Thursday, December 30, 2010

RED LOBSTER

So much do I love seafood that sometimes I suspect I was born with a few gills. Or, maybe it's because I was born on the cusp between Pisces and Aries and, although the fire sign that officially begins on March 21 wins out overall, I got a healthy dose of the fish as well. Whatever the reason, no matter when or where my husband Jack and I go out to eat, it's likely that my choice will be some kind of seafood. On at least one of our almost annual treks to the North Carolina Outer Banks, for instance, I vowed that every entree I ate on the way, while we were there and on the way home would be seafood -- and I stuck to my guns (we rarely eat breakfast, but I did learn that crab cakes taste pretty good even early in the morning)!

That's one reason we love going anywhere there's lots of water -- and that's where you'll find some of our all-time favorite restaurants: Mulligan's Raw Bar & Grille, Awful Arthur's Oyster Bar and Fisherman's Wharf on the North Carolina Outer Banks, the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, Maryland, The Wharf in Erie, Pa., and Pickle Bill's and Brennan's in Grand River, Ohio.

Of course, nothing beats the freshness that comes from dragging dinner str
aight from the water to the table; back inland, it's a bit more difficult to find anything that remotely compares (especially since most restaurants tend to cook fish way beyond the point at which it tastes best). One of our favorite places -- Red Lobster -- may come as somewhat of a surprise. Chain restaurants aren't typically our favorite places, but over the years we've found that the fish here tends to be properly cooked and consistently delicious.

Most of the time, we visit the restaurant on the U.S. Route 422 "strip" in Niles, although
on occasion we've ventured in to other locations. Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when Jack and I met up with our son Scott, his wife Lilla, and Lilla's mother Sheila at the Red Lobster in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (that's Lilla and Scott in the photo at the left. The first thing we noticed is that the restaurant layout isn't exactly the same as the Niles location -- lots more dark wood and what appears to be a larger main dining room. Although it isn't listed as such on the Web site, we suspect it's been remodeled as part of the company's new "Bar Harbor" design project in which almost all existing restaurants will be getting a facelift by 2014.

Menus can vary from restaurant to restaurant as well; if you go online to check Red Lobster's Web site (see below), you'll be asked to enter a Zip Code to see what's available at the one you're interested in. Besides that, menu specials change relatively often, so always check what's new before you decide. One that's noteworthy at press time, for instance, is a choice of three "Surf & Turf" combinations for under $20 each -- chardonnay-grilled shrimp, grilled Maine lobster tail or snow crab legs paired with an 8-ounce peppercorn sirloin. Yum!

Red Lobster is, for the record, part of the Darden Restaurants
stable that includes the Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze names. The first Red Lobster opened in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968, according to company reports, and today there are somewhere around 700 locations throughout the United States and Canada.

At our Cuyahoga Falls get together, we went whole hog (or more accurately, whole fish). Even though it was lunch time, one of us picked the Ultimate Feast that includes a split Maine lobster tail, steamed snow crab legs, garlic shrimp scampi and Walt's Favorite Shrimp ($24.99). Another picked the broiled seafood platter, with bay scallops, garlic shrimp scampi and stuffed flounder ($13.99).

I must emphasize, however, that one of the things I crave most from Red Lobster isn't se
afood at all; it's those wonderful Cheddar Bay biscuits. So popular are these cheesy biscuits that Red Lobster reportedly bakes and serves more than 395 million every year -- making them from scratch and baking them every 15 minutes. The folks at Red Lobster won't divulge the recipe (nor do I blame them), but if you Google "Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits" you'll find some recipes that come pretty darned close to the real thing.

Our most recent visit was for a spur-of-the-moment late lunch on Christmas Eve Day. The stockings were hung, the gifts were wrapped, and we'd be alone for the rest of
the evenings since our family get-togethers were on Christmas Day and the day after that -- so I guess we were feeling a little blue and decided a blast of fresh seafood (and a couple of beers) would cheer us up fast.

Here, we usually sit on the relatively small bar side of the restaurant; the tables border on tiny, but for just the two of us, we manage -- and hey, we
're right next to the bar. We were armed with a $10 gift card I'd earned at MyPoints.com, a site at which you earn points by viewing (and possibly purchasing) offers that are sent by e-mail. I always cash in my points with restaurant gift cards (most often from Darden Restaurants), and over the past few years I estimate I've earned at least a dozen.

Besides that, earlier that morning we'd cashed a small dividend check from a local bank, and when Jack put on an Ohio State University winter jacket he hadn't worn for at least a year, he found $15 in one of the pockets! Put all that together, and we decided that for once, money was no object.

In mid-afternoon we were seated immediately, although we've never been to a Red Lobster that was devoid of customers at any hour. Happily for me, Blue Moon was one of the draft choices; Jack was less happy to learn they were out of all the Sam Adams brews on tap, but he settled for a Sam Adams Winter Lager in a bottle. I will warn that beer isn't cheap here; his bottle cost $3.99 and my glass (larger) was $4.50.

For starters, we decided to share a Seafood Sampler ($10.75); this large plate was filled with four lobster-crab-seafood stuffed mushrooms, a handful of fried clam strips and a skewer of four bacon-wrapped sea scallops. The scallops, in particular, are mouth-watering; although our initial plan was to divvy up everything equally, offering a sweet smile and batting my baby blues got me three of the scallops in exchange for that fourth stuffed mushroom, a favorite of Jack's.

As we munched, we noticed a number of customers who were picking up what appeared to be party trays -- this was Christmas Eve day, remember -- and we made a mental note that next time we needed to bring something to a party, this could be a great place to go.

For our entrees, Jack stuck with his usual baked stuffed flounder (the same as he'd had in Cuyahoga Falls) at $8.99; his sides of choice were cole slaw and fries with sea salt. It took me a little longer to decide -- I like the "create your own" entree, from which you can choose any two fish items (for lunch, it's $9.50) and the shrimp linguini Alfredo. In the end, though, I opted for the Sailor's Platter, made up of breaded fried shrimp, garlic shrimp scampi and an oven-broiled fish filet for $9.75. For sides, I picked a garden salad and rice pilaf.

I feel compelled to mention that I used to love the Caesar salad here (you have a choice between that and a garden salad as sides), but they've changed the dressing so it's now heavier and gloppy (my word) compared to what it used to be. The garden salad, though, is very good, as is the ranch dressing I picked. The rice pilaf, though, contains wild rice and plenty of flavor, unlike the rice pilaf I've had at other restaurants (to the point that I rarely order it because so much of it has been under-flavored, over-flavored and otherwise virtually inedible).

Only once in the many times we've eaten at a Red Lobster have we had room for dessert -- it was a piece of delicious key lime pie ($4.99) -- but if you can possibly stuff it in, there are plenty of delectables from which to choose. Jack's had his eye on the warm chocolate chip lava cookie for quite some time now -- a warm, thick cookie with a molten chocolate center topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce ($5.99). Hopefully, he'll give me a bite or two!

If you go: Red Lobster
5701 Youngstown-Warren Road
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 544-1321
http://www.redlobster.com
Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Check the Web site for hours at other Red Lobster locations.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

CRACKER BARREL OLD COUNTRY STORE

Trying a new chain restaurant can be a real crapshoot -- you never know how you'll like the atmosphere or, more important, the food, until you try it. If it does suit your style and palate, though, the plus is that you can be relatively certain that you'll get that same enjoyment whenever, and wherever, you go.

Such is definitely the case at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, where the cookin' is the stick-to-your-ribs variety and dependably tasty. Headquartered in Lebanon, Tenn., the chain was founded in 1969 and now has 594 restaurants in 42 states, mostly located near interstate highways.

I don't recall the first time my husband and I ate at a Cracker Barrel -- it was many years ago -- but I do remember this: My meal of choice was chicken and dumplings, which came with two sides (my choices were mashed potatoes and gravy a
nd sweet baby carrots). I loved it so much, in fact, that as many times as we've eaten at Cracker Barrel since then, the only time I've ever ordered anything else is if I'm in the mood for breakfast (more on that later).

