Thursday, November 9, 2017

TRYIN' TO KEEP YOUR CUSTOMERS SATISFIED? NOT!


Dining out remains a special treat for my husband Jack and I, even though we don't do it as frequently nor travel as far as we used to. That means I don't get to write restaurant reviews as often as I'd like - we rarely go to a place I haven't already posted on my blog. So on a recent weekend night, we and a couple of friends decided to try a new-to-us local restaurant that might be called a reincarnation of one that for many years before its closing was highly regarded. This version 2.0 claims to have the same or similar recipes and is, by our standards, a relatively upscale place (with dinner entrees in the $13 to $18 range and wine sold mostly by the bottle). We called ahead and made reservations just to be on the safe side. Beyond that, we had high expectations for an evening to remember.

That it was, but for all the wrong reasons. When we arrived, we were seated immediately; there were just a few folks in the separate bar section and only one occupied table of four in the main dining area. Lookin' good so far, we said. But alas, from that point on, the whole experience turned into a comedy of errors. I won't name the place - mostly to protect the identity of the innocent. Rather, my intent is to point out what can, but should not, go awry (and just plain allow me to vent; almost a week later, I'm still fuming).

First, we had to move to a different location; the seats we were assigned must have been in the direct path of a heating duct - no way could we stay there without dripping sweat bullets all over our food. Sure, the hostess told us - just find a table you like. That we did; and when our server appeared and introduced herself, our first move was to confirm that it was "happy hour" - when the restaurant's website advertised half-price appetizers and discounts on alcoholic beverages. Well, not exactly, she countered - that's only if you sit in the bar area (which, for the record, was about 10 feet from our table). Would we like to move there? No, we sighed, mostly because we'd already moved once. At the same time, though, we agreed that since the deal was off limits, we'd skip appetizers and limit ourselves to just one alcoholic beverage each. Another point we agreed upon: Why wasn't that happy hour seating rule  posted where it could easily be seen as well as spelled out on the website?

As she took our orders for what would be our only round of drinks and the appetizer (yes, we caved in and got one of the least expensive to share), we realized our server was struggling to keep it together. She was totally unfamiliar with the menu and clueless about the very short list of by-the-glass wines; we actually had to point our fingers to indicate our choices. To her credit, she was very apologetic, noting - while close to tears - that she was new and being forced to run from one section of the restaurant to another to serve customers (thank goodness there weren't many, we said). Don't worry about us, we joked - we won't bite anything unless it's on our plate.

Her obvious lack of proper training became evident once again, though, when she delivered glasses of wine to the three of us who ordered it. The lucky devil who picked red? No problem. But two of us ordered different whites, and by the time she reached our table, she'd "forgotten" which was which. That forced us to take sips from both glasses to figure it out (tacky at the very least and unsanitary at worst, but then we've been friends for a long time and often sample each others' foods). It did make me wonder what on earth she would have done if we'd refused  - as most diners would have - to stick our lips on each other's glasses.

Our appetizer came fairly quickly and was excellent; we polished off at least half before realizing our server had not returned to take our dinner orders. Right about then, entrees were delivered to that only other occupied table in the room - folks who had been there when we first arrived. Within minutes, one person at that table had a problem with his entree. We couldn't hear specifically what the complaint was about, but the diner was far from a happy camper. 

At that point, we looked at each other and kicked around the possibility of paying for our appetizer and drinks and cutting our losses - our entree orders still hadn't been taken, after all - but as we waffled our server appeared (more than half an hour after we'd been seated) so we decided to stick it out. And once again, unfamiliarity reared its ugly head as she tried to find the items on the menu to write on her order pad; once again, we had to point fingers and repeat several times the names of the dishes we wanted.

Our salads arrived in fairly short order after that, and honestly, they weren't at all bad. Meantime, another group of six were seated next to us - and we watched with dismay as those folks not only ordered right away but got their entrees before we did. A diner at that table, too, voiced a complaint, making us doubt the wisdom of not leaving when we had the chance.

Then, finally, our entrees arrived (prime ribs with grilled asparagus for our two friends and linguine with clam sauce for Jack). My ravioli wasn't on the tray, though, and as she departed to get the glasses of water we'd requested at least half an hour earlier, the server told me my lasagna would be out shortly. Say what? I'd ordered ravioli. Thinking she'd simply misspoken, I sloughed it off - until she ran by the table once again and again mentioned lasagna. You mean ravioli? I nearly shouted at her back. 

