My AFC Wild Card Cook-Off: Houston vs Buffalo

In celebration of the NFL playoffs this year, I have decided to pay homage for foods well known in the participating cities. Even if I haven’t been to some of the cities, it’s not hard to find a few culinary gems one can recreate in the comfort of their own kitchen.

After watching the game itself, I can draw a few conclusions:

  1. Buffalo is cursed. Josh Allen does appear to have the tools necessary to win a few games but he’s gotta learn how to use them. At 6’5″, he pitches the ball versus throws it which certainly isn’t helped by the fact, as an announcer put it, his receiving core are “smurfs”. His naivety was clear in the 4th quarter where he literally pulled his team out of field goal range and handed Houston the win.
  2. American announcers have a hard-on for JJ Watt. It became nauseating listening to those clowns suggest that JJ’s sack was the turning point in the game and that anybody who could even dream of returning from pectoral surgery so quickly is nothing short of a god. The man love was truly nauseating and a reminder of why I mute sports events at times, especially given the fact they mic’d him up and we all got to hear his Tony Robbins’ motivational crap all game.
  3. Watching DeShaun Watson it like watching a roulette wheel spin and you have the house on red. Events like his Houdini move in this game remind us he’s far from a sure thing and that JJ Watt probably had something to do with it anyway.

The food showdown involved a menu of items representative of the two cities. This one was a bit easy…ribs vs wings. In order to up the ante a bit I added a few other dishes; Texas Caviar and Western New York’s famed sandwich… the beef on weck. I haven’t been to Houston but it’s culinary scene seems to be improving. I also have a good friend there so it’s on my list for 2020. I have been to Buffalo numerous times (the last time to watch the Bills beat the Flaccoless Broncos) and have had the privilege of indulging in a Charlie the Butcher’s beef on weck. I have also dropped by the original Anchor bar to pig out on a platter of wings.

It started with making some Texas BBQ sauce. Although there are no shortage of online renditions of Lone Star sauces, there are a few commonalities which include a good amount of sugar and lots of apple cider vinegar. In the end, I opted for Aaron Franklin’s Masterclass recipe which in the end was a perky and more biting version of many of the sauces sold on store shelves. The back ribs were slowly cooked (275 degrees)for a few hours and the sauces was added for the last 30 and the temp upped a few degrees which resulted in a slight caramelization but a maintenance of the strong vinegar flavour.

Texas caviar is a side dish open to creative interpretation as well. Usually it consists of some combination of the following ingredients: black-eyed peas and/or black beans, peppers, jalapeno, tomato, onion and avocado. Then it is usually dressed with some kind of vinaigrette ranging from Italian dressing to an olive oil with red or white wine vinegar. I used all the above ingredients to maximize taste and texture and finished it with aforementioned olive oil/red wine vinegar combination. The subtle acid nicely cut the fattiness of the other dishes and provided a bit of refreshment similar to smart Josh Allen play in the second half if you happen to be a Bills’ fan.

Texas Caviar

I cook wings all the time and opted for a straight forward oven-baked version sauced with hot sauce and butter in typical buffalo style. When it comes to wings, there are no fancy sides necessary…celery and carrots with a tub of blue cheese works every time. I often go full out deep fry but I was kind of drunk and lazy by this point.

Wings…Carrots and Celery Missing..I was a little sauced myself.

Since wings are pretty easy I tackled the famed beef on weck as well. I seasoned up an outside round and threw in the oven for a few hours (at the same temperature as the ribs) until it was medium. After a rest, I sliced it up and through on some homemade Weck buns (ensuring to leave the polarizing caraway seeds off half the batch). I wasn’t the biggest fan of this recipe which called for almost 25 minutes of bake time at 425 which would have turned them into footballs even Tom Brady couldn’t deflate. They were a little dense for my liking but gives me something to work on for next year..just like Josh. In the end, it was no Charlie the butcher but made for a great pigskin snack.

For dessert I went with a dish from the eventual game winner; Texas bread pudding with a Whisky butter sauce. It was a pretty standard pudding using some old buns and brioche I had kicking around (I wouldn’t recommend the weck buns given the caraway!). I threw in some raisins and pecans for good measure. The whisky sauce called for 1/3 cup of bourbon which retrospectively was a bit much reminding that everything (including the risk of getting drunk off dessert) is in fact bigger in Texas.

Texas Bread Pudding with Whisky Butter Sauce

My Take

Although not a game for the Super Bowl, “wide right” may be tempered somewhat by “don’t get sacked when you’re in field goal range in overtime” or “I don’t give a shit if he’s Houdini…tackle him”. As for the food, both regions represent great party foods. The BBQ sauce was tangier than I’m used to buying and would almost pass as a good wing sauce as well. The Texas caviar would shut the pie holes of any vegan viewers (or you could just slap down some carrots and celery and keep the extra blue cheese for your wings). For dessert, I suspect many Bills fans would have ignored the pudding and lapped up the Whisky sauce as a new way to drown this decade’s new football sorrow.

Sandwiches: Not Only Damn Good but the Possible Key to Better Understanding the Generation Gap

More and more, the news is filled with stories of millennial opinion and influence. I recently read an article in Forbes magazine outlining the pending transfer of wealth from the boomers to the youngest generation and the disaster which may ensue. The #okboomer movement has been plastered all over social media and I even had to watch a news story about millennial preference for mayonnaise versus cranberries as an accompaniment for Christmas turkey. Things were further fueled by a recent discussion/argument I had with my son about the definition of a generation. I adhere to more of a biological definition whereas he looks at it more in a social context. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a generation is “a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor” or “a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously” so by definition we are both correct. However, I find it hard to define a generation by an arbitrary range of years endorsed by Wikipedia. For example, I have a daughter born in 1995 and my aforementioned son was born in 1997. Depending on the day of the week, both exhibit varied levels of millennial qualities such as entitlement, cluelessness and a hands-off but highly opinionated concept of social justice. However, despite having the same parents and being born 2 years apart, the are supposedly of a different generation since the most agreed upon cut-off for Generation Y (aka. millennial, echo boomers) and Generation Z (who avidly insist they are NOT millennial) is 1996.

