Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Balls without Meat?!?

“You can’t call them meatballs—there isn’t any meat in them!” Dave was firm, but I was firmer, and shook my head.

“What should I call them- eggplant balls?" I raised a skeptical eyebrow. "That’s just not appetizing-- no way, dude.

There you have it, folks. These eggplant “meat” balls, if you will, haven’t a smidgeon of flesh contained within. Rejoice vegetarians! And carnivores, be prepared to step outside your comfort zone: both parties could agreeably break bread over these.

I first came upon this recipe shortly after meeting my husband. He’s unabashedly fond of just about anything involving pasta, meat and cheese. While I certainly don’t mind such dishes from time to time, the thought of yet another heavy dish of spaghetti and meatballs sent me scrambling for alternatives.

The source has long since been lost, but my little clipping has become tattered and stained over the years. The ingredient list is familiar, as are the scents coming from the pan. Eggplant is sautéed with garlic and onion, then processed smooth with herbs, egg and breadcrumbs.

As your eggplant may vary in size and moisture content, the egg/breadcrumb ratio may have to be adjusted up or down. In the end, the mixture should still be fairly sticky, and you may need to wet your hands to properly form the balls.

These cook in the oven for just over thirty minutes, more than ample time to simmer your sauce and begin prepping the pasta. When the eggplant balls have turned golden brown, I like to pull them out and let them simmer in the sauce for 5- 10 minutes.
Once the pasta is plated up with tomato sauce and cheese, it’s not easy to tell that these meatballs are entirely meat-free.

Eggplant "Meat" Balls

1 large eggplant
olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 small red onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup red wine
1-2 beaten eggs
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/8 cup freshly chopped, mixed Italian herbs (I use oregano, thyme and parsley)
salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 cups breadcrumbs

Slice eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let sit 10 minutes to draw out water. Rinse, pat dry and coarsely chop.
In a pan over medium high heat, add a splash of olive oil. Once warmed, add the eggplant, minced garlic, minced onion and red pepper flakes. As the mixture continues to cook and soften, add the wine, and cook until eggplant is completely soft.
Meanwhile, mix together the egg, cheese, herbs and salt and pepper in a bowl, and set aside.
Remove the eggplant mixture from the stovetop, and allow to cool slightly. Place in food processor with metal blade and process until smooth. Add in the egg mixture, and process again. Finally, add in the breadcrumbs until desired texture is achieved-- you may need to add an additional egg if too stiff, or breadcrumbs if too moist.
Form the mixture into about 2-inch balls, and place one inch apart on oiled baking tray.
Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, flipping once, about 30-40 minutes.
Note: Simmer for just a few minutes in tomato sauce, and serve in place of meatballs with pasta. These are also great by themselves.
4 servings

Front 'n' Center

Williamsburg has New Town, and now it has the Center Street Grill. A name like that evokes a friendly, casual spot, enjoyed by locals and out-of-towners alike.

Fresh raw bar? Got it. Fusion food that's still familiar and appealing? Got that, too. Throw in a side of good service, and I'm wishing that Center Street was just a bit closer to home — although the food is average.

Like much of the surrounding construction, there are plenty of windows that lend an open, airy feel. Yellow walls, wooden accents and sensibly spaced tables add to the overall aesthetic.

The menu is pub-lite: standards carefully and freshly prepared, often with a slight twist. Orange-basil butter shrimp are grilled and served with goat cheese foccacia and micro greens, while the filet mignon is slathered with black truffle-fois gras butter. Worry not, picky eaters: there are chicken tenders too, albeit hand cut, breaded in panko and served with a garlic herb aioli.

The waitress greeted my husband and me with a small, complimentary nibble: fresh, mild salsa cradled in crispy wonton skins. These vanished by the time she returned with a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay ($40), a quintessential California chard that is not-too creamy and fairly well-balanced.

Dave's interest was instantly piqued by the Philly Roll ($7.25). Really, mine was too: golden egg rolls stuffed with thin shavings of rib-eye, meltingly soft onions and gooey American cheese. If I had a tacky cheeseboard of desire, these would be the crispy, meaty pinnacle. Excellent on their own, they were even better dunked into the accompanying white cheese-scallion sauce.