The look on her face turned first to shock; but this time, she tried to argue - saying I'd pointed to the lasagna (I don't think so, but even if I did, I and everyone else at our table knew I'd spoken the word "ravioli" several times). At that point, she told me - again tearfully - that she'd ask them to make what I'd ordered. But since I like lasagna, I said I'd take it rather than chance getting what I'd ordered long after everyone else had finished eating.

Once we had our meals, I realized there was neither sprinkle cheese nor hot pepper seeds on our table; in most Italian restaurants, they're already there or the server offers to bring them. Our server, of course, was nowhere to be found, so I spotted a jar of sprinkle cheese on the empty table next to us and "stole" it - opting to forego a search for my beloved hot pepper seeds. In fairness, our friends' prime ribs were cooked to order and tasty, and our linguine and lasagna were quite good as well (although a little on the skimpy side portion-wise for the price compared to similar area restaurants).

The grilled asparagus, though, resembled long thin grass, and only the strong garlic flavor made it palatable (and then only barely). The next time the guy we guessed to be the manager wandered through our section, one of our friends attempted to ask him what kind of asparagus it was. Instead, he gave our friend the brush-off, claiming to be needed at the bar. Go, go, go, our friend responded - but please stop at our table on your way back.

Ah, but that was not to be. I watched as he took a furtive peek in our direction from the bar (remember, we were just a few feet away), then turn on his heels and head for the opposite end, where he took the back way into the kitchen never to be seen again. I must add that all four of us were appalled not only by his avoidance behavior but also by his attire. Surely, we thought, he could have picked something more appropriate than a pair of droopy cargo shorts, well-worn sneakers and a ratty baseball cap - fine for a burger joint, perhaps, but hardly what any customer we know would expect at a place like this.

Now ready to ante up, we weren't surprised to see no sign of our server (she hadn't made an appearance since bringing me the wrong entree). Finally, Jack spotted her and waved her over. She looked totally stricken until she realized all we wanted was our checks - and then the relief on her face was obvious. 

Our conclusions? Several, the first of which is the total unfairness of putting such an inexperienced and untrained server in this kind of position - a situation we lay directly at the feet of the manager and/or owner (Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer would have hung this guy out to dry). Second, the restaurant business doesn't enjoy the highest of profit margins, so satisfied customers are - or should be - a priority. If and when you make a mistake, it's imperative that you make it right - right away. At this place, making it right didn't happen for the unhappy diners at the tables next to us nor, obviously, to us. As one group left, they made it clear they won't be coming back - a sentiment we echoed as we walked out the door.

To be fair, before writing this I checked online reviews from other customers and found some wonderful comments. But I also found a goodly number whose opinions mirror ours - and that's more telling. If this place doesn't make it, I know quite a few people who won't be surprised.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

PHO VIEZ

Now that I'm old enough to have great-grandchildren, for the most part I've outgrown the food peccadilloes of my down-on-the-farm childhood. I now eat the crusts on bread, for instance (well, most of the time), and I no longer insist on removing the skin from a tomato before I'll eat it, as I insisted that my long-suffering mother do way back then. But still, no one would call me adventurous when it comes to food. When my husband Jack and I saw that Pho Viez, a new "Vietnamese restaurant with a twist" had replaced a Chinese eatery we frequented in Mineral Ridge, we agreed to give it a try. Probably. Someday.

That day came on a recent Saturday night, when we were joined by frequent dining-out companions Jerry and Barb. They've both somewhat experienced at eating Vietnam food, so they were up to the task (and we figured they'd be the perfect guides to help us navigate the menu). 

Good thing. When I looked it over on the restaurant's website, I was pretty much lost. I was interested in trying something new, but some of the ingredients sounded a bit off-putting. That, in turn, made me stop and think about how much food likes and dislikes are a matter of personal perspective. Growing up, you see, I thought nothing about helping mom pick the pinfeathers off a chicken she'd just killed for dinner or chowing down on her fried brains - a relative household staple. But tripe? Tofu? Pickled daikon? I have zero frame of reference for those, so my instinct was to say, no way.

In person, we found that the restaurant's interior has remained much the same, although with a freshened-up look (photos of the main dishes above the take-out order counter are much brighter, for one thing). We'd decided to eat in as long as a table was available - which it was - and a very helpful, enthusiastic young server followed us to bring menus. Silverware and napkins are already on the tables, along with a few add-in condiments like soy sauce, and the server brought our drinks in very short order.

