Farina Pizzeria Sign

Farina Pizzeria

“Best pizza in America” is a title historically claimed by restaurants in the pizzalopolis’s of New York and Chicago. While the monarchs of the thin slice and deep dish, do pump out a plethora of perfect pizzas, Philadelphia’s coal fired pies and Napoletana’s from New Haven are also strong contenders for the tasty title. And so is a dark horse hailing from a city with an unlikely pizza pedigree, Albuquerque New Mexico’s Farina Pizzeria. With their use of local ingredients and Southwestern spin, they’re redefining Italy’s #1 import one green chile at a time.

Inside, Farina is a fusion of the classic and the modern with a Southwestern flair. It’s got brick walls with pictures, red wooden tables, mosaic tiles,

and the noisy din of a bohemian crowd.

They’ve got an interesting list of red and white wines exclusively from Italy including: Umbria, Apulia, Piemonte, Toscana, even Sicilia. For birra alla spina (draft beer), Farina offers hometown favorite Marble Brewery, and in bottle, Italian classics like Moretti, plus beers from England and Germany. While Italy is a wine powerhouse, it doesn’t come close to the U.S. in beer, besides I like supporting the home team, so I ordered a Marble IPA.

It’s a great beer and it only cost 5 bucks which is cheaper than I’m used to paying for a good draft beer. Marble’s IPA is summer meets winter with refreshing honey undertones and a caramel-cornish crispness with a robust roasted maltiness and assertive hops. It’s bi-seasonality paired well with my autumnal Verde salad of organic lettuces, roasted walnuts, apples, imported gorgonzola, and a champagne vinaigrette for $7.

The frisee, arugula, and endive added a nice bitterness which went well with the autumnal-crispness of a sliced granny smith. The walnuts and gorgonzola finished the salad off with a terrestrial depth of flavor. And the grilled bread was nothing short of bread nirvana – “Breadvana,” The Lord of The Bread – “One Bread to Rule Them All,” “Breadtopia”…you get the idea. It had a crispy, hard crust infused with the taste of the grill and an airy-cloud-like-chewy center drizzled with a beautiful grassy-green olive oil.
Farina’s menu has lots of veggie pizzas: Margherita, Melanzane, Funghi, and a Bianca with artichoke hearts. I’m a sucker for the heartiness of eggplant and mushrooms so the first time I went to Farina, I ordered the Melanzane which came with: marinara, eggplant, basil, oregano, mozzarella and I added New Mexican green chili peppers. You can’t beat their heat!

On a return trip to Farina, I traveled deeper into the barnyard by ordering a Funghi: mushrooms, fontina, talleggio, mozzarella, thyme, and shallot. Of course I had to add my favorite New Mexican ingredient: roasted New Mexico green chiles as well. It was $13 for the pizza + $2 for the chiles and was easily big enough for 2.

Farina makes a charred-chewy-thin crust as good as any I’ve had back East.

The Funghi was as delicious as the Melanzane I had last time but earthier due to the Criminis and green chiles plus had a slight but welcome cow-breath-like-barnyardy funk from the Taleggio. If you were paring wine with it, this pizza screamed for an earthy and fruity Pinot Noir.

I usually put those irradiated, been sitting on the table for a few years, red chili flakes on my pizza to add some heat. There was no need with the spicy New Mexican green chiles, which also added a bonus herbaceous flavor you never get from the flakes.

At $5 for a draft, $15 for my pizza and $7 for a salad, the prices aren’t outlandish like you see in some “gourmet” pizza shops. So the next time you’re in Albuquerque, stop into Farina and you be the judge whether they take the title, “Best Pizza in America.” Even a New Yohkah would have to admit, once you’ve tasted Farina, you can’t fuggetaboutit.
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Hummus, babaganoush, tzatziki, tabbouleh vegetarian platter

The Great Greek

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If I want to eat vegetarian, and I usually do, I know I can always rely on restaurants with names like Arabesque or Oasis. So when I recently had a hankering for some hummus, I thought, “how can I go wrong with a place named: The Great Greek?” Located on a busy stretch of Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks, CA, with the name on a billboard, a giant blue awning, and stretched across the front of the building complete with dancing Zorba, it’s hard to miss.

I was there for a late lunch at 3 PM so the place was dead inside, but not outside. A cacophony of car, motorcycle, and bus noises illustrated the perils of being on Ventura Blvd and often overwhelmed the Greek muzak as the dominant background.

There are two dining areas, one is slightly nicer and further away from the street noise with booths, chairs, and white table cloths topped with paper to cut down on table cloth washing from spills.

The other area is a more laid-back sunroom with more of the Ventura Blvd “ambiance” and cream-and-milk-chocolate-checkerboard-faux-wicker-plastic chairs plus more paper-topped table cloths.

As expected, The Great Greek has lots of veggie options such as, tzatziki, hummus, Greek soups and salads, as well as non-veggie offerings, e.g. char-grilled baby octopus, moussaka, and kebabs made of various hoofed and clawed beasts i.e. beef, lamb, and chicken. As I considered the menu, my server brought me bread.

And oh, what delicious bread it was; served slightly warm with a crunchy crust and a soft-pleasingly-sour interior, accompanied by mildly flavored olive oil. Despite how good it was though, I wanted pita, not bread to dip in my Greek spread so I ordered pita for 2 which cost me an extra $2.45.

