a single pebble restaurant, farmhouse tap and grill, food in burlington vt, o-rama, stairway cafe, the skinny pancake, Vermont cheese, Vermont cheesemakers festival

Away-O-Rama

This installation of O-Rama to be about dining outside of Portland. I believe the geographical boundaries set by Professor A. were to end at the Maine border.  But, let’s be honest here, The Missus and I don’t travel much for a meal. We lack any semblance of coordinated schedules to make getting out of town for a weekday meal very feasible.  In fact this summer brought very little trips outside of the peninsula–once in the beginning of July for the Lithuanian Dance Festival in Boston (and, no..we did not participate) and the other fell at the end of July for the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival.

While I did try for this O-Rama, my last minute planned adventure across the bridge to South Portland and a bowl of Pho at Pho Hanoi was nixed by the fact that they’re apparently closed.  Who knew?  So, still having an obligation to fill, The Missus suggested we hit up Thai Taste while we were over the bridge. Bad, bad idea. The highlight was the Crab Rangoon and even those elicited no more than a ‘Meh’ from either one of us. Actually it was unpleasant enough to make me not want to speak of it again, which is why I’m pushing the boundaries given for this review and taking us to the Green Mount State and happier times away from Portland. I’m also a month overdue in writing this piece, so it’s a twofer.

Our weekend in Vermont was part for work (mine) and part to just eat a lot of damn food. We accomplished all tasks easily. The glutton tour started at a stop in North Conway, NH, where we stumbled upon The Stairway Cafe.

It’s tucked in high off the main strip in North Conway and would have been completely bypassed had we not pulled off the road just to get out of the summer traffic for a little bit. We were sold on the place when we spied the game meat sausages offered (The Missus had elk in her omelet with smoked gouda and spinach) and funky interior. The waitresses were great, the coffee was strong and the biscuits were fluffy. Oh, and the food was pretty great, too.  Outside of having to fight off a food nap half way into the trip, it was more than enough to sustain us as we ventured the scenic route west across New Hampshire and Vermont to Burlington.

After arriving in Burlington and relaxing for a bit in our hotel, we met up with some friends at The Farmhouse Tap and Grill. I loved the food the first time I was there and was excited to share it with my hop lovin’ friends and my Missus. The food and the company were just as good as the first time and I basically recreated the meal that I had back in October. I did have my first sip of Collaboration Time #1, which is a Black IPA, from Maine Beer Company/Lawson’s Finest Liquids of Vermont. It was alright for a beer and even better for a dark one (my arch nemesis of beers). It tasted like flat root beer and, for any beer for me, that’s a compliment. Our friends were happy, the city was buzzing with Vermont Brewers Fest goers and all was right in Burlington. If we could only have one vacation, I’m glad it was this one.

While our first day seemed like a blur, as it happens to be with our lovely friends, the second seemed to go on forever. We arrived at the Cheesemakers fest early (YAY for one of the perks of my job!) and got to mill about and enjoy the offerings before the gates opened and the buildings at Shelburne Farms became overcrowded. 

We ate

 and ate

and ate

and ate 
 
and ate

and ate

  

until we couldn’t sample any more and nearly passed out on the lawn. So, we called it a day and decided to seek refuge in the air conditioned hotel room for a bit before we went back into town.

Then we ate some more.

Apparently 3 1/2 hours of eating nothing but cheese just wasn’t enough for me because I felt compelled to order a ham and cheese crepe from The Skinny Pancake, a hip little creperie near the water. It was named ‘The Lumberjack’ and really should have tipped me off to how massive this was going to be. It was good, but it was so heavy that I got physically tired just trying to mow through it.

The Missus ordered up a ‘Localvore’s Dream,’ filled with chicken, blue cheese, cranberries and arugula. She enjoyed hers greatly, but the sheer size of both crepes made them hard to finish.

Then we spent a couple of hours touring through the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, marveling at inbred sturgeon, looking at human dissections, mouth breathing turtles and hunting for Champ.  We never did see that damn lake monster.

We spent our last few hours on Church Street, picking up some Grapefruit White Balsamic Vinegar from the Saratoga Olive Oil Company and sipping some of our last coffee at Uncommon Grounds–both little reminders back home in NY.  Then, after the last of the Chai was gone, it was off to our final meal at A Single Pebble.

This was the gem in our fat kid crown.

