Oasis Cafe - Salt Lake City, Utah


Oasis Cafe
151 S 500 East
Salt Lake City, UT
(801) 322-1162

http://oasiscafeslc.com/

Date of Visit: Friday, November 7, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Server: Dustin
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 6

Service: 6
Ambiance: 8


After being turned away by the egotists at Em's, we detoured around a noisy and traffic-disrupting gay rights protest at Salt Lake City's Temple Square and made our way over to the Oasis Cafe. This was formerly THE place in Salt Lake for natural and organic foods. An ownership change at the end of 2007 has been met with pretty severe backlash from the locals, who have had basically nothing good to say about the service, and little good to say about the food, since 2006. We decided to give it a shot anyway. The restaurant is in a quiet neighborhood on the east side, with plenty of free parking on-street and adjacent lot. It's also attached to a "new age" bookstore. The room is large, well lit, decorated liberally with paintings in gallery style, quiet, and comfortable. It's shaped in the form of right triangle, with the long side being all windows with a view of the cozy city neighborhood. All servers were dressed in solid black, and one with "Dustin" on his name tag greeted us and showed us apologetically to the acute tip of the triangular dining area. "Is this OK?" he asked. I assured him it was, as we prefer quiet corners. He left us with a lot to read - 2 entree menus, one drinks menu, one tea menu, and one wine/beer menu. Only a couple of the green teas were marked "organic." I was surprised that the Oasis' claim to fame, natural and organic, was absent from the food menus.

Dustin returned promptly with two large glasses of tap water. Since we have recently abandoned consumption of water with chlorine in it for health reasons, it smelled like a swimming pool. We set the glasses quietly to one side while giving our appetizer order and asking for a large bottle of San Pellegrino - they offer 3 sizes. After polishing the appetizer off, I gave Dustin our food and wine order. He then remembered to tell us about the fresh Halibut special, prompting a change from my dining partner. He did neglect to mention the soup special - cream of cauliflower, which I had seen on the board on our way in. One thing that suffered in the ownership changeover is the website. The very trick java interface with music displays everything you need to know EXCEPT the menu. Several comments have been left on the site complaining about it, to no avail. So we will have to go from memory to describe the food and drinks.


What we had with descriptions...

Appetizer - Seared ahi medallions on baby spinach and arugula with mandarin oranges, sticky wild rice, and spicy mustard - $12

Salad - Mixed green salad with house dressing - $6

Entree - Special fresh halibut on a vegetable risotto - $22

Entree - Vegetarian lasagna - $18

Wine - Paul Jaboulet Cotes du Rhone "Parallel 45" - $35

Dessert - Gunbarrel Green Tea - $2

Dessert - Green Tea with Toasted Rice - $2


While the prices seemed a bit high for the area, that's to be expected for fresh and organic foods. Paying $35 for a $10 bottle of wine is also the norm for Utah.

The Parallel 45 is a reliable, inexpensive blend of French Grenache and Syrah grapes. Medium in body, we decided to risk it with the fish and veggie dinner choices. It was very fruity on the nose, opening with unsubtle dark cherry. The taste was full of fruit, barely off dry, and with a clean finish. Nothing special, but a decent pairing for almost any meal.

The half dozen ahi medallions were barely seared and served warm. Mixing the two greens with the rice, fish, orange, and mustard was a great combination. Individually the ingredients were more bland than I might have expected. The salads were also unexciting, leading me to suspect that the restaurant had abandoned its commitment to those ingredients. Instead they may have been content to settle for wierd art, advertisements for dance, zen healing, vegan events, and far left politics. While this atmosphere is sought by some, it does not necessarily translate to the plates. We were pleased with the entrees, though. The fish was fresh and delicious and went well with the slightly glue-like risotto. The very generous portion of veggie lasagna was saturated with several kinds of cheese and many vegetables, making for a very filling (if not completely hot) meal. For dessert we went with some unusual selections from the tea menu. The gunpowder tea was as good as any I've had anywhere, while the tea/rice mix was very light and different. Not to my taste, but my dining partner was quite happy with it.

All in all it was just okay, not spectacular. With tax the bill came to $105, quite high for an average/decent meal. Even though I had no big complaints with either food or service, it's possible to do better in Salt Lake.

Oasis Cafe - NOT RECOMMENDED

Highs: Entrees, art, decor, windows, atmosphere
Lows: Abandoned commitment to organic ingredients, bland greens, website not up to date

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Em's - Salt Lake City, Utah


Em's
271 North Center Street
Salt Lake City, Utah
(801)596–0566

http://www.emsrestaurant.com/

Date of Visit: Friday, November 7, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:00 PM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: 0

Ratings
Food Quality: 0
Service: 0
Ambiance: 0


I have recently taken an interest in "Slow Food," which is a great concept - to sit and dine, to eat slowly, to enjoy the best of food, to focus on fresh, local ingredients. Sadly, like many good ideas, it's "gone political," and so much of the information out there is about events, rallies, donations, and the like. I only wish they could focus more on the concept and executing it locally. Still, the Slow Food Utah site has useful information on finding fresh, local foodstuffs and restaurants that specialize in preparing them. I browsed through several, checking their websites, and was drawn to a new place I had not heard about, Em's Restaurant, featuring "simply elegant food at its finest, prepared fresh by hand from only the finest local and organic ingredients." The menu looked good, and so we ventured out for an early dinner on a Friday evening. The website promised "plenty of free, off-street parking," unusual for Salt Lake. When we arrived, we found only scarce, on-street parking, but even at 7 PM on a Friday we were able to find a place on the street less than a block away - this is an advantage of living in Utah. As we walked to the place in the post-daylight savings time darkness, we could feel the chill in the air - al fresco dining season is pretty much over in Northern Utah.

We entered the dining area, which was tidy, well-lit, and tasteful, with about 15 tables on the right and a metal bar on the left with 8-10 chairs. There was no host podium, so we stood quietly by the bar while a server prepared a check with a high-tech electronic calculator. He eventually greeted us and asked if we had reservations. This being Salt Lake City, and me being unwilling to plan ahead, we did not. Apparently this was no problem at all, because on Friday and Saturday nights they are "completely booked," and dinner for interlopers such as ourselves was a simple impossibility. I glanced at the room, where there were two empty tables and a third being re-set after departing diners and asked, "You ONLY do reservations here?" He replied that "usually" on Fridays and Saturdays it was a "good idea," and that "sometimes, rarely you can get lucky." I looked him in the eye and said nothing - If he was fishing for a bribe, he wasn't getting one. This is Utah, not New York City! He offered, "We have some business cards with our hours printed on the back right here." I had previously picked one up, which I took out of my pocket and returned to the pile. "We drove 45 miles to eat dinner here. I will NEVER come back to this place." He blinked, and provided the universal GenX/Y condemnation, "Whatever..." as we turned and walked out the door.

If you live in a civilized area I'm sure that you are thinking that MY behavior was boorish at best, if not downright rude and unreasonable. Let me clarify, Utah is NOT a civilized area. While decent dining places are relatively rare, the state is an enormous small town, and as such, copping an attitude toward patrons is not going to curry favor with the locals. While I expected to have to wait, or sit at the bar, or even come back in an hour or two, I did NOT expect to be tossed out on the street. Perhaps "chef-owner" Emily Gassmann has so focused on getting local ingredients, she also believes that all her clients should live within walking distance as well, know her rules, and abide by them without complaint. The reality is that even locals from Salt Lake will have to drive at least 20 minutes (and most double that) to get to her place, and returning on another day is not without inconvenience. Or perhaps her place is small enough that she can sell out most of her stock each evening without encouraging repeat business. Most likely she has enough repeat business within walking distance that she needs no others, and actively discourages them. It's her business and she can do as she wishes, but would it kill her to list on her website that Friday and Saturday dinner seating IS STRICTLY BY RESERVATION ONLY? Telling me that I need to adjust my habits to support her schedule is not a winning strategy.

