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We emerged from the house Sunday morning to confront the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. A leaning nectarine tree was the worst we suffered. We were going a little stir crazy and decided to grab a movie down at the Promenade. Their website had listings so we assumed the theater was operating. Bad assumption. In fact, the entire Promenade was shut down. Car after car was entering the parking lot looking for dinner or a movie so at least we didn’t feel alone in our disappointment. We guessed that Promenade management had planned for a Sunday afternoon with something worse than cloudy skies and a steady breeze. They lost out on a lot of business though.

My first thought was to stop by the casino for a burger at Emeril’s. There was no way the casino would shut down for anything! One problem – my wife hadn’t brought her purse and ID. But surely we could get a burger, right? There are kids in the casino and restaurants so there can’t be an absolute age cutoff. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated. Even with my wife’s very youthful appearance, she’s clearly not a kid so she absolutely had to be ID’d before entering. But there’s a solution! We could get a security escort to and from the restaurant. OK. That’s awkward. But we’re hungry. Let’s do it. Enter buzzkill escort guard to explain that she can only take us to the Irish pub or Emeril’s Chop House. Huh?! There are ostensibly no differences between those places and Emeril’s burger joint – each serves alcohol and opens to the casino floor. Whatever.

Onto Plan C – a swing through Bethlehem to find food. We climbed Main St. looking for an open restaurant and noticed an Italian place on the right and the Brew Works on the left. Good enough. We circled the block and found a spot off Main St. As we walked up Main toward the Brew Works, we passed the Italian place we’d spotted but I dismissed it partly based on the name, Mama Nina’s Foccacheria. The focaccia emphasis gave me the impression they offered mostly sandwiches. Plus the place looked packed to the gills. A guy standing by the door in casual clothes told us we had to try this place. “It’s awesome!,” he exclaimed and gestured to some seats all the way at the back of the restaurant. Wow, what an enthusiastic endorsement from a guy who clearly eats here a lot. OK, let’s try it. Then the guy grabs two menus and leads us to the table! So we got snookered. This had better be “awesome” or this whole afternoon would be a bust.

Well, we loved it. We were immediately served a big dish of fresh baked rolls smothered in olive oil and fresh garlic, plus 2 complimentary glasses of wine. My wife chose one of the specials – Maryland blue crab ravioli. And I went for the “Tour of Mama Nina”– chicken parm, a meatball, sausage, and eggplant rollatini on spaghetti – to try a variety of menu items. We hadn’t brought the camera as we weren’t planning on dining out, but everything looked great. Home style piled-high portions and great flavor. The atmosphere was energetic and comfortable even though the place was pretty tightly packed. (I’m not sure if this is typical or due to the few number of operating restaurants thanks to Irene.) The prices are good – though some of the specials were pricey esp. if they included seafood.

We finished up and, hauling substantial leftovers, emerged onto beautifully sunlit Main St. Bethlehem. Thank you, Mama Nina, for a great end to a cloudy weekend.

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Aside from the annoying commercials and mediocre food, here’s another reason to stop giving your money to Olive Garden. They’re bullshitting you. To your face. Why reward them for it? Unlimited volumes of low-value bread and pasta?

As consumers, we really need to start looking at chain restaurants more critically. McDonald’s tastes the same around the world because they engineer the meals for consistency. It’s “fast food” so we accept that lack of wholesomeness in exchange for convenience. But we should also be questioning how places like Olive Garden and Red Lobster manage that same consistency from PA to Kansas to California. We live under an illusion that all sit-down restaurants with waitstaffs have big kitchens run by skilled chefs. More likely, there are huge regional facilities using corporate-designed recipes to premake and portion sauces, breadsticks, desserts, etc. They freeze and ship the food hundreds of miles to the franchises to be thawed, reheated and assembled per some laminated card full of plus signs and pictograms.

Remember, you are eating for you and your family’s nourishment – to live long, healthy lives with strong bodies and minds.  Corporate restaurants are trying to turn a profit. That’s it. They’re run by executives in big cities far away and don’t know you or care about you or your community – no matter how many smiling families they put in their commercials. Twenty years from now, you’ll be suffering the effects of their cheap carbs, fat and preservatives. And Olive Garden will be long gone with your money.

We just downloaded the entire camera card for the first time in a while and it gave me a chance to scan all the pics in iPhoto. I found some random food stuff that I might as well share:

Salted pumpkin caramels I whipped up for Thanksgiving.

