Thursday, December 20, 2012

CHEDDAR'S


The cost of gasoline alone has kept my husband Jack and I from the on-a-whim traveling we've always enjoyed, so like the old 1940s song, we "don't get around much anymore." But when we learned that a Cheddar's restaurant had opened in Boardman, we made it a crusade to get there as soon as we could.

For the record, this location is the third in Ohio (others are in Mansfield and Findlay), and there's another in Erie, Pa., where we're relatively frequent visitors when the weather is nicer.

Cheddar's is located on Southern Park Mall property next to Chili's - very easy to get to unless you try it, as we did, during the Christmas holiday shopping season. Even though it was early in December, the traffic was horrid, and since we were arriving during the lunch hour, we expected a long wait. Fortunately, we lucked out; although plenty of folks were there, we had no trouble being seated immediately.


In fact, the interior is quite large. Right away, we were impressed by the huge paddle "fan" that hangs from the ceiling at the entrance as well as the in-wall aquarium off to the side. Some of the high walls dividing the sections have open portals filled with tub planters of greenery - a bit reminiscent of Olive Garden, perhaps. 

We took some time to check out the menu -- the prices are quite reasonable, by the way -- but we knew we wanted to start with an appetizer (fighting traffic always makes us extra-hungry). The onion rings with homemade ranch and Cajun dipping sauce were tempting ($3.99), as was the Sante Fe spinach dip with sour cream, spices and four cheeses topped with mozzarella ($4.99). In the end, we settled on the chicken tender basket ($5.99), served over fries with dipping sauce.


We were so hungry that salads and soups just wouldn't suffice, although a number of the salads in particular sounded delicious. There's also a great-sounding lunch combo of soup, house or Caesar salad, loaded baked potato and half a double-decker club sandwich; choose any two for $5.99 or three for $6.99. Another day, perhaps!

All the entrees sounded great - we've told our son Scott, who loves fish tacos, that they're on the menu here (white fish, fried or grilled, with roasted corn slaw on two flour tortillas with one side for $6.69). I was quite interested in the grilled salmon ($7.99 for lunch portion and $9.99 for dinner size), which can be ordered grilled, blackened or bourbon glazed with rice and two homemade sides. Still another possibility is the grilled tilapia with mango salsa, also with rice and two sides for $8.99 (have I mentioned that I love seafood)?

The sandwich list, which includes half-pound burgers, we left for another visit as well. That's because we both found what we wanted on the "Favorites" section. For Jack it was the Braised Fall-a-part Beef Roast; my choice was the New Orleans Pasta (both $9.99). Entrees here don't come with a side, but you can add a house or Caesar salad to any meal for $2.29. A honey butter croissant is available on request, but that's mentioned in the very fine print so we totally overlooked that option while we were there (which I suspect happens to other diners as well and I'm not all that happy about).

We were absolutely amazed, though, at how fast our appetizer arrived. Within scant minutes after we'd placed our order, our server returned with a plate of the largest chicken tenders we've ever seen accompanied by a pile of fries. The breading is quite tasty and not overly crunchy, just as we like. The mustard dip was outstanding as well, with just the right amount of zing. Easily, these could make a whole meal - and that said, a platter with two sides is available as a main course for $7.99.

Although we typically manage to satisfy our appetites with the appetizer, this time we didn't get the chance; the entrees arrived before either of us could finish a single tender (of course, we brought the rest home). Both entrees were beautifully presented and were quite substantial.

Jack's beef roast consisted of hormone-free beef from Provimi's Copper Ridge Ranch with roasted carrots, celery, onion and au jus over a pile of mashed potatoes. The flavor is outstanding, and the beef really is tender enough to easily but with a fork. Jack loved the large chunks of onion (as opposed to finely chopped or sliced), but the carrots, not so much. He's not a big carrot fan to begin with, so it didn't matter a whit to him; I love them, but these weren't cooked tender enough to my liking so I passed as well.

Happily, my New Orleans pasta was to die for, consisting of shrimp, chicken, smoked sausage and penne pasta in Cajun Alfredo sauce with garlic bread. The latter was absolutely delicious - lots of butter and garlic flavor just as I love. The pasta was outstanding as well - a large bowl with delicious sauce, several shrimp and even more fairly large smoked sausage slices. The sauce is only a tad spicy, so Jack was able to try it and liked it as well. 

Honestly, I didn't find any chicken in it as the menu said, but I was quite happy with what was in there (and besides, our chicken tenders appetizer had satisfied my appetite for chicken so I didn't miss it at all). Try as I might, I managed to finish less than half of the pasta, so that, too, we carted back home with the leftover tenders.

The only downside here? It was a fairly early lunch for us so I ordered only water with lemon to drink - forgetting I was in Boardman. Sorry, folks, but even a large chunk of lemon can't camouflage the taste of the water here. Yuck!

If you go:

Cheddar's
7327 Market St.
Boardman, Ohio 44512
(330) 758-5006

http://www.cheddars.com

Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, November 30, 2012

SHALE TAVERN & GRILLE


Have cameras, will travel, is a motto that prompts my husband Jack and I to hit the road every chance we get - even if it's just for an hour or so. As winter rolls in, though, our outings become few and far between. So when the temperature was predicted to reach an unseasonably warm 68 degrees on a near-winter morning not long ago, we figured it might be the last chance we'd get for a while to get outta Dodge.

But what might our destination be? Basically, we have four choices: North, South, East and West. Well, we reasoned, we haven't seen the Ohio River for a while - so we pointed the car south to East Liverpool. And by the way, that relatively new Shale Tavern & Grille near Lisbon is a place we've been meaning to visit and it's right on the way home.

We tooled around for a bit on Broadway Wharf in East Liverpool, happily snapping photos of a tug chugging up the river pushing a huge barge. After that, we wandered around a few city streets to see some of the old buildings, stopping just short of crossing the Newell Bridge to West Virginia this time out - frankly, we were getting hungry.


The Shale Tavern, which is located next to a Days Inn, used to be the Saratoga Restaurant - and it sure is impressive to look at. Inside are two beautiful stone fireplaces (the one on the bar side was fronted by two overstuffed easy chairs that were tempting - they looked far more cozy than the high-backed wood chairs and bar stools (although they were quite comfortable, too). The stuffed deer head on the rugged stone chimney keeps watch on the expansive bar that takes up almost the whole side of the room (there's another "restaurant" section with its own fireplace). The mirrored built-in carved wood "hutch" that stores liquor bottles behind the bar is just awesome.

As is our preference, we opted for the bar side, where five brews are on tap including the local Shale Ale, one of the Great Lakes Brewing varieties, Blue Moon, Bud Light and Yuengling. Jack likes to try specialty ales, so the Shale Ale was his choice. I'm far less adventurous when it comes to the stuff, so it was Yuengling for me.
I should note that the restaurant reportedly is owned by Mike Naffah, also owner of the Days Inn. The decision to reopen the former Saratoga (and the choice of name) was made because of the increased business at the motel as workers come to the area as part of the burgeoning Utica Shale development in Columbiana and nearby Carroll counties.

