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Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Secret Restaurant

Every now and then life gives you surprise.  Last night was one of those times.  Some very close friends of ours love to go to interesting places. They have been after my wife and me to visit a restaurant that they have frequented for a number of years but is somewhat off the beaten path in a neighboring county. Although it is less than an hour away, it is one of those places in the hinterland that you can’t get to from here. My friend’s description always had an air of mystery.  This past week he called my wife and said he made arrangements with the owner, an old friend of his, for the four of us to visit it on Friday night…so off we went.

My wife and I experienced some of the local color when we had to stop for directions in the village where it is located.  It has four converging roads with about twenty different names and street designations.  An interesting man with facial hair and piercing blue eyes relaxing in the rocking chair on his front porch gave us very detailed directions how to get to what he thought we were looking for, but in the end he determined that what he thought we were looking for wasn’t what we were really looking for.  There was place across the ravine and the river…two left turns and out…try it!  We did, and 30 seconds later we saw our friends flagging us down.

This is not your conventional restaurant.  Don’t get me wrong…it is a charming place.  The façade goes right up to the road.  It is streetscaped with flowers and herbs and vines and the owner’s motorcycle.  It has two parts.  There is the in the restaurant part.  Then there is the sort of outside/inside restaurant part into which you weave yourself through several small doors into a space that can be defined as nothing less than eclectically magical.  My friend advised us we were eating in the tree-house.  Yes…we ate in the tree-house.

Although the façade of the restaurant is street level, the indoor-outdoor space is built into the ravine down to the river at least three stories in a series of steps and small decks. There is a mammoth stained glass window going down most of the length.  Tables were interspersed on different levels of the steps down as was a landscaped waterfall gently flowing down to the river.  The top of this structure, where we ate, is enclosed…sort of…with spots opened up in the walls into which air flows freely.  It is a work in progress.  Our table was shoved up right next to the windows in the tree tops overlooking this stunning view of the ravine and the narrow river at the bottom. 

There is no electricity where we ate.  As it got dark lighting was provided by candles and kerosene lamps brought to the table by the owner.  You could smell the newness of the wood.  There is lots of stuff sitting around…and the owner’s rescue dog who is a sweetheart.  The owner told us that the gas stove will be connected by the fall so the space could be used into the winter.  I’m not so sure. 

Here’s the thing.  The owner is the kind of person they write movies about.  He opens his restaurant when he feels like it.  He is the only person working in the restaurant doing EVERYTHING himself.  He only seats through reservations which you may or may not get.  He told me he turns down over 60% of the requests.  Maybe he might be open for lunch or not.  Call and see.  He may take only seven reservations a night, if that.  If he doesn’t know you, you may be waiting several months. 

He is a magnificent anachronism from the 1960’s and early 70’s; a partial Native American who practices spiritualism.  A personable guy who jumped close to the top of my list of favorite people I have met, you will get a dose of philosophy and life and Native American culture after your dinner.  Native American touches are all over the building.  His motorcycle has a saddle for a seat and covered with Native American symbols and accoutrements.  You will be in touch with your inner hippie by the end of the meal.     
But mostly…he can cook.  This is the single best dinner I have had out in years.  No menus, he will describe to you what he has for the night and ask you what you want.  But what you get is what he wants to serve you and it is wonderful.   It will be either meat or fish or duck…more likely than not a combination thereof. 

Last night our dinners started out with a wonderful greens and fruit salad and what appeared to be a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. It was topped with a piece of salmon that melted in your mouth.  The fruit slices were huge as were the blueberries and blackberries.  It was large enough to be my dinner…but then came the dinner.

OMG doesn’t describe it.  For me, he put together a seafood platter with scampi and prawns and wonderful scallops and beef tips served on top of ravioli I am going to guess were made from pumpkin and butternut squash with a hint of heat…he wouldn’t tell us.  The ravioli alone were worth the trip.  There were mixed vegetables served scattered over the plate with a presentation that was as good as I have seen.  Outstanding.  My wife had ordered a perfect beef fillet. He offered it either aged or fresh (there is a difference.  I am not an “aged” meat lover) served with outstanding mashed potatoes made from sour cream and mixed with freshly shucked corn and a vegetable accompaniment.  Dessert was an assortment of homemade gelatos. I did praline pecan and my wife a rich velvety chocolate.