I would have preferred a smaller portion or even better, pita included with my meal instead of bread. Also, the pitas soft texture reminded me of processed white bread that can age on the counter with no signs of decay. It wasn’t bad, but I’ve had better.
My entree came with a soup or salad and while the Great Greek’s salad didn’t transport me back to Santorini, with romaine lettuce, a cardboardy tomato, red onions, green bell pepper, cucumber, feta, and a savory vinaigrette it didn’t need a taste bail out either.

I love having a lot of flavors in one meal so I ordered the veggie platter which was a tour of Greece with: stewed potatoes, Greek style rice, veggies, tzatziki, hummus, eggplant melizano-salata, tabbouleh, spinach cheese filo pie i.e. spanikopita, Greek fassolia beans, tomato and cucumber, and that Greek salad for $12.95.

The eggplant dip was deliciously soft and creamy, but needed more depth of flavor, which I can eek out of the dips I make by grilling or roasting the eggplant. The tzatziki was a study in perfection, rich and creamy with a distinct cucumber and onion taste, practically a meal in itself and a satisfying stand-in for cheese. The spanikopita was Greek comfort food with a dense, dark, rich, and soul-satisfying spinach taste, and a pleasingly tart twang from lemon juice.
Unfortunately the filo was soggy and the dish had an off taste from the cheese that reminded me of Kraft canned Parmesan. I know given the time from kitchen to table it would be impossible to make this dish to order but it would have been better if it were fresher. That’s what I get for eating lunch at 3.

Rounding out the plate; the lightly flavored cabbage in tomato broth was an interesting side but seemed more Eastern European than Greek; the rice was nice, light but with a flavor kick from the addition of stock; the fassolia beans were chalky at first bite then turned to creamy with a nice acidity from the tomato sauce; and the potatoes were big, nicely seasoned, and perfectly cooked but, even for a Carb lover like me, potato and rice seem like carb-overload. It would have been a more interesting and satisfying dish with a bigger portion of eggplant, hummus, tabbouleh or some falafel and dolmas instead.

If you find yourself with a hankering for hummus or any other GOOD Greek food, it’s worth stopping by The Great Greek, but if you’re looking for GREAT Greek food, I’d keep looking. I know I’m going to.
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Heat Meiser and Guy Fieri

Grinders West

I have a confession to make. I heard about Grinders West, in Kansas City, from The Food Network’sDiners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” I have another confession, I think the host, Guy Fieri, looks like the Heat Miser from The Year Without A Santa Claus.
And I think he’s a bit of a tool. I know a lot of people love the guy but you’ve got to admit with his spiky hair, ubiquitous wraparound shades, and abuse of cliche’s like “the bomb” and “flavor town,” his over-the-top personality, gets a little insipid. Grinder’s is my third of Fieri’s “Triple D” recommended joints and, like the others, it’s good but falls short on its way to flavor town.
Grinder’s West style is as funky and eclectic as Fieri’s shirts. It’s a casual place with glass tables, wooden chairs, lots of retro-futuristic Jetsons-looking lights,

old-school-meat-packing-district red brick walls, an austere concrete floor, an open but cluttered  kitchen, and a very casual vibe.

It’s a great atmosphere to enjoy some grub and what Grinder’s does best, beer. Lots of beer. Whether you like Belgians, large scale American domestics, or my favorite, microbrews, they’ve got a brew for you. I started with a Schlafly American Pale Ale from St. Louis.

It’s proof that, despite the popular mass produced swill St. Louis is famous for, the city can craft a great beer with loads of personality. Schlafly APA masquerades as a summer sipper with its caramel color and grapefruit rind finish but in-between it flexes a hoppy muscle and an earthy attitude that asserts itself on your palate. I only ordered one but the waitress brought an extra that was poured by mistake and I couldn’t let an orphaned beer go to waste.
Grinders West has a food menu that’s a bar fly’s dream, whether they’re an omnivore or vegetarian bar fly. There are nachos, wings, burgers, hummus, guacamole, a veggie Philly, and of course pizza. I started with a half order of Hail Caesar, which was a grilled wedge of romaine, topped with red onions, garlic parmesan aioli, and fresh parmesan. $7.75 for a full.

Half a salad is BIG, plenty enough for one, and had great flavor, especially from the salty parmesan and the earthiness the grilling imparted to the lettuce. The smoky taste and great-looking grill marks on the still crisp lettuce would make this salad at home at any summer BBQ.

At home, but to make this salad the king of the Que, I’d suggest a few suggestions. Garlic croutons for a little crunch, more aioli so you have enough dressing for the whole salad rather just the top, grilled red onions or half grilled/half raw, freshly grated parmesan added while the lettuce is still warm, and a few roasted tomatoes would make this salad so good you wouldn’t have to be named Brutus to want to stab this Caesar.

Oh look, while I eat my salad, my pizza is placed next to it so it could start getting cold while I’m finishing my salad. Awesome. I know Grinders isn’t fine dining but there was one other table when I was there so it’s not like anyone was slammed. Note to the owner – teach your waitstaff how to stage an order.
Grinders West has lots of 10″ Gourmet Pizzas for only $12.50 which they’ll let you combine any way you want with their “Have it Your Way” attitude. My apologies that in one of the BBQ capitols of the world I ordered a 1/2 Fun Gi (Fun Guy) – Shitake and button mushrooms with creamy white sauce and extra parmesan and a 1/2 The Levitt (Hippie) – Red Sauce, green peppers, black olives, spinach, tomatoes, artichoke hearts and almonds. Yes, almonds.
Is there anything more disappointing than mediocre pizza? All those calories consumed when you could have had dessert or another beer. It brings a tear to my palate. The Fun Gi would have been more fun with simple additions such as fresh basil, oregano, and parsley plus a mozzarella that didn’t taste like plastic grocery store cheese. The veggie side was no better with flavorless black olives that should be illegal on any pizza, and almonds that tasted boiled rather than crunchy and nutty. On the plus side, I loved the huge variety of veggies they topped it with.

