Sunday, August 21, 2011

An Autumn Weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Cheese Cupboard and Hofbrauhaus Restaurant
The Village Shops
Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Fall 2011

Unfortunately, at the end of summer/beginning of fall my husband and I had quite the disappointment in life.  The exact nature of the disappointment doesn't need to be discussed online, but just know we suddenly felt the need to accomplish something positive and get away for a bit.  To help us brush off our sadness and appreciate the gifts we do have, we decided to attack the 14 mile round trip hike to Mt. Leconte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We had previously spent a few mini vacations hiking around the Smokies during spring breaks and had always talked about doing this hike.  We decided now was the time. 

I had grown up going to Gatlinburg and spending time in the mountains during the summer with my family, but I had never before had the privilege of seeing the mountains in all their fall glory.  What a treat it was and how lucky was I to have the perfect weekend to spend on a mountain top! 

We arrived in Gatlinburg early afternoon.  Too early to check in to our cabin; but late enough that we were ravished for lunch.  I had spent many of fun filled afternoons wandering the Village Shops with my parents when I was little, and there was an old fashioned ice cream shop I was especially fond of visiting.  But we had never eaten at the Hofbrauhaus Restaurant.  I had read how many people love this place and consider it a must stop when in Gatlinburg, so we decided to give it a try.  As we parked I was amazed at the beauty of the fall foliage in the mountains surrounding us, and was excited it was still warm enough to shrug out of my jacket and put on shorts.  It was much colder when we left Ohio early in the morning!  I was also shocked to see how busy Gatlinburg was in the fall.  However, considering the gorgeous fall views, I really shouldn't have been.

This was the traffic we had to contend with just to get into the Smoky Mountains!

A view of the Village Shops and all the people.  At the bottom of the mountains the trees were still mainly green, but they were changing up top. 

The Hofbrauhous Restaurant is actually on the second floor of the Cheese Cupboard, which would also be a great place to pick up some picnic snacks to take along with you on a hike.

To get to the restaurant you walk through the cheese store and and then up the back stairs (see, for those that are confused, there is a sign saying 'Restaurant' with an arrow pointing up in the picture).  At the top you are greeted by a friendly waitress in a small and dark room with tables, booths, and a bar all smooshed in where they can fit.  The place was busy and cramped, but I loved the feeling of being transported by a flight of stairs into an old common pub in Germany.  You kind of felt like you were hidden away from the rest of the world and definitely away from the "cheese" of Gatlinburg (those who have been there will know what I mean). 
The Cheese Cupboard has been open since 1969 and I got the feeling that their fixtures and recipes had been too.  But I love when good things don't change. 

The restaurant is known for their super reubens and since Erik and I both love reubens this is what we went with.  This one was pretty classic with corned beef, sauerkraut, sauce, and Swiss chesse on a Pumpernickel roll.  It was served with potato chips and a dill pickle spear. 

The bread was good, soft, and fresh.  The corn beef and sauerkraut were also decent.  I probably would have liked more sauce, but I like my reubens fairly wet.  All in all this was a typical, good reuben.  But I wouldn't drive out of my way for it like many others do.  I did, however, love the condiment tray that was brought out with our lunch.  We were brought out dishes of a spicy mustard, a pickle relish, and horseradish to doctor up our sandwiches as we wished.  Being a condiment queen and all, I loved this addition. 

On the negative side, the chips and pickle could be improved.  I know they're not the main attraction, but sides can either add to or detract from your dining experience.  The chips were your typical low budget ones out of box from a place like Sam's or Costco.  They get the job done, but they're nothing special.  The pickle was limp and lacking a fresh crunch. 

Overall, would I go back?  Sure.  Will it be a must stop whenever I'm in the area?  No. 

Bill Total:  2 Reubens, a soft drink, a German draft beer, tax, and tip = about $27

Overall Rating:  3 buckeyes

And just for fun, we took the tram up to Ober Gatlinburg after lunch.  We decided to take the easy way up into the mountains, because the next day we were definitely going to be working for our views!

