Friday, May 17, 2013
Growing up on a farm in southwestern Ohio was for the most part a wonderful experience (except maybe when my Dad refused to buy me the horse I always wanted). But from a culinary standpoint, diversity wasn't a strong point. I didn't taste pizza (or for that matter, even know it existed) until junior high; heck, we were thrilled when an A&W drive-in and Dairy Queen came to town. I was even more thrilled when I got my first real summer job at DQ, too - and I'll bet I still could do a pretty good job of putting those curls on ice cream cones.
"Real" food, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner (back home we called the meals breakfast, dinner and supper) was mostly eggs, meat, potatoes and veggies - and often, it came right from our own land or maybe one of our neighbors. Finding anything that had origins in any country other than the US of A was next to impossible.
I suppose that's why I went a little wild and crazy when I arrived in this neck of the woods courtesy of marrying my husband Jack. There seemed to be an Italian restaurant on every corner, interspersed here and there with Greek, Lebanese and a few other ethnic groups. Hot peppers in oil? Check. Wedding soup? Check. Stuffed grape leaves? Double-check. This must be food heaven, I thought.
But one type of food wasn't easy to find on local menus back in the 1960s - Mexican. That is, not unless we made the drive to Lake Milton to El Carlos. Before we got tied down with two munchkins and full-time jobs, we'd enjoy a meal out there every once in a while. After that, for the most part we settled for pizza delivery and Mickey D's.
But in fact, Mexican food has always been a favorite of mine, although like oriental cuisine, every couple of months is often enough to satisfy my cravings. And clearly, it's become a favorite of many folks especially in recent years; Mexican restaurants seem to have taken the place of Italian joints on those street corners.
One afternoon not long ago, though, we were driving around Lake Milton to get some photographs in the state park and decided we needed sustenance. As fate would have it, we spotted El Carlos - and in we went. Since then, I'm happy to report, we've been back several times.
The first time we came we noticed is that the place has been spruced up. Located in what's basically an old house, it's never been fancy; but now, the exterior has been spiffed up, and the interior has colorful walls, larger windows and some pretty spectacular sombreros hanging on the walls. There's a dining room and separate room with a bar and more tables and chairs; neither is huge, but both are comfortable and inviting.
Come here Tuesday through Friday (it's closed on Mondays), and you'll find $2 lunch specials from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. For that amount, you can choose a beef and been burrito, beef enchilada, crispy beef taco, beef and bean chalupa, fries or a taco salad - so one of the Mexican treats plus fries or a salad will set you back a modest four bucks. We didn't notice any on-tap beer, but domestic bottles are a reasonable $2.50 and they also have Mexican and other specialty beers as well as mixed drinks including the requisite margaritas (except on Sundays, when you'll have to settle for beer).
You won't find sandwiches here either, except on the "American" food list, which is short and includes things like a hamburger, grilled cheese, grilled ham and BLT sandwiches (all quite reasonably priced from $1.75 for the grilled cheese to $4.25 for a Texas cheeseburger). But that's fine with me; I can't imagine coming here for anything except the Mexican stuff anyway.
Food here can be purchased ala carte, such as a variety of burritos, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, chalupas and quesadillas; most range from a couple of bucks to $4.75 for the combo fajitas with steak, chicken and veggies. There's even a Mexican pizza for $5.25 - two crispy flour tortillas topped with beef and beans, cheese, peppers and onions and black olives.
Whatever you end up with, though, you'll get a basket of wonderfully delicious corn chips and a bowl of homemade salsa (the salsa is very mild, so I always add hot sauce). One order (one bowl of each) is complimentary, but you can buy more if you want. Usually, we opt for the chili con queso appetizer; the bowl of creamy warm cheese-and-salsa for dipping is absolutely irresistible (and a pretty substantial quantity for $4.50).
A few dinner salads are on the menu as well - served in tortilla bowls with greens and various toppings - and our daughter tried one at one of our visits and was quite happy. But generally, we'll go for one of the whole dinners, which are served with rice and refried beans. I'm partial to the seafood enchilada, while Jack is especially fond of the Mexican stuffed pepper with melted cheese on top ($8 for the full dinner). But the menu lists somewhere around 17 different possibilities, so there's something for just about everyone.
