Friday, December 20, 2013


When The Fifth Season restaurant was located on Mahoning Avenue in Austintown Township, Ohio, my husband Jack and I went there only for special occasions. We lived in Niles at the time so it was a tad out of the way, and it wasn't exactly an inexpensive meal. But even on our infrequent visits, we agreed the food was wonderful.

That said, we've spent a few happy occasions at their banquet facility on State Route 46 (just beyond the Trumbull County line in Austintown Township). The band in which our son-in-law Jerry plays bass entertained there on several occasions, our daughter Chris hosted her hubby's never-mind-which birthday party there, and it was the site for the wonderful 50th anniversary Chris, Jerry, our son Scott, his wife Lilla and Lilla's Mum, Sheila, planned for us.

Now, the restaurant that was on Mahoning Avenue for 10 years or so is no more and the building was for sale the last time we drove by; the restaurant has been moved to the same building as the banquet center. The new facility is slightly smaller, but the same chefs and staff remain. The move, owners said, was made in part to cash in on the new racino that will be opening just up the road.

We got the first taste of the new digs during a two-day open house, where hors d'ouvres and a cash bar were offered at $5 per person. That day, we were accompanied by Niles friends Jerry and Barb; and we loved it so much that we returned the following day (after asking if it was permissible to go back for seconds, of course). Both days, we were able to see the new restaurant and enjoy samples of wonderful foods like flatbreads, hot peppers in oil, mini-sandwiches and much more. Oh yes, we agreed - we'll definitely come back for lunch and/or dinner.

Our first return happened about 12:45 p.m. on a sunny late fall day, again accompanied by friends Jerry and Barb. That late in the day, we could choose where we wanted to sit; the tables in the bar area just inside the restaurant entrance are very high and the chairs have backs - our aging backs just can't handle stools any more - but we still opted for the more private dining room this time out. The decor is relaxing, with trees painted on the walls for a very relaxing atmosphere. It's not a large room, but the the decor gives it a much larger feel.

Specials vary by the day, and there's almost always something that sounds appealing. I started with a cup of the potato and roasted red pepper soup ($3), which was outstanding. I've had and enjoyed so-called stuffed pepper soup before, but this was quite different, with chunks of potato and red pepper bits - and absolutely, I accepted our server's offer of fresh ground black pepper.

The blackened chicken sandwich called my name at first - boneless breast Cajun-grilled topped with mozzarella, sauteed hot peppers, fried onion straws and roasted red pepper remoulade on a toasted brioche bun ($9). But then I spotted the corned beef reuben sandwich on that specials list - layered with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread ($8). For my side, I picked bowtie pasta with marinara sauce. Both the 'wich and pasta were delicious, and the sandwich was large enough that I brought half of it home.

Jerry wanted to try the Cuban sandwich: pulled pork, salami, ham, melted cheese, pickles, garlic-yellow mustard mayonnaise and dill pickles on a 6-inch Cuban hoagie roll ($7). One bite and he decided he'd come back just to get it again. The fries here are quite good as well -- and this coming from four people who aren't big French fry lovers.

Jack, meanwhile, chose tuna salad on mini-croissants ($7) and the bowtie pasta. Good? Well, he ate every single crumb, noting that the minis were much easier to eat than trying to pick up an whole croissant. Barb, who loves lamg, got the Lamb Gyra flatbread with meat, Tzatziki sauce, diced tomatoes, red onion and feta cheese ($9). Even though it was cut into squares, the flatbread was very soft and hard to pick up without folding in on itself, but she deemed it delicious and said she'd definitely try it again.

Our second official visit was at lunch once again - dinner prices, generally speaking, are in the $15-and-up range, making this still a special-occasion-only place for us. We arrived a little before 1 p.m. a couple of weeks before Christmas and found several cars - turns out a group of elderly ladies were enjoying a holiday get-together. This time, Christmas music was playing in the background, and the "trees" on the walls were decked out in holiday finery. 

This time, it was just the two of us, and once again, I went for a lunch special. Remember that blackened chicken sandwich? Yep, this time it was mine, and once again I picked the bow-tie pasta with marinara for my side. Jack really likes the flatbreads, looking first at the chicken tzatziki with diced tomatoes, red onions and feta cheese. In the end, he stuck with his always favorite Philly cheesesteak with bell peppers, caramalized onions and garlic and Swiss-American cheese ($10). 

The pasta sauce is quite tasty, by the way - on the pinkish side and mild, but I jazzed it up with hot pepper seeds and sprinkle cheese. There was plenty of it (for a side), but I managed to get most of it down as well as my delicious sandwich and Jack polished off the rest. His flatbread was excellent as well, and it was large enough that he brought most of it home for later.