Was I unreasonable? Since I was able to drive a couple of miles down the street, park for free, and obtain immediate seating for a fine meal at a decent restaurant where they were happy to have my business at 7:30PM on a Friday night, I suspect not. Therefore Em's receives the not-so-coveted Wanton Ego "Nazi Food Medal" award pictured here. I hope Ms. Gassmann will display it with egotistical pride!

What we had with menu descriptions...

We had nothing at all, but the menu sounded good.

APPETIZERS:
Potato Pancakes with Crme Fraiche & Fresh Herbs. $6.00
Flatbread with Seasonal Toppings. $6.00
Smoked Salmon & Crab Rolls with Avocado, Sesame Seed Vinaigrette & Cilantro Oil. $9.00
Phyllo stuffed with Goat's Cheese & Duck Confit. $8.00
Country Pate with Toast Points. $9.00
Tamales stuffed with Goat's Cheese served on a bed of Chipotle Con Crema. $7.00
SALADS:
Spinach salad with Goat's Cheese in a Balsamic Vinaigrette. $8.00
House Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette and Shaved Parmesan Reggiano & House made Croutons. $5.00
Pear, Walnuts & Bleu Cheese with mixed Organic Greens in a Champagne Vinaigrette. $7.00
Roasted Potatoes, Caramelized Onions & Italian Sausage with Seasonal Greens in a Bacon, Sherry Vinaigrette. $8.00
ENTRE'S (sic): Served with House salad
Potato Lasagna - Yukon Gold potatoes layered with Parmesan, Ricotta, Whole Milk Mozzarella & Seasonal Vegetables. $13.00
Nightly Pasta Special. $A.Q.
Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with Seasonal Vegetables & Mashed Potatoes. $18.00
Moran Valley Rack of Lamb with Potato, Shallot Custard & Jalapeno Jelly. $ 20.00
Ribeye with Bleu Cheese & Caramelized Onions, Roasted Potatoes & Seasonal Vegetable. $ 21.00
Dried Fruit stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Potatoes in a Bacon Sherry Vinaigrette. $17.00
Leek stuffed, Wild Salmon Roulade over Creamy Cabbage. $17.00
Free Range Chicken Breast stuffed with Goat's Cheese & Pine Nuts with Mashed Potatoes and Seasonal Vegetables. $16.00
Marinated Pork Chop in a Maple, Mustard & Bacon Barbeque Sauce with Mashed Potatoes & Seasonal Vegetables. $18.00

The menu above is quoted exactly as it appears on the website, and is provided with misspelled words, comma abuse, and apostrophe errors to demonstrate that this is, in fact, Utah.

Em's - NOT RECOMMENDED - AVOID especially on Fridays and Saturdays, even in Utah equivalent (or better) alternatives are available!

Highs: Looked nice and people seemed to be enjoying themselves
Lows: Big city celeb chef attitude, GenY rudeness

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

El Gaucho - Portland, Oregon

El Gaucho
319 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
(503)227-8794

http://www.elgaucho.com/elgaucho/_portland

Date of Visit: Friday, October 3, 2008
Time: Dinner - 5:00 PM
Server: Chris
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 7.5
Service: 6.5
Ambiance: 8


Our Saturday schedule of leisurely shopping, late breakfast, and no lunch put us squarely into early-bird time for dinner. We were the first diners of the evening at the Portland location of the famous steakhouse, which started in Seattle and also has a Tacoma branch. We were told to expect a new opening in Bellingham in November as well. The rainy season had started in Portland, and after our 10 block walk to the restaurant all of us had soaking wet raincoats to deal with. The hostesses greeted us cheerfully and produced a single coat hanger upon which every coat was draped. I took the single claim ticket and cocked an eyebrow at my companions who shrugged. We shook ourselves off and proceeded to a very nice table in the quiet, elegant dining room.

El Gaucho is a veritable time machine, transporting us instantly back to the 50s and 60s of chic supper clubs, thankfully sans the smoking! Our server and his team were all dressed in El Gaucho uniforms - formal black and white with gold embroidery. Chris introduced himself and encouraged us to take our time with the menu and wine lists. Standard wines and wines by the glass were listed on the back of the oversized menu card, while reserve wines were listed in a separate menu. Wine prices were high across the board, overcome by the fact that nearly every choice was a high quality wine - some famous and some less famous. The sideboard next to our table displayed magnums of some of the best wines in the United States: Joseph Phelps Insignia, Far Niente Estate Cabernet, Woodward Canyon Old Vines Cabernet, Caymus Special Selection Cabernet, Trefethen, Grgich, and others. It was an honor to dine in such company.

I had to call my wine consultant, Scott in Yakima, to help find the best quality/value pairing on the list. Most good wine lists have the famous wines at famous prices, and they hide a few gems somewhere that provide equivalent or superior quality for a comparative bargain. Scott quickly honed in on one and directed me to have it decanted and wait for a minimum of 30 minutes before consumption. I called Chris over and asked for the Andrew Will, Sorella, Horse Heaven Hills ‘05, our hidden wine gem for $145. The wine steward quickly appeared with the correct bottle, opening it and decanting it through a silver filter with a flourish. We could see from the deep burgundy color and the slow viscosity of the pour that this was indeed a special wine. The steward poured me a sample. The nose was prominent, fruity and floral, and the wine was smooth and delicate with enough body to coat my entire tongue. I enjoyed every nuance of flavor as taste buds were stimulated area by area. I nodded to the steward, but had to stop him from pouring out the carafe into our glasses. "We will let it rest for a while." He was taken aback a bit. Clever servers know that they need to get you started drinking immediately to loosen up the group and create time and desire for a second bottle. Clever diners know that the bottle can be saved for the main course, and this was the path we chose! Two minutes later the wine was still dancing around my tongue - a very good sign of things to come.

If you ever wondered, "Where's the beef?" the answer is a resounding "El Gaucho!" The center of the menu boldly states: "We proudly serve custom 28-day dry-aged certified Angus beef® prime steaks as personally recommended by John Tarpoff." Sure, there are good fish and poultry choices, but the order of the evening was beef, and plenty of it! We discussed steaks and sides with Chris as we ordered. I was surprised to learn that none of the produce, vegetables, or fruits were organic - unusual for Portland and slightly disappointing.


What we had with menu descriptions...

Table Side Caesar Salad (minimum of two) $12 per person

French Onion Soup bowl $8

Peppercorn New York 16 oz $64

Baseball Cut Top Sirloin 12 oz $38, Roquefort $40

Filet Mignon 8 oz $42

Flaming Sword Brochette of Tenderloin $34

"Shareable Sides"

Full Gaucho Treatment Gaucho Baked Potato - Russet potato fluffed tableside with butter and Tillamook cheddar cheese beer sauce, cracked pepper and scallions $5

Southwest Scalloped Potatoes $6

Asparagus $12


Chris wheeled a tableside prep cart over and began the serious business of making our Caesar salads. He scooped garlic and anchovies into an oversized walnut salad bowl and started working them vigorously with a big spoon. Adding Dijon, egg yolk (pasteurized), Pecorino cheese, and fresh lemon, he capped it off with a generous pour of extra virgin olive oil. Working the dressing for several minutes, he showed us the result before adding cheesy croutons and romaine lettuce. I took the opportunity to pour a generous taste of wine for each of my companions. While the salad and show were wonderful, the French onion soup was even better. Carmelized sweet Walla Walla onions brought out nuances of our wine made from Walla Walla grapes. Subtelties of shared terroir are difficult to describe, so you should be encouraged play around with such pairings on your own!