I'll also be honest and say that as of this writing, we've been to the tavern just once (after all, it's a bit of a hike down there from Mineral Ridge). But I'm also delighted to say we'll be going back every chance we get - the food we had was outstanding and we look forward to trying more. 

Take, for instance, the wonderful sounding entrees; our visit was at lunch - the place is open for lunch only on Sundays, by the way - so we just weren't hungry enough to go for the crabmeat stuffed haddock topped with Hollandaise sauce ($15.95), Tavern Beef with smashed redskin potatoes ($13.95) or the jumbo shrimp scampi on a bed of linguine ($14.95). There are daily specials that sound great as well, but they're weekdays only when the tavern doesn't open until 4 p.m. (the Tavern Beef, for instance, is $12.95 on Wednesdays).

The ribs and chicken, which the menu says are "soon to be world famous," may be an option as well; a half rack (dry rub or barbecue) is $13.99.


We, however, stuck to the list of sandwiches and burgers at our visit. Jack picked the steak hoagie for $6.99, adding grilled onions, mushrooms and peppers for another $1.29 and substituting cole slaw for the usual fries. Once I saw the Blue Devil burger - half a pound of Angus beef topped with bleu cheese crumbles and haystack onions with fries ($8.99), it was mine, all mine.

The fries were good - the thin Idora Park style - but they weren't very hot and I suspected they might have been fried much earlier in the day and reheated. Everything else we ordered, though, got a total of two thumbs ups. The slaw was particularly good, Jack said (I took a bite and agreed). And his steak hoagie was excellent as well, providing enough to bring half of it home.

It was the burger, though, that was the real standout. The beef was very tasty, and I loved the buttered and grilled bun. Truthfully, I'd probably eat sawdust if it were covered in bleu cheese, but those onion straws really made the difference. Somehow, they managed to stay amazingly crisp until I'd polished off the entire burger.

And, they were delicious; the result is that I pledged to order the haystack onion blossom with bistro sauce appetizer ($5.99) next time we visit!

If you go:

Shale Tavern & Grille
40964 State Route 154
Lisbon, Ohio 44432
(330) 420-0045

Open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, November 9, 2012

YOLO


My husband Jack and I are fond of having lunch at The Phoenix, which is located in a strip plaza just north of Canfield off State Route 46. But every time we go there, or drive past the plaza, we see YOLO, a restaurant at the opposite end. We always thought the name is catchy and wondered if it was an acronym for something, until one day we read an article somewhere that the owner said stands for "You Only Live Once."

Neat, we said, and when we learned the place specializes in Mediterranean food, we vowed we'd get there one day.

First, though, as is my custom before we visit any new restaurant, I wanted to check the website for details. Looking up the URL mentioned in the newspaper article I'd read earlier, I was quite impressed - that is, until I realized this YOLO was based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Further searches turned up YOLOs in Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, Miami and Nashville -- bringing the realization that the name isn't quite as unique for a restaurant as I'd thought.

Happily, the food is - but more on that in a bit. Next time we were in the neighborhood, we pulled in the parking lot and Jack went in to ask if they had a take-home version of the menu - and happily, the answer was yes. Then when we discovered that the local YOLO is in the 2012 Entertainment Book, we decided to throw caution to the wind and go. As usual, we rounded up our Niles friends Jerry and Barb - an easy sell since Barb is quite fond of Mediterranean food, lamb in particular.

The Entertainment Book gave us $10 off if we spent $30 (our friends had one as well), so we figured if we went for dinner each couple could get an appetizer to share with everyone; adding in an entree for each of us, then, would get us to the required minimum with little effort.

Since other errands the day we planned to visit meant we couldn't absolutely pinpoint an arrival time, we decided to take our chances and not ask for a reservation. As it turned out, we didn't need one at the time we got there at close to 6:30 p.m., but by the time we left most of the tables were occupied. It's not a large place, but it's very cozy and comfortable; there's free WiFi for the tech folks, and a live singer/guitarist was in a corner providing entertainment, adding to the overall ambience.

We hadn't planned on having alcoholic drinks, but when our very friendly server told us it was still Happy Hour and all house wines were $3.50 a glass, we changed our minds quickly. Two of us went for the cabernet, one with shiraz and the third, who has a bit of a rebellious streak, ordered a beer. All were quite tasty, I'm happy to say.

Based on what we knew from the sample menu, we knew choosing an entree wouldn't be easy, but having that in advance did allow us to narrow things down a bit before we went. The appetizers, however, proved more difficult; just too many that sounded way too good.

There are actually two lists; on one, all appetizers are $5.77 each (or you can get a tapas platter of any three for $10.97). The other list is of "jumbo" appetizers big enough to share for $9.97 each. Not wanting to stuff themselves early on, our friends opted for the small version of Hummus - roasted and chilled garlic and chick peas pureed with sesame and olive oil, lemon and Mediterranean seasoning. Jack and I decided to splurge on the tapas platter, choosing Baba Ghanoush (mesquite eggplant puree with sesame, garlic and lemon, YOLO Fungi (garlic and port roasted wild mushrooms) and smoked hot peppers in olive oil (no further explanation needed).

As for the entrees, Barb had decided before she walked in the door to get the grilled lamb platter, consisting of lamb cubes over Syrian rice with roasted peppers and onions with garlic paste and pita bread ($14.97) with the lamb medium rare. Jerry didn't take long either: his choice was the Shish Tawouk platter, or chicken breast cubes marinated in garlic and sumac, chargrilled over Syrian rice with peppers, onions, garlic paste and flatbread ($12.97).

Jack didn't waffle much either, at least once he spotted the crab-and-shrimp stuffed chicken breast with asiago cream sauce ($18). I kept shifting between the pan-fried walleye with sherry lemon sauce over Syrian rice (my favorite fish, $14.57) and the Ahi tuna steak topped with charcoal sesame seeds, green onion, ginger and Wasabi with Syrian rice ($14.27). Depending on when the server asked, it could have gone either way, but she caught me when my mind was on that Ahi tuna so tuna it was (ordered medium rare).


We didn't realize it, but the meals come with salads as well; and the dressings are quite unusual. Here, too, our choices varied; Jack wanted strawberry vinaigrette, I opted for Greek-style ranch, Jerry chose tropical sweet and sour and Barb couldn't resist the lemon pepper gorgonzola. Each turned out to be quite tasty, served over fresh greens with green pepper slivers and a couple of errant cucumber wedges that I happily passed on to Barb lest they contaminate the rest of my salad.

First, though, we smacked our lips over the appetizers. I'm not a huge fan of hummis, but I have to admit, I could make a meal out of the hummus appetizer - and I'll say the same for the Baba Ghanousch (both came with pita triangles). The hot peppers weren't very hot, but they were quite tasty, and every one raved about those mushrooms.