This wonderful place may not be for everybody.  It is stepping into the owner’s head with all the attendant clutter and confusion.  But what emerges is life and food as theater and art.  It’s cool to see a man working on his vision and dream.  It was obvious the other patrons…mostly middle aged plus…were more than willing to step into this very different world and enjoy some of the best food around.  

No liquor license but you can bring your own wine.  No credit cards but he will take checks and jokingly says ninety days same as cash. I am not sure he is joking.  But you are going to have to find it first.  My friends know that I blog about food.  But this is more than food and dining out.  Given the propensity of the owner to limit his customer base, I think I want to keep this one for myself.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Montana's Rib and Chop House - Hermitage PA

One of the things I really enjoy are observing those folks who find a niche for their business. Montana Rib and Chop House is one of those places. Started by a couple who learned the business from the ground up (the best way) from pots and pan washers up to line cooks and sous chefs, this small chain of restaurants based out of Montana has found a niche in the tertiary food markets.

Okay....what's a tertiary food market? Well, let's start with Sharon, PA. THAT is a tertiary food market, barely. Chain businesses like to expand. One of the considerations is the size and quality of the market into which they decide to go (notice I didn't end the sentence with a preposition!). Youngstown you won't find a Cheesecake Factory or a Morton's of Chicago or a Ruths Chris Steakhouse or a McCormick and Schmidt's.  The income and size of the market doesn't justify it.  But the Montana folks opened their first restaurant in Livingston, Montana, and have found success in markets abdicated by the big boys.  After all, people in Sharon...and Meadville, and Miles MT, and Oxford MI like to eat too!!!

The Sharon entry is located in Hermitage very close to the corner of Route 18 and State Street.  It’s convenient to those wanting to do timely Christmas shopping at Kraynak's.  It IS “Kraynak's time of year.” That is why my son and were in Sharon on a cold Monday night.  We needed some lights and electrical accoutrements to attach the lights thereto. Kraynak’s has a wide selection.

The restaurant is located behind a plaza that fronts on State Street.  It is clearly marked but you have to drive behind the plaza to get to it.  For a Monday, the place was busy so it must be doing something right.   They take reservations, a real plus on the weekends.

Here’s the skinny.  Given the history of the establishment, I really really wanted to like it, and I was underwhelmed.  The restaurant is awkwardly laid out with the bar inaccessible to the entrance.  The high top seating and booths in the bar are used for dining seating which means open seating is limited to the bar itself. The bar area is very loud and difficult to carry on a conversation without shouting. 

The dining room itself is somewhat plain with tables randomly placed.  It looks like things are slightly askew!!  There is a small fireplace inside the entrance to the dining room for some ambience.  It wouldn’t take much to dress the place up.  They should do it.

The menu is actually very nice and well thought out.  There is a nice selection of sandwiches, salads, steak and ribs.  Ribs are supposedly their specialty.  In addition, there is salmon and pot roast...all sorts of things. They have some HUGE signature steaks.  I saw one, and like I said, they are HUGE.  I should have gotten one of those. 

Instead, we had the ribs which are supposed to be their signature entrée.  I asked the waiter how big the full rack of ribs was, he said not big enough (because they are so good).  Well, they just weren’t big enough.  Served on a plate with no garnish, it was kind of sparse.  My son had a ½ rack which was lost.  They ribs were okay, but nothing spectacular…and I know spectacular ribs.  The entrée is accompanied by soup or salad.  I had the French onion soup which was not very good.  My son had a pedestrian salad. The French fries, on the other hand were outstanding.  I almost ordered a refill…because I was still hungry after I ate the ribs.  No bread is served with the meal and I really need the carbs.

