One Old, One New

Yesterday involved two different holiday meals, one at the long established Johnny’s Bar on Fulton, the other at the newly opened Market in Rocky River.  Both of them shared some positive qualities:  attractive settings, attentive service and good company.  Yet somehow they were very different experiences.

Johnny’s, the original location of a trio of restaurants, is in the slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood of Clark Metro.  You would drive past this place a hundred times without noticing it.  It is a hidden gem and this becomes obvious as soon as you step inside.  A welcoming bar dominates the lower room, along with a couple of white tableclothed four-tops along the side.  A few steps up place you in the main dining room.  Indirect cove lighting in the ceiling, grooved rosewood paneling and an Italianate mural set a sophisticated tone.  The inclusion of leopard print carpeting strikes a snazzy note at your feet.

The lunch menu is a brief affair, a short excursion through some Italian classics.  A couple of salads, a few simple apps and soups give way to a short list of entrees.  We have always focussed on the house specialities here, which we have gauged from watching what the locals around us are ordering.  For a starter, the choice is the Stuffed Banana Peppers.  Hot peppers, char-grilled and stuffed with ground veal, are then baked in marinara.  Deftly served by the waitstaff, using a pair of spoons, these gems hit all the right notes of heat, spice and savory richness.  With plenty of Italian bread to sop up the sauce, this makes a fitting start to any meal here.  A salad follows, just leaves of lettuce with vinaigrette, no other vegetables to distract you.  The Italian dressing is light as air, with just a whisper of garlic; the blue cheese is creamy and rich with clearly evident chunks of cheese.

For our entrees, there were thin scallopini of tender veal, finished with lemon and white wine and capers, a perfect rendition of Piccata.  A pounded chicken breast came cloaked with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and an intensely flavored demi-glace.  The sides included perfectly seasoned scalloped potatoes and perfectly cooked haricots verts, given a final turn in the pan with a swirl of butter.  There was nothing racy or avant garde about any of these plates, but they all came out of the kitchen beautifully arranged and deftly seasoned.  Clearly, this has been the case here for decades and there is no reason to mess with success.

We finished with an enormous slice of Triple Chocolate Torte; tender cake, tall layers of mousse and a thick drift of ganache on top.  It would easily satisfy four diners, although the three of us managed to kill it off handily.  Freshly brewed coffee, dark and strong, is poured from silver pots into a proper cup and saucer arrangement…no casual mugs here.  The well-used china, with its slightly worn gilding, is a graceful complement to the hefty silver service in your hand.

As we watched the snow fall through the enormous plate glass window at the front, we contemplated the last of our martinis and sank back into a sense of satisfaction.  “This is a grown-up restaurant,” we all agreed.  A restaurant for grown-ups, yes, but also a scene that has matured across the years.  A well rehearsed staff; a solid menu of outstanding dishes; a setting that is at once elegant and comfortable.

Market, on Linda Street in Rocky River, has been open only a few weeks at this point.  The structure was built specifically for this restaurant.  With a stone and timber lodge feel, the main room is all high ceilings and huge windows.  A massive horseshoe bar dominates the back of the space, with rows of flat screen TVs above.  An enormous television in the dining room played cable news all during our dinner, although there was no sound, nor was there closed captioning.  Basically, we had a mural of talking heads with a ticker of news headlines across the bottom.  (Can anyone explain to me why we always need to be watching television while we eat out?  I do watch at home during dinner, but when I am in a restaurant, paying for my meal, attended by a waiter, can I please have it without the distraction of a flickering screen overhead?)

The list of beers and wines is extensive and should satisfy just about everyone.  The menu is, clearly, market driven and seasonal.  There are the usual choices, such as a burger, a wedge salad, a strip steak and grilled salmon.  There are some less usual items like a bison burger, sesame crusted tuna and truffled mac and cheese.  Then there are some very ambitious dishes like Chicken Roulade, stuffed with chorizo and smoked gouda, served with pine nut risotto, or Blackened Grouper served over Crawfish Jambalaya.  The roulade was delicious, although the accompanying four spears of asparagus were tough and without any seasoning.  We also tried a Reuben sandwich, made with house smoked brisket.  The sweet potato fries alongside were crispy, hot and served in a generous portion.  A Black Pearl Porkchop arrived atop a pile of sweet potato mash.  Cooked exactly as requested, the chop was grilled on the bone and was juicy and flavorful.

