Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Alan Richman's Manly Mish-Mash

Perhaps you read GQ magazine recently, and saw Alan Richman's article upon New Orleans' cuisine entitled, "Yes, We're Open".

No? In that case, perhaps you saw a mention online... here, here, here, here, here or here. Richman responds on his blog, and consents to an interview with Appetites .

Obviously, the man doesn't much care for New Orleans, be it the city, the folk or the food. His narrative is filled with interesting tidbits, such as:
  • " I know we are supposed to salvage what’s left of the city, but what exactly is it that we’re trying to cherish and preserve?"
  • "Of course, there’s the food. I’m not certain the cuisine was ever as good as its reputation, in part because the people who have consumed, evaluated, and admired it likely weren’t sober enough at the time of ingestion to know what they were eating."
  • "New Orleans has always been about food and music, with parades added to the mix. (In the North, where I come from, we like to think we’re about jobs and education, with sports thrown in.) "
  • "Residents could have responded to that miscalculation in any number of conscientious ways, but they chose endless revelry. "
  • "Supposedly, Creoles can be found in and around New Orleans. I have never met one and suspect they are a faerie folk, like leprechauns, rather than an indigenous race. The myth is that once, long ago, Creoles existed."

I could go on pulling quotes, but there you have it. What was the point of this piece? That New Orleans, a town of crooks, indigents and alcoholics deserved what it got? And, oh yeah, the food sucks, too? Nice.

At any rate, here's a petition exhorting GQ to fire Mr. Richman for his poorly researched and appallingly hateful piece (via PZB). While I'm pretty sure that he won't be released as a correspondent, perhaps it will serve as an itty-bitty wake-up call to Mr. Richman and the editors at GQ.

Petty mud-slinging is just not appropriate.... especially at a city and its people who are still trying to find their way back home again.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beef Burgundy

When I got married, my mother-in-law gave me a nice little gift: "Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1." As someone still attempting to wrap her head around technique, this book filled an important gap.

The first time I browsed through, it was tough to decide where to begin. Frankly, I was also a little intimidated. So wordy! So much information! I mean, this was cooking luminary Julia Child's bible, for goodness sake! Luckily, my husband had no such qualms, and instinctively honed in on a classic: beef burgundy.

The first time he made it was on an icy-cold winter evening. I was out for the day at school, giving him just enough time to make a lovely, warming surprise.
Five hours later, after he'd finished all the assorted chopping, sautéing and detailed prep-work, there was just a large pot left to bubble away in the oven. I arrived home to unimaginably wonderful scents beating their way past the front door. Inside, it only got better: red wine, tender beef, herbs, garlic. It was mouth-watering and impressive.

Since then, he's honed his bourguignon method, reducing actual work-time to about 3 1/2 hours, less if I lend him a hand. These days, the well-worn cookbook sits off in the cabinet as he works his rhythmical riff, adding pinches of herbs, pats of butter and glugs of wine into the ever-simmering pot.

When all is said and done, there's nothing left to do but lean slowly in, inhaling that marvelously rich, heady aroma. Dig in with your loved ones, and drink deep from the well of life!

Final thoughts: Yes, this recipe may be long, but it is undoubtedly also one of the best stews that I've ever tasted, and freezes wonderfully.

Serve it along with a friendly starch to soak up all the gravy. Spaetzle and mashed potatoes are acceptable, but I've grown fond of thickly sliced French-style bread, toasted golden.

Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon

6-ounce chunk of bacon
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 pounds lean stewing beef cut into 2-inch cubes
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups of a full-bodied, young red wine (we used a Three Thieves cabernet
2 to 3 cups brown beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1/2 teaspoon thyme
Crumbled bay leaf
Blanched bacon rind
18 to 24 small white onions, brown-braised in stock (recipe follows)
1 pound quartered fresh mushrooms sautéed in butter (recipe follows)
Parsley sprigs

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Use a 9- to 10- inch fireproof casserole, 3 inches deep Remove rind, and cut bacon into lardons (sticks, 1 inch thick and 1/2-inch long). Simmer rind and bacon for 10 minutes in 1/2- quarts of water. Drain and dry.
Sauté the bacon in the oil over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set casserole aside.
Reheat until fat is almost smoking before you sauté the beef.
Dry the beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.
In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out the sautéing fat.
Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set casserole uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to oven for 4 minutes more. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove casserole, and turn oven down to 325 degrees.
Stir in the wine, and enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers very slowly for 2-1/2- to
3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set them aside until needed.
When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it.
Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.
Skim fat off the sauce. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock or canned bouillon. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables.

(*) Recipe may be completed in advance to this point.
For Immediate Serving: Cover the casserole and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in its casserole, or arrange the stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles, or rice, and decorated with parsley.
For Later Serving: When cold, cover and refrigerate. About 15 to 20 minutes before serving, bring to the simmer, cover, and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce.

Brown-Braised Onions

9- to 10-inch enameled skillet
18-24 peeled white onions about 1-inch in diameter (we usually get the frozen kind!)
1 ½ tablespoons butter
1 ½ tablespoons oil
½ cup of brown stock or red wine (we used the brown stock) salt and pepper to taste medium herb bouquet: 4 parsley sprigs, ½ bay leaf, and ¼ teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth

When the butter and oil are bubbling in the skillet, add the onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins; you cannot expect to brown uniformly.
Braise as follows:
Pour in the liquid, season to taste, and add herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40-50 minutes, until the onions are perfectly tender, but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet.

Sautéed Mushrooms

10-inch enameled skillet
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
½ pound fresh mushrooms, washed, well dried, left whole if small, or quartered if large
optional: 1-2 Tablespoons minced shallots or green onions salt and pepper

Place the skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. As soon as you see that the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shake the pan for 4-5 minutes. During their sauté, the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2-3 minutes, the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have lightly browned, remove from heat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Food For Thought

A sage Ben Franklin, sporting a chef’s toque, hovers serenely over the motto, “Eat. Drink. Think.” Food For Thought is the surprising new addition to Richmond Road’s cluster of pancake houses, fast food franchises and national chains.

The dining area is split fore and aft, with a small bar-type area joining the two. The walls are lined with famous faces and scrolling lines of memorable and interesting quotes.

My husband Dave and I were led to the center of the room, where European-style seating (small tables set closely together) was brightly lit. So much so that I soon felt like I was sitting under a glaring spotlight, on display to all the diners in dimmer sections.

Browsing the menu is an experience in and of itself. Arranged like a book, it meanders through courses in chapter form, ending with a lovely “About the Author” page. On it, owner Howard Hopkins waxes eloquent upon his motto, vision, and expectations: “Have fun while enjoying a deliciously inspiring meal, and expand your mind as well as your belly.”

As Dave and I finally settled upon our entrees, our waitress returned with our wine, laughing cheerfully at her own attempt to remove the cork without it crumbling. Finally, she poured us each a glass of the Mirassou Pinot Noir 2005 ($25), took our orders, and hurried off.

It wasn’t long before our appetizers hit the table, along with some complimentary bread. I had the veggie bisque ($3.50/cup), roasted seasonal vegetables with a swirl of sun-dried tomato pesto. It was a simple soup that magnificently showcased the pungent, earthy flavors. Even better, the excellent sweet potato spoon bread was just right for dipping. There were other rolls in the basket, but the spoon bread by far was the best.

Dave went with “Smoke and Fire” ($5), hand-breaded strips of chicken that came with a smoky chipotle sauce.

When I heard him laughing after the first bite, I knew I was in for a treat, and indeed, my tongue joyously awakened. The strips were chunky, juicy and fresh: you could practically taste the TLC that went into them. The sauce was the perfect mix of tart vinegar and warm chipotle, partnered with cool green stalks of celery ready to put out any lingering fire. A mild, tasty blue cheese dressing sat forgotten as we battled for the last tender strip.

Our salads arrived ($2.50 with entree), vibrant, crisp and colorful. Just as we began to dig in, our waitress descended with an armful of entrees and sides. Faced with an unexpected mountain of rapidly cooling food, we sucked it up and dug in.

Our hands reached simultaneously for the sweet potato fries ($2). They were blessedly salty and sweet, hovering somewhere on the crisp-tender border. I usually don’t like my sweet potatoes to be adulterated, but this is one form that’s okay with me.

Following the server’s recommendation, I decided to go “Down South” ($15). A massive plate held sautéed sweet peppers, mushrooms and shelled shrimp, piled high on a bed of ultra-creamy cheese grits. The menu says, “Ya gotta try this un, y’all,” and I must agree. While some of the peppers were still a bit too crisp, the explosive combination of grits, 'shrooms and shrimp more than made up for it.

Dave, in the mood for some good old-fashioned comfort food, chose the pot roast ($11.50). Smashed redskin potatoes went neck to neck with the fork tender meat. A small river of gravy flowed between the two, tasting rich and more-ish (ie: you keep going back for more!). Finally, we threw in the towel, and asked for the check.

