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.
Great Greek on Urbanspoon

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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

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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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Taco Temple Veggie Burrito

Taco Temple

I first heard about Taco Temple when I was filming The Winemakers in Paso Robles in 2007. Since then, I’ve made many pilgrimages to the Temple with offerings of an empty stomach and have always been rewarded with a satisfied soul. The place is legendary in the area but with its location in a nondescript parking lot East of Highway 1 on the Northern end of Morro Bay, it’s location is not. Neither is it’s shack-like appearance.

It also doesn’t look like much from the inside but has some fun decorations; brightly painted surfboards hanging from the ceiling that look like they belonged to a Maori surf club and eclectic Mexican tchotchkes and paintings decorating the walls and alcoves. It’s old school California beach culture but looks aren’t the reason to trek to the Temple.

The food is. And so is the wine and beer. Taco Temple offers affordable local wine and beer from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo including popular Firestone Walker Brewing Company. So, with all the local offerings what did I opt for? A $4 pint of Scrimshaw Pilsner on draught from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg – 400 miles away. I love draught beer and it sounded like the right beer for my lunch. It was.

Scrimshaw Pilsner tastes like the perfect beer to drink when you come in from the harvest or perhaps a tough day of whaling. It’s color is proof blonds have more fun. It has a medium body, a crispness highlighted by a touch of caramel sweetness and a sprightly finish with the lingering taste of grains; plus it was served American cold. I don’t share many American’s love affair with overly air conditioned indoor spaces and water glasses overflowing with ice cubes. But when it comes to beer, God Bless America. Nobody does it colder. Makes me feel sad for the rest.

It also makes me feel sad when Mexican restaurants charge for chips and salsa. Taco Temple does not. Their chips and salsa bar include freshly made chips with a few different salsas: A red piquante with a roasted flavor. Your typical pureed Mexican red sauce; tongue burning and sweat inducing. A pico de gallo which had a boring canned taste. It needed more cilantro, some onion and garlic, fresher tomatoes and some fresh jalapeños. Fortunately, they also offer fresh jalapeños by themselves which provided me with some ammo to perk up the pico. I give the Temple high marks for having fresh jalapeños at the bar and not using those disgusting pickled jalapeños from the can.

Taco Temple is renown for their fresh and local fish BUT as they say when haggling South of the border “es muy caro”; It is very expensive e.g. one fish taco for $16. I’ve had them before and they’re excellent but pricey so instead I opted for The Kind Veggie Burrito. A monstrous affair too big for one sane person; served in a sun-dried tomato tortilla slightly charred and served with dollops of guacamole and sour cream.

Under the hood, you’ll find a delicious salad of spring mix, tomatoes, rice, cheese, black beans, radishes and carrots. If you look around you’ll see many other plates with a similar accompaniment. They like using the spring mix. And I appreciate that it’s healthier than a lot of Mexican food with its characteristic gobs of cheese overflowing every nook.
However my burrito, like the salsas, was tasty but not mind blowing. The ingredients aren’t seasonal and you can taste they lack a freshness. Still, if you’re hungry and in the mood for good Mexican food in a casual kick-back atmosphere accompanied by a nice selection of beer and wine, Taco Temple is worth a trip.

Taco Temple
2680 Main Street  Morro Bay, CA 93442
(805) 772-4965

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Cosmo's Pizza Gigantor

Cosmo’s Pizza

Boulder Vegetarian PizzaPizza Gigantor from Cosmo’s Pizza in Boulder Colorado. A 24″ monster with a price tag to match. For nearly $40 you too can have this half Veggie Supreme and half Greek veggie. According to Cosmo’s website, the toppings on the Veggie Supreme are: Green Pepper, Mushroom, Onion, Tomatoe & Black Olive AND the Greek Veggie has: Spinach, Sun Dried Tomatoe, Artichoke Heart & Feta Cheese. Save your money and ignore the hype you read on-line about Cosmos. It was probably written by drunk and stoned college kids from nearby CU. The size of the pie may impress but nearly all of the ingredients have that canned “food product” flavor you find when restaurants source from companies like Sysco. The black olives taste plastic, the artichoke hearts have no heart, sun-dried tomatoes are uninspired, cheese is plebeian and the tomatoes…well…they’re as good as the spelling of the person who wrote tomato with an e on their website. Dan Quayle would be proud – but I bet he wouldn’t like their pizza either.