For dessert, we tasted a slab of house made carrot cake that was a clear winner.  Less enticing were my Deep-fried Uncrustables.  This little junk food indulgence involved taking the frozen kids snack (a white bread pocket of peanut butter and jelly) and frying it to a golden turn.  Sadly, the flavor of the fish fried in the oil previously was the dominant flavor of the crust.  This was disconcerting at best and downright unappetizing by the third bite.  If you are going to prepare desserts like this, a separate fryer is a must.

There are some issues at Market that have to do with the place being so new.  The room’s enormous size and generous ceiling height made us feel like we were in a warehouse.  The space lacks any real character of its own; one can hope that will come with time.  Perhaps, once it’s more established this sense of newness will fade.  The reach of the menu is a concern, as well as the pricing.  The inclusion of Lobster Linguine and Veal Chops, along with some of the more unusual sides (Sweet Corn Red Pepper Beurre Blanc? Bamboo Rice?), seem out of place in this setting.  With some entrees pushing the $24 mark, and even the sandwiches all riding at $11 to $14, the pricing is high.  Our entrees, priced in the upper teens, came with neither bread nor salad.  At this price point, I was surprised to see everything a la carte.

Aside from the few mis-steps mentioned, the food was generally good and the portions reasonably sized.  Hopefully, once Market has been through its paces a few times and grown more comfortable with itself, a return trip will feel more successful.

Birthday in Las Vegas

Las Vegas. A name that instantly evokes so many images for all of us. I hesitate to write this, wondering if it would be possible to add any new thoughts to the history of writing about this storied destination. It’s not as if we had any experiences different from the legions of visitors before (and after) us. In the end, I just wanted to make a record of a wonderful vacation together. The trip was Tony’s fiftieth birthday present to me. It was to have been a surprise, but my nosiness and impatience forced his hand, revealing the details many months ahead of time. He has the patience of a saint and I continue to hope that some of that will rub off on me.

He booked a three night air and hotel package that included non-stop flights (yay!), a luxury room at Paris (double yay!) and a 24 hour buffet pass (triple yay!). My annual fee for my airline credit card has as one of its benefits a pair of passes to its corporate/first class lounge. We snacked on bagels and coffee, took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and relaxed in leather armchairs before boarding our plane. After a painless flight, we landed on that Tuesday morning with only a couple of small carry-on bags and headed for the taxi line. Our first stroke of luck came when we were directed to the cab stand slot numbered ONE. This must portend something good, I thought. We were met at the hotel with only a short line at the front desk and given immediate access to our rooms, despite being there 4 hours ahead of the regular check-in time. We dropped our bags and headed out into the heat of the morning.

Our first stop was the Buffet at Bellagio. We arrived to find a line that was moving at a positively glacial pace. We figured out later that it was the transition time from breakfast to lunch, with thrifty guests taking advantage of the opportunity to pay for the earlier, cheaper meal and still eat a full savory menu. The array of choices was quite astonishing. There were several different green salads; a variety of cold vegetable and pasta salads; sliced prosciutto, salame, ham and cheeses; platters of fresh fruit; hand rolled sushi and sashimi; smoked salmon and whitefish; steamed, peeled shrimp; roast turkey, chicken, lamb and pork, along with two kinds of steak; a multitude of grilled and sauteed vegetables; a build your own pasta bar, alongside four kinds of stuffed pastas in sauce; a stirfry station, alongside a selection of prepared Asian dishes; and finally, a large display of breads. Then there were the desserts! There were at least a dozen different plated options, as well as an assortment of cookies, sorbets and ice creams and a chocolate fountain.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food here. Everything we ate was fresh and beautiful. The only issue we had was the service. It took far too long to get our server to take our drink orders, in my opinion. By the time I came back with my desserts, there were four plates waiting to be removed from our table. In fact, some tables near us were never cleared of dirty dishes and glassware for the entire hour that we sat there. The staff seemed unhappy and spent long stretches talking with one another, rather than doing their jobs. As someone who has worked in restaurants and is acutely aware of the staff around me, this made the whole experience less than ideal.

The balance of the afternoon was spent walking the south end of the Strip. Our first stop, the Bellagio, was still a premier property even after all these years. The generous use of marble, the colorful awnings on the casino floor, the Chihuly installation in the lobby and the 27 foot high chocolate waterfall at Jean-Philippe Patisserie make for a magical setting.