Of course
, along the way I've sampled some of the entrees Jack has ordered -- he's much more adventurous than I am when we eat here -- and everything has been delicious. If I had to guess, I'd say my love of the chicken and dumplings stems in part because I grew up on a farm in southwestern Ohio and had a mother who cooked everything from scratch -- even growing her own chickens. Granted, the large chunks of chicken in Cracker Barrel's meal can't hold a candle to the freshness of Mom's chickens, but they hold their own. The dumplings, if I may be so bold, just may be even better than Mom used to make.

I say that on good authority. Some years ago as my mother's health began to fail, she ha
d a tough time eating much of anything and, at a diminutive 5 feet 2 inches with high heels on, probably weighed 95 pounds soaking wet. On one of our visits, we took her and my Dad for their first visit to a Cracker Barrel, and I recommended the chicken and dumplings. To this day -- several years after she passed away -- I still smile when I recall that she polished off the entire plate in short order -- the most I've ever seen her eat at one sitting.

These days, the dinner with two sides goes for $7.39; if you don't care for carrots (although I recommend them highly), you can choose from many other sides such as whole kern
el corn, fried apples, macaroni 'n' cheese, cole slaw, breaded fried okra, turnip greens and more.

Before I ramble on about the great food, though, I should mention that each store is in itself a treat to visit. The walls are covered with old-time country "stuff" -- cooking pots and utensils, old photos and posters and even small tools. Outside, the open front porch is lined with rows of rocking chairs that invite diners to sit a spell if they need to wait for a table (which is quite likely if you go at a mealtime). The rocking chairs are available for sale ($129 each for the natural wood or white painted versions). They're so comfortable, in fact, that we've had one on our front porch for several years now and are thinking about springing for a white one or possibly the bright red one with the Ohio State University logo).

Once insi
de, guests must pass through an extensive gift shop to get to the restaurant desk (a very effective marketing ploy, by the way). All around, wonderfully scented candles, clothing like shawls, hats and hand-decorated shirts and jackets, "country" dinnerware and old-time brands like Watkins Products catch your eye and make you want to open your pocketbook even before you're had a bite of food.

Many items, like CDs, are exclusive to Cracker Barrel. Last month, for instance, the store began selling Smokey Robinson's new 12-song CD "Now
and Then," the first release by an R&B artist in Cracker Barrel's music program that's best known for country and bluegrass. No, we didn't bite at our last visit, but I did find a beautiful embroidered faux suede shirt for me and something for our daughter Chris for Christmas (if you read this, honey, try to pretend you didn't know it was coming). Both were 50% off the sale price and a steal.

I mentioned that many Cracker Barrels are located close to interstate highways. One of the benefits of this decision is that food is served quite quickly, so as to cater to travelers who need to grab a bite and get on their way. On the other hand, the restaurants are popular stops for tour buses -- in fact, th
e company has a special program for tour groups. So although they typically schedule visits slightly outside peak meal hours, we always turn tail and run somewhere else if we spot more than one in the parking lot.

These high-traffic locations also have prompted something new: Installation of electric vehicle charging stations at several Tennessee locations with plans to roll them out elsewhere. Installation of the DC Fast Charging stations both accommodate and encourage use of the more environmentally friendly vehicles and are a tribute to Cracker Barrel's beginnings -- the
first store sold gasoline. “Cracker Barrel was founded along the interstate highways with the traveler in mind and has always tried to anticipate what our guests might want and need as they stop in for some good country cookin’ and to experience genuine Southern hospitality,” Michael A. Woodhouse, chairman and CEO, said in a Nov. 30 news release.

Ultimately, he said, guests will be able to get an 80% charge -- the recommended charge -- in just under a half hour at the locations that will have the DC Fast Charging stations. In essence, guests essentially will be able to "fill ‘er up" in about the same amount of time it takes to order and eat a meal.

Cracker Barrel also has a "Books-on-Audio" program that's geared to travelers as well. If you buy a CD or cassette at any location, you can return it
to any other location and get full credit less a per-item $3.49-per-week exchange fee.

It is the food, of course, that brings most folks back to Cracker Barrel. Since breakfast is served all day, as I mentioned earlier, we sometimes choose that option; my favorite, I suppose, is the Country Morning Breakfast: two eggs, grits, two buttermilk biscuits, a cup of sawmill gravy and smoked sausage patties (or bacon). Jack prefers the Old-Timers' Breakfast, two eggs (over easy), bacon and a side -- he loves the fried apples -- for $6.89. Meals come with a choice of fresh-baked bis
cuits or cornbread; I admit I'm not a big fan of the cornbread here, so we always go with the biscuits.

Describing the chicken and dumplings without using superlatives is hard, but the bottom line is this: three or four good-sized chunks of fork-tender white meat chicken (not breaded), topped with lots of tender dough dumplings swimming in thick white gravy. If you choose mashed potatoes as a side, as I always do, you can get more of the gravy, and the potatoes are real.


Another of Jack's favorites -- and one of only two other entrees I've had here besides breakfast -- is the meatloaf. On Tuesdays, in fact, it's a lunch special, served up with mashed potatoes and your choice of one vegetable. What was the second entree I've sampled, you ask? Another down-home favorite mamma used to make: fried chicken livers. Delicious!

These items are, as you might suspect, only the tip of the iceberg lettuce. The extensive menu lists several salads and sandwiches, "Country" dinner plates with enough food to satisfy Paul Bunyan, sandwiches and four luscious desserts including fruit cobblers (during holiday seasons, many restaurants sell whole pies as well).

Cracker Barrel has a kids' menu as well, and vegans can opt for an all-vegetable plate. Prefer to eat at home? Call ahead to pick up a complete meal for six -- two hours in advance is preferred -- and choose one entree, three sides and either corn muffins or a loaf of sourdough bread. If all that is more than you want, you can order anything off the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus to go.

By now, it should be clear that I love Cracker Barrel. But is there anything here I'm less than pleased with? For starters, the tables and chairs are packed
a bit closer together than I prefer -- the servers even have a bit of a challenge navigating in between when their arms are filled with orders to deliver. I'll also warn about that inviting roaring fireplace -- a godsend in winter weather, of course, but hot enough that the devil himself probably wouldn't sit anywhere near it (and I advise you not to, either).

Lastly, I should note that this is just about the only place we've found where servers don't deliver breads (or biscuits or corn muffins) before the meal arrives -- always a bit of an annoyance even though the food arrives quickly enough that it's rarely a real inconvenience. Turns out this is company policy -- an effort to make sure the breads are served as warm as possible and to save money because, as officials claim, breads delivered automatically are often wasted because diners really don't want them. "As competitive as our business has become, every chance to reduce waste helps hold prices down," a company report says, adding that all servers have been instructed to bring bread before the rest of the meal on request.

From a customer service standpoint, I beg to disagree with that philosophy; particularly in this competitive day and age, I do not believe the burden of service, so to speak, should be placed on the shoulders of customers. No, I don't expect water or bread to be delivered automatically -- I agree that would be wasteful and require servers to make an extra trip to the table that isn't necessary.

But in fact, the Cracker Barrel servers always ask what kind of bread diners want when they take the food orders. Surely, if they can be "instructed" to bring bread beforehand on request, they can be taught to ask if diners at the same time if they'd like the bread brought before their meals.

At any rate, now that I -- and all the folks reading this blog -- know to ask, and ask I shall. Forewarned is forearmed!

If you go: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
5600 Interstate Boulevard
Austintown, Ohio 44515-1100
www.crackerbarrel.com

Check the Web site for other area locations. All restaurants are open Sunday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

FUDDRUCKERS

Fuddruckers held grand-opening ceremonies for its first Ohio location on Nov. 8 in the Eastwood Mall, and a few hours later, my husband Jack and I popped in for lunch. The fast-food eatery, which specializes in burgers, is located at the food court entrance to the mall in the space once occupied by Ruby Tuesday. For those who aren't there for the mall, there's an outside door that opens directly in the restaurant (definitely a plus).

In fact, it's not the first time we've eaten at Fuddruckers, but that happened so many years ago that we've long since forgotten when and where. All I can say for sure it that it was after 1980, when restaurateur Phil Romano (think Romano's Macaroni Grill) opened the first one as Freddie Fuddruckers in San Antonio, Texas. The Fuddrucker, according to reports, was described as an "uncommonly fresh burger of grand proportion."

