3.22.2017

The Fresh Prince of Washington Ave

There's a new kid on the block - the first block of Washington Ave, that is. And while I don't know if he was born or raised in West Philadelphia, I can tell you he's brought an authentic cheesesteak (Amoroso rolls and Whiz, yo), and he's in a diner called Bel Air.

We've been needing a diner close to Huron Campus, and I'm sorry, Fast Eddie's food quality is just not cutting it. Enter the Bel Air Diner, a brand new, old school diner decked out completely with classic car memorabilia and red vinyl booths. They did NOT go for a Fresh Prince motif, which seems like a misstep to me, but I guess cars are fine.


This breakfast and lunch place doesn't have its full menu cranking just yet, but they have a spiedie omelet, which is a great idea, and you know what else?


Floats, shakes and malts! Do you know how good a Coke float tastes in the middle of a nine hour workday? Like the sweet, icy siren song of too many calories and a very satisfied Shelby.

I had the fried chicken sandwich with clutch hand-cut, shoestring fries. It was simple and straightforward, though we were told more scintillating choices are coming. It was a yummy sandwich, though I will advocate for higher quality bacon until my dying day. What? It's worth it!


I also tried to order gravy for my fries, and the waitress said something about being out and Maines hadn't brought more yet, so while I'm advocating for things: house-made gravy, please! Edited to add: looks like the gravy is being taken off the menu, unless ALL the Hungries storm the castle and request gravy, so they'll make it. Can we start a movement? 

Carrie ordered the sliders, and commented on how juicy they were for their diminutive thickness. I will try these, and the cheese steak, on future visits.


That's all I know so far, but if you visit the Bel Air Diner, report back! I'll have a full review when I've sampled more of the menu. I wish this new eatery luck! Yo Holmes, smell ya later!

Bel Air Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

3.21.2017

Travel Guide: The Best of St. Pete Beach, FL

My vacation was good. You guys, it was goooooooood. I travel a lot for work plus some for pageants, so sometimes I forget that I even need actual vacations. Then I get on one and my whole being feels different. I don't just unwind, I literally decompress. My spine starts to feel as if it's a part of my body rather than an ancient torture device conceived by my office chair and a cranky customer and stored in the depths of the Tower of London. Inevitably, I ease up on my ordinarily strenuous grooming routine, and my lovely friends and family almost never run away shrieking and gesticulating through the village at the site of my hideous countenance.



We just returned from an entire, sun-soaked, blissful week in St. Pete Beach/Treasure Island, Florida. While many of the seemingly hundreds of restaurants crowding Gulf Blvd on this stretch of coastline are tourist traps, there are gems awaiting your appetite among the garish beach bars and chain seafood emporiums. I've got a few ready for your vacation planning needs.

Treasure Island

I'm a Marriott Points girl, so the Residence Inn Treasure Island, just north of St. Pete Beach, was our home base. This joint was a little pricey compared to the non-chain options on the beach, but it was also very clean, and breakfast was free! This was the view from our big balcony, and we loved that a two-mile walking trail, beachfront, began next door. (it's the snaking, twisty bit in the far left of this pic)


My culinary find for you in Treasure Island is The Floridian, a Cuban sandwich shop that's popular with locals more so than tourists. You can find it just a couple blocks from the Bilmar, towards St. Petersburg on 107th Ave. It's been around since I was wearing flowered Gap baby-doll dresses and Doc Martens in high school, and it has a killer Cuban sandwich. For less than $7 a piece, we each got half a sandwich, Cuban toast, and yellow rice with black beans. Everything was balanced, crispy, savory and fabulous. Most Cubans have so much Swiss cheese, mustard, and dill pickles that the meat gets overpowered. In both Shawn's Cuban and my puerco sandwich, the tender, juicy pig was the star and the other ingredients were in complete balance. The yellow rice and black beans were aces, savory, well-seasoned, and completely soul-soothing.

Please excuse my shoddy photography; we sat outside to gorge ourselves silly, and a shadow got me:


Look at all that food! This joint was jumping at lunchtime on a weekday, and for good reason. Make it your Cuban hook-up if you don't want to leave the beach to go into Tampa.

Floridian Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

St. Pete Beach

The bulk of places to stay in the area are concentrated in St. Pete Beach, and so the dining options are plentiful as well. From our casual observations, we would stay at either the Tradewinds or Sirata resorts if we came back and wished to stay in SPB. With so much vacation goodness crammed into so few square miles, you'll probably need a hearty breakfast to build a base for your day of sun and sand. Find Beverly's La Croisette, right on Gulf Blvd. This little pink diner will be filled with townies and tourists alike, and packs its menu with inventive, decadent breakfast treats.



