and settled in to read the paper and peruse the menu. My friend also decided to try Iozzo’s loaded Bloody Mary, which was made from Indiana vodka and Bloody Mary mix and served with a jumbo shrimp, a slice of prosciutto, a stick of celery, an olive, some cucumber, and a wedge of lime. The coffees were good and his mixed drink was excellent.

After taking our time with the menu (hey, it’s brunch!), we both made our decisions. My friend ordered the Caprese scramble (eggs cooked with tomato, mozzarella, and basil) while I opted for the amaretto creme brûlée French toast. Wow, that name is a mouthful! And so was the dish itself, made with cubes of bread soaked in a creamy custard and then baked. It really was delicious, almost more of a bread pudding than a traditional French toast. It wasn't overwhelmingly sweet, and the top pieces of bread were slightly charred, which I liked. The sausage patties that came with it were nice, too, spicy and fennel-y like an Italian sausage link. I managed to finagle a bite of the egg scramble, too, and was pleased with it. The eggs were light and fluffy, cooked with generous amounts of tomato and cheese. I wasn’t crazy about the potatoes that accompanied the eggs, though. They were cooked with onions and tomatoes, which was a good combination, but they were a little underdone for me.

Overall, I was very happy with Iozzo’s brunch. The restaurant provides a beautiful setting, great food, and good prices. It will definitely be entering my weekend breakfast rotation.

Iozzo's Garden of Italy on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Feeling Stressed at Shapiro’s Delicatessen

Shapiro’s Delicatessen is an Indianapolis tradition, an honest-to-goodness Jewish deli that’s been serving downtown Indy’s residents and workers excellent pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup for over a hundred years. And, even though all of those things are true, I never really enjoy eating there. It’s not the food’s fault – everything I’ve ever eaten there, I’ve liked – it’s more the atmosphere and staff that put me off.

Let me admit right up front that I am not a fan of cafeteria-style restaurants in general, so I’m already biased against Shapiro’s set-up. Cafeterias just feel like too much work to me; call me lazy, but I like having a host/hostess and a server. The concept of standing in a long line while keeping one eye on the dining room to make sure there are still empty tables stresses me out. On top of that, I often feel like I’m being ordered around or belittled by the Shapiro’s staff, which makes an already arduous process even more irritating.

Case in point – lunch last Thursday. I agreed to meet one of my friends at Shapiro’s at 11:30. When we arrived, the line was already long – and growing. So, we got in it and waited patiently. As we finally approached the hot food area, I heard the familiar and forceful refrain of “Young man!” (which is how the guy behind the counter indirectly asks you what you’d like to order). I already had my deviled egg, so I just ordered half a pastrami-on-rye sandwich and a potato pancake. My friend, who was in line behind me, also ordered a half a pastrami on rye. For some reason, that set the guy behind the counter off. “Are you paying together?” he asked. “We could, I guess,” I stammered, a little confused. “Well, then you just cost yourself an extra four dollars by not ordering a whole sandwich and splitting it,” he said. I explained that I’d keep that in mind for next time, but he said I was being “stupid” and that I needed to give him back both plates. The old guy behind me (who had also been waiting in line a long time) gave an exaggerated sigh and crossed his arms as I handed both plates back over the counter. A few seconds later, the fellow behind the counter put a whole sandwich up. I started to grab it, but he yelled, “Don’t touch that! That’s for the man behind you.” The old man grabbed the sandwich and shoved by me. Finally, I got my actual sandwich – along with a stern look. Now, I know that the Shapiro’s guy was just trying to be helpful and save me a few bucks, but I ended up feeling like I had been reprimanded.

But enough about that. The food was excellent despite my stewing. Both my friend and I devoured our sandwiches, loving the mounded-up pastrami and the spicy mustard. The potato pancake would have been better with a little applesauce (I guess you have to order that separately?), but that didn’t stop me from eating the whole thing. And the deviled eggs are the best in Indy. From past experiences, I know that they also have great desserts at Shapiro’s. The various types of cheesecakes are universally good, and the black and white cookie always makes a tasty treat.