Moving south, we next stopped at Monte Carlo. The theme here is the tiny principality on the Mediterranean coast, the main theme of said principality being its casinos. One door south is New York, New York. This interior was one our least favorites, mostly because of its New Yorkiness. Dark, crowded, dirty, noisy and expensive, it was all the things we hate about the city. The exterior architecture is quite a sight, but it’s marred by a rollercoaster running through it. I suppose for some this must be fun, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Beyond that sat Excalibur, a sort of pathetic visit to Merry Olde England. Next up was Luxor, it’s main property shaped as a giant pyramid with a gazillion-watt beam of light shooting straight into space from its apex. The interior attempts at Phoenician decor were somewhat less than successful. The final property at the south end of the Strip is the luxurious Mandalay Bay, which we did not visit.

Our entertainment for the evening was the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity. This is the third official Cirque production I have seen. We have also seen four or five “pretend” Cirque shows on our cruises, featuring many of the same styles of acts. We decided that we have seen enough of these! Once you put together a string of performers from jugglers to trapezists to gymnasts to someone spinning from their neck, the only thing you can do to make it seem new is put them in different costumes and give them a different theme. We have seen them dressed up as Peter Pan, a Chinese Opera, a Bollywood movie and, in Vegas, as a sex show. The feats are truly impressive, don’t get me wrong. I think I have just become jaded.

The next morning we boarded a bus for Hoover Dam. Our driver gave us lots of info on Las Vegas on our ride out and added a stop at the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign for a photo opportunity. Once we arrived at the dam site, we took an escorted tour that included the Turbine Room. The sheer size of this entire operation was amazing. Lots of superlatives can be used to describe it, but you really need to see it to understand the scope of it. It brought to mind our feelings about the Panama Canal. It is just incredible to think that mankind had the hubris to even attempt such massive projects. If you are in Las Vegas for more than a day, I would definitely recommend a tour out that way.

That afternoon, we returned to our hotel and activated our “Buffet of Buffets” wristband. This pass, included in our hotel package, offered twenty-four hours of continuous access to seven of the Strip’s buffets. By starting it in the middle of dinner service, we were able to squeeze four meals out of it (dinner, breakfast, lunch and another dinner). We started with dinner at the Flamingo, in the shadow of a twenty story high photo mural of Donny and Marie. The food was alright, but not the best we had. What was amazing was the view from our table. We overlooked the hotel’s Wildlife Habitat and had views of black swans, penguins and, of course, flamingos. It was quite a sight!

After another short night’s sleep, we headed for the breakfast buffet at Planet Hollywood. This was an amazing setup! They had just about anything you can imagine for the day’s first meal. The food was fresh, hot and well-seasoned. The service was really great, too. Actually, almost everyone we encountered in Las Vegas was just wonderful. Folks seemed truly happy to be helping you wherever we went. Bus drivers, cabbies, hotel desk clerk, cocktail waitresses, buffet servers, and even hotel maids were gracious and friendly. I talked to a couple of them about this fact and they responded, “We want you to come back!” Why can’t people everywhere reach this same conclusion?

We spent the rest of the morning visiting other properties. My personal favorite was Aria and the shopping center connected to it, Crystals. These properties are part of the brand new City Center, a cluster of hotels, casinos and shopping between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Aria’s casino floor was elegant and refined, a welcome change of pace from what we had been seeing. Crystals is a soaring, light-filled space, the center of which is dominated by a restaurant suspended in midair, encased in a wooden “tree.” We also stopped in at Caesar’s Palace, which is the polar opposite of all that restraint. The decor here was completely over the top. If you can imagine a gaudy Roman enclave, you can imagine Caesar’s. We paid our respects across the street at the Venetian, too. Here, the streets (and even a canal) of Venice are lovingly recreated, right up to endless frescoed ceiling reminiscent of Michelangelo. Never have so many angelic cherubs gazed down upon so much depraved excess.