One day we plan to try the Sunday brunch here, served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.  It's not a buffet, but rather half a dozen (at least) menu items like steak and eggs, chicken and waffles, a BLT wrap and an egg-and-hot-pepper sandwich ranging from around $6 to $16.50 for a full order of those chicken and waffles. Everything sounds great - and based on our experiences here, we're sure it will be.

If you go:

1404 N. Canfield Niles Road
Mineral Ridge, Ohio 44440
(330) 799-3483

Open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Oriental cuisine is always a treat, even though - mostly for sodium restrictions on my husband Jack's diet - we don't indulge all that often. When it's a buffet, though, it's easier to pick and choose; so when a brochure arrived in our mailbox announcing the Oct. 28 opening of the Happy Buffet in the Liberty Plaza, we wasted little time getting there (just a couple of days, in fact).

Our friends from Niles, Jerry and Barb, share our fondness for Oriental food, so they agreed to tag along on our first visit. The dinner buffet costs $9.55 (after 3:30 p.m.; before that, the lunch cost is $6.95, both not including beverages). Our preference generally is for the dinner simply because it's harder for us old folks to stuff ourselves at lunchtime and when it's a buffet, we want to make sure we get our money's worth.

It's not a large restaurant, although mirrors on the wall make it look bigger. There are some booths and quite a few tables with four chairs. The buffet itself is at the back, with three "tables" that contain everything from soup to main dishes and a side table with appetizers, sauces and desserts. 

Once we'd placed our beverage orders (Diet Pepsi for the two of us and hot tea for our friends), we made a beeline for the buffet. Scoping it out before diving in is always advisable, and I did notice that several of the items weren't labeled so choosing those items was based on a guess and whether or not it looked appetizing. As is my custom, I zeroed in on the hot and sour soup, an egg roll, what appeared to be crab Rangoon (labeled as fried cheese) and a couple of chicken wings to start. Barb chose similar items, with was won-won soup and a spring roll. We all passed on sushi; even though I love Wasabi sauce, those roll-ups are way too fishy for my liking.

My soup was quite good, although perhaps not quite as lip-smacking as what I get at the Sunshine Buffet on State Route 422 in Niles. Here, I polished off a good-sized cup, but I didn't go back for seconds as I usually do at Sunshine. Both the egg and spring rolls were excellent as well, but Barb said her won-ton soup lacked any real flavor.

The chicken wings, however, were to die for; on my return trip, I snagged a couple more (apparently, they're a favorite of other diners, too, since only two were left when I went back for seconds). I also restocked those fried cheese thingys - they taste like there's crab in there even though the sign doesn't reflect that. 

As for entrees, there's something to suit everyone's tastes, and the dishes marked as "hot" were mild enough for just about anybody we know. The sweet and sour chicken and shrimp, chicken with broccoli, General Tso's chicken and pepper steak with onions were outstanding - so much so that I didn't try any of the noodle or rice dishes on this visit - they're just too filling.

Two things were worthy of note here: On the positive side, we were impressed that we really liked just about everything we sampled; that's hard to say about other buffets, where at least one or two items just don't cut the mustard. On the other hand, the diet soft drinks have a bit of an odd taste, so I quickly learned to opt for plain ice water. The hot tea got excellent marks from our friends, so maybe we'll try that next time.

We returned a week or so later for lunch, mostly because I wanted to see if there were fewer buffet items. The answer, happily, is no; just about everything we'd found and enjoyed at the dinner hour was here for lunch as well. And yes, I chowed down four of those fried cheese goodies.

I will say that although it may have been a fluke, the chicken wings and egg rolls didn't taste quite as fresh as at dinner - more like they were leftovers or had been in the warming dishes too long. Jack loved the pineapple chicken, and this time I tried the Lo Mein, sesame chicken, black pepper chicken, chicken and chili and fried rice. The Lo Mein wasn't much better than passable and the rice didn't have much flavor on its own, but topped with one of the chicken dishes or add some soy sauce it works very well. All those chicken dishes, however, were outstanding.

Speaking of the soy sauce, go easy at first. It's extremely salty, and a little goes a long way. I also sampled the cold crab salad, which was quite good.

While the food itself gets a big plus overall, we did uncover a couple of negatives. First, we couldn't find any smallish containers to hold various dipping sauces; the only options were to grab a soup cup or ice cream dish, both of which are too large for that purpose. Also, the number of servers, busboys and buffet refillers seemed to overwhelm the number of customers - and they were always on the run, not walk, nearly colliding with customers in a couple of instances.

Then, too, we'd ask if perhaps at least one of them could manage a smile now and again? Every single face ranged from impassive to an outright scowl - constantly - even when we tried smiling first. Definitely not an incentive to keep customers coming back.

If you go:

Happy Buffet
3551 Belmont Ave., Suite 19A (Liberty Plaza)
Youngstown, Ohio 44505
(330) 759-8889

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