A girl needs her greens, so I had the house salad with sesame dressing ($4). It was the usual line up of fresh field greens, cucumber, red onion and (blessedly) nonrefrigerated cherry tomatoes. The sesame dressing, served on the side in a small pitcher, had an intense roasted flavor tinged with a smoothing bit of sweetness.

Dave's rotisserie chicken ($13.50) was a bit of a mixed-up plate. The half chicken, seasoned with Italian herbs, had great flavor, but was disconcertingly dry. The nutty wild rice suffered a similar fate, while the squishy broccoli simply produced an “ick.”

We both had the opposite reaction to my dish of shrimp and grits ($18). The over-cooked shrimp were forgettable and quickly pushed to the side, but the grits! Indeed, this is what every batch of hulled corn hopes to be made into someday.

Cheese and applewood bacon blended into one of the creamiest, most satisfying bowls I've ever had the pleasure to taste: garlicky, smooth and utterly filling. Dave, an equal opportunity hater of grits and polenta alike, not only finished my bowl, but ordered a side order to take home!

We lingered lazily over coffee ($2) and dessert ($7). The coffee tasted stale and burnt, but the crème brulee had that lovingly burned crisp crust. We tapped in and sampled the custard, a creamy rich mixture of white chocolate and Kahlua.

In a word? Satisfactory, as Nero Wolfe would say.

Center Street Grill
5101 Center Street, New Town, Williamsburg
Phone: 220-4600; Fax: 220-8566
Web site:
Specialties: continental, seafood raw bar
Price range: appetizers, $7-$10; salads, $4-$9.50; sandwiches, $8.50-$10; entrees, $13.50-$26
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sunday; bar open later every night
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: cigarette smoking permitted in the lounge or on the patio
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, all credit cards except Discover
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: upscale casual
Additional Information: daily specials, wine diners, private rooms available, seating for large parties, outdoor patio
Star rating: food 3 1/2, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sweet on Rosemary

Cool winds strummed gently through the woody rosemary stems, waving them away from hand snips. The bush, slightly out of control, barely acquiesced in my attempt to tame it.

When I finally headed back inside, it was with a generous armful of fragrant sprigs. Some would be put to use with roasted potatoes, while others would join roasting chickens. Inevitably, there would be some leftover. While they could be frozen, something deep inside was twitching and itching: what would happen should the worlds of baking and herbology unite?

There had been several more-or-less successful experiments with brownies. The herb made such an interesting counterpoint to the rich sweetness, I was certain it would be at home in other baked goods. Luckily, Martha and her ever-growing omni-pire had just printed a sweet potato biscuit recipe in Everyday Food.

With sweet potatoes and rosemary at the ready, I soon had a piping hot batch of woodsy-scented orange beauties at my disposal. The texture was buttery and soft, tasting just as delicious as they smelled. They were fantastic with a smear of maple butter, and the few that remained stayed moist well into the next day.

With Thanksgiving appetizer duty just around the corner, it was time to whip up something seasonal, and with a decidedly Southern flair. Another batch was promptly baked up, sized just right for the hors d’oeuvre tray. Cut in half and stuffed with prosciutto, they were wrapped in tin foil, then tucked into a warm oven.

As guests began to file in, I set them out in a covered basket. The little pile of orange biscuits, flecked with rosemary and filled with dry-cured ham, quickly whittled away to nothing, as everyone mingled and relaxed. A little sweet, a little salty, a little savory: such are the warm and welcome pleasures best shared with family and friends.

Rosemary- Sweet Potato Biscuits

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons light-brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (may begin with 1 teaspoon, and adjust)
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter
3/4 cup chilled sweet potato puree
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 egg yolk + 1 tablespoon heavy cream, mixed
Individual rosemary leaves

To make sweet potato puree:
Bake/boil/microwave potatoes until soft. Peel, mash and cool.