There were brief interludes at the Wynn (gorgeous, still shiny-new), Treasure Island (campy, smelling faintly of coconut and jasmine?), the Mirage (slick, smooth beauty), the Flamingo (seriously old school, despite attempts at modernization), Harrah’s (the Carnival theme is worn thin), Bally’s (what theme?) and finally, back home to Paris. We loved this property, and not just for the half-size Eiffel Tower  and Arc de Triomphe out front. The casino floor is dressed like a Parisian street, with faux gaslights and a blue and white-clouded sky. Cobblestones underfoot and diminutive streetscapes complete the effect. Even the reception area gets into the act with its Versailles-esque pastiche of mirrors, chandeliers and gilt.

The last evening of our visit we took the bus up to Fremont Street to see what had become of the Las Vegas of the past. Millions of dollars have been poured into these early casinos, restoring them to their original glory. Classics such as the 4 Queens, Binion’s and the Golden Nugget continue to be crowded even today. The addition of the Fremont Street Experience is a big draw, too, offering a light show on an arched roof above the street. If you are going to Vegas, you should definitely check that out.

We ate some wonderful things during our stay. I enjoyed a different French pastry every day (in celebration of my birthday), including a pot of luxurious chocolate mousse; a delicate raspberry and almond tart; and finally a madeleine, a financier and a tiny chocolate cake. We ate a light supper one evening on the edge of the terrace at Paris, in the restaurant Mon Ami Gabi. We started with a classic salad of frisee, lardons and a poached egg, followed by scallops baked under a blanket of bechamel and cheese. At other stops along the way there were crepes filled with Nutella; more shrimp and crab legs than I have had in ages; an excellent cheese danish; and lots and lots of coffee.

We had a wonderful time, although we agreed on the third morning, as we packed for the trip home, that seventy-two hours was just enough time to spend there. We saw the sights. We ate the buffets. We paid the “Casino Tax” everywhere we went…meaning I gambled and lost in every hotel. We enjoyed the complimentary cocktails on the casino floor, even while playing penny slots. It was a relaxing time together, with not a care in the world.

Dante’s Chef’s Table

I was honored with a surprise birthday gift last week from a dear friend: dinner at the chef’s table in the kitchen at Dante. It was just the two of us seated at a private booth in the midst of all the action and we had an amazing evening. We were escorted to the table and left with a wine list and a cocktail list, but no menus. Dante Boccuzzi himself stepped over to the table and introduced himself. His only questions regarded allergies (none) and the number of courses (seven). With that simple preamble, we were off!

First up was a deceptively simple plate of tuna sushi. Hawaiian big eye tuna, delicately rolled with rice, wasabi and nori, topped with a sliver of foie gras and briefly torched to melt the liver over the sushi. This garnish, along with a sprinkling of crisp rice, really took things to the next level. Next up was a tower that began with a thin round of hearts of palm, then a crunchy tempura of shiitake and finally a deliriously fatty slice of hamachi. A shot of yuzu foam covered the fish and helped to cut the intense richness of this plate. The chef’s training at Nobu in Milan was clearly at play here.

An enormous butter poached shrimp followed. Resting atop roasted fingerling potatoes, laying alongside was a swath of spicy sweet corn puree, some sauteed corn kernels and a few leaves of baby spinach. A crumble of toasted cornbread, scattered across the plate, gave a little nudge of crunch to the plate.

A crispy piece of roasted Pacific sea bass was next, served with tender braised radishes and meltingly soft polenta. A pair of luscious dayboat sea scallops came over next, quickly seared and plated with some gorgeous, meaty mushrooms and sauteed watercress, the whole thing sauced with decadent hollandaise. The final savory course was a few slices of rare rib-eye steak, nestled atop a bunch of flash-fried watercress. House pickled ramps provided a welcome, tangy relief to the parade of richness.

By now, more than two hours have passed, along with a couple of cocktails and glasses of wine. We settle back in our seats and are presented with a miniature pre-dessert: poached local peaches, vanilla ice cream and a tiny spoonful of hot caramel to pour over the whole thing. It was luscious and we felt stuffed. The pastry chef, though, had different ideas. After a personal consultation at our table, she brought us two different plates. The first was a blackberry buttermilk panna cotta, cool and fragile, trembling like a lady’s decolletage. Topped with a white chocolate dipped shortbread, it was amped up with a scoop of intense raspberry sorbet. (All the flavors of sorbet and ice cream are made in house.) The other plate was centered around a twice baked brownie wrapped in crispy phyllo dough. This was accented with a seasonal stone fruit compote and a cubical “scoop” of pink peach sorbet.