We were alerted to the imminence of our steaks when one of Chris's assistants appeared with a cutlass of meat, mushrooms, and tomato with flaming spirits in the inverted crossguard - good for serving the food if less functional in a sword fight! He started spooning the flames over the brochette in a professional manner as we enjoyed the show. Chris and another assistant came with the other three entrees while the restaurant manager came to finally pour the wine. I told her to check with each person before pouring, as one of our friends wanted to limit herself to a taste. This instruction elicited another funny look as she complied. It seems that the entire staff is there to please you and handle everything, and they were somewhat insulted by my instructions. Whatever.

Chris spooned crimini mushroom gravy onto one of the tenderloins and Bearnaise onto the other, then the two ladies attacked their tenderloins like true carnivores - perhaps it was a tactical error to skip lunch? Both uttered moans of delight, so all was well. My buddy offered praise for his peppercorn NY steak, while I carved a chunk off the baseball of top sirloin. I found my steak to be perfectly cooked, flavorful, and a bit chewy. I glanced at my enraptured companions and tried another bite with the same result. I asked my friend if the evening's steak was better than the flat iron steak at Higgins, and he said that it was. The girls were still gorging themselves, so I tried a few more bites. Still disappointing, I said something to my companions. They were shocked and immediately proffered generous samples of all of their steaks. The tenderloins were both delicious and melty. The peppercorn steak was overspiced and very tough. By contrast my top sirloin was much better, and it clearly improved as I moved to the center of its mass. Apparently I have a talent for choosing the very worst part of any steak for my first bites! The rest of the meal was a delight, and the wine paired perfectly with the aged Angus beef.

After dinner dishes were cleared Chris brought out an enormous tray of fresh fruit and raw nuts in the shell plus a plate of Roquefort cheese, crackers, and dried dates. We eagerly cracked pecans, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds while sipping good coffee. There were red and green apples and a pear as well. I tried each of the items with the wine, and it did not pair very well with the coffee or sweets, but was OK with the various nuts - especially almonds. I finally poured the last of the wine from the carafe and watched as the legs slowly melted down its sides. The wine steward appeared out of nowhere and stood looking at me. "I'm waiting for the legs to fall to get the last drop." He stared silently, picked up the carafe, and backed away very slowly - cautiously assuming that I was kidding while giving me an option to stop him. I wasn't totally kidding, but let him have his way at last. My wife shrewdly deduced that those few drops from the legs of the wine were his to taste, explaining the odd behavior.

Overall the experience was good. Dinner as theater. I deducted half a point from the food score for the lack of organic ingredients and the unimaginative handling of the menu items. This last point is perhaps unfair, as imagination would have detracted from the vintage experience. It's my blog, so my opinion rules, as always! I also deducted half a point for the wet raincoats (mine was thoroughly soaked inside). Only the bottom coat was dry on the inside. And for the the slight undertone of discomfort from the staff as they dealt with my unusual instructions. Chris and his team got a generous tip (22%) while the hostess/coat check girl got a quiet word of advice. I wanted her to learn rather than get a reprimand from management. Not sure it worked - she seemed shocked to learn that placing one wet coat on a hanger on top of another would make the inside of the top coat wet. She's probably still complaining to her friends that nobody every complained to her before. For someone that lives in a city where it rains 6-12 months per year, she should know this by now!

El Gaucho - RECOMMENDED for a nice night of theater dinner

Highs: The show, reasonable prices considering the extras
Lows: Low creativity, damp inside lining of raincoats

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Higgins Restaurant and Bar - Portland, Oregon

Higgins Restaurant and Bar
1239 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
(503)222-9070

http://higgins.ypguides.net

Date of Visit: Thursday, October 2, 2008
Time: Dinner - 8:30 PM
Server: Andrew
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 9
Service: 9
Ambiance: 7


Started a long weekend in Portland, Oregon with friends by re-visiting Higgins Restaurant and Bar. In any conversation of which restaurant is best in Portland (a topic of endless discussion locally), it is a given that Higgins will be mentioned in the top five. In a culinary mecca like Portland, anything in the top 50 will not disappoint!

Our waiter introduced himself (Andrew) and asked about drinks. We asked for some time to contemplate, and he left me with the wine and beer lists. The beer list is worth noting, two full pages, a dozen on tap, and there are separate wine and beer stewards listed and present at the restaurant. I saw a Volnay for $62, which is a stellar restaurant price for such a wine, which can often retail for $100 or more. I also noted that there was a cask beer selection available. When Andrew returned I quizzed him about the wine (well balanced and bold) and the cask beer (a selection from a local microbrewery). We ordered a bottle of the Volnay and I asked for a draught of the cask beer to pair with my appetizer course. The menu is short - half a dozen appetizers and salads, two soups daily, and half a dozen main courses. There were also verbal specials - 1 appetizer and 3 mains. Between us our group ordered three soups, three salads, and three entrees.

The menu changes every Thursday based on what's locally available week by week. All produce, fruits and meats are organic and natural - something not written on the menu. It may go without saying in this health-conscious city.

What we had with menu descriptions...

Fresh mozzarella burrata with vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and basil $14.50

Salad of gathered summer greens, toasted hazelnuts and herb vinaigrette $7.25

Soup of the Day - white bean and bacon $7.00

Soup of the Day - tomatillo and green chile $7.00

Risotto of sweet corn, tomatillos, and chèvre cheese with a sweet red pepper vinaigrette $23.50

Special - Flat iron steak with cheddar mashed potatoes and a trio of local mushrooms in red wine sauce $35.00

Special - Fresh local sturgeon and garlic green beans on a bed of polenta $28.50

One thing we did not order this time: Higgins charcuterie plate with house-made pickles $13.75 - pictured at right and even better than it looks...

Sourdough bread was excellent, paired with house branded extra virgin olive oil. The soups and salads appeared immediately. The Caprese was stunning with organic green heirloom tomatoes and uber-fresh mozzarella - clearly made on premises earlier that same day. And the basil had clearly been snipped from a nearby plant. The green salad was a work of art and very tasty with organic greens. The white bean soup was hearty and entirely pleasant, while the tomatillo chile soup raised raised the bar of excellence even higher. The mildly hoppy cask ale was a perfect complement to all of the above.

Andrew had opened the Volnay, inspecting the cork with his nose immediately after it popped out of the bottle, quietly showcasing his wine expertise. It had time to breathe in the glasses as we lingered over salads, soups, bread, and beer. The wine had great character, tasting of raspberry, blueberry, leather, and earth. The nose was delicate and fruity with no floral notes at all. Volnay was the perfect choice to pair with beef, fish, and vegetarian main courses.

