Friday, December 30, 2011

TRAX RESTAURANT

Restaurant food in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys is as good (or better) than I've found anywhere else in the country, in my humble opinion -- with one exception: Seafood. For the most part, that's not because we're basically landlocked in these parts; rather, it's because it's inevitably overcooked to the point of being relatively tasteless and tough.

And for a seafood lover like me, that's a big disappointment; I'm always a bit leery of ordering it, knowing it's likely to be less than "perfect." So when I noticed lemon pepper swordfish on the daily specials menu at Trax Restaurant in Austintown, I hesitated -- but since swordfish is hard to find and is my favorite fish to eat -- I decided to reel it in. As a special, it came with one side and a salad for just $10.95, so I figured I wouldn't lose all that much if it wasn't all that great.

Ah, I'm delighted to report it was wonderful! I chose spaghetti as my side - as you'll find out in a minute, I'd tasted the sauce here before and liked it. This time I'd say it could have used a bit more sauce, but quite honestly I was too full to care after devouring every mouth-watering bite of the sizable chunk of swordfish steak. Not only w
as it juicy, the lemon flavor was subtle but noticeable and the cracked pepper added just the right touch of zest. Yum!

We arrived here this time for an early dinner, just before 4 p.m.; our server brought a list of lunch specials even at this late hour, which was nice because there were loads of great things from which to choose, including cavatelli-stuffed and chili cheese stuffed breadbowls ($8.50). I also considered the Italian sausage hero at $8.99 before spotting that swordfish.

Jack had a bit more trouble deciding, finally settling on the Yankee pot roast ($10.50), described as beef and carrots with au jus and one side. He opted for slaw instead of salad and picked mashed potatoes and gravy as his side, which seemed a natural fit for the pot roast. When he placed the order, our server assured him it was delicious - in fact, she'd had a big mound of it for her lunch earlier in the day.

Turns out she was right on the money; the pot roast was yummy with a large amount of fork-tender meat. And even though he made a point of reminding me he doesn't like carrots, he scarfed down all of these chunks (noting that he was doing so because they didn't taste much like carrots after simmering in all that juice for what must have been a long time). At his request, the server br
ought a container of extra gravy, which was rich, thick and delicious.

As I mentioned before, this stop for dinner wasn't the first time we've been to Trax; on one occasion, we sat on the separate bar side for a couple of quick sandwiches and beers. The interior, by the way, is a darkish red and gray and features lots of old photos, most related to the B&O Railroad -- especially interesting to us because Jack's late uncle, Robert M. Semple, for many years was the local yardmaster. There's also a large outdoor patio
that's open in good weather, and we hear there's live music out there now and again.

A couple of weeks before my encounter with the swordfish, we stopped for lunch mostly because we had a coupon for $5 off a $25 purchase, including alcohol. Speaking of alcohol, there's an extensive wine and beer list plus a few on tap including our favorite Yuengling. Some of the menu items are things I haven't seen in a while, like city chicken ($9.50 for the dinner portion). I also noticed Cincinnati chili ($9.50) -- another favorite of mine. Most dinners come with a potato or salad plus bread and butter.

Any time stuffed cabbage or peppers is on the menu, it's hard for Jack to resist. This time it was cabbage, which usually comes with mashed potatoes. He asked for slaw instead, plus a salad with balsamic viniagrette dressing, all for $9.50.

I was in the mood for plain old spaghetti, and when I asked our server about the difference between the marinara and "regular" red sauce, she explained that the marinara at Trax "isn't like others" and is filled with lots of vegetables whereas the red sauce has two meatballs. I opted for the red sauce over spaghetti (ziti was my other choice), salad with bleu cheese dressing and a cup of wedding soup for $8.29.

Jack liked that the stuffed cabbage was topped with an abundance of sauce, which all too often isn't the case. There were a couple of slices of kielbasi in it as well, which he passed on to me and they were delicious. Our server also brought a basket of good-sized rolls and butter, but we had so much else to eat that we brought them home.

The salads were your garden-variety head lettuce with some sliced black olives, one tomato slice and one of those yummy small hot peppers (the latter of which Jack gave to me since he's not into anything spicy hot). Dressings are served on the side, and both of our choices were very good. As is his custom, Jack asked for "extra" and got two containers, which was plenty to make him happy.

My wedding soup was quite tasty, filled with lots of greens, carrots and one of those teeny meatballs. My only complaint was that it was almost lukewarm (but keep in mind I like soup almost at the boiling point). The red sauce was delicious as well, and the meatballs were outstanding. The bowl was ample, giving me about half to take home for another day.

When we finished up, we noticed several desserts listed on a chalkboard - among them cocoanut creme and lemon merangue pie at ($3.50 a slice). They sounded wonderful, but we had absolutely no room left. For the record, they were still on the list the next time we visited, but the same thing happened: Our stomachs were so full with the main courses that we couldn't have downed another bite. Oh well, guess we've got a couple more reasons to go back!

If you go:

Trax Restaurant
4250 New Road
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 799-2245

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m.; Sunday 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

DANNY BOYS ITALIAN EATERY

Any time it takes more than 15 minutes to pick what you want to eat at a restaurant - and hear other diners around you asking their servers for more time to decide - you know you've hit the menu mother lode. That's exactly what happened the first time my husband Jack and I visited Danny Boys in Boardman.

Truth is, we found it by accident; exiting Mill Creek Park on state Route 224, we crossed to the south side of the road to take a peek in another restaurant we'd planned to review at some point. Then, Jack noticed Danny Boys, a place almost next door he'd never seen before. Since we also were trying to kill 15 minutes or so before the YM Camera store just up the road opened (it was a Sunday, and the store doesn't open till 12:30 p.m.), Jack drove over to Danny Boys for a closer look.

He liked what he saw; so after we stopped at the camera shop and he'd purchased a new neck strap for one of his cameras, he suggested having lunch at Danny Boys even though we'd intended to head straight back home. Never one to turn down an invitation to eat out, I quickly agreed.

As it turns out, there's a good reason we hadn't noticed the place before; as of mid-November, it had been open just four
months, our friendly server responded to my question. And, it's a chain; based in Rocky River, Ohio, since 1991, there are other locations in Canton, Chesterland and Sandusky. Along the way have come a number of culinary kudos, the most recent of which (at this writing) are a "Top 10 Best Pizzas" award from Cleveland Magazine and "Best Pizza 2010" from WKYC Channel 3 and Metromix.

As the name implies, this place specializes in Italian food with emphasis on pizza. Catering is available as well, and Danny Boys says that depending on menu choices, the cost per person usually ranges from $6 to $9 and dinners and salads can feed two to three people per portion - not bad if you're hankering to host a party.

First, though, a bit about decor; just about everything here is related t
o Ol' Blue Eyes. Not only are the walls decorated with old photos, playbills and such; menu items are called "Chairman of the Board," "Lady is a Tramp" and even "Hammy Davis Jr." And most of the soft background music is by - you guessed it - Frank himself.

The number of choices in each category on the menu, from appetizers to sandwiches and calzones to pasta entrees, is impressive (we had a sample menu to peruse before our first visit and even then we had a tough time deciding). As I mentioned before, lmost everything here has an Italian flavor, but the primary emphasis is on that award-winning pizza.