At this point he kitchen had quieted down considerably and the chef came over to spend a few minutes with us. We talked about our personal favorite restaurants in New York, about his experience there, and about how much we had enjoyed our dinner. The final treat of the night, presented to all guests at Dante, is a rolling cart laden with candy. Everything from DumDum suckers and Tootsie Rolls to exotic imported hard candies, we were just too full and asked for a bag of goodies to take home with us.

All told, we had spent more than three hours at table and consumed way more calories than I care to think about. It was a magical evening, made all the more special by the company I was lucky enough to share it with. I’ll remember this one for a long time!

Disappointments

I have had a string of disappointing meals lately. Not horrible food or terrible service, just meals that were not as good as I had hoped or expected. I usually focus on the successful dining experiences that I am lucky enough to have. In between those, there are plenty of mundane evenings out. Quick runs through chain restaurants for an easy, on-the-go type supper, or a stop at someone’s favorite local hangout for a burger and a beer. There are also a few truly bad meals that I won’t waste the keystrokes to write about. What I am talking about here are restaurants that come with excellent recommendations and then turn out to be less than stellar.

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The most recent was last night at Tremont’s Fahrenheit. Ask me what my favorite “special occasion” restaurant in that neighborhood is and I will automatically say Fahrenheit. It has been my go-to spot for entertaining out of town guests for years. I have had some incredible dinners there. Last night, after a stop at the weather-challenged Tremont Farmers Market, Tony and I headed up the street for some Happy Hour bar snacks. The bar at this Tremont standard bearer is a narrow space to the right of the front door. It offers about a dozen seats at the bar, plus 4 hightop deuces set against the windows looking out onto the street. Arty pendant lamps cast a warm glow over the coppery tabletops. The service is friendly and thoughtful.
The menu is limited, but offers up some good values. It’s standard bar fare, including pizza, burgers, hot dogs and cocktails. We chose the Butternut Squash Pizza, the Vietnamese Chicken Springrolls and the Chicken & Waffles. The Springrolls came up first, two of them cut a sharp angle, served with a couple of Boston lettuce leaves, a sweet chile dipping sauce and a sharp cucumber salad. The filling was perfectly seasoned, the crust shatteringly crisp and the sauce and salad a nice counterpoint to the heat. My first question was, “Why only two lettuce leaves, when there were four pieces of springroll?”
Next up was the Butternut Squash Pizza. This was topped with a few leaves of spinach, some cubes of squash, a couple of crumbles of goat cheese and a thick layer of melted mozzarella. The pie was dominated by two things: the pale crust and the flabby mozzarella. The few toppings scattered across this wan looking surface could not compete with the pedestrian base. I am not one who wants the “Ultimate Supreme” pizza with 25 toppings. I am of the “less is more” school of pizza making, but the sad qualities of the basic canvas overwhelmed the otherwise delicious toppings.
Our final choice of Chicken and Waffles was well executed. We were presented with a tower of waffles, topped with three beautifully cooked chicken tenders. The whole thing was drizzled with truffle honey and presented on a platter lined with a paper printed with the Fahrenheit logo. My main quibble with this dish was that some of the edges of the waffles were burned. While each part was delicious, we decided that chicken and waffles was exactly that…fried chicken served with waffles. I also wondered why the name of the restaurant had to be presented to me again on my plate. It seemed a little too corporate for my taste.
All in all, it was a nice evening. Our bartender took good care of us; the food was hot and fresh; the portions were good sized; the price was certainly right (all of this , plus a bottle of Dortmunder Gold, came to $27). Unfortunately, there was nothing that made me perk up and say WOW! There was nothing that made me want to hurry back for Happy Hour, either.

