Saturday, November 14, 2015

Northeast Ohio Eats - Revisited

Here at the Canteen, we are now in the middle of what can probably best be described as an "old-school" dining phase, whereby the missus and I have been visiting a number of classic, clubby, frozen-in-the-1980s restaurants lately. This has not been a conscious decision, mind you, nor has it been a negative experience by any stretch of the imagination; rather, I'm encouraged to see that there are proprietors out there who are able to successfully pull off mid/late-20th Century standard American cuisine (i.e., before everyone went farm-to-table cuckoo) in a modern atmosphere, even though these types of places are becoming a rarity. Case in point - while in Ohio for a wedding recently, we had the opportunity to return to an eatery that we very much enjoyed the first time around. Ken Stewart's Grille has been a dining stalwart in Akron since it opened in 1990 - my aunt and uncle (people who know a thing or two about good food and wine) brought Mrs. Hackknife and me here about 10 years ago, proclaiming it to be their favorite restaurant (and they still say that now).

KSG definitely isn't trying to be a proto-gasto-wonderland targeting millennials with fancy craft cocktails and bacon/Brussels sprout-laden small plates; rather, the crowd hums along to Sinatra while ordering another Manhattan and adjusting their hearing aids.  On a Thursday evening at 6, the dining room remained largely empty while Mrs. H and I sipped a pre-meal drink in the bar/lounge with a few other patrons and the Golf Channel on in the background.

Almost all of the appetizers on the dinner menu feature some kind of seafood. We dug in to a wonderful tuna tartare stack (consisting of avocado, marinated tuna chunks, and wonton crisps) with a schmear of sambal aioli to add some kick (do not adjust your monitor to remove the yellow haze - this really is how the lighting looked in the restaurant).

Nearly as tasty was my salad of field greens with candied nuts, figs, and a liberal topping of brie slices. This is more of the type of simple salad I'd be able to throw together on a weeknight at home in a pinch (and be perfectly happy consuming it).

Mrs. Hackknife will nearly always choose steak from a classic American dinner menu; however, I can't resist the urge to still try something local to the region I'm in. This pan-seared walleye (straight out of Lake Erie? Who knows?) came doused in a beurre blanc sauce and sported sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, scallions, and basil - I finished it down to the last bite.  We also ordered a basketful of the house's tarragon pomme frites, served shoestring-style and voluminous enough that there were leftovers.

Our server clued us in to the seasonal dessert special, a lusty pumpkin bread pudding a la mode with caramel sauce. Again, no gimmicks, just solid, delicious food served in a classy environment. Every town needs a Ken Stewart's to celebrate life's special occasions (or not-so-special occasions, like Thursday nights).

Although the reason for our Northeast Ohio trip this year was a family wedding, we try to come to this corner of the state at least annually to see relatives. Many times, we'll stop in at one of Youngstown's own Handel's Ice Cream stands, a hometown favorite in these parts since 1945. Handel's started out of a gas station back when the local steel mills were cranking out product for the war effort and have since expanded throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, out West (California and Nevada now), and even into Florida down by Bonita Springs (it's amazing what you can discover by looking at a website).

Handel's ice creams consistently appear on lists of the country's best (no joke - check out the line on a chilly November evening), and with over 100 flavors to select, the choice is not an easy one. I picked a cupful of Buckeye (a flavor created to support of the Ohio State football team) hoping that it would reflect some unique Ohio character that the Bonita Springs location couldn't duplicate; sadly, this wasn't the case, but the blend of peanut butter ice cream studded with big chunks of "buckeye" candies (really just chocolate-peanut butter cups) was mighty fine.

On our way back to Akron-Canton Airport at the end of the weekend, we had to make one last stop for some nourishment before the long return flight to Florida.  I'd both read and heard good things from the locals about Swensons Drive In, a true drive-in burger operation that started in these parts in 1934 and has grown to include 7 locations in and around Akron. I was told that the most famous item on the Swensons menu is a burger called the Galley Boy, two beef patties with American cheese, two sauces (mayo-onion and bbq), and a butter toasted bun, all for only $3.50. It just so happened that one of the Swensons locations is just down the street from the airport, so pop in we did.

My first impression was that the building housing the restaurant is surprisingly large for a place with no indoor seating (when they say "drive-in", they mean it quite literally). For service, patrons park and simply turn on their lights - almost instantly, a server appears rapid-fire style to take your order (apparently, speed and attentiveness are prized qualities amongst the staff).