Food For Thought happily demonstrates my mantra: good food can be simple, tasty and without pretension. I saw the owner personally clearing tables, checking on customers, and really making an effort to be attentive to both patrons and staff. From the food to the service, this attention to detail shines brilliantly through.

Food For Thought Restaurant
1647 Richmond Road, Williamsburg
Phone: 645-4665 Fax: 645-3074
Website: (but only if your computer handles flash!)
Specialties: classic American and international dishes
Price range: appetizers: $4-$9; soups & salads: $3.50-$11.50; entrees: $11.50-$19; sandwiches & wraps: $6.50-$9; dessert: $5-$6
Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-9:15 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-kitchen usually closes around 10:15
Alcohol: yes
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, major credit cards
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: casual
Additional Information: daily specials, live music on Saturday
Star rating: food 4, atmosphere 3, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Wok 'N' Roll

The day had just slipped into darkness as my husband, Dave, and I drove down the road to our next dining destination: Wok “N” Roll. Not just a buffet, mind you, but a buffet and grill.

We pulled into Hampton’s Todd Square Shopping Center, where the parking was ample and the lot brightly lit. The restaurant is located in the former Old Country Buffet building, and still had triangular “Grand Opening” flags fluttering at the front.

Pushing through the front doors, I noticed a small, kid-friendly, Asian-influenced waterfall spilling quietly. “Just two?” a voice asked, as the hostess rushed forward.

At my nod, she led us across the open, sparse dining area to a booth. Our waitress flanked her, asking what we would like to drink. We hadn’t been offered a menu, seen a signboard, or noticed any other information offered at the table, so I asked what they had. “Water, tea, Pepsi products,” she promptly replied. In that case, waters for both of us.

Dave and I headed up toward the quadrant of freestanding buffet tables, grabbed plates and cruised our options. Honestly, the view beyond the sneeze-guard wasn’t that promising, but I filled up my plate with a selection of nibbles.

There was a variety of seafood, and I found myself tasting a mussel in ginger-scallion sauce. The moment it touched my lips, something in the taste or texture seemed disconcertingly, noticeably off. Luckily, the waitress had deposited a goodly-sized wedge of napkins along with our waters. I discretely spit it out.

Vegetables came in the form of some rather tired looking salads, so I chose mine in the guise of green beans. Fairly al dente, there didn’t seem to be much flavor beyond the snappy green. I also tried a bite of the stir-fried spinach, which tasted much the way washed-up kelp appears: dry, with an after-taste of brine.

Lo mein was plain, Jane; the stuffed mushrooms were bland and pasty, while the egg roll was unacceptably dry. I moved onto sampling from Dave’s plate, a homage to all things crispy.

The fried chicken, tiny wings and drumsticks, were tasty in the way the freshly fried items can be, if salty. Sweet ’n’ sour chicken, General Tso’s chicken and kung pao chicken were all present, but remarkably similar in their over-salinated taste. The only notable difference was in color. There were also ribs — bland and dry — as well as spicy pork stir-fry, characterized yet again with an aggressively forward hit of salt.

I finished sucking down my glass of water, then headed up to the “Mongolian” grill. A small circular table held the raw ingredients for me to select, then hand over to the chef for cooking. The variety was fairly limited, and many of the meats appeared to have sat out a little to long. Nonetheless, I quickly assembled some veggies, noodles, a skewer of shrimp with peppers and a small piece of beef.

I passed this along to the chef, who asked what sauce I wanted. Again, there didn’t seem to be any signage or other indication of my choices, so I had to ask what was available. I chose “spicy” sauce, and had a steaming plate of hot, freshly cooked food in about five minutes.

In theory, this is a good thing, but the actual experience left much to be desired. Sure, it was warm. Sure, it was freshly cooked, but does this really matter when the raw ingredients looked like they’d missed their afternoon nap? The spicy sauce did nothing to add any flavor, or zing, to the dish. Warm bland food. At least it wasn’t salty.

Cruising the dessert table was a walk down memory lane. Jell-O, puddings, and tiny cubes of cake were available in a wide variety of colors. Luckily, some fresh fruit was also on the line. Eager to relieve the dryness on my tongue, I grabbed a couple of pieces of melon. The honeydew was sweet and delicate, but the cantaloupe held a very strange and off-putting sourness. I drained my second glass of water. We wasted no time in leaving.

This experience, to me, sums up everything that is bad about modern fast food. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, and, when not bloatingly over-seasoned, it’s bland and tasteless. Even more to the point, there is no pride: it’s marketed to the masses, with an eye toward turning tables as quickly as possible.

Personally, I like to keep this adage in mind: unless you’re buying barbecue, it’s generally not a good idea to get your meals by the pound.

Wok ‘N’ Roll Buffet & Grill
2302 W. Mercury Blvd., Hampton
Phone: 838-6669 Fax: 838-6366
Specialties: Buffet
Price range: Lunch buffet: $5.95 (children 3-5 $2.95, children 6-10 $3.65); dinner buffet $8.95 (children 3-5 $3.50, children 6-10 $4.85); carry out buffet: lunch $3.25/pound; dinner $4.25/pound; seafood & sushi $5.25/pound
Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 11a.m.-11p.m; Friday & Saturday: 11a.m.-11p.m
Alcohol: No
Smoking: No
Vegetarian: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Payment: Cash, credit cards
Noise level: Conversational
Atmosphere: Buffet
Additional Information: Children under 3 eat free; 10 percent off for military and seniors 65 and older; take-out menu available.
Star rating: food 1, atmosphere 2, service 2 1/2
(out of five stars)

See more pictures from Wok'N'Roll here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Queen's Way Soul Cafe

The double doors to Queens Way Soul Cafe in downtown Hampton were wide open and welcoming on a recent Saturday evening, bright light streaming out into the night. The layout was long and narrow, with a bar to the right; booths stretched neatly to the very rear.

A black-clad host came around the bar with an offer to seat us, but the hour was late (what can I say, we get up early!). I asked if we could have a seat at the bar and get an order to go. Take into consideration, our impression is based on our takeout food experience, a little different from my regular weekly restaurant review, which involves eating in.

We bellied up, and checked out the menu. My eyes were immediately drawn front and center: pig’s feet and chitterlings. Both sounded tantalizingly exotic and authentic to my untested palate. Flipping forward, my resolve began to waver over the promise of catfish... no,, chopped barbeque!

The host/waiter asked if we were ready; Dave promptly ordered the baby back ribs special ($13.95). It came with his choice of two sides, so he selected macaroni & cheese and collard greens.

Having lost my blossoming nerve, I told the waiter that I was torn — catfish or pork chops? Smiling broadly, he assured me that the catfish was quite nice, but his own personal preference ran to the gravy-smothered grilled pork chops ($10.95). Say no more! With my request for yams and rice & gravy, he disappeared back into the kitchen.

The bartender deposited our beers in front of us, Budweiser for the lady, Red Stripe for the gent. The restaurant’s “dad,” on his way out of the kitchen for the night, voiced his preference for the Bud, while the bartender maintained that the Stripe held the true taste of Jamaica.

A couple of regulars sat at the end of the bar, engaging in easy banter with each other, then the bartender. Our waiter returned to the end of the bar, and soon a smoothly divergent discussion upon various meat-smoking methods, saucing techniques, motorcycles and the fine art of comfort food.

Soul food, said the bartender solemnly, isn’t something you eat every day. Well, it’s not something you need to eat every day. But when you do need it, you gotta know where to go get it. Dave and I both smiled — indeed.

Our wait was a thoroughly enjoyable half hour. A couple of waitresses came in for their shifts, full of energy and laughter, with hugs for “Miss Peggy” back in the kitchen. When our waiter came out with our two bags, I asked if it was too late to get a slice of the sweet potato pie ($3.00). No problem, and amidst the air of general good cheer and goodbyes, we slipped back into the night. The scent of the piping hot meals mercilessly, insiduously, crept into and around us, making for a long ride indeed.

Once safely home, I laid everything out, the boxes still quite warm and steamy. Dave’s racks o’ ribs were thick and meaty — I quickly cut one off to appease my watering mouth.

It slid effortlessly off the bone, tasting of smoke and fire. The sauce was minimalist and mild. Next time, we’ll know to ask for it spicy-hot, but most folk would consider it just fine.

Next, I delved into the sides. A hunk of cornbread was sweet, if a bit dry, while the mac ’n’ cheese seemed geared for a far more youthful palate. The collards were well-cooked, but a bit of a wallflower. A generous dousing of cider vinegar perked them right back up, while a dash of hot sauce propelled them right into my mouth.

Continuing along to my own plate, I tried a scoop of the yams. They were mashed, they were a little sweet, and most importantly, they still tasted of themselves! The white rice was steeped with a glorious gravy that was savory and more-ish (meaning: I kept going back for more). With a hopeful smile, I cut into one of the two pork chops on my plate.

I don’t usually gravitate towards the pork chop, as it is so often turns up bland, chewy and dull. Apparently, the secret lies in first grilling, then smothering the chops in that wonderfully addictive gravy; both merge into something greater than could ever be achieved on their own. There was love in those chops, for certain.