So instead of using the letters XYZ or trending hashtags to categorize generations and since this is a food blog, maybe I can explain my thoughts using an analogy more in my wheelhouse…the sandwich.

Boomers– Boomers are the upper part of the sandwich. Historically, they have protected the rest of the sandwich from things like aggressive cling wrap, flies and other sandwich predators and generally are seen as crusty. These days, many see the upper crust as unnecessary as indicated by preferences for open faced concepts like avocado toast or tuna melts.

Generation X- Gen Xs are the sandwich filling. They touch both the upper and lower parts of the sandwich and are the most necessary for the total functionality of the sandwich. Although sometimes feeling a bit smothered by the upper crust, there is a general appreciation of the role they play (and played). Tuna is tuna and turkey is turkey…there is much less of a need to acutely define themselves.

Millenials/Gen Y, YZ etc. aka Echo Boomers. The base of the sandwiches. Feel as if they are burdened by bearing the weight of anything above them. As a result, they probably eat Big Macs upside down (after ordering on Skip the Dishes) to feel a sense of entitlement. Unlike the boomers who admit they are simply bread, it is important for millennials to sub divide themselves into categories like gluten/dairy free, organic, thin, texas toast, spelt, 12 grain, brioche, rustic, artisan, olive, vegan, panetonne or sourdough.

Speaking of sandwiches, I’m a huge fan of sandwiches and figured this would be a good time to review some of the better ones I’ve had this year. First, a few observations:

  1. I sadly did not eat enough sandwiches last year. Lunch is a meal I’m often likely to skip so it usually means the chance at a good sandwich is sacrificed.
  2. In some situations, a sandwich can be enhanced with a good side, vibe or concept so I also take this into consideration.
  3. Tacos and burgers are not sandwiches….they are…well…tacos and burgers.

Charlie the Butcher– Buffalo

I love regional foods and Western New York’s Beef on Weck in one of the best. Charlie the Butcher in Buffalo offers one of the best. The combination of the salted bun, tender beef and quick dip in the au jus makes for a near perfect sandwich. In addition, the sides are incredible (try the slaw) and if you are lucky enough you might even see Charlie himself slaving away in the kitchen..hard hat and all.

Good Friend Sandwich Company-Brantford

I stumbled across this place after a quick google search and have been back a few times since. It is a house converted into a homey sandwich shop owned and operated by aboriginals. While waiting you can peruse the shelves and look at language books or have a fun conversation with the woman behind the counter who is super friendly. There are a dozen or so choices including an apple and brie cheese panini with an addictive caramel dipping sauce (pictured below), the bacon butty (bacon on buttered buttermilk bread) and classics like pulled pork and beef dips. A small handful of chips is mandatory with every sandwich based on the simple logic that you can’t have a sandwich without a simple side…works for me.

Good Friends Sandwich Company- Apple and Brie Cheese Panini

Larder– Cleveland

Larder comes with great fanfare as it was a James Beard semi-finalist for best new restaurant in 2019. Set up in an old firehall, the space is adorned with old stoves, shelves of pickles and elixirs. The pork shoulder Reuben was a solid sandwich and is available with plenty of deli sides and served by very pleasant staff.

Larder’s Pork Shoulder Reuben

Deli Board-San Francisco

San Francisco is a haven for overpriced but great food and Deli Board is no exception. You’ll pay close to $20 US for a sandwich but it’s well worth it. There is a core menu plus daily specials so there is no shortage of choice. I went with a special called the Bubba (roast beef, bacon, cheddar, provolone, cherry pepper, slaw and 1000 island) served on their garlic dutch crunch bread. The space is clean and the service is efficient but this sandwich was so good you could have served it out of a Coleman cooler on a street corner and I’d still be happy.

The Bubba

Loops-Columbus

The Italian beef sandwich at Loops in Columbus was memorable. One of Guy’s DDD choices, the star of this Chicago-style sandwich was the giardiniera which provided a tangy and spicy punch to otherwise normal roast beef.

Loops’ Italian Beef Sandwich

Mermaid Avenue Sandwich Factory– Kingston

Any place that hinges its entire concept around a music group is cool with me. In the case of Mermaid Avenue sandwich company it’s Wilco, the Chicago based alternative band. They have a nice variety of offerings and while you wait you can get your fill of all things Wilco. My choice was the “How to Fight Loneliness ( Deli chicken, honey mustard, apple slices, cheddar cheese & bacon). I’ll admit, the protein was a little scarce but overall it’s a fun place to pop into for a quick bite.

Cake and Loaf-Hamilton

This bakery usually puts out 1-2 sandwiches a day on rotation and it’s first come first serve. However, I did call in advance and they were able to hold me a couple for pick up. In particular, the chicken jalapeno in incredible as is the tuna melt. While there, the bakery itself is amazing as well. You can score everything from scones to a take home pulled pork and mac and cheese pie.

My Take

First, I think I need to eat a few more sandwiches because there is no shortage out there. Second, I think I will start to refer to generations in the context of foodstuffs especially since I’m convinced my generation is the exciting stuff. Soon enough things will change and the next generation can take over the filling and stress the keto, oceanwise, free range or whatever makes a good hashtag or social cause. In the meantime, wait for your #okboomer inheritance, #stayinyourlane and remember #cranberriesarebetterthanmayo.

Skippa’s Dippa or No Dippa..My Amazing Race to the Most Exciting Game Since Howie Mandel Called the Bank

I’m a big game show fan and I’ve certainly fallen under the spell of many gimmicky ones over the years. In my early years, I learned how to count on the Price is Right and had many arguments with my mom about the reasons why Bob Barker shouldn’t be a father figure (and for the record mom…both my dogs are spayed or neutered). I have had dreams about destroying the Clock Game in 14 seconds ($891..892..893…894) or purposely giving up the trip to Aruba to watch the hiker slip off the edge in Cliffhanger.

