SECOND chances: MAE & Hard Grove

RER 8.26.12
JAR 8.26.12
Sometimes, things deserve a second chance, like that shirt that did not look great the first time you wore it, or that brownie recipe that did not come out just right. Sometimes you should forget the first impression, and maybe try again. You know the expression “first is the worst, second is the best…” We tend to hope for that when first really is the worst.

This is what happened with two restaurants, I had already tried in Jersey City. I decided; why not try them again, maybe this time would be better. Oh boy, was I wrong. Because this time second was not the best by far… it may have been the worst.

Check out the first’s on yelp; MAE and HARD GROVE.


We tried again, but this time for brunch, after hearing that brunch would be better. I have heard so many good (enough) things about Modern American Eatery, located in a changing area of Jersey City. I have been told, almost countless times about the experience that is MAE; about the young chef and the atmosphere and the reasonably priced food. But this is not what we experienced, unfortunately… again.

So we took a chance, hungry, minds open, trying to forget our last not-so-great experience at the newish restaurant. It was Sunday brunch, just passed noon, a church was having a fundraiser for back to school, and it was definitely time to eat.

The brunch menu is great; though it is not endless there are two prix fixe brunches at two different price points ($12 and $15). After looking at the menu our food decisions were almost automatic; crabcake benedict and a pulled pork and egg dealie. We were excited, the dishes sounded scrumptious and the coffee that we just got was delicious.

We got our juices that accompany the prix fixe and we were sipping our coffee, laughing, chatting, starving. Looking around, the restaurant was not very full, just a few tables occupied around us, but throughout our drawn out meal it grew more crowded. We were definitely having a good time, enjoying our company and making predictions.

Unfortunately, after the staggeringly long wait for our food, and being moderately forgotten by our waitress, the food was brutally disappointing. The hash browns that came with my benedict were stone cold, like they hadn’t been warm for a very long time. This severe chill made the hash browns dry and difficult to eat, on top of their lack of flavor. Also one of my pretty poached eggs was way over cooked while the other was a perfect runny texture. The other dish, the pulled pork topped by a fried egg on top of a fat layer of cornbread, was steaming hot. There too was yet another over cooked egg, which was unfortunate because a wet yolk would have been really lovely with the sweet spicy bbq of the pork and the cake like corn bread.

What made it the worst was all the waiting. We waited and waited for our meal. The coffee was pretty prompt, though on our second refill the pot ran out, and we had to wait (more waiting) for our cups to be filled. The restaurant was not full, there was no reason for our wait to be so extreme, and parts of our food to be cold or cooked incorrectly.

This here is an issue of quality control; looking at the plates being sent out and each element on it. Food should not come to the table cold. That is negligence of the server or the cook, and it makes the meal less delicious and more unfortunate.

But the coffee was great.

Hard Grove:
Like the last time, our trip to Hard Grove in Jersey City was a little jumbled and confused. Our first trip together was late and we had difficulties with our waitress and our requests. I was hoping that it was just that one time. We tried to come a little earlier for our second try.

The second time, the “second is the best” time, we were told we could sit anywhere, but after getting comfortable on our extremely high chairs and looking over the menu, we were asked to move. Somehow there was a lack of communication between the wait staff, which resulted us in having to adjust. No biggie, just the live music was coming in and that was the spot where they had to set up. With the intelligence that there was going to be live music inside the restaurant, we deftly decided that sitting outside would be less loud and riotous.

Once outside, we sat at a table, which was too small and less than comfortable because the chairs and also there was a hot air vent or something right near us. We got asked yet another time if we wanted to move. This time it was welcomed. Our last table, still outside was the final stop, still too small and less than comfortable, but oh well.

Maybe it was a busy night and we were too hungry, but it felt like we were begging for attention the whole meal. Our server, one of many it felt like, would be standing in front of us, trying to talk to us, but the whole time he would be surveying the other tables. This ended up with him forgetting tid bits of what we asked for, or making superfluous trips, because we did not have his full attention. This makes sense, it was busy, but in the end it did not result in a favorable experience with Hard Grove.

On top of that, the food was worse than it had been the last time we ventured there for a Cuban feast. Even things we had ordered before slipped in quality and flavor. Hard Grove, unfortunately, appears to have no consistency in the food and the quality control. The only thing that remained constant, was a long drawn out meal, when it didn’t have to be, and high strung or absent servers.

And there is only one bathroom for a bar and a restaurant, obvi not enough.


We all hope that that second chance is the redeeming chance, the “second is the best.” But unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. And when it doesn’t that really gives insight into whatever it is. In this case, it really just tells me that both MAE and Hard Grove have things they need to improve on.