The transformation from then to now hasn't exactly been easy. Most recently, on April 21, Magic Brands LLC, parent of Fuddruckers, Austin, Texas, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, although that filing did not include any of the then-135 franchised Fuddruckers restaurants. Fuddruckers' assets were later purchased at a bankruptcy auction by Luby's Inc., also of Austin, and officials pledged to keep the menu as close to the original as possible.

Roughly two-thirds of the restaurants, according to corporate reports, are franchises owned by small business owners and multi-unit operators in some 32 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico -- and this includes the Niles location (the franchise owner also owns a Fuddruckers in Erie, Pa., we were told).

The Eastwood Mall location also has a feature you won't find elsewhere: A full-service bar. This came about, we were told, because the location sale included a liquor license, and the owner decided not to waste a good thing. That's just fine with us; for years, Jack and I have said what the restaurant industry could use most is something close to a fast-food place like McDonald's, KFC or Burger King that also served beer (and/or other alcoholic beverages). On many occasions, all we're looking for is a place to pop in and grab a quick burger and a beer without all the hassle of waiting for a table (and a server to find us). And we'll bet that's true of other folks as well.

For sure, having the beer option means we'll go back to Fudds, as it's known for short -- we did exactly that two days later, as a matter of fact -- but there's another good reason as well: The food is great.

First, though, let's clear the air about one thing; this is basically a fast-food joint. The atmosphere is quite casual, the decor is airy and cheerful but nothing to write home about, and you have to walk through a line to place your order at a counter (and then pick it up when the little jiggler thing they give you starts buzzing and flashing). A handful of TV sets hang high on the walls, none of which I'd call very large. If you want beer, you must order and pay for it separately at what I'd describe as a "beer island" in the middle of the restaurant. If you want, you can sit on stools at the bar, but generally speaking, that's not an option I'd choose simply because there's not as much room.

As I mentioned before, Fuddruckers is known for fresh, grilled-to-order hamburgers that are served on made-from-scratch buns that are baked daily. When Luby's purchased the company, news releases said they planned to add a "wild game" option that includes buffalo and elk burgers (more on that later).

When you place your order, you can buy add-ons like grilled mushrooms and onions for a couple of bucks or less, but there's really no need to do that unless you just want those items specifically. Instead, we prefer the "regular" style -- an open bun and bare-naked burger, to which we add "fixins" from the free market-fresh produce bar.

At our first visit, Jack chose a half-pound hamburger for $5.49 with cheddar cheese (50 cents more) and an order of "regular" fries for $1.99. Had we realized it earlier, he could have skipped the 50 cents and instead added melted cheddar from the free bar -- we filled up a couple of containers to dip the fries in. For my choice, I decided to throw caution to the wind and get an elk burger ($5.99) and share Jack's fries.

Diners are asked how they'd like the burgers cooked; well done is the only option Jack will consider. I, on the other hand, asked for medium well. But when the order-taker informed me that they recommend medium for elk burgers because elk meat has less fat (zero artificial trans fat, in fact) and therefore can get too dry when cooked well done, I immediately agreed (but, I'm quick to point out, I'm quite fine with red meat that's barely out of the still-mooing stage).

Sandwiches are sold as sandwich-only or as a meal, which includes "Fudd" fries and a refillable soft drink (the difference is roughly a couple of bucks). Hamburgers come in three sizes: one-third pound ($7.99 for the meal), one-half pound ($8.49) and a whopping two-thirds pound ($9.19). Smaller sliders are priced at three for $5.

The add-ins island is tricked out, to say the least; you can choose lettuce, sliced tomatoes, two or three kinds of peppers, sliced red onions and chopped "regular" ones and more -- including a delicious tomato-based salsa that is so delicious I asked Jack to go fill up an extra paper cup with it for me. Within minutes, a smiling employee wearing a Fuddruckers shirt brought more in a real bowl -- obviously having seen that I like it (that's when I learned it's made fresh each day). A very nice customer service touch, I hasten to add!

Still another area offers yellow mustard, catsup and mayonnaise in push-button vats, plus rows of other sauces like Tabasco in bottles. Quite honestly, I can't think of anything I'd ever want on a burger that can't be found here.

Oddly, what we never found were napkins; since we ordered beers from the island, we made do with the extra cocktail variety that came with our drinks. No doubt they're hiding somewhere, but a couple of trips around the build-it-yourself area didn't turn up a thing.

As for the burgers, they were delicious. Jack raved about his hamburger, even though it was a bit more tinged with pink inside than he's like (my suggestion for those who really want it well done, especially the larger sizes, is to emphasize that when placing the order -- clearly, Fuddruckers aims to please). I'm glad I listened to the order-taker and got my elk burger medium; it was wonderful, but I can see that with less fat, it could be too dry if cooked more toward the well-done end of the spectrum. It was also quite large; the patty was roughly 8 inches in diameter and close to an inch thick.

We loved the fries, which are small-size "Texas" type spears sprinkled with seasonings including what tasted like paprika. They're wonderfully tender inside, and dipped in that warm, melted cheese sauce, an absolute delight. Apparently, we're not alone; a friend we bumped into (not literally) while we were there told us they're a special favorite of hers as well.

A shortage of time and stomach space kept us from sampling more on this visit, so I was delighted to have another go-round a couple of days later. This time, Jack had another burger, down-sizing to the one-third pounder. I decided on the chicken sandwich -- choosing crispy instead of grilled -- plus a side of BBQ beans ($5.99 for the sandwich and $1.79 for the beans). Once again, we shared an order of those tasty fries, which we happily dipped in that wonderful warm cheese sauce.

This time, even though it was close to 1:30 p.m. and past the traditional lunch hour, the place was packed; nary an empty table could be found, so we ended up sitting at the bar (we were ordering beers anyway -- 12-ounce domestic drafts are $2.50, for the record). The stools were comfortable, the bartender was very friendly and we encountered no space problem, but I stand by my original premise that given a choice, it's more enjoyable for me to eat at a table or booth.

The burger was great as advertised, and the chicken sandwich was wonderful as well -- and much too large for me to finish it all. The beans had bits of pulled pork in them coupled with a very tasty barbecue flavor.

Once again, we simply ran out of room to try more, so trust me, there's plenty here we're looking forward to trying. Milkshakes made with Edy's ice cream in three flavors sound wonderful ($3.99 each), as does the "Dogzilla" hot dog ($3.49). There are tempting salads, ribeye steak and fish sandwiches, wings and tenders and more as well as cookies, brownies and "rice crispy" treats for dessert. Besides all that, my experience with the elk burger all but guarantees that I'll try the buffalo version soon.

And in case anybody cares, our search for those elusive napkins proved fruitless on this visit as well. But this time, there were stacks of dinner-size napkins on the bar, so we just snitched a couple. Also on the bar are baskets of those individually wrapped red-and-white peppermint candies for guests to help themselves. I don't care much for them, but I suppose they'd be great for camouflaging beer breath if I were heading back to work!

Several days after our second visit, we happened to be near the mall around lunchtime and decided to pop in again. This time, Jack tried the sliders (three miniature burgers for $5), while I sampled one of the regular one-third pounders. Once again, we couldn't resist those wonderful fries, dipped in the hot cheese sauce.

My allergies have been awful, so drinking beer wasn't an option, prompting me to choose the "meal" version of the burger that comes with fries and a refillable soft drink (several kinds are at the fountain, and I picked the "light" lemonade). Jack, however, went to the bar for a beer once again.

This time, the food was just as good as ever -- I discovered how good those burgers are -- but the wait for our orders to be ready seemed overly long compared with the other two visits. That's when we learned that waiting isn't on the company's list of things that should happen to customers. A wandering server stopped at our table to ask how long we'd been sitting there without food, and then told us if our jiggler didn't alert us within another minute, to please get her attention and tell her. We'd love to know how she would have resolved the problem, but as luck would have it, the minute she turned away from our table we were buzzed.

So once again, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Oh yes -- also this time, we finally located those wayward napkins. They're hidden, quite literally, in a dispenser near the condiments and silverware. It appears we're not the only ones to have trouble finding them, too -- we noticed a server pointing them out to a couple of other diners while we were there. Hey, folks, how about either putting them in a different kind of dispenser or adding a big sign to show folks where they are?

