Monday, April 30, 2012
Emma Berkey and Dave Cuomo have a wood fired oven roaring away in the space that used to house Swett's. Those pizzas come out lightning fast (about four minutes). The crust has just a nice little char on the backside and a great chewy/crispy texture. The tomato sauce for the pizza is exceptional and the Veggie Eater says "sprightly". Housemade mozzarella made the Margherita our personal favorite. You must also try the hummus pizza with zatar, toasted nuts, mint and chili oil...zippy, different and delicious. And did we tell you they bake their own sourdough bread for sale (sour and great flavor)! Heck, we're loving this place.
Dave and Emma are busy folks...you might know of their folk/punk accordion/guitar duo Chicken Little. Check them out here.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
West End Café
1720 West End Avenue
The diner concept is simple: breakfast and lunch served quickly and hopefully with a homey feel. The upscale diner sounds like an oxymoron, but it simply elevates the food and décor. The point is still the same: quick, dependable comfort. The West End Café serves a section of West End that desperately needs a joint for coffee and eggs. Given that, the West End Café should be a prime hang-out for hung-over college students and those of us older folks just looking for some good food.
The sandwiches we tried hit the spot. Hot and tender roast beef paired with brie and horseradish aioli is a simple and yet effective combination on lightly toasted and thin-cut sourdough. This isn’t a “stuff the sandwich full” type of joint. Expect carefully chosen ingredients and moderation in construction. The house made chips are big, thick and flavorful. Fries are light, super-thin and seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper. Mac and cheese was a bit soupy in consistency and given pop with gorgonzola. A spring mix salad was fresh and crisp.
Our breakfast was a mixed bag. The ham and cheese omelet featured quality ingredients but came out of the kitchen lukewarm. Sausage patties were crisp and a bit overdone. In fact, they had many service issues on our breakfast visit. It’s a common problem for a new restaurant as they try to adjust to the ebb and flow of business. The breakfast vibe though feels just right. It’s a comfortable spot for a big mug of Bongo Java coffee.
Veggie Eater: My spouse once insightfully remarked that he did not understand his good fortune of having not one, but two Sicilian asses in his life (referring to his wife and our lovely mini donkey, Flo) and he is right. Flo and I share many attributes-we are stubborn, can be loud, and hold grudges. This information is provided as a disclaimer to my perspective about this new eatery. First, the good points. This place reminds me of more of a Chicago style diner; barn wood walls, decent beer selection, and Mimosas freely flowing.
On our first visit I opted for the classic salad, which consisted of slightly wilty mesclun greens, onions, peppers with nicely acidic balsamic vinaigrette. Next up, was the Caprese Sandwich served on slightly stale French bread. As always, I should know better than ordering a Caprese anything in winter, but did it anyway and found the Roma tomatoes to be rather tasteless and mealy (why not pop for Camparis if you are going to have this on the menu outside of summer?) and also found it a bit stingy on the balsamic syrup as well. We wanted to try the dinner fare for our second visit and had a group of friends with us for our second attempt. Alas, we arrived at about 8 o’clock on a Friday and found them closing up shop (9 pm was the posted closing time then). So, we returned next time for breakfast instead. It was Sunday morning and they did not have enough staff. Strangely enough, it doesn’t appear anyone had done any of the morning opening prep work either, so that none of the tables were set up – no salt, pepper, condiments, or silverware with which to eat. They were not slammed busy, but the inexperienced staff simply could not keep up (frequently requiring two trips for everything requested). I opted for the 3 cheese omelet and was asked the rather bizarre question of whether I wanted everything on it (yes, I would like all three cheeses, please). Due to the disorganization and staffing, the food came out lukewarm at best, which yielded a somewhat rubbery final product. On the brighter side, the jalapeno cheese bread was delicious and Lyle Lovett was crooning on the stereo in the background. I have found beer makes everything better and although it’s a small beer menu, there are some nice ones, which helped to ease the pain. Meat Eater is far more gracious than I and noted that they are new and still working out the kinks.
Meat Eater: We know restaurants are going to change hours in the first months of business. Just make sure you do everything to let customers know of the change. Closing up an hour before the time listed on the door and your website is just a bad idea (it has since been rectified in both locations). Anyway, they’ve since scaled back the evening hours to 7 p.m. making it more of a happy hour thing. We’re sure they will get these kinks worked out and have a prosperous future on West End Avenue.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
1310 Antioch Pike
Ethiopian food has a complex set of flavors with berbere sauce a centerpiece. Mesob Ethiopian Restaurant takes those flavors up a notch with bold use of those berbere peppers, ginger, garlic and fenugreek. Throw into that mix Ethiopian herbs and you have tongue tingling cuisine. Mesob has been open since October and have already attracted a following in the East African community.
You know there’s skill in the kitchen when the same sauce can have so many different versions- versions that truly stand apart from each other. Ethiopian food can be lackluster in the wrong hands, perhaps because of the stew-like consistency to so many of the dishes. While there may not be texture dynamics going on- Mesob makes it clear that there is plenty to be done with that arsenal of spices and herbs.