We liked the baked omelet, topped with high-quality Swiss cheese and served with Bev's very well-seasoned home fries.


The corned beef hash Benedict was a precious plate to behold. While the hash is not house-made, it is high quality and well-crisped on the griddle, to activate all its flavors and maximize the sinfulness of this dish. The creamy, rich hollandaise sauce worked with the salty hash and the perfectly poached eggs in concert. Those home fries, seasoned with garlic salt and paprika and griddled to a deep golden brown, were a terrific textural contrast.


As you can see from the portion sizes, no one walks away from Beverly's table hungry.

Beverly's La Croisette Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

We also had a very good dinner at Snapper's Sea Grill, which is on Gulf Blvd like everything else - a spot much more tuned to tourists, but don't let that scare you away. Even though the outdoor seating is right on the busy boulevard, the atmosphere is upscale and the service is refined. Even in the February night air, we were toasty warm thanks to outdoor heaters and torches all around the deck. Our crab-stuffed portobello mushroom appetizer with its cheesy, ultra-rich chipotle topping was subtly spicy and smoky - delicious.


We loved the huge starter salads with their pungent and creamy garlic dressing, topped with a shower of crunchy tortilla strips.


The wasabi-crusted seared tuna was absolutely delicious. Shawn ordered it cooked a bit further than I would have, but it was still flavorful and impeccably fresh-tasting. My seafood-stuffed grouper was Florida on a plate - the quintessential seafood dish. The crab and shrimp in the stuffing provided sweetness while the grouper had the fatty taste of the sea, and the champagne sauce on top mellowed and melded all the flavors together with a refined finish. The potatoes wrapped in puff pastry added richness and heft to the dish.


This dinner was on the pricier end of our dining experiences on the trip - about $100 for one app, two entrees, and probably four drinks - but the more finessed approach to food at Snapper's was a welcome departure from the fish shack experience so plentiful in this area.

Pass-A-Grille

A little more south and you hit Pass-A-Grille, a charming,Key West-esque enclave where the Gulf and the bay are parted by the thinnest strip of land clogged with beautiful old houses and tiny, mom and pop hotels. You'll hear a lot about The Hurricane here, for food and sunset views, but we found the food there very junky and the inside of the restaurant rather dirty and run-down.

Catch your sunset instead at Paradise Grill, a beachfront, outdoor venue with the best seats on the island for sunset views and this sweet tradition:


The food here is simple bar food, but done with care; the Coronas are icy; and the nightly ceremony of ringing the bell in thanks for another day in paradise is met with joy by natives and visitors alike. They stop serving once that sun has dipped below the water, so grab quesadillas, wings, and buffalo shrimp from the counter and a picnic table of your own to celebrate this glory every night:



St. Petersburg 

Early in our week, we took a tour with Eat St. Pete through the Grand Central District of the city. This neighborhood was once filled with gas stations and garages, but is transforming into an edgy strip of cool restaurants and bars. Our standouts from the tour were Casita Taqueria, which we visited again on our way to the airport, it was so good.


I don't think you can go wrong with any choice on this menu of small street tacos. We particularly loved the carnitas and the chicken tinga.


In all cases, the corn tortillas were very fresh, the proteins succulent and well-seasoned but never salty, while the toppings were balanced and bright. We had fish tacos at several other beach joints during the week that featured cheddar cheese, which is much too heavy for the delicate flavor of fish, but at Casita, the proteins and add-ones were always in harmony. 



URBAN Comfort is one of a group of comfort food eateries run by the same folks, but this one has shuffleboard courts and fried chicken, so it's the one I'm recommending.


Once again, outdoor seating is the mode here; peppery fried chicken is king. The biscuits are very nearly perfect. They are brushed with butter before baking, in accordance with the prophecy, but just a hair tougher than a perfect Southern biscuit crafted with Lily White flour in the style of the old masters. The mashed potatoes we tried were buttery and earthy - a solid base for the juicy, crunchy chicken, with an orange-tinged, savory gravy on top that was buttery, as well. 


I would have liked to get back to URBAN Comfort for some more of their down-home eats and casual atmosphere, but we ran out of time.