If you go:

Fuddruckers
Eastwood Mall

5555 Youngstown-Warren Road

Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 505-1400
http://www.fuddruckers.com

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

FISHER'S CAFE & PUB

Autumn is my favorite time of the year -- even if my allergies don't agree -- so we've been running thither and yon of late to chase the reds, golds and browns of the changing leaves before they all fall off and we're faced with the vast photographic wasteland we call winter. Most often, that means visiting a park, and one of the biggies is Ohio's vast Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Truth is, t
he park has plenty to offer most of the year, whether it be watching the great blue herons building nests at their rookery in May, cheering on our "side" during the lively Civil War reenactment at Hale Farm and Village in August or hitching a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in the fall.

Needless to say, we tend to get hungry along the way; and happily, we've found a wonderful place at which to satisfy our cravings each time we head in this direction: Fisher's Cafe & Pub in Peninsula. In summer, we might enjoy a cool salad or wrap sandwich on the outdoor patio in summer. When the weather heads toward nasty, we'll snuggle up inside with a hearty bowl of C
anal Chili.

That chi
li, by the way, is the original recipe created by George Fisher Sr., who founded the restaurant back in 1958 (the year my husband Jack graduated from high school). A bowl will set you back just $3.99 unless you prefer to "deluxe" it up with cheddar cheese and sour cream toppings -- in which case you'll pay an extra buck.

The cafe, I should add, is now in its third generation, under the ownership of "Grandpa George's" son Dick Fisher. Grandson Rich Fisher is the manager (or so the W
eb site says).

On the downside, the view from the outdoor deck isn't all that wonderful despite Peninsula's location smack dab in the middle of the national park, but y
ou can get a taste of Main Street activity in the historic village. And, the restaurant folks have added lots of plants and flowers as a buffer between the pub and parking lot.

When we're inside, we usually sit on the smaller bar side, where there's lots of dark wood complemented by dark green and mauve and windows to let the sunshine in. Fisher's isn't exceptionally large, so it can get pretty crowded during peak eating hours. This is a very casual place, so as a warning to those who might care, the sandwich and salad choices outnumber the dinner entrees.

There's nothing wimpy about the appetizer list, though -- there are at least a dozen to choose from, including my favorite, battered eggplant frie
s ($6.29). These tasty strips, topped with grated Parmesan cheese, are served with a delicious bistro sauce, making them almost a meal in and of themselves. More than once, in fact, I've ordered the eggplant fries and the spinach artichoke dip (filled with marinated artichokes and oodles of Parmesan cheese) instead of an entree.

You can, and we often do, substitute those eggplant fries for one of the "regular" sides for an extra $1.59 -- an option I always request when I'm ordering a sandwich or dinner entree.


Still another favorite appetizer is the grilled Caribbean shrimp ($7.49); the main seasonings are Jamaican spices and basting with a spicy sauce. These are so special, in fact, that we actually crave them -- e
ven to the point of including them in a Business Journal article on appetizers that are worth driving out of the local area to get.

When it comes to sandwiches, you'll have a tough time deciding what you want (which, I suppose, is a good thing for the restaurant si
nce you'll have to come back to try others). We do recommend the grilled yellow fin tuna sub, which is basted in teriyaki-honey glaze and topped with pineapple salsa ($8.99).

Jack's especially fond of the Philly Steak & Cheese sandwich, with thin slices of mea
t plus grilled onions, mushrooms and melted Swiss cheese ($8.29). The burgers here are outstanding as well, with a couple of more unusual offerings. There's the Raider Burger, in honor of the University of Mount Union (nee Mount Union College) Raiders -- half a pound of meat topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, fries, hot wing sauce, jalapeno peppers, onion tanglers and blackened with Cajun spices -- whew!

Or, there's the Spicy Black Bean Burger, a low-fat vegetarian treat topped with lettuce and tomato (which I admit I haven't tried, nor will I ever -- I dislike black beans almost as much as cucumbers)!

Don't like burgers? Choose from a long list of chicken sandwiches and wraps; most of the latter have grilled chicken as the meat and various fillings to make them different.

On our most recent visit, I enjoyed the Bourbon Street Chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato and barbecue sauce ($8.29), while Jack couldn't pass up his favorite Philly Steak & Cheese. My chicken breast was exceptionally tender and juicy and the bourbon sauce had just the right amount of "kick." I substituted those eggplant fries, while Jack stuck with the regular kind.

At first glance, I thought perhaps I'd made a mistake by ordering them this time -- the outside looked dark and crispy as if they'd been deep-fried too long -- but I quickly learned that looks can be deceiving. Not only were they not over-cooked, they were tender and flavorful as usual. Best of all was the accompanying thousand island-type dip that seemed to be abundantly laced with horseradish, although it really wasn't hot at all. In fact, the heat-hating Jack loved it too, sneaking in dips with his "regular" fries when he thought he could get away without getting his hand smacked.

If you want a lighter meal, be sure to check out the dinner salads, simply because they're wonderful. My favorite is the Strawberry Mandarin Salad, with fresh strawberries, mandarin oranges, grapes, dried cranberries and walnuts with or without grilled chicken. I prefer the wild raspberry dressing, but there are plenty of other options.

As I mentioned earlier, the list of entrees is a bit less lengthy -- the menu at the Web site lists just seven. But that's certainly not a problem in my eyes given the choices. How about the 6-ounce Caribbean bourbon salmon filet ($16.99) or a half-slab of hickory smoked pork ribs with Fisher’s award-winning barbecue sauce ($11.99).

There are a couple of steaks, too -- New York strip and top sirloin. Fish-lovers have a couple of choices besides the salmon, such as beer battered cod and a catfish fillet. If you try either, let me know how you like it, though -- I avoid breading on fish whenever possible, and I simply don't care for catfish (or oysters, if anybody cares to know).

When you stop here for lunch, dinner or anything in between, do try to leave some extra time to roam the village streets. The village has been deemed a national historic district, and the reason is evident in the array of small shops, restaurants and galleries that line the streets. If you want, you can hop aboard the scenic railway at the Peninsula Depot as well.

If you go: Fisher's Cafe & Pub
1607 Main St.
Peninsula, Ohio
(330) 657-2651
http://www.fisherscafe.com

Fall 2010 hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Check the Web site for seasonal events, hours and prices.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Buena Vista Cafe & Sports Bar

The Buena Vista Cafe has been around longer than I've been living in northeast Ohio. The restaurant started in 1956, and back then I was starting my sophomore year -- together with my 27 other classmates -- at a very small country school in the southwestern part of the Buckeye State and the only "Niles" I'd ever heard of was in Michigan (still is). I landed in Ohio's version of the town in the summer of 1962, right before I married a Niles native who had just graduated from Kent State University and accepted a teaching job at his high-school alma mater (and where, for the record, he retired in 1995 after 33 years at that same school).

Truthfully, I don't recall when I first visited the Buena Vista, but I do know when I began eating there with some regularity. It was somewhere around late 1988, when I'd started working for an advertising agency in downtown Warren and a couple of us in my public relations department would make the short drive for lunch. I still recall the delicious "personal" size pizzas -- the veggie or Greek versions were my favorites -- and an equally yummy appetizer that consisted of three or four boneless barbecue ribs.

Other times, I'd round up my husband Jack and off we'd go for lunch, usually to have the Greek fried chicken the Buena Vista is perhaps best known for. Then, we'd order a pizza to take home (since Jack isn't a fan of my favorite pizza toppings, we'd get the Briar Hill, with green peppers, pepperoni, parmesan cheese and red sauce, which I love as well).

Taking home a pizza is a treat we enjoy to this day, but the Buena
Vista also serves up a wonderful variety of sandwiches and entrees that rival more "upscale" restaurants. And these days, we're not limited to Warren; the Buena Vista now operates "BV-II-GO" sites in Niles and Howland and an Uncle Nick's Chicken in Austintown -- all primarily take-out with a more limited menu that includes that terrific chicken, pizza, salads and a couple of desserts. Just the other day, in fact, our entire family enjoyed a huge bucket of mixed chicken pieces from the BV at a get-together.

