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The here is Tapas on Main and the there is Emeril’s Burgers and More, both in Bethlehem.

Let’s start with the there. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s bouncing around the house looking for reasons to get out in the Valley. My wife mentioned that some new outlets had opened at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem so I had the idea to grab a burger for lunch at Emeril’s. We’d been there once before, shortly after it opened, and our recollections were positive. Well, on this second visit, things didn’t start out strong. The hostess was nowhere to be found while 10 people stacked up at the doorway staring at a bunch of empty tables. The manager repeatedly noticed the lineup but continued delivering food to tables rather than alert the hostess or jump in to get people seated in the meantime. We were finally seated close to the kitchen and noticed how rapidly the food was stacking up under the warming lights. The place was definitely understaffed. Our drinks took forever to arrive (and we were never offered water), but the food was tasty. Though burgers and fries from Five Guys are more satisfying for half the price. The service was friendly, but the atmosphere was offputting – bright lights, dirty floors and chaos. One might chalk that up to the casino experience but somehow Vegas has figured out how to make even casual dining feel classy. Emeril’s feels like a fast food joint that sells $10 burgers. Total: about $50 for a burger, crabcake sandwich, fries, cole slaw, a beer and a margarita.

Two days later, we found ourselves in Bethlehem again to do a little ice skating. We were shopping on Main Street around 5pm and decided to fuel up before hitting the rink. We considered Mama Nina’s, a new Italian Place called Molto Pazzo, and the Brew Works. A shopkeeper recommended the new Tapas on Main and we figured a couple small plates and a glass of wine would be perfect for our purposes. We chose wisely. They offer a happy hour menu with a handful of tapas dishes, mixed drinks and glasses of wine for $5 each. We ordered the hand-cut fries (ideally crisp with a great aioli), the chorizo (with melted manchego cheese and an interesting chocolate balsamic drizzle), and the coca de calamari (perfectly cooked and flavored). We then shared a petite flourless chocolate cake for dessert. All of that plus 3 glasses of wine, tight service, and great ambiance for the same amount we spent at Emeril’s two days prior.

Some may say the comparison of a casino burger joint to a quiet tapas bar is apples to oranges, but if you’re in Bethlehem in the mood for something casual to semi-casual with a medium budget in mind, these are certainly two places you might have considered. And in the interest of keeping you away from Emeril’s (if wine and tapas aren’t your scene), check out Looper’s just down from the casino on 3rd street. Great casual food, good drinks and decent atmosphere.

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We got together with a couple friends to attend the Jim Gaffigan show at Easton’s State Theater on Saturday night. It was a 9:30 show which gave us plenty of time to gorge ourselves at Ocean. Neither of our guests had ever eaten at Ocean so we thought it would be fun to start with an assortment of tapas. We ordered 5 of our faves starting with the filo wrapped goat cheese with pumpkin seeds and honey plus 2 plates of “hot wings.” The chicken bone handles have been replaced by skewers for some reason – not as unique but maybe aesthetically more appealing to some customers. Or maybe  bones were just a pain in the ass for the chefs to deal with.

The we rocked a seafood triumvirate: calamari, tuna tartare, and lobster mac ‘n cheese. All great.

Our friends were still craving a bit more so we advised they split the burger and fries. One of the best burgers you’ll ever have. And I love their fresh cut fries.

Even after all the food and many beers (mostly Delirium Tremens), dessert was still beckoning to us. Crème brulée, cheesecake springrolls, and pear/cranberry cobbler with sweet cream ice cream. It was one course too many, really.

And the Gaffigan show was fantastic if you were curious. His set was maybe an hour and a half – 98% new material plus an encore of his infamous assault on Hot Pockets. Definitely check him out. But don’t let his tight jeans distract you from his continued paleness.

Sitting at gate 2 at the Lehigh Valley airport about to embark on a business trip to Seattle (via Chicago). I can’t believe there are this many people flying this early in the morning. And it seems like many of them do this on a daily basis. Ugh.
Let’s see if I have the motivation to update this post with all of my eating experiences over the next few days…

Update 1: Breakfast at Chicago/O’Hare – Little place called Berghoff in terminal C. Mushroom/onion/jack omelet. Not very fancy but really good and sustained me for the long leg to Seattle. I won’t buy preservative-filled plane food.

Update 2: Dinner at Txori (pronounced chor-ee) – A great Spanish tapas restaurant the team took me to Tuesday evening. We tried a little bit of a lot of stuff. I snagged a menu cuz there was no way i would remember what everything was.

The best dish of the meal was unfortunately the first – octopus, red potato, olive oil and smoked paprika:

chorizo with shaved chocolate:

garbanzo beans in cumin/tomato sauce:

piquillo peppers stuffed with codfish brandade:

veal/pork meatballs:

The day’s cheese plate (our waitress did a poor job explaining the choices):

Update 3: Breakfast at Boka – This is Hotel 1000’s restaurant. Don’t know about lunch or dinner, but the breakfast was tight. Smoked salmon/apple/potato hash with poached eggs and Hollandaise.

