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Saturday, February 23, 2008

EWR C Terminal

I spent two hours at Newark Liberty on Monday afternoon and another 4 hours this afternoon and in between all 139 gates in the Continental terminal there is not one decent place to eat a sit down meal. An ExpressJet pilot told me the good food was in the A and B terminals but by "good" I think he meant Chili's and Friday's. That's definitely not something that's going to make me choose to go outside security if I don't have to (for some reason EWR doesn't have secure connection points between its various terminals like every other airport does).

Additional Continental tip: If you're on a meal-time flight they'll give you a sandwich, some baby carrots and a candy bar. The last time I flew Continental I chose the turkey sandwich so today I tried the tuna salad. Don't get the tuna salad. It was like a schmear of wet cat food.

The only bright spot was purely nostalgia-related. Down near the gate C130 there's a Steak Escape which I haven't seen since the one in downtown Lincoln closed several years ago. No Chartroose Caboose in Newark, though.

This past week's travel food was pretty dismal save for a nice Thai place in St. Johnsbury, VT, called Kham's Thai Cuisine. I'll post a review when I get a chance just in case you are ever in the area skiing, gawking at colored leaves or visiting Robert Frost's vacation home.

Hopefully this week I'll be able to get over to the new Mexican place the Korb featured in the Journal-Star on Friday, as well.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

9 South Chargrill

I finally made it to the 9 South Chargrill last week. I was really impressed with what they've done to the old building on the northwest corner of 9th and South. What was it before? A used car lot? Or had it just been abandoned for a decade or so?

I beat my friend I was meeting by a good ten minutes so I had plenty of time to pore over the menu. When faced with 18 sandwiches that all sound good what does one order? One thing that stood out was the Certified Angus Beef® mark in the description of every single menu item made from dead cows. It's becoming a pet peeve of mine because with the marketing push by the American Angus Association and the involvement of Hardee's, McDonald's, and numerous other fast food chains, the appellation has become almost meaningless. True, to be "certified" a beef must be at least 51% black Angus and have a decent degree of marbling along with other more obscure characteristics but it's mostly hype. It really doesn't matter when you're eating a burger or a Philly anyway, but if you're ordering a Certified Angus Beef® rib-eye or tenderloin and it seems like a deal ask the server if the cut is prime, choice or select (this observation comes from working in a restaurant that sold lots of rib-eye specials that were choice for about $13 less than the prime rib-eye on the menu).

Maybe it was the Angus backlash that caused me to order the grilled tomato sandwich, but seconds after I ordered it I was kicking myself for ordering a tomato sandwich in February. Those bruises were for naught. It was served double-decker, like a Big Mac, on marble rye. The tomatoes were crusted with parmesan and grilled and the asiago was melted between the tomatoes and bread. After I'd ordered I was expecting basically a grilled cheese sandwich with some pink mush for filler. 9 South must have a good tomato source because the tomatoes actually tasted like tomatoes and they weren't mushy or mealy, even after the grilling. The waffle fries and cole slaw that accompanied the sandwich were great as well, especially the fries.

That's another thing I like about 9 South. The sandwiches come with two sides. I'm one of those people who can't resist ordering fried potatoes when offered so it was a bonus that I was able to get a little roughage too.

I'd been meaning to get there forever but was wondering if I'd ever make before the inevitable. The fact that they managed to stay open through the South St. construction and the normal growing pains of opening a new restaurant is a good sign for independent restaurants in Lincoln. Judging from the lunch crowd at noon on Thursday, they won't have much trouble staying in business.

I'll be spending a few hours tomorrow and Friday at Newark Liberty International airport so for anyone who ever flies to NYC or points beyond via the tiny Continental jet out of Omaha, I hope to have some food tips for you next weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Road Food: Christian's Bistro

If you ever find yourself smack in the middle of Wisconsin trying to find a nice, cozy little restaurant after nights of eating fried walleye at the roadside bars that seem to be more numerous than the trees, see if you're anywhere near Christian's Bistro in Plover right off I-39 about 90 minutes north of Madison. I spotted it out my hotel room window about 100 feet away on Monday. It was closed that night. Tuesday night they were booked solid thanks to Fat Tuesday. Wednesday night I didn't eat dinner but I finally made it over on Thursday.

I chose a seat at the Chef's Bar, a long polished granite counter facing the kitchen so you can watch the action. The service was top-notch. Better than I've seen at any restaurant in Lincoln. They even looked good. No stained yellow polo shirts like you might find in a certain "fine dining" establishment around here. My server, John, knew exactly when to approach and exactly what I needed each time.