I don’t understand people who go on vacation only to eat the same food they could get back at home. Like people that travel to Europe and seek out the local McDonalds. If you’re that person, you cause me rage. For me, I want to eat as much food as I can that’s vastly different from what I can have here. With the glaring void of good Chinese restaurants in the area, it was a bit of an obvious choice to visit A Single Pebble for our last meal in town.

I had done a bit of reading up on it before we made reservations and already had my mind up on having the Chef’s Tasting Menu, regardless of cost.  But, that wasn’t a factor because our waitress, Misa, told it was a mere $36 and the chef would choose the dishes and send them out until you confessed to being full.  We made it through 8 dishes before tapping out and, while some were less than stellar (the dumplings were, surprisingly, the only disappointing dish for me) the flavors were above and beyond anything here in town.

There were:
Ribs with black bean sauce

Sichuan cucumbers (Showered with a garlic, chili & rice vinegar dressing).
These followed a braised short rib dish with an earthy black bean sauce. The acidity and sweetness were a nice contrast to the previous dish.

Miso soup and watercress salad (Fresh watercress tossed with soy sauce and sesame oil)
The watercress seemed a bit pointless. We would have liked a larger portion of the salty miso and tofu soup instead.

Trio of dumplings

“Three Cup” chicken (A traditional Taiwanese dish. Crispy pieces of chicken, flash-braised in a wine and soy sauce with ginger, garlic, basil and sesame oil.)
I’m not going to say that it was a few chili peppers short of being General Tso’s, but it was pretty damn close. The most familiar of all of the dishes, I have to say I was a sucker for the garlicky chicken. 

Cherry and apple wood smoked Beef Chow Fun
My favorite dish. The smoke was rich and sweet and penetrated every bite. This particular dish was a special to the menu and I’m glad it was one of the dishes the chef chose to send out.

‘Buddahkan’ Beef Chow Fun
Barbeque hanging pork (Marinated pork thinly sliced with vegetables, bean cake & traditional Cantonese five spice sauce)

Vanilla cheesecake with caramel and blueberries

We probably should have stopped at the 6th plate, but we couldn’t. We were just so happy to be eating really good Chinese food. The Missus says that we were food drunk during the meal and I don’t disagree. We even brought leftovers back to Portland with us, just to prolong our happiness.

We then rolled ourselves down to the waterfront, sat down on a few left over chairs from the Brewers Fest and watched the sunset over Lake Champlain.  And so ended our extended meal outside of Portland.

A Single Pebble on Urbanspoon
The Skinny Pancake on Urbanspoon
Stair Way Cafe on Urbanspoon

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o-rama, restaurant grace, second chances

Redemption-O-Rama


I was in a bit of a pickle this past month with posting about Grace and their ‘Whole Beast Feast’ that we attended.  You see, because Professor A. is extremely organized, I knew several months ago that Augusts ‘O-Rama’ would reflect upon ‘Second Chances’ for restaurants. While I thought about venturing back to the site of some unimpressive meals, there is that hesitation that the meal and experience will be a disappointing repeat performance. And, well, it’s hard to part with a good chunk of change when you don’t have it in the first place.

But, sometimes you feel like you’re missing something that everyone else enjoys, that you’re somehow not in on the appeal of a restaurant.  Bresca was actually one of those places for us.  Long before I rocked the hyperbole for Chef Desjarlais, our first dining experience there wasn’t that fantastic. But, one thing to note, is that it wasn’t the service, menu choices or preparation.. it was what we ordered.  When we decided to give it another try, just about a year later, we ordered completely different things and were floored by how much we enjoyed it. It seemed like a completely different restaurant.

I now put Grace up with that same, dramatic change.  My first experience there was a for a launch of a new ‘cocktail’ style tomato from Backyard Farms. The best thing that came out of it was meeting Kate for the first time. Sadly, the second thing I remember of the meal is how painfully undercooked the risotto was. Raw rice crunchy.  I remember thinking that if the chef couldn’t prepare 10 dishes of risotto at even a passable level, then how was he going to execute hundreds of dishes a night?  The Missus actually wouldn’t even let it be a consideration because of prices.

“$40 for Lobster Bisque? In Maine?”

If you mentioned Grace, you incurred her rant.