I go out on a limb and order the Mesob Kitfo on the first visit. It’s steak tartar and even at medium cooking on the menu it’s basically raw. I love tartar, but it’s one of those dishes you’re careful when ordering. There’s much that can go wrong with raw meat. Mesob is an organized, well-appointed restaurant and the 90 health department score helps as well. The kitfo is a delicious blend of meat, herbed butter sauce and hot chili (mitmita). It’s served in a bowl with house-made farmer’s cheese and gomen (collard greens). Wrap it up with the injera bread and you have a wonderful lunch. They don’t make their own injera, but it’s a quality product and perhaps a bit less sour than other versions in town (and I know some people prefer the sour).
The reconnaissance visit shows a whole page of vegetarian entrees- ten in all and still more appetizers and salads. The Veggie Eater attends for visit number two. This time I opt for the meat combo platter. It’s basically a chef’s choice of three meat dishes and a vegetable side. This day brings Minchete Abesh- a beef stew of ginger berbere sauce. It has amazing flavor. The Doro Wot is chicken in a lemon berbere for a mellower version of the sauce. The Yebeg We’t is lamb simmered in a red pepper sauce with berbere and cardamom. Each dish has unique, bold flavors. It’s a real treat.
Veggie Eater: I am always crabby on housecleaning day and especially so when I am hungry, which is how I arrived at Mesob on my first visit. My crabbiness was compounded by the fact that the only vegetarian appetizer was not available and it seemed like we were literally the last people served in the room, even though we were seated well before many others in the room. Despite this, it was well worth it. Mesob advertises itself as having many vegetarian options and I found this to be true. I opted for the Shenbra Asa We’t, which is crushed chickpea in a spicy shimmering berbere sauce. There was a reasonable amount of kick to the sauce and it was wonderful slathered on the slightly sourdough-y injera. The waitress and owner were both apologetic about our wait and seemed genuinely eager to please and have their food appreciated.
Meat Eater: This noon rush brought in 20 people all at once and that’s hard on any mom and pop restaurant. There were no service issues on my fist visit, but that was early. The décor and atmosphere are well above average and the family vibe is welcome. They clearly have some business acumen. Not only do they have a nice web site and a Facebook page, but believe it or not QR codes on the menu to scan with your smart phone. This will probably be our new go-to joint for Ethiopian food.
I paid $17 with tax and tip on my solo visit. We paid $32 on our second visit.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Monday, April 2, 2012
If the creation of good food is love, Connie Panebianco shared love often and with an enjoyment in the process as well as the result. Connie is Katie’s mom. She stayed with us in Nashville for a year after being diagnosed with breast cancer. During her radiation and chemotherapy treatments she cooked wonderful dishes nearly every night. At first it was disconcerting- shouldn’t we be the ones cooking for her? But we quickly came to realize that cooking was therapy for Connie. She spent her time in the chemo clinic writing up a list of what she was going to buy, and then swung by Harris Teeter to pick up ingredients on the way home. Cancer brought on an understandable fear and dread. Cooking was her way of keeping her sanity.
The remarkable thing was that throughout it all she never lost her incredible ability to put excellent food on the table- inventive, perfectly seasoned dishes every night. That was perhaps the weirdest part of all. During that entire year of cooking, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Not an off night, not a menu failure, not one. Now granted, she was primarily cooking comfort food and certainly not testing her training or abilities. Still, that’s a remarkable stretch for any cook. The real blessing was that throughout most of the treatments she kept her appetite, although she would find that certain foods tasted better than others, and during the worst of it she couldn’t eat much at all.
Connie grew up in a family that embraced the love of food. Her parents, Bobbie and Glenn traveled the world, later in life, visiting Michelin rated restaurants. However, it was when the family connected, usually at Bobbie and Glenn’s house, where the ladies, Bobbie, Connie and Katie, would gather in the kitchen and bond with cooking. Bobbie had her favorites, which she executed perfectly every time. It was Connie who usually tried to push the menu in new directions.
Connie took that lifelong love of cooking and went professional later in life, after raising two kids, working many different jobs and enjoying another passion, horse jumping and showing. She went to school at the French Culinary Institute in New York, with financial help from Bobbie and Glenn, to turn raw talent into focused skill. By her own admission, as an older student, and someone with only modest experience in the restaurant world, the program kicked her butt and yet she persevered and graduated. She went on to start the chef career ladder with restaurants in Connecticut, before buying her own place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Prospect Café was one of those cozy little breakfast and lunch diners. It had been around for years, but Connie brought the place new life and earned not only the respect of regulars, but her own loyal fans as well. There were more stops in kitchens big and small, before she finally wound up at the Balducci’s gourmet food store in Westport, Connecticut. I can’t tell you how well we ate when she came to visit us in Nashville. She would load the car up with stuff bought with her Balducci’s discount, and usually a stop at an Italian market or two besides. Those East Coast care packages meant a lot in the days before authentic Italian ingredients finally came to Nashville.
You probably know where this is headed. Connie battled cancer the first time, including surgery. She had about five good years before it reappeared. She continued to battle until just a couple of weeks ago. Last week, she died at a Hospice unit in Waterbury, Connecticut with Katie and her brother Mike at her side. She was a good woman, a talented chef and a true food lover. Connie will be greatly missed.
Luckily for me, Katie inherited that gift in the kitchen, so the legacy of good food will continue in our house.
Our friends have asked about a memorial for her. Katie thought that a gift to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program in Kentucky would be best. They find homes for retired race horses…the ones that didn’t bring in the big bucks and are often discarded without care. Connie loved horses and we’ll think of her every time our big beasts run across the front pasture.