In just a short minute or two, our Galley Boys arrived to the vehicle on an old-fashioned window tray. The burgers are minimalist (being neophytes, we didn't realize we could have ordered a number of extra condiments/garnishes - all for next time) and, although I wouldn't go as far as to proclaim them "America's best" (as a few have done), I can say they're head and shoulders above most (ed. note - the olive on a toothpick was originally outside the wrapper and repositioned by me to enhance the photo). The house onion rings were equally good, as was a butterscotch milkshake that my lovely wife ordered. My drink choice was something called a California, which was explained by our server to be a mixture of ginger ale and grape soda - not bad, but I don't need to have another for a while. Still, all told we had a great meal for approximately the same cost as one of those pedestrian snack boxes and a soda on the airline...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Coney Island Grill

Now that I'm spending more time in and around downtown St. Petersburg these days, I felt it was time to revisit the Tampa Bay Times's Best Hot Dogs in the Bay Area list from earlier this year and correct what I consider to be an egregious oversight; that is, I hadn't been to Coney Island Grill yet. CIG (side note - I'm pretty confident that the locals never refer to it in this fashion) has been located on a scruffy stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. (250 N., to be exact) since way back in 1926, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in Florida. Original owner Pete Barlas followed the lead of many other Greek immigrants coming to America at that time and opted to open a Detroit-style hot dog stand, topping the sausages with a chili sauce that sports a sizable ground meat component (likely beef trimmings and other less-desirable castoffs of the cow). Over the years, the neighborhood went from prosperous to less so and now back towards gentrification, but the grill has remained pretty much unchanged both inside and out.

Upon entering, I found the similarities between CIG and Chicago's dearly-departed Ramova Grill (1929-2012) to be uncannily close, down to the sparse menu, flattop grill (no fryers) near the front window, old-school refrigerator unit, waitstaff exchanging disapproving glances at strangers taking photos, and "we-don't-really-see-the-need-to-brighten-things-up" beige decor. Clearly, the subsequent owners (Pete's son, Hank, now deceased, and his son, Pete Barlas II, the current proprietor) are selling nostalgia as much as their chili and hot dogs (to great effect, I might add).

On my first visit, I stuck with the house specialty of chili dog (served with mustard and chopped onions, ketchup is a nickel extra) with a bowl of chili on the side. While the price was right ($2 for each), I can't say I was terribly impressed by either dish, both constructed more for plain sustenance than style. I discovered after the fact that you could add shredded cheese to your hot dog, which I did on Trip #2, not really noticing much of an improvement.

The real finds, however, are the chili burger and the chocolate milkshake. The burger arrived at my barstool thin and crispy after a good charring on the flattop, with the same toppings as the chili dog. At $3, it was well worth the extra buck. The milkshake is one of the most expensive things on the menu (except for the BLT, which I'm told is also a must-try), but still a smooth, rich, happy tummy bargain at $3.45. If you want a better hot dog, you need look no further than across the street and down the block to the newly open Chi-Town Beefs and Dogs (to be featured in a future posting), but diners seeking a great chili burger with a dose of time capsule will be perfectly content with Coney Island Grill...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Marker 39

With Cub Scout activities in full swing and our new ownership of a property in St. Petersburg (of which I will be taking on the role of slumlord), I have come dangerously close to experiencing my first missed month of posting since this blog's inception. I am just able to sneak in under the wire here, however, a few short days before the arrival of Halloween and the 1st of November. Mrs. Hackknife and I have recently discovered a gem of a restaurant tucked away on a quiet street in downtown Safety Harbor, until now best known as the place where we go to church, but quickly becoming a local hub for great dining experiences. While wandering down 2nd Street N. one evening looking for pizza (that would be Pizzeria Gregario, another noteworthy joint that will appear in these pages sometime in the near future), we happened across Marker 39 (which happens to be Sunshine Key on the Overseas Highway in case anyone's curious) and its quaint-looking shack done up in vibrant tropical colors. After a once-over of the menu, we opted to stop in here instead and were immediately gratified by our decision.

Chef Justin Murphy is a skilled practitioner of Florida's famous Fusion (or as he calls it, "Floribbean") cuisine, a melding of Latin, Caribbean, and Floridian influences with a touch of Asian and African thrown in for good measure. He learned his craft at the hands of several Fusion masters, including Norm Van Aken (one of our favorite chefs) and Michael Schwartz, putting in some time with Jose Andres (another of our favorites) as well, building up an impressive resume in some of the most well-respected kitchens on Florida's Atlantic Coast. According to the natives, Marker 39 is packed on weekends, but seems to be lightly visited during the week - on our first sojourn (a Thursday night), there were only 2 tables occupied besides ours, while we were the sole diners on a recent Wednesday evening. This, of course, was not an issue as we were grateful to have the extra attention from the waitstaff.