Our bellies were rapidly filling, but I couldn’t wait until the next day to taste the sweet potato pie. Chewing slowly, I could hear the waiter’s voice echoing meaningfuly in my head, “You should really get two slices of pie... two slices... two slices… .”

The crust proved a fine and sturdy base to the amazing sweet potato filling. Forget weeping, I was awash in giddy, cinnamon-tinged laughter. The pie stood not even the slightest chance of making it through the night.

Roger and Peggy Winston and family have crafted a fine, welcoming enivronment that practices what it preaches — old-fashioned comfort food served with sincerity, humor and panache. Good for the spirit, good for the soul and the sweet potato pie alone will undoubtedly cure that which ails you. But next time, rest assured, it’s the chitterlings for me!

Queens Way Soul Cafe
9 E. Queens Way, Hampton
Phone: 224-7669
Specialties: soul food
Price range: appetizers: $3.50-$7.25; sandwiches: $6.95; dinners: $8.95-$12.95; desserts: $3
Hours: 7 p.m.- 12 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday, 11a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday, 1 p.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: permitted at the bar
Vegetarian: are you kidding me?
Wheelchair accessible: yes, but could be a tight squeeze in this old building
Payment: cash, credit cards , checks
Noise level: conversational, noisy later at night
Atmosphere: casual, family-friendly
Additional Information: kid’s menu, carry-out, banquet room available, weekly specials, live music/DJ on weekends, Monday Night football
Star rating: Food 3 1/2, atmosphere 2, service (for Shelley's takeout order) 3
(out of five stars)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Moe's Knows... Me?

Along with Trader Joe’s recent arrival came a whole host of national chains. Trees were razed, the earth was cleared, and up from it sprang Silver Dollar Diner, Red City Buffet, Panera Bread Company, Applebees/Ruby Tuesday’s (they both look the same to me, and I’m not sure which one is actually there), and inevitably, yet another Starbucks.

My husband and I had finished our T.J.’s shopping late one morning, and with tummies grumbling, found ourselves drawn to another recent arrival, “Moe’s Southwest Grill”. This place had chain written all over, but we were quite hungry and curious.
The menu board held a host of classic ‘southwestern’ cuisine choices; burritos, quesadillas, etc. Each meal selection could be beef, chicken, or tofu, and were accompanied by tortilla chips.

We spent several minutes studying the offerings on the menu, then gave it a go. We lined up and told the girl behind the sneeze guard our orders. I went with the Ugly Naked Guy, basically, a veggie soft-taco; Dave got the “John Coctostan” quesadilla. With steak, of course.

The girl began readying our orders, then asked us what additionals we’d like. The set-up is much like that of a sub shop, with little buckets of cheese, grilled and raw vegetables, salsas, and much to my pleasure, chopped fresh cilantro. A little labeling would make this part of the experience much more efficient.

We continued down the line, plucked a couple of icy-cold beers, and paid up. Our order would be a few minutes more, so we sat and waited with a bit of trepidation- my last fast food experience was in no way good.

The joint began to fill up rather quickly, and every time the door opened, patrons were greeted with “Welcome to Moe’s!” shouted in unison by the energetic employees. Shortly, another employee came by, and with a smile, dropped our order off at the table.

We both received overloaded baskets of chips. Much to my surprise, they were very fresh tasting and light, a far cry from the local norm. Dave's quesadilla was piping hot, and brimming full. The aroma alone was mouthwatering. My cold little veggie taco suddenly didn’t seem quite as appealing, but I sauced it up, and dug in. Again, a pleasant little thrill raced through my mouth. All the veggies were very fresh tasting; the lettuce had snap, and the tomatoes were flavourful. The cilantro sauce actually had an assertive cilantro taste, while the hot sauce managed to make my mouth tingle. Colour me impressed.

“You’ve got to try this!” Dave said, proffering a bite of his mighty John Coctostan. One bite, and my mouth was again happy with melted cheese, soft black beans, and most impressively, excellent-tasting beef . Succulent and satisfying.

Since that first visit, we’ve gone back several times for an inexpensive, quick and tasty lunch. The quality has been consistent, service quick and friendly. Decor is laid-back, seating is plentiful, tunes unobtrusively run the gamut from The Doors to The Dead, and enticingly, the wi-fi is strong and free.

This fast casual joint prides itself on delivering the best, without freezers, mircorwaves, or animal fats. I hate to say that a national chain has beaten the locals at their own game, but it's not far from the truth. On the flipside, this could spur improved offerings from long-standing establishments. Taco wars? I'm down. In the meantime, you can find me lunching at Moe's.

Additional photos may be found here.

Et Tu, Fondue?

Fondue crept its way into my heart several years ago, upon a spur o' the moment thrift store acquisition. Melted cheese is always a good thing, in my book, and the fondue pot became a regular guest at my fall and winter table. Okay, maybe spring, too.

When I heard that national chain "The Melting Pot" was coming to Newport News, my interest was piqued. Fondue isn't exactly brain surgery, so I wondered what unique spin they had to draw folk in- and keep them coming back for more.

Shortly after it opened, I dined there with some friends. The meal was purely celebratory, and not a review meal. However, I must give credit where credit is due. The place was busy, waitrons bustling to and fro, while various pots bubbled steam from the surrounding tables.

That evening, we all elected to sample the "Big Night Out" option ($76). The price is per couple, and you can pick and choose between three different entrees, as well as the cooking style, salads and dessert. Our waiter was very patient in giving a detailed, thorough explanation to our many questions.

I had the mushroom salad, which really is the perfect way to begin such a heavy meal. The paper-thin mushrooms were bursting with flavor, accented by the piquant dressing. Meanwhile, our waiter began mixing up a little cheese and spice tableside, and soon we had the fondue. While that warmed, he returned with platters of cubed bread and bite-sized crudites. The fondue was wonderful, and the accompanying wine was the perfect thing to wash it down.

The fondue pots were switched out, and our entrees arrived. Raw, beautifully marbled pieces of beef lay artfully arranged next to raw shellfish and chicken; uncooked raviolis completed the line-up. We spent the next hour or so cooking and eating these quality selections, dipping them in a variety of tangy, potent sauces.

Unbelievably, there was still dessert ahead of us, which culminated in the chocolate fondue. A gentleman stopped by our table (management or owner, I wasn't sure), and inquired as to our experience. He seemed genuinely happy to see that things were going well, and, at our request, recommended a port to accompany the final fondue. I'd seen him do this throughout the evening. When we got the bill, it was expensive, to be sure, but we had truly experienced a fun, tasty and celebratory big night out.

After such a lovely evening, I was very much looking forward to the official review. Dave, my husband, and I returned in late October for another cheese-laden rendezvous. With just the two of us, we opted to split an entree for two ($48): that entailed fondue, a salad and entree.

We were led to a rear dining area that catered perfectly to the intimate couple experience. The genial hostess deposited our menus, promising our server would be along soon. While the night didn't seem that busy, it took almost fifteen minutes for him to arrive for our drink orders. Hey, it happens.

At any rate, our wine was soon in front of us, and the waiter was too, preparing our cheese fondue. He very amicably chatted while pouring and mixing, laughing at my question, "has anyone ever gotten hurt on the electric burners?". (Answer: no, but lets not jinx us!) After it was stirred just so, he went to get our bread and veggies.

That's when I had the first real sense of something going astray. The bread seemed rather stale and dry. The vegetables were withered and had that scaly, desiccated appearance. Now, fondue was traditionally a means of using up old bread, but stale bread should always be toasted. Withered veggies make for great soup stock, but for dipping purposes? Not so much. Luckily, the green Granny Smith apple was one of the best I've ever tasted, pleasantly tart and juicy. Our server, without prompting, refilled the small vessel containing this precious specimen three times.

The fondue itself was another problem. We had selected the classic Swiss cheese, but were surprised at the overwhelming bitter taste. It would seem our distracted server had been a touch heavy-handed with Kirschwasser.

The salad came, and I'd stuck with the previously-successful mushroom version. Sadly, it didn't stick with me: the mushrooms seemed downright anemic and chewy, while the dressing bordered on syrupy-sweetness. Dave had ordered the chef's salad. Again, it was rather paltry in size, anemic in flavor and freshness.

The final entree revealed the familiar line up of fish, fowl and meat. The cuts still seemed to be of decent quality, if rather smaller than the last visit. We also didn't receive the large variety of dipping sauces to go along with these, though I'm not certain if those only come with the "Big Night" combo.

All in all... I can see why The Melting Pot has managed to spin itself off into a successful franchise. The concept is simple but good. The wine list is impressive, larger than the menu itself. The dramatically-lit dining room, with its rich, deep colors and steam wafting up to the quiet vents, definitely plays into the experience.