My obsession didn’t stop there. I tolerated Regis Philbin on Who wants to be a Millionaire and actually wore a monochrome dress shirt and tie on at least one occasion. I longed to be a game show masochist at the expense of Anne Robinson on the Weakest Link. I even tolerated Howie Mandel’s scrubbed down stand up as he demanded that a bunch of women a third his age “open the case” on Deal or no Deal.

Since Skippa has opened, it’s been on my list but I rarely have the fortitude to haul my ass all the way up to Harbord Street. The irony is when I finally did make the trek, I severely underestimated the restaurant’s distance from the subway. For some reason I assumed it would be in the cluster of other restaurants between Spadina and Bathurst. In fact, I had no idea that Harbord stretched all the way to Ossington so I felt like I was on the Amazing Race as I darted an extra 2 km with the clock ticking in order to get there within some acceptable proximity of my reserved time.

When I made the online reservation I had the choice of communal seating (nope..I’m antisocial), the bar (would be cool but I was meeting a few others) or a comfortable booth a few steps up and away from the kitchen…bingo! When I finally arrived after my trek we were quickly greeted by a very pleasant member of the waitstaff who politely explained the restaurant’s concept. Choice one is the “Trust Skippa” which is a $130 opportunity to sample the entire menu. The option was a la carte but within that list was a $45 today’s sushi option which allows one to sample of piece of each of the evening’s featured fish. The three of us decided to go for the sushi flight and share most of the remaining dishes on the menu.

After ordering some warm sake ( one of the first examples of attention to detail was having ability to choose your own sake glass from all sorts of shapes and sizes), the meal started with an unorthodox bread service featuring a seaweed sourdough accompanied but house made butter which had been fermented for 6 months. Brilliant.

Seaweed Sourdough Bread

You will rarely near me say that pictures speak louder than words, especially given my notorious reputation as a shitty shutterbug. That said, I think these pics are half decent and that said, they don’t have to be great to emit the quality of the offerings.

The opener was a clever amberjack sashimi dish garnished with kumquat and fresh wasabi. Beautifully balanced.

Amberjack and Kumquat

Immediately after finishing, our place settings were cleaned off and reset in anticipation of the next dishes; local shitaake mushroom and daikon in a soy milk bath BC scallops served with in shell and complemented with sunchoke.

Next was a kinoko salad made with maitake mushroom and seasoned with miso and topped with watermelon radish. I found it a little on the salty side but the texture of the mushroom and the contrast of the radish made me a little less salty about it.

The quail dish was accompanied with seasonal persimmons and citrus which put together was a nice contrast to the seafood. It was intense and hearty yet delicate at the same time.

Quail with Persimmon

Once again the dishes were cleared in preparation for the sushi course. Fresh ginger and a beautiful soy sauce were laid on the table but were instructed that the chef would indicate whether it was needed. To dip or not to dip?..that was the question. We waiting in anticipation for direction as each dish was presented:

Retrospectively, there was a bit of a code to the dip or no dip question. The tuna sushi tended to be left alone as as the whitefish that were already seasoned with other sauces. The rest were fair game for a soy dunk. Regardless, all were stellar. Nonetheless, it was a fun game with an anticipation reminiscent of finding out if somebody blew it on Deal or no Deal.

Given the quality the meal, there was no way I was declining dessert. I went with the oba, a simple yogurt based dessert flavored with meyer lemon, sorrel and pomegranate seed atop some crumble. The balance of tart, savory and sweet flavours was perfect but the contrasting textures and temperatures of the creamy yogurt, iced sorrel and crunchy base were even better. In fact, after finding some meyer lemons at Costco the next day, I’ve been searching the city (to no avail) for sorrel in an effort to recreate this dish at home…I may have to use mint or upland cress instead #firstworldproblems.

My Take

Skippa provided a spectacular dining experience and the “Dip or No Dip” game show was an added bonus. From the salads to the dessert, each dish was meticulously thought out and hinged on brilliant contrast in either temperature, texture or taste. The sushi was fresh and vibrant. The service was impeccable and the attention to detail was immaculate. Personally, I don’t think you need the whole $130 “Trust Skippa” menu..I was adequately satiated with the sushi flight and sharing the rest of the dishes with my table mates. Even then, compared to many other sushi joints, Skippa may be big bucks but I promise…no whammies.

I Just had a Meal that was Pretty Fking Good

Once in a while I enjoy going out for dinner. By this I mean dinner versus an new age experience in which food is some part of it. Within an industry dominated by the likes of Charles Khabouth, Oliver and Bonnacini, Jenn Agg or Grant van Gameren, sometimes it’s nice to find a stand alone old school eatery with single site ambition. In essence, I was looking for a place off the hipster path which still has appetizers and mains and serves complimentary bread and tap water without much resistance.

I recently brought a customer out and decided to venture to St. Clair West and visit Fk. I would like to believe that this is a response to the need to make everything an acronym (perhaps to make texting easier) or maybe it’s simply a sassy play on words but i wasn’t sure if I should tell people if I was going to dinner at eff-kay or fuck for dinner. When they called to confirm my reservation which I ensured I booked a few weeks before (because they sure as Fk don’t use open table), they identified themselves with the former pronunciation.

In this case, the “F” is Frank Parhizgar who along with Shawn (nice spelling) Cooper, ran Frank’s Kitchen for a number of years before shuttering and moving a bit north to the current location.

In addition to a less than pedestrian menu, Fk prides themselves on a robust wine list including a small list of exclusive by the glass choices protected with the help of a coravin (I only mention this because it seems to be a big deal). As a result, I was able to indulge in a 5 ounce glass of a small batch Alsatian Pinot Gris which was fantastic. If you are not a wine person, they also offer a couple of delicious albeit expensive draft beer choices including Krombacher Pilsner and an Italian Menabrea Ambrata.

The amuse bouche really is a dying art so it was nice to see the waiter enthusiastically  pour cold avocado soup around a small pile of matchsticked cucumber placed in the middle of a hand crafted bowl (apparently Mr. Parhizgar had a hand in this too). It was pleasant reminder that summer wasn’t quite over yet. Afterwards, we were offered Frank’s fresh baked trio of bread which included a rustic crusty bread, an Italian pomodoro and a walnut loaf.