HofbrÀuhaus Restaurant & Cheese Cupboard on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Burgers in Gahanna

Gahanna Grill
Gahanna (duh)
July 26, 2010
4:30ish pm

I interned for a year in Gahanna and drove by this place every day, and sometimes multiple times a day.  I was always curious about it.  It looked like an old restaurant institution that would definitely have its regulars, but could either serve amazingly good food or amazingly bad.  Unfortunately, I was busy enough that year that I never got the opportunity to try it out.  However, I tucked it away in my head as a place I'd like to try someday (along with approximately 5 million other places). 

But the day for Gahanna Grill came last July, approximately 5 years after I had first wondered about the place.  Some places I tuck away on my "to try" list are out of business 5 years later.  But since the Gahanna Grill has been around since 1939, I was glad that was not the case this time around.

On that summer day I was craving a burger and I wanted a really good, classic burger.  Thurman's was definitely an option, but I was also in the mood to give something new a try.  Gahanna Grill was it.

As we drove up I quickly realized the front facing the main street had been updated since I had interned.  It now had a bit more of an inviting look, and not so much a place that the waitresses would yell at ya if you weren't a regular.  I kind of missed the original look, but understand how this might be better for business overall.

However, I was comforted to see the alley side entrance and the inside didn't look like it had changed much in 20 or so years.   

As we entered the restaurant we noticed it was very casual and laid back.  We were warmly welcomed.  You got the feeling this was a place families grew up going to over the years and always remembered.  Since we were earlyish for dinner there were only a few other tables occupied.  However, the restaurant filled up the longer we were there. 

This restaurant's claim to fame is the Beanie Burger, so naturally that was what I had to try.

This was a big burger that definitely didn't skimp on the beef component.  The patty was juicy and chunky.  The 1/2 pound burger was topped with American cheese, bacon, sauteed onion, lettuce, tomato, and coleslaw.  The addition of the slaw was what defined it as the "Beanie burger".  I loved how melty and gooey the cheese was on the bacon, beef, and onions.  In my world you can't go wrong with melted cheese and meat!  However, I could have done without the slaw.  It was mainly shredded cabbage without much flavor.  Overall, I'd give this burger an 8, and a 9 without the slaw!

Erik went with the Academy Burger which was the 1/2 pound burger topped with Swiss cheese, bacon, and grilled onions.  This burger was also very good, but my carnivore husband would have preferred more bacon (of course).   

Burgers come with fries and I upgraded my order for a $1.49 more for onion rings.  For the extra price I wished I would have gotten more rings.  However, the ones I got were thickly battered, perfectly fried, and crispy.  As seen above, Erik went with the fries and they were also battered and perfectly fried.  Yum on both accounts!

Overall, the service was fast and friendly, the burgers were big and juicy, and the sides were perfectly fried.  What more could you want? 

Bill Total:  For a Beanie burger with rings, an Academy burger with fries, 2 Pepsis, tax and tip; we were at about $28.

Overall Rating:  3 1/2 buckeyes

Gahanna Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 18, 2011

Restaurant Week July 2010- Luce

Luce Enoteca
July 17, 2010
8ish pm

Oh my, how I do love Restaurant Week.  I love the opportunity to try out new restaurants with interesting menus items that chefs are often trying out for the first time, and at a great price to boot.  I also love how dessert is usually part of the menu, a treat I rarely indulge in when dining a la carte.  And luckily our choice for this summer's Restaurant Week did not disappoint.  After pouring through the menus of our choices, debating locations, and Erik wanting the discussion to end approximately 2 hours earlier than it actually did; we picked Luce.  We were intrigued by the menu options of lamb lollipops and watermelon capresse. 

We called ahead for reservations and had no problem getting them for later on a Saturday evening.  When we drove up I didn't expect the restaurant to be quite as large as it was.  At first I was afraid it would have too much of a big chain restaurant feel, but my worries were quickly assuaged.  The building and indoor decor gave a Tuscan feel with warm colors and woods.  It was really quite welcoming on the inside, despite the grandeur on the outside.  We sat at a higher table close to the bar area and I was soon ready to relax and indulge. 

Our drink and appetizer orders were taken and then bread was brought out.  The bread tasted light and airy on the inside with a crusty and chewy crust.  The oil for dipping was olive oil based with a puree of tomato in the middle.  The tomato flavor was a nice, fresh accent to the oil.