To make the dough:
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 2 teaspoons minced rosemary. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut in 6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter (cut into pieces) until mixture resembles coarse meal, with some pea-size lumps of butter remaining. In a small bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup chilled sweet potato purée and 1/3 cup buttermilk; stir quickly into flour mixture until combined (do not overmix).

To shape the biscuits:
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and knead very gently until dough comes together but is still slightly lumpy, five or six times. (If dough is too sticky, work in up to 1/4 cup additional flour.) Shape into a disk, and pat to an even 1-inch thickness. With a floured 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut out biscuits as close together as possible. Gather together scraps, and repeat to cut out more biscuits (do not reuse scraps more than once).

Baking the biscuits:
Preheat oven to 425°, with rack on lower shelf. Butter or spray an 8-inch cake pan. Arrange biscuits snugly in pan. Brush tops with yolk-cream mixture, and press on a rosemary leaf. Bake until golden, rotating once, 20 to 24 minutes.

Yield: 8 larger biscuits.
Adapted from Everyday Food, November 2003
Notes: These biscuits are great on their own, or slathered with maple butter. Alternately, once the biscuits have baked and cooled, split in half and stuff with prosciutto or ham. If you like, add in a dab of sharp mustard before putting halves back together. Wrap in tin foil and bake in a low oven until just warmed through. Serve immediately.

Hearty, filling & German (just like my husband)

I almost missed out on the home-cooked German specialties at Deutsche Ecke, a new restaurant in Denbigh. On weeknights, the Newport News eatery closes at the surprisingly early hour of 7 p.m.

“On a good night, it's me, my daughter and a dishwasher — if I'm lucky,” explained owner/cook Karin Stephenson. That said, I understood why our meals suffered from a somewhat awkward pacing.

The restaurant held only one other table, a group of ladies lingering over coffee and desserts. Yellow tablecloths mimicked the warm color of the walls, while pictures of café scenes (and, oddly, enough, Parisian streets) lined the room. Out of place, too, were the fat scented candles burning at each table. My husband Dave blew ours out, but the intense cinnamon scent lingered for some time.The menu is short and to the point. After looking over the offerings of schnitzels, wursts and German side dishes, we quickly made our selections and stretched back in the very comfy chairs. Our waitress soon returned with two glasses filled with Paulaner Hefe-Weizen ($4.75), the large bottle being just enough for two to comfortably split.

We'd each requested a side German green salad ($2.95) to accompany our meals. It took some time, but when they arrived, I had to check to make sure they'd brought the correct dish.

The Boston lettuce leaves were indeed green, but drenched in a milky-white dressing. Canned beans, both red and green, were strewn on top, along with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. I carefully speared a room temperature leaf and tasted: the dressing was a little sweet, and a lot sour. It was unlike any other dressing I've come across, and couldn't decide if I liked it or not.

We let our salads sit for a few minutes while our tongues (hopefully) adjusted. A few minutes later, I tried again with the same results. This tangy, different dressing was just a bit much for me, especially when combined with the pickled vegetables.

The waitress brought out my entrée, letting Dave know that his would be out in just a few minutes. I could smell the mushroom gravy on my jagerschnitzel ($13.95) before she even set it down. The large, flattened pork patty had been crumb-coated and fried golden, a beautifully burnished receptacle to hold the intense mushroom gravy. After squeezing a little lemon juice on top, I sliced into the schnitzel: fabulous texture and great flavor made short work of this German classic.

It was another 15 minutes before Dave's plate finally came out, with apologies from the server, and an extra sausage for his troubles. The bratwurst with roll ($7.95) was taut, plump, and far better eaten with knife and fork alone. Two mustards also vied for his attentions, with the spicy German brand coming out ahead — a little dab'll do ya!

Both entrees came with a large portion of potato salad. It was a formidable conglomeration of mashed potatoes flecked with chives, bacon and bits of red skin: creamy, hearty and filling, on all accounts.

Stuffed, but with duty in mind, I ordered a slice of apple cake to go. Warmed a touch the next morning, it was the ultimate breakfast escape. Buttery, rich and filled with layers of cinnamon, it was easily one of the best cakes I've tasted “out” in some time.