MAE is still a newish restaurant. It needs to get settled and fully define its niche. Things like that take a while and it is understanding that the beginnings are a little bumpy. Just unfortunately, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and relies on people’s willingness for second (or even third) chances. I really hope MAE improves, because I think it could be a really cool place and could be successful. They really are different, breaking new ground in new territory.

Hard Grove, on the other hand is another kind of monster. This restaurant is not new in the slightest. I have late childhood and early teenage memories there; having lunch with my mom etc. Perhaps it was the times that we decided to eat there, meaning, later at night Hard Grove becomes a hang out; live music, extensive list of drinks, large appetizers. I know I have already been twice with not much success, but I would go for a third visit, at a different time or day, just to see if Hard Grove is consistently inconsistent.

Maybe I should go for “third is the one with the treasure (or hairy, depending) chest.”
RER 8.31.12
RER 8.31.12



RER 9.14.12
Plantains… Aren’t they just bananas?

They do have multiple personalities, sweet and savory, but I wouldn’t call them crazy!

Sweet bananas or dessert bananas are the kinds that we eat raw generally, they are soft and sweet. However, what are called plantains are produced to be cooked. The distinguishing factor, even though the two are in the same Musa genus, is how they are consumed. [1] As wild as it is, bananas and plantains are herbs! These fruits belong to the same plant family as cardamom, ginger, and turmeric, [2] Zingiberales. [3] Even though banana and plantain plants, unlike other herbs, grow to be as high as some trees, they are not woody and what appears to be the stem is really just the base of very large leaf stalks. This then makes them technically “gigantic herbs.”[4] But another thing to blow your mind about banana and plantain plants; this type of plant is sterile, which means that the flower reproduces without fertilization.[5]

Plantains are wild and bananas… but I still wouldn’t call them crazy.

Plantains have a large and long history, and their consumption occurs all around the world. Like the banana, plantains are believed to have first originated in southeast Asia, and were cultivated in India by around 500 B.C. It is interesting to note that plantains now are really scarce in the region where they originated. The plant was probably devastated by disease and never replanted in southeast Asia.[6]

The vast spread of the plantain is mainly due to trade, travel and exploration. As the plant has great nutritional resources, the plantain was a valuable food source to wherever it went, and was eventually adopted and planted. Travelers spread the “berry” all over via ancient trade routes to Africa[7] as well as around Australia and New Guinea.[8]  Alexander the Great stumbled upon plantains during his campaign to conquer the world while in India, around 327 B.C. and brought them back to Europe because he noted their cultural and nutritional significance.[9] By 1000 A.D., the plantain made its way further eastward towards Japan and Samoa. The plantain arrived in the Caribbean and Latin America much much later in as late as the 1500s.[10] It is said that a Portuguese monk brought the plantain to the Caribbean in 1516, but they were being traded in the Canary Islands previous to that.[11]

Trade and exploration are also what brought them to the “New World,” South and Central America. Along with other goods, plantains were introduced and planted in the Americas, and they flourished. It was quickly realized, as plantain farms multiplied, that this crop was much more reliable and practical than others. Many more plantains can be harvested than potatoes or even wheat on the same amount of land. Plantains became a more economical crop with a higher yield and a longer growing season.[12]

Its widespread availability and long growth season make plantains an incredibly reliable food source. Plantains fruit all year round, which means constant and most time consistent supply. It has become a staple in many tropical areas, like regions of Africa[13]  and south America. Across the world, bananas and plantains are the fourth largest caloric source, with nearly half a billion people relying on them. They are only beaten out by rice, milk and wheat. For these half a billion people, plantains make up the bulk and the foundation of their daily carbohydrate intake.[14] This means that this crop is an extremely important part of a lot of people’s lives, and is an herb people depend on for a large percentage of their daily carb intake. Each plantain has about 225 calories, depending on size, and also make up about 20% of the daily value of carbohydrates.[15]

Throughout the history of the banana and the plantain, medicinal value has also been attributed to the plant. Not only is it a huge food source, the medical aspects of the plantain are also relevant. The discovery of the benefits of plantains for bowel and stomach issues date back thousands of years. The ancient Persians and Arabians used the giant herb to help combat dysentery as well as many other intestine and stomach issues. Alexander the Great, who introduced the plant to Europe, used plantains for headaches, while in China, they were used for rheumatism, infertility and other stomach issues. It has also been revealed through today’s science, that many uses of plantains throughout the ages and the world have a strong scientific base. [16]

Back to the important part, eating this gigantic, humongous herb… Plantains are eaten a zillion different ways in many different places all over the world, but they are rarely consumed raw. The plantain would have to be very very dark brown, near black to be eaten without being cooked. Countries in Africa, the Caribbean, in South America, and even here, boil, stew, fry, sautee, mash… you name it to make plantains more palatable in effort to extract the nutritional value. Each culture that uses the plantain, uses it in a different variety of ways, but in the end, it still is a worldly staple.