 

Avocado Amuse Bouche

The appetizer menu include a few old school favorites served nouveau.  My guest opted for a crafty tuna nicoise which featured sushi grade tuna served linearly across the plate among other classic salad ingredients. I cheated a bit and avoided the appetizer menu all together, instead ordering crab cakes from the side menu.  The cakes themselves were crunchy type ( I normally like something a little softer) but the ramp tartar sauce was a phenomenal condiment which I would gladly slather on many foodstuffs, crustacean or otherwise, without much hesitation.

For the main I opted for the lobster ravioli which swam in a tarragon bisque.  It came with a modest portion of six pieces but was rich enough to satiate especially after I made every effort to scoop the last drops of the broth out of the bowl which my spoon while lamenting in the fact that I should have save a bit of walnut loaf to ease the task.

Lobster Ravioli

I skipped dessert but nonetheless I was treated to a house made chocolate gem to finish the meal. Once again, it was another example of a passionate attention to detail.

Fk Chocolates

In the end, Fk was refreshing…a bit of an oasis in the desert of loud, bustling eateries which cloud food with folly.  There is true passion in the dishes coupled with a few cool wines along with the ability to talk about with your party without Richter scale noise. The staff are pleasant and attentive, the wine is unique and the food is pretty fking good.

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

Columbus: The Home of Lots of Dumplings, National Pistol Champions and 60000 Nuts

The last leg of my Midwest road trip was a stop in Columbus. It seems I have circled around Ohio’s capital in the past but visiting cities including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Pittsburgh. My understanding of Columbus is limited to its place as state capital, the home of a recently decimated NHL hockey team and of course, the location of THE Ohio State University.

To me THE Ohio State University has always been a castle in the kingdom of post-secondary folklore. It is loathed especially by Michigan, anybody in the Big 10 and well… pretty much anybody within a 200 mile radius who isn’t a Buckeye or Buckeye fan. In fact, just a few weeks ago, an American colleague (and Indiana native) of mine couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the sheer mention of my presence anywhere the campus. Just the look of Urban Meyer, the celebrated ex-OSU head coach who in his tenure of 8 years scored a national championship, makes most football fans wince. You have to admit, calling yourself “THE” in any context is pretty ballsy, especially in light of the many Ivy league schools which display their pride in less overt ways such a participation in college Jeopardy competitions and high sales of “My kid goes to Harvard” bumper stickers. That said, maybe the OSU claim is justified. Let’s look at 5 reasons why:

  1. The school is in the top five nationally for student enrollment. I guess when 60 000 students think they are the best, they are the best.
  2. Their mascot is a tree nut with a face and a body which has got to be as tough as a wolverine or a badger, possibly through the induction of allergic reactions among those who dare question their authority.
  3. Rumour has it that their reluctance to surpass rival Michigan in stadium attendance is the sheer fact that they don’t want to close off the bottom of the complex and have to think up a nickname other than the horseshoe.
  4. There is something to be said about 100000 people who can spell a four letter word (no it’s not any of the vulgar words coming to mind..it’s O-H-I-O) for 10 minutes before kick off. Thank god Columbus isn’t the capital of Massachusetts.
  5. Screw football…OSU has won 9 national men’s pistol championships since 2000 and 32 national woman’s synchronized swimming championship since 1977. Michigan, on the other hand, has only won 8 men’s hockey championships and none since 1998…losers.
  6. Famous alumni include George Steinbrenner, Jack Nicklaus, Roy Lichtenstein and R.L. Stein…the thought just gives me Goosebumps.

Honestly, part of the reason I have avoided Columbus until now is because until recently it has been void of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives which I find ironic given Columbus is the birthplace of host Guy Fieri.  Of the six DDDs which now populate the capital, I managed to hit half of them during my short trip.  The first was Loops (named after the L-line), a Chicago sandwich shop which pays homage to most the Windy city as well , of course, THE Ohio state.  Among the many sandwich and dog choices on the menu, I opted for two of Guy’s choices from the show; the Italian Beef and the authentic pork gyro “done the right way”.    They came unapologetically wrapped in foil street vendor style.  The beef was loaded with giardiniera (pickled vegetables) and the gyro with the traditional lettuce, tomato and tzatziki.  I much preferred the Italian Beef, possibly because of the promise of Chicago  authenticity (giardiniera atop beef is classic Chi-town). Also, I found the pork a little dry but it was helped by the sloppiness of the rest if the sandwich including the aforementioned sauce.

Stop two was the much anticipated North market (located in a rather surprisingly nice downtown area complete with brick streets and the attractive Nationwide arena). The market houses the second DDD, a Nepalese dumpling house called Momo Ghar which has gained national popularity on social media and other foodie channels.  Nepal (probably less recognized than it’s capital Katmandu which has been a celebrity refuge for many and theme of the Bob Seger song of the same name) is sandwiched between China and India so it’s not surprising that its culinary influences come from both sides of the border. I can best describe Momo Ghar’s offerings as hakka dim sum. Strong Indian flavours of cilantro and cumin filled the Asian style chicken and pork dumplings which were served atop a flavourful sauce resembling a thin curry.  The side of potato salad also had Asian flair..kind of like if Nepal was fused somewhere between India and the United States and hosted a picnic. In addition, the market offered a number of other vendors including Flavor and Fore, a great hot sauce and salsa shop, Penny’s Meats (hey I have to mention a butcher with my last name!) and  Destination Donuts, who sweet offerings and sweeter staff were enticing enough to make a trip back over the border with me back to Ontario.