I love thin crust pizza but the crust of my pizza tasted a little raw and dense like the dough had been manhandled more times than a frequent flyer by TSA.

I’m a huge fan of hot sauce when it adds a kick to food but doesn’t overwhelm it. Grinders has an array of hot sauces for sale and with names like Insane, Near Death, and Molten you know they mean to inflict the kind of harm chili heads prefer. Since I’m a Mid-level chili head, I skipped the Wimpy and went for the the Molten followed by Near Death.

The Molten had an early and persistent burn, like a 6 on Thai menus. It’s a hot lovers palate pleaser you want to return to again and again. Next, I tried Near Death. It was like gargling with lava; It had the kind of uncomfortable heat that seems to burn before coming out of the bottle and lasts forever and a day. Humbled by my Near Death experience, I skipped the death sauce, but if that’s what you like, I’m sorry for the tragic accident you must have had earlier in life when you lost all your taste buds.

When the Heat Miser finished dancing on my tongue, I ordered another beer. This time an Arcadia Hopmouth IPA from Battle Creek Michigan. Its dark caramel color matched its deep roasted caramel flavor and it finished with a honeyed quality.
Overall Grinders West is a cool and casual place to hang out and drink great beer but when it comes to the food, it passes creative ville but falls short of reaching flavor town.

Grinders West
417 East 18th Street  Kansas City, MO
(816) 472-5454

For more about me, check out my About page.

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Portobello Burger and Eggplant Salad

Robin’s Restaurant

The next time you’re on the 101 freeway, around the city of San Luis Obispo, take a 30 minute detour off the beaten path to the quaint enclave of Cambria, where you’ll find plenty of pines, a plethora of painters, and a place that brings the woodsy and artsy together: Robin’s Restaurant.
Robin’s has three dining areas, an indoor dining room, a big beautiful outdoor garden where you can eat under a gazebo warmed by the sun or large patio heaters,

and a commodious sundeck with many windows, which gives it a bright and airy feel. The sundeck feels like a cross between a mess hall at camp and an artist’s retreat space.
Adding to that artsy homespun feel are the many bird houses, flying-insect art, a couple of Thai statues, and colorful mosaic-tiled tables.

If the decor isn’t enough to make you feel that you are in a yoga-retreat, have Kimberly, the world’s friendliest waitress, wait on you. She encapsulates the spirit of Namaste with phrases like, “Are you pleased with your lunches?” and “Have a beautiful day.” Slices of refreshing cucumber in your water round out the vibe that they care about your well-being here.

The only thing better than cucumber in my water is beer in my glass, especially when it’s from one of my favorite breweries, the Central Coast’s own Firestone. I ordered their Firestone DBA which is an English Style Bitter Amber Ale with 30 IBU’s, and is hoppy enough to make me happy.

Robin’s describes their food as handcrafted global cuisine and with dishes such as Vietnamese Banh Mi, Curried Chicken Salad Melt, and Cumin Black Bean Nachos, you can see why. I decided to go Mediterranean with a portobello sandwich topped with fresh tomato and sauteed red onions on a bed of basil, and substituted the included side for a delicious-sounding eggplant salad with red bell peppers, tomatoes, parsley and feta.

I appreciated they were accommodating with my substitution without a charge; I only wish the food was as pleasant as their attitude. The eggplant was too large, too firm and someone in the kitchen added too much vinegar. Also with the Lilliputian portobello on the Brobdingnagian bun they should have called this a porto-bun-o sandwich.
Something’s wrong when the bun tastes better than what’s between it. While the bun was fresh, homemade, and flavorful, the mushroom was dry and in desperate need of a marinade such as a balsamic vinegar. The mozzarella on top would have been better too if it were melted or if a buffalo mozzarella had been used. If this was all I had for lunch, I would have been disappointed with Robin’s; fortunately Gail ordered the Halibut Fish Tacos – Corona beer battered fish with lime crema and fresh mango salsa served with a jicama slaw, tortilla chips and salsa for $14.

I prefer my fish tacos grilled rather than battered and fried, and even though the halibut was a little fishy, with the mango salsa, shredded cabbage, and red onion, I still enjoyed every bite Gail would let me steal. She also had to guard the fresh tasting corn chips and jicama slaw, topped with a very tasty cilantro lime and jalapeño dressing, that came with her tacos.

The well tended garden outside was blooming with fresh flowers when we were there and would have been an excellent place to have lunch if it had been a little warmer.

Robin’s restaurant defines themselves as “creative meets local where international inspiration collides with the season’s bounty. Authentic. Sustainable. Wholesome. Surprising.” I agree but unfortunately with their dedication to Authentic, Sustainable, Wholesome and Surprising, it’s Surprising the food isn’t better. It’s worth checking out if you’re in Cambria but expect more of that Namaste spirit from the vibe and servers than from your meal. Oh well, we were drinking beer on vacation on a beautiful day in a beautiful place so Kimberly, you got your wish, we did indeed “have a beautiful day.”