The "twist" referred to in the restaurant's tagline, I'm assuming, refers to the fact that in addition to Vietnamese, diners can choose Thai dishes, such as Pad Thai, as well as more familiar (to us) Chinese entrees like Lo-Mein and General Tso's chicken. The specialty is Pho, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup made by simmering beef bone, flank steak, brisket daikon and herbs for hours (a meal in and of itself, priced at $9.25 to $11.95). But going in, Jack and I both reasoned that those Chinese options would serve as a fail-safe in case we chickened out on trying a Vietnamese dish. For the record, he did exactly that - opting for his old standby, sweet and sour chicken (with fried rice, which I hasten to add he never eats; we just bring it home for me to eat the next day).

The menu isn't what I'd call extensive, but rest assured there's plenty here to satisfy most diners - and certainly those who are looking for Vietnamese fare. To start, we got two orders of the spring rolls (two for $5.95) - described as vermicelli, Romaine lettuce, bean sprouts and a choice of shrimp, pork or tofu wrapped in rice paper and served with house dipping sauce. 

When they arrived, the near transparent rice paper provided a good look at the ingredients therein, and the peanut dipping sauce was a nice contrast. Now I'll be honest here: My first bite felt like I'd bitten into a shower curtain. Add that to the discovery that cucumbers were lurking inside, and let's just say I wasn't too excited about taking a second bite. But a little poking around revealed that the cucumber was cut in long strips and easy to pull out (cucumber-loving Barb snatched them up immediately), I gave it another try - and it really was quite tasty (that peanut dipping sauce is especially wonderful). 

Will I try one again? More likely I'll stick with a more traditional (to me) crispy spring roll or six-piece dumpling, fried or steamed ($4.95). Everyone else, though, raved about them, so don't hesitate to give them a try.

For our entrees, we all picked something different, with the intent of sharing a bite or two. Barb ordered Bun (rice vermicelli noodles on a bed of lettuce, herbs, bean sprouts, cucumber, carrots, peanuts, spring roll and house fish sauce, $11.95 with a choice of meat). Jerry's choice was Pad Thai (a.k.a., Mi Zao Thai Lan), this restaurant's version of the classic Asian stir-fry of rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, ground peanuts and chives in tamarind sauce and a choice of meat ($10-$11.95). 

Fear of the unknown almost made me go with that General Tso's chicken that I know I love, but in the end the opportunity to try something different won out and I opted for the red curry, with bell peppers, carrots, bamboo shoots and onions simmered that aforementioned coconut milk. It comes with white rice (I paid a buck more for fried rice) and a choice of tofu, chicken, beef or shrimp - perhaps thinking about my mom, it was chicken for me. The cost ranges from $10 to $12.95 depending on options, but mine ended up at $11.

Let me add here that when I see "spicy" on a menu item, I always request that mine be "as spicy as you can make it." Even then, never, ever, has any dish been too hot for me to eat. This time, though, our server fought back - arguing that there's no way I'd be able to eat their hottest version. Despite my unabashed begging, we compromised; yes, he said, they'd add a little extra heat.

When our orders were delivered, right up front we all agreed on two points: The presentation is outstanding - all the items on the plates are beautifully arranged - and, as advertised, all the ingredients are as fresh as can be. Clearly, the food here is far and away above the often overcooked Chinese buffet fare with meats of suspicious origin. Not only does everything here look fantastic, but it all tastes just-cooked as well.

I also learned rather quickly that our server probably kept me from total meltdown by insisting that I really didn't want it as hot as they could make it. In fact, there was a noticeable kick to it - enough that, after Barb ventured a tiny taste, no one else in our little party would come near it. Later, the owner explained she'd used only half a spoonful of whatever infuses the heat; and although I'm sure I could have handled a whole spoonful, it's likely that next time I order this dish I'll stick with what worked this time around. And yes, it was delicious enough to order again (and I had plenty left over to take home and enjoy the next day).

Conclusion? With no reservations, we'd say we were impressed. And here's another impressive note: Barb told us they'd eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago not long ago, and Pho Viez compares quite well. No surprise here - it just underscores my reason for starting this blog years ago: When it comes to great food, anything you can find anywhere else in the country you can find just as good - and often better - right here at home.

