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We were looking for a dinner spot last Friday and wanted to try something new. I was in the mood for something casual and was pushing for Black & Blue near the Easton courthouse. My wife heard some good chatter at work about Emeril’s new place at the Sands and I could tell she had her heart (and stomach) set on it. It was already 5pm so I was surprised when she was easily able to make a 7pm reservation – we’ve since learned that Saturday is the busy night.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting something as stylish as Emeril’s Chop House across the casino floor, but it was much more casual. The restaurant runs along a wide hallway that extends from the back wall of the casino. There are 3 seating sections – a bar, a prep area, and the dining room. The bar had the most character with a view of the casino floor. The prep area gives you a view of the pizza oven and charcuterie cooler & slicer but the lighting was kinda bright. The dining room, where we were seated, was pleasant but had the vibe of a catering hall. (The curtain near our table clearly indicated that the dining room was designed to be closed off for private parties.) The arched beams leading to a huge chandelier were a nice detail, but the height of the ceiling, starkness of the walls, and view of the adjacent large hallway detracted from the intimacy we look for in rustic Italian dining.

My main focus in the menu was the meat and cheese selection. We created a combination of 3 cheeses (burrata mozzarella, taleggio, and robiola) and 3 meats (prosciutto, coppa, and nduja) from a selection of maybe 20. They arrived accompanied by 2 different chutneys and some small (seemingly fried) breads. Everything was great except the little churro-like breads. They were chewy and stale. My wife also ordered the radicchio and endive salad.

For our entrées, my wife went with the clam pizza and I ordered the meatballs. For a wood-fired pizza, it was rather bland. They need to take a page out of Sette Luna’s playbook and give their crust a lot more seasoning and color. The meatballs, though, were great. There were 3 of them covered in a rich red sauce and fresh arugula all on a bed of soft polenta. If I had one criticism, I would have plated it on a large dish. It really looked like a side order. And I had to take care to avoid splashing with so little room to maneuver on the plate.

The service was good except for one instance when the entrées arrived a few minutes before we were finished with our charcuterie. Our table was pretty well filled with dishes and cutting boards, but the server tried to force the entrées onto the table and take away our unfinished appetizers. I made him cool his jets, but I still felt I had to rush through the rest of the meat and cheese as our food was starting to get cold.

The desserts were petite and excellent. My wife enjoyed the dark chocolate-hazelnut tart and I had the spumoni torta.

We’ll likely go back but will probably be a little more specific about where we want to sit – and probably skip the pizza.

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.

Two quick reviews from this past weekend:

Looper’s Grille & Bar in southside Bethlehem
We checked out the First Friday festivities in Bethlehem and the top item on the agenda was dinner. Looper’s on 3rd caught our eye with a huge white tent out back and a big specials board visible just inside the front door. We were disappointed to find out that there was a one hour wait but we spotted 2 seats at the bar and quickly grabbed them. I grabbed a Shock Top and my wife got the excellent house margarita. There were a half-dozen entrée specials which all sounded great. My wife ordered the fish tacos and I had the pulled pork tacos. The fish tacos were topped with purple cabbage slaw and came with chips and salsa. The pork tacos were topped with diced watermelon and had cornbread on the side. It was all great – and watermelon is my new favorite bbq pork accompaniment.

On The Border in the Airport Center shopping plaza off Rt.22
We were starving on our way back from a visit to the Lehigh Valley Mall and decided to try On The Border for a quick bite. The crowd was spilling out the door and my hopes for a speedy meal were dashed. Luckily most of the parties were 4 or larger and they had a table for 2 readily available. The menu wasn’t too different from Don Pablo’s or Chili’s and the quality was about the same as well. I had a combo platter of a pulled chicken taco, a pork tamale, and a guacamole tostada with rice and beans for only $9. Our server, Cory, was really on top of things so we were able to get in and out as quickly as I’d hoped. Nothing amazing but it worked for what we needed.