(I must apologize for my pictures for this restaurant.  The lighting was just not great for food pictures, so they're a bit blurry.  But you'll still get the general idea.)   

Our drinks came out next and I immensely enjoyed my glass of 2007 Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.  Montepulciano d'Abruzzo's are, by far, one of my favorite wines.  Erik went with a draft beer.  They were out of his first choice and we can't recall what he ended up with. 

For our first course I went with the grilled romaine salad wrapped in prosciutto.  Wow, this was a good salad (and huge)!  I had never tried a grilled salad before because I always thought the greens would take on a bitter or too wilted of a flavor on the outside, but I was wrong!  And this is another reason I love restaurant week.  I will often try things I wouldn't if I had the whole menu to choose from.   

The grilling of the greens was slight, but just enough to give a slightly caramelized to smoky taste to parts of the lettuce, while other parts of the lettuce still retained its crispness.  Then the salty prosciutto paired with this smoky, caramelized taste beautifully.  The different varieties of cherry tomatoes, rich Gorgonzola cheese, figs, and champagne Gorgonzola dressing combined to elevate this salad to an even higher level (or as Emeril might say, they kicked it up a notch)!  The salad tasted indulgent, a verb not often used to describe salad.  I loved every bite and the portion was large enough that with the bread, this could have served as my meal.  However, I bravely ate on. 

Erik went with the watermelon caprese salad which was composed of fresh watermelon, yellow tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and capicola topped with microgreens, sea salt, and balsamic vinegar.  I would have never expected watermelon to work so wonderfully with tomato, but it did.  This salad was so fresh tasting and a great balance of sweet and salty flavors and crunchy and smooth textures.  Yum!

Next up were our entrees.  I went with the guava barbecued beef short ribs that were paired with black bean ravioli, roasted corn cabbage, and a salsa verde.  I have to admit when I read the menu options for both this entree and the lamb (listed below) I wondered if there would be too many different flavors going on that would take away from the dishes as a whole, but I was wrong.  Luce's chef definitely knows what he's doing with flavor combinations.  The black bean ravioli had a wonderful spiciness that melded perfectly with the fall off the bone tender short ribs.  Then the guava BBQ sauce added just the right amount of sweetness while the fresh corn, carrots, and salsa verde added a bit of crunch, freshness, and salt.  Bravo!  The presentation was a little busy, but taste will always trump presentation one hundredth fold. 

Erik had the lamb lollipops that were paired with purple chevre mashed potatoes, a fennel mustard seed saute, and a dolcetto (wine) blackberry demi sauce.  The lamb was so flavorful and cooked expertly.  There was no greasiness to it at all.  The purple mashed potatoes added a great color to the plate, but tasted a little bland.  I would have preferred more chevre to add more creaminess and flavor.  The blackberry sauce was okay when paired with the lamb.  Then the mustard seed saute gave a nice bite of sour to the dish.  Again, I wouldn't have put all these different flavors together, but they worked well and were balanced.  Admittedly, my cooking is much more simplistic and I could learn a lot in the world of flavor pairings!

Onto dessert!  I picked the s'mores bread pudding.  Who doesn't love the idea of a homey campfire dessert that screams of lazy summer evenings repurposed as a rich bread pudding?  I thought the idea was brilliant.  This dessert was composed of warm, thick, and heavy bread topped with a light and almost fluffy marshmallow ice cream.  It was then drizzled with a dark chocolate sauce and sprinkled with crushed graham crackers.  The marshmallow ice cream made this dish.  The marshmallow added a great sweetness and lightness to the ice cream that was just wonderful.  When it was served it was just melting on the edges due to the warmth of the bread pudding.  I have always loved the contrast of a warm dessert topped with cold ice cream.  Then crunch of the crushed graham crackers were a nice accent!  I loved this dessert. 

Erik went with the lavender honey cheesecake topped with a strawberry rhubarb compote.  This was made individually in a ramekin rather than a slice of a cheesecake and was an interesting change.  The cheesecake was creamy and rich and the strawberry rhubarb compote tasted fresh and had great flavor.  The lavender and honey flavors were hard to pick up on individually.  Overall, though, this was a great tasting dessert. 