If you go:

Pho Viez
3971 S. Main St.
Mineral Ridge, OH 44440
(330) 349-0889

Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.

http://www.phoviez.com

Friday, December 16, 2016

KRAVITZ'S GARDEN CAFE

G'head, call me a pickle freak - but nothing in the world could keep me away from a lip-smacking good, fat kosher dill. In years past, I've been known to make a special trip to Corky & Lenny's restaurant and deli on Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere, Ohio - mostly so I could chow down on the crispy chunks in ice-water filled bowls they put on the tables (these days, the bowls aren't delivered automatically; if you want them, you'll have to ask).

But driving that far isn't always an option, and I'm happy to say I've satisfied my kosher dill tooth closer to home at Kravitz Deli in Liberty Township. It's got a long history, founded in 1939 by Rose Kravitz on Youngstown's North Side and moved to Belmont Avenue in 1970. There, it grew into a restaurant and bakery - and besides those to-die-for pickles, the corned beef sandwiches are the bomb.

As an aside, I got a hearty chuckle when I mentioned a visit to Kravitz in a recent Facebook post. That name, one of my "old" friends said, reminded her of the "Bewitched" TV show starring the late Elizabeth Montgomery. The memories flooded back as I, too, recalled Samantha Stephens and her husband Darren, and their nosy next-door neighbors Gladys and Abner Kravitz.

But I digress; this Kravitz (owner Jack, Rose's son), also operates cafes inside the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County's Poland Library, and more recently, the Garden Cafe in the Davis Visitor Center in Mill Creek Park. We visit the latter often on our photography forays to the park, and needless to say, we've been thinking about popping in for lunch. That happened in mid-December when we gathered up friends Jerry and Barb from Niles and headed over. We timed our arrival after what we figured would be prime lunch time - it's not unusual to see the place packed around the noon hour. Even when we arrived a bit later, there were a few folks there, but plenty of other tables, including those by the expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, were empty and inviting.


In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to find a place for lunch in a much prettier setting - in addition to the views from all those windows in the circular room there's a skylight in the center of the ceiling with really cool hanging lamps scattered around it. The only thing that might make the whole thing more perfect would be a glass of wine, but hey, this is a municipal park, so alcohol isn't a happening thing.

The menu is fairly extensive for a small deli, with plenty of appetizers ranging from a hummus plate to potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream to spanakopita. Hearty soups are there, too, with a daily special plus everyday clam chowder, paprikash or stew. Several full-size salads are offered (I've had the country club chicken salad, with dried cranberries in a honey mayo dressing with berries and topped with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic glaze and kosher salt and it's yummy). There's a Sunday brunch as well, another option we've been considering (and no doubt will do in the near future).

The four of us pretty much stuck with traditional deli sandwiches; Barb ordered a Reuben, corned beef with kraut and swiss on grilled rye  with cole slaw ($9.99). Jack went for a half sandwich, also a Reuben (but on Italian bread), with a cup of chicken noodle soup ($8.99). Jerry tried the in-house roasted turkey breast sandwich on Italian bread with slaw ($8.99); I went for a bit of a zing with the "Kraut on Fire" sandwich of corned beef with kraut, hot peppers and hot pepper cheese on grilled rye with a side of potato salad ($10.99).

As expected, everything was delicious; I especially loved my "hot" kraut sandwich, although in all honesty I have to say it wasn't very hot (but keep in mind I have a cast-iron stomach). The corned beef was tender and juicy and stacked high, and Barb mentioned how much she liked the slaw. All of us polished off everything on our plates; I had a bit of a struggle and was tempted to call it quits and bring the other half of my sandwich home but in the end managed to get the whole thing down minus a couple of bites. 

The verdict? The beautiful setting alone makes this place shine, but the food makes it perfect. Why not give it a try soon - who knows, we may see you there!

If you go:

Kravitz Garden Cafe
Fellows Riverside Gardens, Mill Creek Park
Youngstown, Ohio
(330) 779-8201
Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays

http://www.kravitzdeli.com

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

THE ALBATROSS BAR & GRILL

Especially since my husband Jack and I don't stray far from home these days, it's always a pleasure to find a new-to-us restaurant. We'd heard through the grapevine about a new place in the Mahoning Country Club in Girard, Ohio, that had pretty good burgers - so one Saturday evening, together with friends Jerry and Barb, we ventured in.