The entrees appeared together at exactly the right time. The flat iron steak was perfectly cooked, pink in the center, and literally tender enough to cut with a fork. The cheesy potatoes easily absorbed the mushroom sauce, and the fresh local mushrooms added value to the taste of the perfectly aged beef. The sturgeon was light, delicate, flaky, moist and melted in your mouth. The beans were crisp, fresh, and full of phytochemical goodness. The polenta was as good as corn meal mush can be. The most unusual entree was the sweet corn risotto - creamy, crunchy, piquant, and surprisingly sweet. The sweetness melded well with the sweet red pepper vinaigrette, and the whole of the dish was a factor of ten more than the sum of its parts. Everyone at the table had a taste, and the reviews were consistent - home run!

All throughout the night Andrew was at our elbow in anticipation of every need, and the bus staff never allowed a water glass to be less than half full. All servers were polite, unobtrusive, professional, and nearly invisible. Dessert menu was equally impressive, and the four of us shared the hot apple crisp - a delightful medley of fresh apples mixed with house-made granola and topped with vanilla ice cream. Mediocre cappuccino was the only (very minor) flaw in the otherwise perfect dining experience. We all rolled happily and slowly back to the hotel six blocks away.

It should be noted that the entire menu plus a bargain-priced bistro menu is available in the bar at the back of the restaurant. Locals jam in here for Portland's best foodie value play. The hamburgers here are a local legend, and I shall have to return and try one for lunch very soon!

Higgins - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED

Highs: Fresh Organic and Local ingredients, innovative menu, beautiful presentation, casual atmosphere, flawless service
Lows: Mediocre coffee, not open for breakfast...

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cucina Toscana - Salt Lake City, UT

Cucina Toscana
Historic Firestone Building
307 W Pierpont Avenue

Salt Lake City, UT 84101
(801)328-DINE(3463)

http://www.cucina-toscana.com

Date of Visit: Saturday, August 23, 2008
Time: Dinner - 10:00 PM
Server: Justin & staff
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 8
Service: 8
Ambiance: 7


Valter Nassi took over the deserted Firestone Building space in 2002 and created his version of a Tuscan kitchen for Salt Lake City. As with any new place, reviews raved. Unlike other new places, the reviews escalated year by year, and the quality consistently improved. Picked as a no-contest best Italian restaurant by Salt Lake Magazine several years in a row, Cucina Toscana was also picked in 2008 by that publication as the best restaurant in Salt Lake City, period. Having been there a number of times, I find it easy to agree. It's inconceivable that this city could deserve or maintain such a place.

With that modest setup, we found ourselves downtown with friends late one Saturday evening, having just viewed the movie Bottle Shock - a great story poorly done for Sundance and released to art houses this year. Wait for it on cable. But I digress. Where to go near 10 PM on a Saturday in Salt Lake City for some wine and dessert? Unlike civilized regions, most dining establishments were already closed. We knew that the trendy, downtown places would be open until maybe 10, so we took a chance and went to the best one - Cucina Toscana. The parking lot was half empty, and folks were pouring out of the place. I had some trepidation, but we proceeded boldly inside. The bar area (not a real bar - this is Utah!) was being cleaned after hosting a private party, and the hostess greeted us cheerfully. I replied, "I was hoping to get some drinks and dessert." She said, "No problem!" and quickly seated us in the main dining area, in a prime table on the busy deli aisle. The restaurant is designed to make you feel as if you are eating in a kitchen, and the best tables are in the noisy, active areas. The host, impeccably dressed, introduced himself as Justin, and snapped his fingers, "Get some bruschetta for these folks!" The near-invisible staff made the complimentary appetizer appear, and it was perfect - freshly toasted baguette slices covered with diced tomato and fresh spices doused in olive oil. We asked for San Pellegrino for the table and it appeared immediately in endless quantities.

Just for fun, we perused the dinner menu, and I discussed wine selections with my friend. Justin reappeared and added his recommendations. My friends chose two different chardonnays by the glass, and I stayed with the Pellegrino as designated driver. Even though we were not hungry, the smells were tantalizing. So I ordered a "tuna carpaccio" while my wife got the Caprese salad. Our friends split an enormous pasta entree. The tuna was fresh, uncooked, and delicious. The Caprese was a work of art with fresh, organic, hydroponic, Wyoming tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and basil covered in fine extra virgin olive oil. The pasta was al dente and the sauce delicate. Valter appeared from the banquet room and provided handshakes and hugs for the men and kisses for the ladies. As always, he made us feel welcome - as if we were visiting the home of an uncle. After some time and several glasses of wine and Pellegrino, we were given dessert menus. Four demitasse cups of the house special hot chocolate (also complimentary) appeared to help us in our selections. The drink was warm, rich, and amazing - too rich to finish even the tiny portions. Our friends shared a triamisu. We were abstaining from sugar, so I asked if a dessert of cheeses and berries was available. Nothing like it was on the menu, but it appeared in concert with the tiramisu, and the selections were generous and delicious.

By now it was nearing 11PM and the restaurant was still about half full. Our friends noticed comedian Lewis Black come in with an entourage, and they were quickly and discreetly seated at a large table in a quiet corner. They were happily digging into their bruschetta as we split the $140 check (leaving $85 apiece) and made our way home. Expensive, but well worth it - the perfect finish for a nice evening out with friends.

Cucina Toscana - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED any time for anyone in the Salt Lake area (closed Sundays)

Highs: Valter, service, activity, food, dessert, and hospitality
Lows: Very busy at "rush hour" 7-9 nightly

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

The Brickskeller - Washington, DC

The Brickskeller
1523 22nd St NW
Washington, DC 20037
202.293.1885

www.lovethebeer.com/brickskeller.html

Date of Visit: Sunday, June 8, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Server: Chrissy
Number of Diners: 1

Ratings
Food Quality: 4
Service: 7
Ambiance: 4


Family owned and operated since October 7, 1957, The Brickskeller is legendary in the DC area for its selection of over 1000 bottled beers. Google "Brickskeller Reviews" and you will find dozens of famous, infamous, and unknown critics hailing its praises. And Washington D.C. is legendary for its bountiful traffic, byzantine layout, and scarce parking - especially in the DuPont Circle area. For these reasons I chose Sunday evening to make my visit. True to my expectations traffic was relatively light and I was able to find free, legal on-street parking within a block and half - no mean feat in this embassy-rich area of the District! The downside of my timing is that the place was not busy, and the more comfortable upstairs bar/lounge area (pictured at left) was closed - and so was access to their dozen plus interesting beers on tap. So I found myself taking refuge from the 100-degree plus heat in the cellar area - dingy, sooty, and decorated with rare beer bottles, cans, and advertisements from 100 years ago. It was cooler than outside, but still quite warm. I was seated somewhere in the rabbit warren promptly if not courteously, and there were a few photocopies of the menu booklet on the table propped between ketchup and mustard. There are a number of interesting things listed in the menu, though mostly "bar food." And truth be told, nobody comes here for the food - they all come for the beer. Check out the impressive BEER LIST. Or click on the photo at right to see two of the ten pages of beers listed with current prices.

What I had with menu descriptions...

The Pentagon CheeseBoard 7.25
Five big cheeses! ~ havarti with dill, smoked gouda, brie, cheddar and pepperjack served with loaf of oven warmed french bread

Garden Greens House Salad 4.25
Choice of Ceasar, Ranch, Blue Cheese, Russian, Oil & Vinegar Dressings

The "Down Home" Burger 7.95
One half pound of lean ground beef smothered in fried onions seasoned with our own special blend of herbs and spices. With fries.

Check out the full menu with THIS LINK.