It didn't take long after we'd polished off the appetizers for the entrees to arrive, and they sure looked impressive. Unknown to us beforehand, most came with a generous helping of unusual fresh green beans, cut in small-ish crosswise slices and covered with unusual (and delicious) seasoning.

We're not at all certain what makes the rice Syrian, but it sure was good. The flavor wasn't strong, but it was perfectly cooked and moist but all not stuck together. It was the main part of our meals, though, that were so wonderful. The portions were sizable, although I was the only one who ended up taking anything home.

The lamb, Barb said, was especially good (I'm not a big fan of lamb, but I tasted it and immediately agreed with her assessment). The garlic paste was served in a small container on the side - that's because the flavor is a bit strong to suit some folks, our server said. Here too, Barb agreed; she loved it but was glad she could add it in as much or as little as she wanted.

After one bite, Jerry was quite certain it wouldn't be necessary for the staff to eat his leftovers - there would be none. Jack, too, loved the crab and shrimp stuffing with his chicken breast, and the asiago cream sauce was quite tasty as well.

My Ahi tuna steak was perfectly cooked as well, and the Wasabi added a flavorful bit of zest. At least half of it plus some rice went in a to-go box, making a nice lunch for Jack the next day.

If you go:

YOLO Grille & Spirits
5231 S. Canfield-Niles Road
Canfield, Ohio 44406
(330) 286-3866

Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, October 19, 2012

STEAMERS


As most readers of my blog know by now, I love seafood. No, make that I love seafood. I love it so much, in fact, that on more than one of the trips my husband Jack and I have made to the North Carolina Outer Banks, I vowed to eat nothing else as an entree - including for breakfast. Admittedly, we rarely eat much of anything before lunch (at least not in a restaurant), but a couple of times we did, and yes, I managed to find something that once made its home in water.

Back here in landlocked Mineral Ridge, Ohio, I'm more likely than not to order seafood when it's on a menu, although I'm not shy about saying that's not always the best choice because (a) it's not fresh off the boat and (b) generally speaking, it's overcooked. So when we were shopping for an easy chair at Sheely's in North Lima several months ago, on a whim we asked a couple of employees if there was a good place nearby to have lunch. Their response? Steamers, not far away on Market Street - which specializes in seafood.


We found the place in something of a nondescript building we almost didn't spot in a small strip mall and attached to a Super 8 Motel. For whatever reason, we decided not to stop, choosing instead to head closer to home. But the recommendation by those folks at Sheely's stuck with us -- this is the place everyone around here goes, they'd said -- and one fine day when we were traveling around looking for things to photograph and were in the neighborhood, we said, let's give it a try.

Our first adventure there, I'm delighted to report, was nothing short of WOW!

It was somewhere between the usual lunch and dinner hours - typically when we visit restaurants to avoid the possibility of waiting, which we hate - and we were seated immediately in a booth not far from the bar. There's also a dining area, a banquet room and a closed-off outdoor patio when the weather's nice. 

Inside, though, it's quite a different story. On this first trip, just a glance at the menu told us we'd have to come back (in fact, we never made it past the appetizers before we'd made our choices). We decided to try three: the overloaded potato skins to share, peel-and-eat spiced shrimp for Jack and blackened tuna bites for me. 

Both of us were thrilled. The tuna bites ($9.99) were outstanding, though a bit spicy -- but not so much that Jack couldn't eat them - and for me of the cast-iron stomach, it was love at first bite. The shrimp (also $9.99), were saturated with Old Bay spices, and Jack said that while they aren't quite as fresh as his favorite food at Awful Arthur's Oyster Bar on the Outer Banks, they were every bit as tasty.

The potato skins were fabulous - without question the best we've had anywhere. That's quite a complement coming from me, a person who isn't all that fond of potato skins (the skins, after all, were what my mother discarded back on the farm where I grew up; ever since then it's been hard for me to think of them as much of a delicacy).

We did look at the dinner menu (which you'll find online at the website at the end of this review), and unless you're interested in chicken and pasta dishes that are in the $12 to $15 range, expect to spend a few bucks here. The Scallops Portabella, with jumbo scallops atop a portabella in asiago cream sauce with sliced tomatoes, for instance, is $23.99 (but it's got to be to die for). A hefty 16-ounce chargrilled ribeye tavern-style prime rib au jus is $21.99, so you get the point. 

There is a Happy Hour Monday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., with discounted alcoholic beverages and munchy specials depending on the day (Tuesday you get 10 jumbo wings for $4, for example). One of these days, we've decided, we absolutely must go on a Wednesday to try the $5 crab dip breadbowl.

Our next visit came on the way home from filling up our camera cards with fall foliage photos from the beautiful Beaver Creek State Park in Columbiana County - we'd timed our trip so we could stop at Steamers for a late lunch. When we arrived around 1:15 p.m., there were a number of cars in the parking lot, but we got a table on the bar side once again and the tables that were occupied cleared out within another 15 minutes or so. This time, our plan was to focus entirely on seafood.


We hadn't intended to try another appetizer, but then we spotted the Crabmeat Portabella ($9.99) stuffed with lump crabmeat in a tomato basil sauce. Oh what the heck, we said, let's go for it!

Picking our entrees proved difficult for Jack once again, but finally he opted for the lunch portion of breaded cod ($7.99) with cole slaw and fries as his sides. My choice was quite easy: Once I saw the 8-ounce tuna steak, chargrilled with remoulade sauce ($10.99), I was hooked. For sides, I got a tossed salad and rice pilaf. Since this isn't Ahi tuna, I was a bit hesitant to ask for medium or medium rare and went with medium well. 

Our server brought a basket of two warm rolls along with the appetizer, whispering that the bread is perfect for dipping in the tomato basil sauce in which that large stuffed mushroom was swimming. She was right; and Jack said the mushroom was outstanding, worth every single penny and at least as good, if not better, than any crab dish he's had in Maryland.

Jack's cod portion was quite substantial, maybe a foot long and 4 inches wide, as well as flaky and tender. The slaw wasn't his favorite, and when I tasted it I understood why: It was more like a Waldorf salad, with a slight apple flavor in the mayonnaise dressing. Too bad you don't care for it much, I said as I polished it off. 

My salad, with ranch dressing, was quite good (well, except for the cucumber slice, which I picked out immediately so it wouldn't contaminate the rest of the greens), and the rice pilaf had a nice flavor. As for the tuna steak, I was sorry I hadn't listened to my inner voice and asked for a less-cooked version. It was very good, mind you, and the portion was so large that I brought half of it home for another meal. But it was more well done (and therefore not as tender) than I really love (my bad, not the restaurant's), and next time I'll go with my first instincts.

Steamers
10078 Market St.
North Lima, Ohio 44452
(330) 549-9041
www.enjoysteamers.com

Open at 11:30 a.m to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 11 p.m. on Saturday; closed Sunday.

