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I love Food. Cooking it. Eating it. Experiencing it. As a result, that's what this blog has evolved into: A journal of my gastronomical journeys abroad, as well as my culinary creativity at home. I hope you enjoy what I have to say, and I'd love to hear your comments... Cheers!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Must-Have Meal in Milwaukee

Chef Paul Bartolotta has accomplished something that perhaps a superstar chef can only achieve in the Midwest: he has created a culinary empire that still feels like a family-run establishment. Maybe that's because... it is. Brother Joe still runs the flagship, Ristorante Bartolotta, in the leafy burg of Wauwatosa, and the spot's cozy confines make you feel as if you're walking into your grandma's house for Sunday dinner... that is, if your grandma had garlic, peppers, peasants, and assorted charcuterie hanging from the ceiling!... This welcoming homieness, of course, belies the fact that there is some seriously refined, albeit classic, Italian cooking going on here.

This time around, I started with the Affettato Misto di Prosciutto e Salumi alla Emiliana - an assortment of shaved prosciutto and other Italian cured artisan meats with traditional gnocco fritto. Mortadella. Sopresatta. Speck. It was all there, and the gnocchi fritto was an amazing addition to the plate, like mini-sweet rolls, all crunchy and chewy at the same time. A more than healthy portion of all the good stuff...

My entree was one of the two pasta dishes where the pasta is freshly made in-house: Ravioli di Magro al Burro Nociola Tartufato - house made ricotta and spinach ravioli, with Grana Padana and truffled butter. Melt in your mouth goodness. A classic example of how premium ingredients combined with back-of-the-house know-how makes for a transcendent presentation, even in its simplest form...

My favorite dessert is tiramisu, and ordering is always a calculated risk, seeing as how there a number of variations on this Italian classic. Knowing I was in the best of hands at Barotolotta, I splurged (having reveled in it before didn't hurt my chances either!). This is my personal gold standard for this dessert. Lots of creamy, custardy, fluffy goodness, tinged ever-so-slightly by a subtle coffee-amaretto highlight, and accented by a dusting of cocoa powder and powdered sugar. An absolutely ideal finisher to what is always a satisfying and sensational dining experience.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I've been to Albuquerque a number of times, and stay at the same hotel in Old Town. Why? Because of one thing: their restaurant's Blue Cornmeal Pinon Pancakes. If you've never had cornmeal pancakes of any type, you should seek them out or try making them yourself. But the pancakes at the Hotel Albuquerque surpass just about any I've sampled. This is a breakfast that falls more to the side of savory than sweet. The cornmeal base give the pancakes a heft to them, and just a bit of crisp to the edges -- almost brulee-like -- while still remaining moist. Adding the pine nuts is a welcome change from the usual standard fare toppings. In this instance, I refrain from all butter, and only sparingly use the syrup. It should serve as nothing more than an enhancer...

And while on the subject of Albuquerque and quirky... major shout out to the great folks at Grandma's K & I Diner, near downtown, but off the beaten path. As luck would have it, some production friends of mine were in town shooting an episode of a food show (that shall at this moment remain nameless), so I met up with them there.

The staff is super-friendly. The food is legit, and the portions are GINORMOUS! (maybe that's a giveaway as to what show was taping there)...

SLC Part Deux: Most Certainly Not a Lemon

Touring the country in support of food-related festivities in the run up to the Super Bowl this time of year lends itself to two things: cold weather in almost every market I call on... and the chance to meet some pretty interesting people (aka Chefs) at the shows on which I appear.

This was the case when I met Chef Todd Leonard, of Blue Lemon restaurant. He did two cooking demos that morning: 1 featuring a citrus salmon (I was intrigued); the other with a riff on duck confit (I was drooling). This narrowed my choices for searching for a place to eat lunch before departing fair Salt Lake City to just one. The newest location is situated in the plum spot in the heart of the revitalization of Historic Downtown Salt Lake City. It's modern, hip design strikes a compelling counterbalance to the sheer majesty of what sits directly across the street: the tabernacle and the church. Awe-inspiring, to say the least.

Blue Lemon is a fresh take on what it calls "pure clean food with a twist." The "pure, clean" part means they never fry or microwave their meals. The twist, I come to find out, is that it's delicious...

It's a very economical and efficient cafeteria-style ordering process, which doesn't actually feel like one at all, given the chic, modern decor. I settled on the butternut squash soup and the pineapple chipotle brisket sandwich, and both were excellent. Bright, rich, fresh flavors and textures. Stuff you could feel good about eating, even while you know you're still indulging. The soup was seasoned with just enough kick to give it personality, and came with a couple of extra large croutons that stayed impossibly crunchy even down the bottom of the bowl. The brisket was moist, tender, and juicy, and didn't fall apart in my hands with every bite, which is how I prefer my brisket. Wonderful balance of sweet fruit and spicy chipotle, and yet you still taste the beef itself.