Prices are mid to high for our area.  Steaks are in the twenties plus and a full rack of ribs is twenty bucks.  That’s not the restaurant’s fault.  Anyone in the food business knows the “no inflation” environment the government says we are living in doesn’t apply to food…or anything else for that matter.  The service was prompt and extremely friendly.  The wait staff seems well trained and the management makes frequent stops at the table to see if everything is alright making for a good experience.   

I will give Montana’s a second go to try their steaks, which looked delicious…and so did their sandwiches.  For the Sharon market, Montana’s probably rises to the top of the list…and is more than an adequate eating establishment when visiting Kraynaks or Daffins or Reyers!!!  Word to the owners!!  It would take very little to turn this okay place into a great place. 

Montana’s Rib and Chop House
3176 East State Street
Hermitage, PA  16148

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Yolo Grille

Youngstown taste in food is expanding.  Anyone who lives here knows that local food is probably going to be Italian food.  But as of late there have been a plethora of different types of restaurants in this restaurant rich area including a number of Mideast and Mediterranean restaurants.  From Aladdin’s to Zenobia to Mary’s Restaurant in New Castle we are developing a taste for hummus.  Add to the pack Yolo Grille located in the plaza at the corner of Route 46 and Shields Road. (Yolo is short for "you only live once").

Yolo has been there for about four or five years.  I remember going there one or two times when it first opened and I was singularly unimpressed.  But over the past few months many of my friends kept telling me I should go. So I did…and it was terrific.

This is a relatively small café style restaurant offering full bar service.  It is family run.   Not the fanciest place you have ever been but nicely appointed for the local restaurant ambience it obviously wants to give. There are some tables and booths. There is an outstanding patio out front to watch the world go by on Route 46.  I am not into al fresco dining.   If God had wanted me to eat outside He wouldn’t have invented air conditioning!!!  But for those who wish to dine with nature, looks like a good place to do it.

I have eaten there twice and I was duly impressed.  It is now on my short list of places to go.  The menu is varied with heavy emphasis on Mediterranean food with the usual gyros and wraps.  But the guy must like to cook because there are interesting specials which change often in addition to an outstanding selection of entrees.  Let me tell you upfront you can make a meal from appetizers.  There are too many to talk about but the ones I had were outstanding.

My first trip to Yolo I went solo.  My wife was visiting her sister.  I ordered a steak prepared with Youngstown Club cheese which was about as good as it gets.  Served with a side order of rice, you can’t go wrong.   This past time my wife and I ordered grilled white asparagus which was just terrific.  I had the lamb platter which was about as good as I have anywhere, and my wife had an outstanding Cuban sandwich (think pickles)…equally as good.  I also ordered a salad with French dressing.  Much to my surprise the dressing was made on site, and you could tell.  I gave the lady who made it a standing O.  It was great.

If there is any criticism of Yolo, it may be the service.  It’s not bad. In fact our service was good.  It was, for lack of a better word, different.  The staff seems too familiar with certain customers to the point where other customers were a distraction to whatever else they were doing or to whomever else they were talking.  I noticed a lot of interaction between the staff and people with whom they were familiar.  It was like sitting in a living room as opposed to restaurant.  The music when I went in the last time was hard rock to suit the staff.  About half way through the meal the owner came in and immediately turned it to something more palatable to the age of customers that were in the place while making an appropriate comment to whoever was in charge.  Trying to eat a steak with heavy metal blaring over the speaker system isn’t particularly pleasant.  The visiting needs to be cut back and professionalism instilled be they hired staff or family.   

Also…I tried looking for a website and couldn’t find any.  This is a necessity today.  My understanding from other websites is they take reservations which is always a plus. 

That being said, I like Yolo Grille.  For this one I am pulling out the meatballs.  This one gets 4.

