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...