However, like many places, there are good and bad nights. My problem here is that this is a destination restaurant. You don't pop in to have a cold one with the boys, or to catch up on family gossip with Mom. No, you come to not just witness a show, but experience it, become a part of it, become caught up in the table-side theatre.

Otherwise, you may leave as I did that last night: a little confused as to why on earth anyone would pay $48 per couple for bitter cheese fondue, stale bread, wizened veggies and, frankly, anti-climactic surf 'n' turf. This is simple food, and good food can be simple indeed.

My advice: go here for that festive occasion, but keep in mind that you're the one paying the bill. Politely speak up if things don't seem right, and by all means, enjoy your big night.

Additional photos may be found here; original posting is here.

Gluten Free For All!

I first heard of celiac disease several years ago, upon learning that a co-worker's daughter had it. Apparently, it's an autoimmune disorder that wreaks havoc upon the small intestine when that person consumes gluten.

Gluten is the stuff that makes bread dough so pleasantly pliable, and muffins and cakes tender of crumb. Gluten isn't just found in wheat, but in many of its cousins: rye, barley, spelt, kamut, graham, semolina and triticale are all sources as well.

Living a gluten-free life isn't simple as 'just giving up' pasta or bread. Gluten is found in a great number of processed products- you know, what many folk eat on a daily basis. Even those that don't contain gluten can be at risk from cross-contamination.

At any rate, I began seeing more coverage of celiac disease, from health advocates spreading the word, to bloggers documenting their daily trials and tribulations. Along the way, it got me thinking: how would I handle a gluten-free guest? Not for just any meal, mind you, what if said guest came over for a big deal meal- say, Thanksgiving dinner?

The turkey, as long as it's not put into one of those self-basting bags, wouldn't be a problem. Sweet potatoes, roasted and pureed with a touch of cream; cranberry relish, tart and assertive; green bean casserole? That could pose a problem, so I'd just stick with the last beans o' the season blanched and salted.

Then there are the other traditional components of the meal to contemplate. Gravy. Rolls. Stuffing/dressing. Pumpkin pie. All of which, sadly, contain gluten, indigestible to sensitive individuals.

Luckily, folk with food allergies are usually more than willing to contribute 'safe' foods to the host's meal. If you've managed to keep your community foods free from cross-contamination (even a few tiny bread crumbs can have a very unpleasant impact), all should be happy. But this is Thanksgiving, so I'm making a special dessert that everyone can enjoy. One that is tasty, and totally gluten-free.

Now, I'm not about to wuss out and dish out some warmed fruit or the like. These are the holidays, so I'm serving up a cranberry-walnut pie, complete with crust.

While it is possible to make one's own gluten-free crust from scratch, it can be a bit of a chore to the uninitiated (and unstocked!) pantry. I turned to one of the many gluten-free baking mixes available. In a thoroughly cleaned kitchen, I chopped the walnuts, rinsed the cranberries, and set about forming the crust. It rolled out easily, and after combining the rest of the pie ingredients, into the oven it went. The scent was soon beckoning from the kitchen, full of dark sugar, vanilla and warming nuts.

As soon as the pie had a few minutes to set up, I dove in for a taste. The pie crust wasn't exactly typical. In fact, it made me think more of a sweet biscuit, or even a shortbread, crust. The sweet, sugary filling was perfectly offset by the tart, jewel-like cranberries, with the pecans adding an addictively nutty edge. A sweet treat, indeed, for all to enjoy- just don't slice it with the bread knife!!

Walnut-Cranberry Pie

1 unbaked pie shell (I used The Gluten-Free Pantry Perfect Pie Crust Mix)
3 eggs
2/3 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick), butter or margarine, melted
1 teaspoon brandy or gluten-free vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen
1 1/2 cups walnuts, chopped coarsely

Preheat oven to the 350-degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs slightly. Add the corn syrup, sugar, butter, and brandy/extract and mix well. Fold in the cranberries and nuts. Pour in the prepared pie crust.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool before serving.
If desired, top with whipped cream.

Makes 6 servings.
from the "More From the Gluten-Free Gourmet" by Bette Hagman

ADDITIONAL INFO: --Once deemed an extremely rare disorder, celiac disease is now known to affect 1 in 133 people. If gluten is not avoided, the intestinal villi become gravely damaged, resulting in the inability to absorb nutrients from food. Untreated celiacs often find themselves susceptible to a variety of other major health issues. There is no cure, except to rigorously avoid gluten.

--Supermarkets: Trader Joe's make a list of all their gluten-free products available in-store, as well as clearly marking the items through shelf-talkers. Some Farm Fresh Markets also have a variety of gluten-free products available in the health/natural foods section. Health food stores were among the first to make gluten-free products widely available for the public.

--Restaurants have recently begun to offer options to the gluten-free individual, and include: Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Outback Steakhouse, The Melting Pot and P.F. Chang's. While many smaller restaurateurs may not be familiar with celiac disease, many are willing to try to accommodate. In this case, it's best to call ahead, and then dine early/late to avoid the crowds.
---Gluten-free support group: 6:30 p.m. fourth Wednesday of each month, in the meeting room behind the pharmacy department of Ukrop's, Monticello Marketplace, 4660 Monticello Ave., Williamsburg. Meetings focus on those with gluten intolerance to share information, tips and recipes. Information: 565-0455 or e-mail

from The Daily Press

Monday, November 06, 2006

Vintage Tavern

Pulling up outside of Governor's Pointe in Suffolk, I was immediately impressed by the quiet dignity of the new Vintage Tavern. Cobbled with stone and framed with sturdy precision, the edifice stands out impressively amid the greenery.

Entering through a heavy wooden door, my eyes flickered between the ornate framed hanging glass, the soaring ceilings, the grand staircase leading to a second-floor dining area. A small door immediately to the left peeked into the tavern portion of the building. Dark and sleek, it was lorded over by a host of mounted game heads - very retro, lord of the manor style.

The hostess seated our group immediately in the downstairs dining area, and the waitress arrived quickly for our drink orders. Let me say this - the wine list is impressive, running the gamut from inexpensive fun roses, to no-holds barred top dollar reds.

Chef Sam McGann's menu riffs off the theme seasonally Southern, pairing old favorites with an upscale spin. I started with the jumbo lump crab remoulade with basil marinated zucchini, cucumbers & tomatoes ($9.50). The crab was superbly fresh, the remoulade perfectly balancing rich and light flavors with each bite. The vegetables, too, were fresh and lively, and came topped with micro greens.

The Taste of Southern Goodness ($12) is a sampler platter containing country ham, Bennett's Creek sausage, green tomato relish, paté and deviled eggs. This pleasing ensemble is definitely sized to share, and turned out to be a real crowd pleaser.

Southside Virginia Brunswick Stew ($6.50) is a surprisingly large portion of that old favorite, saddled with a fluffy country ham biscuit.It was at this point I was glad that our server returned with a breadbasket. The roll was just the right tool to sop up the remaining precious drops of soup. If your sopping needs have already been met, skip the roll, and ask for a slice of the delicious cornbread. Or, if you're my husband, ask for two.

Feeling the need for a little green, I split a salad with one of my dining companions. Farm market strawberry & goat cheese salad with toasted pistachio nuts and balsamic vinaigrette was bursting with tangy, vibrant flavors. Juicy, sweet and cleansing was the consensus between us girls, and we were ready to face the main event.

The cider brined grilled pork chops with warm molasses glazed vidalia onions, Carolina corn relish and Zataraines Creole Mustard sauce ($17.50) may have permanently altered the way I feel about pork chops. These were amazingly juicy and tender, with the mustard sauce proving a fitting, zingy counterpoint. Sautéed soft shell crabs ($21.95) came perfectly browned and perched on toasted brioche.A sweet pickle relish tarter sauce and bacon, lettuce and tomato salad rounded out the plate nicely. From sweet, to tart, to tangy, and back again, success on all counts.

Grilled bison rib eye with buttermilk chive potatoes, braised Swiss chard and brandy peppercorn "gravy" ($28.95) turned out to be the real showstopper of the evening. The plate seemed to groan beneath the Flintstones-sized cut of bison meat. The sides peeked out from underneath, soaking up any droplets of gravy that slowly worked their way down. One bite confirmed the pleasurable scent wafting from the dish: a rich, full flavor that seemed almost beefier than regular beef.If I had the choice, I'd never eat a cow-steak again.

Griddled jumbo lump crab cake($22.95) came artfully arranged on fresh herb spring vegetable couscous, with watercress sauce lining the sides. The crab cakes were bursting with large chunks of pure jumbo lump that tasted just like the sea.All together, another fresh-tasting dish bursting with vibrant, pure flavors.

Somehow, we still found room for dessert. Between the bourbon bread pudding with whipped cream & whiskey sauce, warm pecan yart with buttermilk ice cream, watermelon sherbet or strawberry rhubarb cobbler, well, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite.What I would recommend is to enjoy the end of your meal outside on the stunning open patio. Statues, flowing ponds and stonework conspire to make your time relaxed and decidedly tranquil.