So, as I said, the food at Shapiro’s is good. And that should be what a restaurant’s all about, right? Well, not quite. Because I don’t enjoy the experience of eating at Shapiro’s, I don’t go there very often. Every once in a while, though, my craving for a pastrami sandwich with mustard and Swiss cheese overrides my dislike of the process. The fact that I’m willing to deal with an irritating set-up and mild abuse from the restaurant’s employees must say something good about the food, right?

Shapiro's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Original Pancake House

Although it is part of a Portland, Oregon-based chain of restaurants, there’s only one Original Pancake House in Indianapolis proper, so I’m going to review it. I’ll go back to featuring restaurants exclusive to Indy next week. As for the Original Pancake House, well, it certainly lives up to the “pancake” part of its name. The place serves lots and lots of varieties of pancakes including crêpes (both savory and sweet), buttermilk pancakes (some spiked with banana, bacon, chocolate chips, pumpkin, etc.), wheat germ pancakes, buckwheat pancakes, potato pancakes, and the pièce de résistance, the Dutch baby pancake (a sweet, egg-y, baked dish that’s like a cross between a soufflé and Yorkshire pudding). They also offer other breakfast classics like waffles, French toast, eggs, omelets, and so forth. But, really, why would you come to a “pancake house” to eat eggs? Don’t be crazy. Stick to the pancakes.

At my most recent visit to the restaurant, my family did, indeed, stick to the pancakes. My dad ordered the cherry crêpes with a side of bacon, my mom and sister both decided to try the pigs in blankets, my brother-in-law went with the apple pancake (one giant pancake covered with sautéed apples and cinnamon-sugar), and I ordered the Dutch baby pancake.

The results? My mother and sister both liked their meals. My sister said that the sausage in her “blankets” was great because it was a little spicy, which counteracted the sweetness of the buttermilk pancakes and the maple syrup. My dad cleaned his plate completely, commenting that he loved the tartness of the cherries and the lightness of the crêpes – especially with the side of salty bacon. I can back him up on how good the bacon was, thick-cut and cooked to perfection. My brother-in-law liked his apple pancake so much that he came remarkably close to finishing it. He said the pancake was egg-y and not like a buttermilk pancake at all, which he enjoyed. As for me, I drizzled my Dutch baby with a mixture of powdered sugar and lemon juice then added some lingonberries on top of that and ate as much of the delicious dish as I could. I got about three quarters of the way through it, which is a personal best. Hey, it’s a heavy, filling pastry! In fact, all of the dishes are huge, so you might want to split a meal, if you don’t have a big appetite like my dad does.

The restaurant also has good coffee and service. Our server knew how to keep a coffee mug filled, which is a great skill. The place offers free Wi-Fi Mondays through Fridays, but not on the weekends; I guess they don’t want to encourage folks to stay too long when they’re busy. There is also a nice patio for outdoor seating in less-wet weather.

Any complaints we had were minor. My sister thought that the kids’ menu was overpriced. To be fair, though, all of the food seemed a little expensive to me, so the kids’ prices are at least consistent with the rest of the menu. Also, the server brought my brother-in-law and me our dishes 10 minutes or so before he brought out the other meals. Although I was happy to dig in, it did make me feel a little guilty seeing my family members stare at me while I ate, impatient and hungry. Ah, whom am I kidding? I was fine eating in front of them! My brother-in-law did feel guilty, though.

One word of warning – the Original Pancake House can get crowded on weekends (as can most breakfast places, really). So, if you want to eat here on a Saturday or Sunday, come early or during church hours. Otherwise, you’ll probably be forced to wait in a line with a bunch of blue hairs for quite some time.

Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 9, 2011

Marco’s Restaurant and Lounge

A couple of friends and I decided to stop in at Marco’s Restaurant and Lounge last week for one of my buddy’s birthdays. I had never been to the place, so I was keen to give it a try. It’s kind of an old-school Italian restaurant complete with dim lighting, candles on the tables, lots of wood paneling, leather booths, etc. It also has a full bar, which is always a plus. Given that we were seated near the bar, one of my friends decided to order a Peroni while I opted for a Fat Tire, both draft.

Because we were all starving (not literally), we ordered an appetizer of fried calamari to share. Our server also brought us a few mini loaves of sfilatino (Italian baguettes), which we devoured slathered in butter. The calamari was quite tasty, flavorful and not chewy with a tangy marinara dipping sauce. There was a white sauce, too, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the marinara.