You can, of course, build your own; in fact, that's what Jack did, ordering the basic one-item 10-inch pie for $9.99 and adding pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers to bring
the total cost to $13.99. Not in the mood for pizza, I finally decided on the Grilled Classic Club Croissant ($7.99) - sliced ham, turkey, bacon and melted pizza cheese with lettuce, tomato and pesto ranch dressing. It comes with mildly flavored kettle-style chips, but diners can substitute a variety of fries, like the Cajun flavored I tried, for just $1.

Jack really liked the pizza, which had the "regular" thickness of crust as opposed to a few thin-crusts on the menu and the Chicago-style deep dish (both of which we plan on trying sometime down the road). The pizza sauce is very tasty and definitely a cut above other places, so it's easy to see why it's garnered some awards along the
way.

My sandwich was absolutely fantastic, and although I really wanted to scarf down the whole thing, the size prevented that from happening and I took nearly half of it home. Those C
ajun fries, BTW, are well worth the extra buck.

I should mention that presentation is big here, too; the food is delivered on large red p
lates with the food in the center and the rims dusted with sprinkle cheese. Very nice! And for another interesting touch, there's a deck of cards on each table so you can play a few hands while you wait.

Needless to say, we shared our great find with a few other folks who promised to keep my upcoming review a secret till publication day, so it came as no surprise when our friends Jerry and Barb said they'd love to try it too. Although we'd warned them about that menu - and showed them a copy while we drove to the restaurant - once again we had to ask for extra time to decide.

This time, it was I who opted for pizza, but I strayed from the traditional and picked one of
the new, and intriguing, thin crust pies - this one Cabo Shrimp and Taco, made with lime cilantro olive oil, three-cheese blend, cilantro, chopped red and yellow peppers, black olives, chipotle shrimp, chopped lettuce and cilantro ranch dressing ($9.99). Although our goal is to try four different things to share, the pizza I chose sounded so great that Barb decided to give it a try, too.

Both of us ordered appetizers to pass around as well; Barb's choice was a half-order of the Bada Bing Buffalo Chips ($3.99), those crunchy kettle chips drizzled with mild buffalo sauce and topped with crumbled bleu cheese and a little pizza cheese. I just couldn't pass up the Italian Pigs in a Blanket ($5.99). The chips were quite good, although the add-ins didn't seem to add a whole lot of additional flavor. But my pigs
in a blanket? Oh my.

The appetizer consists of two Italian sausage links, each wrapped in a baked crescent roll; cutting each in half to share among the four of us gave us a good taste but also left us wanting more. The sausage, which tasted homemade, was absolutely mouth-watering. Next time, I promised myself, I'd look for something else made with that sausage. And looking at the menu back home, I think I've found it: The Abe Froman "Sausage King of Chicago" sub made with these links, sauteed onions and green peppers and warm pizza sauce covered with melted pizza cheese ($8.99).

Meanwhile, the guys simply rode our coattails on the appetizer thing, heading straight for the main course. Jack's choice was a New Jersey Chicken "Woogie" melt, with Ricotta cheese, grilled chicken, pepperoni, tomatoes, basil, romano and pizza cheese drizzled with house Italian dressing and marinara sauce on the side ($8.99). Jerry finally settled on a Steak & Cheese Ciabatta ($7.99), a grilled beef brisket, mushrooms, hot peppers and pizza cheese topped with tomatoes, onion and Italian pub cheese sauce.

Jack deemed his Woogie Melt delicious and said he wouldn't hesitate to order it again. Jerry was a bit less enthusiastic, noting that his ciabatta was quite good but not "exceptional." As for the thin-crust pizza, the jury's still out.

That's not because it wasn't delicious; it was, and the lime flavor came through loud and clear. But it was extremely rich, so neither of us could eat more than a couple of slices. We also noticed that the thin crust was starting to get soggy by the time we'd downed our two slices (most likely, the thin sauce was contributing to that phenomenon). At any rate, we spent some time trying to decide how best to reheat it back at home. Microwaving pizza is never a good option, and certainly not when the crust is already soggy.

Barb said she planned to scrape off all the topping and refrigerate it, then re-baking the crust in the oven till crispy again, nuking the good stuff and then adding it to the crust. I figured I'd leave mine intact but bake it at a fairly high temperature in the oven in the hopes of crisping up that crust.

In the end, we did neither; an e-mail from Barb told me she'd taken a bite right from the fridge and it was quite good; ironically, I'd been about to head to the kitchen and do exactly that - so I followed suit and agree it tasted almost as good cold as it did when it was hot.

If you go: Danny Boys Italian Eatery
1315 Boardman-Canfield Road
Youngstown, Ohio 44512
(330) 726-3726

www.dannyboyspizza.com

Thursday, November 17, 2011

SPAGHETTI WAREHOUSE

Visiting friends who live just north of Columbus, Ohio, has been a treat for my husband Jack and I for the past couple of decades. Those friends, in fact, introduced us to another treat: the Spaghetti Warehouse. The restaurant opened there in 1978, in the former Crystal Ice Manufacturing and Cold Storage Building (warehouse, get it)? That plant closed in 1965 and remained vacant until Spaghetti Warehouse Restaurants Inc. of Irving, Texas, decided to renovate the place and open up shop.

For years, we looked for a location not quite so far away; for a time, there was one in Cleveland, but even that was a bit too far to go unless we had another reason to visit the city, and by the time that happened, the place was closed. What we didn't realize - at least until our son and daughter-in-law, who invited us to join them for lunch one fine day, mentioned the place as a possibility - is that there's a Spaghetti Warehouse in Akron. Oh wow, we said - when did that happen?

A little research on the company's website told me it happened in 1993 - and now we're kicking ourselves for missing several years of opportunity to enjoy the wonderful Italian food lo these many years. This location is historic as well - the building once was the B.F. Goodrich Building #33 and was closed in the 1980s.

For the record, Spaghetti Warehouse now has restaurants in Akron Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Pittsburgh plus a presence in New York, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas (where it all began in 1972) and Florida.

The decor at both the locations we've visited is interesting, fun and always
incorporates artifacts from the original buildings - the Akron restaurant, for instance, features one of the few remaining Akron Railway cars that transported people up and down Main Street. There are lots of goodies hanging from the ceiling, and everywhere you look you'll find signs, memorabilia and intriguing items that demand a closer look.

But it's the food that stirs up our cravings to return. If you love Italian, we think you'll love it too.

I must say the traditional red sauce here seems to have changed a bit from our old-time visits to Columbus. I've said many times over that my favorite spaghetti sauce comes from Sunrise Inn in Warren. My second favorite was from Spaghetti Warehouse; it was thick, sweet, what I'd deem to be "Old World" style and absolutely mouth-watering.

What we got in Akron wasn't quite what I remembered (truth is, neither was it the same last time we were at the Columbus restaurant perhaps a couple of years ago). Today, it's thinner and much less distinctive, but that's certainly not to say I don't like it.

Our party of five -- the two of us, our son and daughter-in-law and her mother -- had reserva
tions, but there was plenty of seating available so we wouldn't have needed one. Interestingly, we sat at a large cage-like table with booth seating that was situated directly under a huge mirror (that's it on the left); if we looked up, we could watch ourselves eat! Needless to say, it made for some neat photos.

The menu is quite extensive, starting with tempting appetizers like stuffed mushrooms, calamari, fried zucchini and garlic cheese bread. Soups and salads are available too; wedding soup is always a favorite of mine ($4.49), and the beer chili -- beef, chilies and beer simmered together served with cheddar cheese and onions -- sounded yummy too (also $4.49). But our appetites weren't exactly on high alert at lunch time, so we passed this time around and headed straight for the entrees.