Now, this was a send-off I aspire to in every city I visit. Count this as a very pleasant surprise from Salt Lake City...

Savory in Salt Lake City

I usually get to treat myself to one blog-worthy meal per city when I'm on the road. My travels feel more like an endless parade of rental car lines than restaurants. In one afternoon; out the next morning.
But so it was that I had the good fortune of arriving in Salt Lake City while some family members were also there, wrapping up a ski trip...
Mark & Megan both loved their meal at Tuscany so much that they agreed to take me there for dinner. The restaurant sits at the base of the mountains surrounding SLC, and has a mixed vibe of "ski resort meets NoCal." Suffice to say, that's a good combo. Smooth, neutral-tone walls; wood-paneled ceilings; lots of windows to enjoy a view. And two excellent sights: the Chihuly-esque chandelier when you enter, and the huge hearth-like fireplace in one of the rooms of this manse. A place that makes you want to take your time with your meal...

We shared a bottle of Columbia Crest Cab, which we all decided was stellar, if not sensational. A bit lighter than most Cabs (and if you're a Cab fan, maybe this is a strike against; however, for me, it's a tally in the plus column), with some spiciness to balance out the oaky taste.
I started with an interesting salad of pear, gorgonzola, and mixed greens, with a white balsamic champagne vinaigrette. What made this extra enjoyable was how the greens were prepared: it had a slaw-like texture to it, all the flavors instantly coming together on the tongue.
A tough choice for the main course, but I went with the Wood-Oven Roasted Filet of Salmon with Pancetta Pesto Crust and toasted Vegetable Couscous. What sold me was the description, which included "Wood-Oven Roasted, and Pancetta Pesto Crusted." It was somewhat of a restrained order for me, what with the Veal Chop, the Double Cut Pork Chop, and other entrees that promised a much heartier meal. However, I was glad to see I made the right choice. The salmon was perfectly cooked and flaky and moist, the pancetta/pesto/panko mixture locking in the juices inside, while crisping perfectly on the outside. And the Israeli couscous was a great compliment, with a hearty yet delicate texture.
The only disappointment was dessert. I always make a point of reserving this blog space for raves only, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to call out the miss that was their
Banana Cream Pie in a coconut tart shell with brulee topping, chocolate and caramel sauce. We couldn't figure out where the cream was on the plate we shared, and the tart itself was dry and coarse. Although the brulee topping was tasty, the dessert fell flat for all of us. I should mention we passed on the 7'4" Chocolate Cake (named in honor of Tuscany's investor, former Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton), which according to my mealmates, is outstanding...

Stay tuned...gotta hop a flight... when I return...memorable meal #2 from the SLC!...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Last Train to Clarksville

I get to visit some pretty remote locales on my ESPNU college basketball itinerary, and so it was that I found myself approximately 45 miles outside of Nashville, in the relative seclusion of Clarksville, Tennessee, home of the Austin Peay Governors. As is usually the case in and around a collegiate university, there can be some pretty stellar, if not unassuming, places to eat, especially if you want experience the local flavor.

So it was with that context that I found myself directly across College Street from APSU, at Johnny's Big Burgers. Some local spots... you just know. Johnny's is just that kinda spot.

Counter seating? Check. Menu board posted on the back wall? Check. Well-seasoned griddle, next to an even more well-worn fryolator? Check and check...

I was compelled to order along party lines: double cheeseburger, fries, vanilla milk shake. The shake was a bit of a misnomer, as there was no straw necessary (matter of fact, none was even offered or provided!) Ultra-thick, and with that state fair/soft serve flavor. Just right.

This is another of the places providing convincing evidence to yours truly that the best way to prepare a burger is to griddle it. The bun got a subtle yet healthy brush of melted butter before joining it's compatriot on the sizzling hot surface. The fries took their peanut oil bath and arrived piping hot next to the burger, all golden brown in their crinkle-cut glory.

This plate did not disappoint in the least. It looked classic. It felt like a classic. It tasted like a classic, in every way. Juicy, meaty, satisfying. A bit messy, just the way it should be. After devouring every bite with aplomb, it's safe to say this was a burger I'd put up against any I've had. Ever. Clarksville might be a mid-major town, but Johnny's can compete with the best of 'em...