The new German corner of Denbigh and Warwick may be slightly out of the way, but don't let that hinder you. The food is authentic, as is the service. Like many German restaurants, the pace is slow and relaxed, while the food is individually prepared: settle back, get comfortable and get ready to be full.

Deutsche Ecke
14349 Warwick Boulevard, Newport News
Phone: 833-0711
Specialties: homemade German cuisine
Price range: entrees, $6.95-$13.95; sandwiches, $6.95-$7.95; sides, $2.95
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 12 p.m.- 9 p.m. Friday/Saturday; 12 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: beer and wine
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: informal
Additional Information: catering available
Star rating: food 3, atmosphere 3, service 3
(out of five stars)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Spicy Italian Links o'Love

"They" (whomever they may be) have this advice for women dressing up for a night out on the town: take off one accessory.

Minimize, simplify, beautify: perfect!

The same applies to cooking. Especially on chilly evenings when you haven't had the foresight to awaken early, and get to stirring together a bubbling vat of animal meat, juices & veg.

*dreamy sigh for such well-spent time*

Here's a get outta jail free card, good folk. ;) This one goes quick.

Sausages & Wine

Cut the sausages into 2 cm slices. Peel the onion. Chop the onion, celery heart and carrot into small pieces. Chop the parsley and sage, peel and finely chop the garlic, grind the cloves and crumble the chilies.

Heat a thick-bottomed frying pan, brush with oil, add the sausage and fry gently to release the fat and brown on each side. Remove from the pan, and pour away the fat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan, then the chopped vegetables, and fry until lightly coloured.

Add the garlic, sage, cloves and chilli. Stir to combine. Add the drained tomatoes and the wine, and cook for 20 minutes over medium heat until thick. Return the sausages to the pan and simmer gently for a further 10 minutes. Season.

from River Cafe Cook Book Italian Too Easy

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Island Flava

What is Jamaican food? If your knowledge of it is limited to jerk chicken and Red Stripe beer, it may be time to check out Junior's Caribbean Bakery & Café in Newport News.

Located at the end of a new strip shopping center, the atmosphere is spacious, clean and inviting.

A full bakery case, loaded with cakes, quick breads and pastries, tempts the eye as soon as you walk in. The walls are bright and cheerful in yellow and green, while tropical plants contribute to the island vibe.

My husband and I walked up to the counter to study the menu. Sandwiches and fish were familiar, while rotis (a type of flatbread used to encase a stew-like filling) and baked patties (flaky hand-held pastries with meat or vegetable fillings) slightly less so.

As there was only one other diner, we had the undivided attention of the young lady who had come out to help us. She was happy to explain what some of the more unusual items were, offering samples to guide us along. After discovering that dine-in meals are available in large only, we opted to get the generous portions in take out containers.

Many of the stew-like foods and sides keep well in a heated serving tray, so it wasn't long before we were tucking into piping hot Jamaican specialties. Dave got the small oxtail ($7.50) with seasoned yellow rice (extra gravy? yes, please!) and mac 'n' cheese.

The oxtail was new to us, but reminiscent of osso bucco. The tender meat slid cleanly off the bone into a rich, dark broth. Carrots, garlic and onions made the stew familiar and comforting, while allspice — also known as Jamaican pimento — gave a complex, peppery warmth. The mac was hearty, little elbows doused in a thick cheese sauce that had obviously been made with love, butter and plenty of extra cheese!

I'd requested the goat roti, but found my box contained the curry goat meal ($7.50/small). I leaned in and inhaled the mingling odors. The goat, tasting like an almost beefy lamb, was so tender it shredded when I poked a fork into it. A golden curry sauce penetrated the meat with a savory, earthy smokiness, and mingled nicely with my side of rice and peas.
I should also note here that the meat was interspersed with bones — not big rib-style bones, but smaller ones. In our litigious society, I'm glad to see that there are still folk who place a high price on taste — bones intensify the flavors, while helping to thicken the cooking liquid.