Here, I am most exposed to some of the Latin ways of preparing plantains. These are my favorite ways so far, to get out and to even make at home!
RER 9.14.12
These crunchy double fried treats are made when the plantain is a fierce green, like it looks to be not ripe enough to even touch. The green color means that the inside fruit is not going to be sweet, but it has a more startchy and savory taste and feeling, kind of like a potato. Tostones are super easy to make and super easy to demolish. All these little guys need is a little slicing, a little hot vegetable oil, a little frying, a little smashing and a little more frying. And at the end, a little salt. They are crunchy and crispy, feeling startchy like potato chips, but a beautiful golden color. The salt heightens the addictive character of the fried morsels.

RER 9.24.12
Are kind of like the sticky sweet partner to tostones. Maduros are best when the plantains are super super bruised looking, almost brown. You know like, when the bananas on the counter are too soft to even touch brown. Unlike our typical banana variety, the brown, speckled and bruised plantain is not nearly as soft and smushy. They are much softer than their bright green counter parts, making them much much sweeter. These start off the same way as preparing the tostones, cut and fry. Somehow they produce completely different reactions with the oil. The brown and sweet plantains, do not crisp up in the same way as the green variety. The intense sugars browns and becomes caramelized and sticky. However, maduros are not deep fried like tostones.

Plantains are really as diverse as all the places they are grown and consumed. There are a lot of different varieties and strains that have been modified or grown throughout the world. The way they are prepared and eaten is almost as diverse and vast. It is amazing how one little herb, well not so little, can feed so many different kinds of people in so many different kinds of ways, and become such an important cultural as well as nutritional entity.

Don't forget to check out my sources page for more reading on the crazy large herb, the plantain!

[1] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[2] elvalleinformation.wordpress.com “Bananas and Plantains, Origins, History and Differences”
[3] Taxonomy Browser (Zingiberales)
[4] Wikipedia.org “Musa”
[5] elvalleinformation.wordpress.com “Bananas and Plantains, Origins, History and Differences”
[6] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[7] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[8] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[9] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[10] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[11] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[12] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[13] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[14] elvalleinformation.wordpress.com  “Bananas and Plantains, Origins, History and Differences”
[15] Nutritiondata.self.com “Plaintains”
[16] Margaret L. Ahlborn, “Plantain” http://www.herballegacy.com



Be sure to check out what's coming up next with foodie ventures. There are always goodies just around the corner.
RER 9.14.12
JAR 8.26.12
RER 9.13.12
Also, there is always something to see on FOOD-tography and yelp, so take a look and follow!


not just nourishment: SERVICE counts

RER 9.23.12
Restaurants and dining are not just about the food— never was and never will be. An extremely important element of the dining experience is the service. To me, this could make or break a restaurant; no matter how much I love the food, if it is slow  service or I get an attitude from the wait staff, I would rather not go back, but dream of the tastes.

Just last week I wrote a FoodView about how high end and famous restaurants are tracking their customers to better serve and pamper, as well as to create an experience reminiscent of the corner joint. This, though intrusive at times, is a pure demonstration of the importance of service in terms of a restaurant’s survival. A good dining experience with knowledgeable, friendly and accommodating staff, results in good memories and a return visit. This should be the goal of every location, the return of the patron.

This unfortunately is not always the case. Sometimes the wait staff can get in the way of the dining adventure— rudeness, brusqueness, or attitude in general can really dampen the mood at a restaurant. Most times adventures with this kind of staff, repulses me and does not make me want to go back, or tell others to try it out. Just the other day (more about this later), my food was essentially tossed on the table, causing the pretty presentation to tumble and other things on the table to clatter. On top of that we had a waitress who’s manner was so short and distant, we could hardly get a question in. That kind of interaction stayed with us throughout our meal, and lingered more than the flavors of the food.

There have been countless times where my table has essentially been forgotten; no waiter, no water, no nothing. I remember in my very short stint working at a Johnny Rockets, the manager who was training me impressed upon the importance of being attentive to the diners, frequently asking them if they need anything, just checking in. It really surprises me that being ignored happens so much. It would also surprise me that in some kind of training this would be left out. Every restaurant, no matter its sizeor fame should insist on customer service as a good business practice.

Though sometimes it is not necessarily the server that initiates an uncomfortable dining experience through attitude. There have been several hosts or hostesses at various different kinds of restaurants and locations that have given off the vibe that the clients are beneath his or her service. This involves being ignored or given attitude or a roll of the eye or even a shortness; none of which you would expect from one in a costumer service position. This is truly disheartening because most times, the hostess or the person at the front, is the first encounter with the restaurant, the first impressions. I have always thought, that in most spheres of life, the first impression is extremely important. There can be redemption, but it also can be ruinous.