Our first surprise came at the entrance; you can't get there from the main banquet entrance. Instead, drive to the left end of the building and you'll see big windows and the restaurant entrance (and maybe a few parked golf carts). Once we went in, though, we were impressed. The interior is woody, warm and welcoming; as Jack said, it's a major improvement over the days when he and his golfing buddies played at the course here. There's lots of stone, too, including a beautiful floor-to-ceiling fireplace. Two separate rooms are available, both filled with dark wood furniture; each room has its own bar, back-to-back on a shared wall.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves and were able to pick where we wanted to sit, so we opted for a table near a window even though it was dark outside. Our server, who was the only one working on this night, came right away to take our drinks orders (on-tap Yuengling for me and Stella Artois for the other three in our party). We chatted a while - she was great fun to talk to, and with less than a handful of other customers, she had time to spend with us.

But we knew decision time was drawing near, so we turned our attention to the menu. It's not what I'd call extensive - for the most part only appetizers, wings, burgers and a few other sandwiches plus some breakfast items - but there was more than enough to make us waffle back and forth over what we wanted to try. There's an unwritten rule among the four of us that we each get something different and share, which further complicates the decision-making process but makes it more satisfying in the long run.

Jack was the first to make his choice - two appetizers including the Portabella Parm, breaded 'shrooms topped with melted mozzarella and marinara sauce ($7) and calimari with either spicy Tai chili or marinara sauce ($8). Barb set her sights on appetizers as well, going for the shrimp tacos (three flour tortillas stuffed with marinated shrimp, clubhouse pico and sweet and sour sauce at $9 and a dozen bone-in wings ($10). There are several sauces from which to choose, such as Thai Chili and Seracha Bourbon (there's a boneless option as well), but at our server's suggestion, she picked Stingin' Honey Garlic. I should mention that with orders of 10 wings, diners can pick two different sauces (we passed on that and went with just one).


Jerry and I, meanwhile, had heard that the burgers here are excellent. His pick was the Surf & Turf, a prime beef burger piled with shrimp topped with spicy caramelized onions. I went for the Jalapeno Melt, a burger topped with a mixture of chopped fresh jalapenos and melted cream cheese. Both come with fries at $10.

Not long after we placed our orders, the server returned with bad news; the calamari wasn't available. Oh drat, Jack said, switching to onion rings, also a favorite of our foursome ($7).

The wings arrived first on a big platter - plump and juicy with plenty of sauce. It was quite delicious, with a bit of a kick but not enough to knock any of us down (I'm the only one who has a hotter-the-better attitude; the others don't mind a little heat, but only a little). At any rate, the flavor was exceptional, and yes, we'd order it again in a heartbeat.

Once the rest of the food was delivered, we all dug in with gusto. Barb's shrimp tacos disappeared in record time, and she mentioned that the slaw was especially good. The O-rings were a bit of a disappointment; although they were huge with just the right breading crunch on the outside, the skins on the onion slices made most of them too tough (literally) to eat. Jack enjoyed his portabella, noting that it's unusual to find one that's breaded but he really liked it that way. As for the toppings, he said they were tasty but he would have preferred that the marinara sauce be put on top of the melted cheese rather than the other way around. 

Jerry and I were pleased with our burgers despite a mix-up that might have caused an issue with diners more picky about their meat. He'd asked for medium and I for medium-well; when we got them, clearly I got his and he got mine. Since the toppings were firmly in place, asking for a redo would have been a bit problematic (and neither of us really minded all that much anyway), so we just shrugged and chowed down. We agreed the toppings didn't seem to add a lot of flavor to the burgers; my minced jalapenos, for instance, were crunchy but impossible to identify as jalapenos. Still, the sandwiches were thick and flavorful and the accompanying fries were quite good as well - I for one would happily order the burger I got next time around.

All in all, we had a great time and definitely plan a return visit before long. In fact, our server said future plans call for expanding into dinner entrees, so for sure we'll be keeping an eye out for that.

If you go:

Albatross Bar & Grill
710 E. Liberty St.
Girard, Ohio 44420
(330) 545-6841

https://www.facebook.com/TheAlbatrossMCC

Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

GRANARY RESTAURANT at PINE TREE BARN


As a few kinds friends have noticed, the frequency of my restaurant reviews has taken a nosedive over the past two or three years (my most recent post was more than a year ago, in fact). Why? Several reasons, the first of which is that we simply don't go out to eat as often as we used to. Also, we don't venture as far away from home on day trips, so finding new spots doesn't happen often. And last, largely as a natural offshoot of the first two reasons, we tend to stick to places we already know and love. Quite honestly, I can't remember the last time we ate at a new-to-us restaurant (well, at least one that was memorable and/or that stayed in business long enough for me to compose a review).