Overall, this was an excellent meal and we would not hesitate to come back.  The chef was masterful at putting unusual flavors together to create a harmoniess and balanced dish.  I will say service was on the slow side, but for us that just added to an authentic Tuscan feel and helped us make our meal more of an event to savor.  However, I could see that if you were just stopping in to eat and wanted to go elsewhere afterwards this could be a turn off.   

Price: 2 restaurant week specials, 2 beers, 1 glass of wine, and tip:  $72

Overall Rating:  4 1/2 buckeyes

P.S. This summer's restaurant week starts today and Luce is part of it.  Click here to see this week's menu.  Notice the s'mores bread pudding is still included! 

Luce Enoteca on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Deli Dinner and Rainy Shakespeare

Brown Bag Deli
July 9, 2011
7ish pm

The Brown Bag Deli had been on my list of places to try for quite a few years.  However, German Village isn't very close to where we live and the visit just hadn't happened yet.  However, when they had a Groupon deal I decided I had to give them a try.

Since German Village isn't a hop, skip, and a jump away for us we wanted to tie dinner into doing something else fun downtown.  We had also always wanted to see a Shakespeare in the Park production at Schiller Park, so we decided to put these two together for a summer evening out and I highly suggest you do the same!

Brown Bag is super close to Schiller Park so we were able to park for dinner and then grab our blankets and walk over to the park after we were finished eating.  How convenient.  You could also get Brown Bag to go and have a picnic while you enjoyed the play.  However, I was too hungry to wait so we opted to eat in.

The Brown Bag is the neighborhood deli everyone wishes they had down the street from their home.  Their menu hosts a slew of deli sandwiches, salads, and soups.  But the chef also creates daily specials that are fresh and generally sound out of his world.  Just a few of the most current specials have included mini turkey meatloaves with garlic Parmesan smashed potatoes, shrimp and crab lasagna with homemade sauce, and watermelon cucumber gazpacho.  Yum!

The place is casual and seating is communal. 

When we were in we were in the mood for typical sandwiches and chips.  I selected the #1 on Ten which was composed of 7 (yes 7) layers of turkey, Russian dressing, and coleslaw on 9-grain bread.  The Russian dressing dripping down through the coleslaw and mingling the Russian and slaw dressing flavors together were what made the sandwich. 

Erik went with the classic Brown Bag Sub which was composed of pastrami, ham, salami, cappacola, Swiss cheese, hot pepper cheese, hot peppers, onion, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and Italian dressing.  Whoo that's a lot of ingredients!  He reported that it was what you would expect out of a sub flavor wise and the meats and bread were of very high quality.  He was pleased. 

We also got the Route 11 sweet potato chips and the pesto and parmesan Dirty Potao chips to share.  The sweet potato chips were great and reminded me of the Terra brand.  Unfortunately, the Dirty chips were not as good.  You could taste the pesto flavor, which was unique, but it had a bit of an artificial flavor that I didn't care for. 

We washed all this down with Dr. Brown's black cherry soda and then headed over to relax on the lawn at Schiller Park and enjoy some theatre.  Much Ado About Nothing was the production of the day.  Unfortunately, a summer storm kicked up almost halfway through the show and we had to abandon ship.  However, that didn't stop us from having an enjoyable and memorable evening that I would love to turn into a yearly summer tradition (minus the storm, of course)!

Bill Total:  $13 with a $5 off Groupon
Overall Rating:  4 buckeyes

Brown Bag Deli on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Romantic Puerto Vallarta

Cafe Bohemio
Puerto Vallerta
June 25, 2010
9ish pm

I had read about this place on the forum for Puerto Vallarta.  Quite a few of the Puerto Vallarta frequenters highly recommended it and went on and on about how good the cherry cola ribs and meatloaf were.  Both of those entrees definitely weren't typically Mexican, but they sounded especially delicious to us and so we decided to give Cafe Bohemio a whirl. 

We walked to dinner just after sunset and because it was a weekday during the low season the streets were relatively quiet.  Cafe Bohemio was tucked away off the main street and particularly sleepy.  However, they were ready to serve us expertly when we arrived. 