Then there was a shift at Grace.  Old chef was out, new chef was in, though the menu didn’t really change much. Then Chef Sueltenfuss arrived and, despite our previous notions of the restaurant, we were willing to put that all aside. In fact, we were more than intrigued.

Our first meal there, sometime this past February, was filled with a slew of appetizers highlighting different cuts of pork–from pig ear to belly–and a heavy dose of foie gras. Dessert was a playful presentation of S’mores. I do believe there was even some sassafras in the marshmallows. It seemed like our reward for giving them a second chance.

We’ve been back a few times since then, eating and enjoying our way through Chef Sueltenfuss’ menu. For us, it’s no longer an overpriced, monolith of a restaurant whose food wouldn’t even pass in restaurants that charged one third of the price. For us, Grace is a new restaurant, completely different than the one I was disappointed with a few years ago. It’s one that we’re more than happy that we gave a second chance to.

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america eats, chicken fried steak, cookbook, country gravy, o-rama, southern cooking, summer-o-rama, texas eats

Book-O-Rama: Summer Reading

This month’s ‘O-Rama,’ a second collaboration with Rabelais Books in Biddeford, takes us into the realm of summer reading. Out of a long list of titles offered by Rabelais, I chose one that was pretty far outside of my own cookbook collection: “Texas Eats” by Robb Walsh. The grill has been in use since March, so I thought this would offer up a slew of recipes I could try out. But, upon first glance, I realized that this book was so much more than that.

Author Walsh sets the bar pretty high, and completely eliminates the assumption that this is just a book of cowboy cookin’, in the introduction when he offers his collection of recipes as an extension to the Depression Era, “America Eats” work. The Federal Writers Project hired writers–many soon to be famous or not so–to spread out across America to record the history and stories behind our food traditions. Sadly, WWII ended the project and the books were never finished. They do, however, live on in the book, “The Food of a Younger Land,” which I recommend to anyone who loves a great historical food novel.

But, let’s talk Texas.

Walsh represents the diverse food culture of Texas and this book ventures far beyond BBQ and deep fried fair treats (which you can thank Texas for things like Deep Fried Butter). He breaks the book up first geographically and then by popular cuisine.

He starts in East Texas and the Gulf with delicious seafood recipes and traipses across the state and ends with a nod to the diverse contributions from Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cultures to the Texas food scene. He contributes even more space to the influence of Czech and German immigrants of Central Texas. Every chapter is dotted with anecdotes and first hand stories about the dishes, some by the people who created them.

With over 200 recipes, it was a bit daunting to choose just one to highlight, but in the end I chose one that, to me, was the most ‘Southern’: Chicken Fried Steak (CFS).

According to the author, CFS, is a bit of a throwback dish and one that has fallen out of favor in cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas.  So, he took it upon himself to venture out into the country to try several different recipes, all in hopes of finding the ‘perfect’ one.  He also gets into the debate of the best cut of meat to use (he says eye-of-round is the best for the home cook). I followed his advice and went with an eye-of-round cube steak (already tenderized) from Whole Foods.  But, whatever cut you choose, don’t be afraid to ask the butcher to run it through the tenderizer to get the perfect thickness for frying.

And, because no CFS is complete without a Country Gravy, I used the authors recipe for Black Pepper Gravy to top off the steak and a side of mashed potatoes.


Southern Style Country Fried Steak
(serves 2)  
(scaled down from book)

Peanut Oil, for frying
2 tenderized eye-of-round steaks (about 1#)
2 cups seasoned flour (see below)
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Black Pepper Gravy (see below)

Pour the oil to a depth of 1″ in a deep cast iron skillet and heat to 370.

While the oil is heating, put the flour in a large, shallow bowl. In a separate shallow bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Dredge each steak into the flour, shaking off excess; dip it into the buttermilk mixture; allowing the excess to drip off; then dredge again in the flour, evenly coating the batter so it is dry on the outside.

Slide 1 or 2 steaks into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd them. The temperature of the oil will fall the moment the meat is added, so you will need to adjust the heat. As the steaks cook, try to keep the oil at around 350. If it gets too hot, the steaks will burn before they are cooked through. If it is not hot enough, the batter will be soggy. Cook the steaks for 3-5 minutes, until the batter is crisp and brown and the meat is cooked through. Using a wire skimmer, transfer steaks to paper towels to drain and keep in a warm oven until all the steaks are cooked.

Serve the steaks with the gravy.