Friday, October 5, 2012

VERNON'S CAFE


If you've read the introduction to my Mahoning Valley Eats & Treats blog, you know the reason I started it in the first place is that I truly believe the restaurants here are the best you'll find anywhere. With few exceptions (like crab cakes on the Maryland coast, shrimp at the North Carolina Banks), no matter how much you pay or what the restaurant's cache, the quality of the food won't be any better than you can get in this neck of the woods.

Right at the top of my list of reasons my husband Jack and I make that claim is Vernon's Cafe. Back in the day when we could afford to eat out more often than we can now that we're both retired, I'm guessing we had dinner there, on average, once a week - and never once were we disappointed. In between, we enjoyed greeting, meeting friends and eating in the banquet, often the site of special occasions like wedding receptions, office parties and such.

Up front, I'll say that while Vernon's is far from the most expensive place in the world - you'll find wonderful dinner entrees from $9 to $12 or so - but given our changed economic circumstances in recent years, it's enough that we simply don't go as often. That said, we got a hankering to go once again and decided to try lunch. In addition to banquet space, there's a relatively large dining room and a separate bar, where, because it's more casual and intimate, we always prefer to sit. We opted to get there around 1 p.m., thinking we'd miss the lunch crowd. That we did, but barely; quite a few folks were still there, although two of the four tables for four on the bar side were empty (happily for us).

Vernon's is known for a great wine selection, and although there's no on-tap beer, our server told us they've got just about everything from domestics to top shelf. And, we learned, they're delivered with tall, frosty glasses for those who want them.

There's a list of specials that changes daily, and while we looked those over our server brought a basket of thick, fresh Italian bread. Vernon's keeps bottles of herb-infused olive oil on each table - delicious for dipping that wonderful bread (we always add a few shakes of sprinkle cheese as well).

On the specials list, my first inclination was to try the linguine with bluefoot white shrimp and proscuitto ($10) or the sauteed chicken livers with mushrooms, onions, wine, rice and green beans ($7). Jack thought long and hard about the stuffed pepper with smashed Yukon gold potatoes ($8).

That's before I spotted the petite grilled salmon over angel hair pasta with tomatoes, scallions, asparagus and scampi butter sauce ($9.50) from the regular lunch menu - that one just called out my name. Jack, too, picked from the regular menu - his all-time favorite linguine with red clam sauce ($9), and you can get it with white sauce as well.

With our entrees come garden salads, with a choice of Italian or raspberry viniagrette dressings, both made in-house. Both are delicious - he picked one and I the other - and I said yes to our server's offer of topping it off with fresh ground pepper.

Both our entrees, as expected, were to die for; the portions were quite sizable for lunch, and both of us expected to take some home. Well, that didn't happen; paying no mind whatsoever to the possible consequences of overeating, we kept on shoveling it in until our bowls were completely empty - a testament to how fabulous both dishes were.

As we were lamenting our lack of self-control, though, Jack reminded me of the main reason we love Vernon's: The food here is creative. Almost all the entrees have some kind of unique touch - something we'd expect to find in big-city restaurants where, I hasten to add, we'd also expect to pay a lot more. 

The majority of our restaurant forays happen in the company of good friends Jerry and Barb from Niles, and Vernon's is no exception. This time, though, we went for dinner, and since there was no room in the bar, we were seated in the dining room. I must say that one of the reasons we prefer the bar side is that the dining room always seems a bit too crowded, as one of our friends noted on this visit so I guess I'm not alone. But since we managed to get a table against one of the walls, it was less noticeable than if we'd been at one of the tables in the middle of the room.

To start, we dug in on that wonderful bread and olive oil dip; three of us had ordered salads, while I had the wonderful wedding soup, which I absolutely love. In part to save on the cost, all four of us ordered waster and nothing else to drink, and - wonder of wonders, our glasses were refilled without our having to ask.

Our entree selections were all over the map; Jerry ordered the Chicken Saltimbocca ($14), two chicken breasts smothered in cheese and asparagus, which came with those Yukon gold smashed potatoes. Jack chose his favorite chicken cacciatore ($14), also two chicken breasts but with peppers, onions and other vegetables in a flavorful sauce.

Barb loves lamb, so she was more than willing to spend a little more for the Colorado chops ($17.50). And when I saw the blackened swordfish with rice ($17.50), I was hooked.

Needless to say, we were extremely happy with our choices. Jack's had the cacciatore many times, and it was delicious once again; Jerry's saltimbocca was a very generous size with outstanding flavor.

Barb was thrilled; the lamb chops, which were beautifully presented, included asparagus and au jus - and the only time she stopped saying "Wow!" was when she was eating. My swordfish was a very large chunk, and the blackened seasoning was quite spicy (wonderful for me, but it was a little too much for the other three, who liked it very much but said they wouldn't want more than a bite or two). The rice had an excellent flavor as well and the grilled vegetables made a perfect complement.

If you go:

Vernon's Cafe
720 Youngstown-Warren Road
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 652-1381
http://www.vernonscafe.com

Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday. Since 2011, Vernon's also operates the V2 Wine Bar Trattoria on Federal Street in downtown Youngstown (http://www.v2byvernon.com). 

Friday, September 21, 2012

DONNA'S DINER


What is it about old-fashioned diners that's so appealing? If you're my age and remember sitting at a soda fountain sipping a just-mixed chocolate malt and listening to tunes on a jukebox that played 45 RPM records, I suppose it's simple nostalgia for a time when things seemed, well, for want of a better description, less plugged in. Our fingers savored the icy cold of the aluminum container the malt was mixed in, not pushing buttons to send a text message. We were worried we might not make it to the library before it closed to do research for our science paper, not whether the storm would knock out the WiFi so we couldn't Google the information we needed.


Whatever the reason, diners do have something of universal appeal. While we don't actively seek them out -- most don't serve alcohol, and we like a glass of beer or wine with our meals -- when my husband Jack and I happen upon one that looks interesting, we try to stop. For several years when we drove to the southwestern part of the Buckeye State to visit my parents, for instance, we'd have lunch at the Rockin' Robin Diner in Urbana. Closer to home, we enjoy the occasional lunch or dinner at the Steel Trolley Diner in Lisbon or the Emerald Diner in Hubbard (the latter, it pains me to report, was gutted by a fire recently; hopefully, it will be rebuilt and reopened).


Happily, there's another terrific diner in Sharon, Pa. - Donna's Diner. Owned by Donna Winner, it's smack dab in the middle of town and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and, as the sign says, home of the "Winnerburger."

Not too long ago, we rounded up our usual foodie friends Jerry and Barb and headed over for lunch - the first time any of us had eaten here. The first thing we noticed - except perhaps for the '50s songs that can be heard from the sidewalk - is the size; this diner seems wider and longer than most we've been in. That said, the interior is quite typical, with lots of old-time decorations on the walls like Coca-Cola posters, a black-and-white diamond pattern floor, shiny chrome soda fountain stools with red sears and swirly-patterned Formica tops on the booth tables. There are no individual jukeboxes at the tables, but there's a very large one near the front entrance.