Both of our meals came with three delicious strips of caramelized plantains. Plantains look something like bananas, but are unpalatable raw. Cooked down slowly, the starches caramelize into sticky, sweet goodness.

I tried out the coconut water ($1.50) to wash this all down. To my surprise, it was almost unbearably sweet! Next time, I'll try the carrot juice, or Junior's own specially blended coffee.

I took a fat slice of the banana walnut bread ($1.50) to go. Sampled the next morning, it had a great scent, but the texture was very dry, remarkably so for a banana bread.

Junior's menu is focused on traditional Caribbean foods. Crafted from family recipes, everything is made in-house in this family-run restaurant. The hearty portions are sure to satisfy, while the price is just right. Step outside the paradigm and dig in!

Junior's Caribbean Bakery & Cafe
13175 Jefferson Avenue, Newport News
Phone: 877-2755
Specialties: Jamaican cuisine
Price range: sandwiches, $4.50-$5.50; weekday lunch special, $4.99; meals, $6-$12; sides, $1.50-$3
Hours: 9 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: not currently
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: quiet
Atmosphere: fast casual
Additional Information: daily lunch special, full-service catering
Star rating: food 3 1/2, atmosphere 3, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pollo non loco

It was the last of the sweet peppers, and high time to bid them a fond farewell.

I turned to my increasingly well-thumbed collection of Time-Life Foods of the Worlds cookbooks, and decided a trip to Spain would fit the bill.

One chicken, neatly parted out, joined a simmering concoction of tomatoes, garlic, onions and those sweetly softening peppers. While the recipe didn't call for it, a glug of red wine went in quite nicely, and dinner was ready in less than an hour.

Don't forget the bread for sopping!
Pollo a la Chilindron (Sauteed Chicken with Peppers, Tomatoes and Olives)

a 2 1/2-3-pound chicken, cut into 6-8 serving pieces
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large onions, cut lengthwise in half, then into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
3 small sweet red or green peppers, seeded, deribbed and cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips
1/2 cup finely chopped serrano ham, or other lean smoked ham
6 medium-sized tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
6 pitted black olives, cut in half
6 pitted green olives, cut in half

Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and sprinkle them liberally with salt and a few grindings of pepper. In a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat until a light haze forms above it.
Brown the chicken a few pieces, at a time, starting them skin side down and turning them with tongs. Regulate the heat so that the chicken colors quickly and evenly without burning. As the pieces turn a rich brown, transfer them to a plate.
Add the onions, garlic, peppers and ham to the fat remaining in the skillet. Stirring frequently, cook for 8-10 minutes over moderate heat until the vegetables are soft but not brown.
Add the tomatoes, raise the heat and cook briskly until most of the liquid in the pan evaporates and the mixture is thick enough to hold its shape lightly in a spoon.
Return the chicken to the skillet, turning the pieces about with a spoon to coat them evenly with the sauce. Cover tightly and simmer over low heat for 25-30 minutes, or u ntil the chicken is tender but not falling apart.
Stir in the olives and taste for seasoning. Transfer the entire contents of the skillet to a heated serving bowl or deep platter and serve at once.

Time-Life Foods of the World: The Cooking of Spain and Portugal

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Have you voted today?

Don't let the bad guys win... get out & vote!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Slip-slip-slippin' away...

It was an Indian summer. Then as now, the season seemed to extend willfully past its due, with 90-degree heat and sweltering humidity. Then as now, I'd been pining for the promise of cooler temperatures: soups, stews and all things simmered low and slow. It's just not as much fun to roast a leg of lamb when you're sporting shorts and a tank top.

One night, there was a brief respite. The humidity cleared away as cooling breezes came whistling in. I looked hopefully to my husband: "Can we have short ribs tonight?"

If you're not familiar with them, beef short ribs are approximately 3-inch strips that come both bone-in and boneless. It's an extremely flavorful, although slightly fatty, cut of meat, and ideal for a long, slow braise in the oven. In a few hours time, the fat melts away and seasons the broth, while the meat turns tender, slipping easily from the bone.