This being my second visit to the place, I can verify that it is absolutely true that folks come for the beer and not the food. My server was barely dressed - appropriate for the heat, and had a number of pretty severe-looking tattoos on her neck and upper arms. Later I noticed some birthmarks or burn marks on the underside of her lower arms, so the tats were a good diversionary tactic for her. Though she did not introduce herself, she was friendly enough - considering I was a solo diner. The salad was a halfhearted mound of greens with two plastic tubs of commercial blue cheese dressing. Good for digestion, but no pleasure to eat. The cheese board was a pleasant surprise - all five cheeses were quite good, as was the fresh loaf of warm, soft, white bread - though hardly French. My burger, ordered well done, was dry as a bone. I had tried the buffalo burger on a previous visit with the same result. Again I made do with generous servings of mustard from the squirt bottle on the table.

The thing that salvaged the experience was the beer. On my previous visit I had sampled several unusual Belgian beers on tap, but not available this night. I found a Weihenstephan dark Hefeweizen in the German section of the beer list for $7.50 and ordered it. My waitress (whose name I learned from the check) poured it expertly into the proper glass, inverting the bottle with no thought for overcarbonation, stopping with a quarter left and swirling to pick up the yeast, then topping off the glass. The bottle proclaimed in German "älteste Brauerei der Welt" - the Oldest Brewery in the World. I can see why they have lasted so long - the beer was outstanding. When I was ready for my second beer, the waitress suggested an alternate dark Hefe from Schneider. It was not nearly as good and cost $9.45, but I was happy to have tried it. All in all the experience was a mixed bag. I shall probably not return unless with a few friends, and we'll be dining elsewhere first!


The Brickskeller - RECOMMENDED only for beer
Eat somewhere else and call ahead to see if the upstairs is open!

Highs: Beer
Lows: Dry burgers, unexciting food, closed upstairs

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Settebello - Salt Lake City, Utah

Settebello
260 South 200 West
Salt Lake City, Utah 84101
801-322-3556

http://www.settebello.net/SLC/main.html

Date of Visit: Saturday, July 12, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Server: Levi
Number of Diners: 2

Ratings
Food Quality: 6
Service: 7
Ambiance: 7


We happened to be in the area of the "Best New Restaurant in Salt Lake City for 2008" at early dinnertime this fine evening. We decided to try the place that Longisland Guy had pronounced to be "very thin crust," "NOT NY style," and "far too small." I love thin, Neapolitan style pizza, and so his negative review sounded pretty good to me. This restaurant is new to the area, but had promise, as it was copied from a successful sister restaurant in Las Vegas. We declined the valet service and found free street parking, in the shade, about a block away (this IS Salt Lake City, after all!). The place was mid-sized, tastefully decorated with sketches and lithographs of Naples, and a bit noisy. An enormous gas-fired brick oven dominated the room, boding well for good Neapolitan pizza. We were well ahead of the dinner rush and were seated immediately. Levi, our waiter, brought us some iced tea to take the edge off the heat while we perused the menu. Like ourselves, all the patrons were dressed casually in shorts and casual shirts. The menu explained the history behind the name Settebello.
Settebello is the most valuable and sought after card in the popular Italian card game scopa. A deck of scopa cards consists of 40 separate cards in 4 different suits. The suits include clubs, swords, cups and gold. The Settebello is the nickname given to the seven of gold.

Whichever player holds the settebello at the end of a hand is awarded a point. The settebello can also aid a player in winning a point for the primiera as well as for the player who holds the most gold cards. A typical game of scopa is played to 11
points. Scopa is an extremely popular card game in and around Napoli.
The menu consisted of several salads and several pizza choices, complemented by a few appetizers and gelato for dessert. The menu also noted that the restaurant is the only Utah member of Verace Pizza Napoletana, another good sign. From the website - Some of the differences between an authentic Napoli style pizza and its American cousins are:

-THE OVEN: Made of brick and heated from 800-1000 degrees Fahrenheit. In these conditions a pizza takes only 45-60 seconds to cook completely. Our oven is manufactured by Acuto in Napoli Italy.

-THE ITALIAN TOMATOES: Usually in the style of San Marzano, these tomatoes bring less acidity and a fresh taste and are never mixed and made into a dark heavy sauce.

-THE FLOUR: Imported from one of the oldest mills in Napoli, Molino Caputo. The flour made by Caputo is world renowned for its ability to make an elastic chewy crust. There is no substitute for Caputo flour for pizzerias in Napoli.

-THE CHEESE: Only fresh mozzarella (known as fior di latte in Napoli) or buffalo mozzarella is acceptable. Most pizzas are also sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano.
I found the wine list recommended one red and several whites from the Campania region, which surrounds Naples and is the same area that produced the flour and tomatoes for the pizza, making a great trifecta of terrior. I saw they included one of our favorites, MASTROBERARDINO Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio for $35, and ordered a bottle.

What we had with menu descriptions...

CAPRESE 6.99
Fresh Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Sea Salt, Basil.

INSALATA 4.99
Mixed Greens, Italian Vinaigrette, Cracked Pepper, Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.

QUATTRO STAGIONI 10.99
Margherita Divided Into Four Sections. Each Section Topped Separately With Wood Oven Roasted Sausage, Salame, Roasted Mushrooms, Calamata Olives. (pictured here)

SETTEBELLO 12.99
Crushed Tomatoes, Pancetta, Wood Oven Roasted Fennel Sausage, Roasted Mushrooms, Toasted Pine Nuts, Mozzarella, Basil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

The salads came right away, and both were quite good. The Caprese, easily large enough to have shared, was very generous with mozzarella and tomatoes, but very sparse on the fresh basil. Levi provided us containers of balsamic vinegar and olive oil along with imported Italian sea salt and peppercorns in separate grinders. The Insalata was perfectly dressed in light vinegarette, and loaded with fresh, mixed greens. When the wine arrived, I told Levi to pour away, confident that we would love it.

But it was not meant to be - I took a tiny sip, cool and refreshing. My wife sampled hers and made a very unhappy face. I tried a generous mouthful and was rewarded with well-chilled, slightly effervescent vinegar! My wife verified the diagnosis, and I inspected the cork, which was undamaged. Of course the wine was NOT corked (contaminated with bacteria), but it had apparently been cooked in the bottle to become vinegar. Levi immediately took the bottle away and returned with another. Same problem to a much lesser degree! Levi opined that the Utah state liquor stores were often careless in their handling of wines in the summer, leaving them in railroad cars, trucks, or tin warehouses in the summer heat. We all suffer under the state's burden of carelessness. I asked if the restaurant ever was able to return for refund, and he said, "sometimes." It's not as if any of us (whether individuals or restaurants) are free to take our wine-purchasing business elsewhere!

Upon sending two bottles back, the manager had to be consulted. Apparently she can easily taste vinegar and within seconds Levi returned with her apologies. We decided to try something new to us, going with the menu's recommended red, TERREDORA AGLIANICO - "Intense ruby red with violet reflections, it is surprisingly long in the mouth with notes of mature red fruits and displays the structure necessary for long aging." It was a bargain at $30, and in addition to the menu descriptions, it had a very strong bitter character that complemented the sweet and salt of the pizzas perfectly!