The menu here takes a while to digest, so we took our time; there are loads of burgers, for instance, but none of us was quite in the mood we vowed to return to try a couple. Pittsburgh Steelers fan Barb said she might try the Ben RoethlisBurger (which comes with Heinz catsup), but the rest of us -- Cleveland Browns fans all -- agreed we'd pass on that one. 

Following my usual custom at diners, I ordered a chocolate milkshake ($4.99) from the "regular" shake list. There are specialty shakes and malts as well, like turtle and banana strawberry, priced a bit higher. Also on the fountain menu are brown cows - root beer and ice cream floats and a favorite of my late mother - as well as black cows (the same only with Coke).

Ever the fish lover, I finally decided on one of the Blue Plate Specials, the Sea Cruise (a half order of Yuengling battered haddock for $6.99) with Baby Twist (macaroni and cheese) and cottage cheese as my sides. Then, I couldn't resist adding an order of Roman Holiday, or sweet potato puffs with brown sugar dipping sauce ($2.99).

As you may have guessed, most of the foods here have names straight from the '50s, like the Rockin' Rueben, The Platters (roast beef), Blueberry Hill, Hopelessly Devoted (pancakes), Teardrops on My Pillow (an omelet, sausage patties and hash browns), Rock Around the Clock (cobb salad) and Nat King Cole Slaw.

Jack also went with fish of sorts, ordering the Charlie Tuna, a tuna melt sandwich with American cheese, lettuce and tomato and cole slaw as his side ($5.99). Barb settled on The Audrey, a turkey reuben with the usual fixings on marbled rye ($6.99). For sides, she picked grilled veggies and Coolsville Chips, which are homemade potato chips sprinkled with parmesan cheese.


Jerry started with Thunderbird, or chili topped with shredded cheddar, diced onion and a dollop of sour cream with tortilla chips on the side ($2.99) for a cup. His sandwich choice was the Sinatra, hot roast beef with provolone, grilled onions and horseradish sauce on grilled white bread and served au jus ($7.99).

The slaw was especially good; the pinkish cast, we concluded must be a result of having a bit of fresh horseradish in it. My milkshake was wonderful - on the thick side and topped with whipped cream and a cherry (as is the custom, I got part of it in a glass and the rest in the cold aluminum mixing container). It was so chocolatey and creamy it could have been a meal in and of itself.

The sweet potato puffs were outstanding and quite unique -- a little crispy on the outside and soft inside but cut in smallish cubes rather than fries. Served with a sugary dipping sauce, they were, we all decided, worth the trip. Another standout was the marble bread on Barb's sandwich, and my mac and cheese offered a "twist" in that it's made from spiral pasta and baked with bread cubes on top. Both Jerry and Jack loved their sandwiches, and my fish was delicious and a generous chunk given that it was a half order.

Our next visit was just the two of us, this time on our way back home from a photography outing at McConnell's Mill State Park and the historic village of Volant, Pa. Jack couldn't resist ordering that same Charlie Tuna and slaw -- it was that good -- while I settled on the Route 66 chicken salad. It's a special blend that includes grapes and pineapple ($4.99) and it sounded great. I upgraded the standard chips to a side of those sweet potato puffs I'd loved the first time around (for a slight extra charge). This time no dipping sauce was served, but it really didn't matter because the outside coating is very sweet. Once again, they were delicious.

Because I love to eat breakfast just about any time -- you'll find us often at a late lunch at Bob Evans, for instance, where I always get the bowl of sausage gravy with two biscuits and home fries -- I should note that breakfast foods are served any time at Donna's. One of these days I'll have to try Donna's signature eggs, or fluffy scrambled eggs with cream cheese and chives with home fries and bacon, ham or sausage and toast for $6.99. Or, maybe it'll be the Bye Bye Birdie, two slices of bread with an egg nestled in the center of each slice grilled and served with bacon, ham or sausage and home fries ($5.99). Seeing that on the menu brought back [mostly] happy memories of high school home economics classes, where I first made egg-centered grilled toast -- just about the first thing I ever learned to cook!

If you go:

Donna's Diner
10 W. State St.
Sharon, PA 16146
(724) 346-7373

http://www.donnas-diner.com

Open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

Friday, September 7, 2012

STONEYARD GRILL AND RESTAURANT


As any fan of the TV classic "Cheers" can tell you, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name; they're always glad you came, and so are you. For more years than I lived within the borders, there almost always was a place like that in Niles. Even before I married my husband Jack, we spent quality time on college breaks at Jerry's Inn on Mason Street. Once we'd settled in, we enjoyed some great breakfasts at The Spot restaurant downtown.

Later, our two kids tagged along to the Silver Nugget; and many an evening meal was washed down with a draught beer or two at the Old Main Ale and Chowder House deftly poured by 6-foot, 9-inch owner Hugh McGarrity (and later by his not-so-tall brother, Mark, an author who wrote many whodunits under the pen name Bartholomew Gill).

But that was then; and ever since the Old Main building was razed to make way for the William McKinley Birthplace Home, nothing really came along to take its place.

Until now, that is. After following the construction progress on Facebook, we were delighted to learn that the new Stoneyard Grill and Tavern opened Aug. 16 in downtown Niles almost directly across from the McKinley Home. The building, which formerly housed a pharmacy, has been renovated inside and out to provide more interior space as well as a small, walled-in outdoor patio. 

Needless to say, we wasted little time getting there, although we gave it a few days for the big rush of traffic to fade a bit. Picking up friends Jerry and Barb who live in Niles, we hit the parking lot around 6:15 on Tuesday of the first full week of business. There are front and side entrances; the side, which we used because we'd parked closer to that one, opens into the bar. Keep walking down the hall and you'll come to a slightly larger dining room.

The decor is very clean and crisp, with stone on some of the walls, a fireplace in the bar and blonde booths and tables with black backs and legs. No fewer than seven flat-screen TV sets adorn the walls on the bar side, and another four are in the dining room.

The menu isn't what I'd call extensive, but at the same time, there are plenty of choices; while we looked at the possibilities, we ordered draught beers (16-ounce domestics are just $2, although for specialties like Sam Adams Oktoberfest, also on tap, the price jumps to $3.50). When we asked about drink specials, our server told us they're still trying to work out a schedule.

For starters, we picked beer battered onion rings ($5.99) and hot peppers in oil ($4.99 and served with bread) as appetizers to share. The onion rings, which come with a tasty but unidentifiable dipping sauce, were absolutely out of this world; one bite and we wished we'd have doubled up on the order. The peppers contain both jalapenos and Hungarian in a very flavorful oil. The jalapenos had a noticeable kick -- the other three liked the taste but deemed them a little too hot for their liking (so happily, I ended up eating most of them).