Sometimes it appears that the wait staff as well as the hosts, all the people that are supposed to be the faces and represent the brand of the restaurant, are more involved in each other than the customers or even the restaurant. I have noticed that this generally occurs in lower end and more chain like restaurants, but it is not foreign to up scale places. This is how customers get forgotten and ignored. It also does not look good to the customers, who in essence should be the main focus of the staff.

I also have had really really great experiences with servers being considerate and understanding. Friendliness, eagerness and willingness to serve and accommodate make meals better and smoother, and even more enjoyable. Even asking “how is everything?” or “do you need anything else” makes a big impression on me. Even if it is not genuine, the care is there. They care for their livelihood (the tip) and they were trained correctly.

On a trip to Atlantic City, my boyfriend and I encountered some really great service examples. We were eating at a Mexican restaurant, Dos Caminos, in the Harrah’s Casino Resort, and the diner started off shaky with shady behavior from our hostess, but our waitress redeemed the meal. From the moment we were seated and our waitress came over, our dining experience vastly improved. She was friendly, warm, and encouraging. She was extremely open to answering questions and adding amiable suggestions. It did not feel rehearsed or programmed either; it was like she wanted to be there and wanted us to enjoy our time there. After ordering our dishes, tasting the appetizers, and starting to chomp down on our mains, we encountered a problem. The dish I ordered was too salty, salty to the point that I was unable to eat it. It was unpalatable. We got the attention of our server and alerted her of the problem. I told her the issue and she was concerned. She apologized, took away the dish and asked if we wanted it remade or something else instead. We did not take the offer, already pretty full from our drinks and appetizers but expressed our appreciation. A few minutes later, with the dessert menu, our waitress brought over complimentary drinks. When the desserts we ordered came to our table, the waitress informed us that they were on the house.

Even in a place like Harrah’s where people usually come for vacation and are not regulars, the waitress believed in customer service and keeping us happy. This was not necessarily a place where people return over and over, but I know that next time, despite not being completely satisfied with my dish, I would return. The actions of our server made the outing much better. Our appreciation was also expressed in our tip to the waitress.

Tipping now has become difficult. Servers expect a certain percent and we are told what we are supposed to give, but the tip should be a reflection of service. Like my friend pointed out, we all work for our money, and so should servers. Good service deserves a good tip, whereas bad service, on the part of the server (bad food or long waits are not always the fault of the person who brings us our plates) does not merit a high tip.

The service of a restaurant is one of the main things that sticks with me. Even if the food is awful and the coffee is cold, an attentive and personable server can make all the difference. Sometimes going out to eat is more about the experience than the food. I believe that the wait staff should be making an effort to create relationships with the patrons of the restaurants of their employment. These relationships bring people back. Perhaps restaurants do not need to go as far as giving their waiters a whole dossier of intelligence on a customer, but giving the correct training and emphasis on customer service doesn’t hurt. Both restaurants and their wait staff (at all levels) need to realize the benefits of good service and reliable customer relations from a business standpoint.



ITALIAN in Grand Central : Cipriani Dolci

RER 9.17.12
RER 9.17.12
For lunch, it was Cipriani Dolci, located inside of Grand Central Station in the middle of bustling Manhattan. There are other Cipriani locations sprinkled throughout Manhattan, but for convenience’s sake, this was the place. I was eating with eaters, so it was going to be an occasion.

Set on a heavy balcony above the main floor of the train station, the restaurant felt attached and private at the same time; heavy banisters serve as barriers, though porous, letting the noises and eyes in. There was the odd echoing of traffic, and the passing of tourists and commuters alike, but somehow shouting was never necessary. The restaurant  in some ways felt makeshift, because of the location in the middle of everything, but at the same time the bar and the heavy tables reinforce a kind of permanence. The furnishings are all refined, and almost blend into the impatience of the train station, like the restaurant is carved into the layout.

It was almost an out of body experience, eating costoso Italian food, underneath the high high high vaulted painted ceiling, under the art of the constellations and the robin egg blue sky. The ceiling almost limitless, floating high above head. It in some ways felt like eating outdoors; the height of refinement with no cap. There was a constant change of scenery, while inside the little banistered area, everyone seemed to move in slow motion, countering the back and forth motions of the anonymous people below.

The menu, though not terribly large, is dense and not descriptive, almost like it is speaking to a customer that already knows the answers. Though the wait staff encouraged questions and doled out answers including detailed ingredient lists and even technique. It did feel almost like an esoteric tree house, under the vast painted sky and above the commuters and tourists, quiet and reserved. Italian dishes and favorites lined the page; pastas, mains, a slew of appetizers, as well as a lunch prix fixe.