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I was also underwhelmed by a group outing to Quince in Olmsted Falls a few weeks ago. Aside from the setting in a tooth-achingly sweet, old fashioned “railroad junction” development, the room is a triumph of minimalism. Glossy wooden tables and large windows make for a clean, uncluttered space. The placement of the bar on the second floor makes the bar service a little clunky, but keeps the dining room calmer. The service is friendly and helpful, if not completely professional. The plates and platters themselves were many and varied. Between three courses for four people, we didn’t see one piece of porcelain twice. (What a nightmare for the dishwasher!)
The menu, sadly, is overly ambitious. First off, it is quite large for such a plain setting. There are some fifteen starters, plus three more that were read off to us as specials. The entree list totaled eighteen choices, not counting the three verbal additions. Add to this the fact that any half-portion of salad can be added to any entree for just $3.50 and the eyes start to glaze over. Admittedly, my most memorable restaurant meals of all time have been in rooms where there is little or no choice (think Chez Panisse or Per Se). If have agreed to eat somewhere, I would like to think that I trust the chef enough to make choices for what I should eat that evening. A menu this large makes me doubt the ability of the kitchen to pull all of these dishes off successfully. Which things are really good, and which are just okay? What is the chef’s favorite dish…the one he is most proud of? That’s what I want to know going in.
Virtually every dish sounded good in the beginning, but then each took a turn for the worse further down the menu description. In some cases, there were unlikely pairings; mostly, it was a case of just too many things going on.
For example, an “unsprung sushi roll” of tuna and vegetables was made confusing with the inclusion of tomato, watermelon and papaya. A spinach salad was perked up with the counterpoint of sweet peaches and salty prosciutto, but the brie on top left us scratching our heads. My entree of shrimp & scallop tortellini, summer vegetable sauté and brandy lobster reduction, was a muddled mess on the plate. The “tortellini” were gigantic purses, properly seasoned but unevenly cooked. The vegetables had been overcooked to the point of mushiness, with no real texture and no distinct flavors. The brandy and lobster notes were completely lost in the mix. There were also edamame in with my saute, which seemed out of place. Many of the preparations include sort of beans or legumes, in addition to whatever the center of the plate protein is. Some other examples from the menu: Stuffed chicken, cavatelli, pesto and white beans; Orecchiette, meatballs, tomato, gorgonzola and green beans; Saffron pasta, pork bolognese, portobellos and white beans. In my opinion, this renders each of these dishes much too heavy.
My fellow diners had similar complaints about their meals. The portions were also huge. Each of us had at least one carryout container for leftovers and few of our plates were really finished. I wish the kitchen would just pull back a little and focus in on a few good, simple dishes. I am not afraid of fusion cooking or unusual combinations. I have eaten out enough in my life to understand creativity and new things. I was disappointed that Quince could not just relax and trust that simple does not mean uninviting. I have eaten this chef’s cooking before and loved it. I hope he can take a cue from the decor and lighten up in the kitchen.

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There are other examples, but I think I have made my point. It’s painful to write about these disappointments. I am a big supporter of the Cleveland restaurant scene. I try to eat out locally as much as possible. Sometimes, though, I am much more impressed by a happy hour at the Tremont Tap House, a burger at the B Spot or a sundae at the Honey Hut than I am by a complicated, overwrought dinner. Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the restaurants I am choosing. All in all, I love eating around town. In the future, I’ll stick to writing about the meals that impress me the most.

The Baker’s Magic Hour

2:00 in the afternoon and she’s been on her feet for 10 hours at this point. The coffee and malformed croissant she nabbed off the tray at opening some seven hours ago are long gone, having given up their energy for the morning production. She now faces a prep list of some length. Alone in the kitchen, she pauses to eat. She mindlessly nibbles on a bowl of salad. She spares the washing of the fork by pinching the greens with her bare fingers. She stares into the empty space around her. She tears at pieces of a rough brown loaf and dips them in a small bowl of olive oil left from dressing the focaccia. She is awaiting the second (or third) wind that she’ll need to get through the remainder of the day.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay?” asked her coworkers an hour ago. She insisted she would be fine, that she only wanted to get a few things prepped for the morning. There was levain to feed; two cookie doughs to measure out and mix up; one more turn on the croissant dough was required; then the cleaning at the end. Good God, she thought, I’ll be here two more hours! Better get started.

With the dish man gone, she carefully reuses measuring cups and spatulas. Earlier in the day, with the whole scene humming along, people are almost reckless with their use of utensils. The parsimony of the late day is a welcome respite from that frenzy. One worker, one project at a time. There can be found, once again, the joy and the zen that brought her to these ovens in the first place.

The pull of the pile of bills waiting in the office falls away. The thought of writing next week’s schedule takes a backseat to the magic of flour and water in the bowl. There are only the few ingredients before her and the alchemy that heat and time and mixing can bring to them. The point of the business is solely the second word in the name: Bakery. All the other expectations can be set aside for now…for this magic hour in the kitchen.