Seasoned Flour

2 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder

In a bowl, stir together all of the ingredients, mixing well. You will have more seasoned flour than you need for most recipes. Set aside the balance for making gravy, or store in tightly capped jar in cupboard for another time. Discard any flour in which you have dipped raw meat.

Black Pepper Gravy
(scaled down from book)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons AP flour
1 1/4 cups of milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper

In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk the flour into the butter and continue to whisk for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is ivory-colored and smooth. Slowly add the milk while stirring constantly, then continue to stir until free of lumps. Add the salt and pepper and simmer, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until the gravy has thickened and reduced. Serve hot.

Now, I don’t really have a point of reference for CFS outside of a menu of an IHOP or Denny’s, but based on this recipe, I’ll be damned sure to make this again. The coating was better than most fried chicken ones I’ve had and the gravy was thick and peppery and would make a great base for some sausage and biscuits. While the food of Texas may not be on your radar, a book like Robb Walsh’s may just put it there.

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egg, eggs, national egg month, o-rama, wonderful eggs

Egg-O-Rama

This months installment of the “O-Rama” series is a celebration of ‘National Egg Month” and these are just a few–a very few–of some of the eggtastic dishes we’ve had over the past six months.  I did make a Spanish Tortilla with kale, Chorizo, ramps, roasted red peppers and smoked cheddar, but it had a slight accident in the pan.  When the recipe says you have to use a skillet, use a skillet and not a straight sided pan.  It’s not as easy to flip and/or slip onto a plate.

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borscht, o-rama, Schulte and Herr Portland Maine, soup

Soup-O-Rama: Schulte and Herr


When Professor A. asked us to call out our choices for this months “Soup-O-Rama,” I first called Pai Men, thinking it was time to revisit their soups after not ordering them for nearly a year. Then I had the grandiose notion of reviewing three soups for a bit of compare/contrast. Do you know how many soups I’ve had in the past 2 months (not counting the Chowder from last months ‘O-Rama’)?  One. But, I’ve had it twice, so that’s got to count for something. The funny thing is, it’s probably the last soup in the world that I would think I’d be reviewing.

Borscht.

Go ahead and say the name again in your head and this time try not to laugh. It’s not really a soup that you read much about and, lacking a Russian or Ukrainian family, it’s probably not one that you’ve had (I survived six years of Russian language education and have dated a Lithuanian for nearly eight years without ever having it). You never hear someone say, “Wow, I could really for some Borscht right now.”

It’s true.

We actually have a jar of Lithuanian Borscht, Šaltibarščiai, that we purchased at Medeo European Market in Westbrook. It exists in our cabinets because The Missus will buy anything she can that’s Lithuanian, but it looks more like red sauerkraut than soup.

But all of that changed when I had my first chance to try Borscht at Schulte and Herr last month. I was a bit surprised when it was offered on the menu (it’s not a dish I associate with German food), but then owner Steffi told me that it was a compromise with her and her husband, Chef Brian Davin. He wanted to do a Borscht, while she wanted an Oxtail Soup. They met halfway and I’m very thankful that they did.

Just take a moment and look at that beauteous red bowl of home cooked comfort.

Makes you want some Borscht, doesn’t it?

I can tell you, without doubt or hesitation, that it tastes as good as it looks. You may not have a tendency to crave a warm soup on an equally warm day, but this may have you thinking a bit different.  The broth, with all of its chunky, meaty goodness, is surprisingly light in both texture and flavor and a far cry from the cold weather gruel one mentally associates with Borscht. The beets and carrots, along with marjoram, provide an all around pleasant sweetness, but the natural earthiness in the beets (you know, that flavor profile that causes some to compare it to dirt) keeps that pretty level.  A bit of red wine vinegar adds a touch of acidity and helps to further lighten the dish, which is also packed full of potatoes and celery. It’s a simple soup that’s wonderfully crafted, but they really had me at ‘oxtail.’

The meat, braised separately and then added later on in the process, is ridiculously tender. It stews just long enough in the soup to take on a bit of color and sweetness, but never gets lost. While oxtails are naturally fattier, the soup lacks any residual greasiness from their inclusion. However Chef Brian Davin prepares his oxtail for the soup, he seems to take great care to remove any excess fat from the shredded pieces that make their way into each bowl. The first time we shared the soup, which was not a mistake repeated the second time, The Missus was kind enough to give me the last little nugget of oxtail in the cup. Tell me that’s not love.