I wanted to squeeze a quick post in about The Promenade’s Asian fusion restaurant, Komé, before we head out to Bolete’s New England lobster bake. We grabbed dinner at Komé the other weekend just before seeing Inception at the Rave theater. This was our first visit – it was either too crowded or I wasn’t in a sushi mood the other times we considered it. We chose the dining room rather than hibachi since the sushi mood had struck us this night. The first thing I was excited to see was Hitachino Nest Ginger Brew on the drink menu. I first tried it on a recent business trip to Seattle and fell in love. It’s not too gingery and has a fair amount of citrus flavor. It’s also much lighter in body and flavor than the deep amber color and opacity might indicate.

My wife started with an assorted mushroom dish – served in a bubbling hot sour glaze. Really nice but a touch too salty.

I’d been talking about fried chicken earlier that day and coincidentally discovered “Fried Chicken” on the appetizer menu so I had to go for it. It was a sizable portion of cubed white meat served with flavored salt and curry powder. The flavors were all great but some of the chicken was pretty dry. Dark meat would work much better in this dish.

We moved on to a couple rolls – salmon and avocado for my wife and crispy salmon skin for me. Both very good and simply presented – nothing elaborate like Sogo. We considered trying the house-smoked salmon per the waiter’s recommendation but decided we were in salmon overload and would try it next time maybe.

Then mochi ice cream for dessert. We chose chocolate with strawberry mochi and coconut with dark chocolate mochi. If you’re unfamiliar with mochi, it’s a rice flour dough that’s wrapped around ice cream and then re-frozen together. Soft and chewy. I’m thinking of trying to make these at home some time soon.

Overall, we enjoyed the food, service and ambiance regardless of the few quibbles we had with the appetizers. Definitely try Komé. And see Inception!

This past Monday, we took a personal day to do a bit of Christmas shopping without the crowds. It took us a while to get rollin, but we eventually made our way to our first stop in Bethlehem just before lunchtime. We wanted to see if a gift certificate to one of the Sands casino’s two new restaurants, Burgers and More by Emeril or Carnegie Deli, would make a good gift for my folks. We decided both spots were too casual to make a classy gift, but we were psyched to try Emeril’s for ourselves. We grabbed a seat at the bar and were handed the menus and two build-a-burger order forms. It’s nice to have the options clearly spelled out and there’s an implied reassurance that there won’t be any miscommunication with the chef. Hopefully you can read all of the choices in the pic.

My wife wasn’t in a burger mood, but went for the crabcake sandwich. The menu had a bunch of non-burger options including salads and a portabella burger for vegetarians. I do wish there was a veggie burger option on the build-your-own menu.

Design sidebar: It took me a while to realize that the BAM adjective in front of a number of menu items was an acronym of the restaurant’s initials and not just a reference to Lagasse’s trademark exclamation. Not sure why they didn’t play that up in the logo?

Our food took a while to arrive – probably due to the lunch rush – but the unique plating put a smile back on my face. You gotta love the fryer basket of extra thick and crispy onion rings. And the burger was great. Lots of toppings – a generous amount of blue cheese, and tasty balsamic-braised onions.

On my next visit, I plan to get the brisket blend burger with bacon, bbq sauce and cole slaw. And I heard the andouille barbecued white beans are fantastic. Though we may have to try the Carnegie Deli before the return trip to Emeril’s. Their dessert cases are a sight to behold.

A friend just sent me the news that Emeril Lagasse and Sandy Levine, owner of NYC’s famous Carnegie Deli, are teaming up to bring 2 more restaurants to the Sands Casino in Bethlehem – a gourmet burger joint and another Carnegie Deli.

I’m always down for a good burger, but I have a bad impression of the Deli. When my wife and I were interning in NYC back in 2000, we would spend most weekends hitting all the landmarks. We checked out the Deli one day and i ordered a ginormous turkey sandwich to share – which seemed like a great deal since we didn’t have much $$ to throw around and the sandwiches are monstrous enough to satisfy a family of four. But here’s the rub: They insist on charging you an additional maybe 3 or 4 bucks if you want to share!

They charge you more if you want less food!

They charge you more if you don’t want to waste food – which is what happens because no one wants to carry a pound of pastrami on a sightseeing jaunt through Manhattan in the middle of effin July.

They coerce each member of your party into buying a reedonculously wasteful sandwich since it’s completely against all logical thought to fork over more cash so that someone can help you finish a novelty-sized pile of bread and meat. (And when you’re a minimum wage intern, it’s hard to fathom spending an additional $3 on top of a $13 sandwich.)