At the restaurant, we most often sit on the bar side just because we prefer a very relaxed atmosphere that's close to the beer (there's a spacious dining room at t
he back where we've enjoyed great meals with friends on a couple of occasions). The bar side, though, is a bit more interesting, with several TV sets and an upside-down replica of a football field hanging from the ceiling as well as football jerseys and helmets from local and professional teams hung on the walls and stashed on shelves.

The restaurant prices are quite reasonable, too -- especially the daily lunch specials. On a recent visit, I chose the "mile high" meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a vegetable for $6.99,
although for several minutes it was a toss-up between that and the creamed chicken and biscuits, also with mashed potatoes and a veggie for $5.99. For good measure, I added an appetizer of hot peppers in oil for $2.59, fully expecting to eat the entire batch myself. Then too, I always look to see if they have my favorite kielbasa and baked beans (which comes with mashed potatoes) -- but on this day, it was not to be.

As for Jack, he simply couldn't resist the linguini with red clam sauce for $10.99. Learning that they had Blue Moon and Sam Adams Winter Lager on tap, we went for them -- but after ordering two each and discovering they cost $4 apiece, we'll stick to plain old domestics next time out.

Jack chose a salad with his meal, and for some silly reason he got sweet and sour dressing. They accommodated his request for "double" by bringing two containers. His unusual (for him) choice of dressing turned out to be a blessing -- it was absolutely delicious and he devoured almost all of it-- except for the shredded carrots and any greens that didn't look like iceberg lettuce, which happily he passed on to me to finish.

I always have a concern that when we order meals that require a substantially different amount of time to prepare -- like the linguini and my meatloaf, which no doubt is made early in the day and simply reheated -- that one entree will arrive lukewarm because it sat and waited for the other to be finished so they could be delivered at the same time. Not so here; I watched as the kitchen folks poured the red clam sauce over Jack's just-cooked linguini; and then our server, who was there to pick up the plates for delivery, waited a few seconds while my meatloaf meal -- also straight from the pot -- was put on the plate. Both were the perfect temperature.

For the record, the meatloaf chunk was gigantic -- close to three inches thick and close to three times that long. It was accompanied by oodles of tasty beef gravy and the mashed potatoes, which were topped by tiny, crispy onion straws. The vegetable was fresh green beans, cooked tender as I prefer them and quite tasty.

The peppers actually weren't very hot, but they sure were good (the seeds had a bit of a zing, but the fact that Jack was able to eat at least three of the sliced rings with bread is a clear indication that to me, they were on the mild side. The flavor and crunch was wonderful, and I think I detected a slightly sweet tinge that might have come from a titch of sugar. The herbs permeated the oil, and when the peppers were gone, it made a great dipping sauce for the fresh sliced bread that came with our meals.

Partly because Jack isn't fond of many vegetables and I don't get to eat many at home, I tend to go crazy when we eat out. As a result, I used up much of my appetite on the peppers in oil and green beans, leaving plenty of that huge meatloaf to take home (it made enough for dinner for both of us the next evening). Jack had plenty of his linguine to take home as well, but he ended up polishing it off later that same evening.

On another recent visit, I looked long and hard at the BV Club sandwich ($7.99); it's filled with turkey, ham, bacon, Swiss cheese, onion, tomato and spicy mustard on Italian bread, and it sounded wonderful. Another favorite is the Reuben sandwich, which is filled with the "stuff" you'd expect, for $7.99. Of course, it's always hard to pass up Uncle Nick's Greek Fried Chicken -- dinners range from about $6.50 to $8, and you can get all white or all dark pieces. Although the menu says to allow 30 minutes for all chicken dinners, we've never had to wait anywhere near that long.

For the record, Uncle Nick's original breaded house wings are great as well, tossed with your choice of several sauces (we prefer the buttery garlic). This time out, though, we had something a bit more substantial in mind.

As is our custom, we ordered a 12-inch Brier Hill pizza to go when we placed our eat-in order ($8.99). If you want to try the pizza, by the way, you can order a slice of bar pizza for just $1.

I couldn't resist those hot peppers and oil once again, and although it was lunchtime, I considered getting Chicken Franchaise, in a delicious lemon sauce with a choice of potato or rice for $11.99. That creamed chicken over biscuits was tempting as well, as were the several half-sandwich/soup combos at great prices (a sloppy joe combo, for instance, was $4.99).
In fact, in the end I decided on on one of those combos -- half a meatball sub smothered in melted cheese and sauce. Stuffed full with two huge meatballs, it was more than enough for me and I took half of it home (it was, I'll add, way too sloppy to pick up, so I ate it with a knife and fork).

Jack went for the mile-high meatloaf I'd had on my earlier visit, substituting cole slaw for the green beans. We both love the slaw; it's finely shredded and mayonnaise-based. His meatloaf chunk was a good 4 inches high and delicious with the crunchy onion straws on top, and he got a basket of fresh Italian bread as well.

I chose wedding soup to go with my half-sandwich -- always one of my favorite soups. It was piping hot and filled with lots of greens, tiny meatballs, chicken chunks in a very tasty broth. I sensed a hint of ginger, reminiscent of some Greek dishes I've enjoyed.

The Buena Vista also has a banquet menu; per-person costs for a buffet range from $11.99 to $15.99, and there are plenty of delicious choices available. Also offered are full-course, sit-down dinners that would be wonderful for wedding rehearsal or anniversary parties.

I just learned from the BV's Web site that it's almost time for the Clam Bake -- and since it's a couple of weeks away, I'll bring it to your attention here. From noon to 7 p.m. on Oct. 31 (that's a Sunday), guests can choose "Surf & Turf," consisting of clam chowder, a mixed green salad, a 1-1/2 pound whole Maine lobster, filet of sirloin, red roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables and dessert for $49.99. Or, those who want to go the whole nine yards can pay $79.99 for a traditional clam bake, which includes the same items as the Surf & Turf but adds all-you-can-eat clams. Reservations are required, so I advise calling right away if you're interested.

If you go: Buena Vista Cafe & Sports Bar
1305 Buena Vista Ave.
Warren, Ohio
(330) 372-4493
http://www.buenavistacafe.biz

Open Monday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11 am. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday drive-through open only 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

THE LAKE TAVERN

I admit to coming to the party late. For quite some time, my husband Jack and a few of his retired teacher colleagues from Niles McKinley High School have made The Lake Tavern in Mecca a gathering spot for their "catching up" lunches. The two of us have passed by on occasion too, usually on our way home from covered bridge and/or wine forays to Ashtabula County.

And ev
ery time, he'd tell me we really should have a meal here, to which I'd heartily agree. But every time, we'd just had lunch or dinner somewhere else, so a stop just wasn't prudent at that juncture.

Finally, we made it -- and I'm happy to say we've been back several times and have put this place on our list of favorite restaurants. Most recently, we s
topped after a fall photography outing to Mosquito Lake, which is just around the corner.

The food here is great -- but more on that in a bit. The first thing I noticed is the old wood building and the interior, which reminds me of a rustic home in the woods. Turns out there's a good reason for that: It was built in 1837 as a home by David and Polly Lake (surprise -- the Tavern is named for a family, not because of its proximity to Mosquito Lake, which wasn't even there when the house was built). Many of the home's original features have been incorporated in the decor; the bar top, for instance, is chestnut and was cut from one of the home's basement beams, and upright posts are from the original building.

The dining area, which includes the bar, has a number of tables and chairs, and walls are decorated with nostalgic signs, neon lights and even a jukebox. It's comfortable, not fancy, and clearly popular with the folks who live nearby. An outdoor deck offers a wonderful alternative in good weather, and it's closed-in and accessible only through the restaurant since alcohol isn't allowed outside the premises. Sports and other special events are common here as well; the tavern has both indoor pool and dart leagues a well as two horseshoe pits and corn hole boards outdoors.

Speaking of alcohol, I'll mention that the goodly number of wines and beers here are quite re
asonably priced; Jacobs Creek Chardonnay, for instance, is just $3 a glass. On-tap beers go for $1.25 for a 12-ounce glass, and $2 will get you 23 ounces (our usual choice).

As for the food, be sure to check out the daily specials first. On one recent Thursday afternoon visit, I noticed a dozen wings for $4.95 and decided to give them a try. There are about two dozen sauce choices including at least three that are somehow connected with garlic -- a "must-have" on my wings. The one that sounded best was garlic pepper, but I checked with our server first to make sure it's a butter-based sauce and not the dry kind I've had -- and been quite disappointed with -- elsewhere.