Yolo Grille
5231 S. Canfield-Niles Road
Canfield, OH 44406

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gazala's Place - New York City

On the Road with Steve!
Steve DeGenaro

Gazala's Place - Gazcombo

I’ve dragged my wife all over the country and half way around the world traveling-- and food and unusual meals are often part of the decision-making that goes into where we travel to in our spare time.  She’s a trooper and has evolved from a “meat and potatoes” Midwestern girl to a lover of several exotic cuisines.  Like me, there isn’t much she wouldn’t try. 

But last weekend, as we walked down 9th Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, she asked several times if I was sure I knew what we were doing.  “Yes”, I said, patiently explaining that we were headed to the only Druze restaurant in the United States and promising her an experience that we’d not be able to duplicate unless we traveled to remote areas in the Middle East. 

Druze is a unique culture: a sort of “mystical” offshoot of Islam.  Most of the few Druze in the world are in Syria, Lebanon, and the Northern part of Israel.  Druze cooking is similar to other Middle Eastern cuisine, with some very interesting dishes and unique spices. 

Gazala’s Restaurant, located on 9th Ave. in Hell’s Kitchen is off the beaten path in Manhattan.  You don’t walk by it on the way to see Battery Park, Broadway, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  But it’s fairly close by, a short walk from Midtown hotels that theatergoers and tourists frequent in New York City.  And the food is a unique experience that can’t be found ANYWHERE ELSE in America!

The restaurant is tiny with maybe 10 tables.  Decorations are sparse, and the place is loud with bad acoustics.  At the front of the restaurant sits a sajj stove—a domed stone (like an inverted wok).  If you walk in at the right time, you might see Gazala or one of her cooks, making sajj bread-the flat crepe-like pita that you’ll get with your meal.  In the back is the kitchen, separated by a half wall and in the middle is the dining area. 

The food that comes out, a lot of it on heaping platters served family style, is truly heavenly.  Hummus, tasting a bit more like tahini (ground sesame seeds) than beans or garlic, comes out in a sticky mound, formed into a volcano with olive oil and parsley in a puddle on the top.  Stuffed grape leaves are soft, lemony, and just salty enough to make them delicious.  Potato and meat “cigars” are rolled thin and utterly a delight.  And the sajj bread has a grilled taste that is unlike any pita most of us have experienced at more typical Middle Eastern restaurants. 

We ordered a selection of appetizers that overwhelmed us and exceeded our expectations.  The servings were generous, and more importantly, each one was a treat. 

For our main courses, we decided to order chicken kebabs and share, along with a bureka—a “pie” made of homemade pastry dough stuffed with greens and feta cheese.  The chicken kebab dinner was pretty standard fare. Spiced nicely, but nothing unique, the chicken was tender and juicy, served with a mound of pretty standard jasmine rice, and a little salad.  The salad was crunchy and spicy and refreshing.  It consisted of grilled corn mixed with salad greens and cabbage.  The dressing was a vinegary, sugary affair that was palate cleansing, crisp, and tasty.

The bureka was the highlight of the meal.  The dough was like a croissant, a fresh pita, and French bread all rolled into one.  It was carb-apalooza, certainly one of the best breads I’ve had in my life, and I’ve had bread all over the world.  Stuffed with a lemony greens concoction, feta cheese made this one of those special savory/sweet dishes. Almost like a quiche, you can imagine this as a breakfast treat, a lunch entrée, or a dessert—and it stands perfectly on its own in any of these roles.  Toasted and served barely warmed, it was melt in your mouth perfection. 

We were too full for dessert.  Some nice guys at the table next to ours had the specialty of the house, Kenafi.  Kenafi is a shredded dough (think of shredded wheat cereal) topped off or stuffed with sweet cheese, nuts and honey.  This dessert is the house specialty, and the menu encourages you to order with your meal, since it is made to order and requires about 30 minutes to prepare.  I dream of the day I go back with an appetite and have this and a Turkish coffee.  Other dessert options include date cookies and osh al-saria, which is creamy yogurt pudding with orange and rosewater flavoring. 