The rationale has to be that they don’t want non-purchasers taking up valuable table-space in the tiny dining room. Space is always at a premium in New York, but that argument falls flat at the spacious Sands. And continuing a policy that wastes money and food isn’t exactly en vogue in the current climate.

Based on the recommendation of a visitor to the blog, we checked out The Blue Sky Café on 4th St. in Bethlehem last Sunday. I didn’t remember the street address so we crawled down 4th until I spotted the tiny sign and circled the block to find a parking space. I anticipated some difficulty due to the proximity of Lehigh U and the post-church crowd. I got us within a block. Our timing was decent – just a couple people ahead of us for a table.

It’s a lively spot with a busy open kitchen and contemporary style. The menu has all your standard options with a lot of custom creations and seasonal specials – the pumpkin pancakes with maple-walnut butter sounded great. I was tempted but I went with the Sweet Potato Quesadilla instead. Creamy mashed sweet potatoes inside the tortilla, topped with cheese, scrambled eggs, black bean salsa and sour cream. I highly recommend it if you have a big appetite.

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My wife was verry happy with her Steel City omelet. Smoked bacon, shallots, wild mushrooms, tomatoes and smoked gouda. They gladly made it with egg whites only.

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Definitely check out Blue Sky next time you’re in Bethlehem. We’re excited to try their lunch menu or stop in for a casual dinner.

Since it always seems so difficult to pick out birthday presents, going out to a nice meal has become our default gift. My wife chose Emeril’s Chop House at the Sands casino in Bethlehem to celebrate her birthday last weekend. They’ve removed the phone number from the website – instead directing you to OpenTable.com to book your reservation. While it’s always reassuring to make a reservation with an actual person, web reservation sites let you see what times are available. I originally tried to book a table for Saturday but nothing was available between 5 and 10pm. Yikes. Friday’s options were 6:45 and 9:15. We went with the 6:45. That Emeril’s was so booked up was a fair indication that the food would to be good. We’d heard from a friend who attended the restaurant’s opening that the food was so-so. We optimistically assumed they just hadn’t worked out all of the kinks. Then my mom chimed in that the food was “too salty” at the Emeril’s in Las Vegas, though my dad said otherwise. We were undeterred!

We forgot the camera but snagged some inferior pics on my wife’s phone. I’ll post them if I can clean them up in Photoshop.

They started us with some toasts covered with a mouthwatering mushroom paté. I ordered a half-bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and my wife had their sangria – a delicious mix with a subtle taste of cloves. It took a while for the waiter to return to take our food order, but that was our only criticism of the night. We started with salads – the iceberg wedge slathered in Pennsylvania blue cheese for me and the grilled peach and chevre salad for my wife. Both were great – fresh and flavorful. And mine was so filling that I got a bit nervous knowing I had a 22oz ribeye on the way! My wife had the shrimp arrabbiata for her entrée.

Their steaks are accompanied by 3 sauces including bearnaise, Worcestershire, and horseradish. They were good but the steak was seasoned and cooked so well that I used the sauces only sparingly. Side dishes must be ordered separately, but I wanted to save room for dessert.

I was excited to see Penn State Creamery ice cream on the menu and was definitely going to get the Bittersweet Mint if it was one of the selections. It wasn’t (though they did have Peachy Paterno) so we shared the coconut cream pie. Yummm.

We had a great night and highly recommend it. The decor is great, the waitstaff was professional and the food was top notch. It was one of the pricier meals we’ve had in a while (though my steak and wine threw off the curve) but i can confidently say that we got our money’s worth.

Just found some pics we took a few weeks back. We took my pops out for a belated Father’s Day dinner and decided to meet up at the new Sands Casino in Bethlehem. My folks had just been to Vegas and had eaten at an Emeril’s restaurant out there (“too salty” my mom declared) so we chose St. James Gate for a little Irish fare.

We approached the casino complex from Rt 412 and were guided directly into the parking garage so we didn’t get much perspective on the entire steelworks complex. But based on a 3D mockup in one corner of the casino, it looks like the plans are pretty ambitious. I haven’t studied the socio-economic pros and cons or the politics involved but it looks damn cool.