The dinners are quite substantial, too, so you won't go home hungry and, if you're like us, more than likely will end up going home with something in a box. The tacos are fairly large with plenty of meat, although will say the beef was on the salty side. The refried beans are as tasty as I've had anywhere, but the rice lacked much flavor even after I doused it with the hot salsa I had left from the complimentary bowl.
Another tip: Unless you're sharing it with several someones, it's likely you won't be able to eat all of the chili con queso sauce. If you're having tacos, adding some of the cheesy sauce will make them even more delicious. If all else fails, ask for a container to take it home; our server told us it heats up quite well in the microwave, and she's right.
If you go:
El Carlos Mexican Restaurant
17679 Mahoning Ave.
Lake Milton, Ohio 44429
Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
Friday, April 26, 2013
Quite honestly, I could probably live the rest of my life without having another hamburger. Some of that is because I just don't eat much red meat any more, but I suspect another reason is that I so miss the wonderful Maid-Rite sandwiches from Greenville, Ohio, near the farm where I grew up. Not sloppy joes but "loose meat," the recipe has remained a secret ever since the place started in 1926 (no, I was not a customer back then). Every single time my husband Jack and I go back "down home," though, I insist on grabbing a big bag of the treats from the brick building that's known as a hangout for the used chewing gum teenagers stick on the walls.
That said, every once in a while I do get a hankering for a good ol' burger, whether it be plain with mustard, lettuce and tomato or a fancy schmancy job topped with bacon and/or bleu cheese. Generally, I satisfy the urge at Gasoline Alley in Niles or Fudruckers in the Eastwood Mall. But when we spotted a Five Guys Burgers and Fries near the Walmart store on Elm Road in Cortland a while back, I started to salivate and said, "Let's give it a try."
Other shops are in Boardman and Austintown (we've been to the latter), and the closest Pennsylvania location I could find is in Meadville. For the record, the whole thing started in Arlington, Va., in 1986; today, there are more than 1,000 locations nationwide and another 1,500 or so under development, or so the website says. You can hook up with them on Facebook and Twitter, place orders online and enjoy a totally trans-fat free menu. They do, however, use peanut oil, so anyone with a peanut allergy should stay away.
The restaurants are relatively small, but quite colorful and fun. Food is packed in brown paper bags, you can grab a container of peanuts in the shells from a huge bin -- they're free) -- and huge bags of potatoes are stacked to form the entrance to the order-your-own counter. In addition to burgers, Five Guys is known for fries, which come in a big plastic cup reminiscent of Idora Park. The cups are so full that they spill out, making big grease spots on the brown paper bag.
Although this is a neat place for kids, it's not the least expensive burger joint on the block; our total bill at our first visit was $17.74 including tax, and that was for two "regular" hamburgers, one order of fries, one large soft drink and one bottle of water. But those regular burgers ($4.89 at the time of our first visit and $5.29 at our second) are double patties, and all the fixin's are free, including jalapenos, tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, pickles, relish and a variety of sauces. As it turns out, the "little" burger, which is a single patty, would have been less expensive and quite sufficient for me - and I'm sure would be enough to satisfy young children.
Comparatively, a regular bacon cheeseburger (now $6.69), a kosher style hot dog is $3.59 and a grilled cheese $3.59. The beef is always cooked well done and is fresh - there are no freezers in any of the restaurants, the website says. There's a veggie burger as well ($2.99) into which you can put any or all of the vegetables that are on the menu into a bun. I haven't tried that yet, but it sure sounds yummy.
The hamburgers are unusually flavorful, and in Austintown, I tried the kosher hot dog topped with onions, jalapenos and mustard. The dog is split in half lengthwise and grilled, exactly the way I do them at home. The jalapenos, I hasten to add, pack enough heat that they're not for the faint of heart.
Jack got a hamburger with his favorite grilled onions and mushrooms as he did at Cortland, noting - as he did then - that's is really nice to get all those toppings at no extra cost. In addition to finding a bit of a price hike, we ran into a newfangled push-button drink dispenser here; it's just different enough that it took a little extra time (and more than a couple of sloppy mistakes) to figure out how it works. Pretty cool, actually!