Service could not have been better.   In fact, it reminded me of one of the most beautiful things about eating in the Middle East.  Cultures there—across religious and geographic borders—all place hospitality high on their priorities in life.  In fact, hospitality is one of the essential pillars of living a good life.  Gazala’s takes that attitude seriously and truly makes guests feel welcome.  “Sahtain” is a word that you hear a lot during meals in the Middle East.  Literally, the word translates to “double health” or “to your double health”.  Similar to someone saying “bon appetite” before a meal, it conveys much more.  Ideas like “thank you for being my honored guest” and “may I always be able to serve you”.  I didn’t hear anyone say that word during our visit to the restaurant, but I certainly felt that cultural ideal in the caring service.  I felt like a guest in a most gracious host’s kitchen, sharing the pleasure of a meal. 

Gazala’s has opened an uptown restaurant on Columbus Avenue at 78th Street.  Also in Manhattan, it is located in a neighborhood considered ‘well heeled’.  I can imagine the neighborhood being better, and I can even imagine the restaurant being roomier and prettier.  But, I can’t imagine how they could do anything to improve on the overall experience we had in Hell’s Kitchen that evening.  I’d suggest going to the original location and enjoying a fantastic, unforgettable meal.  Sahtain!

A NOTE FROM MARK:  New York City is a wonderful but expensive place.  The trick is to go where the locals go.  I have eaten at many places in New York, but the most memorable are the ones like Gazala's.  Not only do you get good food, you get an experience.  My wife and I will be visiting New York in December, and this will be on our list.   Thanks to my good friend Steve for all of his nationwide recommendations!!! Looking forward to more!!!

Gazala’s Place
709 9th Avenue @ 49th
New York City, NY

Friday, July 12, 2013

Monteen's Southern Style Cuisine

My father used to tell me "every day is an adventure!"  What a great attitude...depending on the adventure!  Two of our closest friends returned to Ohio from their Palm Beach “winter” home....excuuuuuse me.  We decided we needed a night out to celebrate.  They are fans of a group called the Michael Austin Project which is a funky jazz/soul group that has been around this area for a couple of years.  They happened to be playing at an urban soul food restaurant and club named Monteen's Southern Cuisine up on Belmont Avenue.  I'm not much of a "club" person but what the hey!!! I'm game for anything.  So off we went.

When I review a restaurant, I try to take into consideration the whole experience.  If the food is supposed to be the centerpiece of the experience, I judge the food.  If it's the ambience, I take that into consideration too.  If it is a see and be seen place...if I see and am seen...mission accomplished.  I'm not quite sure what a club is supposed to be because, as I said, I am not a club person; notwithstanding, we had a heck of a time!  

Mahoning County is probably best known for its ethnic food, with Italian heading the list.  Right behind it you would find a lot of mid-eastern and Mexican cuisine, and at the festivals…lots of Greek cooking.  Southern style cooking has always been on the back burner, no pun intended, usually confined to some of the African American neighborhoods.  Monteen’s brings it out into the mainstream, front and center. 

It is a Mom and Pop operation.  The food biz is always a tough biz, but especially tough for independents trying to make it on their own.  The folks from Mahoning County don’t know southern cooking.  I don’t know southern cooking.  What little I do know comes from watching Paula Deen, and now she’s kaput.  So I am afraid these folks will have a tough road to go.  But I wish them well, because the food is good, the service is good, and the folks who work there are real friendly.  I am not going to lie.  I have read some fairly horrific reviews of this place.  We did not experience some of the things I have read and I can only go by my own we were there to listen to an outstanding band.   Going there just for dinner might be another story. 

Monteen’s is in close proximity to Youngstown Crab Company.  It is divided into two sections as you enter the building, the dining room to the right and club to the left.  The restaurant is a comfortable space.  Nothing fancy but then again neither is southern cooking.  You got your fried green tomatoes, your okra, your jambalaya and your catfish.  Is the food super duper great?  No.  But for the money it more than fills the bill…and the barbeque that I tasted was really good, and the baked beans were probably the best out I have had in  long time.  My wife had fried chicken, which was okay.  You want fast food go to the Col. Sanders.  This is probably how Mom would have made it.  Nothing fancy…just fried chicken.  You can end the meal with Sweet Potato Pie!!!