Our timing was spot-on and we ran into my folks in the parking garage. We made our way to the casino floor and walked the perimeter to the restaurant at the opposite corner. On the way we passed by Emeril’s which looked impressive – though I heard from a Lehigh Valley restaurant-junkie that the food’s not so hot. We’ll give it a chance though. St. James Gate doesn’t take reservations so we put our named down – “45 minutes.” Super! Just enough time to lose $40 in the slots. After 45 minutes our wait was magically reduced to 20 minutes. Wuh?

Jump ahead to the food. My dad started with the seafood chowder and my wife and i planned to share the stuffed mushroom which turned out to be kinda small. The chowder was good and the portion was generous.

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It took forever for us to get our entrées. My dad had the fish ‘n chips, my mom had the prime rib sandwich special, my wife went for the salmon, and i had the corned beef and cabbage – though they brought me a reuben by mistake. In hindsight, I should have kept it. My beef and cabbage was kinda blah. Same goes for my wife’s salmon. You can tell by the plating that their style is no-frills. If the food was amazing, I wouldn’t care about the lack of flair. My beef was rubbery and the cabbage-in-a-warm-bath added little flavor to the dish. Thank jeebus for the mustard. The pic below looks like it tasted.

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We skipped dessert. I think we got to the casino starving at 5:30 and didn’t finish eating till around 9. We were tired of the whole eating process. Dropped a few more bucks in the casino before parting ways. We’ll try Emeril’s some time soon – thankfully they take reservations.

My mom’s birthday falls within a week of Mothers Day so I usually use that as an excuse to only give her one gift. Parents are impossible to shop for, so we tend to just go out for a nice “meal of food.” I’ve been raving about Bolete since last fall and finally had the perfect occasion to take her there. Bolete is in a great building with a strange location, at the intersection of Seidersville Rd and Emmaus Ave in the Fountain Hill section of Bethlehem. Frankly, the historic farmhouse looks like it was just plopped into its suburban neighborhood. That uniqueness is reflected in the food – an innovative (though short) menu utilizing as many locally sourced, seasonal ingredients as possible. Note: Take the menu on their website as an indication of Bolete’s typical range – not what they will be serving on a particular evening.

Saturday’s menu had a number of compelling choices. Tough to decide. For the first course, my wife went with the mixed green salad with goat cheese and blueberries, my mom chose the calamari (not local obviously, but it’s amazing), and i had to choose between the steak tartare and the roasted quail. Since I was leaning toward beef for my entrée, I went with the quail. Plus, I’d never had quail and I was curious to see what the dish would look like.

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We convinced my wife to go for the softshell crab with fingerling potatoes for her entrée. My mom chose the house-smoked pork chop with polenta cakes and I had the braised beef shank with grit croquettes and oyster mushrooms. I ended up eating the body of the crab. The guts freaked my wife out a little. Totally understandable. There’s no way I would eat that junk out of a steamed crab, but somehow i trusted that Bolete’s chefs wouldn’t feed me anything that would taste bad. Their smoked pork chop is great. You really gotta brine and smoke pork to keep it moist – farmers are breeding them way too lean nowadays. Bolete seems to offer the chop year-round. They just change the prep and the side dishes seasonally. My beef shank was tender and tasty. And i loved the grit croquettes – crispy and creamy and perfect for soaking up sauce.

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We were stuffed but i made a strong case that we absolutely needed dessert. Seeing the dessert menu sealed the deal. Some sharing was considered but quickly abandoned. Fresh doughnuts filled with lemon custard, coated with lemon sugar with a scoop of blueberry sorbet. Lime custard in a macadamia nut pastry shell with spearmint sorbet. Chocolate hazelnut ice cream with white chocolate cream and grapefruit. We appreciated the plating for about half a second before we attacked. Too good.

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Oh, and i forgot to mention the drinks. Bolete has an excellent wine list and some nice beer choices but we went with the mixed drink specials. My wife had the strawberry sangria and i went for the berry margarita with cucumber juice. My mom loves Corona but it wasn’t on the menu – at least not as a stand-alone drink. The Lehigh Valley Lemonade blended Corona, fresh squeezed lemonade and Ketel One vodka. It might be my mom’s new favorite drink.

Needless to say, we had a great time and my mom was really impressed with the food. Can’t wait to go back. Fathers Day is comin’ up right?

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