What you see below is the only dish that the missus and I ordered both times - a traditional Florida smoked fish dip served with BBQ potato chips (paired here with a Toasted Coconut Porter from Orlando's Orange Blossom Brewery). Having now tried about five different versions of this dip since we relocated to Tampa, I'd say this one is probably the best we've encountered, meaty and rich.

We went crazy with the small plate offerings on the menu, each one as impressive as the last. Not pictured is the house "pappas rellenos", mashed potato balls stuffed with chorizo and fried to a crisp exterior, served with sriracha mayo and charred tomato salsa. These put to shame the similar (but mega-sized) fried potato ball I'd had at Brocato's not long ago. We also enjoyed the roasted plantain-stuffed crab cakes (with greens, mango mustard, and plantain chips), a nice tropical twist on a Northeast favorite. One dish I did manage to photograph was the Bahamanian conch wonton you see below, served on a bed of tasty greens and sauces.

Another home run was the cornmeal-crusted Gulf oysters, pictured here with a kicked-up pasilla pepper and corn relish, roasted poblano pepper remoulade, and more greens, making us feel good about how healthy we were eating all this time.

Our only foray into entrees was equally impressive. Chef Justin's Cuban Pork Crisis features mojo-marinated and slow-roasted pork with pickled onion, black beans, maduro plantains, queso blanco, and jasmati rice, a party of flavors and textures that Mrs. H and I fought over until the last morsel was gone. Even the desserts didn't disappoint, including a bacon-topped doughnut that was consumed faster than the camera shutter could capture it and a Key lime ice cream sundae with a guava sauce, toasted almonds, and a fritter thrown in for good measure (see below).

After 2 trips, I'm of the mindset that there is no bad dish on the Marker 39 menu, leaving me quite anxious to return for some further exploration. Maybe someday we'll make it over to the nearby pizzeria, but only if we approach it from a different direction...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Angel's Soul Food & BBQ - Tavares, FL

On Labor Day weekend (which also happened to coincide with our anniversary this year), Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to spend the holiday visiting a quaint, arts-oriented community called Mount Dora, located in the Florida Rockies (elevation 184 feet above sea level) about 30 minutes northwest of Orlando. The town features a number of art galleries, wine bars, boutique gift shops, and restaurants, many of which we were able to visit on a food tour (led by locals John and Paula under the moniker Taste of Our Town). My original plan was to devote this whole posting to the many vittles we sampled over the weekend - yes, you can find good microbrews at Mount Dora Brewing (I could drink Beauclaire Blonde Ale and Pistolville Porter all summer long), a mean sausage roll at the Brit-themed Magical Meat Boutique, decent (if not overpriced) dinner fare at the frozen-in-1998 Goblin Market, and even a romantic meal enjoyed on the porch of our charming B&B Adora Inn (soon to be featured on an episode of Travel Channel's Hotel Showdown).

At the end of our trip, however, a single culinary experience stood out among the rest, and that is what I will focus on today. The missus and I took a kayak out onto Lake Eustis late Sunday morning, paddling through the famous Dora Canal (once described as the "most beautiful mile of water in the world", although I'd call that a bit of an exaggeration) into Lake Dora and back, working up quite an appetite in the process. Fortunately for us, a nearby soul food joint beckoned for lunch - Angel's Soul Food & BBQ, tucked quietly away in a strip mall off the main drag, Florida Route 19 (390 W. Burleigh Blvd. in Tavares if you want to employ your GPS).

We were a little past the lunch rush (such as it is on Sunday in these parts), so the restaurant was pretty sedate. I had read rumors about terrific fried chicken here that were reinforced by Angel's menu, which stated their chicken was so good "you'll slap your mama". While I wasn't quite incited to the level of matriarchal violence, I can say they fry up a damn delicious bird here, with moist dark meat and a perfect crispy skin (shattering almost like glass), putting Angel's squarely on my short list of top fried chicken in the South. I'd also advise diners not to miss the cornbread or the collard greens studded with shredded unknown pork parts (you can pass on the mashed potatoes and gravy).

Dessert in this type of joint means banana pudding and they mean business - cool, creamy, and loaded with crushed Nilla Wafers. Again, I defy any Texan or Carolina native to present me a better bowl (please try, though - I'm craving some right now).