There are several burgers, pizzas and dinner salads on the menu as well as more expensive dinner entrees like the Flat Iron Sirloin (10-oz. Angus beef for $13.99) and "The Presidential," a 12-oz. certified Angus beef New York Strip steak with the restaurant's signature blend of seasoning named in honor of former President McKinley ($21.99). But we didn't want to spend quite that much, so I finally settled on the Stoneyard Fish Fry (haddock) for $8.99. Most dinner entrees come with a salad and one side, so I picked sweet potato fries and bleu cheese dressing on the salad. Seafood was Barb's choice too - Puff Shrimp, or Yuengling battered deep fried tiger shrimp for $8.99. She, too, wanted bleu cheese, and her other side was a baked potato with butter and sour cream.

The "boys" were chicken pickers, with Jack's choice being the marinated Italian chicken, or two breasts charbroiled in Italian marinade for $9.99. Cole slaw was an easy choice of side, and when the server suggested the homemade citrus viniagrette dressing, he quickly agreed.

Jerry's chicken was in the form of pasta - Chicken & Broccoli Aglio E Olio - for $10.99. It was described as a sauteed breast with broccoli and minced garlic tossed in olive oil over penne. Pasta dinners come with a salad only, and Caesar was his dressing choice.

I'll say straight out that the salads were among the best we've had anywhere; for openers, they consist of chopped mixed greens, tomatoes and onions and served in what looks like soup bowls with handles (really cool). The dressings, especially that citrus viniagrette, are outstanding.

As for the entrees, our verdicts were somewhat mixed. My haddock was an enormous plank - at least a foot long and probably 4 inches across at the widest point. Better still, it was coated with the same batter as those wonderful onion rings. The sweet potato fries were cut almost into julienne strips, but they tasted fine and the brown sugar dip was good as well. Barb's shrimp also had that tempura-style batter, and the shrimp were substantial in size so she was pleased as well.

The chicken dishes, however, didn't get such high marks - largely because flavor was noticeably lacking in both. If there was any garlic in the pasta, it was hiding, and the broccoli was crisp enough to suggest it hadn't been cooked at all. Jack's chicken breasts - while perfectly cooked and tender - were totally ho-hum with not the slightest hint of Italian influence.

Of course, any new restaurant is bound to experience some growing pains and, hopefully, will learn from both experience and customer feedback. Not long after the opening, in fact, a new list of weekday lunch specials debuted - 7 meals under $7 - a definite plus that will mean we're more likely to visit more often (there's a BBQ pork sandwich with Stoneyard chips for $6.99, for instance).

Chalk it up to getting your feet wet, we said - we'll definitely give this place another try, if only because we're rooting for it to be a big success. And go back we did, only this time it was for lunch and just the two of us. We asked to sit on the bar side, which, generally speaking, is our preference (yes, that's me in the photo). That fireplace, we decided, would be a big plus on cold winter days (we're assuming, of course, that it's a real wood-burning fireplace). 

We looked long and hard at the appetizer list, but since many of them cost almost as much as a sandwich platter and we just weren't that hungry at lunchtime we decided to pass this time out. Some of the sandwiches sounded intriguing, like Cajun Steak & Pepper ($9.99) and "original" Italian sausage (1/2 lb. for $8.99). Finally, Jack settled on chicken salad on a croissant for $8.99 - which probably would have been my choice had he not beat me to it and we wanted to sample different items. The "Dachshund," a large hot dog with brown mustard the menu claims would "make Harry Stevens proud" caught my eye ($7.99), so that was my pick of the sandwich litter.

For those who don't know, the late Harry M. Stevens, who was from Niles, is credited as being the first person to wrap a frankfurter in a piece of bread, a treat that would later become known as the hot dog.

One of the side substitute options on the menu is soup (instead of the fries that come with sandwiches), but our server told us the soup recipies were "still being perfected" so there were none as yet. So, I decided to pay the additional buck for some of those fabulous onion rings once again (and I got a fairly substantial pile for my money, I hasten to add).

The chicken salad was absolutely to die for (since it was my first choice I just had to have a sample), and while I have no idea how proud good old Harry would be, the hot dog really was huge and quite delicious, with a flavor something of a cross between a hot dog and kielbasa. In fact, I'd love to see it on the menu sans bun with some sauerkraut - my mouth is watering just thinking about it. 

The day after Labor Day, Jack and I popped in again for lunch, this time greeted by a server we "met" when we were sort of regulars at a casual eatery in Eastwood Mall who's now working here (see what I mean about where everybody knows you)? This time, we were interested in sampling something from that 7 Under $7 lunch menu. Jack had no problem, deciding on the two sliders with cole slaw for $6.99. From the three choices of pulled pork, hamburger and turkey burger, he went with the pulled pork - in the end, a good decision.

I considered the half-chicken salad sandwich option and inquired about the soup (they now serve French onion and chili), but I ended up ignoring the cheap lunch menu and ordered a burger instead: The Backyard Barbecue ($8.99), with a 1/2-pound Angus beef burger topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, house BBQ sauce and the hand-cut potato chips (the latter on the bottom) on a buttered, corn-dusted roll.

Jack brought one of the sliders home, and I admit I should have gone with the smaller portion menu. The burger was absolutely delicious - cooked to order - but it was so big I could barely finish half of it. The fries are good as well, so next time here I won't have any reservations about having them. I must say I could do without the chips on the bottom of the burger - I expected them to get soft, but they stayed fairly crisp despite the burger juices, and I'm not a big fan of crunchy stuff where I don't expect crunchy stuff to be (for instance, don't even think about offering me ice cream with nuts or or candy bits in it). 

So: Will the Stoneyard Grill bring "Cheers" to Niles? Time will tell, of course, but we certainly plan on going back and doing our part to make it so. If you see us there, be sure to call out our name!

If you go:

Stoneyard Grill and Tavern
41 S. Main St.
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 544-9273

http://www.stoneyardgrill.com 

Open at 11 a.m. seven days a week.

Friday, August 17, 2012

MAIN STREET GRILLE AND BREWING CO.


For a number of years, my husband Jack and I have enjoyed scenic rides in and around historic Garrettsville, Ohio, and we love to stop at the old Garrett's Mill grist mill at the falls of Eagle Creek in the heart of the downtown. The mill building itself has been transformed into a restaurant, in more recent years with a brew-pub. For the past six, it's been Main Street Grille and Brewing Co.

Not long ago we had occasion to visit nearby Hiram, Ohio, and the decision of where to have lunch was a virtual no-brainer. And I must say, we weren't disappointed.

A relatively new brewmaster has signed on, we were told, and the list of eight ales brewed on the premises (diners can see the equipment, vats and such on the restaurant's upper level) range from Garrett's Gold (a traditional German Kolsch-style ale that's closest to "regular" brand-name beer) to Three Scots Ale, a very malty concoction brewed with English hops and a hint of smoke from traditional Scottish peated malt. Prices vary, but the Garrett's Gold goes for just $3 for a 16-ounce glass (and you can buy, as we did, pint-size ale glasses with the Main Street Grille logo for $3). 