The final DDD was Pierogi Mountain.  There are two locations and both are hidden within the kitchens of Columbus bars which makes understanding where and when to find them a bit confusing.  One is a late night punk bar near OSU and the other is in a cocktail bar called Wunderbar located in the historic German village in central Columbus.  It seems quite a symbiotic relationship as I imagine drunk punks and hipsters would love to scarf down pocket potatoes in the wee hours of the morning after pounding Miller High Lifes and listening to bands named Acid Angst or the Beard Scratchcards. Pierogi Mountain offers a lunch service right in the kitchen while Wunderbar is closed so I had to forego the punk bar scene (in which neither the bar or the kitchen opened until evening anyway) and order alongside a rather adorable old couple who was less than decisive. It’s also cute to watch old people loudly read the menu items to each other and then argue about each other likes and dislikes. “Henry, you won’t like those beer pierogies and I don’t want you drinking before noon”. “Nevermind Margaret…I wouldn’t dare order the meatloaf because it won’t be as good as yours. “Oh, Henry, that’s sweet”. Henry gets beer pierogies…the end. The pierogis were soft, flavourful and nicely pan fried without excessive grease.  The stewed onions were a delicious condiment, sweetened nicely to compliment the sour cream.  I also ordered their special; a meatloaf with a cheese gravy which, despite sounding a little odd, was surprisingly complex and quite satisfying.  

  Honorable mention goes to Rooster’s, a local roadhouse chain with big ass cheap beer and heaps of butter laden wings. I also have to shout to , who was probably the most courteous Uber driver I’ve ever had.

In sum, Columbus is worth another visit which I may plan immediately after the next Michigan game to either relish the win or snicker somewhat in the loss as I read “How I got my Shrunken head” aloud on a street corner or scream “I Don’t Care! I’d rather drown than.. call Brad for help!” over and over as I streak across campus. If not, I’ll just hit the other three DDD and call that a major win.

Looking for Redemption at Shawshank: My Own Amazing Race Without the Need for a Permanent Reminder

Sometimes you come across things by chance. The initial plan on the way from Cleveland to Columbus was to hit one of the many Amish buffets that populate mid-Ohio. However, I still super full from the previous day. Curious about the weather, I flipped on the news to look at the map and get the forecast and saw that the town of Mansfield, Ohio was about halfway to Columbus travelling down highway 71. After a quick internet search, I discovered two things; Mansfield, in particular the Ohio State Reformatory, was the venue for the 2019 Inkcarceration tour featuring the likes of Godsmack, Five Finger Death Punch and a whole lot of tattoo artists which, as a guy who’s skin is a blank canvas, wasn’t particularly appealing. Second, the same prison was the hub for the filming of the Shawshank Redemption which hit theaters 25 years ago. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this movie, which follows the wrongful conviction Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) has achieved cult-like status. That year, it couldn’t compete with Forest Gump and the Lion King but surprisingly, it didn’t even crack the top 50 in box office earnings that year and was even beaten by the likes of Beverly Hills Cop III, Richie Rich and the Schwarzenegger classic Junior. Nonetheless it was nominated for 7 Oscars including best picture (at a a time when there weren’t 17 candidates), best adapted screenplay and best actor for Morgan Freeman. It failed to win any. Also, it seemed a fitting tour stop given the fact I stomped around Bangor, Maine last year posing near numerous landmarks referenced in Stephen King’s “It” so why stop now.

One can tour the reformatory for $15 and we got lucky because it was the first day it was open following the concert (they were still disassembling the stages and cleaning up the grounds when we arrived). The tour is a peek into the history of the Ohio penal system with a number of Shawshank references scattered throughout. One gets a bit gobsmacked (or is it Godsmacked) viewing things like the electric chair, shanks (made from spoons, pencils and other routine prisonware) and the eerie symmetry of the numerous cells stacked on top of each other. In regards to the movie, you can also the warden’s office, the infamous “Brooks was here” room, the solitary confinement area where Andy spend a lot of fine as well as the tunnel that was used for his escape. Cardboard cutouts of various characters including the ominous Captain Hadley are strategically placed throughout the grounds to recreate many of the movie scenes.

Other movie scenes scattered throughout the town of Mansfield itself which are identified by Shawshank Trail signs which made me feel like I was competing on the amazing race. These included the building who’s front facade was the movie’s halfway house and the green bench Brooks rested and reflected on after his release. There is also the Food Way(now a convenience/grocery store called the KV market) which was used in the movie. It was purchased by a Brampton family and now looks nothing like the market Red was employed at following his release. I had a nice chat with the owner’s son about life in rural Ohio and whether the Honey Jalapeno Fetty Wap chips were any good.

The Shawshank trail also scoots up to Upper Sandusky (which is south of Sandusky….). Here you can see the courthouse where Andy was originally sentenced in the movie as well as the workshop where many of the prisoners worked throughout the movie. Other than that, it is a quaint Northern Ohio place with a picturesque central street where you can get a decent coffee and a friendly small town smile at a place called Beca House Coffee Co.

Given I stumbled across Mansfield by fluke at the 11th hour, I didn’t have a chance to venture to Ashfield or Butler to sit under the “Shawshank oak tree” and ponder why I might want to get “Brooks was Here” tattooed on my forearms in sanskrit. I guess I don’t really have to; I bought the beer koozie which I can nicely tuck it away in a drawer when the novelty wears off.

Symon Says if You Don’t Eat yer Meat you Can’t Have Any Pudding While Waters’ Version of Meat is a Pig named Donald Trump

I’m going to take take advantage of any rock music reference I can make when I’m anywhere in the vicinity of Cleveland. Rest assured, the reference will likely not include the likes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, is worth discussing. With a father and uncles who grew up in this era, I was constantly exposed to second hand Floyd mixed among some of the other compounds circulating the air at the time. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the impact this band (and their individuals) have had on musical progression, politics and my ear drums. Inducted into the hall in 1996, their rather subdued and almost somber performance of “Wish you Were Here” with Billy Corgan made you wish Rogers Waters was there (he refused due to long standing tension between band members).

Waters’ tumultuous personality continues to shine (on you crazy diamond). Since the advent of the Trump administration, he has targeted the POTUS more cynically than Alec Baldwin on SNL. I mean you have to respect a guy who can piss off Trump so supporters so bad that they storm out of the venue after paying a few hundred dollars for a ticket. Just watch the near 11 minute updated video for Pigs (Three Different Ones) to see what I mean.