Service is still uneven a couple of months into this venture, with some awkward waits between courses, improper pouring technique and glasses left sitting empty.After speaking with the headwaiter, I'm hopeful that this is a temporary situation. Experienced "old hands" are teaming with the more junior members to train and hone their serving skills to a higher, more consistent level.

Vintage Tavern is an elegant and relaxed upscale dining experience that is sure to satisfy both the eyes and the palate. The fresh regional foods are sourced locally, using sustainable farming practices when possible, and an adherence to this quality is reflected in the price.If you live in the nearby community, Governor's Pointe, well, I certainly envy the ease of access.The rest of us will certainly view this as a nifty dining destination, especially attractive as it's in one of the less congested areas of Hampton Roads.

See additional photos here.



Play Ball! Dave and I hit the highway, headed towards Williamsburg's Monticello Marketplace. Spectator's, a sports bar bearing the catchphrase "Food & Fun", had recently come under my radar. Our afternoon out coincided with the Australian MotoGP; nothing I like more than taking care of business in one fell swoop.

We arrived minutes after the race had started. A quick glance at the multitude of monitors revealed the prevailing sport of choice: football. The host quickly assured us it would be no problem to change the channel. After locating a suitable booth, we were seated, menus in hands, watching the exciting first lap. The cool thing here are the table-top speakers, which let you tune into the set of your choice. Nice touch!

Say it ain't so, Joe! Several minutes passed before our waitress popped by the table. It was only 4 o'clock, so we requested a couple of Budweisers, with the warning that we wouldn't be ordering dinner for at least another hour. "We don't serve dinner until 6 o'clock," she promptly informed us, pretty much the last thing we wanted to hear. I amended the order to include some buffalo wings ($6.95) to tide us over, along with a water- no ice.

She scribbled on her notepad, then asked what that second thing had been. "A water with no ice," I repeated; she scribbled something, then looked at me again. "You want a Bud Light how?" I started from the beginning: a regular Bud in a bottle-- not draft-- a Foster's in the bottle and a water with no ice. She nodded, and hurried off.

We were able to catch 4 more laps before she cruised by the table again. "So, that was just a regular Bud Lite you wanted, right?" I smiled, said that I would like a regular Budweiser in the bottle... and a water, no ice. Mumbling something about wanting to get the order right, she disappeared again.

2 more laps raced 'round, and she finally returned. Bud-and-Foster's in bottles were set down, along with a steaming order of buffalo wings. No water in sight, and she was gone before I could ask again.

The wings were fat specimens, steaming and construction-cone orange. I pulled one out and bit in. Juicy. Hot. Bland. I looked down at my orange-colored fingers, the hallmark of the typically fiery and exciting sauces used to coat wings. I bit again. Juicy. Meaty. Bland. Never mind the heat, where was the flavor?

Curveball! The race roared to an end (go Melandri!). We were faced with the prospect of sitting in a room with some very excitable football fans, and no dinner for another hour. I called the waitress over, and asked if it would be possible to place an order for dinner now, so we could be served as close to 6:00 as possible. She didn't know, so I asked if she could check with her manager.

Moments later, she returned with the surprising good news: "Actually, we're already serving dinner." Dave and I had come to our decisions earlier, so placed our orders and set back with a fresh adult beverage.

Dropping the ball! I ordered the seafood skewers ($13.95), two grilled skewers lined with shrimp, bay scallops and tomatoes. Grilled may be one way to put it; I'd rather say that the seafood was uniformly overcooked and burnt. Even so, the scallops were definitely emitting an odor that was less than fresh. The plate came with a small ramekin of vegetables. The brilliant colors of the green beans, summer squash and zucchini were misleading: they tasted bland and the texture was mushy.

Dave had ordered the Sunset Menu flounder, fried ($9.95). What she brought to the table was a pale, gelatinous looking piece of broiled fish. He told her that he'd ordered the fried, and with a word of apology, took the plate back to the kitchen.

Having lost interest in the main part of my meal, Dave and I focused on the fries. Not a great example of America's favorite potato, but not bad once salt, pepper and ketchup were applied.
Before we'd made a dent in the pile, the waitress returned with a piping hot plate. The flounder had gone several shades beyond golden-fried perfection. It was dark, like tree bark. Dave cut into it, tasted, grimaced, then offered his fork up to me.

The exterior portions of the fish were dramatically over-cooked and dry, while the center was still cool to the touch. The french fries that came on the side were also over-cooked, and in keeping with the theme, the vegetable medley was mushy.

Finally, there was only one plate between us and home base, and that was the chocolate cream pie (included on the Sunset menu). Chocolate flavored whipped cream on a cookie crust... tasted of elementary school and cheap cartons of milk.
Steeeeeeeeerrrrrrrriiiiiiiiike, you're out! She finally brought the waters... both with ice.

The interior of Spectator's is clean and open; couples, families and singles all seemed equally at home in front of one of the many televisions, or outside on the open patio. The service, sadly, only seemed a precursor to the woefully mis-guided meal that we attempted to have. Overcooked seafood and burnt fish'n'chips do not a happy spectator make. That's two hours of my life that I'll never get back-- you should put yours to better use.

See more photos from Spectator's here.

Sushi & Spice

Sushi AND spice? Sweet, I thought to myself, and counted down the days until it opened, one of the many new eateries blossoming at the CNU Village in Newport News.

A few months later, my husband and I decided it was finally time to indulge. Although it still looked dark from the outside, the interior was bright, open and airy. Smooth bamboo flooring extends back to the open sushi bar, where the chef cheerfully welcomed us in, inviting us to sit where ever we liked. Our waitress was soon with us, proffering menus, and taking our drink orders. Sadly, there was only plum wine available, so we opted to go with old faithful: Bud in a bottle.

Dave took care of checking off our selections on the sushi menu, while I perused the appetizers. Then, the wait was underway. The dining room was buzzing with the energy of two groups of college students, while the two waitresses seemed to be struggling to keep up. Fifteen minutes passed before our server finally returned with our beverages and took our orders..

I hadn't been aware that soup and salad came standard with sushi orders, but here they do. Miso soup has never really resonated with me, and this one was no different. Dave, more of a fan, found it to be a nice rendition.

The salads were very fresh, and came with the quintessential orange dressing. Once again, I typically don't care for the usually overly-sweet dressings, but this had a light touch with a pleasantly gingery background.

The first of the official appetizers arrived, an order of shumai ($3.95). The shrimp dumplings are delicately formed into small, squat cylinders, then steamed and presented with a dipping sauce. They proved to be an adequate beginning. Gyoza ($4.25) followed shortly thereafter, steamed dumplings filled with an undetermined mixture of meats, then pan fried. Instead of the usual crispy texture, these retained a frustrating chewiness, while the filling seemed very dense, almost pasty.

The waitress cruised back by the table, depositing a tiny bowl in front of us. Dave and I looked at each other in uncertainty-- all we could see were bits of seaweed, a slice of lemon and a smattering of orange roe. I used a chopstick to dig into the bottom of the bowl, then realized that this was our ika sansai ($4.25), or cuttlefish salad. The squid was nice and fresh, but vastly outnumbered by its accompaniments.

The moment of truth finally arrived in the form of sushi, sushi, sushi! The What's Up roll ($9.95) was composed of shrimp tempura and cucumber, topped with spicy tuna and "crispy" tempura batter. What the menu hadn't mentioned was that it also came covered in a disconcerting amount of spicy mayonnaise, completely overwhelming everything else. The bits and pieces of tempura weren't crispy, but sodden and perhaps a bit stale-tasting. Spicy tuna with cucumber ($4.95) turned out to be a shy, retiring wallflower, mild and unassuming.

In addition to the rolls, we also sampled some nigiri, the familiar fingers of vinegared rice that support a variety of toppings. The unagi, or eel ($4.00) seemed rather small and tasted dry, even with the drizzle of sweet sauce that zigzagged along it. The tuna ($3.95) and white tuna ($3.95) seemed to follow suit; they were withered, dull in flavor and didn't taste very fresh. Luckily, a heavy dose of wasabi-infused soy sauce was close at hand, and we used it in abundance.

I love sushi. I love independent business owners. This should have been a no-brainer. While the chef was very welcoming and personable, our waitress was lacking when it came to service, in no small part due to the attentions she was lavishing on a young male gentleman. There were long waits where we simply couldn't find her, and this was after the large tables cleared out. I had questions about three menu items, all of which she was unfamiliar with. She promised to check with the chef, but by the end of our visit, had only returned with one answer (teriyaki was indeed in the What's Up roll).

Service aside, the food was a greater disappointment. The appetizers were passable, but the sushi was a huge let-down. The sashimi seemed faded and dull, with the rolls following mostly in similar, bland fashion. The exception being the What's Up, which tasted only of the thick sauce that covered it. Good sushi should be an artful homage to the simple purity of its ingredients.
Not so much so here.

Additional photos may be seen here.