Assured that indeed, there was butter, I made my choice, adding to that an order of the macaroni and cheese bites appetizer ($3.95). These are, for the
record, the best I've had anywhere; the breading isn't too heavy, and the flat triangle shapes are filled with ooey-gooey and delicious melted cheese. No dipping sauce is needed -- nor does any come with them -- but we both found that the buttery garlic pepper wing sauce makes a tasty dip if that's your style.

Meanwhile, Jack ordered The Lake Tavern Reuben ($5.95), with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on rye toast. Don't like all the extras? Try the plain extra-lean corned beef sandwich, also $5.95.
The wings are quite large as wings go these days, and the sauce is reminiscent of the buttery parmesan pepper wings at Quaker Steak & Lube before somebody got the bright idea to change it to a thick goop that to me is awful. These wings are back to swimming in butter, parmesan and black pepper, and after the first bite, my craving for more kicked in.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the seafood entrees here are great, too. I've tried the broiled white fish (two pieces seasoned with lemon pepper, Cajun or plain for $9.95) and the grilled Norwegian Atlantic salmon filet, served either plain, with teriyaki or Caribbean seasonings for $12.95. Also on the menu are a couple of seafood pastas, ribs and steak, so there's plenty left for us to try later.
Sandwiches, though, seem to be the most plentiful option, ranging from egg, tuna and chicken salad to a hot sausage hoagie to a variety of wraps. On our most recent visit, Jack tried the Buffalo shrimp wrap, stuffed with spicy fried shrimp, lettuce, tomato and onion with a choice of cheese and dressing (he picked provolone and bleu cheese, for the record). Priced at $6.95, he deemed it the best wrap sandwich he's ever had. Half of it came back home with us, and he repeated that best-ever opinion as he polished it off.

The appetizer list is quite impressive as well, with at least two dozen from which to choose (giving us lots of possibilities to try on future visits). In addition to those mac-and-cheese bites, the onion rings are quite good, and we just found a new gem: Pepperoni pizza balls served with marinara sauce. For $4.95 you get about a dozen with a diameter about the size of a 50-cent piece, and they're wonderful. Somewhat crispy on the outside, they're filled with melted mozzarella and pepperoni bits. The marinara sauce is delicious too, although the pizza balls are good enough to stand on their own.

It is perhaps the burgers, though, that really shine here. The variety seems almost endless, and in addition to dozens of flavor and add-on varieties (like sour cream and onion, horseradish, salsa, grilled onion and brown sugar), diners can choose chicken or bison for a buck more. Never having tasted bison before, I decided to give it a try at our most recent visit, picking the one with Cajun spices, pepper Jack cheese and sliced jalapenos ($5.25 for beef, $6.25 for the bison). Since they're cooked to order, I asked for medium well just in case -- I love my steaks just shy of still mooing, but ground meat is another story altogether.

All the sandwiches here come with chips, but you can switch to fries for $1 more and add mushrooms or bacon for another buck. Since we'd just polished off most of two appetizers, we stuck with the chips. For the record, they were very fresh, as was the crispy dill pickle spear.

As for the bison, it was delicious -- and nearly indistinguishable from beef except it was noticeably leaner (guess I'd liken it to eating upscale cow). After polishing off the whole thing, though, I felt both self-righteous and sad. The self-righteous part no doubt stemmed from knowing that bison meat is an excellent choice in terms of health benefits -- reportedly it's lower in calories than grilled chicken breast and very low in saturated fat.

The gloomy feeling I'm sure was an offshoot of my sudden flashback to the times we've stopped at that bison ranch north of Salem to see if the giants are out so we can snap a few photos. Good grief, I reasoned, it's possible I just ate one of the guys who posed for me!

If you go:

THE LAKE TAVERN
6071 State Route 46 NE
Mecca, Ohio 44410
(330) 637-1971
www.laketavern.net

The kitchen is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 11 am. to 1 a.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

ROTELLI

Editor's note: When my husband and I stopped for lunch at the Rotelli restaurant in Austintown, Ohio, on Aug. 25, we found a sign on the door saying this location is closed. No word yet on whether the locations in Liberty Township or Boardman have closed as well, so stay tuned!

Some might think that the last thing the Mahoning Valley needs is another Italian restaurant, but when one of the newer kids on the block is Rotelli, I think it's a welcome
addition. Headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla., parent company Rotelli Pizza and Pasta Inc. has stores in six states including Ohio and Pennsylvania. Locally, there are restaurants in Austintown, Liberty and Boardman townships.

My husband Jack and I noticed the place some time ago when we'd stopped at the corner of State Route 46 and Mahoning Avenue for a treat at the Cold Stone Creamery in the shopping plaza there. Making a mental note that we should check it out sometime, I then discovered a couple of coupons in that year's Entertainment Book -- and that was all it took to get us inside the doors.

Having a discount coupon is a good incentive to get us to try a restaurant, but we certainly won
't return if the food isn't great. That's certainly not the case at Rotelli; we've eaten here many times since that first stop -- with and without coupons -- and we really love the food.

The restaurant is fairly small and not what I'd describe as fancy, but there's a very Italian flavor that shows up in paintings and other decor (not to m
ention the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen at the back). There's a small bar near the kitchen, too, as well as comfortable booths and tables. We've never come here at peak mealtime hours, and so far, we've never had a problem being seated immediately.

One of our measures of a good restaurant may not be something anyone else cares about, but for folks like us who enjoy beer or wine with our meals, it's important that they don't cost more than the meals do. Most of the time, there's a special deal going (recently, for instance, it was Sam Adams Summer Ale at two bottles for $5). Nothing is on tap here, by the way, but neither is anything outrageously priced.

Alcohol isn't the only thing that's on special here, either; Rotelli is known for its "World Fa
mous Lunch Special," which consists of one slice of pizza, soup or a salad and half of a submarine sandwich -- a very good deal for just $5.99. Sandwich choices include chicken, eggplant or meatball parmigiana, grilled spa chicken, Italian combo or ham and cheese. And, at most locations, Tuesday night is "Pizza Night," when a 16-inch hand-tossed cheese pizza goes for under $7 at most locations. Still other specials are posted on a board just inside the entrance.

Also a nice (and delicious) touch is the basket of hot rolls; you don't get butter, but it's really not needed, either. The tops are nicely browned, buttery and sprinkled with garlicky cheese sprinkles; we've fallen into the trap of eating them all before our entrees arrived, ending up with not much room left for the main part of our meals.

The first time we ate here, my entree of choice was Penne Chicken and Broccoli, and I'm happy to say I've ordered it most of the times we've come her
e -- yes, it's that good. You get a substantial bowl of grilled chicken, sauteed broccoli, garlic and fresh tomatoes in a "light" white wine sauce over penne; even the lunch portion is large enough that I always bring some home. The broccoli is tender but not mushy, and the grilled chicken flavor is distinctive. It is that wine sauce, though, that really makes this dish a standout.

Once in a while, though, I feel more adventurous -- and I'm happy to report that I've yet to be disappointed. One entree that's become a favorite is Angel Hair Alla Rotelli; this one is loaded with mushrooms, artichokes, peas and sun-dried tomatoes in basil garlic white wine sauce. Here's another: Ziti Diavolo, in which garlic, onions, green peppers, sauteed sausage and chicken breast chunks are covered with hot Sicilian sauce (this one packs a zing).


Just recently, I discovered four new pastas on the menu for $9.99 each; the one with red and green roasted peppeers, roasted garlic and onions with nothing more than olive oil sounded great -- and it was. The flavor was very mild and I added some salt and red pepper seeds for zest, but I'd get it again in a heartbeat. As with most entrees, you can choose the type of pasta you want -- I picked plain old spaghetti. The bowl was large enough that I brought about half of it home.

Lunchtime options include fresh pizza -- traditional or gourmet -- that are excellent, as well as a number of calzones, stromboli and those aforementioned subs. Lunch and dinner entrees, by the way, come with eithe
r soup or a salad. We both love the wedding soup here; the broth is extremely flavorful and it's filled with chunks of chicken, tiny meatballs, loads of greens and a few carrots. Most times, though, Jack opts for clam chowder, which he says is quite delicious.