Robin’s Restaurant
4095 Burton Drive  Cambria, CA 93428
(805) 927-5007

For more about me, check out my About page.

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the girl & the fig exterior

The Girl and The Fig

When I’m in a new town, I like to combine my pre-visit recon with recommendations from locals in the know to get the scoop on what to see and where to eat. And who would know better on where to eat than servers and chefs at excellent eateries. So it was with this approach on our trip to Sonoma, that Gail and I discovered the girl & the fig – a lower case name with UPPER CASE FLAVOR.
As with any popular restaurant, reservations are a good idea but so is bellying up to the bar if your table isn’t ready when you arrive. The girl & the fig has a beautiful long wooden one that beckons to be belly uped to as soon as you enter.

Once in drinking position comes the hard part, choosing an aperitif from their extensive  drink menu. Despite the temptations of fig inspired concoctions, Champagne, and still wines, we opted for my favorite pre-dinner drink: beeeeer.

While enjoying our pints of Lagunitas IPA, we spun around to check out the comfy-looking lounge. It’s a more formal place to eat than the bar, but more casual than the dining room, sort of like eating on the couch in front of the TV.  Cozy.

We opted for eating in the quaint bistro-like dining room, which had the same earthy wooden floors as the lounge/bar area, candles on every table (rather than those LCD faux-candles in so many restaurants these day), and earthy tones from the vanilla-wafer-colored table cloths and yellow walls.

The walls were adorned with pastels by Julie Higgins, who looks like she learned to paint from Diego Rivera and Paul Gauguin with Mayan subjects set in Polynesia during an orgy. Something for everyone.

Our attention turned from the art on the wall to the art on our table when a little bowl arrived filled with delicious black olives and what looked like picholines on roids but were actually the best caper berry’s I’ve ever had – meaty, oily, fresh, melt in your mouth affairs.

The bread & butter, however was a surprising misstep and could have easily been helped by warming the bread and serving it with a compound butter or just providing better bread.

The girl and the fig has an interesting Rhone-varietal-inspired wine list from CA wineries, at various price points. We knew we would be drinking well with whatever we ordered.
It’s always tempting to order a bottle you know won’t disappoint, but in a good restaurant I like leaning on the wait staff to get a recommendation of a bottle that over delivers but is under priced.

I’ve had lots of Syrahs and Grenaches, even Viogniers and Dry Roses but I’ve never had a wine that was 100% Cinsault…until now. The Frick 2008 Dry Creek Valley Cinsaut was all Cinsaut and frickin’ good.

It had an earthy/musty smell with a strong dark berry quality, a similar plate that tasted like a chocolate covered plumb with black liquorice, a bit of smoke, plus a strong but yielding tannin, and a loooong finish.

The girl and the fig describe themselves as “country food with a French passion.” So, when in a place with a French passion, order like you’re in France, which partly inspired us to order the Bistro Plat Du Jour (3 courses for $34) and something for my meat loving companion who brings out the omni in my vore.
We started with a butter lettuce salad with pickled kumquats, goat cheese, sliced almonds & a kumquat vinaigrette.

It was presented in a natural state, as if one day the lettuce was just hanging out in a local field, along came “the girl,” snatched it from its home, and presented it as is. It tasted that fresh too, with a creamy goat cheese that had the fat to cut through the delicious citrus bomb that was the kumquat dressing. For relatively few ingredients, it tasted better than the sum of its parts.

Our first entrée was pan-seared arctic char which was a circle of potato purée, surrounded by a circle of port reduction with a bulls eye of baby fennel, pears, asparagus and fish served skin up.
The baby fennel was al dente, juicy with a fresh just-picked taste, a bit fibrous but not unpleasant. The pears were nicely sweet and soooo fresh. The fish was a combo of delicate Meyer lemon citrus flavors with an earthiness and meatiness that was substantial and satisfying.

Our other entrée was grilled lamb rounds with white bean purée, braised artichokes and garden radishes with a lavender lamb juice.

When I encounter a meat that’s less common to me, such as lamb, and when I’m with a carnivore, I like to give it a try. The lamb was light and chewy with a dark richness, complimented by a strong raw radish flavor and a meaty-umami taste. The wine paired very well with it and much better than with the fish.

The last part of our plat was a dessert of bread pudding topped with whipped crème fraîche and paired with a vin doux naturel.

The bread pudding was like the love child of an apple pie and a dutch apple pancake; it was creamy inside with a fresh apple harvest taste. Unfortunately the outside didn’t live up to the inside. The crust tasted stale and too much like batter. Still, we ate it all, possibly due to….how well it paired with the vin doux naturel from Domaine  Fontanel, which was one of the most unusual and best dessert wines I’ve ever had.
The Rivesaltes Ambré is made from 100% Grenache Blanc, aged 7 years in oak casks on small lees in accordance with the soleras system. It smelled like a young oxidized sherry, but was loaded with aromas of caramel, vanilla, sultana, and stewed apricot. The same flavors were on the palate and reminded me of a fruity pancake syrup for adults with a brandy-like quality. Despite its 16% alcohol, it didn’t taste anywhere near that high and thankfully lacked that unpleasant boozy burn in the back of the throat.

The girl & the fig is an excellent wine country restaurant but still maintains a low key country feel. With its bistro ambiance, French passion, and focus on local wines of French style, it will have you eating and drinking like a bon vivant before you can say…..            Vive la figue!