Thai Papaya

Dave and I pulled into the aging Tidemill shopping center, just outside Langley AFB. A family walked in just in front of us; other than each other, we all were facing an empty dining room. Turquoise-blue walls enclosed the expanse of tightly packed, brightly-clothed tables. Framed photographs of the Thai royal family broke up the stark walls, while tranquil countryside scenes hung from the corners.

A man motioned for us to sit wherever we liked, so we gravitated to a table just shy of the front counter, settling in with menus. As the table who entered before us placed their orders, we poured over the array of classic and delicious sounding offerings.

The gentleman who had waved us welcome paused in front of our table for a friendly, efficient order-taking session. We placed a tentative order for appies and entrees, then settled back into our seats. No music broke up the sound of the only other table's chatter, nor the steady flow of folks who strolled in to receive their take-out orders. As Dave continued to gaze over the menu, he motioned the waiter back over. An intense discussion ensued over the tantalizing choices of pad thai versus pad kua teaw. The waiter, who revealed himself to be the owner, espoused the glory of both dishes, but warned that he may not like the latter. Finally, after confirming the owner's personal taste, Dave settled upon the pad thai.

With surprising speed, our appetizers arrived alongside our entrees. The owner/waiter, smiled in cognizance of our wide eyes. "This is the only place you get appetizer and meal at the same time!"

Our chosen appetizer was the hoy jaw ($4.95), a bean curd-encased cylinder of pork-based stuffing, deep-fried and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce. This was my first time sampling this creation, so honestly, I'm not quite sure how it should taste. The edges were crispy and crunchy, as any good deep-fried thing should be, but the flavour was very muted. Even with the sauce, it didn't taste much like anything more than something hot, savory and fried.

As mentioned, most of the meal arrived simultaneously, so we aimed our chopsticks into dueling plates. Dave, for dish number one, chose the chicken larb ($7.95), a spicy dish of minced meat seasoned with scallions, lime juice, and mouthwatering Thai spices, all nestled into a sheath of crisp lettuce. Blessedly, cilantro made a showing not only in minced form, but also in lovely little sprigs strewn across the top. Dave normally doesn't care for the 'overpowering' taste of cilantro (his words! I love the stuff), yet managed to make short work of the spicy minced goodness.

I ordered the eggplant with basil ($8.95), and was promptly wowed by the mound set in front of me. Meat is customer's choice, and I went with the pork. At first taste, my tongue came alive, the earthiness of the eggplant offset by the bright, bold bling of peppery Thai basil. It came bathed in a sauce so delicious that I actually took to eating the rice (unusual for me) in order to soak up and savor the wonderful juices. Hints of fish sauce, garlic and chili merged into a tongue-tantalizing delight of texture, flavour and fragrance.

The secondary entree that swiftly lighted upon our table was the classic pad Thai ($8.95). Rice noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, scallions and a Thai-peanut sauce combined for one of the most wonderful examples of the dish that I have ever tasted. The noodles were not only perfectly cooked, but dressed in just the proper amount of peanut-tinged, spicy sauce, while deckled with juicy chunks of the requested pork. Dave has had this previously at other restaurants, but has never come close to the praise delivered upon this night's dish. Wonderful.

Now, I hate to base a review upon a single visit, but we can only eat so much on one evening; I asked for an order of Tom Yum (Shrimp) soup ($6.95) and pad khing sod (Ginger Perfect, $8.95) to go. I was quite full, but managed to take a few hot, steamy bites upon arriving home. The soup tasted more lemongrass/sour than I normally care for. Still, the shrimp soaked up the rich broth with a spicy aftertaste that was prominent, but not overwhelming.

Ginger perfect was dappled with slices of fresh ginger, buoyed by fat portions of shrimp and vegetables. At first bite, I did not like this. Somehow, the flavour kept growing, calling, and motioning back, and I found myself dipping and thrusting over and again. Possibly not for everyone, but this was a kick of sensation that delivered upon its gingery, spicy promise. Not for the meek of taste-bud.

As Dave and went to make good on our bill, he garnered a peek back into the (fairly open) kitchen. 'Is that your Mom back there?' he asked. The owner smiled and laughed in agreement. "Yes, this is my Mom!", and the pride was apparent. I looked back and watched a young boy feed boneless chicken parts into a grinder, a young woman running dishes and platters back and forth, and thought-- that's about as family run and traditional as you get. I really got the feeling that this place wasn't just about pulling in the bucks, so much as to share the spicy, fresh goodness of authentic Thai food. We'll be back, yo.

See more photos here.

Pita Party

I've tried making pita bread before, with less than perfect, puffy results. They certainly tasted great, better than any store-bought pita of recent consumption that I can recall. Yet they remained resolutely, obstinately, tooth-grindingly flat. A stray bubble may lazily have pushed its way up, but that was the extent of things. Recently in the mood for gyros, I decided it was time for round two, under the tutelage of baking perfectionist Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Since I was doing this fairly last moment, there would be no time for her recommended overnight flavor-intensification in the fridge. The dough came together easily with the assistance of my KitchenAid, and was deposited, bowl and all, inside the microwave for an hour-and-a-half long rise.

Now, Rose warns you that it is extremely important to have a hot oven, and recommends that you let it pre-heat for an hour. I let mine and my pizza stone go for about an hour and a half at 500-degrees, before turning it down to the recommended temperature. During that time, I busied myself with dicing all those scrummy little veggies that round out every perfect pita party. When the time arrived, I portioned the dough into small circles, then covered them with a tea-towel for an additional ten minutes of rising. Finally, the inflated blobs of dough were rolled out, then quickly tossed two at a time into a face-searingly hot oven.

And.. drum roll, folks...

Success! At long last, baby, the perfect puff is mine! Not so much the perfectly round pita, but that's fine. As in yoga, so it goes in baking: it's always good to have something to work towards.
Palates tantalized, my crew and I gathered around the kitchen counter, dishing out some slow-cooked lamb and beef, adding finely shredded lettuce, summer-ripe tomatoes, kalamata olives and red onions. With a little help from Trader Joe's tzatziki sauce and red pepper spread, the gyros were done. And yes, they did indeed rock the Kasbah.

Remarks on this recipe:
First of all, Rose didn't specify what type of salt to use; I used regular ol' table salt. The salt flavor in the finished product was pronounced, but in a good way-- it really made the bread. I also didn't bother transferring the freshly-mixed dough into a different bowl. I sprayed olive oil under, around, and on the dough, covered the bowl with a kitchen towel, and tucked it into a closed microwave oven for rising. The freshly cooked pitas were not only placed on towels, but covered by one as well, so as not to dry out.
Of pitas and puffiness:
The water in the dough turns to steam in the heat of the oven, and that transformation is what causes the dough to inflate into that familiar pita shape. With that in mind, the two most important things in obtaining the perfect puff. Number one: If you throw your first couple of pitas in the oven and don't see a lot of puffing, work some water into the remaining rounds of dough; re-roll, and briefly let rise again. Number two: Don't forget to get that oven hot-hot-hot! Let it heat up for longer than you think you should, then let it go just a bit further. And don't forget, it may take a try or two before getting the feel of the proper pita. No matter the level of puff, these are inevitably far superior to dry, dull supermarket fare.

Some thoughts on what to fill them with:
If you've eaten gyros at a restaurant, then you know the deal. The meat is typically some mixture of tender chicken/beef/lamb: leftovers work excellent in this regard. Accompaniments include (but aren't limited to)onions, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and the garlicky goodness of tzatziki.

Pita Bread

from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible

[Ingredients are listed as volume/ounces/grams]

-unbleached all-purpose flour (use only Gold Medal, King Arthur, or Pillsbury) 3 cups, plus a scant 1/4 cup / 16 ounces/ 454 grams
-salt 2 teaspoons/ 0.5 ounce/ 13.2 grams
-instant yeast 2 teaspoons/ --/ 6.4 grams
-olive oil 2 tablespoons/ 1 ounce/ 27 grams
-water, at room temperature 1 1/4 liquid cups/ 10.4 ounces/ 295 grams

Begin mixing the dough about 1 1/2 hours before shaping, or for best flavor development, 8 hours to 3 days ahead.

Mixer Method: In the bowl of stand mixer, combine all ingredients. With the paddle attachment, mix on low speed (#2 on a KitchenAid), just until all the flour is moistened, about 20 seconds. Change to the dough hook, raise the speed to medium (#4 on a KitchenAid), and knead for 10 minutes. The dough should clean the bowl and be very soft and smooth and just a little sticky to the touch. Add a little flour or water if necessary. (The dough will weigh 27.75 ounces/793 grams)

Let the dough rise. Using an oiled spatula or dough scraper, scrape the dough in to a 2-quart or larger dough-rising container or bowl, lightly greased with cooking spray or oil. Press the dough down and lightly spray or oil the top of it. Cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap. With a piece of tape, mark the side of the container at approximately where double the height of the dough would be. Refrigerate the dough overnight (or up to 3 days), checking every hour for the first 4 hours and pressing it down if it starts to rise.