As for the pizzas, by themselves they were sort of OK. The crust was delicious and chewy, almost rubbery. And the tomatoes (smashed, not sauced) were incredible. The toppings - olives, sausage, pancetta, etc. were quite tasty, but far too salty for our taste. Notable exceptions were the mushrooms and peppered salame. And the center of each pizza was quite soggy. It occurred to me immediately that we should have resisted our American urge to over-top the pizza and gone with the simple Margherita. But the fresh basil that is one of the four key ingredients (tomatoes, cheese, basil, and olive oil) was again quite scarce. We know from our own garden that it is early season for basil, but the restaurant should not have been so stingy (or poorly stocked). Adding the wine (not brilliant by itself) to the pizza made a combination greater than the sum of the parts, and made the overall experience good. Levi was fast and nearly invisible as a server, and he and the manager were gracious in working with us on the wine-vinegar. Perhaps another visit with more basil and fewer toppings would improve the food score. We were too full to do more than sample the gelato on display at the front.

It should be noted that the leftover pizza fared well - remaining tasty, chewy, and delicious after being re-heated a day later.

Settebello - Tentatively RECOMMENDED

Highs: Quality ingredients, REAL pizza Napoletano, good service (for SLC)
Lows: Salty toppings, chronic shortage of fresh basil

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Updated: Michael's Kitchen - Taos, New Mexico

Michael's Kitchen
304 C N Pueblo Rd.
3 blocks north of Plaza
Taos, New Mexico 87571
505-758-4178
http://www.michaelskitchen.com/
Date of Visit: Monday, June 23, 2008
Time: Breakfast - 8:30 AM
Server: Rosairo
Number of Diners: 8

Ratings
Food Quality: 8
Service:
7
Ambiance: 5


This place is legendary across New Mexico for good food and great bakery items. You can tell a place is good when the parking lot is four times the size of the building - in an area where parking is scarce! I went with my wife and a half dozen other motorcylists to try the breakfast, and it did live up to the legend. The place is a little nondescript, and you have to enter via a long breezeway - to accommodate the frequent long lines. Our timing was perfect, hitting the soft spot between the pre-work breakfasters and the vacationers - the breezeway was jammed as we tried to leave at 9:30. The place has two main rooms in the front, separated by a walk-in bakery counter filled with countless delights. There are additional rooms in the back, too. Bustling and noisy, the decor was old southwest, with rough-hewn plank flooring copiously stained with generations of coffee, syrup, and other items.

They seated our party of eight in seconds and brought coffee (regular or pinon) for those so inclined. Pinon adds a mellow, almost chocolate flavor to the coffee, but our table of mostly tourists considered it more of a contaminant. It's a love-it or hate-it deal, kind of like New Orleans chickory coffee.Our waitress was a veteran professional, so she immediately asked if we wanted one check or several, and did not flinch when we told her two groups of two and one group of four.

What we had with menu descriptions...
The menu had a large selection of standard and New Mexican breakfast dishes, and our group sampled several.

My choice: Breakfast Enchilada
Corn tortillas filled with scrambled eggs, smothered with your choice of chile, served with rice and pinto beans: 7.95

My wife's choice: Tortilla Relleñada
Delicious diced ham and lightly scrambled eggs with chives, wrapped in a flour tortilla & smothered with your choice of chile and cheese: 8.35

Martín's Breakfast Burrito
Scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, diced green chile and hash browns wrapped in a flour tortilla: 8.35

Blueberry Blintzes
A gourmet delight ­ heated blueberry compote surrounded by thin pancakes and topped with sour cream: 8.65

And my wife s
ummoned all her resolve not to get the Viva La French Toast
Delicious cinnamon bread swizzled in a rich batter browned to perfection and topped with one egg, any style, and two bacon strips or sausage: 7.65


The food arrived within 10 minutes for the entire table, delivered two by two in the hands of our capable waitress. I opted for pinto beans and rice with mine. The two enchiladas were excellent - chewy corn tortillas offsetting the creamy egg/cheese filling. The green chile sauce topping was spicier than average, and full of small chunks of beef (they also offer veggie green chile). Another diner, who had both on hers, assured me that the red was quite good also. The pinto beans were whole (as they should be) and not refried. The rice was a soggy Spanish-sauced white rice - the only disappointment. The beans, chile, enchilada combo was outstanding. I also sampled the Rellenada that my wife ordered. The eggs were very fluffy and well-seasoned with chive and shaved ham - absolutely delicious with the green chile as well. Other diners added their praise to the generous dishes. Upon exiting, I browsed the menu case with a range of cake donuts, colossal cinnamon rolls with and without pecans/maple glazing, and other delights. I chose a blueberry muffin to go and paid the modest check ($27 for two, including $5 tip). Later that day the muffin did not disappoint - jammed full of fruit and very light on the sugar.

I really must say, Michael's food was excellent. Both the green and red chile sauces were unique, and I found the red much more to my taste that the type found south of Santa Fe. In fact, it was so good that we returned again for two more breakfasts and three lunches that week! All were legendary. Here's a quick review of our other experiences - 4 diners each time...

Something Deliciously Different
Omelette enhanced with roasted green chile and smothered with cheese: 7.45

Poor Man's Eggs Benedict
Two eggs any style on a toasted English muffin, nestled between shaved ham and chile and crowned with melted cheese: 8.35


Huevos Rancheros
Two eggs served on a corn tortilla, piled high with pinto beans and surrounded with your choice of homemade red
or green chile with meat: 7.95

Omelette Extraordinaire
A zesty blend of cheese, ham, peppers, onions and chile salsa: 7.85

And for lunch...


Bacon Chile Cheese Burger
Our huge burger with bacon, melted cheese, and diced green chile, served with french fries 7.95 -
These were so good I had two (on different days!)



Patty Melt
Pure ground beef smothered in onions and melted processed cheese, served on rye bread, grilled in butter: 7.95


Stuffed Sopapilla
A delicate sopapilla stuffed with beans, cheese, onions and ground beef. Your choice of chile is ladled on, then crowned with guacamole and sour cream: 8.35


BLTG Wrapper

BLT with Green Chile Wrapped up in a Flour Tortilla Mmmmmmmmmmmm: 7.85


Chicken Quesadilla
Grilled chicken in a flour tortilla, a tangy blend of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, diced green chiles and avocado. Grilled and served with rice and beans:6.85 - Side of fruit ordered extra to aid digestion!



It should be noted that on our first visit we were seated in an overflow area. The main dining room is much nicer and more tastefully decorated with stained glass, antique iron stoves, local photographs and other local art, plus an enormous wood scroll-saw landscape on one wall. Both food and ambiance scores have increased a full point based on our subsequent visits. The food was all outstanding, with the patty melt trailing the pack at simply good. The stuffed sopapilla was absolutely delicious, and the bacon green chile burger rivaled that of the famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, NM. The quesadilla was quite good, approaching but not rivaling the Range in Bernalillo, NM. Service was consistently friendly and capable. On top of it all each meal came with one or more sopapillas for dessert with honey butter plus honey on the table. I gained a pound a day during my week in Taos!

Michael's Kitchen - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Highs: Excellent, bountiful, rib-sticking food; friendly, informal atmosphere; reasonable prices
Lows: Noisy and often crowded - only open for dinner on weekends!

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Blue Ridge Seafood - Gainesville, Virginia

Blue Ridge Seafood
15704 Lee Highway
Gainesville, VA 20155
703-754-9852

http://blueridgeseafood.net/index.html
Date of Visit: Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Time: Dinner - 8:30 PM
Server: Shirlee
Number of Diners: 5

Ratings
Food Quality: 7
Service: 7
Ambiance: 4


I decided to join my fellow-traveling co-workers this evening, and they were on a mission - a mission for BLUE CRABS! The ringleaders suggested there was only one place - Blue Ridge Seafood in Gainesville. This town is well to the southwest of the DC area, a few miles beyond Manassas. We made the sojourn late, to avoid the infamous rush hour. The restaurant is a sprawling shack with an enormous gravel parking lot that was nearly full. We stepped inside to the decor of "crab shack 60's" and waited a bit for the young hostess to seat us. She found a place for us in the back, at a pair of picnic tables covered with brown butcher paper on an unifinished concrete floor. The neighboring tables had a group of 15 or so, most of whom were 2.5 sheets to the wind already, and very noisy.