The Girl & the Fig
110 West Spain Street  Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-3634

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Fava Beans and beet greens salad

Peter Lowell’s

On a recent trip to Napa/Sonoma, Gail, my partner in wine, and I were on a hunt for the perfect pinot in the Russian River Valley. While we were excited to find beaucoup of Burgundy’s famous red grape in this fog shrouded area of Sonoma, we were equally happy to discover, with a search for “organic restaurants Sonoma” on the iPhone, organic Nirvana at Peter Lowell’s in the town of Sebastapol.

We had the option to wait for a table on the quaint and popular outside patio in the back of the restaurant surrounded by trees, a fountain, and unfortunately cars in the adjacent parking lot.

But since there were pinots waiting and our hunger wouldn’t, we opted for an available table inside which, with tan wooden chairs and tables, a red cement floor, and hanging industrial lighting and exposed ducts, sports a look of country chic meets urban industrial.

It also feels a bit like a European bistro, especially from the chalkboard over the kitchen which communicates the restaurants organic and seasonal convictions including what they are currently harvesting from their own farm.

Many years ago, on a Bay Area Backroads television shoot in Sebastapol, a local jokingly told me that the town was named as a mispronunciation of Zeebestapple because of the area’s storied history as an apple growing region. While many of those apple trees have been replaced by more lucrative vineyards and tract houses, the area still churns out some great organic eats as evidenced by the deli case overflowing with fixin’s for the perfect wine country picnic.

We started our lunch, as every good one should, with a delicious beer such as Gail’s Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Co. and my hoppy muse: an IPA from Moonlight Brewery Co. in Sonoma. Both were $6 on draft.
The IPA had a great caramel color, a hoppy-rich-full-bodied mouth feel, a sparkling/effervescence, and a lingering earthy bitterness with a looooong finish. To sum up: It was delicious.

Peter Lowell’s menu states they have a “…slightly off-kilter attitude towards business – one where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” To paraphrase the Beach Boys, “I wish they all could be California Peter Lowell’s”

A great mantra was just the start of a menu chalked full of tempting dishes but the beans and greens salad sounded especially appetizing: braised beet greens, bread crumbs, garlic, chili flakes, Parmigiano Reggiano and fava beans.

The dish was an explosion of soul-satisfying-melt-in-your-mouth flavors with a nice ratio of creamy and chalky fava beans to crunchy, earthy, and bitter beet greens, with a pleasing background heat, nice garlic flavor and subtle saltiness. I almost wish it wasn’t so perfectly seasoned so I would have had an excuse to use the Himalayan sea salt and peppercorn dispensers on on our table.

After our salad, we ordered the pizza panna off the lunch specials menu: Roasted Spring Onions, Melted Leeks, Green Garlic, Cream, Calabrian Chiles, Fava Leaf Pesto and Parmigianno Reggianno for $16.

Typically I’m not a huge fan of cream sauces on my pizza however it was the perfect base for each Spring-garden-flavor-packed bite of: sweet and succulent leek, green onion, piquant Calabrian pepper oil and earthy green pesto.

Unlike some pizzas that suffer from cheese and dough overload, this pizza had just a highlight of cheese and a thin, charred, biscuity crust which was a great base for each flavorful bite.

I only have two complaints about Peter Lowell’s. The first is that we didn’t return for dinner to sample more of their menu and try their wines.

The second is that more restaurants don’t share Peter Lowell’s philosophy “…where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” It would be a tastier world if they did.

Peter Lowell’s
7385 Healdsburg Avenue
Sebastopol, CA
(707) 829-1077

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Organic baby spinach salad

Seasons 52

I don’t like chain restaurants. They’re too often cavernous monuments to suburban disregard for land; havens for soulless corporate drinks rhyming with Smoka Smola and Crudweiser; and feature “themey” food that looks and sounds better than it can ever hope to taste. So it was with the theme of skepticism that I checked out a Seasons 52, perched in a giant mall parking lot in a suburban part of “suburbany” Orlando, Florida.

Normally the Seasons 52 sign would be beckoning to hungry Florida folk but I neglected to snap this photo until the sign had already been put to bed. From the outside, it’s an upscale and attractive building but about as unique looking as a PF Changs if the horse statues had galloped off. (Click the link to see what I mean). Despite this déjà Chu, I thought it was an inviting edifice outside and even though inside the dining room is cavernous, the appealing decor and soft warm lighting make it inviting too.
If a restaurant must have a theme, I can’t think of a better one than a seasonal menu, especially a seasonal vegetarian AND vegan menu.

But a menu is only as good as your servers ability to bring it to life and guide you to a better meal. And that’s exactly what I got in my server, Julian. Based on his recommendation, I started with an organic baby spinach salad for $6.90. The nice price.  The salad was fresh and filled with many layers of flavor: crisp red-skin pears, a nice bitterness from radicchio, creaminess from baby spinach, and a delicious sourness from Gorgonzola. And it was tossed with a baby bear portion of dressing: Not too little, not too much but juuuuust right. My only complaint is the cold and soggy pine nuts which had been sitting around too long in cold storage. If they had been toasted fresh to order instead, it would have added a nice crunch and temperature contrast to the cool salad.