Bûche de Noël with cocoa and almond meringue “mushrooms” for Christmas dinner dessert. The cake was rolled up with a filling but i can’t quite recall what it was – buttercream with almonds maybe.

Bang Bang Shrimp from Bonefish Grill. My dad’s fave. Very tasty but a little greasy. We think they toss them is some mayonaissy sauce while they’re still hot.

Klein Farms had beef shanks at a really good price so I bought a bunch and made some osso buco. I then shredded it, blended in lots of Parmesan cheese and turned it into whole wheat raviolis. A couple hours of work and we had enough for a dozen meals-for-two.

I was watching Bacon Paradise on the Travel Chanel the other week and was inspired to make some bacon waffles a la Hash House a go go. Three strips of thick cooked bacon laid across the waffle iron after the batter is poured in. If I make them again, I won’t cook the bacon so crispy.

I planted heirloom Touchon carrots last year and left them in the ground over the winter. I dug them up at the beginning of March. They were never thinned out so they stayed kinda small, but it was quite a bounty of 2-4 inch carrots.

I just realized it’s been exactly a month since I’ve posted anything. We really haven’t gone out much, and when we have, it’s been to our usual spots. I don’t think anyone needs to see pics of Ocean and Sette Luna for the umpteenth time. Plus, the garden is still crankin’ out veggies so we’ve been cooking a lot trying not to let anything go to waste.

We did take our pup for a walk downtown on our Friday off and tried to grab lunch at the Third Street Café. I say “tried” because the owner informed us that the Health Department has been cracking down on the presence of dogs in outdoor seating areas. He apologized and recommended The Quadrant since they don’t seem to fear any sanctions. Seems pretty ludicrous to me. Between the car exhaust, birds, and probable sidewalk urine, our 13 lb. lapdog should be the least of the Health Department’s worries.

The main reason we went downtown was to drop off my entry for the Garlic Fest poster contest. The dropoff is supposedly in the PNC Bank on N. 3rd St, but the tellers had no idea what I was talking about. Five days before the deadline and no one else had dropped an entry off? That didn’t seem right, but I was sure I was following the dropoff instructions so I put my faith in the tellers to get my entry to the right person. I’ll just have to make sure my poster is hanging with the others at the festival this Saturday Oct 2nd. The winner will be announced at 3pm. Fingers crossed. (I’ll post my design here on Wednesday after the entry deadline.)

Installing a dishwasher isn’t the most fun way to spend a Saturday. The major headache (and legache and neckache) was getting the water pipe precisely lined up with the input on the bottom of the appliance. I had to pull the thing out from under the counter 9 or 10 times to readjust the pipe before it was perfectly lined up. And even then, attaching the compression fitting was beginning to feel impossible after a solid hour of twisting. The nut just would not catch onto the threads. All the while my wife kept asking about dinner. 6 o’clock. 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock. “I’m not going anywhere till i get this thing hooked up!” She came into the kitchen after 9 to inform me that Sogo was open until 11. I gave it one last effort with what little strength i had left. It seemed to catch. I kept pressure on the fitting and turned it a bit more. I finally had it! Since i could only turn the wrench about 5 degrees at a time, it took me till about 9:45 to get it about 95% tightened. I’d finish in the morning when i had my focus back. My new priority was food so i hopped in the shower and we got downtown to Sogo by 10:15.

I got a Sapporo immediately and we ordered an appetizer special, the “Summer Fusion” salad – a tasty blend of greens, avocado, mango, tomatoes and grilled black pepper tuna belly.

Sogo-App-5-9

I had to order another Sapporo by the time our entrées arrived. My wife ordered the “Sweetheart Roll” and I had the “Tiger Roll.” Tasty as usual. Forget the soy sauce and wasabi.

Sogo-Roll1-5-9

Sogo-Roll2-5-9

It was too late for dessert so we just chilled for a few minutes before heading back up College Hill with my wife behind the wheel. I was out like a light as soon as i got in bed, but i got up bright and early (sore neck and all) and finished the dishwasher hookup. It’s glorious.

Patio dining at Valenca, anyone? Haven’t been there since the fall. The dining room is fine but the patio is so much more relaxing – if you can ignore the crackheads in the square. (Just don’t feed them and they’ll leave you alone.)

If you visit, I recommend the salmon or the codfish gratin. And you have to get the red sangria. I still haven’t tried the flaming chorizo (so beeeeautifully animated on the website). The paella is their featured item but it didn’t thrill me – a decent amt of seafood but i can only take so much rice. I got bored after a few bites and we had tons leftover. “What am I supposed to do with all this Paella?!”