On one of my adventurous outings recently, I decided to try pasta fagioli. I've never been particularly fond of it, but this one I wouldn't hesitate to try again. The broth was light red and slightly creamy -- nowhere near heavy -- and swimming inside were finely chopped carrots, tomatoes and teensy sewer pipe-style pasta. Yum!

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of Jack's favorites; topping the list is linguine with spicy red clam sauce -- and no, it's not too spicy for him (I, on the other hand, am a firm believer that tomato sauce and fish don't play well together and prefer the white clam sauce, which is delicious as well). Jack also loves the eggplant parmigiana, which includes a layer of ricotta cheese and is baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It includes a side of pasta. The lunch portion, which is quite substantial, costs just $6.99.

Most recently, as we returned home from photographing the gorgeous dahlias in the garden at Mill Creek Park, I noticed several tilapia entrees on the specials board, all priced at $10.99. Fish-lover that I am, I couldn't resist trying the version that was almond encrusted with a light balsamic glaze in a Tuscan cream sauce of garlic shallots, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and pepperoncini. It arrived in a huge bowl and was loaded with tender artichoke slices, and a few hot banana peppers cut thin added a bit of zing. There were two good-sized filets of breaded tilapia, and the sauce was exceptionally thick and rich (almost too rich -- I could barely eat half, but then I'd also pigged out on those rolls). It came with a side of pasta, and my choice was plain old spaghetti. The sauce is relatively sweet and chunky with chopped tomatoes rather than a heavy marinara or meat sauce. It's quite tasty, although for me, it only works as a side dish; I don't like it quite well enough to make it an entree.

A newer addition to Rotelli is a lunch buffet, which offers nine items for $5.99 and is available from 11 a.m. till 2 p.m. In the interest of full disclosure, we haven't tried it yet -- it's that new -- but next time we're out here at lunchtime, we'll make it a point to make it our choice.

If you go:

ROTELLI
5553 Mahoning Ave.
Youngstown, Ohio 44515 (Austintown)
(330) 270-8349
www.rotellipizzapasta.com

Thursday, August 26, 2010

AMEN CORNER SPORTS BAR & GRILL

My husband Jack and I are always on the lookout for casual pubs, and admittedly we're a bit picky about the ones we choose as "regular" hang-outs. At least three or four of our favorite beers must be available (preferably on tap), the seats must be comfortable (meaning whatever we sit on must have a back), the interior must have enough light that we can see the beer level in our glasses and -- last but hardly least -- the food must be delicious.

For all of these reasons, we're singing the prais
es of the Amen Corner Sports Bar & Grill in Girard, Ohio. No matter how often we stop here, each time I say to myself, "Self, you absolutely must come here more often."

Let me be a bit more specific. First, the atmosphere is very casual; the front door opens into the bar "room," where there are a few booths and tables, a few TV sets and, of course, the bar. Walk toward the back to find a large dining room for those who prefer that option. The decor for the most part is golf-related; golf course flags hang from the
walls, and there's lots of dark wood and complementary dark green all around the rooms. Even the menu has a golf theme; appetizers are listed under "Teeing Off," and salads have the heading "Greens."

It's also a popular place; we usually go at off-peak hours just for this reason. Parking can be a bit bothersome as well -- it's really hard to find a spot on the street, but there's a lot behind the pub that has additional space.

As for the food, I could make a meal out of the appetizers with no problem at all. You'll find a few somewhat unique options like fried zucchini planks that come with a very tasty, and little bit zingy, Bistro sauce ($4.99), fried pickle spears ($5.99) and fried pretzel bites ($2.99). Other possibilities include a pound of steamed little neck clams for $7.99 and my favorite, hot banana peppers marinated in herbs, garlic and oil served with Italian bread ($3.99).

The hot peppers come in a relatively small bowl and are rather thinly sliced with lots of pepper seeds. At first bite, I declared them to be on the hot side; Jack tried a minuscule piece, quickly agreed and wouldn't touch another bite. Oh darn, I said, all the more for me! The flavor is wonderful -- and did I mention they're hot?

Another of our favorite appetizers is the Bruschetta, topped with chopped tomatoes, black olives and a variety of cheeses. There are four pizza-type wedges absolutely loaded with the "stuff" on grilled garlic bread -- very delicious and very filling.

If you're not sure what you want, try the appetizer sampler; you'll get onion rings, jalapeno poppers, mozzarella sticks, butterfly shrimp and zucchini planks -- all breaded and fried -- with that spicy Bistro, cocktail and marinara sauces for $9.99.

The wedding soup is quite good here, absolutely overflowing with veggies, greens, shredded chicken and meatballs in a delicious broth -- quite possible the best wedding soup Jack's ever had, he said -- and I tend to agree. But if you want a really terrific soup, try the house specialty sausage chili ($2.50 a cup). It's much like regular chili, but it has a real kick to it. It's packed full of sausage plus chili beans, onions, green peppers -- and it's wonderful!

There are plenty of choices when it comes to sandwiches and entrees, though I do feel compelled to pitch what amounts to a hissy fit over one item I love but, we were told at our most recent visit, no longer is available: Chicken Jambalaya, or chicken and Andouille sausage with green peppers and onions over rice. It is (or should I say was) so good that I rarely ordered anything else; a tasty red sauce peppered with small bits of the sausage and other goodies. It was a real treat for anyone who likes Creole-style foods -- and now it's gone. Please guys, consider bringing this delicacy back!

One of Jack's favorites is the hot roast beef open-face sandwich, with lots of relatively thick beef slices on Italian bread with mashed potatoes and lots of very tasty beef gravy ($5.95). Still another is linguine with clams -- oil, garlic and Italian herbs that comes with a tossed salad or soup for $11.99. The whole thing is topped with at least double the number of in-shell clams he's ever seen on an entree, although there were no discernible clams in the sauce itself. But the sauce is delicious and garlicky. Normally, he eats all the clams and has pasta left over -- but here, it was vice versa: He ate all the pasta and had clams left (of course, I was happy to get "rid" of them for him).

At one visit, I tried one of the daily specials, a 6-ounce char-grilled sirloin with my choice of fried shrimp or shrimp scampi, one side and soup or salad. For my soup, I chose that sausage chili once again; for my side, I picked spaghetti. The main course arrived on a large oval platter with the steak on one end, a bowl of four relatively large scampi in a tasty buttery sauce in the center and the spaghetti -- about the size of two fists -- at the other end, all nicely separated so nothing got mixed in with anything else. The steak was well tenderized and cooked fairly close to my order of medium rare (most restaurants, including this one, tend to err toward the side of medium). Although the spaghetti isn't the best I've had, it was very good, with a thick sauce of finely chopped tomatoes and peppers.

One of these days, I'm going to try the Bourbon Glazed Salmon and the Zing Chicken ($12.99 each); the latter features a chicken breast sauteed with minced hot peppers, onions and shallots in the three-cheese Alfredo sauce over penne and topped with roasted red peppers and minced hot peppers. My mouth is watering just writing about it!

On the sandwich side, there's plenty to choose from as well, including a build-your-own burger section (starting at $5.99 for the basic). There's a pepper and egg sandwich on a Kaiser roll, which also sounds great, as do the lunch specials of chicken or tuna salad on a croissant. When I noticed a fried balogna sandwich on deli marble rye with fries or hot chips, though, I just had to have it. The fries here are not spectacular, but they're good; the balogna had to be close to half an inch thick and the toasted bread was wonderful ($4.99). I will point out, though, that it comes barefoot -- and the only condiments on the table are mustard and catsup. So next time I get this sandwich, and there will be a next time, I'll order it topped with green peppers and ask for mayo on the side.

On that same occasion, Jack tried the Philly steak stromboli, which comes with marinara sauce on the side for $6.95. It had to be close to a foot long, with a soft, pizza-dough-like crust wrapped around a ton of shredded Philly steak, onions, peppers, mushrooms and melted cheese. He was able to finish only about half; the rest we brought home, wrapped and stashed in the freezer, and a couple of days later (thawed and reheated) it tasted as good as it did in the restaurant.

Several varieties of pizza are served here as well, including a Monte Cristo; at $7.99 for a 12-inch, this one is a "white" with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses that sounds delicious. So far, though, the only one we've tried the Brier Hill, with a thin crust (we always add pepperoni), and it's quite good.