And oh my, what a wealth of choices greeted us. Those who don't care for red sauce might consider Wild Mushrooms Chicken Pasta or Roasted Garlic Shrimp. Those who do might opt for the 15-Layer Lasagne, Chicken Florentine ($12.49) or Chicken Bowtie Milano (grilled chicken, spinach, mushrooms, artichokes and bowtie pasta in creamy marinara cream sauce, $11.99) - these prices reflect the dinner menu, by the way.

That 15-layer lasagne, I should note, is hand-made daily, and the stack includes meat sauce, Italian pork sausage, ground beef and Romano, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses topped with extra sauce ($11.49).

In the end, three of us stuck with fairly basic spaghetti dishes; our son picked the one with two meatballs and tomato sauce, asking for it on angel hair pasta ($9.99). My choice had no meatball, but the meat sauce was house-made with beef and pork, onions, garlic, Romano cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, beef stock and seasonings (also $9.99). I also asked for the "spicy" version.

Jack's choice was Spaghetti & Mushrooms, which consisted of tomato sauce topped with cremini and button mushrooms sauteed with onions, sherry and garlic butter ($8.29). The other two ladies in the group picked Chicken Tettrazini, or grilled chicken over spaghetti with sauteed mushrooms and Romano cheese in cream sauce ($9.99) and Grilled Chicken Alfredo, a breast served over fettuccini with creamy Alfredo sauce ($9.29).

Our son did point out that there's no pesto sauce of any kind on the menu, which came as a bit of a surprise at an Italian restaurant. No surprise, though, was that we were all delighted with our choices, passing our plates around so we could try everything. As far as I'm concerned, I'd be quite happy with any one of them - and I think the others came to the same conclusion. If I had a complaint, it was that their idea of spicy certainly doesn't match mine (either that or my request was overlooked totally). There wasn't even a hint of extra heat.

Since we'd passed on appetizers and weren't in any hurry to go anywhere else, all but one of us went wild and crazy with dessert. Here, too, our son noted the lack of espresso - something he loves after dinner and certainly expected to find here. Similarly, Jack loves spumonte but it's hardly ever available at other Italian restaurants. Happily, though, it's here; a sundae at $2.99 tasted like heaven. I decided on lemon cream cake ($4.99), white cake with a tangy lemon cream filling served with strawberry and mango puree (talk about heaven)!

Another favorite was the 12-layer chocolate cake for $6.29, which turned out to be an absolutely gigantic chuck with cake and chocolate mousse layers with vanilla ice cream and a drizzling of chocolate sauce and chopped pecans. Our son tried the Warehouse Tiramisu ($4.99), noting that it was more "elaborate" than he'd expected. It was quite good, but he said he still prefers the more traditional version. I'm not a Tiramisu fan, but I tried a bite and liked it a lot.

Back home, I signed up for the Spaghetti Warehouse e-mail club so I can get discount coupons, news and other good stuff. And yes, we're already planning another family get-together - in fact, it may have taken place by the time you read this!

If you go:
The Spaghetti Warehouse Restaurant
510 S. Main St.
Akron, OH 44311
(330) 374-0025
http://www.meatballs.com

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

DAS DUTCH HAUS RESTAURANT & BAKERY

In years past when we didn't have to choose between buying a winter coat and filling up the gas tank, my husband Jack and I loved to venture south to Columbiana County to take in the beautiful countryside, perhaps stopping at a couple of antique shops in Columbiana or heading on down to get some photos in the scenic Beaver Creek State Park. On the way home, we enjoyed stopping for a meal, often at the wonderful Das Dutch Haus Restaurant & Bakery in Columbiana.

These days, I'm sad to say, forays that require gasing up the car have become few and far between, as have impromptu stops for shopping or a meal. But now and again, we still get the urge to hit the road, as we did recently when we traveled down State Route 11 all the way to East Liverpool, stopping at Broadway Wharf for photos along the Ohio River and at the Lou Holz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame downtown.

And would you believe that on the way home, our old-but-still good Pontiac Vibe just seemed to nose into the parking lot at the Das Dutch Haus complex? This is, I should note, way more than just a restaurant; you can spend the night at Das Dutch Village Inn, where the 51 rooms and suites are furnished in a variety of styles such as Shaker, Colonial and Victorian. You can browse unique merchandise like cheese, books and hand-crafted items in the Das Dutch Village Shops as well.

But the main attraction here, at least for me, is the restaurant. The main dining area can ac
comodate 450, and even then the lines can be a bit long during peak dining hours. As soon as you open the door, the smell of fresh-baked bread, pies, cakes and other goodies tantalizes your senses. Then, you see why; to the right, rack after rack of these delights stand ready for take-out. Look left, and you'll see an expansive area filled with items that make wonderful gifts (a great place to explore after your stomach is full).

Since our vis
its tend to be at off hours - most recently, we got there around 2:30 p.m. - we're usually seated immediately. The decor is decidedly Dutch, with lots of wood, flowers and Old World wall hangings. Large tables can accommodate bigger groups, and dinners can be served family style (all you can eat chuck roast, chicken and all the trimmings including the salad bar for $14.75 per adult).

Specials
- including pies of the day - are posted on boards in each section of the restaurant. Shortly after you're seated, a server asks for your drink order (no alcohol here, by the way) and then brings a basket of fresh-baked bread.

The down-home menu is extensive, and dinner entrees range from creamed chicken on a homemade biscuit to smoked sausage to Swiss steak (all $11.25) and a couple of fish dinners priced slightly higher. For lunch, hot sandwiches like beef, pork and turkey are especially tempting, as are old favorites like the Dutch Bo
y Ham & Swiss Cheese served with horseradish sauce on a homemade bun ($5.25).

On our "official" visit, we both opted for one of the daily specials; Jack ordered a sloppy joe with potato chips and cole slaw and I picked baked chicken, which came with two sides. I knew I wanted mashed potatoes and gravy, but I was
n't sure about the other one. Noticing the baked squash with brown sugar-walnut crumb topping, I asked our server, who told me it's delicious. So, squash it was.

There's not much to say about Jack's sloppy joe and slaw except that both disappeared in
very short order, a clear indication that it was tasty (and that he was very hungry). Meanwhile, I took one look at the huge mound of squash and figured I'd be a while.

It was quite tasty, too, made special by that crumb topping (I liken the flavor to mashed sweet potatoes). The mashed potatoes somehow didn't quite
taste like the real thing, but if they were fake, they were good. The two pieces of chicken weren't very large, but the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and the flavor was wonderful. Next time, I told myself, I'll go for the same thing only the dinner-size entree.

Although our stomachs were full after polishing off our main meals, we made sure to leave room for dessert - and I urge you to do the same. The pies here are hard to beat - Jack tried the sugar-free apple - and I usually go for an apple dumpling ($3.45 for each). The dumpling comes warmed, and our server asked if Jack wanted his pie that way (he did). I decided to add vanilla ice cream, too, which costs $1.25 but really makes the dumpling special.

After we finished, we virtually waddled out of the restaurant section to browse the gift shop and bakery. The special-occasion cakes caught my eye - one very large cake was shaped and decorated like a fabulous castle. Other display cases contain the restaurant's homemade soups, potato salad, ham loaf and more as well as those wonderful whole pies,
cakes, breads and doughnuts.