Admittedly, this one is some distance from home (roughly 80 miles, in fact) - and honestly, we can't take the credit for finding it. Over the past few years, we've missed seeing our friends Marcia and her husband Rich, who live south of Columbus, Ohio. She's been my best friend since grade school; they married not long before we did, and she was the matron of honor at our wedding way back in 1962. We used to count on seeing each other for annual class reunions (Jackson Local High School near Union City, Indiana), but Jack and I haven't been able to get there since our 50th a handful of years back. So, Rich got the great idea of meeting somewhere in the middle; Wooster, he decided, was a good fit, so he searched for restaurants in that area and came up with this one.


And what a great place it is! As is our custom, we checked the website, but it really didn't come close to describing the place. Driving in, we were surprised to see the 25,000-square-foot historic 1868 landmark barn gift shop/restaurant building (well landscaped and, given the time of year, walkways lined with huge pots of colorful chrysanthemums that could be purchased at an extremely reasonable price. Had we not been facing an hour-and-a-half drive back home, we'd have snapped up a couple of pots for sure. There's also a barn mostly for tree farm business (there are some 75,000 trees on the property), a lovely gazebo decorated for fall and, if you look out back, which we did, views of man-made lakes and the scenic Kilbuck Valley.


Just inside the main building is the restaurant entrance, but our eyes quickly shifted to take in an amazing array of gorgeous furniture, jewelry, specialty greeting cards and the doorway to the year-round Christmas Shop. We poked around a little bit, but since we didn't have lunch reservations, we checked in with the hostess and were called to our table almost immediately. On that topic, BTW, since the website suggests that reservations are recommended, Rich called ahead of time and was told they wouldn't be needed. But when we arrived around 11:30, the first question we were asked was if we had one. Judging from the number of people already seated and coming through the door, then, next time we'll be sure to follow the website's advice.

The sunny fall day prompted us to ask for a table on the roofed-covered outdoor patio; our friendly server appeared momentarily to take our drink orders. The restaurant does serve wine - including a couple of varieties from Breitenbach Wine Cellars in Dover - but since our favorite fruit wines weren't on the menu (and we were facing a long drive back home), we passed on that in favor of soft drinks, coffee and water.

Then, it was time to choose our entrees, and the decisions didn't come easily. The website doesn't begin to list all the possibilities; in addition to the printed menu, our server ran through the quiche, salad, crepe and soup du jour, making our selections even harder. Marcia went first, as I recall, choosing the grilled chicken raspberry salad with a raspberry dressing (one of a couple of options I was considering seriously as well). For her side, she asked for an apple-cinnamon muffin. Since she picked one of my possibilities, I figured she'd give me a taste if I wanted, so I settled on the crepes du jour - filled with veggies - and the creamy chicken noodle soup. Rich and Jack both favored the French onion soup - Jack's accompanied by a wrap that contained chicken and veggies and Rich's with another kind of sandwich.


Suffice it to say we had no complaints about the delicious food - Jack said the French onion soup was especially good, though some might argue there's almost too much cheese on top - and I loved my creamy chicken noodle soup. Marcia's salad was indeed delicious, as was the muffin (although because the salad was so large and filling, most of her muffin ended up on her husband's plate). As for prices, I'll admit that because we were spending so much time looking at photos and catching up on what's been happening with our families, I paid little attention to costs. Just to provide some idea, though, my soup and crepe lunch special was $10.99, and I did notice several items priced a bit lower and higher.

After we finished and had been occupying a table for a long while, we saw that other diners were filtering in for a later lunch. So out of courtesy we vacated ours and headed back to the three-floor shopping area. To our regret, we didn't have much time to poke around - skipping the grocery and Will Moses art gallery entirely - he's the great grandson of Grandma Moses - but we did do a walk through the Christmas Shop and section near the check-out counter with everything from jewelry to soap (I couldn't resist a bar of the latter, amaretto scented). While we looked, Rich went back to the bakery to snag a couple of the lemon crumb muffins, apparently the specialty here - we noticed several other people with carryout boxes of them. 