The bread served with my salad was a wheaty masterpiece, hearty with a soft center contrasting with a grain coated crispy crust. As the conversation with Julian turned to wine, he turned to his General Manager, Reece, who happily discussed options and helped me navigate Seasons 52’s interesting wine menu with selections such as: Verdejo, Chenin Blanc and Moscato from interesting places such as: Veneto, South Africa and a Merlot from Slovenia.

I’d return to Seasons 52 fifty two times just to drink my way through their wine list but let’s be honest, the way I drink it would only take 3 or 4 visits. I began with a glass of Raats Family original Chenin Blanc Coastal ’10 $7.50/glass with a pour like I was friends with the bartender.

Usually $7.50 glasses of wine taste like an unoffensive yet only marginally interesting Trader Joe’s wine. Not this one. It had a nice complexity with lemon, grapefruit, pear, white flowers, wet grass and stones with a little earthy/dirtiness. The wine wasn’t the best pairing with the salad but the autumnal flavors of the salad did go decently with the earthy/dirty quality in the wine.

Too often restaurants serve their wines in thick rimmed cheap glasses with all the quality of a stemmed Dixie cup. My wine, however, came in an excellent thin rimmed wine glass from a European company called Stölzle Lausitz which enhanced the aromas, flavors and my enjoyment of the wine.

For my entree, I ordered the Farmers Market Vegetable Plate off the vegan menu which came with:

seasonal vegetables, grilled ponzu-glazed tofu and toasted cranberry-almond tabbouleh for $12.95. Another great price. Reece also encouraged me to try the harvest squash trio of grilled delicata, butternut and acorn squashes.
The Farmers Market Plate was big with more diversity than a Benetton ad: mushrooms, beets, carrots, red onion, asparagus, tofu and brussels (Bet you didn’t know the brussel is spelled with an s on the end) sprouts. The veggies were nicely prepared, slightly al dente, with a little firmness to them, except the yellow beets. They were a bit watery and the only miss on this dish. The squashes were also delicious.

It was a little like working with a whole fish when trying to separate flesh from the skin but each bite was a moist morsel of roasted sweetness. The almond tabbouleh had a nice crunch and grainy flavor with a firm texture and slight sweetness from the cranberries. The tofu was nicely firm and grilled with the tastes of sweet, salty and umami but
it would have been better with a crunchy cornmeal or breadcrumb coating outside to contrast with the soft chewy inside. Also, the ponzu glaze was pedestrian.

Two of the best items on the plate were the mushrooms which tasted meaty with a savory umami character and the carrots which were earthy with a hint of sweetness in the background.
Both the shrooms and carrots matched well with the reds Reece recommended I pit head to head. In this corner weighing in at $13.50, a 2009 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the challenger for from the Rioja region of Spain, a $9.50 Sierra Cantabria Crianza.

The Schug started light and fruity with high acidity, yielding to a beef jerky/salted meat animal character and a cigar box woodiness with a long finish that had a hint of liquorice. The Crianza smelled like a fresh barrel sample in an Indian restaurant and had a rich mouth feel with high alcohol. It wasn’t as well balanced as the Schug and would have been better paired with a meat dish than my plate of veggies.

If I have room, I always order dessert. If I don’t have room, I sometimes order dessert. Seasons 52 makes it easy to not only order one dessert but many, by serving what their aptly named “mini indulgences” for $2.50 each.

I present Chocolate Peanut butter mousse on the left and a seasonal offering of pumpkin pie with ginger snap crust on the right. And the winner is…

Chocolate peanut butter mouse which tasted like a moist peanut butter cake. The pumpkin pie was a nice seasonal attempt but a little too creamy and would have benefited from a higher cake to cream ratio.

I’m still not a fan of chain restaurants BUT Seasons 52 gets it right in so many ways that with their service, their wines, the quality of their food and their prices, they’ve made me a believer. And with a theme of seasonality you know each time you go, there’s going to be something new and fresh waiting for you to sink your teeth into and that’s a theme I can return to again and again.

Seasons 52
463 East Altamonte Drive
Altamonte Springs, FL
(407) 767-1252

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Rubirosa Pizza Sign


I love the West Coast with its open spaces, towering mountains, and bounty of fresh produce year round. But when it comes to pizza, the East Coast steals my heart; especially New York’s five boroughs. So when visiting, I can’t resist taking to the streets in search of the perfect pizza pie. This time, my quest has brought me to Nolita (North of Little Italy) – a neighborhood long considered part of New York City’s Little Italy which has lost much of its Italian character in recent decades due to the migration of Italian-Americans out and yuppies in. From the outside, Rubirosa looks like many other ristorantes decorated with the colors of the Italian flag.
Inside, however, Rubirosa is more modern than those old school Italian joints; sporting a warm, European palace meets mountain cabin feel. The vibe comes from low lighting, wooden chairs and tables opposite a looong wooden bar and a copper ceiling rimmed with ornately decorated copper trim.
The crowd is young, hip, urban…and me. There’s lots of lively conversation swirling about mixing with mellow rock tunes decidedly not Italian.

I started my meal, as I start all good meals with a draught beer. Rubirosa has some nice craft beer options. I opted for a Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues for $7. I’ve had Dale’s at Oskar Blues in Colorado which ran me about $5 but I guess when you add shipping plus New York City, $7 sounds about right. Still, it left me wondering when did a good beer become as expensive as a cheap glass of wine?