If you're the patient sort, cook it the day before and refrigerate it overnight: the fat solidifies and is easy to remove. I've never had that patience, making due with a careful skimming session instead.

Dave didn't have a recipe, opting to wing it with simple, quality ingredients: Garlic, beef stock and wine made for a simple, potent braising liquid. Three fragrant hours later, the pot was transferred to the stove top, the tender meat set aside for a short time.

Mushrooms and prosciutto, cooked separately, were added into the broth. Twenty minutes later, it was thicker, richer and calling for its cooling kindred. He slipped the de-boned meat back in, and quickly brought everything back up to temperature.

We ate immediately, spoons and toasted batons of bread dipping interchangeably in our steaming bowls. Hearty and robust, the long-simmered goodness was the perfect foil to the slight chill in the air. At last, it was time to bid farewell to summer, and gratefully welcome a new season to our table.

Indian Summer Short Ribs

Salt and pepper, as needed
4 pounds very meaty, bone-on short ribs
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 1/2 cups best quality beef stock
1/2 bottle dry red wine
1 container (8 ounces) whole mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 strips prosciutto, chopped

Pinch cayenne pepper
Dust ribs generously with salt and pepper about one hour before cooking.
In a Dutch oven (or any large, deep pot with a tight-fitting, oven-safe cover and handles) over medium-high heat, sear the ribs, in batches, until nicely browned.
Remove aside and tent with foil, leaving some fat in the pan
Saute onion and garlic until blended; return short ribs to pot, along with stock, wine and additional salt and pepper.
Place pot in a 350-degree oven for about 3 hours, until tender and falling off the bone.
Meanwhile, prepare the mushrooms on the stove top: in a nonstick pan over medium heat, add olive oil and butter until melted and mingled. Add the mushrooms, prosciutto and red pepper. Cook about 30-45 minutes, until mushrooms have softened and prosciutto has nicely crisped; reserve until the short ribs are ready.
Remove the Dutch oven to the stove top, and transfer the short ribs to a platter; tent with foil and set aside.
Add the mushroom mixture and 2 pinches of flour. Reduce the liquid for 20-30 minutes, until pleasantly thickened.
Debone the short ribs, pulling off excess fat as necessary. Return to pot, raising the heat slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Once warmed, serve in a shallow bowl with toasted slices of bread.

and behind the scenes, patiently waiting for his own taste:

Friday, November 02, 2007

Remembrances Upon Things Recently Passed Upon Us...

"There are a few rules you should follow if you want to be happy at bistros.

First, be humble.
In a bistro one doesn't complain. At Lasserre the guest is always right (even when he is wrong). At a real bistro, only the patron is always right.

Second, don't ask for anything.
In some bistros, theydon't bother to write a menu. They may bring you something, and you eat it, or else.

Third, no praise.
The patron knows his is the best place on earth; he doesn't need you to confirm it. At a famous restaurant they are always glad when you compliment them. Not at a true bistro.

They know they are good."

-Remembrances of Things Paris, Home Away from Home by Joseph Weschberg

Thursday, November 01, 2007

NOpus 9

Opus 9 Steakhouse is Williamsburg's answer to Port Warwick's Schlesinger's, its sister restaurant. Located in the ever-growing New Town complex, there is an immediate sense of familiarity: warm wood tones partner with muted shades of blue and green, while compartmentalized dining areas create an intimate, cozy atmosphere.

In a restaurant where the average entrée is $30, the mood is set to be celebratory. As Dave and I were joining another couple for dinner, that's just what we did, starting with a refreshing bottle of Jordan “J” Brut ($69 full price). The bubbles were crisp and delicious, and almost better than the taste was the price: Sundays are half off all bottles of wine.

Service was prompt, appropriate and professional, unwavering even as the dining room grew crowded. Our server presented us with a basket of warm, house-made rolls and a portion of creamy honey butter to nibble on until our courses began to arrive.

Salads came first, the “Opus” for me ($4.50) and the hearts of iceberg ($3.75 with entrée) for Dave.