Cosmos Pizza
659 30th Street
Boulder, CO
(303) 447-3278

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The Counter Veggie Burger

The Counter

People often ask me if I’m a vegetarian because I generally don’t eat something that used to make an animal noise, except something unique like: le quack quack of duck confit in France, la oink oink of morcilla (blood sausage) in Spain or the “DAMN YOU Francisco Pizarro” of Cuy (guinea pig) in Peru. While I’m no Andrew Zimmern, my picky childhood taught me that life’s too short not to try something new. Still given my preference for vegetarianism, you wouldn’t expect me to recommend a burger joint. But The Counter in Santa Monica, CA is not your J. Wellington Wimpy’s Burger joint. From the outside, The Counter doesn’t look like much. A sun beaten facade on a busy LA street.
The Counter Marquee
Inside the place sports a retro burger joint feel. It’s bright with lots of unadorned tables, a serve yourself soda fountain and of course – a counter.
The Counters Counter
You start by filing out a check list. While I didn’t order the beef, it was reassuring to see at the top of the check list, “Fresh 100% Natural Angus Beef. Hormone and Antibiotic Free. Humanely Raised + Handled.” I assume that applies to the chicken and turkey too but I’m not positive. Something to ask if you’re inclined to order them. In my experience, if a restaurant or store cares about the quality of their meat then the veggies will be good and vice versa.
The Counter Menu
The checklist is broken down into 5 easy steps.

1) Choose a burger and size.  Your options are 1/3lb, 2/3 lb or a whopping pound of beef,  chicken, turkey, veggie or market selection (which were crab cakes the day I was there). I went with a 1/3lb veggie.

2) Choose a Cheese. I love the options here. Danish Blue Cheese, Sharp Provolone, Brie. I went with Horseradish Cheddar cuz I loves me some spice.

3) Choose up to 4 Toppings. For me, grilled onions, roasted green chiles, roasted red peppers and organic mixed greens.

4) Choose a Sauce.  I opted for the Chipotle Aioli

5) Chose a Bun. Multigrain me.

Then you hand your homework in, at the counter of course, order any extras like fries or a drink, pay, take your number back to your seat and wait. I love that there are so many options on the menu. It means you could eat here scores of times and still invent new flavor combos or go with a big group and share several combos at once.

While waiting for my burger, my fries arrived.
The Counter Fries Close Up
I love a good french fry but sadly, these were not those. They weren’t bad, they just weren’t amazing. Even worse was the Heinz Ketchup lurking on every table.  I used it because I’m a ketchup-holic but I despised every bit of high fructose corn syrup. It boggles the taste buds that a place that would emphasize quality ingredients and even creative sauce concoctions for your burger wouldn’t include homemade ketchup or ketchup concoctions with your fries. Imagine: Chipotle Ketchup, Tamarind-Mandarin Orange Ketchup. Got flavors you think would be good? At the very least, how about just offering a good ketchup like Trader Joe’s organic or Whole Foods 365. They’re inexpensive, better tasting and NO corn syrup.
The Counter Interior
How many bottles of Heinz ketchup can you find in the picture above? (The winner will receive a bottle of Heinz Ketchup)
I’ve eaten a lot of veggie burgers and too many of them are sorry soy patties masquerading as a meat burger. Veggie burgers are no substitute for meat. Never will be. So I want and expect them to taste like what they’re made of: vegetables. And that’s exactly what The Counter’s veggie burger looks and tastes like. Behold people of Earth, I give you (cue angelic choir), my custom veggie burger.

The Counter Veggie Burger
The Counter Veggie Burger

Let’s go in for a closer look.  It’s big. It’s well made with real veggies, big caramelized onions, red peppers and green chiles. There’s a hemi under that hood.
The_Counter_Veggie_Burger_Close_Up
As for the taste, the burger is everything I wanted it to be. The onions are slightly sweet and the bun is nutty but it’s the cheese and aioli sauce that really made this burger sing and are two of the many reasons I’ll be going back to The Counter, hopefully this time with friends…and my own ketchup.
The Counter on Urbanspoon

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