And Dale’s is a good beer; amber-gold in color with a full-bodied rich flavor and a great bitter finish that lingered in my mouth like a roasted hoppy kiss. (Please don’t ask how I know what a roasted hoppy kiss tastes like. It was an experimental phase in college.) Anyway, my delicious beer arrived with two pieces of equally delicious Italian bread; a crusty exterior with a porous center which perfectly soaked up the full flavored olive oil. A match made in Italian heaven.

I began my meal in earnest with an arugula salad loaded with red and golden beets and topped with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette for $11.

My bowl ‘O salad, big enough for two, was loaded with lots of fresh-flavorful arugula sitting atop beets which were cooked perfectly; thankfully not watery. It was topped with creamy goat cheese and the perfect amount of balsamic which added just a touch of sweetness. Each bite left me wanting more and embodied the Italian cooking philosophy of making simple food simply. Still, being a lily guilder, I can’t help but wonder how some roasted pignolias on top would have tasted.

As I was enjoying my salad, my pizza arrived. It looked like a work of art but see if by looking at the picture you can guess why my first reaction was, UH OH.
Danger! Danger! ARUGULA overload. When I ordered my arugula, cherry tomato, pecorino, eggplant and balsamic vinaigrette glaze pizza for $19, it hadn’t occurred to me (nor to my waitress apparently) that I was ordering my salad on a pizza. Maybe with the tomato, pecorino and eggplant, it would taste different.
Maybe not. The pizza had some highlights but some low lights too. The flavor was good and I enjoyed the technique of topping it with big slices of pecorino as a way to add cheese without overloading it. The crust was nice and thin but could have been crispier. My least favorite part of this pizza was a cloying sweetness that could have come from the tomato sauce but tasted more like it was from the balsamic glaze. With the ups and downs the best I could give this pizza is a B+. For some extra credit, I thought maybe the right wine would help to mellow the sweetness of the pizza.
The wine list is loaded with Italian options and the waitress allowed me to taste a couple of options. A Nebiolllo (one of my favorites) and an ’09 Velenosi Rosso Picento DOC Mentelpulciano/Sangiovese – Marche $9. I chose the latter hoping its hint of sweetness would mellow the sweetness of the pizza. It did…a little.

Rubirosa suffers from the same affliction I’ve experienced at many New York Restaurants. The inattentiveness of young under-informed servers that leaves you feeling slightly neglected. It was great to get a taste of a couple of wines but after an initial how is everything, my waitress was a ghost to my table. If you’re looking for an above average pizza and a hip crowd, check out Rubirosa. As for me, I know this is not the best pizza the East Coast has to offer so it’s back to the streets to continue my search. Stay tuned…

235 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 965-0500

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BRIO Tuscan Grille Facade

BRIO tuscan grille

What do you get when dining at a Tuscan-themed chain in a mall off the 75 freeway in Southern Florida? An Italian meal where you’d rather leave the cannoli, take the gun.

I avoid eating in malls only slightly less than I avoid eating road kill. I’m sure there are exceptions but the preponderance of “casual dining restaurants” found there are bland corporate chains with better slogans than food: Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood; Come hungry. Leave happy; When you’re here, you’re Family. So my expectations were set low when dining at BRIO tuscan grille whose slogan incidentally is: To eat well is to live well.

Unfortunately, here you will eat and live only slightly ‘weller‘ than an Olive Garden because like most corporate concept restaurants, BRIO executes its theme better than its food. It’s owned by a corporation called BRAVO | BRIO Restaurant Group publicly traded under the symbol BBRG. Typical of corporate restaurants, BRIO homogenizes the cuisine so it’s not too ethnic to offend any taste but not recognizable as what was originally made in the country of origin. Also par for the course, they have many locations throughout the U.S. in places with names like The Shops at such and such, so and so Mall or fill-in-the-blank Village. I stopped by this one in The Shops at Pembroke Gardens on my way to catch my flight out of Ft. Lauderdale airport.

I would guess they all follow a similar layout. This BRIO is a cavernous 8,400-square feet; filled with enough tables and booths for 260 and a faux-Tuscan-stone stamp on the walls, ceilings and the many hanging lights. It looks nice but has as much soul as The Cheesecake Factory.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, reading down the menu sounds like a Romper Room magic mirror roll call for meat.

Romper, Bomper, Stomper Boo; tell me, tell me, tell me do; magic mirror tell me without defeat is this menu full of meat? I see shrimp is having a special day. I see beef, calamari and I see chicken, chorizo and lobster. Going more omnivorous than vegetarian in a restaurant like this would be like heading to Sizzler for a nice steak. So as I weighed my few veggie options, my server Luis brought my bread and crispy flat bread.

The flat bread looked better than it tasted. The bread however was pretty good. It was warm and I’m a sucker for warm bread. The outside was crispy and the inside light with a hint of sourness but it lacked that made from scratch artisinal complexity that makes even carb counters fall off the wagon. The bread is served with a promising looking dip they called peperonata: tomato, onion, herbs and olive oil cooked together.

Unfortunately it leaked more oil than a BP rig with as much saltiness as the Dead Sea. If this had been a more traditional rustic peperonata with chunks of veggies and included red peppers, it would have been A LOT better. Switching to the other spreads wasn’t any better. The butter had that just-removed-from-the-chiller hardness and as little flavor as the cheap tasting olive oil.

I had higher hopes for the citrus garden salad I ordered. Fresh fettuccine tossed with spinach, peppers, carrots, scallions, basil, cilantro, dried cranberries, sliced almonds, lemon vinaigrette and topped with citrus glaze for $9.95.