So that's my recap and round-up of the best of the beach - or at least, St. Pete Beach. We loved that each municipality had its own personality. Treasure Island had more old school, mom-and-pop hotels while SPB was more commercialized. The tiny boutiques in Pass-A-Grille charmed us, while the restaurants in St. Petersburg were out to impress with progressive, inventive cuisine. This whole area was unlike any other part of Florida I've visited - truly coastal, less spring break-y than I thought, and definitely so much more than its old nickname: God's Waiting Room. 

1.23.2017

A Decidedly Non-Amish Treat: Lancaster Brewing Company

A business trip isn't often a chance to indulge. It's rarely even a chance to squeak by with acceptable eats, to tell the truth. I have eaten a lot of terrible hotel food and granola bars on the road, when work is more important than seeking out great dining. So when I'm traveling and able to find a place so good I want to return the next day? That's worth sharing.

On the way to Annapolis for a conference last week, my colleagues and I discovered Lancaster Brewing Company in Harrisburg, PA. There's another one in Lancaster, obviously. But Amish country was not on our way. The brew pub is decorated in warm, brick reds and gold tones, with posters depicting limited-edition beers and a large bar. On a Wednesday at lunch time, the place was jamming - a good sign.


Another good sign? A soft pretzel this gorgeous looking. This starter was pillowy and rich, the buttery top just slightly crisp. It wasn't overly salted like many soft pretzels, and the beer cheese served alongside was mild and gooey. This was a simple dish, and very well executed for only $5.

The Reuben egg rolls had much more riotous flavor. A super-crunchy egg roll wrapper encased salty, tender corned beef, sharp sauerkraut, and tangy Swiss. They were absolutely delicious. No hint was out of balance: the meat was sweet and salty with not a hint of the toughness you often get with the corned beef; the cheese wasn't too bossy, but provided a bit of goo and creaminess; the clean punch of the sauerkraut stood up to the richness of the meat.


My colleague J's wild boar chili looked and smelled fantastic: 


But I had to go for the lamb burger, because tzatziki! Ok, you all know I love tzatziki, the Greek cream sauce flavored with garlic, dill and cucumber. And this thing was good, you guys. Not just good, but goooooood. The lamb patty had incredible flavor and was topped with enough feta cheese to season the whole sandwich but not so much that it overpowered everything else. Crunchy iceberg, juicy tomato, and sharp red onion all complimented the rich lamb perfectly, as did the creamy, dreamy tzatziki, which rendered this dish perfect. Hand-cut fries didn't hurt in my evaluation of the plate.


The very next night, we were headed back from Annapolis, and whadaya know, Harrisburg was on the way again. It just seemed like a good idea to hit up Lancaster again for dinner. You know what, it was a good idea, because dinner was banging. I mean it, it was a weeknight and again, the place was packed. At the behest of our friendly and fun server, we ordered the fried cheese curds to start.


They were delicately breaded and completely addictive (and yes, squeaky). They were served with a little cup of marinara, but I actually preferred these babies plain. They were delectable and a great start to our meal.

I couldn't resist the crab and tomato bisque, and I'm glad I didn't really try all that hard to do so. I am always impressed when tomato soup is really full-flavored and deep, which this was. The crab was impeccably fresh and sweet, and hard pretzel crumbles on top added texture to this satisfying cup of steaming goodness.


The words milk stout gravy are apparently trigger words for me. That's ok, because the meatloaf this gravy accompanied was terrific, like all of our food at Lancaster Brewing Company. The meatloaf was tender, juicy, beefy and robust, while the gravy had the slightly sour hint of beer to balance all the umami richness. Even the mashed potatoes hiding underneath the two huge planks of loaf were something special. At many eateries, these would be an afterthought or merely a bare-bones gravy vehicle, but instead they were buttery, whipped into an airy, light, delightful side.


The only slight downfall was the roasted carrots, which I ordinarily love. These were undercooked and really tough. The flavor was good, but the technique was lacking.

Carrots notwithstanding, everything we ate at Lancaster Brewing Company was of such high quality paired with creativity, we were all still talking about it in the office this week. I didn't snag a bite of T's chicken salad sandwich, but it looked really delicious, and she raved about it. I DID munch a couple of her chips, and they were bomb - well seasoned without being too salty, and super crunchy.