We loved how quaint everything looked.  It was just what we had expected from Puerto Vallarta's old town

Seating is al fresco and we were surrounded by the soft sounds of American Sinatra classics.  The ambiance was wonderful.  We were glad we had waited to eat until the sun went down because July in Mexico is hot! 

We were warmly welcomed as we were seated, and chips and salsa were immediately brought out.  The tomatillo salsa was wonderful, but the tomato salsa was not flavorful enough for me.  It reminded me more of a tomato puree rather than a salsa.  But that's okay, I just stuck with the tomatillo.   

As we looked over the menu the owner (I think) really wanted us to try the pea soup, as he had just made it that day and seemed really excited about it.  Of course, we obliged.  Fresh bread was also brought out and the butter tasted homemade.  The pea soup was wonderfully fresh and seemed to be a puree of peas and celery flavors.  It was a good start. 

True to our recommendations I ordered the cherry cola ribs and Erik went with the meatloaf. 

The ribs were good and the cherry cola sauce was delish.  There was just the right amount of tanginess and sweetness to compliment the meat.  This was served with a boiled potato and typical iceberg salad.  The sides were fine, but nothing special to write about. 

Erik went for the meatloaf.  Now this was a good meatloaf!  It was perfectly moist, flavorful, and smothered in a tangy sauce.  On the restaurant's facebook page the owner has a video of how he makes his meatloaf.  One of these days I'm am going to watch and then try to replicate!  Our server told us the meatloaf was especially good the evening we were there because it was the slow season and therefore, they do not make the meatloaf ahead of time.  So Erik's was made fresh and especially for him.  Boy did the taste show it!  This was served with the same iceberg salad as above and steak fries.  The fries were thick, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside; just the way they should be.   

We were stuffed and happy at the end of this meal.  Then to top it off, I fell in love with the old word style of a handwritten bill.  Perfect. 

Bill total:  That's 303 pesos, folks, not dollars :)  It was roughly $26 before tip.  Mexico is quite the food bargain!

Overall Rating:  The great ambiance and hospitable service make this a 4 1/2 buckeye place.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Best Pizza is in Mexico? Say What?

Cafe Roma
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
July 23, 2010
3ish pm

Words will not be able to express the love I have for this place.  If I could fly into Mexico just to hang out here, I would.  These types of unexpected surprises is what traveling is all about.  Now, I had read about this place on my trusty tripadvisor sight, but I have to say my expectations weren't too high.  At the time of our trip this place was ranked as the number one restaurant in Puerto Vallarta.  However, I had my doubts that it would live up to those expectations.  I'll admit I snobbishly thought a bunch of Americans who didn't know what good food in Mexico was like ranked this place so high because it catered to the American way of life.  "I," I reasoned, "am more refined than that, and surely a pizza place that also doubles as a year round spring break hot spot will not be my favorite place in Puerto Vallarta."

Well, I can readily admit to having some snobby foodie thoughts now and again, but I will also easily admit when I'm wrong. Dead wrong.

Erik and I had been out exploring Puerto Vallarta and were getting really hungry.  It was about 3 pm and we had yet to eat anything for lunch.  We saw that we were close enough to Cafe Roma and decided to walk over.  Since it was late afternoon the place was dead, but we were happy to see it was open.  We climbed the steps to the second floor restaurant and laughed at seeing this: 

Unfortunately, the camera couldn't catch all the fun phrases but they say things like, "Seriously folks, we're not serious." And, "If you like our food tell others, if you don't like our food go parasailing."  Then at the top of the stairs you are greeted by this:

From the 50's and 60's classic rock and roll that was playing in the background and nods here and there to the United States, you can quickly infer this is where the ex-pats hang out, and rightly they should.  We were warmly welcomed and the owner seemed genuinely happy to talk with us.  As we looked over the menu he asked where we were from and when replying Ohio he immediately then asked, "Browns or Bengals?"  But before we could even think to answer he replied, "Cowboys, of course!"  Quite the character. 

He then let us know that since it was our first time there we could have Pacifico (the local beer) for five pesos each.  Erik thought he had gone to restaurant heaven.  We ordered pizza with ham and pineapple and as our order was put in the owner came back to discuss what languages we spoke.  I tried to pass off some rusty French, but I was quickly shown up.  He then encouraged Erik to practice his Spanish with him as we waited for our pizza.