Dessert? Quite honestly, we've always been so full after appetizers and/or entrees that we can't even think about it. But for those who crave something sweet to end the meal, check out "Ellie's Homemade Desserts" for $3.75 each (the cherry or strawberry cheesecake and peanut butter pie caught our eye, but our stomachs insisted there was no room.

If you go: Amen Corner Sports Bar & Grill
20 W. Main St.
Girard, Ohio 44420
(330) 545-5694

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Iron Bridge Inn

Several times a year, my husband Jack and I take a leisurely drive over the border into Pennsylvania. Sometimes, it's to pick up a case of our favorite Yuengling Ale at the drive-through in Hermitage (the ale, made at America's oldest brewery, isn't sold in Ohio). Other times, it's to get photos in McConnell's Mill State Park or check out the bargains at the outlet mall in Grove City. Even more likely, it's to visit historic Volant and pick up a few bottles of those wonderful wines -- cherry in particular -- at the Volant Mill Winery.

Unless we're in a big hurry, which is unlikely in these semi-retirement days, we'll have a meal somewhere along the way, and often it's at the Iron Bridge Inn on State Route 19 not too far from Mercer. The Inn is without doubt our favorite eatery in the Springfield Restaurant Group stable that includes the
Springfield Grille (Mercer, Boardman and Mars), Hickory Bar & Grille Grille (Hermitage), Rachel’s Roadhouse (outside Mercer not far from Rachel's and Springfield Grille) and the Log Cabin Inn (Harmony). We love the others too, mind you, but the casual, sort of "hunting cabin" atmosphere at the Iron Bridge Inn makes it particularly appealing to us. The Inn is within a few yards of an old green iron bridge, which, I suppose, is how it got its name.

The outside is "decorated" with lots of interesting old signs; a pretty rock garden with flo
wers greets visitors at the front entrance. Inside, there's plenty of dark wood, old photographs and yes, stuffed whole critters and critter heads on the walls as well as hanging plants and cozy fireplaces that roar when there's a chill in the outside air. Wood booths make dining a private affair for the most part, and real cloth napkins add a touch of elegance that also helps set this place apart. There are a couple of large dining rooms and a very nice bar, the latter toward the back as you enter the restaurant). One of the on-tap beers is Yuengling (now you really know why we love this place), served up in no-handle glass canning jars like the ones I'm familiar with that used to come from the Ball Corp. in Muncie, Ind., maybe 30 miles from my home town of Union City, Ind.

I must admit we're not strangers to the Iron Bridge Inn in an "official" capacity, either; we've made special trips for no less than three articles Jack or I wrote for The Business Journal of Youngstown, Ohio. As a restaurant reviewer for the newspaper many years ago, Jack wrote about our experience there; more recently, I included special Iron Bridge offerings in articles on salads and exotic appetizers. Not a subscriber to The Business Journal? Click here to check out the online version.

Our latest official visit, though, was for to collect information for this blog (oh heck, who's kidding who? We stopped there simply because we were in the area and love the place)! I'd be remiss if I didn't warn you that this place is almost always crowded, even during non-peak hours; typically, we time our travel to arrive somewhere between 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., and so far, we haven't had to wait for a table.

That's a bit more difficult on Sundays, though; there's an absolutely fabulous brunch -- actually their words, not mine, although I heartily concur -- that's served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Priced at a reasonable $14.99 per adult, it's almost standing room only. Seniors like us, I should add, pay a buck less, and kids 10 and under are $6.99 and there's plenty on the tables to keep their tummies filled. As with just about all brunches, you can eat your fill of delicacies like hand-carved roast beef and smoked ham, numerous "breakfast" treats like eggs Benedict and much, much more. If you can't get to the Iron Bridge for any other meal, this is the one to pick. Just don't eat much for at least two days before you visit -- it's far and away one of the most extensive Sunday brunch spreads I've seen in many moons!

If you go for a regular meal, or just pop in for drinks and a couple of appetizers, you'll find quite a few possibilities that make choosing a bit complicated. I won't go into the more exotic appetizers I wrote about in the newspaper article other than to say we heartily recommend the Tri-Muchroom Bourdelaise ($6.99) and the BBQ Prime Rib Quesadilla ($7.99). And, since I'm not a fan of hummus, I won't dwell on that one, either, although I have a friend who swears it's the best around (served with rosemary flatbread, it's $5.99). Sometimes, we'll share a platter of Sharon's Favorites, a compilation of potato skins, riblets, stuffed mushrooms and boneless wings for $10.99. Still another of my faves is the Jalapeno Stuffed Shrimp, or deep-bried shrimp stuffed with japapeno cream cheese with sweet & sour sauce ($6.99), but unless we're really, really hungry I don't get it because Jack isn't a hot peppers fan.

Something like six big salads are on the menu as well as several "build your own" varieties that on their own aren't very expensive ($4.99 and $6.99, depending). To these, you can add grilled chicken breast, the house prime sirloin, grilled shrimp or seared tuna for a few bucks more. My choice is from the "as-is" menu -- the Asian Ahi Tuna Salad with seared tuna, Szechuan-marinated noodles, cashews, broccoli and Thai peanut vinaigrette over field greens ($11.99).

Of course, there are plenty of sandwiches, including a variety of paninis and burgers (try the Pittsburger, topped with coleslaw, fries, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato on a ciabatta roll, $7.99). I'm nowhere near a vegetarian, but I don't eat lots of red meat, either; so the Portobello Wrap, with those delicious mushrooms rolled up in a tortilla shell with red onions, field greens, feta cheese and tomatoes with a side of balsamic dressing makes a great meat substitute for $6.99. The meat-and-potatoes guy who usually accompanies me, though, much prefers the Reuben, made with house-cooked corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing on grilled marbled rye bread for $7.49 (according to the restaurant's online menu, you can get it Panini style if you like, but that's not an option we've tried yet.

When it comes to entrees, the decision starts getting really tough -- except for me. The Iron Bridge boasts about serving the "best" prime rib in the world since 1979. I can't vouch for that claim since there are a handful of prime rib joints in a couple of other countries at which I haven't tried it yet (yes, that's a feeble attempt at humor), but I will proclaim, quite loudly, that this is the best I've had in many, many moons. A 10-ounce portion that's more than enough for me is $15.99, and you can pair it with soup or a salad and one side (among them apple sauce, fries, cole slaw, a baked potato) Fresh-baked bread comes with the territory as well.

If you like chicken, try the Iron Bridge Wellington, a chicken breast wrapped in a homemade pastry crust together with broccoli, cauliflower and Monterrey Jack cheese. It's topped with a delicious hollandaise sauce. Or, another favorite of mine is the Stacked Chicken Cordon Bleu, or chargrilled chicken breasts stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese, this time with a dijon hollandaise sauce on top.

Seafood lovers that we are, we don't go hungry here. The Scallops & Risotto are outstanding (it's a vegetable risotto with sun-dried tomato pesto, as is the Herb & Garlic Crusted Salmon perched on balsamic sauteed mushrooms and fresh spinach. One of these days I'm going to try the Fire Cracker Ahi Tuna, seared with sesame and accompanied with soy vegetable rice and "fire cracker" Asian hot sauce -- I mention it because it sounds wonderful, but I have to admit I haven't tasted it yet (although based on how good everything else is here, I'm certainly not worried).

If all this isn't enough, you'll find plenty of beef, ranging from a 6-ounce filet mignon to a humongous 24-ounce slice of that glorious prime rib. The chops and ribs are excellent as well, and I'm told by someone who likes lamb that the New Zealand Rack of Lamb is outstanding, too. For good old stick-to-your ribs fare, don't pass up Aunt Sandy's Meatloaf, served over garlic mashed potatoes with a mushroom demi-glace and fried onions.

I've never had a centimeter of room for dessert here, but the offerings are plentiful (all priced at a quite reasonable $1.79). Jack is always up for an ice cream sundae, which can be ordered with either chocolate or caramel topping.

If you go: Iron Bridge Inn
1438 Perry Highway
Mercer, PA 16137
(724) 748-3626
www.springfields.com/ibi_files/ironbridge.html
Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.