This time out, we resisted buying anything to take home (mostly, I suspect, because our stomachs were so full we figured we wouldn't want to eat anything else till at least the next day). That's a decision we'd come to regret once we got back home, though, so for sure next time we go we won't make that mistake again!

If you go: Das Dutch Haus Restaurant & Bakery
14895 South Ave. Extension
Columbiana, Ohio 44408
(330) 482-2236

www.dasdutchvillage.com

Open Monday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sundays.

Friday, October 14, 2011

ELEPHANT & CASTLE PUB AND RESTAURANT

If you think the name of this restaurant is intriguing, you're not alone. Every time my husband Jack and I go shopping at the Grove City Premium Outlets near Grove City, Pa., we drive by one of the 20-something locations, always saying, "That place looks really interesting. We've got to have lunch there someday!"

Not long ago, that someday arrived -- and we've added it to our list of favorite places to eat when we're over that way.

In the interests of full disclosure, though, I must tell you that the
corporate owner, Elephant & Castle Group Inc., of Boston, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 5. That said, officials say no restaurant closings are expected, and you'll find locations across the United States and Canada from Toronto to Boston to Chicago to San Diego and San Francisco.

Update March 1, 2012: The Elephant & Castle Group Inc. has sold substantially all of its assets (19 locations) to Original Joe’s Acquisition Corp. for $22.75 million. All locations and "substantially all" employees will be retained, officials said.

Of course, it's the name that's most intriguing about this place, so let me give you a condensed version from a company-provided brochure. As legend has it, there once was a fair maiden who lived in the French province of Castile. Her parents wanted to marry her off to a rich English prince. Because English nobles often spoke French as well as English, the daughter became known as L'Enfant de Castile (the child of Castile).

Then, a London innkeeper decided to name his place after her; but the Cockneys had a bit of trouble with pronunciation and the pub became known as Elephant and Castle. Eve
n today, an inn of that name is located across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament.

I will note, however, that as soon as I posted the blog, I heard from someone who's a U.K. citizen informing me that this version is a common misconception but not the true story. Not wanting to get in the middle of an elephant tussle, I'll share the link I received and let readers draw their own conclusions: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ele1.htm

However the name came to be, fast-forward to 1977, when twin brothers Paul and Jeffery Barnett and their associate George Pitman opened the first
Elephant & Castle in Vancouver. I have no idea where the Grove City pub stands on the development timeline, but I do know I'm glad we found it.

We stopped
for lunch around 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon after a relatively quick stop at the mall to check out our favorite Bass, Van Heusen and Izod stores as well as look for a new pair of walking shoes for me at the Nike store (no luck on the latter; the most I'm willing to spring for a pair is about 40 bucks, and among the less-than-a-handful I found on sale at that price, I found nothing I'd ever willingly put on my feet).

The restaurant has a look and feel similar to others of its ilk -- among them Applebee's,
TGI Friday's and Ruby Tuesday -- but the abundant glass, dark wood, old books and ale tankards and the like do give it an atmosphere somewhat like I'd expect at a pub in Merry Olde England. There's an extensive beer list with plenty of specials; on this day, one of the best deals was $2 pints of Coors Light, of which we happily partook.

I'll also alert you that it's a great place to go on your birthday; just show your ID and you'll get a percentage discount on your meal that's equal to your age. Next March, trust me, I plan to be there with bells on -- and clean house with my 71% off! We'll follow that up in June for Jack, who'll get an even bigger 72% discount.

Since this was our lunch, we zeroed in on somewhat lighter fare; sandwiches come with a house or Caesar salad, pub chips or soup. Jack chose a salad, asking for the homemade viniagrette. I opted for soup, with three choices: The cream of broccoli soup of the day, onion soup or chicken and leek (it was the latter for me).

The soup and salad were delivered almost immediately, and Jack said the dressing was very creamy and flavorful. He was less enthusiastic about the salad, since it was filled with all different kinds of greens he claims make him think he's eating the front yard. Never mind, I said, eager to polish off what he left
.

The soup had a thin chicken-flavored broth with lots of celery, leeks, small chicken chunks and other greens. It tasted great, and I discovered that the delicious salad croutons (terrific flavor and not so crisp that they threaten to break your teeth) made an excellent addition to my soup as well.

For our entrees, Jack picked the Loaded Beef Dip ($8.99), with caramelized mushrooms, jack cheese and au jus for dipping. My choice was the bruschetta chicken sandwich ($8.69), a chicken breast topped with jack cheese and bruschetta tomatoes on a rosemary Focaccia bun with pesto mayonnaise.

Jack really loved his sandwich, although he did find it a bit hard to dip it into the small cup of au jus -- it was quite funny watching him bite it in very strange ways just to get it to fit. My sandwich was delicious as well, with finely chopped, flavored bruschetta tomatoes. The chicken breast didn't even come close to filling the bun, although it was fairly thick. If I'd been the cook, I'd have simply pounded it thinner to stretch it out (and it would cook faster as well). I do admit, though, the bun was quite large to begin with -- and that rosemary flavor came through loud and clear.

By the way, the website serves up a wealth of information, including current promotions, special features (see the link below). For fall, I've got my eye on the sausage sampler, a grilled bratwurst and British banger with a hot pretzel, beer mustard and braised red cabbage for $8. Or, the grilled bratwurst -- two char-grilled German-style sausages with wine braised red cabbage onion gravy and garlic mashed potatoes ($11.50) sounds like a wonderful alternative. For dessert? My mouth is watering at the thought of a Stout poached pear ($6.50), served with stout syrup and vanilla ice cream.

Much of the food, understandably, has a strong British flavor; the menu can vary slightly from location to location, though, so it's a good idea to check the website for the menu specific to the location you plan to visit. I should also note that in case you want to spend the evening sampling the beers and ales, you can spend the night as well; the Grove City location offers 12 air-conditioned rooms with cable and Internet connections, a continental breakfast and 10% off on restaurant meals for overnight guests.

If you go: The Elephant & Castle Pub and Restaurant
1923 Leesburg-Grove City Road
Grove City, Pa. 16127
(724) 748-1010
www.elephantcastle.com

Open 11 a.m. to midnight Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

DINO'S RESTAURANT

Dino's Restaurant is celebrating 31 years in business this year, and that's quite an accomplishment for any eatery these days. But would you believe it took a dining-out disaster to get us here for the first - but definitely not last - time?

On a cool but beautiful Saturday afternoon in mid-September, our son Scott and his wife Lilla invited my husband Jack and me to join them at at a local winery near Berlin Center, which was hosting a clambake catered by a local restaurant. The occasion was to celebrate the birthday of our daughter-in-law's brother, who was visiting from London. Also along for the fun was their mother, Sheila, who's been living in South Africa but is here now. Told to arrive about an hour prior to our reserved time to get a good seat for the clambake, we cheerfully obeyed - and proceeded to drop more than $100 on tasting trays, glasses and pitchers of wine and bottles to take home as we waited for our appointed serving time.

To our dismay, the "reserved" time turned into "just 15 more minutes," then 15 more, and then another 15. The winery folks blamed the caterer, and the caterer blamed an equipment malfunction. The bottom line is that nearly an hour after the time we were to eat, we were so frustrated (not to mention starving since none of us had eaten lunch to save up for the big dinner) that we demanded a refund ($28 times six, by the way) and left.