Day two entailed a lot of walking through the wide streets of downtown Cleveland. Once a victim of a slowing of American industrialism and one of the primary members of the Amercian “Rustbelt”, Cleveland’s recent reinvigoration was due in part to a major investment in the city’s downtown prior to the 2016 Republican National Convention in which Donnie J was elected king of the castle. In addition, there are other city landmarks of note including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Progressive Field (which had just hosted the 2019 MLB all-star game), a waterfront on the south side of Lake Erie which was home to the tall ship festival and downtown’s Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument designed by Levi Scofield (spoiler alert….Mr. Scofield will come up again in the next post). There were also a number of musical venues such at House of Blues ( with Carly Rae Jepsen playing that night) and Sunday Reggae at the Music Box.

Another popular spot in Cleveland is East 4th street in the heart of downtown. Called a shopping and dining experience, this pedestrian way houses the likes of the aforementioned House of Blues as well as celebrity chef and Cleveland native Michael Symon’s flagship restaurant Lola and her sister Mabel’s. I opted for the latter for two reasons; a more casual experience and a huge bourbon list. Living in Ontario, the LCBO tends to strangle imports such as fine American Whiskeys and Mabel’s offers a wide array ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars including private barrel selections. I went for a $16 New Riff 4 year old CBC (Cleveland Bourbon Club) #26 a which was a little smoky a little sweet and a little smooth.

Mabel’s is called Cleveland barbeque, meshing American smoking with Eastern European influences including kielbasa, sauerkraut and spaetzle. At the time of my visit, the website boasted a Sunday happy hour but this has recently changed to Monday-Friday and wasn’t updated so I was stuck ordering wings and cracklings (puffy pig skin) at full price. I threw a half pound of smoke turkey and some baked beans into the mix which arrived on a metal tray along with pickles, rye bread and chip dip. I felt the four choices were like the cardinal directions on Mabel’s map representing a bit of everything BBQ. In particular, the turkey was a far cry from the normally dry holiday mess and was full of subtle smoky flavour. Personally. the chip dip was unnecessary and the bread was a slightly dry and unneeded touch that weren’t as appreciated as the rest of the condiments. The banana pudding for dessert was spot on but I’m also highly biased based on my unnatural love for nilla wafers. Looking back, Nilla would have been a cool name for my daughter but I would never her tell her she was named after a cookie or that her name was short for vanilla although it may be a compliment given the fact the vanilla bean seems to be the frankincense or myrrh of this millennium.

Now that I think about, Cleveland has become a Mecca for both governmental and musical politics. It did host the nomination of the most controversial president in US history and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has no shortage of politics itself whether it’s the inductees (ie. Bon Jovi), the no shows (Sex Pistols, Thom Yorke) or the numerous failed attempts at reunions between jaded ex-band members (ie. Dire Straits/CCR etc). That said, Pink Floyd’s famous lyrics ” if you don’t eat yer meat you can’t have any pudding” continue to resonate a life time changing from a literal meaning as a child to a figurative one as a adult. Perhaps Trump just sees it as another brick in the wall.

Mabel's BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Crossing Cleveland’s Cuyahoga from a Faux Jewish Deli to a Real Italian Joint with a Flight in Between

After a bit of a break, the request to pay my $25 renewal fee for my web domain reminded me that I need to at least attempt to justify the cost to keep the name and a recent jaunt down to the Midwest seems a perfect start to the new fiscal year.

The intent was to eat my way through parts of Ohio starting in Cleveland and ending in Columbus.  As usual, these gluttonous escapades usually encompass a combination of James Beard nominees, triple D’s and some degree of celebrity chef stalking. I’m no stranger to the city of Rock and Roll but the Buckeye city is new to me.

I figured there was no better place to start than Ohio City, the trendy Cleveland suburb on the West side of the Cuyahoga river. The plan was to head to the Larder Delicatessen and Bakery, a deli nominated as a James Beard semifinalist in the best new restaurant category this year.  Set in a old firehouse, the interior looked like a library of hipster libations. Bottles of homemade palatable potions lined the walls and the utensils were shelved atop an antique stove tucked away in the corner. Despite the cooler full of kosher pickles and deli salads, it’s hard to call this a true Jewish deli.  Sure, I could have ordered gefilte fish or rugulach as well but there was no shortage of pork on the menu either.  In fact, I opted for a from scratch pork shoulder Reuben.  The bologna sandwich, which I assumed contained some sort of non-cud chewing creature but was too afraid to ask, was also unorthodox…at least in Cleveland terms.  It seems a standard Cleveland Bologna sandwich is adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayo whereas Larder’s take used carrots and old (sharp) cheddar.  Despite the deviations, both sandwiches were creative and thoughtful and demonstrated the from scratch mentality reminiscent of the phenomenal Reuben at Lucky’s cafe a few miles down the road.

Satisfied with foodstuffs, I wanted to tickle my thirst sensors with a jaunt back down the road to Bookhouse Brewing on W 25th.   This time the walls were donned with books instead of bottles and games instead of gherkins.  It seemed sensible to opt for a sampler of drafts which included Life in a Northern Town (the word northern is certainly subjective given my home town is over 800 km north of Ohio City although it could be paying homage to the 1985 Dream Academy song), Study Session IPA (a reminder of the many university exam cramming sessions that ended up with a pint in hand), Bricks and Mortar (such a hipster term)  and a brilliant Key Lime Three out of Five Gose. The experiment lead to a couple of Crowlers (specifically the first two), a 32 ounce emperor can spun to seal after filling.  I figured downing a half gallon of Key Lime would have been like eating a whole pie vs just a slice.

I had no idea as to the importance of summer family reunions in US culture.  Upon checking into the Embassy suites that night in Cleveland’s Beachwood area, I realized the lobby was inundated with red, yellow and green shirts representing a few clusters of families from all over America.  When I asked the bartender later that night, she informed me that a chunk of summer banquet business are family reunions and outlined the normal itinerary; meet, mingle (plus/minus argument), picnic, formal dinner, church and/or depart depending on the amount of time it takes to get home.  In fact, she was not attending her own reunion given the fact it was in Jacksonville, Florida which was too far and much too humid.