Christian's has a nice, accessible and varied wine list featuring all styles by the glass (including a German red). I started out with a glass of Malbec and a Wisconsin cheese plate featuring three selections from the six choices on the cheese menu. I went with a fontina, an aged cheddar and a terrific manchego served with grilled toast points, toasted walnuts and apricot preserves. I was initially surprised by how much cheese I got for the price because I've been places locally where the cost was twice as much for less. The fontina was creamy and more pungent than I expected and went down nicely with the malbec. The cheddar was OK by itself but the sharpness of its aging paired very well with the mellow nuttiness of the walnuts. The manchego ruled as manchego usually does.

Sitting at the chef's bar pays off in other ways than just being able to watch. I was seated near where the executive chef put the finishing touches on dishes and he engaged me in conversation about the cheeses. When I expressed some interest and knowledge he spent about 10 minutes scrounging around in the kitchen for this really great cheese he wanted me to try. It turned out to be Taleggio a semi-soft Italian cheese I'd never had before. It was really great. What struck me was the texture, stretchy almost like taffy, even when cold, and very fruity. It was terrific with the earthy malbec I'd been drinking.

I was on somewhat of a budget so for the main course I went with the Kobe beef burger topped with locally produced bacon, swiss cheese and a generous slice of portabello mushroom served with the best steak fries I've ever had. There were only about six of them but they were all cut from very large potatoes and seemed to have been fried, dried and refried a couple of times. The best thing about the burger was that it was cooked exactly as I had ordered it, medium rare, which is so hard to get anywhere these days with the patties being so thin. I watched the line cook as he did it and he had the technique of not overcooking a thin patty down pat. Not too much time all at once on the grill.

At the end, after I had John box up half of my burger for the next morning because I could not take anymore Hampton Inn powdered eggs, the chef whipped me up a mini creme brulee on the house.

This place, in the middle of Wisconsin, hours away from Madison or Milwaukee or Minneapolis, seems very successful. They've been open for a year and they were busy every night I was there in the middle of winter. My whole meal was around $25 and that included an $8 glass of wine. Why shouldn't this work in Lincoln?

The Dog House

I finally made it to this place for lunch a couple of Saturdays ago - the takeaway/delivery hot dog joint where Paul's BBQ used to be. It was a nice day out after all and what better way to spend a little bit of it than devouring a 1/2 lb. of processed meat. I had fully intended to get the Junkyard Dog, a half-pound hot dog covered with chili, beans, onions, coney sauce, sauerkraut, wing sauce, jalapeƱos, cheese, blue cheese dressing, catsup and mustard, but as I thought about it, it reminded me too much of the legendary Rochester, NY, staple food, The Garbage Plate, and I was certainly not going to eat a garbage plate on such a wonderful day.

One of the owners suggested the specials, either a huge beer brat cradled between two strips of bacon and topped artfully with a mysterious yellow sauce dubbed "Critter Sitter" or a a massive red spicy hot dog disturbingly dubbed "The Pelini Wienie." Good taste alone drove me to the brat, made by Cetak Meat Market in Ord.

The St. Bernard (huh?) Bacon Beer Brat was much spicier than most brats you'll encounter. A look into its mysterious meaty interior revealed flecks of red pepper and bits of red chili. The bacon seemed superfluous because the spice of the bratwurst completely hid the bacon flavor. I for one expect more from my bacon so the whole package was a bit disappointing even though the bratwurst itself was great. The sauce, too, was overpowered by the pepper flavors so I really have no idea what it tasted like. Don't get me wrong though. The brat wasn't Super Taco red sauce hot but the other flavors added weren't enough to overpower the spice of the meat.

I wish they'd add a traditional Chicago-style dog to the menu. They have a kosher-beef dog available but they lack most of the toppings (no tomato, no dill wedge, no fluorescent green relish). Still, it's a nice little place for lunch if you need a post-lunch nap.

I Like Ike's

Being stuck in an airport for a couple of hours with only a Chili's or food court available within reasonable exploring distance is no way to spend that completely free and unredeemable time although that usually is how it winds up for me. C Concourse at MSP is one of the worst for food along with every place in ORD that doesn't have the Billy Goat Tavern (which is in Concourse C).

Last week I found myself with idle time, hunger and a connecting flight right off the main Lindbergh Terminal in Minneapolis. I passed by so many places I hadn't seen before hoping for that big score and was about to give up and turn back when I was standing in front of Ike's Food and Cocktail's, a cavern of dark wood, meat and comfort stark against the bright lights and sterility of the main airport terminal.

I, like many single travelers, took a seat at the bar which was fairly empty at 11:15 but it soon filled up with more arrivals. The menu is a scattershot of classic American food with some appealing quirks like the prepared-at-your-table guacamole and tapas-like "little plates." The meat of the operation is the glass-enclosed carving station at the front of the restaurant within view of passerbys in which a man decked out in classic chef's garb slices off chunks of prime rib and turkey and pork for the sandwiches that are so popular there.

The bartender was quick to take my order but seemed disappointed that I didn't want to see the wine list but come on, it's Monday before noon and I still have to drive two hours once I reach my final destination. At this point in my travels (Monday lunch) I was fully intending on maintaining a healthy diet all week (not so successful as you'll see later) so I ended up ordering the ahi tuna sandwich. The tuna was done perfectly, meaning not at all except for some searing on either side. Most times when I order a tuna steak, even if I say "rare," it comes out dry and flaky. This piece of tuna was one of the best I've had in awhile; soft, buttery and moist. I slathered it in wasabi and even as I was enviously eyeing the plates of my fellow diners who had ordered Thanksgiving dinner (a huge plate of turkey breast, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy) for lunch on a February Monday, I didn't regret my choice.

If you find yourself stuck at MSP waiting for awhile to get on to where you're ultimately going (and cursing Northwest for the last time as you've sworn never to fly them again), stop in to Ike's. If you're coming home and don't have anymore obligations that day, definitely check out their wine list.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

And now...

I have a couple more reviews of places I've been to recently in the works but I'm going to be in northern Wisconsin trying to find something for dinner other than bratwurst until Friday.

I'm wondering if anyone has an answer to a question that's been bugging me for awhile now. Why doesn't Lincoln or Omaha have a churrascaria restaurant? I've seen Brazilian steakhouses in cities smaller than Lincoln and they're huge hits. Who (except for vegetarians) wouldn't like an eat-meat-til-you-can't-move experience of beef tenderloin, pork loin, ribs, lamb chops, chicken and sausage, especially here in Nebraska?

In that same vein, why doesn't Lincoln or Omaha have an Ethiopian restaurant? I guess I've been to a Sudanese place in Omaha that serves similar fare but it's more of a neighborhood hangout that serves the Ethiopian-style fare alongside the ubiquitous kebabs and gyros.

Dim Sum!!

A couple of friends and I decided to try the new dim sum offerings at Peking Palace for Sunday brunch today. We're all big fans of assorted Chinese dumplings served in little steamer baskets but the closest place to get dim sum until now has been Kansas City. I think after today this might become a regular Sunday brunch thing.

What was the name of the golf-themed sports bar that used to be in this building on the south side of 83rd & O? Knickers? Well, the oddly rasta-influenced colors of Knickers still decorate the facade but just trust me that there's a really good Chinese restaurant (a Lincoln oxymoron) in there .

We arrived around 11:30 and the place was about half-full. We got seated in a raised area which appeared to be a detriment since the dim sum cart can't climb stairs but I think it was better for all of us in the end. We could only get two or three items at a time instead of grabbing everything off the cart at once. Since we had to wait a little longer none of us got grotesquely full but just pleasantly overfed. Of course, this might have a little to do with the fact that staff seemed a little short. By 12:30 they were running out of things and I think they were supposed to be serving dim sum until 3:00. I felt bad for some of the late arrivals but we were happy and full by 1:00.

Now the food. We grabbed three things right off the bat - Shaomai (wonderful little pork dumplings) , Lo mai gai (sticky rice stuffed with meat and mushrooms and steamed in banana leaves) and a little cup of Chinese beef stew which I first saw made on the original Iron Chef years ago. The pork dumplings were a huge hit and I really liked the lo mai gai. The beef stew was just as I imagined; a rich beef broth with chunks of tender brisket and tendon (which looked really tough but just melted in my mouth) and potatoes delicately flavored with star anise and ginger.

We also had fun guo - little dumplings of pork, shrimp (our server said "assorted meats"), peanuts and mushrooms; har gao - very simple shrimp dumplings; and char siu baau - BBQ pork cooked inside light fluffy cake-like buns.

Of course, we were content to sit and sip tea while we waited for more food to come around. We had some battered and fried shrimp balls and some shrimp balls with no coating at all. There was also a mysterious green-tinged dumpling that I can't seem to find anywhere on-line that was stuffed with shrimp, fish and mushrooms. I'm sure I'm missing something. I wish I would have tried the chicken feet. Maybe next time.

For dessert we each had one of those golf-ball sized hunks of sesame seed coated dough stuffed with some kind of fruit paste that taste like they must each be worth about 1000 calories.

If you go, don't let the sullen attitude of Jason, the 12-year old host and cashier, get you down. Just give him some grief back and it'll be more fun.