Gibson’s Steakhouse, Rosemont, IL

Dinner last night at Gibson’s Steakhouse was a classic, grownup evening out. Our 7:30 pm reservation had us entering into a room packed to the rafters with diners and waiters and busboys. We wended our way through the closely spaced tables to the somewhat less crowded, enclosed porch that runs along the outside of the restaurant. Tucked into a corner, we had a great vantage point for viewing the scene without being stuck in the middle of the traffic flow. It was just the first of many lucky breaks we had in our night. The sum of these, added into the Gibson’s experience, made for a truly memorable evening.

The room has the look of an old school steakhouse, through and through. Rich, dark woods, lots of low-wattage, indirect lighting and row upon row of celebrity headshots (“Loved the steak! All my best, Don Rickles”) work to make the place feel like it’s been there forever. The fact that it actually exists in a suburban convention center hotel needs to be overcome. Once you are ensconced in your seat with a martini in front of you and a whie-coated waiter at your elbow, it’s easy to lose yourself in the fantasy.

The tables are topped with two tablecloths, an open, black-and-white plaid overlaid with traditional white. Small, shaded lamps and a shaker of Gibson’s private label Seasoned Salt stand sentinel at table’s edge. Dark wood blinds at the window added to the supper club feel. Plain white napkins and no nonsense flatware complete the scene. No flowers and no frou-frou: we are here for steak.

Our server was clearly a veteran of many years on the job. She was personable, warm and friendly while maintaining a calm, professional aspect at all times. She made us feel that we were the only table she was waiting on, or at least the only one she really cared about. She used our first interaction to not only get our drink orders, but to gauge our intentions for the evening. Were we in a hurry? Was our appointment together for business or pleasure? Were we just going to order, eat and leave, or were we in it for the long haul? She figured out right away that we planned on making a night of it, that we had no further agenda than the menus we had in front of us.

The menu offers very few surprises. The appetizers are the typical roster: oysters, shrimp or lobster cocktail, an avocado stuffed with crabmeat, chopped chicken liver and home cured salmon. There are steaks, about a dozen of them. A variety of fish entrees, crab legs and lobster tails, pork or lamb or veal chops, a whole roasted chicken and a few sandwiches round out the choices. The classic sides include the biggest twice-baked potato we’d ever seen; sauteed or creamed spinach; broccoli or asparagus with hollandaise; mashed or hash brown potatoes; and sauteed mushrooms. This is not an adventurous menu…but who comes to a steakhouse for adventure?

We ordered martinis all around and worked on a game plan for our meal. While we were working things out, our server came by with a platter of raw steaks to explain our options. She explained about the different cuts, the various sizes and which were her favorites. We discussed with her what we wanted to eat and she made recommendations to help us out. We ended up with a perfect mix of steak, seafood and sides.

After an appropriate interval, the starters arrived, Six briny fresh Delaware Bay oysters, presented in a pewter seashell, beached on a bed of ice, sang the song of the sea. A perfectly ripe avocado half came brimming with jumbo lump crabmeat. Spicy lobster cocktail contained perfectly sweet, perfectly cooked chunks of claw and tail meat resting on a thick slab of tomato. Even a simple salad of slice beefsteak tomato and Vidalia onion, topped with chunks of blue cheese, did not disappoint. We plowed right through these plates, ordered a second round of cocktails and settled in to wait for our steaks.

The beef here is USDA Prime, aged for 35 days and cooked in an infrared broiler at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This means every cut comes out with a beautiful char crust on the outside, even when it’s ordered rare. There are no pale, wan steaks here. Three of us ordered W.R.’s Chicago cut, which translates to a bone-in ribeye. Clocking in at 19 ounces, this is one serious piece of beef. We ordered it rare, medium rare and medium and it came out cooked three distinct ways, exactly matching the descriptions our server had given us. We were thrilled with these. They were tender and packed with beefy goodness. An order of sauteed filet medallions, served with broccoli, was also a winner. Bowls of grated horseradish and creamy horseradish sauce were all we needed to complete the picture. Except for the sides!

The side dishes here almost stole the show. With the exception of a dish of peeled asparagus with hollandaise that was merely delicious, the rest of them rocked. The double baked potato easily weighed a pound and a half. It was creamy, savory and molten with cheddar. An innocuous looking bowl of creamed spinach ended up being one of our favorites of the night. The best of all was an oval dish of hash browns. These had been sauteed to a golden turn on a griddle and then baked in their porcelain vessel until they were crispy and crunchy and exploding with flavor. We fought over the last of these, wishing we had ordered two dishes.