I love all the Amish smorgasbords in Lancaster, but I may actually prefer the new American cuisine Lancaster Brewing Company is cooking up. I give this road trip gem a nine on the BHS scale. I want everyone to know that if you're driving through Harrisburg, you should try to hit it at a mealtime, because this place rocks. When you make your way there, let me know how you like it! Oh, and PS: I picked Shawn up some of LBC's Boss Hog IPA, and he's a fan! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Lancaster Brewing Company Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1.16.2017

A Recipe and a Revisit: Creamy Spinach Pancetta Pasta

I bet a lot of you are "trying to be good," right now, keeping resolutions and eating all those dark leafy greens. But you still like to party, right? Me too. Adulting is hard, but I'm here for you! This recipe is a little bit naughty and a little bit nice. It's our go-to pantry pasta when I don't have meat thawed or a dinner plan, as everything except the garlic comes from the freezer or pantry. 


It also has the benefit of being extraordinarily delicious, which is not something I say often about something that contains (gasp!) packaged ingredients. Please don't send the salt police after me. I would never survive in jail.


Creamy Spinach Pancetta Pasta
2 Cloves Garlic, crushed
1-2 tsp Red Pepper Flakes
1/4 C Olive Oil
1 4oz Package Diced Pancetta
2 C Penne or Rigatoni
1 Package Frozen Creamed Spinach
2 C Fresh Spinach (optional)
2 T Pecorino Romano, grated
Parmesan Cheese, to garnish

So first of all, the whole key to making this dish ridiculously delectable instead of a mundane pasta plate is the spicy garlic oil. Get your garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil into a small saucepan over low heat and just let it hang for at least 20 minutes before you start the rest of the cooking. Go walk on the treadmill or do jumping jacks in that time, and then you won't feel guilty about the pancetta!


Once the oil is infused with all that flavor, put it through a strainer and set the oil aside. Then get your pasta on to cook in plenty of salted water, for about 12 minutes.


In a large skillet, cook the pancetta over medium heat until crispy.


Zap the Creamed Spinach for a minute or two in the microwave just to loosen it up enough to pour over the crispy piggy parts.


If you're adding more fresh spinach, do so at this point and incorporate it so that it wilts down.


Take this opportunity to spoon a little of the garlic oil in at this point. It will facilitate the cooking of the spinach and bring all the flavors together.


Check the pasta. Is it nearly cooked through? Good. Add it to the pan after draining, but reserve some cooking liquid for adjusting your sauce in a minute. 




What time is it? Show time! Wait, it's actually cheese time. Sprinkle in your romano, then give it a taste. Does it need more umph? Add some more of the oil. Sauce too tight? Add in a scoop of pasta water and stir.


Sprinkle on some Parmesan once you plate up several big spoonfuls and enjoy! Please ignore my ugly hand. But enjoy this rich, satisfying, hearty pasta filled with greens as soon as you can!


I wish I had a more positive revisit to share, but we had dinner at the Adams Country Club a few weeks ago, and it was not great. Ok, it wasn't even good.


These fried mushrooms tasted fine, but for $8, nine or ten mushrooms is not much. We ended up ordering two portions for the five people in our party.

This Caesar salad was actually pretty good: plenty of parmesan, salty umami goodness with the perk-up of lemon and crisp greens. I wish I had ordered this as my entree.


I ordered the pasta special of the night, which was penne alla vodka with chicken. The weirdest part of the dish was that chicken: it was two whole breasts, sautéed instead of grilled and cut up into bite sized pieces throughout the dish. Was I supposed to cut up the chicken in the bowl, with all the pasta getting all messed up and splashing all over the table? You know what, I was so disgusted by this token of kitchen laziness, I just decided to not eat it altogether. It was impossible.


The injustices of this dish didn't end with the oversized chicken, though. The sauce was bonkers for something called a vodka sauce. Classically, this sauce is bright with tomato flavor that is slightly mellowed by cream, with depth and richness from the cooked-down liquor. This sauce didn't have depth, complexity, or creaminess. It was extremely one-dimensional, which immediately told me it wasn't built as a sauce should be. It had that artificial flavor you get with a cheap jarred sauce. The final nail in the coffin: rubbery, block mozzarella shreds topped the dish rather than an aged parmesan which could have added much-needed salt and nuttiness to this gloppy, flavorless mess.

Let's look at my homemade pasta again to cheer us up, shall we?



I'm not saying there isn't good food to be found at Adams Country Club, but I'm not likely to return, and I was sad to note that the cooking had gone downhill so steeply since I reviewed it for the WDT in 2015. So, that's it for me this week. I'm working on a review of the new Core + life Eatery in Vestal, and there will be a post about Corning coming soon! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!