Fresh cilantro and scallions made this salad spring to life. The raw red pepper added a sprightly crunch and veggie sweetness; the toasted almonds a nutty roasted dimension and there were just the right amount of dried cranberries so the salad didn’t take on that fruit cake quality you can get from the heavy handed use of dried fruit.

Fresher tasting salad dressing with little to no sweetener and better quality pasta served warm would have improved this salad. Also, at the end of my meal I was unpleasantly surprised to find a few small pieces of chicken at the bottom of my bowl. I would guess it  slipped in accidentally at the prep station. When I pointed it out to Luis and the manager, they offered me dessert and when I declined they comped my lunch.

I found BRIO’s customer service to be very good, their decor only good and their food a step down to ok. I would have enjoyed it much more if the roles were reversed with ok decor, good service and very good food. Instead, like fruit in the grocery store, everything at BRIO looks better than it tastes.

BRIO tuscan grille
14576 SW 5th Street
Pembroke Pines, FL 33027
(954) 431-1341
Locations throughout US

For more information on the author, please visit Brian von Dedenroth.

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Various Tapas

13 Gypsies

13 Gypsies advertise themselves as “A Peasant Kitchen.” After eating here I know why. They cook like peasants, have the taste buds of peasants and treat you like a peasant.

A typical day when I’m on the road is: work in the morning, workout in the hotel gym, grab lunch, hop a plane (or when in Jacksonville, drive my rental car from Orlando or Tampa) to my next destination, check-in to new hotel, go to dinner. So by the time, I go out to dinner, it’s usually on the later side and the only thing I dislike more than a restaurant that closes at 9, is a kitchen that closes at 8:45. I arrived at 13 Gypsies at 8:30 and was immediately told by my waitress, who looked 13, the kitchen closes in 15 minutes so I better get my order in fast. So I quickly roll through their tasty looking menu.

I had high hopes for 13 Gypsies after seeing it on The Food Network’s show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. The vibe didn’t disappoint. It’s a small restaurant with a convivial intimate feel; nicely lit with candles on wooden tables.

I started with Pastor Rioja for $8/glass made of 100% viura A.K.A. macabeo – one of the grapes in the Spanish Sparkling wine Cava. It had a Sauvignon Blanc character with crisp acidity, a palate of lemon rind, good minerality and a medium finish. It was fun to have it served in a copa – the typical glass used in tapas bars in Spain.

It wasn’t fun, however to have all my food served at the same time. It’s a pet peeve of mine. As I’m eating one dish, another arrives and makes me feel pressured to finish it before it descends to room temperature. Normally no big deal if you’re dining out with lots of tapas eating buddies but with just me, I asked my waitress if she could stage my dishes. That way as I’m finishing one, the next one would arrive piping hot on its heals. She says, NO. It’s out of her control which I think is code for “I don’t care enough to care.” Of course after ordering, I’m quickly faced with a table full of food.

The first tapas I try is the bruschetta del dia which for this dia consisted of roasted peppers, onions, salt and vinegar served on grilled white bread. It was pedestrian. The veggies were cold, extremely vinegar-ed and the bread was a pasty Wonder-Bread-like Texas toast.

After a few bites, I switched to the Fish Tomatino for $9. White flake fish cooked in a sweetened tomato sauce. A Classic Spanish offering. The fish was a good size; firm but still moist with a nice roasted quality. The tomato sauce however tasted like Ragu. A bad mass produced marinara sauce with a strong canned tomato flavor.

I then turned my attention to a fire roasted red pepper stuffed with fontina cheese and cooked in a sweetened tomato sauce for $9. This dish had more problems than Spain in the E.U. The red pepper seemed more jarred than fire roasted. The cheese wasn’t fully melted and tasted like bland mozzarella and it had more of the same odious sauce that was on the fish. It was as dreadful as a dish I used to make when I was a kid: An English muffin with Ragu pizza quick sauce and American singles cooked in the toaster oven. I still remember the jingle for the sauce. Open a jar…of pizza quick sauce. And Open your own…Pizzeria. I don’t think so.

As I’m making my way through my line-up of tapas, the staff turns off the music and lets us dine to the sounds of the refrigerator and clanking utensils.

It was about around this time, 15 minutes after I received my table of food, my waitress finally ask if I was doing good. I said, “fine” which was code for “No, I’m not doing good. I feel rushed, most of my food is cold and I would have enjoyed another glass of wine about 10 minutes ago. And by the way, you are one of the worst waitresses ever.”

Lastly I dug into the only item meant to be room temperature: The Cordoba salad – mixed greens, queso blanco, sauteed shrooms, oranges, sliced almonds and balsamic vinaigrette for $9.
The cheese had a saltiness but besides that was pretty bland. The oranges were nice and crisp with a fresh citrus flavor but someone in the kitchen has a vinegar fetish. Like the red peppers in the bruschetta, it was heavy handed on the salad too.

By the time I finished, the restaurant was as devoid of life as my food had been.

Gypsies and the number 13 are much maligned around the world and this place does little  to help either stereotype. If you want to be treated like a valued customer by a well trained staff and enjoy nicely prepared food, go elsewhere. If, however you want to boost your Romaphobia and triskaidekaphobia, then this is your place.

13 Gypsies
887 Stockton Street
Jacksonville, FL
(904) 389-0330

For more information about the author, please visit Brian von Dedenroth.

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