If you go:
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Cortland: (330) 372-0232
Austintown: (330) 953-2880
Boardman: (330) 629-8038
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Friday, April 5, 2013
One of the many pluses of living in the Mahoning Valley, as I've said time after time, is accessibility to some of the best restaurant food anywhere in the country. Conversely, one of the minuses is that restaurants come and go. Sometimes, the demise falls under the Who Cares? category; other times, not so much.
As longtime Valley residents (my husband Jack from birth and me after we got married), we well remember the bustling U.S. Route 422 "Strip" that was lined with wonderful places to eat. At the heart were Alberini's, El Rio, Cafe 422, Jimmy Chieffo, Cherry's Top of the Mall, The Living Room and the Town and Country where we got to see big-name Kenley Players after the shows at Packard Music Hall. The parking lots overflowed every evening, and at least once a week, our car was among them.
Today, these treasures are gone, the most recent of which to close its doors is Alberini's. That is, with one notable exception: Cafe 422. The folks who started the place back in 1939 - the late Guerino "Greenie" Abruzzi and Orazio Rossi - are long gone, but the restaurant was sold to Serdar Dede a few years back. Since then, he's kept the name, the hot peppers in oil and good food, and in 2012 he opened a second location in the former Rusty's Southside Grille in Boardman.
Our first visit for review purposes was at the original location with our usual friends Jerry and Barb from Niles - on Valentine's Day, no less - and the first time we've been there since it changed hands. The interior configuration hasn't changed much from what we remember, but it's been updated. The main dining room now has windows that reflect the Route 422 scene, for instance - much more airy and light. In another area, a large bar dominates (we sat in this section).
Needless to say, I had to try the hot peppers in oil as an appetizer ($3.50) - diners no longer get a free dish as was the custom long ago. Water was poured automatically - which I always take as a sign that customers are well cared for. Right after we ordered drinks and entrees, our server returned with a basket of fresh bread and butter.
Immediately, we dug into those hot peppers in oil. While I'll say they're different from the ones I remember, they were quite delicious (and hot enough to be not too popular with the others at our table, much to my delight).
It took us a while to decide on entrees, but decide we did. Barb chose the broiled salmon with lemon butter sauce, one of several three-course dinners priced at $17.99. They come with soup or salad, one side and a dessert (chocolate cake, raspberry cheesecake - her choice - coconut cream pie, tiramisu, creme brulee, a brownie sundae, Italian spumoni or ice cream. How's that for choices?
Jack finally picked the Italian-style whitefish, sauteed with hot peppers, olives and onions in a light marinara sauce ($16.99), but not before he asked if he could substitute less hot peppers - certainly, our server said.
Jerry and I are huge walleye fans, so we couldn't resist the walleye over sauteed greens, one of the specials of the day ($17.95). He chose a Caesar salad, while I went with wedding soup. Since the entrees also come with a side, I asked what my choices were, but the server said the sauteed greens counted as the side and I didn't get a second. Not a big greens lover, I almost switched entrees, but when our server said the fish was ample in size (and did I say that I love walleye), I stuck with my original decision.
The results? For openers, the wedding soup definitely ranks among my top three favorites; the flavorful broth is filled with a couple of tiny meatballs and veggies but not to the point of having very little broth. If there's a downside, it's that it comes in a very tiny cup - I'd love to have enjoyed a few more spoonsful.
Barb's salmon was excellent, and Jack's whitefish was a goodly size with an abundance of veggies in the topping (he did say he could have done without a few of those olives, though). Jerry and I loved the walleye as expected, but as it turned out, it's a good thing I also loved the sauteed greens. Had I not, the filet wouldn't have come close to filling me up; I hadn't eaten much the whole day to "save up" for our special Valentine's Day splurge. On the whole, we all agreed the meals and ambience here are wonderful and a refreshing change from our usual casual dining - but we also agreed prices are a bit on the high side so it's not a place we can afford to visit very often.