The club, on the other hand, is a hoot.  We got there at 8:00 thinking we would eat before the band started.  We were the only ones in the place and ate on the club side.  This is a big 70’s style night club; dated and garish and wonderful.  As you enter the club, the bar is to the left…70's glitz.  The tables in the bar are club tables as they are around the large dance floor, which is separated from these club tables by a divider.  The table was barely big enough for two and there were four of us, yet we sat there and ate and watched the band set up.  Folks started coming in around 9:15 and by 10 the place was hopping.  And what struck me the most is that folks were dressed for a night on the town…maybe not what I would choose, I am 63, but dressed nonetheless.  It was a friendly crowd.  The band was terrific with a dynamite saxophone player…and I am sucker for a saxophone solo.  This guy was good and could sing!!!  All in all, it was a good night.

Have I eaten better food? Absolutely.  Have I been in nicer night clubs?  You bet.  But this worked. Everything was there.   Check to see who is playing there before you go.  Get there at nine on a Saturday night if the band is good.  I am not sure if there is a cover.  If that is important to you you might want to check.  Have some southern style food and a great time in interesting surroundings with interesting people.  Dinner and lots of drinks and the band…we were out of there at sixty bucks including tip.

One thing…the owners need a website. 

Monteen’s Southern Cuisine
3807 Belmont Avenue
Youngstown, Ohio   44505

Friday, June 28, 2013

Maxi's - Cleveland (Little Italy)

Steve DeGenaro

In 1984, two weeks before I got married, I trekked up to Cleveland, which seemed 1000 miles away from my hometown of Youngstown (its actually more like 70 miles) to look for apartments. My fiancée was in her last year of law school in Cleveland and was living on the west side. I thought we probably ought to live on the east side close to Little Italy. I was Italian and the idea of a grocery store with salamis and prosciuttos and smoked cheeses hanging from the ceiling seemed comforting and the plethora of Italian restaurants made me feel more at home. We found an apartment a block into Cleveland Heights just above Little Italy and started our married life. We walked down into Little Italy to grocery shop, we went to Church in the neighborhood, and more often than not, ate maybe three or four nights/week at one of the many neighborhood restaurants.

Why is this important in a restaurant review? Well, flash forward twenty-nine years. I’m trotting the country if not the globe to earn a living and I live back 70 miles from Little Italy. It might as well be the 1000 miles away it seemed back when we moved to Cleveland for how often we get back there. In fact, I eat in New York City maybe twelve or fourteen times/year, Los Angeles maybe four or five times/year, and even Hawaii at least once/year. But Little Italy is a place we just don’t get back to very often.

So, when my son, who studies law, landed a summer internship in Cleveland, I was thrilled when he and some buddies ended up just above Little Italy in a short-term rental not ½ mile from where my wife and I spent the first year of our married life. And when my wife announced that we were going to see him on a Saturday evening, I felt a tinge of nostalgia when I learned that we’d be going to Mass at our old Church then on to dinner at a restaurant on Mayfield Rd.

Here’s how scientific our choice in restaurants was: my son jogged by this place earlier in the week and said, “It smelled good”.

Maxi’s Bistro isn’t one of the “classic” Little Italy restaurants. Those include Mama Santa’s (the pizza and homemade pasta joint my wife frequented and called “our” restaurant), Trattoria Roman Gardens (where I learned to love veal and Chianti wine), and La Dolce Vita (which was called something different in the early 1980’s but had the same “old world” marble bar and served espresso with little lemon twists).

Maxi’s is new—I remember there being a laundry near there many years ago, and I can’t quite remember what was in that very building, but it wasn’t Maxi’s.