Finally, we called it an afternoon - going our separate ways once again to be sure we'd get back home before the end-of-work traffic. On our way, we enjoyed the beautiful rural scenery (at least until we reached the interstate highway that would take us within a couple of miles from our house). Will we do this again? In a heartbeat. In fact, we're already planning another meet-up before the snow flies. And this time, you can bet I won't leave without a box of those wonderful muffins for our very own.

If you go:

Granary Restaurant at Pine Tree Barn
4374 Shreve Road (SR 226)
Wooster, Ohio 44691
(330) 264-1014

Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Lunch served daily 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

http://www.pinetreebarn.com

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

BEN'S RESTAURANT & BAR

What's better than finding a great place to enjoy the great outdoors and get interesting photographs? For me, it's finding a great new restaurant. That's an especially happy occasion now that my husband Jack and I don't go traveling the country (or even the state) as often as we once did - for the most part trying to keep the aging 2004 Pontiac Vibe that we love in good working condition and avoid having to buy a replacement.

This find happened after we visited Noah's Lost Ark near Berlin Center, Ohio - a wonderful sanctuary that provides shelter and care for exotic animals (think lions and tigers and bears, oh my!) that have been neglected and abused to the point that no one else wants them.

On the way to the sanctuary, we drove past a large building and noticed the sign - Ben's Restaurant & Bar. Ah, we said almost in unison, that looks like a really nice place. So when we left the sanctuary, it was time for a late lunch - and we made it a point to drive past the place again to see if it was open. It was (it's open for lunch on weekdays and breakfast on weekends), so of course we went in.

We were greeted in the lobby by one of the most beautiful (and large) floral wreaths I've ever seen. And as soon as we got inside the door, we were reminded of our many visits to the North Carolina Outer Banks; the two-level dining area is decorated in light teal with creamy white furniture, and wall art is similar to what is found in beach restaurants. There's a separate bar area with limited seating, but even though that's our usual choice, the dining room looked so inviting that we wandered in and found a table.

For the record, Ben's may be new to us, but it's certainly not new to the area; according to the menu, it was started in 1978 by Tom Bendetta and his wife Flo, who purchased an existing building. Ensuing years brought renovations and expansions, and today the restaurant seems to be thriving (offering catering and banquet menus as well as on-site dining and a full bar). 

Once we'd placed our drinks order (on-tap beers for both of us), we looked over the menu, starting, of course, with appetizers. Honestly, we weren't hungry enough at lunch to try one, but the sauteed mushrooms (prepared in a "special" homemade sauce for $6.99) and jumbo quesadillas were tempting - as was Tom's "famous" hot pepper salad.

As for the dinner options, we zeroed in on seafood (mostly because that's usually our choice for entrees and partly because of the dining room atmosphere), and we certainly weren't disappointed. Jack's eyes never left the deep sea scallops, sauteed and served on a bed of bow-tie pasta for $16.99. I was torn between the Cajun cod ($16.99) and orange roughy ($16.99), so when we go back for dinner - as we plan to do - I'm not sure which I'll choose. Oh yes, I also spotted prime rib - another special favorite of mine. Ah, what to do, what to do?

But we were here for lunch, and these days, we're simply not able to wolf down large quantities of food like we used to. Jack didn't take much time to make his choice - a batter-dipped scrod sandwich. He chose the larger version at $7.99, asking them to hold the bun. All lunches, BTW, come with fries and cole slaw.

Truth is, the scrod sounded wonderful to me as well, but I wanted to try something other than what Jack got (besides, I knew he'd offer me a bite of his). After waffling between the grilled Cajun chicken breast sandwich ($8.99) and a grilled Reuben ($9.99), I finally settled on the bleu cheeseburger on a Kaiser roll ($7.99). Since Jack got fries with his, I paid $1 more to get onion rings. 

Needless to say, we were happy with our choices. The scrod was plentiful (Jack even brought a piece home, where he gave me another bite), and the slaw was quite tasty. Usually, I'm not a big fan of slaw I didn't make myself, but I polished off almost all of my dish rather than giving it to Jack as I usually do. The fries and onion rings are good - I'm partial to the o-rings -  and my burger was yummy (at the server's prompting, I added tomato and onion, which complemented the bleu cheese perfectly). 

All that said, you can bet we'll be heading back to this place again, the sooner the better - this time for dinner. That Cajun cod has my name on it (well, okay, so does the prime rib, so we'll just have to go back at least two more times)!