We didn't waste a lot of time heading to the Boardman location - also with Jerry and Barb in tow - but this time it was for lunch (Jack took this photo of the three of us). The building is quite impressive, and the decor is absolutely elegant. Soft muted grays and browns blend comfortably with blonde wood tables with comfy chairs.
There's a separate lunch menu as well as a daily specials list; our server said the menu is virtually the same as Warren, although Boardman doesn't have the three-course specials. Here, too, we had a tough time making up our minds. I was the first to decide, although I fluctuated between Cajun tilapia over orzo for $7.99 or clam linguine with white sauce at $9.99 (the latter won out). Opting for soup over salad, I ordered pasta fagioli instead of clam chowder.
Jack was in a fishy mood as well, choosing parmesan crusted haddock with sauteed greens and tomato vinaigrette salsa plus a salad with sweet-and-sour dressing for $9.99. For Barb, it was eggplant parmesan with a salad (the blue cheese dressing added a $1.25 upcharge). She also asked if she could have the standard red sauce on the eggplant and just olive oil on the accompanying pasta and was told that would be no problem.
Jerry broke ranks by going with a sandwich, prime rib with sauteed onions, peppers and mozzarella on ciabatta bread ($9.99). He picked a salad with sweet-and-sour dressing.
We also got a loaf of delicious warm bread before our entrees arrived. The lunch portions weren't huge - we all polished off every single bite - but each was well worth the price in terms of size. Barb raved about the eggplant, mostly because it was an exceptionally thick chunk and the coating was crispy, just as she likes it. The pasta seemed to have an overabundance of butter rather than "straight" olive oil, and our server confirmed Barb's assessment, adding that there was a bit of garlic in there as well. The extra cost of the bleu cheese dressing, Barb said, was money well spent.
Pasta fagioli's never been a favorite (I ordered it simply because I didn't want a salad or clam chowder). But this was quite different; light pink, relatively thin broth filled with tiny pasta rings and other goodies. I doubt I'd want an entire bowl, but I wouldn't hesitate to order it again - although those salads, with a variety of greens - looked great as well.
My linguine was especially tasty, with no shortage of shredded clams. After I added a few sprinkles of hot pepper seeds, I was in pasta heaven. Meanwhile, Jack deemed his fish excellent, and he said the greens were unexpectedly flavorful and the tartar-like dipping sauce was unique and delicious.
Jerry - who's usually the most loquacious of our foursome, for the most part chowed down quietly until every bit of his sandwich disappeared. Did he like it? "Kick-ass! he pronounced.
If you go:
4422 Youngstown Road S.E.
Warren, Ohio 44484
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. The Boardman location is open on Sunday only for private parties and one hour later than Warren on all evenings.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Even if you're not an aficionado of classic Indian cuisine - and I admit it's not at the top of my preference list - it's hard to imagine you won't find something (or several somethings) to love at Bombay Sitar. My husband Jack and I not long ago discovered the treasures inside courtesy of our son Scott and daughter-in-law Lilla - a friend from India had recommended it to them. Ever since, my mouth has been watering for a return visit. The only reason for the delay is that its location in the Belden Village Mall in Canton means close to two hours of driving time for us coming and going.
It is, however, well worth that driving time, especially if you like authentic Indian cuisine. All food here is prepared fresh daily with no additives or preservatives, or so says the website, which also notes that the curry used isn't the supermarket variety. If you're among the some who like it hot, you'll find it here (or you can request that any dish be spiced up to your liking). And if you think all curry is spicy, think again; in fact, most of the dishes we tried were full of flavor but totally without "heat."
If you're unsure of what you'll like - or if, like us, it's your first time here - I strongly advise visiting during lunch hours (on weekends, it's around noon to 3 p.m.). The cost is a very reasonable $8.49 Friday through Sunday ($7.99 on weekdays), and you'll be able to sample a little bit of everything. As we quickly learned, it does get a bit crowded on weekends, and it's not a large restaurant, so plan to arrive as close to opening time as you can to avoid what could be a rather lengthy wait.
We did just that and were seated almost immediately (and almost immediately afterward a line of hopefuls were lined up all the way outside the door). Our server brought glasses of water right away and took our drink order - you can get bottled beer and several wines by the glass if you want.