Long story short, we still had our hunger to deal with and a birthday to finish celebrating. But since we live about an hour away from our son - us to the east and he to the west - we wanted to find someplace in the middle so neither of us had to backtrack very far. But where?

Suddenly, Jack remembered Dino's Restaurant in North Jackson at the corner of Mahoning Avenue and State Route 45. As soon as he mentioned it, I recalled that a friend -- I believe it was Mike Costarella, who, among other things, hosts "Another Valley View" on AM 1540 WYCL each week -- had recommended it to me. So, Dino's it was.

Admittedly, we had a few doubts. First, it's located in a small plaza, certainly isn't "fancy" and we figured we wouldn't be able to get a beer to wash down our food even if it was good. Well, I'm here to tell you, we were dead wrong. No, it's not fancy; but alcohol is served here, and the food -- well, let's just say it was so good that Jack and I returned for lunch the very next day (more on that later, of course)!

We arrived about a quarter to six on a Saturday night, and despite a decent crowd, we were seated immediately at a large round table. It took a while to settle on what we wanted to eat since the menu is fairly extensive - and our choices were all over the map. The first thing I noticed is that they have pierogies, both batter-fried as an appetizer and "regular" with butter and onions. Our son Scott ordered the fried version as his meal, and he definitely wasn't disappointed (quite a nice feeling after our clambake fiasco, I hasten to add).

Jack zeroed in on linguine with clam sauce ($7.99), ordering it with red sauce instead of white. As it turned out, he got the white sauce by accident, but he said it was absolutely delicious and, instead of complaining, downed the whole thing while vowing to try the white next time. Lilla's brother Iain chose the veal parmesan, her mother picked the seafood trio appetizer of shrimp, clams and a crabcake ($6.99) while my choice was baked haddock ($8.49). For my sides, I paid a bit extra to have wedding soup and pierogies (the ones with butter and onions).

The fish turned out to be one of the tastiest portions I've had inland, and both the soup and pierogies were delicious as well. Admittedly I was too busy chatting with everyone that I didn't do a lot of writing, including getting prices on several of the items -- but the fact that most of the chatting came to an abrupt halt when the food arrived and didn't start up again till dessert is a good indication that everyone was quite satisfied.

Speaking of dessert, Wow! says it best. Most of us were too full to even think about a slice of pie, an apple dumpling or even a sundae, but then we spotted the stuffed elephant ear ($4.99), filled with vanilla ice cream and either apples or cherries (our choice) and topped with whipped cream. We ordered just one with four spoons, and there was plenty to go around. The elephant ear was huge -- and delectably warm -- and the ice cream, cherries and whipped cream sort of melted into it (melting with it all the calories, of course). Oh my!

A couple of us had beer or wine and the rest soft drinks, but perhaps the biggest and best surprise came at the end of the meal: The total bill for the six of us was just over $77 -- quite a noticeable difference from the $168 we'd have paid for the clambake, and everything was wonderfully tasty and delivered as promised.

The next day, Jack and I had hoped to stop at White House Fruit Farm near Canfield for the annual fall craft fair. But when we discovered the traffic was creeping along just to get to the entrance and the parking lots looked to be overflowing, we kept right on going. It would have been fun, but fighting big crowds just isn't something we have any interest in doing these days. We headed down a bit to Salem, and after cruising through the downtown and a few of that city's beautiful streets, we found ourselves back on State Route 45 to head home again.

And as luck would have it, it was somewhere around lunch time. Since we were on the right road, it took Jack about two minutes to come up with the possibility of stopping at Dino's for lunch -- and about two seconds more for me to say that's a great idea! This time, we agreed, we'll try a few new things.

We also looked around a bit more; this isn't a really large place, but there are plenty of large and small tables and booths along the walls. The decor is mostly wood, with Italian-style wall hangings in recessed areas. There's a banquet room to accommodate larger crowds as well and a small outdoor patio when the weather is cooperative. Specials are available each day, and I was tempted by several varieties of fried chicken (three pieces with a side of slaw is just $5.99). For future reference, we also noted that domestic beers are $1 on Wednesdays.

The Sunday entrees included prime rib for $12.99, but I wasn't quite that hungry. Instead, I opted for cavatelli chicken and greens with garlic broccolini sauce for $10.99. Jack had a tough time choosing as well, but he finally settled on pot roast with mashed potatoes, gravy and slaw for $7.99.

For starters, our server brought a basket of four very large (and still warm) rolls with my salad and Jack's slaw. Better still, the rolls were accompanied by plenty of butter pats. One of my big pet peeves is that most restaurants aren't stingy with the bread and rolls, but they really skimp on the butter and/or margarine. Admittedly, I tend to use more than many people do, but one or two of those tiny packets don't even begin to cover half a dozen pieces of bread and it's not always easy to catch a server's attention when I want more.

My chicken dish was served in a large oval bowl, and the sauce tasted fabulous. The grilled chicken pieces perhaps could have been more tender - pieces that small tend to cook up fast and get tough even faster. But the flavor was wonderful -- absolutely loved the homemade greens -- and I had plenty left to take home.

No such luck for Jack, since he scarfed down every single bite of what he called delicious pot roast (I sampled a bit of the gravy and agree with his assessment). Once again, we left satisfied -- proving that our initial experience was no fluke. Already, we've added Dino's to our list of places we love and will return to any time we're in the neighborhood (ah, I'll rephrase that: It's one we're willing to go out of our way to visit)!

If you go:

Dino's Restaurant
9245 Mahoning Ave.
North Jackson, Ohio
(330) 538-2263

Open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

CRANBERRY STATION RESTAURANT

Warm summer days just beg for day trips -- at least as far as I'm concerned -- and one of the delights in hitting the road is finding interesting restaurants. On one of those awful 90 degree-plus days back in July, that's exactly what my husband Jack and I did.

At least once a year, we head to the Pymatuning State Park spillway near Linesville, Pa., to see those huge, hungry (and downright ugly) carp climb all over each other to get to bread chunks pitched over the railing by visitors who can't believe their eyes. They're so thick that here and there, equally hungry gulls walk on the fishes' backs, trying to steal the bread before it even gets to those gaping mouths.

The gulls, however, have a decided advantage:
If you toss bread in the air, they'll fly over in droves and it's a sure bet one will catch the chunk in mid-flight. The whole thing is an awesome sight, so if you haven't been there yet, there's still plenty of good weather left before the snow flies.

On this day, we rounded up our friends Jerry and Barb from Niles, and the four of us spent
a bit of time oggling the fish monsters just like the rest of the gawkers. But in short order, the blistering heat took its toll and we almost flew faster than those gulls to get back to the comfort of our air-conditioned car. Once we could breathe again, though, we decided we were hungry -- although we weren't sure whether to blame that on the time of day or watching those carp scarf down the bread.

So, we headed back toward home with an eye toward finding a place to satisfy our craving for food -
preferably a place we hadn't tried before. Not long after we crossed back into Ohio, we reached Andover, and right on the town square, there it was: Cranberry Station Restaurant. The neat windows and red awning above the entrance were very inviting, and since it was early afternoon, we didn't really care that the place doesn't sell alcohol -- it was good food and something cold to drink that we were after.

Inside, it's a one-room affair but quite spacious, with several large tables and comfortable high-back wooden chairs. At 1:30 in the afternoon several folks were here finishing up, chatting with each and other and the servers, so we figured this is a popular place with the locals.