Our meal at Angel's strengthens my opinion that Central Florida is the epicenter of soul food in this great state. Between Nikki's Place in Orlando and here (not to mention the many others I haven't yet discovered), I know where to go to satisfy my fix...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brocato's Sandwich Shop

Our friends (and L.A. fixers) Jaime and Lydia were in town recently to experience for the first time the magical wonder that is Disney World (and experience it they did - I don't know of anyone that covered as much ground at the parks as they did in a single trip). While stopping over in Tampa for a few days, they also wanted to sample the finer points of our local cuisine (namely Cuban food) - I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to visit one of the few homegrown places in the Bay Area that is striving to elevate its profile to the national level. Brocato's Sandwich Shop has been serving up Cuban sandwiches, devil crab, and something they call stuffed potatoes since 1948, with their current operation just a stone's throw from I-4 near Columbus Drive (5021 Columbus, to be exact) on the near east side of the metro area. I've zoomed by this exit on the interstate countless times without ever once stopping off to test out Brocato's claim of having the best devil crab (you may recall an earlier posting about this unique local favorite, loose crab meat mixed with sofrito and bread crumbs, shaped into a mini-football, then deep-fried) in Tampa, but, this day, I would wonder no more.

We quickly discovered that if you go to Brocato's, lunchtime on Saturday is probably not the best time to show up. The unpaved parking lot was a jumble of vehicles somewhat haphazardly abandoned and the order lines extended out the door, not the type of situation we normally encounter around here (I took this to be a good sign). The wait gave us plenty of time to inspect the operation, which includes covered outdoor seating, a separate prep shed where teenaged employees appeared to be cranking out tray after tray of devil crab and stuffed potatoes, and vivid, ubiquitous signage that might even give Donald Trump pause.

Once inside, we found the ordering process to be slightly haphazard. After about 15 minutes, I finally reached the cash register and placed our order with a cashier speaking in broken English. When that portion concluded, I slunk over to the right half of the building where most people seemed to be awaiting food (the traffic flow and layout was a little confusing). A few more minutes passed before I decided to park myself at the metal counter in front to better increase my chances of getting my tray when ready (servers called out names that had been semi-legibly scrawled out on tickets, sometimes successfully, sometimes not).

I had about 20 minutes to observe the workers assembling orders before the food arrived and I was stunned by the volume of business being run through the kitchen. Clearly, the operation makes a fair amount of dough in spite of the primitive order delivery system - my man Jaime (himself a process engineer) had re-jiggered the whole business in his head and was making them millions more by the time I finally arrived at our table with lunch.

What you see above are the 3 aforementioned marquis items on the Brocato menu (the devil crab is on the left, in the black container). First off, I agree that their devil crab is the best of the 3 or 4 different kinds I've tried in Florida, not to mention the largest - the portion sizes appear to cater to the famished solo diner or families splitting plates. Only slightly less good was the stuffed potato, which we discovered is more like a potato croquette, a mound of mashed spuds surrounding a wad of picadillo (seasoned ground beef) and then deep-fried. I have to say that I was let down by the Cuban sandwich, mainly because the haste of the prep process leaves no time for the bread to be pressed, which is a key element of what makes a Cuban unique. Brocato's does heat up the sandwich in a counter oven before serving, but without the buttery, toasted exterior that pressing provides, their Cuban is mostly just like a warm hoagie.  I have no problem returning here for a devil crab sometime (as long as I have friends to help me eat it all) or even shipping them cross-country (as the website advertises), but for the best Cuban, I'll skip Brocato's in favor of my friendly neighborhood Cuban food truck, El Truck Del Rincon Criollo...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Acadia - Chicago, IL

While back in Chicago for a long weekend recently, Mrs. Hackknife and I had the pleasure of dining out at Acadia (1639 S. Wabash), a much-admired restaurant that I'd had on our hit list since its opening in 2010. The name refers to a coastal region of Maine and the influence of the ocean is readily apparent in Chef Ryan McCaskey's cooking style, which he classifies as "contemporary American". Chef Ryan grew up in the same part of the northwest suburbs that I did and took a circuitous route to opening his place, beginning in Chicago (including a stint with Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia fame), followed by Maine, Wisconsin, then back to Chicago where he worked in a number of famous kitchens (Trio, Tru, and Cartwright's among them) before setting out on his own. Clearly, the chef and his team have impressed both diners and the food press, earning a Michelin star for three straight years. So it was with that backdrop that the missus and I anxiously arrived for our reservation on a warm Sunday evening in the South Loop.