There were five in our party, including Lilla's wonderful mum Sheila, and every single one of us signed on for the buffet. My first round included a cup of sambar, a spicy soup that was delicious with a mild (to me) kick - turns out that was a favorite of Scott's as well. I also liked the Tandori-style chicken with grilled onions and peppers - a wonderful flavor that wasn't at all hot. This dish, I decided, would be fine as a stand-alone meal, which I'll consider the next time we're there - but only if I can pass up that wonderful buffet, which is doubtful.
"We all thought the vegetable pakora were excellent (fritters of onion and other vegetables), but everything was very good and there's nothing else I'd single out," Scott told me later. I concur; there were a few standouts for me as well, but on the whole there wasn't much I tried that I didn't like.
The mixed grill has an assortment of bone-in and boneless chicken, shrimp, seekh kebob and chicken tandoori and is quite delicious, and I loved the Chicken Tikka Masala, or boneless pieces of chicken tikka in a creamy butter sauce with fresh tomatoes. Most of the buffet items were in a sauce best eaten over rice, and there were at least two kinds of rice for that purpose.
The buffet items when we were there included onion chutney and achar, or Indian hot and spicy mixed pickles, as well as "hot sauce." I tried them all, and the achar was quite hot, but I wasn't fond of the in-your-face flavor. The hot sauce, however, was another story entirely; filled with hot pepper seeds and extremely spicy hot, it went very well with a couple of the bread-type items like the veggie-stuffed appetizer pitas cut on the diagonal that were next to the soup. It is not for the faint of heart, however - just a tiny bite took my breath away.
Other buffet items I enjoyed are the vegetable samosa, dal makhni (lentils) and chana saat (chickpeas and tomato sauce with a potato here and there) and a similar-sounding chana saag, with chickpeas, spinach and ginger. The latter was good but not a favorite - ginger isn't my favorite flavor unless it's almost unnoticeable.
There wasn't much room for dessert, but I did try the kheer (rice pudding) that's made with almonds and pistachios. I'm not even close to a fan of rice pudding, mind you, but I love both of those nuts and figured maybe the flavor would come through. It did, but not enough for me; the pudding was a bit on the bland side, which might be on purpose to counter the spice in the regular dishes. However, it tasted way too much like milk with tiny lumps - and there's no way to express my distaste for milk. But then inspiration struck, and I added a bunch of sugar; it may not have qualified as Indian cuisine after that, but it sure made it taste great to me.
If you go:
4633 Belden Village St. N.W.
Canton, Ohio 44718
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Friday, February 22, 2013
When someone offers a tip on a great place to eat, I pay attention. When it comes from Art Byrd - producer of the Byrd's Eye View entertainment enewsletter who named Guy's Award-Winning BBQ as his favorite place for barbecue - I get there as fast as I can. So in short order after learning that, that my husband Jack and I, accompanied by a couple of hungry friends, got in the car and headed to the place.
At the outset, I'll point out that Guy's primarily is a take-out place. There are a couple of tables - it's located in a shopping plaza - but hardly anyone actually eats there. We didn't, either; like most folks, we placed our orders and hung around one of the tables while we waited (which wasn't for very long). Then, armed with boxes, we hurried back to our house to chow down. Luckily, we don't live very far away - the wonderful smells emanating from those boxes were extremely difficult to resist.
Even though we'd checked out the menu online, it took us a while to decide on what we wanted - mostly because we wanted to try everything. Having four of us made that a bit easier, since we could get different things and share. The ribs and chicken meals are done in the sweet BBQ sauce, and wings can be purchased (12 for $7.80) in any of the sauce flavors, like Hot BBQ and sugarless Smokey Garlic - the two we picked.
Although the emphasis here is on ribs, chicken dinners are available as well (and fish dinners like catfish and talapia are sold on Fridays). We thought about chicken dinners, but only for a second; we were here for those ribs (and anyway, we'd decided to try the chicken in the form of appendages).