Preheat the oven to 475-degrees 1 hour before baking. Have an oven shelf at the lowest level, and place a baking stone, cast-iron skillet, or baking sheet on it before pre-heating.

Shape the dough. Cut the dough into 8 or 12 pieces. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered with a damp cloth. On a lightly floured counter, with lightly floured hands, shape each piece into a ball and then flatten it into a disk. Cover the dough with oiled plastic and allow it to rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Roll each disk into a circle a little under 1/4-inch thick. Allow them to rest, uncovered, 10 minutes before baking.

Bake the pita. Quickly place 1 piece of dough directly on the stone or in the skillet or on the baking sheet, and bake for 3 minutes. The pita should be completely puffed, but not beginning to brown. The dough will not puff well if it is not moist enough. See how the pita puffs, then, if necessary, spray and knead each remaining piece with water until the dough is soft and moist; allow to rest again and reroll as before. (However, those that are not puffed are still delicious to eat.) Proceed with the remaining dough, baking 3 or 4 pieces at a time if using a stone or baking sheet. Using a pancake turner, transfer the pita breads to a clean towel, to stay soft and warm. Allow the oven to reheat for 5 minutes between batches. The pitas can be reheated for about 30 seconds in a hot oven before serving.

Hey, wait!!! One more thing on innards...



Move over, Roma's, there's a new Anna in town. Not the eponymous local chain with outlets in Newport News and Poquoson-- this is a new independent focusing on similar themes. Think comforting Italian-American food, with a hearty dose of pizza and subs thrown in for good measure.
It was one of the few restaurants open on a Monday night, and my husband and I practically had the dining room to ourselves. The pale coral walls were speckled with setting sunlight glancing off of a bevy of framed Italian views. A festive banner gaily wound the length of the windows. The general impression was open and airy, even though the room is bisected by a wall with cut-out archways.
Our young server was immediately tableside, and we asked for some time to ponder the menu. When she returned with our waters, we ordered a bottle of the Il Bastardo Sangiovese, and asked some questions about the preparation of particular items. She smiled, warning us it was only her third day, but quickly rounded up all the answers we needed.
Our antipasto salad ($7.95) was quickly at the table, a mound of lettuce surrounded by thinly rolled meats, a couple of slices of provolone, grape tomatoes and cucumbers. The dressing came on the side, so we divided up the salad, dressed it to preference, and dug in. The oil-and-vinegar dressing was nice, but the meats really threw off the balance. They were overly salty, and odd cuts to boot: normally salami and ham, it also included turkey and roast beef (upon sight, I'd thought hopefully that they were anchovies), slightly out-of-place in this antipasto guise. Sans salty meat, the salad was quite nice, and that's just how I enjoyed it.
Almost as soon as the salad cleared, the pie was being carried deftly to the table. We kept it simple with a request for the margherita, a simple pizza topped with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, and here, a touch of sauce. Now, this may be a personal quirk, but a lot of places undercook their pies, serving it forth with gloopy cheese and too-soft dough. Not this night- it was cooked just right to handle the amount of toppings, with crust and cheese both attaining delicious levels of golden brown. My first bite almost tempted me into believing the sauce was too sweet, and perhaps it was, but a couple of bites in, it all melded together perfectly. Very nice.
Dave's sausage-and-pepperoni stromboli($11.95) was delivered burnished brown and piping hot. He sliced it open to a burst of steam and an explosion of gooey mozzarella cheese. The meats were present, but played second fiddle to the abundance of cheese. The marinara was sweet and simple, all falling perfectly in line with the pie and wine.
We took home the baked ziti ($8.25) to try the next day, but sampled a few bites hot from the box. It was cheesy, loose, and filled with soft, tomato-laced noodles. Not bad, but certainly not my favorite in terms of flavor profile.
The service at Anna's was pleasant and very cheerful, while the menu items varied in consistency. If you like the usual line-up of casual Italian-American meals in a family-style atmosphere, this should fit the ticket. Undoubtedly, the pizza was the best thing I tasted, and I'll be back soon to check out their specialty and Sicilian varieties.

Talk Tuna to Me

Summer calls for a lighter touch when preparing lunch and dinner, and tinned tuna seems to perfectly fit that bill. It's 5 1/2 ounces of pure, lean protein, vacuum-packed and ready to go. May I present the humble can of solid light tuna, in three delicious little renditions. First, lets talk tuna.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using Chicken of the Sea, StarKist or Bumble Bee, but keep in mind that these brands are all the white--fleshed albacore tuna. While quite nice and light, they're a little one-dimensional in the flavor department. Time to turn your eye to the wonderful world of olive oil-packed tunas, typically yellowfin. While slightly drier in texture, they are ruddier in color and far richer in taste. There are a variety of brands out there, but I've recently become a fan of Flott, which is packed in Sicily, and available either canned or jarred.

Take one: Italian-style tuna salad. I came across this lovely little specimen in an unexpectedly gourmet market in the outlying hills of Charlottesville. The price was shocking, but one taste had me handing over my check card for a full pound. After careful examination and extensive taste-testing, my rendition is pretty close, if not better. Quality tuna is marinated in its own olive oil, along with red wine vinegar, capers, red onion and fresh herbs. Try to make this the day before you need it-- the flavors meld beautifully.

Take two: Mediterranean--style tuna sandwich. This is actually very similar to the above salad, except the ingredients are layered between bread. My mother--in--law introduced me to it one summery day, and I've been hooked ever since. What's in it? The basic blueprint is canned tuna, an oil--and--vinegar dressing, onions, tomatoes, capers, olives and lettuce. Missing an ingredient? Leave it out. Have a stray something laying about? Throw it on in there. I've added basil, roasted red peppers, even sliced carrots-- it's all good.

Take three: Avocado tuna salad. You South Beachers may be familiar with this concept already, but it was new to me. One ripe avocado is partially hollowed out. After the innards are mixed with tuna and freshly squeezed lemon juice, it's stuffed right back in for an extremely tasty and nutritious little treat.

Break out the can-opener, baby-- it's gonna be one long, hot summer!

Italian--Style Tuna Salad

Lovely to eat alone, as a sandwich or as a cold pasta salad.

2 cans good quality Italian tuna, marinated and packed in olive oil
2/3 cup red onion, minced
6 kalamatta olives, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (taste and adjust)
1/4 cup capers, drained and rinsed
1 hot red cherry pepper, minced
1 thin marinated red pepper strip, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
parsley and basil, minced, about 1/8 of a cup
juice of one lemon

Drain one can of tuna. Combine the tuna and oil from the other can with the remaining ingredients, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.
Serves 2--3.

Mediterranean Tuna Sandwich
I normally eyeball the amounts of ingredients for the recipe, so just go with what looks right. Additionally, this sandwich can be made a couple of hours ahead of time, wrapped up tightly and kept cool for a bump up in flavor. Personally, I've never made it that long.

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
1 red onion, sliced very thinly
1/4 cup capers, drained and rinsed
sliced kalamatta olives, to taste
1 can tuna, drained
1 fresh tomato, sliced 1/4--inch thick (or several cherry tomatoes)
leafy greens (romaine hearts or spinach work well)
crusty bread or roll (see note)

Using a small bowl, mix olive oil, red wine vinegar and Parmesan cheese together.
Place onions in mixture and let marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
When ready, set out bottom slice of bread, drizzle thinly with the oil-vinegar mixture, and layer with onions. Follow with capers and olives, tuna, tomato, leafy greens. Drizzle lightly with oil-vinegar mixture and cover with top slice of bread.
Squish everything together and let sit for a few minutes while you clean up. Bring plenty of napkins, this is one messy sandwich!
Note: The sandwich requires a boldly crusty bread to stand up against the juices, or you'll be left with mush. Albeit, good-flavoured mush. I try to stick with day-or-more-old baguettes, with the interior slightly hollowed out- more room for the filling, you know.
Serves 2.

Avocado Tuna Salad
adapted from
1 ripe avocado
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 6--ounce can tuna
salt and freshly ground black pepper
cracked pink peppercorns or black sesame seeds, for garnish
fresh basil leaves, sliced into strips (chiffonade), for garnish

Halve avocado lengthwise and remove the pit. Scoop out 2 tablespoons avocado flesh from each half, and leave the remaining flesh intact. Mash the 4 tablespoons avocado with lemon juice and olive oil until smooth. Toss with tuna and half the lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste. Fill halves with the tuna mixture, and garnish with remaining lemon zest, peppercorns/sesame seeds and fresh basil.
Serves 1.

Flott is available locally at Florimonte's in Williamsburg.

The Bier Garden

A beautiful Sunday morning prompted my husband and I onto the motorcycle, speeding across multiple bridges into Portsmouth, honing in on The Bier Garden.

We arrived about 20 minutes before opening, but the impressive wrought-iron gate was ajar, so we strode in. One of the owners smiled at us, told us that they would open at noon, but we could wait with a beer, if we desired. We desired.