So I read an article in February touting the “first Friday” jazz dinner at the 3rd Street Café. Then we drove past on March’s first Friday and saw that the place was packed for dinner. That sealed it. We had to go to the next one.

Then I totally flaked until this morning when i realized i’d better make reservations for tomorrow night. Damn, that place is tiny and maybe i waited too long and there aren’t any tables left!?

ringring
“Third St Café”

“Hi, you’re having the jazz dinner tomorrow night?”
“Hold on. Are we having entertainment tomorrow?” [she asks someone]

“We’ll have jazz Saturday morning.” [he replies]

“Oh. So no jazz even though tomorrow is first Friday?”
“No.”

“Umm…thanks.”
click

So why were you promoting this event that you weren’t actually having? And why is there a huge callout on the web site saying “Every First Friday”? I mean c’mon…it’s one day a month. We’d still go even is there was no jazz – i don’t even really like jazz – but now that my spitey sense has kicked in, i’ll be shunning the 3rd St Café until my wife talks me down.

Sugar: The Patisserie, just across the river in Phillipsburg, seemingly vanished a couple years ago. Web searches for the founder, Samantha Burns, in conjunction with “pastry” or “bakery” haven’t turned up any mentions more recent than 2006.

We only ate there once but bought desserts several times. It was such a joy to walk through the doors and feast your eyes on the glass cases full of fresh pastries. So difficult to decide. There were no slices of larger desserts – each was like a miniaturized version of a classic. Your personal  sweet treasure. Banana cream pie was the one that really stayed with me. Big enough to share but too good to even consider it.

Once, we convinced our management to use Sugar’s desserts to impress our biggest client. Little did we know, that would be our last Sugar experience.

We hoped Ms. Burns had maybe moved her operation further into the Lehigh Valley – P-burg isn’t exactly a hub of good taste. Even moving 1/4 mile across the river into Easton would have made the business more viable.

Does anyone out there on teh internets have a clue about what happened to Ms. Burns? Some community is getting to enjoy her skills and we’d love to know who we should be jealous of.

Friends are visiting Saturday evening and we’re thinking of taking them to either Ocean or Sette Luna. Both have great atmospheres, service and menus. I’m leanin’ toward Ocean. I always do. In this case, it’s due to the uniqueness of the menu and the more urban feel. Sette Luna is a bit noisier, especially in the big dining room with the open kitchen. I love their bar though. When they took over the other half of the building they were able to add the bar, a cozier dining room and a wine cellar available for group dining (i think). It gets a little hairy when it’s busy as the bar becomes a bit of a bottleneck between the 2 dining rooms. I’ll save more details for my Sette Luna synopsis next week.

Gotta make the Ocean reservations tomorrow. M U S T R E M E M B E R.

Seriously. I once again ate a big lunch and decided to go with just a grapefruit for dinner. Now it’s 10pm, and my stomach is grumblin. But I will resist. Damn I wish I didn’t know about the stash of Girl Scout cookies in the cabinet.
Got the word earlier that I should make Friday reservations for Ocean down on Ferry Street. We’ve had luck as walk-ins but it’s getting tougher for sure. Last time (a Friday), we were fortunate to get there before the rush and the manager found us a spot at the end of the long center table. Their menu offers a large selection of appetizers which you can treat as tapas (that’s generally how i roll) and maybe 8-10 official entrées. I try to pick 3 apps, making one my appetizer and the other two for my meal. Last time i started with the “hot wings” and then had the calamari and yellowfin tuna tartare. The wings are a surprise on the menu and an even bigger surprise when you see the dish. Cooked chicken is puréed and placed within a wonton shell. A delicate wing bone is placed into the chicken and held in place by the edges of the dough creating a sort of chicken lollipop once it’s fried. You receive about 5 of them on a long platter, painted with a triptych of colored sauces: bleu cheese, buffalo and herb (basil if i remember right). There’s a great contrast between the crunchy shell and the tender, savory chicken. Combine that with the classic wing flavor experience without the messy fingers and you get one of my favorite dishes ever.

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  • bakery-style butter cookies + the new book is here!
    Today my second cookbook, five years in the making, Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant & Unfussy New Favorites, at last leaves my noisy, messy kitchen and, perhaps, makes its way into yours. I am, as ever, a nervous wreck. I hope you love it. I hope you find a new favorite recipe (or 5) in it. I hope you make the granola biscotti and have them on hand […]

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