The walls are filled with country-style artwork and hand-made items, most of which are for sale. Right next to our table there was a table holding lip gloss and handmade soaps in a variety of tempting scents. Curious, we asked out server about them, and she absolutely raved about the lip gloss. Learning that it was just $1 a tube, Barb and I figured why not and bought several to take home -- and yes, they're wonderful.

Dinners h
ere range from around $7.99 to $15.99, the latter for a strip steak. Croissant sandwiches are under $7, and they have several burgers and subs as well. I eyed the Cincinnati Chili ($6.49), a dish I've loved ever since I was a kid growing up not far from the Queen City. For the record, it's basically spaghetti topped with chili instead of spaghetti sauce; here, they add black olives and onion and the whole thing comes with a salad.

There are daily specials as well as plenty of "standards" on the menu such as a corned beef on rye sandwich with Swiss cheese for $5.49 - it can be served hot or cold. A
grilled Swiss cheese sandwich with bacon and tomato on rye is just $3.99, beef liver and onions is $6.99 and roasted turkey breast with dressing and cranberry sauce is $8.99, to give you some idea of the range of offerings and prices. In short, I'd think there is sufficient variety here to please just about any palate.

Hungry as we were, we started with appetizers all around. Except for me -- I love corn nuggets so the choice was a no-brainer - it wasn't an easy decision, especially since we wanted to try four different things to share. Jack didn't take too long, choosing the breaded mushrooms. Barb followed with potato skins, and finally Jerry opted for a cup of chili. We all were quite pleased (especially my with the corn nuggets, which were much like corn fritters). The chili was a little harder to share so I can't offer a personal opinion, but Jerry said the chili had a too-strong tomato base and not much chili flavor. That didn't keep him from polishing it off, I hasten to add.

It took longer for us to pick entrees than it did for the appetizers - lots of delicious-sounding items here - but pick we did. It was lunch time and very hot outside, so I wanted something cool. The croissant sandwich with chicken salad filled that bill perfectly ($5.99, and I could have had tuna salad instead). It came with a side of either macaroni salad or potato salad, but since they were out of macaroni salad, that, too, so potato it was. To drink, I picked cranberry lemonade, which our server told us is a very popular drink that they serve at events Cranberry Station caters.

Jack, always a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, went for the meatloaf dinner ($7.49). He had a choice of potato, salad or vegetable plus a roll and butter, and he picked fries and a salad with raspberry viniagrette dressing. Jerry finally settled on the fried fish sandwich.

Like me, Barb wanted something cool, so her pick was the deluxe tuna salad ($6.59). Our server then asked what kind of dressing she wanted -- I don't recall for sure, but I think she chose bleu cheese -- and after the server left we wondered why there was a choice of dressing. The tuna salad we're all used to comes pre-mixed, usually with mayonnaise. Oh well, we said - guess Barb's in for a surprise!

In fact, she did get a surprise - and a very pleasant one. The tuna salad here, it turns out, is a huge mound of tuna -- no filling whatsoever -- with the dressing served on the side to be added to the tuna as you like. Neat concept, we agreed - and quite delicious.

Jack happily shoveled down every single bite of his meatloaf, pronouncing it "very good." My chicken salad was delicious as well, although it, too, was a bit different. The typical mayo used to bind it together was totally absent, replaced by something that had a bit of a mustard taste to it. Jerry proclaimed his fish sandwich "good," but nothing to write home about.

When she noticed that we had cleaned off our plates, our observant server trotted out a fabulous dessert tray loaded with goodies from key lime/strawberry cake and fresh-based pies. We were stuffed, but these looked way too good for some of us to resist. Jack picked a slice of apple pie and Jerry couldn't resist a big slice of yummy-looking chocolate cake. Barb was the only holdout, saying she absolutely couldn't get another bite down.

Beverages here are served in Mason jars, and I couldn't help noticing when our server delivered a just-made milkshake to another table (also in a Mason jar). Another no-brainer for me: For dessert, I'll have what she's having, I told our server.

For the record, they use Edy's Ice Cream here, and it goes in the shakes as well. The "soda fountain" was just on the other side of our table, and I was surprised and thrilled to see not one, but three generous scoops of chocolate ice cream go in the jar (most chocolate shakes are made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup). Not a lot of milk was added so I figured it would take a while before I could get it through the straw without sucking my face inside out. Not so; it was kept on the mixer long enough to thin it down perfectly. It was, in fact, my very own little piece of Heaven.

Desserts here are kept on a chilled tray so they're fairly cold when they reach the table. So although Jerry said the cake was very good, he would have preferred it served at room temperature, if not slightly warmed.

If there's a real downside here, it's that there's only one single-stall restroom; that could, we imagine, be problematic when the place is full of folks drinking that delicious cranberry lemonade.

If you go: Cranberry Station Restaurant
68 Public Square
Andover, Ohio 44003
(440) 293-6651

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our server said the restaurant opens daily between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and are open till 11 p.m. on weekdays except Mondays, when they close at 3 p.m. On weekends, closing is 11:30 p.m.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

EMERALD DINER

Editor's note on 9/7/12: Bad new update on the Emerald Diner - the diner recently was gutted by a fire. No word on when (or whether) it will be rebuilt, but I'll keep you posted.

Back in the '50s when I was a kid growing up on a farm in southwestern Ohio, drive-in restaurants, soda fountains and diners were staples of everyday living. Nobody "ate out" very often -- our stay-at-home moms cooked up three squares a day, mostly from scratch. But once in a while, we'd get treated to a cold root beer and chili dog at the A&W or a "brown cow" at the new Dairy Queen in town.
Dairy Que
en, by the way, was founded in 1940, so when one opened in our small town sometime in the mid-'50s, we all thought we'd died and gone to Heaven. That Dairy Queen also was the first real job I ever had; I spent two summers whipping up sundaes, milkshakes and putting those curls on cones trying to earn enough money to buy some neat back-to-school clothes that weren't on my mother's list of what I really needed. I'll never forget the thrill of discovering that as an employee, I was allowed eat all the ice cream treats I wanted -- followed by the realization maybe three days later that I wouldn't care if I never ate it again for the rest of my life.

Once I
turned 16 and got my driver's license, I'd get behind the wheel of my dad's '57 Chevy Bel Air (metallic pink, dual exhaust and stick shift), pick up my best friend Marcia and head into the small town of Union City, Indiana, to the Sweet Shoppe for a freshly made chocolate malt and listening to the latest tunes on the juke box. Last time I was in town, the Sweet Shoppe was still open - a testament, I guess, to the ongoing popularity of this kind of place.

I left the farm for college in 1959 and never went back (except, of course, to visit my wonder
ful parents when they were still living, which happily was for many more years). But I've always had an affinity for any kind of eatery that brings back memories of the '50s. So even though my husband Jack and I prefer our meals accompanied by beer or wine, every once in a while we consider it a treat to have a meal in surroundings that remind us of days gone by.
And that's exactly what we did not long ago, when our friends Jerry and Barb suggested that we have dinner at the Emerald Diner in Hubbard, Ohio. Truth is, we enjoyed a meal or two here several years ago when Jack reviewed the place for his "Dining Out" column for The Business Journal. Since then, for some reason we were under the impression that it had closed. Not so -- in fact, it's very much alive and well and living in the 21st Century. The food and decor, though, are happily stuck in a previous generation.