Update 4: Dinner at Umi – I was in the mood for sushi and my hosts took me to this great spot on 1st Ave. Amazing sushi. Huge rolls. Cool space. Interesting conversation. It was a bit dark so please pardon the picture quality. Spotted real Ginger Beer on the menu. We’ve loved the soft drink (Bermudian not Jamaican) for years, and now we can get drunk from it! Gotta figure out where to find a case.

Mackerel, yellowtail, tuna belly, and salmon sushi; and lots of rolls – each one different but all equally huge. Definitely would give Sogo a run for their money:

Final Update:  Breakfast at Bigfoot Food & Spirits at Sea-Tac airport. I only had a few minutes before my plane started boarding and the meal was way bigger than expected. A huge croissant sandwich with roasted potatoes and a big bowl of yogurt, fruit and granola. Followed by some Five Guys gloriousness at Washington/Dulles before my flight back to the LV.

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.

I wasn’t expecting Emeril’s burger joint and the Carnegie Deli over at the Sands casino to open so quickly. Lehigh Valley InSite has an early review. Can’t wait to build my own gourmet burger – or at least have a pro build it to my specifications.

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.

I’d heard that a Five Guys Burgers and Fries had popped up in the Lehigh Valley (there are 2 actually plus one up in Stroudsburg). I love a good burger and i’ve been intrigued by Five Guys since the Prez began drawing crowds to the DC franchise. We swung by the Airport Road location (next to the new Target just off Rt 22) to see what all the buzz was about.

The menu is pretty basic – burgers, dogs, fries and sodas. My wife ordered a “little” cheeseburger, i had a regular cheeseburger and we shared a large fries. The regular burger is actually 2 “little” burgers stacked. We both got ours with “everything on it” which included mayo, lettuce, pickles, grilled onions and mushrooms, ketchup, mustard and green peppers. Relish, raw onions, jalapenos, A-1, BBQ sauce and hot sauce are also available.

While we waited for our order # to be called, we shelled some peanuts – a nice distraction for a hungry crowd. It’s interesting to watch the noisy assembly line in the simple open kitchen just behind the counter. The vocal crew, basic menu, peanut shells, and no-secrets kitchen all combine to communicate one simple truth – it’s fun to eat real food.

Our number came up and we took our big brown paper bag out to a sidewalk table. As you can see, the buns were packed with sloppy goodness. The meat itself was tender and flavorful – the patties are loosely packed never-frozen beef and are always cooked well done. And the fries kick ass if you’re into “boardwalk” style.

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This is the first in a series of general reviews of our favorite dinner spots – places we know we can go for great food, service and ambiance. These aren’t rankings – just the order in which I’m choosing to write them.

I’ve already mentioned Ocean a bit here and here. My wife may be getting tired of the menu but the variety of tapas options give me a chance to mix and match to fit my mood. The list of appetizers spans everything from yellowfin tuna tartare to chorizo & root vegetable soup to lobster mac ‘n cheese.

They had an amaaaazing angus burger and fries on the app. menu for a while but they must have received “complaints” that the platter was just way too voluminous to not be an entrée so they upgraded it. I highly recommend it (rare), but make sure you bring your appetite. An egg yolk slathered burger and hand cut fries don’t hold up well as leftovers. When we do go for an entrée, it’s generally one of the specials. They usually have maybe 2 specials a night if i remember correctly. Portions are good and the plating is excellent.

The dessert choices are all delicious, though the fact that i know that indicates i’ve had them all – so they could probably afford a shakeup. They have a lot of great mixed drink options, a sophisticated wine list, a nice bottled beer selection (i go with the Framboise Lambic in the champagne flute when i want to feel fancy) and a talented head bartender.

Apart from all the consumables, the experience is very enjoyable. The manager is extremely personable and bends over backwards to make sure you have a good time. The staff is very amiable and professional as well. It’s a small restaurant – i’d estimate that the front room seats 2 dozen and the rear section a bit more. There’s a lounge downstairs, though I’m unclear if there’s any food service. In the few years we’ve been going, Ocean’s popularity has steadily grown so reservations are highly recommended at this point. The dining room bar area can get very crowded due to its close proximity to the tables and, with waitstaff having to fight through the crowd, it’s not the most comfortable place to stand if you can’t get a barstool. The vibe is modern and urban. It’s got good energy which is tempered effectively by relatively low lighting.

So that’s my topline review of Ocean. Got reservations for this Saturday and I’m really looking forward to it. My next review will be for a place just a few doors down – Sette Luna.

Went to the movies last night up by Wegman’s (Coraline – it was great) and we needed a place close by for a quick drink and bite before the show. Red Robin is our default cuz it’s right there. Figured it would be cool – had decent burgers on past visits. Well, I don’t remember the place feelin like Showbiz Pizza. It was a damn circus. All the screaming and bright lights. And the manager was running around apologizing to every other table – not a good sign. We had some appetizers and I downed 22ozs of Blue Moon. Probably shoulda just hit the Wegman’s sushi bar. Next time.

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