If you're extremely thirsty, try a growler fill (64 oz.), ranging from $12 to $20 for the Three Scots Ale. And with the exception of a few seasonals like Strawberry Fields and Three Scots, growler fills are half price on Tuesdays (Happy Hour takes place from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, by the way).


As you might expect, the exterior of the building is rustic old wood (it was a mill, for goodness sake). The interior has been updated, but the tables (high ones with barstools on the bar side) are a beautifully polished dark wood, and there's medium-brown knotty wood on the walls. Pretty lanterns dot the walls with TV sets interspersed in between.

There's a dining room as well, although we prefer the bar side; if weather permits, it's nice to sit outdoors on one of the two levels of decks that overlook the water and mill wheel. 

Do start with an ale while you peruse the menu (unless, of course, you're not a fan of ale at all). Not sure which to order? Samples (5 ounces) are $1.25 each, or try six for $7.50 or all eight for $10.

If you're like us, you may need a second round of ale before you settle on what you want to eat. There are quite a number of appetizers that sound wonderful, from Won Ton Jalapeno Poppers with sweet and sour dipping sauce ($4.95) to Hawg Wings (lightly fried pork shanks with Caribbean spices and a side of ranch for $7.39) to the one I really wanted to try, Ahi Tuna coated with sesame seeds served with seaweed salad, soy reduction, mango relish, wasabi aioli and crispy won ton. But alas, it goes for $12.59, and I didn't want to blow my entire lunch budget on a single item so I passed this time around.


As of our visit, there were three flatbreads on the menu, and one - lobster meat, spinach and sun dried tomato with a garlic and herb cream for $11.99 - stopped Jack dead in his tracks. This one's for me, he announced, barely looking at the rest of the menu.

I, however, took a bit more time, although I quickly scanned the delicious-sounding list of dinner-size salads because I wanted something more substantial. That said, the spinach salad with strawberries, avocado, walnuts and bacon bits with whole grain mustard and honey dressing sure was tempting ($12.59).

Similarly, I eyeballed the entrees rather quickly, since they're a bit pricier (around $13.99 to $21.99) and, more important for the moment, way too much food for lunch. But hey, there was Butternut Squash Ravioli tossed with walnuts, spinach, carmelized onion and herbs with browned butter ($15.99), Seared Salmon with pineapple, jasmine rice, alfalfa sprouts and a strawberry honey puree ($15.99) and - be still my heart - Creole Chicken Cordon Bleu, or airline chicken breast stuffed with capicola and swiss cheese with mashed potatoes, baby carrots and a Cajun remoulade ($14.99). Next time, for sure!

The list of sandwiches, all of which come with a dill pickle spear and the restaurant's hand-cut kettle chips, is a bit less daunting. I admit to waffling a bit, considering the Main Street Dip, which is crisp fried chicken, mushrooms, scallions, cheddar and Swiss cheese on a hoagie roll with light chicken gravy at $6.99 before settling on the Caribbean Spiced Mahi. It comes with mango relish, shaved lettuce and mayonnaise on an onion roll for $8.99.

Since Jack chose the chips to go with his flatbread, I spent $2 more to upgrade to the hand-cut fries (I'm not big on chips, and even if I were, we didn't need two orders of them). As it turned out, the chips were quite tasty - Jack loved them - but I wouldn't have eaten more than two or three.

The fries were good as well, although when I see "hand-cut" fries in such a uniform size, I always wonder if a hand isn't being used to operate one of those Veg-O-Matic devices as seen on TV - remember those? Truth is, I'm on my second one; with two kids and a husband who loved fries back in the day, the original wore out in a couple of years and I finally gave in and got a replacement.

Jack was very pleased with the flatbread, which was cut in six triangles and arranged neatly on the plate. I took a taste and liked it too, but the sauce was quite rich and I know I'd never have been able to eat more than a triangle or two.

My mahi sandwich was wonderful as well; it was a decent-sized chunk of fish and the Caribbean spices didn't overwhelm. Although I do love onion buns, though, I should have done what I usually do when I order fresh fish sandwiches - ask that they bring the fish to me minus the bun simply because it gets in the way of the fish flavor and texture. In this case, the bun got soggy from the fish coating rather quickly, so I ended up ditching it almost from the start.

Needless to say, we'll be returning here soon - if only so I can try that ahi tuna!

If you go:

Main Street Grille and Brewing Co.
8148 Main St.
Garrettsville, Ohio 44231
(330) 527-3663
http://www.msg-brew.com

Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

THE 356th FIGHTER GROUP


Less than a handful of years ago, my husband Jack and I discovered the wonder Military Aviation Preservation Society Air Museum in North Canton, Ohio. Run by an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, the intent is to educate people about the history of military aviation. Since the topic here is dining out I won't include details, but it's a wonderful place to visit.


When we first stopped at the museum a couple of years back, we wanted to have lunch at the nearby 356th Fighter Group restaurant. Everything we'd heard about it was positive, and we wanted to see for ourselves. But alas, we had no time to spare then; but one day, we vowed, we'd get there.

The day finally happened when we purchased a half-price admission for four to the MAPS Museum from Groupon.com, with the intent of taking our friends Jerry and Barb from Niles, who'd never been there. Since we'll be in the neighborhood, we said, why not plan to eat at the 356th?

Indeed we did - and long before we were back in the car to head home we'd unanimously decided to go back soon.

Even without the food, this is an impressive place. Located on the south runways of the Akron-Canton Airport, the exterior is reminiscent of a beautiful old castle. Inside, the surprisingly spacious interior boasts several rooms with windows overlooking the airport runways and grounds. Brick walls are everywhere, and here and there are large stacks of real sandbags plus weathered wood, fireplaces and many more artifacts, all designed to reflect the World War II era.

We arrived for a late lunch, so there were plenty of places to sit. Our very friendly server brought menus that included a list of daily specials and took our drink orders - there's a full bar here, of course. After a quick look, we decided to share two appetizers: the crab-stuffed mushrooms ($9.99) and stuffed cubanelle peppers with mild Italian sausage and homemade marinara plus provolone and mozzarella cheeses ($8.99).


It took a while, though, to decide on our entrees; the menu is both lengthy and impressive, and for our first time here, we wanted to make the best-possible choices. Not easy, we learned; from pecan crusted tilapia to asiago pretzel crusted chicken to "healthy choice" items lilke a marinated pork chop and vegetarian stir fry and oodles of tempting sandwiches and salads, everything sounded wonderful.

Finally, I zeroed in on one of the daily specials - prime rib bordelaise for $12.99. It comes with sauteed mushrooms and house-made bordelaise and rice pilaf, and for my side, I chose the chicken corn chowder - also a soup of the day. The prime rib was cooked medium and above for the day's special, so I asked that they come as close to medium as they could (as those who have read my reviews before know, I prefer my prime rib to be just shy of still mooing).


Jerry liked the idea of prime rib, but in the sandwich version ($10.99). It's shaved thin with jack cheese, mushrooms and sauteed onions and served open face with au jus and fries. But when the server described the homemade chips here, he swapped out the fries to go with the chips.