If you go:

Ben's Restaurant & Bar
17729 W. Akron-Canfield Road
Berlin Center, Ohio 44401
(330) 547-7633

Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bensrestaurant1978?rf=119983394679379

Sunday, February 22, 2015

CONEY ISLAND HOT DOGS BAR & GRILL

Ever since my official retirement a good 10 years ago, going out for lunch with my husband Jack has been a favorite way to spend time away from home. Now that we’re older and neither travel as far or as often after dark, these outings have become even more special - but these days, we tend to stay closer to home. We’re always up for a new place, of course, but over the years we’ve always had one or two spots where, to borrow from Cheers, everybody knows our name, the cost of the food doesn’t require the selling of our firstborn son and the beer is cold (and better still, served in a frosty mug).



Generally speaking, chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings - while we do enjoy them - just don’t qualify on all those counts (mostly, they're just too expensive for a quick in-and-out lunch). In the many years we lived in Niles, Ohio, we were happy to be regulars at places like the Olde Main Ale & Chowder House and Silver Nugget (neither of which is still in operation) and, in more recent years, Gasoline Alley, which has just about the best wings and burgers anywhere. Now that we’re residents of Mineral Ridge, our closest-to-home haunt is Mousie’s Ice House Inn just up the road in Austintown. 

And now, thanks to a tip from our Niles friends Jerry and Barb, we’ve been hitting this place with some degree of regularity. Initially, we stopped because we enjoy an occasional hot dog (love the Jib Jab in Girard and Hot Dog Shoppe in Warren) and wanted to see how this place compares. What we found is a neat little eatery to which we’ve returned many times simply because we’ve been made to feel welcome (and the icy cold beer on tap sure doesn’t hurt).


The decor is mostly red and black, and Ohio State Buckeyes’ fans will love all the “stuff” hanging on the walls. There’s a counter for ordering and a section of booths; it’s not a large place, so no doubt it can get a bit crowded here at peak mealtimes. Based on what we’ve seen, take-out is a big part of business as well.


What we really love, though, is the small full-service bar section off the dining area. There, we can pull up a stool, order a brewski (by now, one of the friendly bartenders knows us so well that she starts pouring our Bud Lights the minute she looks out the window and sees our car pull up). I’m not sure whether or not she knows our names, but when she starts pouring two cold ones the minute she sees our car pull in the lot, it's close enough for horseshoes. And if other folks are here, or come in while we are, it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll be included in the conversation. It’s just that kind of place.

I’ll be honest; I’m not at all fond of the chili on the dogs here (it’s different from the “usual” red chili), but judging from the number of chili dogs and chili-topped fries I see on other plates, I’m in the minority so feel free to give it a try. That said, I’m more likely to order my dogs topped with sauerkraut and onions, a touch of mustard and, when I can get them, hot peppers. And yes, the peppers here shine, so there’s no waffling by me over what goes on top of mine. Diners have a choice of the more upscale Nathan’s all-beef hot dogs or the “regular” kind; Jack usually opts for the former and I the latter (which run somewhere around $1.50 each). As one would expect, the Nathan’s dogs are more costly, but not by much.


The options on hot dog toppings are way too numerous to mention, and the specials on food and drinks vary according to the day. I’ll also point out that despite the name, this place isn’t just about canines in buns. There are fries, fish, cheeseburger, Italian sausage, meatball splash and gyro sandwiches plus a number of other goodies as well - all at quite reasonable prices. I’m especially fond of the gyro, although I caution that it’s huge and nearly impossible to pick up even with two hands. Sometimes you can get them on a buy one, get one for 99 cents deal, but it’s hard for me to imagine one person polishing off two of these puppies. I also recommend that Italian sausage, and I’m planning to try the all-you-can-eat fish dinner one of these Fridays.


If you sit at the bar, you can place your food order there; or if you prefer, place it at the counter and then pick a seat wherever you want and wait till it’s ready - never very long, in our experience. Most of the food can be eaten with fingers and is served in plastic baskets lined with paper; nothing fancy-schmancy here. So hey - any time you want to take a break from all your worries, come on in - they’ll always be glad you came!



If you go:


Coney Island Hot Dogs Bar and Grill
31 N. Canfield-Niles Road
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 799-2099




Open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday (till 9 p.m. at the drive-through); 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.