Served with a few slices of homemade rye bread, a bowl of their Borscht easily makes for a satisfying meal. A cup more than suffices as a starter but, as I’ve just said, don’t make the mistake of trying to share it. Order your own and save the bread for the end to soak up the broth.


Schulte & Herr on Urbanspoon

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chowder in Portland Maine, gilberts chowder house, new england clam chowder, o-rama

Chowder-O-Rama: Gilbert’s Chowder House


I have probably eaten my weight in New England Clam Chowder over the 7 1/2 years that I’ve lived in Portland. It’s an amazing fete really, considering that, before the move, my blood ran red with Manhattan Chowder. Now, to bring up the name, “Manhattan Clam Chowder,” you might as well bring up politics or religion at the dinner table. So, we won’t discuss such things here.

We, my friends, are here to talk about New England Clam Chowder as the latest installment of the “O-Rama” series. This month I copped out a bit by choosing an easy, and popular, spot in town, Gilbert’s Chowder House, located on Commercial Street. I mean, you can’t really go wrong when they’ve got “Chowder” right there in the name.

Vrylena, who had never been to Gilbert’s before now, joined me for a lunch time visit and summed up it up quickly and adequately when she said, “It seems like a place that you take people who are looking for someplace ‘Portlandy.'”  Both the interior (naturally it’s a Nautical theme) and the menu (mostly soup and fried seafood) are easy to cozy up to and decidedly unpretentious. It’s a frequent spot for the Missus and I to visit with guests from out of town.

While they have six chowders listed on the menu, I have only ever eaten the clam one and the day we visited it wasn’t much to write home about.


The soup was thick and, thankfully, not gluey (which is a chowder sin in my book). The potatoes dominated the broth and they were mushy to the point of breaking down every time I ran my spoon through the chowder. There was also a sweetness to the base that I couldn’t quite attribute to anything other than a good dose of clam juice.  It grew on me with each bite, but was a bit off putting at first.

They state on the menu that bacon resides in all of their chowders, but I was hard pressed to find any hint of it. There was no smokiness or texture to signal its addition. The clams, which should be a highlight for obvious reasons, were minced the point of almost being unrecognizable if not for their color different in the stark white broth. Personally, I like the clams to be plentiful and left chunky, so that each bite contains a good helping of them. Sadly, each bite contained more potato than anything else.

It’s disappointing because I’ve had some wonderful chowder on past visits to Gilbert’s. Perhaps the high turnover in the summer months just makes for a better, and fresher, chowder.  Either way, this one fell short of my expectations and failed to impress V. on her first visit in.



Gilbert's Chowder House on Urbanspoon
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dining out, love stinks, not shanking your dining neighbor, o-rama, valentines day

Love Stinks: Dining Solo

There it is, your heart out in the open for all the world to piss on. Happy Valentine’s Day. Is that your attitude this year? Are you sick of seeing Cupids and hearts and does the color red suddenly make you nauseous? Finding yourself alone this February 14th and slightly bitter about it? My advice to you: Fuck it and treat it like any other Tuesday that will pass by this year. Is Tuesday normally pizza night at your house? Then order a pizza. Use 2DineIn.com and order some Thai. Do absolutely nothing different.

But, on the other hand, if you’re feeling a bit full of piss and vinegar, then do something dramatically different. Go out. Go out and treat yourself to a fantastic meal to spite all of those happy couples and creepy faced Cupids. Go sit at the bar of Five Fifty Five, Hugo’s, Caiola’s, Miyake or Back Bay Grill–wherever couples are gathering–and treat yourself. Do for you. And you know what? Those people that have to wait on and serve those happy couples aren’t on a date for Valentine’s Day, either. Keep them company. Tip them well.

After that go rent a mindless movie at Video Port or, my personal recommendation, go for an Ancient Aliens marathon. Trust me, you will feel better about yourself immediately after watching that show. A little paranoid, but better. If you’re looking for a more personal, instant gratification, hit up Nomia’s on Exchange and get yourself a little something.

No matter what your choice is, just don’t hide away and dwell. No one likes a dweller.

This is another installment of the O-Rama blogger series, brought to you by Professor A. Other postings and opinions about love and V-Day dining can be found here, here, here ,here, here and here.

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