Both Jack and Barb were in a fishy mood, I guess, so they finally settled on the stuffed sole filet with scallops and crabmeat stuffing, Hollandaise sauce and rice pilaf for $11.99. Both chose a tossed salad as their side.

Especially at lunchtime, we could (and probably should) have stopped at the appetizers. The stuffed mushrooms were especially mouth-watering, filled with lots of crabmeat bits and almost none of the usual bread crumb mixture as they are at most other places. The peppers were wonderful as well, with delicious marinara sauce and peppers that really had a kick (but not so much that even Jack, who loves the flavor but not the heat, couldn't eat a few bites).

The salads were good, although nothing out of the ordinary; but when our server delivered a round loaf of fresh whole-grain bread, we devoured it almost immediately. I loved my corn chowder, too; the broth was on the thin side, but exceptionally flavorful - and there was no shortage of shredded chicken, chopped red peppers, and, of course, corn.

The entrees couldn't have been much better, confirming that we'd done well in our choices. The sole was well cooked with a tasty stuffing; my prime rib wasn't think, but it was a piece bigger than my two hands held side by side with my fingers extended - and this was a lunch portion, for goodness sake. They did well in giving me a portion close to medium, and the flavor and texture reminded me more of ribeye than prime rib. The sauce was absolutely delicious as well and made the rice pilaf extra good when I added in a bit of the sauce. In the end, I had to take home more than half of my meat and sauce.

Jerry loved his sandwich, although it was so large and stuffed full that he finally gave up trying to get it to his mouth intact and cut it up in more manageable pieces (which he mostly ate with a fork).

If you go:

The 356th Fighter Group
4919 Mount Pleasant Road
North Canton, Ohio 44720
(330) 494-3500
http://www.356fg.com

Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Sunday brunch; Sunday dinner 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Friday, June 8, 2012

SHELLABELLA'S ON MAIN


The chances that my husband Jack and I will drive all the way to anywhere in Columbiana County just to have a meal are somewhere between slim and none. Oh sure, we love to have lunch at Das Dutch Haus in Columbiana and BB Rooners and Ricky's English Pub in Salem -- all of which I've told you about in previous blogs (http://mahoningvalleyeats.blogspot.com/2011/10/das-dutch-haus-restaurant-bakery.html,  http://mahoningvalleyeats.blogspot.com/2012/03/b-b-rooners-food-spirits.html and http://mahoningvalleyeats.blogspot.com/2011/02/rickys-english-pub.html). But I don't recall ever once making a special trip just for the purpose of eating.

If we do stop anywhere, it's because we're on the way home from a photography outing at Beaver Creek State Park, Broadway Wharf in East Liverpool or maybe The Bison Ranch just outside Ellsworth to see if any of those big hairy guys are out in the fields.

But those odds are much improved now that we've been to Shellabella's on Main in Columbiana. We "discovered" it, in fact, as a result of an offer by MyValleyDining.com, from which I purchased a $25 gift certificate for something like $10. Uh-oh, I worried - would it be worth the trip?

The short answer is a resounding yes. To begin with, when was the last time you found a cozy cafe-type eatery that has a full bar? That alone was enough to seal the deal for us. Once we'd tried the food, though, we knew we'd be back.


The place has two main dining areas, one of which includes the bar (guess which side we picked)? The bar itself is decorated with sports memorabilia, including a sign with a really old-time Cleveland Browns mascot that we haven't seen for many years. Interesting antique-looking "stuff" is on the walls and tucked neatly away on shelves and shadow boxes as well. 


The big surprise, though, is the menu; not only is it fairly extensive, it features quite a few things that are unique, at least to us. For openers, we considered deep fried Asiago olives with bistro sauce ($6.29), breaded fried pickles with dill sauce ($6.29) and a "Yummy Roll" ($6.99). The latter, described as a deep-fried egg roll wrapper with cream cheese and a southwest cheesy chicken mixture covered with garlic ranch sauce, was just too tempting to pass up.

Plenty of salads and low-carb wraps are available, all of which sounded delicious (well, except for anything that has cucumbers in it - IMHO, the only good cucumber is one that's been turned into a pickle). Dinner entrees are all over the map, from steaks to chicken and fish to Italian dishes - most are in the $10.99 to $15.99 range. Our visit was at lunchtime, though, and those aren't on the lunch menu (and in any event, we wouldn't have been that hungry). But we did vow to return if only to try the sesame crusted tuna with sweet teriyaki glaze ($15.95) and chicken spindellinni, or sauteed chicken breast with roasted red peppers and spinacn in garlic cream sauce on a bed of cheese tortellini ($14.95).


First, we perused the daily lunch specials, and until the last minute I had my eye on the bacon garlic ranch avocado burger with garlic ranch dressing ($9.50). Just before our server came to write everything down, though, I switched to the hot spinach, garlic and chicken croissant with gourmet cheese, chopped chicken, garlic mushrooms, feta, mozzarella and fresh spinach on a grilled croissant roll ($8.79). The devil might have made me do it, but more likely it's because if you put it on a croissant, I'll eat it (well, as long as you leave out those cucumbers). I chose fries instead of cole slaw, although for a buck more I could have upgraded to other sides like sweet potato fries.

Jack's pick - Jim's portabella and chicken melt with balsamic dressing at $8.49) - was from the regular lunch menu. For his side, he went with the Vidalia onion viniagrette slaw. 

At the outset, we learned that the Yummy Roll couldn't have a better name, except perhaps "out of this world" roll. It's a little too small to share as we did (that's why it's an appetizer, I suppose), but having a whole one to yourself would be so filling you wouldn't be able to eat a whole lot else. It's crispy on the outside and ooey-gooey on the inside, sort of reminiscent of crab rangoon except with chicken flavor. Positively decadent!

Both our sandwiches were unusually good, a tribute, I suppose, to the slightly outside-the-box ingredients in many of the dishes here. I'm not a big cole slaw fan, but I loved the Vidalia slaw here - but Jack, more of a slaw traditionalist, wasn't quite as enthusiastic about it. And departing from our usual practice of taking half of our sandwiches home for later, we both managed to stuff down both halves even on top of that Yummy Roll. That's not because the sandwiches are smaller than most, but rather a testament to their wonderful taste.

Admittedly, we ran into a couple of minor glitches early on, including being "forced" to switch to a different beer because the Yuengling tap wasn't working properly. On the plus side, though, the short beers are served in exceptionally frosty mugs - another thing that will get my attention every time.

It also became evident that only one server was on duty, and understandably she was having a tough time dealing with at least three full tables on the bar side and one or two in the other room. As I watched, I couldn't help but think of "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get" from Alice in Wonderland. But in addition to working hard, she had a delightful sense of humor - and our longer-than-customary wait came only at the beginning. Once we'd placed our order, it arrived very quickly and was served with a friendly smile.

If you go:

Shellabella's On Main
108 S. Main St.
Columbiana, Ohio 
(330) 482-1700

Open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.