Deliberating over the menu through ravenous eyes took ages, and each dish that appeared in the dining area looked hot and delicious, making things even more difficult. Resolutions were made, and options narrowed (hardly) and we decided on three starters and three pastas as well as an entrée for our latecomer.

The Steak Tartar was a dark vibrant red, raw, delicious, striking on the plate. The starter was served with small rectangles of white toast and a rich creamy tuna sauce. It looked almost like tuna, but it was smooth and disguised. The thought of raw meat never crossed the mind while eating it, because it felt so delicate and fresh.  The smoothness of the meat gave insight into its quality. It’s taste was so subtle and delicious it just glided on the tongue, allowing the decadence to be easily swallowed.

The Buratta starter defined the fine line between mozzarella and butter. Creamy, sumptuous, sexy. The inside was like a spreadable mozzarella, soft with fats and dairy, but the outside of the ball is a kind of skin, thick and stiffer, soft but less pliable than the liquid like center. The ball surrounded by halved cherry tomatoes, which were plum and firm and burst in the mouth. The acidity of the small tomatoes cut the heaviness of the silky cheese. Adding a subtle sprinkle of salt took it to the next level, beyond delicious. But it was a decadent experience.

After good reports of the Calamari, we ordered the starter. What arrived was fine crunchy rings of calamari and crispy tentacles. The batter was just flavored enough that the little rings and tentacles could be eaten sans sauce, but the marinara sauce that accompanied the calamari started was delicious, taking the starter from pretty ordinary to great. The crunch of the batter was lovely though all the texture of the calamari was gone.

The first dish, the Risotto Primavera was interspersed with various vegetables like squash, zucchini, mushrooms and onions. The dish was sprinkled with parsley, an aesthetic garnish, which added no flavor. In fact the risotto had no significant flavor, it was just soft and soupy, no real texture because the aborio rice was cooked almost too much and the soggy vegetables all blended together. It had no texture variation either, which made the dish very flat and not memorable.

The large ribbed rigatoni of the Rigatoni Genovese were cooked to a pleasant al dente, drowned in a creamy buttery sauce veined with slim stringy pieces of beef. The filaments though sparse had an intense meat flavor, especially for their small size and flimsy appearances. Though when the pasta was eaten without the meat and smothered in the sauce, there was no remnant of the beefy flavor. It was like the cream sauce was cooked and prepared without the beef, and the small amount of meat was an afterthought. The difference in taste did create intrigue, making each bite different depending on the strands of meat and less predictable. The rich sauce was luscious but at the same time monotone, but the beef created staccato.

The Pappardelle Amatriciana was composed of beautiful ribbons of fresh thin wide pappardelle were daintily tossed with a tomato sauce. The sauce of the dish was obviously started with a sofrito, the melding of onion, celery and tomato. Thin pieces of bacon were dispersed throughout the sauce adding salt and fat to each bite. The pasta was light and elastic, not too heavy to disguise the ingredients featured in the sauce, as well as the taste of delicious fresh pasta. It was a beautiful dish to look at as well, the muted colors and the well crafted pasta, all topped with a pop of green parsley.

The last entrée was the Veal Picatta with lemon. The thin slices of veal were lightly breaded to create a creamy sauce with hints of lemon. Unfortunately, all of the veal served was not cooked enough, still too pink on the inside for consumption.

Of the various and varied desserts, many looked promising, but the lemon meringue pie was on the top of the list. The pie had a thick sweet crust, crumbly like a graham cracker or cookie crust. The crust was buttery and crunchy like a sweet shortbread, with the same consistency as the cookie. There was a very small amount of the lemon curd, not really enough for the tart acidity to overwhelm the sweet crust or the light meringue. In some ways the tongue longed for more of the lemon bite to equalize the sweetness of the other elements. As a finish, the slice of pie was dusted with a sugar after baking adding and additional note of sweetness but also another layer of texture—a crunch to counter the lighter elements but a decisively different crispness than the crust.

In the end, the cost outweighed the quality. The food, though was delicious, could have been from almost any Italian restaurant in Grand Central or not. There was obvious care put into the food and its ingredients. The freshness of the steak tartar or the delicate pappardelle were evidence of that. But, it is the name that is chased all over that increases the price. It is a brand that is associated with the City and is sought after, perhaps, with the right to expect, demand and extract such high prices. Cipriani is an empire, as there are locations all over New York City, but also the world.

The experience was something completely different than sitting in a dimly lit restaurant, but all the accruements were still there with us in Grand Central Station; the plush seating, the heavy stocked bar, the white table cloths and napkins. But the atmosphere, the kind of in and out, private but exposed elements made it unique and timeless, even when the food did not reach the same heights.
RER 9.17.12
RER 9.17.12


local LOVE diner : Liberty Elm

RER 8.25.12

JAR 8.25.12
Guy Fieri, the host of Diners Drive-Ins and Drives, went, so of course I had to.