I did a little research on the ride up to Cleveland and fired up my Smart Phone to hit the holy trinity of food review websites: Yelp, Trip Advisor, and Chowhound. Mixed reviews, mostly good, some interesting observations. But my son said, “It smelled good”; so in we go after 5 o’clock Mass, beating the rush, and scoring a nice table out back on the patio.

The waitress was cheery, amiable, and knowledgeable about the menu and ingredients. Her name was “Reese” and she actually looked just like Reese Witherspoon.

The drinks list is innovative and fun with some great Italian stand bys like Negroni (a gin/campari/vermouth drink) and Galliano. Our table had red sangria and a “frozen grape”, which was served in a martini glass. The frozen grape is made with vodka, prosecco, and white grape juice. Sweet, but not too sweet, and very cool and refreshing.

Then the food arrived.

We ordered the calamari appetizer, which is dusted with flour and fried then served with tomato basil sauce, lemon, oregano, and garlic. Cooked perfectly, the squid meat was tender and fresh and the sauce was just spicy enough and had just enough garlic bite to it. Our other appetizer was an order of banana peppers stuffed with prosciutto and provolone cheese, a unique dish they served cold. The pepper is tangy but not hot, fresh as summer in Tuscany, and the roasted red peppers and kalamata olives surrounding the peppers are a perfect salad starter. Some homemade bread and a plate of olive oil with spices to dip it in, and you’re on your way.

Our main courses were equally memorable and creative. My wife ordered a carciofi pizza. Covered with artichoke hearts, oregano, roasted red peppers, and cheese, the pizza is a little thicker than a very thin Neapolitan crust, but a lot thinner than the deep-dish stuff most of the Midwest knows and loves. My son ordered a house specialty: goat cheese ravioli. Surprisingly, it was not too rich. Chopped sundried tomatoes are incorporated into the goat cheese and the ravioli are swimming in a cream sauce that accentuates but doesn’t overpower the ravioli. Realizing we were going to carb out on this meal (the bread basket had arrived with fresh, hot, homemade bread before I ordered my main course), I’d gone with one of the night’s specials: grouper. Lest you think this was a diet-friendly meal, note that the grouper was served with beurre blanc sauce. Butter and white wine, this sauce is amazing with fish of any kind. It was rich and silky and literally screamed at you to soak it up with the homemade bread.

None of us had room for dessert, but they had the standard fare: tiramisu, cheesecake, etc.

Maxi’s is no “Johnny come lately” restaurant. In fact, it certainly rates as one of, if not THE best place to eat in Cleveland’s Little Italy. If I had to point out a weakness, I’d say that this level of gourmet, quality cooking deserves a bigger & better wine list. I’d have liked to see more Italian specialty wines, and more California standards on the list. If I was really feeling like being critical, I might also mention that personally, I’d back off on the garlic on the carciofi pizza. But none of us complained and we all went away as happy as we’ve ever been after a meal in Little Italy.

My son will be in Little Italy for the summer and I’m quite sure we’ll be back at Maxi’s. Next time, I’m committed to trying another specialty they are known for: frog legs. I watched a few other pizzas being marched from kitchen to table and they all looked wonderful and worth trying as well. This a good place to go with a gang of people and try as many small plates as possible. A summer night in Little Italy can be beautiful; and if you go, be sure to hit Maxi’s.

12113 Mayfield Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio  44106

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Meat & Potatoes - Pittsburgh

Those of you who read my reviews know that I love Pittsburgh.  It is the greatest city in the country.  It is one of the few cities that actually flourished during the Great Recession.  It has also been the center of an exploding American food movement.  The trend is to trendy in both space and cuisine, and Pittsburgh is leading the charge.  Terms like sustainable and fusion and gastropub are popping up everywhere.  Creative cooking is "de rigueur." 

Meat & Potatoes is probably the hottest restaurant in Pittsburgh.  Located right smack dab in the middle of the theater district, it is literally only steps away from Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center as well as most of the smaller theater venues and art galleries.  It has developed a celebrity following.  Pittsburgh has an active film industry and its celebrities land here.