As entrees, one of my friends chose the veal piccata with a Caesar salad and beef noodle soup, one went with the Parmesan-crusted pork medallions served over fettuccini with minestrone soup and a side salad, and I decided on the spaghetti San Marco (spaghetti with shrimp and clams in a spicy red sauce) with a side salad. My pasta dish didn’t come with a soup, but both of my friends said they were happy with theirs. The minestrone did look good!

The wait for our entrees was kind of long, so we downed a couple of more beers to pass the time. I’m not complaining, mind you! When the food did finally arrive, it was universally enjoyed. My spaghetti San Marco was excellent, loaded with shrimp and clams. The sauce was spicy, as advertised, which I also liked. The veal piccata was okay, but the portion of meat was quite small and the sauce was thicker and creamier than any picatta sauce I’ve ever seen. Frankly, I prefer Iaria’s piccata sauce. The Parmesan-crusted pork medallions, however, were awesome. They actually reminded me of the “Perkinsville pork” dish served at Bonge’s Tavern, which is high praise indeed. All of us agreed that the pork medallions made for the best entree.

The only complaint I had was regarding our server. He disappeared for long periods of time, not checking on us or letting us know why our meals had been delayed. We also had to wait a really long time for him to bring our bill. Still, he wasn’t outright terrible, just a tad inattentive. The service wasn’t a deal-breaker.

When I mentioned to another of my friends that I had eaten at Marco’s, he told me that the restaurant has an excellent Tuesday night steak special that includes a filet, a salad, and one side – all for ten bucks. Sounds like a good deal that just may lure me back for a return visit!

Marco's Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 2, 2011

At Taiwan Tea House, It’s All About the Boba (Not Fett)

The owners of Taiwan Tea House shuttered their original restaurant around 8 months back with the promise of reopening at a new location soon. Now, after way too long for my taste, they have finally reopened at their new location at Clearwater Crossing (right next to the Barnes & Noble). Outside and inside, the new location looks pretty much like the original one. It also features the same menu and the same great bubble tea.

If you've never had bubble tea, allow me to describe it for you. Bubble tea is, basically, a sweet tea/milk beverage that contains large, cooked pearls of tapioca called “boba” floating in the liquid. Using a special, extra-wide straw, you suck up the tea along with the boba, chewing the tapioca balls as they pop out of the straw and into your mouth. There are a few places around Indianapolis that serve bubble tea, but Taiwan Tea House’s variety is my favorite. Not that the restaurant’s food isn't good, too. It is. But, for me, this joint is all about the bubble tea, baby.

My go-to meal at Taiwan Tea House has always been the meatball with rice, which I loved. At my recent visit to the new location, however, I noticed a conspicuous black line running through the name of that dish. Disappointed, I was at a loss as to what to order, so I consulted my server. She told me that the family tofu cooked with meat was her favorite dish, so I ordered that with mixed meat (chicken, pork, and shrimp). Noting that they no longer serve red milk tea (only green), I also ordered a green coconut milk tea with boba. My friend ordered an appetizer of popcorn chicken, the minced pork noodle (dry), and a green almond milk tea with boba.

All entrees come with soup, which consists of a simple broth containing some root vegetables. The soup wasn’t really my thing, a little sour and flavorless for me, but my friend enjoyed his. Much to my surprise, his popcorn chicken appetizer was quite good, peppery, tender, and juicy. I would have never thought to order popcorn chicken at a Taiwanese restaurant, but I’m glad he did – and, even better, that he was willing to share. My dish also came with two seafood cheese wantons, which were light and tasty and filled with a good amount of crabby cream cheese.

As for the entrees, I wasn’t crazy about his noodles; they were spicy, which I liked, but they also seemed a little soggy and overcooked to me. Frankly, I was glad I didn’t order a noodle dish – especially because I really liked my entree. The family tofu cooked with meat was light and slightly sweet with the tofu almost tasting like a mild fish. The veggies in it were not overcooked, either, still pleasantly crunchy. In fact, I think the broccoli was my favorite part of the dish! I’m not a huge broccoli guy, in general, so that’s saying something. The server did not steer me wrong.

Oh, and of course the bubble tea was delicious. In fact, thinking about it has got me wanting some right now. I wish there was a place that served it downtown….

Taiwan Tea House on Urbanspoon