Dinner plans included a conquest of my only outstanding Diner, Drive-In and Dive in Cleveland.  Geraci’s, a long standing Italian joint originated in the University Heights area, recently opened a second location in Pepper Pike.  Although not the original and official DDD location, I chose the latter because it was a lot closer to the hotel and took reservations.   I felt like a little less of a cheater when I saw Guy’s smiling face hanging on the wall.

Geraci’s followed the classic Italian restaurant blueprint; bread, salad (Americanized with shredded mozzarella cheese), pizza, pasta and a handful of classic Italian desserts.  However, with a number of clever cocktails and craft beer on the menu, they did colour outside the lines a bit which did remind me that I wasn’t at the likes of  Tony V’s in Sudbury.  For example, cute clothes pins and Ohio’s own Raspberry-infused Watershed Gin resulted in a creation that was another notch on my pink drink bedpost.

Guy’s promise of great pepperoni was fulfilled on a simple pizza with some added sausage.  The crust was a bit on the crunchy side and overall the excessive saltiness was somewhat saved by the fresh vibrant sauce.  The same sauce was the basis of a very classic and delicious lasagna which would be the same way to describe the tiramisu.

In the end, it was a good day with a game of true and false, some sudsy studies and an old school Italian place which had a family vibe that partially replaced being left out of the multitude of family reunions at the hotel I was at. With the Cleveland core surrounded, day two would involve a trip downtown in search of another brew or two and a maybe a game of Symon says.

My First Date with Sara: Rasa’s Sultry and Sophisticated Sister

The name Sara is fairly prominent in pop culture.  On the music side, the name Sara has fronted such singers as McLaughlin and Bareilles although the former is spelled with and H on the end.  My sister’s name is also Sarah which gave my grandmother years of difficult since she was never quite sure where the H went.  Every year my sister would get a card which read “Happy Birthday Sahra!” or “Merry Christmas Sarha!” or “Happy Graduation Shara!”.  I also used to bug my sister in the 80’s by humming the tune “Sara” by Starship which,in addition to “We Built this City”, could the two worst songs released in 1985. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.

From a food perspective, perhaps the best known Sara is Sara Lee. The company, once called the Kitchens of Sara Lee and opened in 1935, was a small chain of bakeries in Chicago with a man who named his bakeries and a cheesecake within them after his daughter.   Both the name and the bakery was purchased  and 70 years later was a multinational company with 137 000 employees. Since then, the company has been swallowed up by even bigger fish and is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods.  That said, it still remains a place to pick up a quick cheesecake if you plan to binge watch Animal Kingdom or you forgot it was your turn for dessert once again and a bag of two bite brownies just won’t cut it.

I couldn’t tell you the origin of Sara, the food dudes new culinary experiment in Toronto’s King West area.  I can only assume it’s an anagram of Rasa, their other brick and mortar restaurant.  I see Sara as Rasa’s more sophisticated but stuffier sister. Rasa hangs out in a basement on Harbord Street, drinking cocktails named after her friends and eating lamb bacon and sticky buns off of wooden tables.  Sara, on the other hand, prefers to sip G&T  and eat crab dumplings off of marble tables in the vicinity of Lee and Jacob’s steakhouse. I was quite excited for my first date with her.

When I arrived I didn’t recognize her. She is in one of the many recently renovated houses along Portland Street just north of King St so it could easily be mistaken for another person (although she didn’t look like a Jimmy and certainly wasn’t Chubby).  After double checking the address, I entered the front door and was immediately impressed with her interior.  It was modest but classy with virginal white (damn!) walls and wood accents.   Her marble tables were sleek yet practical given the fact they held a chamber for cell phones with the intention of removing texting temptations and force and face to face discussion.  She also mentioned they are planning to put chargers in the tables in due time for extra motivation.

It seems Sara likes the hard stuff more than a pint; in particular she’s a fan of a good G&T or a vodka/soda as indicated by the fact that these are the only cocktails formally on the menu.  There are 4 combinations using different gins or vodkas along seasonings and house made mixes based on taste preference.  I opted for a “spice” G&T ($16) accented with fruit and star anise.  In line with the anti-straw movement, she provided an artsy vessel which doubles as a device to muddle the contents.  That said, she was full of surprises and produced a solid old-fashioned comparable to some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.

sara g and t 2
Gin and Tonic $16

Once Sara got me a bit tipsy, she proceeded to show me a little more of her personality.   I quickly realized she was a bit of an uptown girl…a quality vs quantity kind of woman.  In addition, she was full of surprises by offering her upscale versions of food I may eat in a roadhouse with a girl named Becky.  The chopped salad ($16), fries ($14) ,dumplings ($20) and rice pudding ($15), for example, were hardly pedestrian. The salad was garnished with cashew cheese instead of chunks of marble. The fries were shaped shredded potatoes bathed in schmaltz versus shoestrings in shortening.  The dumplings  were Prada-like purses darkened with squid ink and overstuffed with seafood and Bearnaise as opposed to generic bags full of ground pork and  cabbage.   The rice pudding was a rich and savory porridge peppered with corn and bacon and certainly not the senior special with sprinkled cinnamon  and a dollop of whipped cream.

Her elegance emerged as the meal progressed. I looked into her (rib) eye ($34) and I felt like a king (salmon) ($25). I couldn’t help but admire her (pork) belly ($22) in my periphery.  All were well prepared but the portion sizes were a bit of a tease.  The steak went well with the snap pea slaw to balance things out.

I thought it was a little risque when she invited me to the washroom but it was really just to show me the toilet.  Imported from Japan, they come complete with an wall mounted remote with words like pulsating, pressure, oscillating and position.  Needless to say, I was quite excited when she asked me to sit down.  Luckily, the heated seat was a wonderful distraction and took my mind off any potential pulsation.  I must confess I did play with the controls a little before heading back up hoping I might get the dessert I missed out in the washroom…especially with cherries and a party listed on the menu.