After being lost in an area of Providence I was hardly aware of, even after living there for four years of college, we finally found it, the Liberty Elm Diner. Apparently it is legendary for its breakfast fare and uniqueness. We were expecting a wait, cause of its size and fame. But I think we missed the Saturday morning breakfast rush, because we were seated instantly, starving and excited.

Basically, the diner is like a trailer with a room in back, on a lot. Small, quirky, friendly and fun. The décor is very striking, as it is a mixture of past and present as well as out of the ordinary and extraordinary. It is a creative mish mosh and pish posh. There are found objects and loud colors, painted tables and chairs, and art of children hanging on the wall. The trailer part at the front is fitted with just a few booths and a lunch counter with stools and everything. The whole place smelled of breakfast and bacon, even though the menu has quite a few vegetarian dishes. 

We were directed to a tiny booth and looked at the paper menus while waiting. It seemed like so many options jammed onto a small piece of paper. The one side of the piece of paper had lunch and breakfast items, sides, juices and extras. It looked like a mouthful. I was stuck on breakfast. But lunch items also had a lot to offer.

I ordered a glass of fresh orange juice which was particularly amazing. It was fresh squeezed, hearty and almost chewable. This made me really excited for what was going to come next. The purity, taste and fragrance, secured the freshness of the ingredients.

We started out with Johnny Cakes, which we ordered before our whole party arrived, because the menu gives fair warning that 12 minutes must be allowed for an order. I was excited because I had no clue what Johnny Cakes were, and also Mr. Fieri tried them on his adventure to the Liberty Elm. To my surprise 12 minutes later when our Johnny Cakes came hot to the table, they were not sweet at all, but grainy, shaped and fried up grit cakes. They were crunchy and browned on the outside but kind of like wet cement, lumpy and chewy. Kind of sandy, and woody. Kind of like when you let your cream of wheat get cold and lumpy in the bowl—its that feeling. They were not sweet, but not really savory. The maple syrup and the butter really helped to make these unique cakes more edible. I can say that I have experienced Johnny Cakes, but I am not sure I really need to experience them again.

I ordered the Monte Cristo Sandwich and added a fried egg on that bad boy. Basically, this was a heavy-duty breakfast sandwich, made on french toast with swiss cheese and ham, accompanied by syrup. I can not say I was fully impressed with the sandwich, but the idea was so tempting. How could you go wrong with basically a ham grilled cheese sandwich on french toast with an extra dose of fried egg protein? Unfortunately, I found out. The french toast was kind of dry. I am not a fan of really eggy french toast, but these thick slices could have soaked a bit more in the egg mixture, allowing the bread to soften into something sweet and almost custardy. The large french toast outside also was coated with too much cinnamon. The cinnamon without any sugar or anything produced a powdery texture, and added no sweetness to what I thought was going to be a sweet element. There was plenty of swiss cheese to add moisture, which was lacking in the dry and powdery french toast. It was extra melty and soft, and held the sandwich together the best it could. The sharpness of the swiss would have contrasted and created something more delicious had the french toast been sweeter. However the combination of the syrup and the swiss cheese was delicious and different. When I first ordered the Monte Cristo, I almost wished the ham was bacon. The ham added saltiness and more savory elements, and the fried egg was hard cooked and I almost wished it was runnier for moisture. The ham was chewy and stuck to the cheese, but almost too close to the texture of the cheese. And by the time I finished the Monte Cristo, and was looking back on it, I wished the ham was bacon again. I think that the crunch of well cooked bacon would be welcomed, along with the higher salt content.

We also ordered a Liberty Burger, but added cheese and bacon (because bacon makes everything better, even our waitress agreed). The ciabiatta roll definitely overwhelmed the burger, as did the lettuce and tomato, but each ingredient was really fresh and present. The actual meat of the burger was delicious. The quality and the locality of the meat sourced was tasteable. It was so fresh and so delicious, with many flavors that are not always apparent when getting the run of the mill burger. Our waitress explained Liberty’s use of really fresh and local meat, and told us that the farm was really close (though most everything in Rhode Island is close). Despite the deliciousness of all the elements, we longed for a larger burger.

The staff was so super friendly and open, with the customers as well as their colleagues. It felt like a place of sharing, where everyone worked hard together, and were very comfortable. The waitresses were expressive and interacted a lot with their customers, getting to know them and their back stories, which made the Liberty Elm feel like home. We even got advice on what to do in the city that day. The food was kind of classic but not quite the experience I was longing for. Liberty Elm is a great neighborhood spot, local and friendly, and its service and ingredients stand out from the crowd. Simple ideas, and simple dishes, but all featuring fresh ingredients and friendliness. 
JAR 8.25.12



RER 10.11.11
Frosting; the icing on the cake—literally.