My salad — composed of field greens, cucumbers, red onions and shaved carrots — was rather wilted, but the tangy dressing was quite flavorful.

Dave's mass o' wedges was crisp and massive, sprinkled with chopped onions and sweet peppers.

The blue cheese dressing wasn't the best, far too cool and tasting very mild.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay oysters Rockefeller ($11.95) came out.Three oysters are split in half, topped with a creamed spinach mixture, and broiled 'till the Parmesan turns golden. You eat with your eyes, and the presentation was beautiful, but the flavor, though rich, was somewhat flat.

Both of my menfolk ordered prime steaks, eager to taste the house specialty. Our companion got the cowboy steak (18 oz./$36.95), a rib-eye that is served bone-in.

The server produced a penlight and invited him to cut and make certain it was cooked appropriately. It was, and had a nice buttery flavor, but ultimately wasn't as impressive as the price would lead one to believe.

Dave's, on the other hand, was everything a prime steakhouse steak should be: sexy, succulent and melting with abundant meaty juices.

It was magnificently cooked, that is to say: little had been done to alter the rosy pink perfection. Quality ingredients and a light touch prove once again that minimalism in the kitchen can be a good thing.

The side dishes for both men, included with the entrees, were red bliss garlic mashed potatoes. These small dishes, just the right size, were creamy bastions of deliciousness.

I had the seafood trio ($27.95), featuring fennel-seared scallops, Parmesan-coated shrimp and a jumbo lump crab cake. The three scallops were fat, but tough: its fennel crust held a burnt bitterness that the fresh pesto at its base did little to augment. The shrimp followed suit, tasting tough and somehow astringent. The crab cake was in truth a small pile of outrageously fresh jumbo lump, arranged next to a spicy Creole remoulade. After my first bite of this, I knew I should've gone with the crab cakes, after all.

My other dining companion ordered the vegetarian pasta ($18.95), with oil served on the side. The penne was dense and rubbery, while the bright mélange of vegetables — including zucchini, summer squash, portobello mushrooms, asparagus and sweet peppers— were uniformly bland and unseasoned.

We both chose the sweet potato as an accompaniment. It was fat and perfectly cooked, the bright orange flesh yielding easily to our questing forks.

We contemplated the dessert menu, which held a customary line-up of crème brulee, cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake. I would have been interested in sorbet or ice cream, but as both were Haagen-Dazs brand, opted to finish up with an espresso ($2.25) and call it a night.

Opus 9 has grand culinary intentions, and shows great attention to décor and service. The food, just like the opera of life, runs the gamut from heady highs to disappointing lows. Considering the price, the lunch menu is a viable option to test the waters without emptying your wallet.

Many of the dinner items are available, in smaller portions, along with sandwiches, burgers and waist-friendly salads.

For you online readers, or for local folks who haven't had seen this in print: check out reader comments HERE, and feel free to add your own. :)

Opus 9 Steakhouse
5143 Main Street, New Town, Williamsburg
Web site:
Phone: 645-4779 Fax: 645-2950
Specialties: prime steaks and seafood
Price range: appetizers, $7.95-$24.95; soups/salads, $$5.50-$8.95; seafood, $23.95-market price; steaks, $22.95-$48.95; chops, chicken & pasta, $18.95-$41.95; sides, $5.95-$7.95
Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner, 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday; brunch, 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: permitted only on the outdoor patio
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: casual elegance in a cozy, club-like atmosphere
Additional Information: extensive wine list, private dining areas for large parties, daily specials
Star rating: food 2 1/2, atmosphere 4 1/2, service 4
(out of five stars)

Corner Pocket? Scratch.

The Corner Pocket has a sound 15-year history in Williamsburg. Four years ago, owner Lynn Alison decided to take it up to the next level, becoming one of the first tenants to open in the New Town development just outside the city.

With an upscale, classy vibe, this incarnation has proved welcoming to families and older folk alike. Has the food followed suit?