There were only three desserts on the menu and I stuck with my washroom thoughts.  The cherry crullers ($12) were rich but modest and nicely flavoured with cardamom and cream.  The party sandwich ($12) seems the signature dessert and is Sara’s version of a regular ice cream sandwich.  It wasn’t sickly sweet partially due to the sesame and miso flavours.

My Take

I think my date with Sara went well. I mean we got tipsy. ate pub food, locked rib eyes, took a trip to the washroom and had a party after. The date wasn’t cheap though.  I think there will some complaints about the price points relative to portion size but as mentioned, Sara is an uptown girl and values quantity over quantity.  Personally, I’m more of a Rasa guy with a preference for basement apartments and her sticky buns vs lofty abodes and  Sara’s cherry cruller.  That said, I wouldn’t turn down a second date as long as it was sometime around a pay day.

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

From Massachusetts to Maine: Traffic, Burgers, Unattainable IPAs and Big Ass Desserts all Within an Area with a Single Republican Electoral Vote.

My annual summer pilgrimage usually involves a trip to the US to explore everything from geography to good eats. This year, I thought a venture to Maine would be a quaint way to travel the US for over 1100 km and only setting foot in a geography responsible for one Republican electoral vote. Other than Nebraska, Maine is the only state which can split electoral votes and the North part of the state decided to opt for a Trump agenda.  I would have gladly avoided it if not for my desire to live my childhood dream of to see Stephen King’s house and many of the inspirations for the many book of his I read as a teenager.

Before trekking too far east, our first stop was the small shopping town of Rhinebeck, New York which was my first indication that every friggin’ person in the Northeast drives a Subaru.  Every small town seemed to have a flagship dealership and the inhabitants have Foresters, Outbacks and Legacys crammed in their parking lots.   The main purpose was to check out Samuel’s Sweet shop.  As a Walking Dead fan, I first heard about this place when Jeremy Dean Morgan (aka Negan) was interviewed on Howard Stern.  Morgan, in addition to running a farm which includes rescued alpacas, purchased the candy shop along with Paul Rudd to prevent it from closing.  Although it’s tough to find many references to them on the shop’s website, you can purchase a custom made Rice Krispy square with their pictures on a canvas of edible icing.  There is also great coffee, many nostalgic treats and my personal favorite, handmade pecan bourbon caramels from local confectioner Lauralei’s kitchen.  They were ridiculously addictive, triggering the part of the brain probably related to sex, gambling and/or some kind of drug addiction.

Image result for lauralei's kitchen
Goods from lauralei’s kitchen in the Hudson Valley

The GPS promised that the trip from Rhinebeck, New York to Bangor, Maine was about 6.5 hours but that was definitely fake news. The next stop was Springfield, Massachusetts.  Although many have pulled into town to visit the basketball hall of fame, my interest was White Hut, the iconic burger shack which has been around since the beginning of World War II.  Famous for their grilled onions, the burger here has been ranked number three on Thrillist’s top 100.  As I waited the woman at the grill said “Listen to me carefully.  What do you want on the burger?”  It made me wish that all people were that clear and politely blunt as I think it would make restaurant excursions a hell of a lot smoother.  I’m not sure it was the best burger in the US but the whole experience made me glad i veered off the highway.

White Hut
White Hut Burger Picture (taken from Thrillist Site)

What I wasn’t glad about was my attempt to score some IPA at the Tree House Brewing Company in Charlton, MA.  Like most of the ill-fated trip to Maine, this was a bit of a disaster.  I was optimistic with the Thrillist promise that “thanks to a recently completed expansion, it has finally become *that much easier* to get your hands on a few cans of their flagship IPA, Julius.  What I thought was going to be a quick in and out at 130 on a Friday afternoon turned into a jaw dropping experience.  There was a shuttle bringing people from the bottom parking lot to the top one and literally hundreds of people in line.  It was like a modern day Woodstock 150 miles further east with long beards instead of long hair, IPA instead of LSD and hops instead of hope.

Related image
A line similar to the one I didn’t get into at Tree House Brewing…taken from Steve Garfield’s Flickr account

My plans to reach Bangor with remaining daylight were foiled by horrific traffic jams and a few wrong terms which turned into my most pronounced Clark Griswold  moment of the trip.  After heading west instead of east at a rest stop in New Hampshire, I bolted back to the Dunkin’ Donuts to let my mom run in and scold them for the baconless croissant sandwich she left with 10 minutes earlier. Better her than me because I would have made a pock hock out of a sausage. As a result of our grueling trek, I had to forgo a couple of planned DDD in order to hit Bangor before dark.  The one I did make was the Maine Diner in Wells.  Like everything else on the east coast in July it was jammed packed so I squeezed into a small parking space, dodged some old people and begged for some takeout. To keep it easy, I stuck with two of Maine’s mainstays; clam chowder and a whoopie pie.   The chowder was less than I expected.  The pie was bigger than a softball and weighed over pounds and looked like a Jos Louis on steroids. Although my pictures are notoriously bad, this one is worse and i didn’t take it.

whop pie med
Maine Diner Whoopie Pie

When I finally got to Bangor it was about 4 hours later than I expected but not too late to hit up Brewster’s Fine Food and Drink adjacent to the Brewer Motor Inn to fulfill a promise to find the cheapest wings in town. It will never make a Zagat list but for good food, cheap beer and great service  I couldn’t complain.  The people watching was almost as good as the whales…if I would have seen of them in Maine.  The culinary gems of this place included “name that dip” and “balls on a plate (see below)”..both for under 7 bucks.  Combine that with the turkey bomber sandwich (complete with gravy and swiss cheese) and you have a meal for a (Stephen) King.

balls on plate.jpg
Balls on a Plate

So after a day of slow Subarus, blissful burgers, beyond reach beer, whopping whoopies and balls on a plate I was ready for a good night’s sleep in the master of horror’s home town but unsurprisingly it ended in nothing but Insomnia.