So many different kinds, styles varieties, names…

Frosting… Icing…same thing. No, but really.

Frosting also comes in different shapes and forms, whether it is a smooth spreadable buttercream, or a drizzly glaze, or even a moldable fondant— all are delicious and open to interpretation.

According to Dictionary.com the definition of Frosting is as follows: a sweet mixture, cooked or uncooked, for coating or filling cakes, cookies, and the like; icing. [1]

This already opens up the very wide world of frosting. Let’s take it apart.

“A sweet mixture”
The largest component of most frostings, icings, fondants, and ganaches (all in the same family), are sweeteners, whether it be powdered/confectioners’ sugar (also known as icing sugar), marshmallows, sugar, corn syrup or even marshmallow fluff. All these ingredients make the variations of frostings sweet. The mixture usually entails some combination of these ingredients; milk or cream, butter, eggs, and flavorings. Different styles call for different combinations of fats and sweeteners and binders (more about this later).

“Cooked or Uncooked”
Some frostings are cooked, and Epicurious gives them the name of boiled icing.[2]  According to Epicurious, boiled icing involves slowly pouring a hot sugar syrup or mixture over beaten egg whites and mixed until smooth.[3] Other frostings, like ganaches, also involve heating corn syrup or sugar  along with chocolate, to melt the chocolate and create a creamy spreadable texture. Some fondant recipes also require cooking to reach a certain temperature, reminiscent of making candies.

Uncooked recipes just entail mixing butter, powdered sugar and a small amount of milk until smooth. These generally involve stirring and mixing the ingredients until they are combined rather than heating to combine components. Simple buttercream and cream cheese frostings are of the uncooked variety; butter, cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and a little milk (add cream cheese). The most simple glazes are also uncooked, and at its  simplest form are combining powdered sugar with milk or cream until the mixture is smooth and liquidy. Even some simple fondant recipes do not involve cooking ingredients to combine or create syrup.

Many varieties come in cooked or uncooked interpretations, so often the lines blur. Buttercreams, fondants, and glazes all come in both categories, depending on the recipe. Though it is interesting to note that in Epicurious’s definition of Frosting: “It can be cooked (as with boiled icing) or uncooked (as with buttercream),”[4] the boiled frosting category looks a lot like Alton Brown’s ClassicButtercream recipe, where a syrup is created (from corn syrup and sugar) and is added to eggs and mixed in with butter. But Epicurious places buttercreams into the uncooked category. This just illustrates the complex world of frosting and how many lines are crossed and distorted, but in the end it is all delicious.

“for coating or filling cakes, cookies, and the like”
Frosting can go anywhere and everywhere; cakes, sugar cookies, inside cupcakes, on top of graham crackers… on spoons and directly into mouths.

Alton Brown during his episode of Good Eats “The Icing Man Cometh” proclaims that cake is only a vehicle for frosting, basically asserting that the frosting makes the cake.  Frostings cover the outside of cakes, from top to bottom (most times) and even can line the layers, creating a melding of sweetness. Frosting can go on the outside and the inside of cupcakes for stuffed surprises and intrigue. Sugar cookies topped with a simple uncooked buttercream or a glaze, make for extra fun while decorating and eating. Pastries can be drizzled with cloyingly sweet glazes, to decorate and add another layer of flavor; cinnamon buns, danishes, tarts, etc.

Oh dear, frosting can really go anywhere.

As previously mentioned, icing is another way of saying frosting. Though, according to Alton Brown, most Americans use the word icing over frosting.[5] It also could be a regional thing, like pop instead of soda. But all in all, frosting is synonymous with icing and vise versa.

According to our definition though, frosting is “for coating or filling cakes, cookies and the like,” which definitely encompasses many many different things and combinations. I like to think of ganache, fondant, and glazes to fit into this category of frosting, as mentioned above. Frosting, ganache, fondant and glazes are all varying combinations of very similar ingredients, to do the same basic job; cover (and be scrumptious of course).

Ganache only comes in one variety— chocolate.  According to the Epicurious Food Dictionary, ganache is a cooked icing, made with semisweet chocolate and whipping cream (though these probably can be adjusted, dark chocolate and milk, etc). Ganaches are usually very rich, as it is only chocolate and a little cream.[6] Alton Brown brings in vanilla and corn syrup in his recipe of ganache. Either way ganache is a chocolate lover’s dream, rich, smooth and decadent.