While we were plowing through our steaks, we saw an absolutely enormous dessert sail by. We flagged down our server, who told us that this was their special chocolate cake. She also told us what we had seen was the last piece in the house. She recommended the strawberry shortcake and we asked her to set one aside for us. After finishing what we could of our entrees, we had the leftovers packed to go and sat back for a rest. The shortcake arrived soon there after. The biscuit itself was a perfect mix of textures and flavors. There were crunchy edges; a tender center that soaked up all the strawberry juices; just enough sweetness to let you know it was dessert; even a hint of salt to make it interesting. There was a massive pile of strawberries involved, too, some between the layers and the rest ladled over the top. A crown of whipped cream adorned the peak. Altogether, this was the size of an eight inch, double layer cake. Remarkably, we managed to completely decimate it.

We had spent some three hours at the table. We had gotten to know our server pretty well. Turns out she grew up just a short hop from one our fellow diners. We were completely stuffed and still had enough leftovers for steak sandwiches the next day. (They thoughtfully packed up some of that creamy horseradish with our steaks.) The jazz trio in the bar just behind us was really getting into it and this point. Were it not for a fast-approaching food coma, we would have stayed in the bar and had a nightcap. Even at 11:00 pm, the room showed no signs of slowing down.

Gibson’s is located at 5464 North River Road in Rosemont, IL. They can be reached at (847) 928-9900 or online at http://www.gibsonssteakhouse.com. Additional locations downtown on Rush Street (the original) and in Oakbrook offer a similar menu and experience, and all three are open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Lolita’s Happy Hour

All day long I was dreaming about those brussels sprouts. The last time I ate them, it was snow and bluster and gray. The opposite today, with blue skies laden with clouds straight out of a Dutch Masters’ painting, had me thinking more of tomatoes and zucchini and peaches. At my lunchbreak, I dutifully feasted on those things, scented with fresh basil and fine olive oil. When I was released from work, I headed directly to Lolita to scratch my itch.

These crispy, salty gems have haunted me since I ate them last winter. I ate other things that day. I had a milky, light ricotta spread with perfectly grilled slices of baguette. Topped with a trickle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, it was simply milk, solidified. I splurged on paper thin slivers of La Quercia prosciutto, the Acorn Edition. This melt-in-your-mouth indulgence did, in fact, taste faintly of the acorns on which the pig had gorged himself before making the supreme sacrifice. (Warning to swine everywhere: If they start feeding you acorns, watch your back.) There was even sticky toffee pudding, warm and oozing and satisfying.

What I remember most from that afternoon, though, were the brussels sprouts. These babies had been fried. No boiling or steaming here! Cut into quarters, the edges had turned crispy and brown. They had been tossed with walnuts, capers, parsley and anchovy.  I was not disappointed tonight. They were just as outrageously flavorful as I remembered. These are NOT your Grandma’s brussels sprouts. They are a grownup, citified, 21st century vegetable. They are reason enough to stop in at Lolita. I also snacked on a dozen mussels, cooked off with chorizo, sliced garlic and wine, presented in a miniature cocotte. A wee basket of french rolls came alongside for sopping up all those juices. These bivalves offered the protein I needed to make a “balanced” meal, but really they were just an excuse to order the sprouts.

These items are all part of the Happy Hour menu. Available only at the bar in the early and late shoulders of the evening, the menu is small but well-tuned. In addition to the above mussels and brussels, there is a chickpea spread which has since replaced the ricotta. There is a half order of mac and cheese with rosemary and chicken, as well as the famous Lolita (Lola) Burger. This is on the menu at all of Chef Symon’s venues. It starts with a hefty beef patty and adds pickled onions, cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg. During Happy Hour, it’s an astonishing five dollars! (Each of the HH menu items is just five bucks.) There are cocktail specials, too, all at $2, $4, and $5. The full Lolita menu is also available at the bar, if you want to round things out with a pizza or add on a dessert. The service was friendly and low-key. My fellow barmates all seemed to be enjoying themselves, too, with our main topic of conversation being the food in front of us. My hour there certainly made me happy!

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