What we had with menu descriptions...
The menu had a large selection of seafood items, about half of which were fried. Featured on the menu and a table card were several soups and chowders. I noticed the lobster bisque was the same price as the New England clam chowder. I asked the waitress about it, and she didn't quite wrinkle her nose. "I'd go with the clam chowder," she advised. "It's made here and that lobster stuff is frozen." Good enough for me, and most of us ordered a cup or bowl of chowder. While several other things looked good, we were there for a crab adventure. Shirlee advised starting with a dozen medium crabs and going from there. We again followed her advice, and added a pitcher of Red Hook ESB (Extra Special Bitter, aka English Style Bitter) Ale. She had each of us specify if we wanted butter or malt vinegar. Four chose butter and one vinegar.

The beer arrived first, with a large stick of frozen stuff to keep it cold stuck into the pitcher. It's a bitter style, but does not have a strong bitter flavor, so the name is deceptive. It worked well with all the seafood. The clam chowder was dense with a generous amount of clams, a heavy cream base, and large chunks of skin-on potatoes. A few minutes after the soup was cleared a plastic dining tray arrived with our dozen medium crabs, covered in a bath of dry spices. These were about a hand's width across. Our veteran showed us how to use the plastic prybar and wooden mallet to get to the crabmeat, advising us what to eat and what to avoid. There was quite a bit of work involved, but it got easy once I got the hang of it. The peeling, prying, and cracking process left enough spice residue on my fingers to flavor the tiny morsels of meat - enough so I completely forgot the tiny cup of drawn butter. My take - it was good, but not quite worth the effort. A dozen crabs later we were all still hungry. Shirlee ducked into the kitchen to reserve our second dozen - apparently our late arrival made availability doubtful. She came back to announce that all that were left were "Jumbos," significantly more expensive. Being on expense account - nobody cared, and we charged on, adding a second pitcher of beer.

I asked our group if the crabs were local, presuming they were from the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Apparently it had been fished out years ago, so all restaurant crabs were imported, presumably from Mexico or somewhere. So I asked Shirlee, and she verified that they were not from the Chesapeake - hadn't been for years. I asked where they came from now, and she replied, "I think they come from Alabama." Most of us had been to Alabama several times, and all of us were surprised to hear it. Shirlee ducked into the back and returned with the day's invoice. Sure enough, all from LA (Lower Alabama) now! This supplier was based in Bayou La Batre.

The next round of crabs was easily three times bigger than the first. Having warmed up on the small ones, the Jumbos were easy to crack and eat, causing unintentional yet amusing sprays of crab juice in all directions. The meat was bountiful and delicious, perhaps not as tasty as the smaller lot, but far less work to get to. This second platter filled us up and left all satiated. Total with tip was about $38 apiece - very reasonable. The guys who had been before avowed that all of the seafood dinners were likewise excellent and affordable. Definitely worth a return visit. Just be sure to ask what's prepared in house!

Blue Ridge Seafood - RECOMMENDED

Highs: Good, fresh seafood, informal atmosphere, reasonable prices
Lows: Noisy and Messy!

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cafe Monti - Alexandria, Virginia


Cafe Monti
3250 Duke Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
703-370-3632

http://www.cafemonti.com/

Date of Visit: Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Time: Lunch - 1:30 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 1

Ratings
Food Quality: 7
Service: 3
Ambiance: 4


On this particular day I was in the mood for a late lunch of salad and pizza. Having my fill of NY style a few days earlier, I was looking for something thinner and less greasy. I told the GPS to look for Italian places as I drove down Duke Street in Alexandria. Stopped at one place - menu in the window proclaimed, "NY Style Pizza," so I moved on. I was about ready to give up as the GPS indicated Cafe Monti dead ahead. Sounded too pretentious for a pizza place. I was looking for places to make a legal U-turn as I passed the place. Much to my delight, it was very clearly a hole-in-the-wall dive. My kind of place!!! I took one of the three available parking places (there were a few more in back) for my late lunch.

Upon entering I was rewarded with Great American Dive Restaurant decor, faded linoleum, chipped formica tables, vinyl tablecloths, thin patina of perma-grease on everything, and a wonderful aroma of cooking tomato sauce! And there were no less than three signs calling attention to their Zagat listing, dated 2007 and 2008, an unexpected discovery. The tall counter hardly concealed the tiny kitchen area, where two cooks were hard at work. A handwritten sign notified all visitors to place their orders at the counter before being seated at one of the eleven (clearly numbered) tables. The manager, dressed in designer jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, greeted me cheerfully as I perused the white board with 20 or so handwritten specials, primarily seafood and seafood/pasta combinations. On the yellowed wall was the permanent menu, listing margherita style and other pizzas. This was good for me, indicating authentic Napoletana Style (Neapolitan) pizza. An Austrian flag proudly displayed next to Old Glory further indicated the Northern Italian slant of the proprietor and menu. Half a dozen enormous round fresh-baked loaves lined a shelving unit, and two more of them were disemboweled in the prep area. I ordered a small margherita pizza and a green salad. Upon inquiring if they had iced tea, the manager assured me it was both fresh brewed and unsweetened, so I added it to my lunch trifecta. Total with tax - $11.78.

I took a seat, and after a short wait, the manager delivered a large salad of fresh, chopped greens (no olives or other veggies to get in the way), generously dressed with a light vinegarette. A large piece of round bread loaf had a very crispy crust and a chewy, spongy inside - sort of like soda bread without the saltiness. It was perfect for pushing the salad and soaking up the surplus olive oil. The iced tea was cold enough to cause brain freeze when using the supplied straw in the plastic cup. Soon the pizza arrived on a tin plate. At first glance it looked just like NY style cheese pizza. While I was expecting fresh tomato slices and basil leaves over mozzarella on the crust (classic margherita), it was a generous amount of tomato sauce and cheese - no basil at all. It was very hot, and I cut off small pieces to cool - protecting my upper mouth from blistering. The sauce was absolutely amazing, so it was decent pizza, if not what I expected. The crust was relatively thin, crispy, and good as well. Perhaps this alteration was an adaptation to the recent tomato-salmonella scare, but I doubted it. As I waited for the pie to cool, I noticed seven types of wine on display, and a case of bottled beer. Some quick investigation found there was a good assortment of both domestic and imported beers, and I zeroed in on an Erdinger Hefe-weizen Dunkel (dark) als Bayern (from Bavaria). $5.35 more and it was mine, providing an excellent companion for the pizza.

As I finished eating and nursed my beer and tea, I saw the cooks and bus-girl take a seat with some big platters of food. It looked and smelled wonderful, as did the fish ordered at a neighboring table. My pizza and salad made a delightful and filling meal, just perfect for my mood and inclination. I looked up their Zagat Rating, and found it to be 22 for the food, a pretty high score for the Uber-picky NoVa crowd. I think the place deserves a return trip to try the seafood and pasta, which looked great, and perhaps even to try some Austrian fare as well. It's a place you definitely go for the food and not the atmosphere.


And so I did return, for dinner!