Three of us ordered the five-rib dinners ($12.99 each), which come with two sides and Texas toast, while Jack opted for a boneless rib sandwich with one side ($6.99). Since our ribs are all alike (ribs and chicken meals are done in a very tasty sweet BBQ sauce), we made sure to try various sides: Mac and cheese (Jack), greens and potato salad (our friends Jerry and Barb) and potato salad and baked beans (me). Everything is neatly packaged in take-out containers with lids, so there's no fuss, no muss.
That is, until you start to eat. I dare anyone, in fact, to dig into either ribs or wings here without ending up with reddish spots all over your face and fingers. Somehow, to everyone else's delight, I even managed to get one on the end of my nose (and a couple on my sweatshirt - a word to the wise to use plenty of napkins).
Once we'd spread out all our goodies on the table, rounded up those requisite napkins and poured the equally requisite beers, we took a deep breath and got started. After a single bite, all three of us ribsters said - almost in unison - that these are the best we've ever had, bar none. They're not only among the biggest and most tender (the meat almost falls off the bones), but the thick, sweet sauce is absolutely delectable. We groaned - in a good way - and licked our fingers all the way to done.
Jack, meanwhile, loved the sauce, but his sandwich bun was so overflowing with meat that it was impossible to pick up. As for the sides, the mac and cheese was singularly unimpressive, but we all liked the potato salad and baked beans. Barb really liked the greens - Southern-style turnip greens, the cook back at the restaurant told us - with a touch of sauce that added a bit of a zing. The Texas toast made a perfect accompaniment.
We had so much else to eat that we couldn't come close to finishing the wings, but they, too, are large and meaty. The Hot BBQ sauce isn't - not a single complaint from any of the other three folks who don't like it hot. I expected (and would have preferred) something with more of a kick, but I agree this is delicious. So, too, is the sugarless smokey garlic; the smokey flavor comes through loud and clear, and you'd never, ever suspect it's sugarless.
If You Go:
Guy's Award-Winning BBQ
2545 Belmont Ave.
Youngstown, Ohio 44505
Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Friday, February 8, 2013
So-called "special events" at wineries dropped off our radar after two terrible experiences at one that was a favorite place for hanging out on sunny weekends, whether just with my husband Jack or with friends we dragged along just for the fun of it. But our ardor cooled quickly when things didn't go at all well from a paying customer standpoint - and we haven't been back since.
A couple of months ago, though, my husband Jack and I stopped at Halliday's Winery in Lake Milton (it overlooks the lake) to sample a few of the wines. On a typical day, we wouldn't call it a restaurant - there are a few appetizers, paninis and salads, but it's not a place where you can have a full meal. But as we sipped our wine and shared a delicious tomato and basil bruschetta appetizer (grape tomatoes and red sweet onions tossed in balsamic and olive oil and topped with sharp shredded asiago cheese on a ciabatta roll), we noticed flyers announcing a wild game dinner on Feb. 2.
Very interesting, we said, bringing one home. After checking in with our Niles friends Jerry and Barb, who agreed it sounded like fun, we called and made reservations. At $25 a person, we considered the price quite reasonable, especially given the rather extensive menu to which other items were said to be added closer to the event. We did joke that since it would take place on Groundhog Day, we hoped one of Punxsutawney Phil's relatives wouldn't be among the selections, but we weren't very worried.
The winery, which opened last August and is owned by brothers Ron and Mike Birchak (they also own the nearby Olde Dutch Mill golf course), is a great place to relax, especially in warmer months. There's a beautiful view of Lake Milton, and the interior tables are covered in old-time "photos." Windows offer great views if the weather is less than perfect, and a gift shop serves up delicious-looking jams and other goodies.
The winery got its name from Jesse Halliday, who was born in 1774 and was Milton Township's first entrepreneur, or so the winery's website says. He built a grist mill not far from the winery and reportedly was the first township resident to use the Mahoning River for commercial purposes. Each of the winery's signature wines - three white and three red - is named in honor of the area's history - Jesse's Red and Pricetown Original, for instance.
For the record - and the reason for this review - is that other special events are in the works. As I write this, "Sweet Valentine" and St. Patrick's Day weekends are in the works (Feb. 14 to 17 and March 15 to 17, respectively), and we were told other special dinners will be scheduled as well.