Acadia's design style can best be described as stark and modern, with meticulous greys and beiges in the dining room mingling with less-austere splashes of color in the form of wall-mounted dioramas that resembled a mossy carpet of tundra (see above).

As is normally the case with contemporary, upscale restaurants, we opted for the tasting menu to get a wide variety of the kitchen's best and current dishes.  I have to admit - I didn't take any notes and have not been able to track down matching menus for what we ate that night, so my (sometimes grainy) photos and a few feeble descriptions will have to paint the picture for me.

Our server brought us some delicious biscuits with compound butter, not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the New England coast.

This corn chowder with bits of bacon served in an egg-white bowl was both whimsical and delicious.

Manila clams with leeks and broth

Oatmeal-encrusted oysters topped with a single blueberry and sea foam essence

Salmon and scallion

Flatiron steak with roasted root vegetables - as you might have expected with a cut like flatiron, the meat wasn't particularly tender, leaving the vegetables as the best part of the dish.

Housemade wide noodles (almost like a tagliatelle?) with tarragon, bottarga, and caviar, plus a sinfully-rich cream sauce - I didn't think the original version of pasta carbonara could possibly be improved upon, but I was wrong as it turns out.

Lobster and mushrooms in a savory brown broth

Dessert.  I couldn't possibly attempt to relate what we were served here, except to say that it included that wonderful mix of textures and forms that I now realize I really enjoy in a dessert course.

There were no mignardises, but our host presented us with small bags of chocolate-banana bread to take home with us.

Mrs. H. and I agreed that the experience wasn't exactly perfect - the waitstaff seemed to be having an off night (lots of confusion between courses and some uneven pacing) and the aforementioned steak course felt a bit flat.  For the most part, however, we were very impressed with the inventiveness, look, and flavor of Chef Ryan's creations, especially those focused on seafood.  I have no problem recommending Acadia to others as a fitting tribute to the ocean's deliciousness...

Monday, August 31, 2015

Pearl in the Grove - Dade City, FL

Not long after we arrived in Florida, I got wind of a revered fine dining establishment far removed from the environs of urban Tampa. Pearl in the Grove has an address listing in Dade City, which is located way out in eastern Pasco County (where there seem to be more cows than people) and bills itself as the "Kumquat Capital of the World", even boasting an annual festival celebrating said strange citrus fruit every January. As for the restaurant, it languished away on my local dining hit list for quite a while until I finally made the executive decision to grab the wife and head out to the country one warm Saturday night for supper.

As it turns out, PITG isn't located in Dade City proper, but about 4 miles west at the crossroads of County Roads 577 and 578 in the tiny hamlet of St. Joseph, where the lone gas station is probably one of the few places in America advertising kumquat pie (sadly, they were closed when we arrived). Owners Curtis and Rebecca Beebe appear to have taken a nondescript squat cinder block building at that intersection (a former house with a commercial kitchen) and transformed it into a farm-to-table showcase of the area's bounty.  It's not obvious exactly where the clientele arrives from, but arrive they do in droves, filling up the place most weekend evenings.

The restaurant's interior is sparsely decorated in the style of mid-century basement (I couldn't tell if it was 2015 or 1955) and is as cozy as a Florida cabin retreat.  While the view may have been slightly kitschy, the service, wine list, and foods on offer were most definitely not.  We began with a sizable platter of regional cheeses and cured meats.  Charcuterie plates these days are a dime a dozen, but this one was spectacular, featuring cheeses from Georgia's Sweetwater Dairy and Winter Park Dairy (near Orlando), plus sausages, pickled okra, and sweet sides like mostarda.

We also ordered a fried green tomato caprese, which included panko-crusted tomato slices sandwiching house made mozzarella, topped with a dollop of basil pesto, all served on a bed of greens from the garden outside, a dish classic, simple, uber-local, and uniquely Southern in equal measure.

This is one of those meals where we probably could have stopped after the appetizers; however, we pressed onward, selecting grass-fed strip steak (Mrs. Hackknife) and a slab of Palmetto Creek Farms pork belly (from nearby Avon Park) for me, an ethereal roulade stuffed with chopped Granny Smith apples, brushed with molasses, then smoked over pecan wood and served with more garden greens and a savory chili sweet potato mash that provided a solid kick to the cortex.

I was ready to roulade myself out the front door at this point, but Mrs. H. insisted on dessert, a featherlight yogurt panna cotta with fresh fruit and a touch of honey (no picture was taken) that I still managed to enjoy a few bites of before collapsing in glorious food coma agony into the passenger seat, thus concluding one of the best and most unique dining experiences we've had in Florida...