With a name like Meat & Potatoes, one would expect…well…meat and potatoes.  When you go to the web site, it features a huge cow with its parts outlined and page connections located on the parts.  It gives the impression that this is a steak joint.  But then you go to the menu and it gives one pause.  The menu is anything but what the name implies.  For that reason, I have put off going there because I am not sure I wanted to try “innovative.”  To be honest, there wasn’t much on the menu I would eat.  I want dinner.   But several weeks ago it was featured in a steak travelogue on the Food  as iNetwork with focus on its rib eye steak for two, so my wife and I decided to give it a go.

First and foremost…have a reservation, especially on the weekend, which you can do by phone or Open Table.  Pre-theater seating is difficult…becoming somewhat easier as the evening goes on.  

Second: this is a great space.  The motif is supposedly a ginned up speak easy.  I don’t know about that, but they did a good job.   It is geared for fun.  The tables are actually ice cream tables jammed together.  You are intimate with those dining next to you.  I thought it would be a turn-off, but it was actually a lot of fun.  We had several interesting conversations with those on either side of us.  Folks were really friendly.   Big band era music is in the background with a high noise level generally.  Not a place for quiet conversation.

Third: The drink menu is outstanding. In addition to a wide range of inventive cocktails, it offers an Absinthe menu which is a real throw back.  Read up on the history of the Green Fairy and throw caution to the wind on this recently re-legalized beverage.  It offers two varieties on the menu, but there are actually six from which to choose.  Here’s a hint: it’s an acquired taste, but fun to sip some history.

Fourth: the service is terrific.  Several arm chair reviewers on Trip Advisor mentioned service was oftentimes an issue.  Not when we were there.  Our server was friendly, efficient, and very knowledgeable about both the food and beverage menus.   This gal was great as appeared to be the entire staff.

Now for the not so good stuff!!  Maybe I am too pedestrian and unsophisticated to appreciate an innovative menu, but Geez Louise, where was the meat and potatoes?  Outside of the huge rib eye steak for two and a pork chop that could feed an army….where was the meat and potatoes?  Not much!!!  And if your wife doesn't want to delve into the steak for two…you are out of luck.

The other two steak offerings on the menu were a hanger steak and flat iron steak.  Both of these are not at the top of the steak chain, but are actually my favorite cuts of meat because they have lots of flavor.   I ordered the hanger steak.  It came with “pulled potatoes” and some other stuff.  The plate contained 4 slices of meat and 4, I counted them, tater tot sized pieces of a potato concoction covered in a mound of watercress with some exotic sauce stylized underneath it all.   My wife ordered a ravioli dish.  It looked interesting…certainly more food than the hanger steak.   She said it was good.  I tasted it.  The ravioli was stuffed with some green substance.  I don’t know.  Dude...where's the beef?

In addition to the 4 tiny potato concoctions, one has to order bread separately for a couple of bucks if you want some carbs.  It comes with goat butter.   Meat & Potatoes is apparently carb challenged. 

Here’s the deal.  These folks must be doing something right because it is always packed and gets rave reviews. It bills itself as a “gastro-pub.”  I don’t know what that means, but food as art doesn't do it for me.   This approach to food and restaurants has permeated the Pittsburgh area and is spreading to Cleveland.  At the end of the day I go to a restaurant to eat.  I am hungry and really need some meat and potatoes and some bread.   If I wanted art, I would go to an art museum.

That being said, this is a nice place. It is a fun place. It is also relatively inexpensive as Pittsburgh restaurants go.  But check the menu online before you venture forth.  Outside of the big steak for two and the pork chop, I would stick with the sandwich and appetizer offerings either before or after the very expensive show you are going to see in the theater district.  This is a see and be seen type of venue…and actually worth the trip to experience it.

For as popular as it is, it could use some valet parking for those going there specifically for dinner.  But there is plenty parking around and it is relatively inexpensive in Pittsburgh at night.

649 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA  15222