When the day of the wild game dinner arrived, we were happy to learn that old Phil didn't see his shadow that morning, but it may have been with good reason: the skies were totally white as the snow started to fall, picking up some serious steam just about the time we were ready to leave and giving us more than a few concerns about getting there and back safely. But take off we did, and boy, are we glad!
We'd decided to arrive close to the start of a special happy hour, when wines and select other drinks would be buy one, get one free (beverages were not included in the $25 dinner price). Wines by the glass here are in the $6 to $7 range, so my husband Jack and I figured we could have four glasses for the price of two, buying the last two right before happy hour ended so we'd have a glass to accompany our meal. I'm happy to say the plan worked beautifully; I enjoyed my favorite Riesling, while Jack tried both the blackberry and honey peach homemade Sangria.
We called ahead of time to make sure the event would take place as scheduled, and the answer was a resounding yes. In fact, we learned, it was sold out and they'd had to add extra tables. When we arrived, the entire tasting room was filled with tables (reserved with the names of ticket holders). Around the sides of the room near the windows were tables that would hold the various food stations as well as tables holding an impressive array of items and baskets that were to be sold at silent auction. Later in the evening, there would be live music - but given the weather conditions, we didn't plan to hang around that long.
The early menu had us salivating from the git-go: Bacon-wrapped duck, venison lasagna, smoked goose, goose reuben casserole and wild mushroom and squirrel soup (well, we were a little skittish about that squirrel soup). With the promise of more, we figured we wouldn't go hungry.
As happy hour began, we got an unexpected surprise: tray after tray of hors d'oeuvres ranging from Swiss and cheddar cubes to salmon spread and crackers to dough folded over much like peroghies and filled with squirrel to walleye sushi, elk- and duck-stuffed quiche (and a wasabi sauce that had to be the hottest, and most delicious, I've ever had the pleasure of eating). Our favorite, we decided, was the cream cheese roll-ups that were wrapped not in the usual soft taco and sliced, but rather in goose "proscuitto" with a bit of fresh green onion in the center. Fabulous!
In fact, we ate way too much of this stuff; by the time the entrees were set up, we could have gone home quite satisfied. The soup course came next, served at the tables. Doing it this way seemed to us a good idea; having to dodge hordes of people carrying bowls in very close quarters could have ended up a total disaster. The first was wild mushroom, which was quite tasty. My choice, though, was the next: Antelope chili. The meat was very tender, the chili much the same as "regular" chili, and the whole thing was topped with shredded cheese and a dab of what appeared to be sour cream.
Then it was time to drag our already bloated bodies up out of our chairs to get to the entrees, most of which we'd noted on the advance menu. The only disappointment, if you can call it that, was the goose reuben casserole - it wasn't much to honk about. The venison lasagna was unusual and very tasty - venison and sauce inside round lasagna noodles maybe 3 inches in diameter with sauce and ricotta. We also loved the elk meatballs, each topped with a roasted red pepper and cheese. The thin slices of duck breast got mixed reviews - two of us thought it was great and the other two didn't share our enthusiasm.
At the end, they brought out trays filled with pastry wedges topped with chopped apples and deer bacon. It didn't sound like such an appealing combination, but in fact (except for the pastry part, which none of us liked), it was surprisingly tasty.
If you go:
2400 N.E. River Road
Lake Milton, Ohio 44429
Open from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed on Mondays.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Driving south on State Route 46 to Canfield and beyond is a trip my husband Jack and I have made relatively often. And every single time we passed the Kirk Road intersection, we told each other we really should stop at The Manor Restaurant & Banquet Center. Actually, we've eaten there once or twice, but those occasions were so many years ago that we remember absolutely nothing about it.
Not long ago, we finally took the plunge once again. Turns out the "new" Manor began operations in early 2011 - long story, but it's been revamped a bit with more to come. At our first couple of recent visits, for instance, beer was available only in bottles; but by the time you read this - if our server was correct - the tap should be working, spitting out craft beers along with the "regular" stuff.
The interior certainly isn't fancy; there's a spacious bar room and a relatively small dining room with tables, a few booths and lots of windows to keep it airy and sunny. Chairs are black, complementing the black oilcloth table coverings and black linen napkins. For get-togethers and parties, a banquet room accommodates about 100.