The diner
, according to a diner brochure, is a green-accented 1939 O'Mahony that was Burt's Diner in Norwich, Conn., for 40 years. Once it closed, it sat abandoned in a cornfield for 10 years. In 1994, James P. Marsh of J.P. Marsh & Co., a certified public accountant firm in Hubbard, purchased it and moved it here, where the first cup of coffee was served in April of the following year.
As you might expect, the railroad car-style diner has bar stools and a counter on one side and booths on the other. There's lots of chrome and replicas of LP records (remember those??) hanging around, and in each booth there's a juke box that simply begs for quarters -- each of which gets you two selections.

That, in fact, provided some entertainment for our outing -- but first we'll talk about the real reason for being here -- the food. There's plenty here from which to choose, by the way -- far more than I'd have expected at a so-called diner. We found lots
that sounded wonderful from breakfast, lunch and dinner menus (all of which prompted us to agree we'd be making more visits here).

There are daily specials as well, although no matter how hard she tried, our friendly server just couldn't convince any of us to try the liver and haluska side that
was featured on this day. Saturday's country fried steak ($6.95) and Sunday's meatloaf ($7.95), however, were very tempting. A hint: If you're on Facebook, add the Emerald Diner to your "like" list and you can check out the daily postings of special Facebook-only deals that can save you a bundle.

There are several appetizers on the menu, like spinach and artichoke dip with tortilla chips ($4.95) and Italian greens in olive oil and garlic with toasted Italian bread ($5.95). The sandwiches are too numerous to mention anywhere near all, but the ope
n-faced turkey, meatloaf and roast beef with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy at $5.95 each caught my eye for a future visit. Dinner entrees range from pasta to stuffed cabbage to crispy fried chicken.
Another temptation was the "Wiener's Circle" of 100% all beef hotdogs, you get onions and relish on request. A quarter-pound dog is $2.45, and toppings (chili, coleslaw, sauerkraut, bacon and more) are an additional quarter each.
As for our final selections, mine was a Five Alarm burger, a one-third pound hunk of meat infused with hot spices and jalapenos. Then, just to make sure you don't miss the heat, it's topped with house marinated hot peppers, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos and priced at a reasonable $6.75 with one side. I nixed the veggie of the day -- stewed tomatoes and zucchini -- in favor of onion rings.

I can count on Jack for consistency when it comes to food, and this place was no exception; he picked the Philly Cheese Steak (you can get it with chicken instead of beef). It's topped by grilled onions, green peppers, mushrooms and provolone and served on a toasted hoagie roll for $6.75 -- he chose cole slaw as his side.

The Ch
icken and Greens sandwich was Jerry's pick of the litter: A 6-ounce chicken breast with homemade Italian greens, roasted red peppers and provolone on grilled Italian bread for $7.45. Barb opted for the Eggplant Parmesan sandwich with hand-sliced eggplant rolled in a blend of Panko and Italian seasoned bread crumbs and layered on a hoagie bun. Then it's topped with provolone, sauce and shredded mozzarella; with her choice of sweet potato fries for a side, the whole thing cost $6.75.

All of the sandwiches were wonderful, in part because of the bread (Barb called her bun "amazing," in fact). When we raved about it to our server, she told us it comes from the Orlando Baking Co. in Youngstown. Barb also loved the sweet potato fries, noting that they were thicker with "more potato" than most she's had. Along the same lines, she was delig
hted that Heinz ketchup is served here -- it's the only kind she likes (and yes, she really can tell the difference if blindfolded)!

The hot peppers on and in my burger were both plentiful and on the hot side, even for someone like me who has a cast-iron stomach. The homemade ones packed the most punch heat-wise, but the flavor was a bit too vinegary for me to want them as a full side dish. On the sandwich, though, they were delicious.

As I said before, we definitely plan to return here just because the food is great, the prices are reasonable and the decor is just plain fun. But there's another rea
son - to try one of the hand-dipped milkshakes that come in several flavors ($3.95). Milkshakes are a diner "must" and I absolutely love them, but I simply had no room to fit even part of one in my stomach on this visit.
On the fun side, too, is the music. After we'd placed our orders, we couldn't resist browsing through the golden oldies on the "pages" of the juke box at our table -- and that led to wondering if each of us chose two favorites to play for 25 cents, would there be any duplicates since the four of us are quite close in age? In fact, there was only one; both Jerry and I picked "All I Have to Do is Dream" by the Everly Brothers. So I switched one of my choices to Pat Benetar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

Other pick
s were "Hang on Sloopy" by the McCoys and "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry (Jack), "Night Moves" by Bob Seger and "Temptation Eyes" by The Grass Roots (Barb). Jerry's second pick was "Sugar Shack" by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs and mine was "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynrd Skynyrd. For a quarter apiece, it was pretty cheap entertainment and great accompaniment to our meals.

After we'
d finished, we walked outside to wander around the grounds and pop into a really neat antique shop in a former train depot (a whole train and related memorabilia stand nearby as well). The collection of old steamer trunks is worthwhile in and of itself, and we look forward to coming back to see what we missed the first time around (right after we sample those milkshakes at the diner)!


If you go:


EMERALD DINER

825 N. Main St.
Hubbard, Ohio 44425
(330) 534-7600

Open Monday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

OLD FIREHOUSE WINERY

When temperatures are warm enough to be outside without an overcoat and the sunny sky is filled with big puffy clouds, our thoughts always turn to one thing: Wine. Yep, you read that right; for my husband Jack and me, not much is more relaxing than sitting in the great outdoors and sipping a glass or two of vino (generally speaking, red for him and white for me).

In the interests of full disclosure, though, I'm compelled to admit that neither of us makes any claim whatsoever of connoisseur status. For us, a $12 bottle of wine is a real splurge; you're far more likely to meet us scoping out the under $6 varieties at the local Giant Eagle than discussing the nuances of a 2002 Cabernet from Napa Valley at a wine shop.

Geography doesn't impress us much, either; we happen to think that wines from Lake Erie vineyards are every bit as good as those we've tried that
came from California, France, Chile or Argentina. So, the minute the snow melts, it's likely we'll be on the road visiting some of the many wineries along the Lake Erie shores.

One of our favorites is a happy combination of winery and restaurant -- the Old Firehouse Winery in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. One of their sweet white wines -- Lighthouse Niagara -- is on my list of Top 5 all-time favorites. Throughout the off-season we drive up north two or three times to pick up a case two or three so I don't run out, but it's much more fun to go in the summer when the outdoor patio activity is in full swing.

This summer, the dining experience has been overhauled and improved significantly. The menu has far more to offer than the popular corn chips and salsa, there's much more and nicer seating that includes in a lovely, flower-filled gazebo. And did I mention the whole place sits right on the edge of Lake Erie?

Besides wine and food, the shop now sells an array of T-shirts and sweatshirts along with the wine and cordial glasses and other memorabilia they've been selling all along. Then too, in the summer you'll find "Old Betsy," a beautifully restored fire engine that once belonged to the town, and a fabulous Ferris wheel that was built in 1956 and operated at Erieview Park stands ready to take visitors up, up and away for even more spectacular views of the lake (it opens at noon, by the way).

Ah, but this blog is supposed to be about food, so let's get back to the
nitty gritty: Old Firehouse is first and foremost a winery and entertainment venue, and I'd never suggest that anyone drive that far just for the food alone. That said, the food's not at all bad -- and this season the the menu has been expanded so there's something to please most tastes. Everything we've tried has been quite good, and Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, we'll be back up there at least a couple more times before there's much of a chill in the air.