When our pizza arrived we were impressed by how good it looked, but even more by how good it tasted.  The pineapple was fresh and just slightly warmed to bring out its flavor.  The crust was thin and done in true Italian style, slightly blackened while cooked at very high temperatures.  It reminded me so much of the pizza I had had in Italy I asked if the cook was originally from Italy or had studied in Italy (he was not and did not).

As we finished our pizza the owner pointed out we had a visitor sitting across from us.  This big orange guy is their neighbor.   

The location of this place is just great.  The Rio Cuale is across the street and the Sierra Madre mountains are in the background.  I just loved it here.  Then, for the icing on the cake, as we were getting ready to pay our bill the owner brought us shots of tequila.  He said that was the only way to go in Mexico, especially when it's your first time visiting. 

As we left we decided to get a fun picture with the mural on the wall and the owner insisted on moving the lights so our picture would be just right.  Here it is: 

Apparently that iguana neighbor can get pretty angry! 

We left Cafe Roma with a full and satisfied stomach, maybe a little too much to drink, and a happy heart.  What more can you ask for on vacation?

Bill Total:  Not sure, but definitely on the inexpensive side.

Overall Rating:  5 buckeyes

And just for fun, here's a picture from a Mexican candy store and the sunset that evening. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mexican Mole

Red Cabbage
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
July 22, 2010
7ish pm

When asked where one could get the best traditional Mexican food in Puerto Vallarta, I heard Red Cabbage as the answer many times.  Therefore, we had to try it.

When I saw the turns and backstreets our cab driver took to get to the restaurant I was very thankful we didn't try to find this place ourselves or try to navigate the bus system!  We ended up in a neighborhood and I'm sure I wouldn't have recognized this place as a great restaurant if I was walking by, and on another note, I know that without my trusty reviews I would have never even had the opportunity to walk by, given the local!  But we were immediately warmly greeted by (what I assume to be) the owner's son opening our cab door to great us.  This was soon followed by the owner welcoming us at the front door. 

We were immediately seated and enjoyed looking at the tables decorated in different monetary bills from the different countries patrons visited from.  We realized we didn't need to add one from the US.  The ambiance seemed to exude family and friend centeredness.  Since it was a weeknight during the low season, the restaurant had a few tables of patrons, but was not busy and we put our orders in quickly. 

This restaurant is known for its mole sauce and so I had to try it.  Erik went with the chilles rellenos.  Now I have to admit I took a risk with the chicken mole.  Honestly, mole, with its chocolate and chili nuances, is generally not one of my favorite sauces.  However, I've also heard that it takes skill to make a good mole.  It is best slow cooked and generally a mixture of up to 40 ingredients.  I reasoned that possibly it wasn't that I didn't like mole, but it was more that I hadn't had the right mole.  So many people swear by a good mole, it couldn't possibly be that I didn't like it.  I figured I was in this dish's home country at a place known for the dish,  so if I was going to like it at all I would like it here.  So I went for it. 

Unfortunately, I found out that evening that mole is just not a dish I'm overly fond of having.  I could tell that this mole was a great one, it was by far the best one I had ever tasted, and it had a rich, complex flavor.   So this is by no way a critique of this restaurant's dish.  I have recognized that this is a case of my faulty taste buds, and nothing more.  The chicken filling was tender, slow cooked, and very flavorful.  The rice was good and I loved the added carrots and peas.  I will also admit that the mole grew on me the more I had it,  but I found myself wanting more of Erik's chille rellenos. 

Now, in my opinion, the chille rellenos were a different story.  These were really good and batter dipped, just the way I like them (and Rick Bayless says they should be)!

For dessert we decided to share the flan.  This flan was lighter and less custardy than the flan we usually have in the United States.  It had a strong nutmeg flavor, but overall was delightful. 

Overall, we really enjoyed the family style friendliness of this place, and the food was pretty good too! 

Bill Total:  ?? Absolutely no clue.  It was one of our pricier dinners in Mexico, but still reasonable compared to American restaurants.

Overall Rating:  3 buckeyes