There are lists of daily specials as well as a board listing day-of-the-week specials - like wing night on Wednesdays - at the entrance. The menu is large enough to offer something for just about everyone but small enough so it doesn't take an hour to decide.
For openers, I had to try wedding soup, always a favorite of mine ($2.99). From the list of daily specials came my sandwich choice - it was lunchtime - the Smokehouse burger for $7.99. With a smoked hickory wood flavor, it came with smoked Gouda cheese, crisp bacon, mushrooms and hand-cut fries.
Jack skipped an appetizer, going straight for the Manor chicken sandwich ($6.99) on a Kaiser roll and grilled. Flavor choices include lemon pepper, blackened or teriyaki glazed, and he picked the latter. He also substituted a salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing for the fries, adding $1.59 to the cost.
The wedding soup was outstanding, full of tender and generous chunks of vegetables as well as greens, chicken and those teensy meatballs. At the first spoonful the broth seemed a bit flavorless, but that changed quickly with more bites when I got to the good stuff. My burger was excellent as well - cooked to order (medium) with a wonderful smoky taste.
Jack loved his sandwich, too, and the fact that the teriyaki sauce is served on the side. Our server accidentally brought him fries, but then delivered the salad as ordered. As it turned out, we both loved the fries anyway; they're much like those we used to love at the old Idora Park in Youngstown.
Our next visit came on the way home from a photography outing in Mill Creek Park on an unusually sunny but very cold winter Friday. The place wasn't remotely crowded, so we snagged a booth by one of those windows. From there, we could hear the other couple in the room raving about the food - apparently, this was their first visit. We took that as a good sign that others will like the food here too, although it was more than a little annoying because they monopolized the poor server with questions and a nonstop (and quite loud) conversation. The server, who was the only one on duty, did her best to be polite, but we hate to think how awful it would have been had she had several tables to take care of.
Both of us wanted to try something different this time, and once Jack spied the pulled pork sandwich with Sweet Baby Ray's Original BBQ sauce that was on special at $4.99 (with fries), he knew he'd met his match. I, on the other hand, was in the mood for pasta. The Scappetta, said to be a customer favorite, was my choice $12.99). Made up of crumbled hot Italian sausage, chicken, sweet green peppers and Spanish onions in garlic Madiera wine sauce topped with tomatoes and Peccorino Romano cheese over cavatelli (wow, I'm salivating again as I write this), it sounded wonderful and I figured there'd be enough to bring home for lunch the next day.
I had my choice of either salad or soup. I ruled out the salad, and when I learned that the wedding soup alternate that day was clam chowder, I quickly put dibs on the former even though I'd tried it before. After we'd placed our order, our server brought a small loaf of fresh-baked bread with butter and a small cup of herbed oil for dipping. Oh yeah, we said.
The pulled pork was so plentiful and juicy that the sandwich was impossible to pick up, so Jack just forked out the meat and pronounced it delicious. That pasta, though, is to die for. I could really taste the wine, and the hot sausage has just enough kick to make its presence known but not so spicy that Jack wouldn't be able to eat it (if he liked sausage, but that's another story altogether). In the end, I didn't have as much left over as I'd expected, but there was enough for us to share as a side back at home.
One positive thing did come out of being subjected to that female diner's conversation, I should add: Although I was trying hard not to eavesdrop (impossible), my ears pricked up when I heard the word "walleye." After that couple had left, I wasted little time asking our server about my favorite fish. Yes, she assured me, it's often on the Friday dinner menu, when fish is the specialty. Haddock, she said, is the big draw, and with customers often lining up outside the building waiting to get some, once in a while they even run out.
To avoid that problem (and be sure walleye is available), she suggested not only calling ahead to check, but making a reservation to be sure you won't miss out. She also emphasized that they go out of their way to accommodate diners' requests, so even if we're there at lunchtime, we shouldn't hesitate to ask for something that's not on the menu.
If you go:
The Manor Restaurant & Banquet Center
3104 S. Canfield-Niles Road
Austintown, Ohio 44515
Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m,. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.