Faced with an unwieldy 250+ beer list, I threw myself into our waitresses capable hands. At her prompting, Dave went with a Boddington's, and I with the Weihenstephaner Hefe. The color was like burnished gold, and held a thick white head. There was a spiciness about it that smoothed into a pronounced wheat flavor, and was one of the better wheat beers that I've tasted. Lovely. We kicked back and relaxed under the wisteria-covered porch, enjoying the eclectic mish-mash of checkered tablecloths, mis-matched chairs, and moss-covered statuettes. The sky cleared just a bit more, birds chirped sweetly, and the restaurant officially opened.

We'd snuck in our orders a bit earlier, so shortly had a ridiculous amount of steaming hot German goodness before us.

Dave went with his benchmark German test-food, the goulasche($10.95). It was served on a delightful bed of spaetzle, and came with a side of his choice, in this case, the marinated green bean salad. He loved it all-- the beef was tasty and tender, the gravy had the perfect consistency. A true ploughman's lunch-- I was as impressed as he.

I was tempted by the liverwurst sandwich, but in the interest of branching out, selected the braunwurst platter ($6.99), with a pretzel roll($2.50). The pretzel roll, I wasn't so impressed with-- I guess I'd anticipated it being more pretzel-ish, although the accompanying mustard was nice. The braunwurst was excellent; subtly spicy, with hints of mustard and marjoram. Mine came with a choice of two sides, and I selected the cucumber and potato salads. Both were quite good. The cucumber salad was liberally doused with vinegar and dill; the potato salad flecked with delicious chunks of bacon.

Since that day, we've returned many a time to expand our knowledge of the menu. All manner of sausages, I am happy to report, are fine, fat flavorful specimens. Jagerschnitzel ($14.95) comes drenched in a mouth-watering gravy that, in theory, could make shoe leather palatable. Freshly-grilled onions and peppers provide colorful contrast. Sauerbraten ($12.95) is pleasantly stewy, with plump, hand-made spaetzle soaking up the generous gravy. Both the liverwurst ($4.25) and teawurst ($4.25) sandwiches are served open-faced, and while tasty, were vastly improved by a squirt of spicy German mustard.

Tony and Lory Osfolk, known simply as "Mom & Dad", and children Kevin and Stefanie, have created an authentic German restaurant in the heart of downtown Portsmouth. The recipes are all handed-down from the old country, and each meal is made from scratch to order. This European-style of dining, the antithesis of fast food, encourages one to linger a little longer over meals, over drinks, and preferably, with friends. Be it out on the patio, inside the wood-paneled dining room, or over in the bar, "be a diner, not just an eater!".

See more photos from the Bier Garden here.

Local Eats Make for Cool Summer Treats

Cooler? Check. Large tote bag? Check. A variety of small, unmarked bills? Dave, my husband, raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I've got the cash, now let's go!"

Just another typical Saturday morning in our household, as we made our way to the Williamsburg Farmer's Market. Unlike traditional supermarket trips, shopping local has a vibrancy about it, a sense of excitement and purpose.

Stop number one was Annie Thompson's Fine Vegetarian Foods. A tasty black bean quesadilla proved the perfect fuel as we wandered down the cobblestone streets. Live music, courtesy of a quartet of energetic fiddlers, bounced around the booths, while a team of jugglers spontaneously performed with fresh produce.

Our rough plan for dinner was 'something chicken', but the farmer had already sold out. After nibbling on some chevre at Goats'R'Us, we came across Buster's Seafood, a new booth featuring fresh steamed crabs. Now, that sounded like something I could get into. While Dave took care of the crabs, I moseyed on over to Zamora's produce for some delicate-looking corn, fat tomatoes and smooth, lean cucumbers. We had just enough money left for a pint of Maree's Marvelous Blueberries, thankfully, and headed on home.

One of the best things about eating local is that the goods are fresh and flavorful, requiring only a subtle touch of seasoning for real satisfaction. To complement the steamed crabs, Dave made a quick chopped salad of tomatoes and cucumbers in apple cider vinegar. A pinch of salt, a grind of pepper, it then went into the fridge to cool off.

The oppressive heat left me with one obvious choice for the berries: blueberry ice cream. The recipe was utter simplicity, fresh sweet berries, a little sugar, some lemon juice, and a turn in the ice cream maker. There was enough time to let it firm up for a few hours before guests arrived.
We sat down to a newspaper-covered table, heaped high with fat, ruddy crabs. A judicious sprinkling of Old Bay Seasoning perfectly enhanced the delicious meat, while a pat of butter was the ideal topping for the sweet, young corn. Between that and the chopped salad, we almost eschewed dessert, but hey- you've got to eat it while it's fresh, right?

Get out there, folks, and support the local farmers, cheese-makers, and growers who are hard at work on Virginian soil. Not only will you be rewarded by eating seasonal, organic and sustainable goods, you'll be supporting the locals who haven't given in to 'big business'. Dave offered his thanks to the woman who handed over the crabs, saying, "You just made my dinner tonight!" She responded with a smile, "...and you just made my electric bill!".

Check out more photos from the market here.

Fresh Blueberry Ice Cream

2 cups fresh blueberries (about 1 pint)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups half and half

Bring blueberries, sugar and salt to boil over medium heat in heavy saucepan, mashing berries (use a fork or potato masher).
Simmer, stirring frequently, for about five minutes, and cool slightly. Stir in lemon juice.
In blender, puree mixture with the cream and half-and-half until smooth.
If desired, strain through sieve to get rid of berry skins.
Chill mixture until cold, then process according to your ice-cream maker's instructions.
Transfer to airtight container and let firm up for 3-4 hours.
Adapted from

Olivia's at the Point

Gloucester point-

Olivia's at the Point, in Gloucester Point, beckoned quietly but insistently from just across the Coleman Bridge. My husband and I finally heeded that call one Sunday afternoon.Located in an aging strip mall, the interior is fairly spacious, well-lit and open. We arrived early, beating the post-church crowd, and had our pick of tables. We chose a window-front booth, and checked out the menu.

Sunday offers both regular menu items and specials: lunch and dinner is served all day. Seafood plays a heavy hand here, as does pasta, steaks, sandwiches and salads. My husband was drawn in by the promise of fresh fried flounder ($13.99). Sadly our waitress gave a small shake of her head. "I haven't seen CatBird all weekend, and he's the one who usually brings it to us- but let me double-check." CatBird brings the fresh flounder in? Sounds pretty authentic and local to me.

When she returned with a negative on the flounder, we'd decided to split the Crab Muffins ($7.99), and continued perusing the menu for our entree choices. Finally, Dave decided upon the open-faced prime rib sandwich ($7.99), while I ordered the crab cakes ($13.99). I know, I know, but what can I say: I'm a sucker for the fresh crab.

As the church crowd finally began ambling in, our appetizer arrived in the form of one piping hot plateful of bubbling, crabby, cheesy goodness. Even though cheddar was the dominant flavor, I could still taste the freshness of the crab. Served on a nicely toasty English muffin and crowned with sliced tomato, this was gooey, satisfying goodness. We couldn't finish it all, but I'm happy to report that it reheated quite nicely for lunch the next day.

The restaurant at this point was getting decidedly full, yet our increasingly busy waitress kept up admirably with the hustle. Dave's sandwich came large and in charge, a uniform piece of beef smothered in mushroom gravy and sauteed onions. He dug in with knife and fork, laughed, dug in again. Then, "You may have one bite, and one bite only! This may be the best prime rib sandwich that I've ever tasted." I took my one bite without protest. The meat was beefy and utterly tender, while the gravy was full-flavored, and rich with mushroom-umami. I'm sure I'll try plenty more prime rib sandwiches in my life, but thus far, this was top-notch.

He'd requested fries, but the plate came with a side of veggies. Anathema, if you've been keeping up with his tastes, so he passed the veggies to a runner with another request for fries.
My two crab cakes came fat and broiled, no other adornment necessary. Again, the crab was decidedly fresh, and composed the majority of the cake. A squeeze of lemon provided just the right acidity to the sweet meat. I did request the sauteed veggies as a side, and found the colorful trio of squash, zucchini and carrots quite fresh and tasty. My house salad was pretty average: lettuce, tomatoes, onions and carrots with a sweet, house-made balsamic vinaigrette. Luckily, that left more room to sample Dave's fries, which had finally arrived. They were hot, thin, and just a little spicy- we both approved.

Our waitress returned to tempt up with dessert, and indeed we were tempted by the array of homemade goodies. In the end, we decided to save our swollen bellies, boxed up the leftovers, and headed back home.

Olivia's proved to be a most unexpected groovy treat, giving true to the old adage, 'you can't judge a book by its cover'. Our waitress provided excellent and prompt service, while the owner made rounds to each table, checking to see if things were okay. Those attitudes are, quite frankly, refreshing. As far as I could tell, each and every person who crossed that threshold was privy to the same treatment. Throw in some killer seafood and gut-busting entrees, and I don't have any problem crossing that bridge again- and again- and again.

See additional photos here.