After satisfying my own cravings, I returned shortly thereafter with my TV partner, so enamored was I with Johnny's. My intention (really!) was to keep AB company while he got his taste of burger nirvana. Only problem: there were whispers from the locals about a must-have dessert... the vaunted Toasted Honey Bun with Vanilla Ice Cream. Now, I am intimately familiar with this treat, having enjoyed many a THB at the Syracuse haunt, Cosmo's. Clarksville denizens refer to theirs as an "HB with Cream." Mmmmmmmm... right off the griddle (no thank you, microwave), icing all gooey, topped with vanilla ice cream. The warm and cold combo is always a winner. This one was a throwback for me, and oh so good. Sweet, creamy, with that ever-so- slightly crispy and caramelized shell (thank you, griddle).
At check out (cash only!), pictures of Muhammad Ali and Elvis share space on the wall, two Southern icons, much like the feeling I got from this place.
Johnny's is a snapshot of simple, tasty times. The classics always endure...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Worlds Colliding in Philly

Been a while since my latest entry, but I cut myself some slack, due to my ridiculously hectic January thus far. Not a whole lot of cooking because I've been away from home so much; not a lot good eats on the road either, much to my chagrin. Calling college basketball games for ESPNU doesn't always lend itself to visiting cities/towns that warrant much raving (see: Murray, KY; Pine Bluff, AR). But, there are exceptions... to wit, my dizzying travel schedule dropped me in Philadelphia the past 2 nights... and I was NOT going to pass up the chance to get some real eating in!

In search of a quick but rewarding meal the first night, I defaulted to the Ruth's Chris that was directly across Broad Street from my hotel. I ate at the bar, as I am wont to do (dining alone lends itself to that). To my surprise and delight, the bar menu featured half-price foodstuff for happy hour. Let me tell you: this is a GREAT DEAL! I went with an unorthodox take on Surf & Turf: Voodoo Lobster and the BBQ sliders, thinking it would equal the amount of food I would normally get for an entree... I was wrong.

The lobster dish is reminiscent, if not a bit elevated, conceptually, of Bonefish Grill's Bang-Bang Shrimp: lightly breaded and fried, and smothered in a spicy-sweet-savory sauce. A nice-sized portion, and very tasty, although the amount of sauce comes dangerously close to overpowering the natural goodness of the lobster.

The Sliders are a revelation in proportion. Three on a plate, as is usually the case, but the size of each was more than substantial; almost intimidating! The sheer sight of the them drew gasps from my barfront brethren. I could've done without so much of their housemade BBQ sauce, because I chose this option for the simple fact that I wanted steak with ordering a steak! In that respect, it was on point. Generous portions of sliced filet, accompanied by sauteed mushrooms and onions. Tasting this takes you to a place somewhere in between Memphis BBQ and -- well -- a steak house!

The best part?

With a Yuengling and a glass of Pinot, my bill came to a shade over $20. TWENTY DOLLARS!!!
That, my food friends, is bang for your buck...

Last night, I was determined to make it to a resto I've long heard of and aspired to visit. Full disclosure, I was politely turned away from Vetri the first night, which made me ever more determined to fulfill my desires on this night.

It all works out for the best, as I had great company to join me this time: Adrian Branch, my broadcast partner, came with me after our game. The first thing that strikes me is how small Vetri is. Took away the sting of not getting a table the night before, to be honest! It is dimly lit, welcoming, and warm inside. Like a single floor of a converted brownstone. The decor is casual, yet also gives off an air of rustic sophistication, which, I soon found, is an apt way to describe Marc Vetri's food.

I'd read all about how this is the best resto in Philly -- some even going so far to ask the question "Is this the best Italian restaurant in the country?" -- so I was more than ready to experience it firsthand. My budget prevented me from going overboard, which would've been so simple to do, what with everything on the menu sounding so tempting. AB and I both went with the Red Wine Bucatini with Stilton and Pickled Vegetables and House-Cured Speck.

A dish like this can change the way you look at pasta. The bucatini, it's long strands roughly swirled on the plate, were perfectly al dente. As a matter of fact, this is what I will now hold up as the standard-bearer of what al dente truly is. When I search my mental food rolodex, this is the visual I will recall for the term from now on. Fresh, with a bit of chewiness to it, giving you all the more precious few moments to savor it in your mouth. The cheese and pickled veggies added a nice tartness to the overall flavor, and the speck was the ideal accent to add texture and the saltiness I love in a pasta dish like this (I benefited from an extra helping since Adrian passed on his!). Impeccable all together, with the whole being the sum of these delectable parts.

We splurged on dessert (I blame AB; he has a weakness for the sweet stuff). I made the tough choice, but went with my gut: Apple fritters with a Cinnamon Ice Cream Milk Shake. Again, the presentation was outstanding, and it taste was even better. Check Spelling Powdered sugar dashed atop of delicate stack of lightly fried apple rings, still warm inside. Next to it, a shot of frothy, creamy milk shake. So much fun finding all the ways to combine the two components on the plate: I dipped. I dunked. I bit. I sipped. Well worth the extra calories.

A memorable meal to say the least. I am in no position to argue that this is Philly's finest. I salute Marc Vetri for his vision, his integrity, and his honesty with his ingredients. It is clear that his is a clear and simple vision of Italian food... and it scores on all levels.