Date of Visit: Thursday, June 12, 2008
Time: Dinner - 7:30 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 1

Even though 9 of the 11 tables were full, I still was able to snag one of the three places out front. The same folks were there as the day before, plus an attractive young lady who served and cleared the tables. The white board had been changed in several areas, and the drill looked to be the same. I studied for a bit, then stepped up to the cash register to order. Unlike lunch, the manager did not collect payment at that time, but directed me to an empty table.

What I had with descriptions...
I went with the prosciutto and melon appetizer ($8), fresh scallops and linguine for main course ($18), and pear tart ($5) for dessert. the white board menu descriptions offered no more information than this. I noted they were pouring wines by the carafe, so I asked about the choices for white - pinot grigio and chardonnay. I added half a carafe ($9) of the pinot grigio. I took a table at the back and watched the room. The wine arrived at once, and it was cold and decent - off dry and nice in the summer heat. Near me was a display refrigerator stocked with sodas and bottled water, and a bus area with tubs labeled "Dishes," "Silverware," and "Glasses." Much to my surprise, two young girls eating with their mothers bussed their table into the bins. A few minutes later their teenage brothers did the same, as did the mothers. As I enjoyed my salty prosciutto, fresh cantaloupe, olive oil, and crusty bread - offset nicely by the wine, I watched essentially all the other diners bus their tables as well. It was evident that many of them knew each other - by sight if not by name, and they were also familiar with the staff. Apparently this is a locals' place, and the locals are happy to help out by clearing their own tables. One elderly man even stooped low to fetch a napkin from under his table. Most of the adults, and all of the kids, smiled and acknowledged me as I sat alone. It created a nice atmosphere.

The main course arrived - a healthy pile of needle-thin pasta surrounded by a dozen good-sized scallops. The smallest was about the size of a half dollar. The sauce was the same as used on yesterday's pizza, made slightly runny in combination with the pasta. The linguine was slightly overcooked, soft and unable to absorb any sauce. I put a few hunks of crusty, spongy bread to good use, soaking up puddles of sauce, as I focused on the scallops. They were fresh and sweet, though a couple had started to become slightly fishy. I noted a father and daughter at a nearby table order dessert, and was surprised to see something other than the pear tart. I asked the helpful server what they had, and she informed me it was apple strudel. As it turns out they also had cheesecake, flan, and one piece of raspberry tart. We discussed the merits of strudel versus pear tart for a bit, and I ended up changing my order over to the strudel. I took my time with the main course, but still ended up with some sauce spray on my shirt - which was fortunately red!

The strudel arrived with a nice side of whipped cream. The waitress had told me that none of their desserts was overly sweet, and that was indeed the case with the strudel. I noted a pink tinge to the apple filling, and saw a couple of fruits inside that looked like raisins. I was pleasantly surprised to find they were pitted, dried cherries, lending a delightfully tart contrast to the sweet apples. The portion was generous and delicious. And though not overly sweet, it brought out a pleasant bitter characteristic in the pinot grigio, providing yet another contrast. Again we have a dessert elevating the overall food score! Satiated, I decided to join the locals and bus my own table. And I will have to come back another time to try the pear tart... Total bill was a very reasonable $42.50 with tax, and I left another $8 for tip.

Cafe Monti - Recommended if you want decent Italian with outstanding dessert in a modest setting

Highs: Decent food, great desserts, reasonable prices, large portions, very friendly staff, local restaurant feel
Lows: Ambiance not suitable for a first date or business meeting

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Tony's N.Y. Pizza - Fairfax, Virginia

Tony's N.Y. Pizza
3087 Fair Lakes Shopping Center
Fairfax, Virginia
11:00AM - 11:00 PM - 7 Days a Week
703-502-0808
http://www.tonysnypizza.com/

Date of Visit:Monday, June 11, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 7
Service: 2
Ambiance: 4


I hooked up with three co-workers who were also working in Northern Virginia this week for a pizza treat. Our ringleader was "Longisland Guy" (LG) who was Jones-ing for a taste of his homeland. He had been to Tony's before and attested it was the real deal. There were a few tables outside in the 100 degree heat and 100% humidity, so we bypassed them and headed into the strip mall location. LG was quick to point out the portraits of the last three Popes hanging conspicuously over the cash register - a testimony to the authenticity of the place. Inside you stand in a line to place your order and pay, then you are given a number for your table. This number is called in semi-incoherent fashion over the loudspeaker so you can come fetch your food. The staff in the back yelling at each other indiscriminately added another layer of authenticity to the experience.

The Menu and what we had...
The menu was a full Italian slate on large overhead signboards. Probably a dozen pre-made pies were on display in a glass case for orders by the slice. On the last visit LG and another guy had put away two 14-inch pies, so we ordered three 16-inchers for the four of us, plus antipasto salad and bread. And a pitcher (or two) of Sam Adams beer. Our three pies were classic NY cheese, pepperoni, and (after considering mushroom for a minute) sausage. My suggestion to get a combo was quickly dismissed as impractical, testifying to my Midwestern ignorance. We found a fast-food style booth for four and crowded ourselves in. The beer and salad were ready very quickly, and we were privileged to have an authentic Italian staff member deliver the salad personally. It was a pile of iceberg, heavily dressed with oil and vinegar, plus Buffalo cheese balls and rolls of ham, artichokes, and Italian peppers. A side of bread was ignored in anticipation of the coming pies. Three of us had small portions of the salad, while LG abstained to save room for his precious NY pizza. When the pies were called, two went to retrieve them, and there was no room on the small table. Our earlier helpful friend returned with three pedestals, two of which fit on the table - the third being relegated to and adjoining high-top table.

The pies were blisteringly hot, and LG dove in immediately, while the rest of us were more circumspect. The cheese pie was topped with a semi-liquid sauce and a healthy amount of Mozzarella cheese. The crust was NY spec - lending itself to folding to hold most of the topping in a pocket for your eating pleasure. The Pepperoni pizza was identical to the cheese with the addition of spicy slices of bright red meat-byproducts. The sausage pizza was similar, but instead of crumbled sausage there were slices of brown sausage. The cheese pie was greasy, the pepperoni pie was very greasy, and the sausage pie was molto-molto-greasy, as demonstrated by the puddles on our paper plates - grease catchers. We charged through all four pizzas, three large piles of napkins, and two pitches of beer (for three of us - the fourth was a teetotaler). The pie was decent and a pleasure to eat, although NY is not my favorite style. LG proudly proclaimed that the roof of his mouth was blistered, shredded, and pleasantly numb - the rest of us had avoided such a fate. While nobody was keeping track, LG certainly was the consumer of the night - and we were all happy for him. And by unanimous vote, Pepperoni was the best of the three pizzas.

While we all sat and rested in a cheesy-greasy haze, somebody (might have been me) mentioned that they had cannoli. A lively conversation ensued concerning the compartmenting of the human stomach into food and dessert sections. A few minutes later a tray appeared with four beautiful cannoli. "Are you kidding me?" I asked. Bought and paid for, there was nothing for it but to proceed. These marscarpone-stuffed tubes of pastry were absolutely delightful, better than the last ones I'd had in Little Italy on Manhattan. The dessert raised this restaurant's food score by a full point. Overstuffed and wounded, we made our way back to our respective hotels for a well-earned comatose rest.

Tony's NY Pizza - RECOMMENDED for all New York pizza lovers and all who love to blister the roofs of their mouths!

Highs: Pepperoni pie, Cannoli
Lows: Self service, uncomfortable tables, noise

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego