Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Corner Room (Portland, ME)

The Corner Room©
As you probably can tell, I have a bit of a Maine connection; in fact, my (former) step-family is from Portland, and I grew up spending about a quarter of each year splitting time between the mainland and Peaks Island.  In the last couple years, whenever I go up my sister and I go out and grab a bite to eat, and The Corner Room, one of the three "Room" restaurants (the others being the original, The Front Room, followed by The Grille Room), has become a favorite.  In fact, this restaurant caused my sister to give up being a vegan!  Both times we've gone we didn't have reservations and went at fairly close to peak hours and tables weren't immediately available, so we ended up sitting at the small "bar" that encircles the cheese and charcuterie prep station.  This was an unbelievable blessing the first time, which I will get to later.

The menu at The Corner Room changed a little between the first and second time I went, but the basic concept of the restaurant is an Italian inspired (though with a very American twinge) menu with "rustic" flavors.  Rustic appears to be the buzzword of the decade (century?) so far, but The Corner Room does it well; the flavors are strong, ingredients are fresh, and while there's clearly some impressive technique going into the preparation, it's never obviously about the technique rather than the food.  As I've said before, I'm all for fancy food, but the food is the key there, so technique should never come in ahead of taste.  In addition to the pizza, pasta and sandwiches, which you would expect at an Italian inspired restaurant, there are the "secondi," or main dishes, which at the moment I'm writing this include Osso Bucco alla Milanese, Risotto Frutti di Mare, and two Italian chicken dishes.  That's pretty representative of how the menu has been when I've been there.

The first time we went, we started with a platter of a variety of charcuterie, including a duck pâté, a terrine, prosciutto, and a couple others, served with two different mustards and a fruit preserve along with sliced baguette.  Did I mention that when we went in my sister had been living a vegan lifestyle?  Not anymore!  I followed this up with braised pork on a bed of pumpkin polenta and roasted brussels sprouts, and I was truly blown away.  I had never in all my life eaten a brussels sprout and not wanted to huck something at the chef, but they were delicious!  The polenta's texture may not have pleased everyone, I'll admit, though I think the flavor would have; I loved it all, but I like my polenta just the slightest bit "gritty" (I can't think up a better word), which this was.  The pork was falling apart, my knife barely being needed, and while it had a tremendous flavor on its own, it really shined when eaten in combination with the polenta, where the textures and flavors mixed.  My sister also loved her dinner, which was an Italian sandwich (mortadella, prosciutto, salami, smoked mozzarella and a few vegetables), and from the bite I tried, I can heartily endorse it; it was better than any Italian sandwich I've ever had before, and in the upper realms of all the sandwiches, of any variety, I've ever had.  We both paired our meals with beers, and they do have a decent list, including local favorites Geary's and Shipyard, as well as a pretty good looking wine list, though I am nowhere near qualified to truly comment on that part of it.

As good as the appetizer and main courses were, the truly memorable part of that meal was the cheese course we had as a substitute for dessert.  It was at this time that we truly benefited from being at the cheese and charcuterie prep station.  As it turned out, that night the station was being manned by the chef himself, which we didn't realize until later (okay, I never realized it; my sister gets all the credit here), and we'd been chatting with him off and on throughout the meal, so when we were deciding on which of the cheeses we wanted for our platter, we asked him for suggestions, and not only did he gives us the best suggestion ever, La Tur, he also gave us an extra cheese for free, which was incredibly generous.  The other three cheeses were good, but I can't for the life of me remember what they are anymore, two years later.  The La Tur god.  Creamy, sweet, savory, embodying the best of each goat's, cow's and sheep's milk (it's a combination of the three), this cheese is decadence defined.  The last line of the description of it on the Murray's Cheese website, "We recommend you get back-up: La Tur is always the first to go at a party" is entirely accurate.  After buying a couple pounds of it for my sister for Christmas in 2010 (seriously, it's that good that I had it shipped to Maine from New York City), we all burned through that stuff in no time.  It is not only my favorite cheese, but there's really no competition; eating it for the first time is akin to the joy of a first kiss (thankfully without the awkwardness!) with someone you really like.  You really had no idea what to expect, but you're anticipating that it will be good...and then it's more than good; it's transcendent.  And isn't that what you want from all food (and first kisses)?

As a side note, The Corner Room now offers Sunday brunch; I haven't been yet, but I had brunch at The Front Room last year and it was pretty spectacular, so I have no reason to think it would be anything less than wonderful at The Corner Room as well.


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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Brick Wall Burger (Greenfield, MA)

Brick Wall Burger is in an awful location; not physically so, because 286 Main St. in Greenfield is actually a great theoretical location for a restaurant, in the middle of downtown, but because this must be a cursed spot.  Not less than five different restaurants have been in this location in the last decade or so, some of which were actually very good, and all have failed somehow.  I'm praying that Brick Wall won't follow this trend, because not only is it something that Greenfield badly needed (a good burger joint), but it's actually up there with the best burger options in the area.  The key to this place is that they get fresh meat, locally as much as possible, and grind it themselves.  This means they don't feel the need to conform to this idiotic concept that ground meat must be cooked until there's no juice left in the poor patty; after all, the cow got killed already, no need to kill it again, and if you know that the grinder is clean, you don't need to cook the meat to death just to "be sure" that it won't have any health issues.  As a person who likes his burgers rare, this was a pleasant surprise the first time I went, as was the fact that the servers I've had have never once attempted to argue this order with me, and in fact one agreed it was the best way to eat a burger.  Along those same lines, the servers have been almost universally good, though one was cloyingly sweet; that annoys me, but I know a lot of people wouldn't mind it.

The meat is not only cooked to order, but is legitimately flavorful; this is the result, I'd guess, from buying from local farmers as much as possible, thus staying away from the mass produced beef that populates most burger joints.  I saw a review online that accused them of over-salting both the burgers and fries, but that hasn't been my experience at all; it could be an isolated incident, or it could be that this reviewer is sensitive to salt.  Either way, you can be the judge, but I wouldn't let that kind of criticism frighten you off.  The toppings they offer range from the standard (lettuce, tomato, grilled onions and peppers) to the less mundane (avocado, roasted habanero pepper, and wasabi, for example) and have been very good each time I've been, though there was a huge variation in the spice of the habanero from the first time I had the "Firebrick Burger" to the second.  You can build your own burger, picking from ground beef, ground chicken, ground pork, ground corned beef (a cool concept, but not one that interests me, to be honest), vegetarian/gluten free black bean, or portobello mushroom.  I don't see it on their website now, but they used to offer a Kobe burger and a lamb burger as well, though both were pretty expensive.  Additionally, you can pick from their "Custom Burger Works," which include some very original concepts, such as the aforementioned "Firebrick Burger," which includes habanero, avocado slices, pepperjack cheese and a chili garlic sauce that is mild but delicious.  I haven't tried them yet, but the "Bull in the Bramble" (raspberry dipping sauce and romaine lettuce) and "Burger Mosto Cotto" (grape wine reduction, tomato, fresh mozzarella, and arugula) are really interesting concepts, and I look forward to trying them soon.

A good french fry can make or break a burger joint, and Brick Wall's do not disappoint.  They are double fried, which is, in my opinion, the only proper way to cook a french fry, and while I'm not sure what kind of oil they're using, it does impart a nice flavor to the potatoes, which are nice and crispy on the outside and light inside.  The sweet potato fries are good, though as with all sweet potato fries, they suffer in the crispness category; if you're looking for crisp, though, why are you getting sweet potato fries?  Be aware, however, the homemade ketchup served with the fries is a little odd; my friends are pretty sure the reason is cloves, and I'll trust them on that, because it's a flavor I'm not very familiar with and just plain don't really like.  It doesn't ruin the fries by any means, but it doesn't enhance them either, which a good ketchup should.

Also served with your burger is a side of cole slaw, either regular or spicy.  Both are serviceable, but nothing to write home about, though I should give them credit for not using a bunch of mayonnaise to flavor the slaw; rather, it is vinegar heavy, which I like but which bothers others.  I like the spicy when I'm not getting the "Firebrick Burger," but if I am going spicy on the burger I have to get the regular, or it's a little overkill.

Beer (including the local favorite Berkshire Brewing Company) and Greenfield's own Bart's Homemade Ice Cream are offered, and both are perfect accompaniments to a good burger.  Try the Steel Rail E.P.A. for a solid, refreshing option to go with your burger, followed by Maple Walnut Ice Cream.

Update 5/9/12


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Manna House (Greenfield, MA)

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As I previously said, Korean cuisine is among my few favorites, and Manna House, a tiny little hole in the wall (literally), serves some of the finest food I've ever eaten.  The owner, Mrs. Lee, cooks up fresh, traditional, and filling meals at a pretty reasonable price, all by herself while also serving and taking orders.  This is one of my favorite lunch joints, and is well worth the fifteen minute drive to meet my step-dad or friend who works in town.  The food is good enough that my mom's friends, who live in New York City and are extremely well traveled, consider this to be fantastic.

My favorite options are the Ramen soup, which comes both in both "spicy" or "not spicy" versions (be aware, the "not spicy" still has some spice), the combination platter, which has crispy pan fried dumplings (which are to die for), jap chae, rice, and "sushi", and last but not least, the spicy squid with rice.

If you've never had it in a Korean restaurant, then the Ramen will be like nothing you've ever had before.  Banish thoughts of "Top Ramen" and "Cup O' Noodles."  This is not that.  Spicy and savory, with flavorful noodles, green onions, and a fried egg, this is the single best remedy for a cold I have ever found; seriously, keep your Nyquil and Sudafed, I'll take a spicy bowl of Ramen.  It's a lot of food, but I've never even considered not finishing it, even when I was full; it's too damn good to waste.

The combo platter is a great option for people who don't like spicy foods, which most of my preferences on the menu are.  The japchae, sweet potato noodles with vegetables, is an oddly refreshing dish for a hot noodle dish.  The rice, as with all the rice served at Manna House, is properly cooked (something that should not be underestimated; seriously, how often do you get truly well cooked rice?), but lacks flavor, so I tend to use some soy sauce.  The "sushi," which is similar to the traditional Japanese variety but using either ham or kept vegetarian, is tasty but nothing to go out of your way for in my opinion, though my mother loves it.  Lastly, the real star of the show, the yakimandu, or dumplings, are also available either in pork or vegetarian versions.  Crispy pan fried, with a ridiculous amount of flavor, texture and scent, these dumplings are amazing; pretty much everyone who I've gone with thinks they're the best thing offered, and it'd be difficult to argue that point.  These aren't your standard potstickers found in Chinese restaurants; the dough is thicker, and actually is flavorful on its own, and the filling is strongly flavored but without overwhelming any of the other ingredients.

If I'm not in the mood for soup but still want something spicy, the squid and rice is great.  The sauce that comes on the squid (separated from the rice, which will become important as you get towards the end of the meal and need that plain starch to soak up some of the heat that's already hit your palate) just looks spicy, a bright red with obvious flecks of chiles.  The squid is cooked properly, something that you will almost never see, sadly; squid is always overcooked, making it tough and, well, gross.  The rice, squid and sauce together is a truly ingenious combination that makes me want to travel back in time, find the Korean chef who came up with it, and give them a big hug.  The only complaint I can find with this dish is that squid is a delicate flavor, and it does get a little overwhelmed by the sauce; however, it is not by the spice in the sauce, but by the flavor, so this is a nitpicky kind of gripe.

Overall, this is the best truly Korean restaurant I've been to (Danji, mentioned in an earlier post, does not count, as they are a "fusion" restaurant), and I highly recommend it to anyone in the area, or traveling through.  For under $10, you can get a lot of great food and be exposed to a cuisine that many people have never experienced.  The owner is extremely friendly, and after having gone to Manna House only about four times has recognized me ever since, and even knows what my favorites are.  The meals are all served with banchan, small plates of sides such as kimchi, beat sprouts, or potatoes in a slightly sweet brown sauce that I can't identify but that is really delicious.  There is also a tea that I'm pretty sure is buckwheat, but don't take my word on that; it's good, but it took me a couple tries to really like it, so if you don't enjoy it immediately give it another shot.

One last note; unlike most of the restaurants I go to and enjoy, this is actually very vegetarian friendly.  The options if you don't eat meat aren't wide, but what's available is delicious and both vegetarians I've taken enjoyed it.

05/17/12:  It appears that Manna House has moved to a larger location on Bank Row in Greenfield, so it will be interesting to see if the menu changes/expands, and whether they're able to sustain growth.  I'll be checking it out soon I'm sure.

06/13/12:  I finally made it to the new Manna House location, and while the food hasn't changed (a good thing), this location is far, far better.  It is still not large, but now it can seat probably 30, rather than 9, and the room is beautifully decorated, clean, and welcoming.  As soon as I walked in the owner recognized me, and knew that I had not been in since she moved; while this is a small thing, it really makes a person feel welcome and comforted, and is among the many reasons that I will continue to patronize this establishment.

09/25/12:  I spoke with the owner, and she is planning on getting a liquor license, but it's a tough sell in Greenfield, a town that is already saturated with liquor serving establishments.

Also, I got the dol bi bim bab, and it was fantastic.  Served in a sizzling stone hot pot, this rice topped with vegetables and spicy chili sauce was so damn good I didn't even mind that it was vegetarian.  The mushrooms add some meaty flavor anyways, and the egg perfectly cooked as it sat on the top.  All mixed together, it creates a delicious amalgam of flavors and textures.  The rice along the bottom of the bowl crisps up a little, reminding me of the way a proper paella does as well.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon

For those who are not fans of Scotch (which mystifies me, but oh well), bourbon is a good liquor option.  While I have certainly not had as much experience with bourbon as with Scotch, Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon is by far my favorite.  A true Kentucky Straight Bourbon (a designation with certain legal requirements, including having been produced and aged entirely within Kentucky), Rock Hill Farms is a strong, flavorful bourbon, which is rated exceptionally well by people who know bourbon far better than I, and with good reason.  Distilled by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, this is a truly high end bourbon, with a complex mix of flavors including coffee notes, chocolate, and vanilla.  This is actually a perfect bourbon for someone who typically drinks Scotch, and if you like this bourbon but haven't ventured much into Scotch, I would encourage you to.  My family member who most appreciates Scotch is also a big fan of good bourbon, and he loved this.

As a side note, not that it's actually important as far as taste, the bottle that Rock Hill Farms comes in, as you can see from the above picture, is quite beautiful.  I bought this as a "gift" for the family at Christmas, and I made my step-mom promise that when they finished the bottle (it wasn't done when I had to head home after the holidays), they would keep it for me, because it is so beautiful it will have a permanent place on my shelf, even though it's empty.


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Hungry Ghost Bread (Northampton, MA)

Hungry Ghost Bread, the James Beard award winning bakery located on State St. in Northampton, MA, is among my favorite places in the Pioneer Valley.  Their featured item is their bread, specifically the French batard loaves that is their primary variety, and they are very, very good at what they do.  With a ridiculously thick, crisp crust, chewy crumb, and wonderful sourdough flavor, the French batard (which they point out on their website is just their name for any of a myriad of different sourdoughs, from Italian bread to Spanish or Portuguese bread; they're all the same, in essence) is perfect for sandwiches, toast, to dip in soup or stew, and, as it turns out, really good pizza.  But, more on the pizza later.  In addition to the batard, which is made daily, they also churn out "special" breads each day, including a spelt loaf, annadama, raisin loaf, and numerous others.  I've only had a couple others, but I keep coming back to the batard because for my money, it's the best.  Speaking of money, though, it's not the cheapest bread ever; you're looking at about $5.00 per loaf, which for me is worth it, but not every week.

While bread is their specialty and their forte, I don't often leave without a few other items.  I love oatmeal raisin cookies more than just about any other sweet, and Hungry Ghost's are delectable, though I admit that it doesn't take much to please me in that category.  More telling are their chocolate chip cookies, a variety that I am far more picky about; like their bread, these cookies are crisp on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, just like my grandmother (who I still maintain to this day made the best cookies ever) made when I was a kid, and with just the right amount of chocolate and sugar, making the cookies sweet but not cloying.  There are a couple other varieties of sweet pastries as well, but I have not partaken, though I plan to at some point.

For a more savory pastry, Hungry Ghost offers a filled pastry, which is the perfect snack for someone who is stuck in that awkward spot between lunch and dinner where anything more than several bites will ruin your appetite for later, but anything less will leave your stomach grumbling for more.  With a tender, flaky crust and just shy of smooth filling (there's just the hint of tooth to it), there is a lot of flavor packed into this small (about a three inch square) package.  I've certainly had better, but not by much, and when they're warm (either directly out of the oven or warmed in a toaster oven at home) they are really wonderful.

And lastly, the pizza.  I had not been to Hungry Ghost in several months before deciding the other day that I wanted bread, and finding that my standard go-to bread bakery (El Jardin Bakery, interestingly also started by Jonathan Stevens, the owner of Hungry Ghost, and only my go-to because it's about half the distance as Hungry Ghost is) was closed.  Upon checking out the website, I saw that, lo and behold, Hungry Ghost now has pizza!  Apparently in the time since I was last there, Hungry Ghost shut down for a few months, renovated, and got a new, giant oven that allows them to offer pizza.  I have read a few reviews that were less than positive, but I think the reason for those reviews is a lack of understanding of the type of pizza they offer.  This is not standard American thin crust (aka New York) style pizza; it is a rather more Italian offering, with a charred crust, light on the (very high quality) ingredients, and lacking what most Americans consider a necessary part of the pie, a tomato sauce.  There is also a sweetness to both the mozzarella and the crust that I suspect throws off many customers; it is light and subtle, but enough to cause people many to note that fact in their negative reviews.  I had the Margherita, with tomatoes, mozzarella fior di latte (cow's milk), basil, and EVOO, and it was probably the best of that variety I have ever had.  It's not cheap, at not less than $10 for a 12 inch pizza, but worth it on occasion.  It's also only take out.

Simply put, Hungry Ghost Breads is the best bakery I have experienced in Western Massachusetts, and second only to Standard Baking Company in Portland, ME (which I'm sure I'll write up at some point; if not, don't miss the scones there).  It is too far and too expensive for me to go weekly, but if I lived within walking distance I'd probably be a fat, broke, highly satisfied man, and I would subsist almost entirely on their cookies.

As a side note, they offer homemade granola, of which I have only had the vanilla variety (didn't like it) and now dried pasta, which I haven't had yet.  This is a no credit card establishment (which is posted, no matter what one vitriolic reviewer who has put their review on every site that will accept it, says), but in addition to cash they take personal checks and have a "bread futures" system in which you give them money in advance and they just deduct the charge from your "account" each time.


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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cold River Vodka

I may as well make my first departure from the stated aims of this blog a foray into my second favorite spirit:  Vodka!  As a descendant of the people who have conquered Eastern Europe in the last half millennium (Lithuania, Poland, Germany), it makes sense that that most Slavic of all drinks has made it into my repertoire.  When it comes to vodka, I'm a snob, even more so than with Scotch.  If it's lower quality than Absolut, I won't touch it, even in a mixed drink, and I tend to go with Grey Goose.

Despite my proclivity for Grey Goose, potato vodkas are by far the best in my opinion, and Maine Distilleries, Inc.'s Cold River Vodka is my favorite.  Unlike with beer, where bitterness is often a positive, or Scotch, where some harshness is both expected and encouraged, vodka should be truly smooth.  Often cited as being the "tasteless" or "odorless" spirit, good vodka is not remotely tasteless.  Rather, Cold River, like all good potato vodkas, has a sweetness to it that grain vodkas lack, and a character that is all its own.  You shouldn't make the "whisky face" with vodka; whether drunk straight, in a martini (my two preferred methods), or in some other mixed drink, drinking vodka should be a purely pleasant experience.  Cold River fulfills that.  Additionally, there is the positive aspect of Cold River being an American made and distilled product, with the distillery using potatoes from a farm in Maine that was going out of business until the decision was made to start using the yield to distill spirits rather than attempt to compete with larger factory farms that sell to McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King.  Also, being American made, there are no import tariffs to raise the prices; despite its superior quality, ingredients, and taste, Cold River will cost you about the same as (or less than) Stolichnaya (Russia) or Grey Goose (France).


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Vientiane Market (Portland, ME)

Vientiane Market is a small Asian market located at the corner of Noyes Ave and St. John St in Portland, ME; if you don't know what you're looking for, you will drive right past it and never think twice.  Hidden in this small, nondescript building is a tiny kitchen that puts out some truly incredible Thai food (Thai, in this case, being the Thai people, rather than Thailand; as the name implies, the owners of this market are from Laos) in a friendly, comforting environment at exceptionally reasonable prices.

The main event at this restaurant, like many Thai joints, is the Pad Thai.  This is not your standard Pad Thai, however; I would dare say that many people who are used to more Americanized versions would not care for Vientiane's offering.  They make their Pad Thai with rather less sweetness than you will find in many places, and with more of a gravy like sauce than I have seen elsewhere.  However, I have been assured this is the authentic way to serve a dish that is among the "national dishes" of the Thai people.  When you order, be sure to specify the amount of heat you'd like by the number of "stars."  No stars, no heat; five stars, you'll be crying like a baby if you weren't born with a habanero in your mouth.  Typically I go with one star, which is spicy but not overwhelming in any way, but on occasion I'll ramp it up to three or three and a half stars if I really want some burn (or if I've got a cold and lack a good nasal decongestant).

I also must recommend the fresh spring rolls, which really are just that; if you sit in the right place, you can see your spring roll being made.  This is a fine vegetarian option, consisting of nothing more or less than any other spring roll you'll find elsewhere, but for some reason, it just tastes better.  Served with a deliciously sweet sauce that I believe must be hoisin based, you won't regret this light, refreshing snack.

Also worth eating are the Tom Ka Gai, the slightly sweet coconut milk based chicken soup, which was a welcome addition to many of the colder, wet evenings I spent working in Maine in the summer of 2008 (a year that had exactly one day without rain from June through August).  Like the spring rolls, I can't pinpoint anything in particular that makes this better than any other I've had, but it just is; I suspect freshness of ingredients has something to do with it.

Lastly, the curries are fantastic here, though with the exception of the Massaman curry, I've had just as good elsewhere.  The Massaman has just the right hint of spice, sweetness from the small chunks of pineapple, and overall balance of flavors that I have not experienced at any other Thai restaurant.

To me, this is an essential stop for any visitor to Portland, and a recurring trip for residents is encouraged; I probably ate here 3 times a week during the summer of 2008, partially due to a lack of time to make my own food due to a bizarre work/sleep schedule, and partially because I was fed delicious food by some of the friendliest people I've ever met, who always had a kind word for me and their other regular customers.


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