At our most recent visit, for instance, Jack tried the quesadilla appetizer, which can be ordered filled with chicken, steak or veggies (he chose the former) at $7.4
9. The decision was a no-brainer for me -- a fried perch sandwich for $7.99 -- this is Lake Erie, after all. Most sandwiches come with the salsa and corn chips, but you can pay extra for something different; I picked French fries instead. Everything here is served in unbreakable containers, including the wine, so there's no worry about breakage if one of those wonderful lake breezes blows something off the table. It's possible to eat indoors, I should note, but there are only a handful of tables and chairs; this place is geared for outdoor action of all kinds.

The quesadilla was quite good, stuffed with green onions, olives and shredded Colby Jack with sour cream and salsa on the side. The perch was fried a little crunchier than I like, but Lake Erie perch is Lake Erie perch and I'm not complaining. We've also tried the corned beef and swiss sandwich ($7.99), the burgers are great, and Jack is quite fond of the wraps as well. The expanded menu now includes signature dinners like Firehouse BBQ ribs, with a
whole slab going for $19.99.

Speaking of entertainment, it's live almost every night starting at 8 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day; in September, it's mostly Friday through Sunday. Check the Web site for a schedule. Other special events are scheduled throughout the season, and these, too, are posted online.

If you'v
e never tried the wines here, my suggestion is to buy a few samples at 50 cents each (Ohio law requires that wineries charge consumers even for tastings). If you're willing to rely on my opinion, I recommend the Lighthouse Niagara, a very sweet white (almost all wines are sold by the glass too, but it's much less expensive to order a bottle if you and your companions can agree on which one). Similarly, the Firehouse Red is semi-sweet and fruity. Two others I like quite well but aren't always in stock are the Lake Erie Riesling and Gewurztraminer; they're quite a bit pricier, but delicious. Still another that's wonderful warmed up for the holidays is the Spiced Apple -- it makes the house smell wonderful and tastes great as well.

When we go, I make it a point to bring home at least half a case (six bottles), for which I get a 5% discount; get 10% off if you take home a full case (and yes, you can mix and match). Another tip: Bottles purchased to consume on the premises cost a couple of dollars more than take-out, so we usually limit ourselves to one glass apiece while we eat and toast each other with our savings once we get back home.

If you're really serious about trying Ohio wines, here's still another tip: Consider doing all or part of the the drive-it-yourself Wine and Vine Trail, which includes 19 wineries (most in Ashtabula County), three covered bridges and a lift bridge, Amish country and the beautiful Geneva State Park Lodge that's just down the road from the Old Firehouse Winery.

If you go: Old Firehouse Winery
5499 Lake Road
Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio 44401
(800) UNCORK-1
www.OldFirehouseWinery.com

From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the tasting room and patio are open from noon to 1 a.m. seven days a week (the kitchen closes at midnight). Check the Web site for other seasonal hours.

Friday, July 15, 2011

SPREAD EAGLE TAVERN & INN

As many of you know (or at least I hope you do), my restaurant blogs have been "teased" in the wonderful Byrd's Eye View newsletters written and published by filmmaker and journalist Art Byrd Jr. of Youngstown, Ohio. Since he's reached an important milestone - publication of his 100th newsletter - I decided to feature a restaurant that has historical significance as well: The Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn in Hanoverton.

Admittedly, my husb
and Jack and I reserve our visits for special occasions since it's at least an hour's drive from our home, but we've had the pleasure of dining there several times and not once have we been sorry we traveled that far.

Our most recent stop, though, was rather on a whim; we'd spent a wonderful few hours wandering around Zoar Village in Tuscar
awas County - another terrific place for history-lovers to visit, by the way - and we realized it would be easy to go home by way of Hanoverton. And when I looked at the Entertainment Book coupons I always keep in my purse and found one that saved us a few bucks on lunch at the Spread Eagle, we looked at each other and said, why not?

Great food, I should add, isn't the only thing that makes this a special pla
ce. As the name suggests, it's also an inn, with five guest rooms on the second and third floors ranging in cost from $125 a night for the Van Buren Room to $225 for the Washington Room (I'm guessing the price difference is more because of amenities than the pecking order of the two presidents). While you'll need advance reservations if you want to spend the night here, the folks at the restaurant are quick to oblige visitors who want to take a look around.

The restaurant, originally built more than a century and a half ago, features seven dining rooms; the William McKinley room is
more formal and private, while the "barn room" is more earthy and rugged. As an aside, McKinley is an Ohio boy who was born in Jack's hometown of Niles and grew up in Canton, not too far from Hanoverton, and memorials to the 25th president of our great country in both cities are other neat places to visit as well.

Back at
the tavern, if you like you can have cocktails in the Patrick Henry Tavern Room or downstairs in Gaver's Rathskeller, with its 12-foot vaulted ceilings and stone walls. Even if you don't imbibe, be sure to check out the rathskeller - and don't miss the memorabilia hanging on the stairway walls.

All the rooms can be described as cozy, most with fireplaces that come to life with a roar when there's a chill in the air. White linen tablecloths offset an abundance of old brick and weathered dark wood. The fireplaces alone are masterpieces, well worth a look-see if only for the antique tools and cookware standing and hanging about.

On our most recent visit, I chose the Fire Roasted Pasta - grilled Hungarian peppers in a blue cheese cream sauce over linguine for $10.95. Meanwhile, Jack chose the Shrimp & Crab Casserole Au Gratin, served over penne pasta with Alfredo sauce and topped with bread crumbs ($13.99).

My linguine noodles had to be nearly half an inch wide; the chicken and onions were cut in large chunks. Although the peppers weren't really hot by my cast-iron stomach standards, they did add enough zip to keep it interesting. The blue cheese sauce was very creamy, rich and quite filling - I couldn't possibly eat it all.

The creamy sauce on Jack's penne was delicious as well, and he called the bread crumb topping "tasty." It, too, was too much to handle at one sitting, so in the end both of us walked out carrying takeout boxes.

As wonderful as these choices are, I'll note that you may not find them on the menu when you go. In fact, Spread Eagle doesn't even put menu items on its website; you're encouraged to call to see what's being featured (and if you'll be driving some distance for dinner, I also suggest calling ahead for reservations). I suppose that not publishing a menu is because the menu changes often depending on what's in season; finding wild game here, for instance, isn't unusual. But on the other hand, somehow I can't imagine they'd be willing to read the entire menu to folks who call. I know for certain, though, that it's always wonderful with plenty of choices to suit every taste.

If at all possible, time your visit so you'll have time to look around the area nearby. Hanover, as it was known at the time of its settlement in 1813 by Quaker abolitionist James Craig, was central to life around the Sandy & Beaver Canal. By the 1830s, the town boasted about 2,000 residents. It also became known as a stopping place for runaway slaves, and evidence of underground passages remain here along "Brick Row," where the Spread Eagle Tavern was built in 1837.

If you really want to make a trip out of it, allow sufficient time to tour Columbiana County's "Golden Triangle," from Hanoverton to Lisbon to Salem, all of which are 10 miles from one another. All three communities have plenty of historical places to visit (and, for photography buffs like us, fill up lots of media cards).

If you go: Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn
10150 Plymouth St.
Hanoverton, Ohio 44423
(330) 223-1583
http://www.spreadeagletavern.com

Open for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.; dinner Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.