My husband, Dave, and I met another couple on a balmy weeknight. Eschewing the casual cafe-style seating indoors for the lively atmosphere on the umbrella-studded porch was a no-brainer, and our pleasant hostess left us to look over menus. The smaller "snacks" option features appetizer-styled food, while the more extensive dinner menu showcases salads, sandwiches and a variety of comforting entrees with modern twists.

After a short chat with our amiable server, we decided to share a bottle of the Concannon Petite Sirah ($30). After one fierce, first swallow, I let it sit until there was some food to tame those tannins. All of the entrees are accompanied by house salads, which arrived first. These were surprisingly large and fairly fresh, composed of crisp greens, grape tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and slivers of red onion. While I enjoyed the house vinaigrette, Dave's response to his blue cheese dressing was “meh,” while one of our friends was unable to determine what, exactly, his dressing was supposed to be.

Round two rolled out in timely fashion. Us girls shared a bowl of butternut squash soup ($5.50), the daily special. It was thick and hearty, with a touch of nutmeg nudging the flavor in just the right direction. While it could have used more salt, this was pleasant and filling.

The men folk took their duties seriously, turning to the “snacks” menu for inspiration, trying the jumbo chicken wings ($7.95). These were indeed larger than their average brethren, fried in a cornmeal batter and covered in a mild sweet chili sauce. This sounded good on paper, but was ultimately unimpressive: even the accompanying ranch dressing was disconcertingly bland.

Dave ordered the fried mac 'n' cheese ($5.95). As the menu promised, these were four perfectly symmetrical breaded triangles of homemade mac 'n' cheese. A bite instantly revealed the dry, bland interior, while the sweet tomato-basil dipping sauce did little to liven it up.

The men were once again like-minded, both choosing the buffalo meatloaf ($16.75) as entrees. The sliced meatloaf was blackened from the grill, and looked surprisingly steak-like. I typically enjoy buffalo for it's beefier-than-beef flavor, but this dense slab seemed more dry Salisbury steak than home-on-the-range goodness. This came with a mound of bland, mashed sweet potatoes, and a roasted Roma tomato puree that tasted familiar — quite like the dipping sauce from Dave's mac 'n' cheese. The frizzled sweet potatoes on top were great.

I had the Corner Pocket jambalaya ($13.25), that classic Cajun stew of rice, sausage, shrimp and chicken. I dug into the generously portioned dish, immediately noticing the distinct lack of seasoning and moistness. After a dry bite each of chicken and shrimp, I pushed the dish aside.

My other dining partner ordered the wild mushroom frittata ($14.95), savoring the thought of wild mushrooms, leeks, roasted tomatoes and Asiago cheese. The reality was a bit different: the eggs had coalesced into an unpleasantly rubbery brown mass that supported a minimalist duo of portobello mushrooms.

Our waitress returned, obviously concerned that we'd each taken no more than a couple of bites. She correctly offered to have our meals re-made, get us something different, or have the entrees removed from the check. In the end, we were all tired after a long day, and elected to simply take the bill and return home.

I really liked the atmosphere of Corner Pocket, and wouldn't hesitate to return for the sleek, well-maintained pool tables, or to socialize while listening to one of the many fine bands perform. I respect that they try to make a large portion of their menu items in-house, but the food — for all of us — was a miss.

The Corner Pocket
4805 Courthouse Street, New Town, Williamsburg
Web site:
Phone: 220-0808
Specialties: upscale American pub food
Price range: snacks $4.50-$9.95; soup/salad $3.50-$12.25; entrees: $13.25-$25
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 1 a.m. Monday-Tuesday; 11:30 a.m.- 2 a.m. Wednesday-Friday; 4 p.m.- 2 a.m. Saturday; 4 p.m.- 1 a.m. Sunday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: permitted after 10 p.m.; smoking/non-smoking sections on the outdoor patio
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards, local checks
Noise level: somewhat noisy
Atmosphere: casual upscale cafe and billiards room
Additional Information: daily specials, live music, billiards events, outdoor dining
Star rating: food 2 1/2, atmoshpere 3 1/2, service 3
(out of five stars)