Fondants are a little more flexible in terms of ingredients depending on style, taste and sometimes use. CDKitchen.com explains that this kind of icing relies on a mixture of sugar syrup and glucose that is cooked to a very specific temperature and then kneaded, like dough or bread, to a smooth and malleable paste,[7] like this recipe. About.com, part of the New York Times Company, categorizes its fondant recipes as candy. [8]  Epicurious also mentions that fondant is used as both a candy as well as an icing. However, the rest of the definition in its Food Dictionary, is a little different, mainly in its list of ingredients, “fondant is a simple sugar-water- cream of tartar mixture cooked to the soft- ball stage. After cooling, the mixture is beaten and kneaded until extremely pliable… Heating fondant makes it soft enough to be used as an icing to coat large and small cakes.”[9]  Some recipes like this one or this one, do not include cooking at all. But one thing we all can agree on is that this candy/icing paste can be colored and flavored according to aesthetic and taste preferences.

Glazes come in both sweet and savory varieties; glazes go on hams but they also coat doughnuts. Glazes are usually thin and glossy as pointed out by Epicurious, and the sweet glazes can be “anything from melted jelly to a chocolate coating.”[10] A pretty generic recipe for a glaze would be something like this.

Now, some of the most popular frostings are buttercream and cream cheese frostings for their general simplicity and potential as flavor ambassadors.

Buttercreams, which can either be the cooked or uncooked variety, rely severely on butter. Most recipes for the buttercream frosting have enormous amounts of butter, which give this kind of frosting its name, like this recipe. The ingredients generally include, butter (lots of it), confectioners’ sugar, and milk or cream, but it could also include eggs.[11] The butter, the fattier and the fresher the better, instills a level of decadence and indulgence. The cooked version tends to be lighter, and more airy and less sweet, whereas the uncooked can become heavy and tooth numbingly sweet. The buttercream frosting is a great base for a huge number of flavorings and colors, and goes well with basically any kind of cake.

Then there are cream cheese frostings which also come in a large number of potential flavors, tend to be associated with very specific cakes (carrot, red velvet…), even though any cake can benefit from cream cheese frosting. To be cream cheese frosting, the icing must have the requisite cream cheese, which would replace some of the butter in a buttercream. Paula Deen’s recipe is always reliable, but in the end it is very simple. The cream cheese in this kind of frosting, cuts the sweetness a little bit and adds a bit of tang, which in some ways can be seen as a savory element. It adds another level to the flavor profile of the frosting on its own, as well as the cake as a whole. The tang goes especially well with cakes that involve fruits (like banana, zuchinni) or vegetables (carrots).  This kind of simple cream cheese frosting can be doctored to be many different flavors as well, just like the buttercream assortment.

Not only are there different kinds, styles and techniques to frosting, there are tons and tons of different flavors. Frosting, like ice cream (link to Ice cream foodfact), is a blank canvas, beckoning creative minds and innovative thinkers to produce a wide variety of flavor combinations. They can range from sweet to savory, textured or silky smooth. Some favorites include chocolate, maple, vanilla… the list goes on and on. Extracts can be added, like almond or peppermint, other liquids like coffee and liqueur, or melted ingredients like chocolates, or even other solids like peanut butter and fruits. Food coloring also adds diversity and aesthetic outlets, but not usually flavor. Countless additives can be mixed in or adapted to the wiles of frosting.

And we already know, frosting takes the cake.

Don't forget to check out my sources page for more reading up on frosting. And coming soon will be a recipe page with the links to all of these sweet recipes.
JAR 4.19.11

[1] Dictionary.com “Frosting”
[2] Epicurious Food Dictionary “Frosting”
[3] Epicurious Food Dictionary “Boiled Icing”
[4] Epicurious Food Dictionary “Frosting”
[5] Alton Brown Good Eats “The Icing Man Cometh: Buttercream frosting”
[6] Epicurious Food Dictionary “ Ganache”
[8] About.com “Fondant Recipes: Marshmallow Fondant”
[9] Epicurious Food Dictionary “Fondant”
[10] Epicurious Food Dictionary “Glaze”
[11] Epicurious Food Dictionary  “Buttercream”


MangiaMore: MIXED chip cookies

RER 4.11.12
 There is never not a time for chocolate chip cookies, as they are one of the most comforting of the comfort foods. Hot out of the oven, warm and melty with ice cream, or cool and crunchy with a tall glass of milk. Chocolate chip cookies always induce smiles and happiness. Serotonin may as well be a main ingredient!

I used the recipe on the back of the Nestle Toll House Choco Chip bag, but of course I made it my own. Also, looking at the recipe for white chocolate chip cookies on their bag, I saw that there was cocoa in the cookie dough and thought it was a wonderful idea. So the recipes are combined…. Making them mixed chip cookies.

JAR 4.11.1
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup cocoa

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
3/4 cup white sugar7
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs

Once smooth, mix the dry ingredients with the wet, mixing in a little at a time...

Drop spoon fulls on baking sheet.

Cook in oven heated to 350 degrees, for 8 to 11 minutes, depending on how you like them. I found that they spread a lot so smallish dough balls become decent sized yummy cookies. So be careful and don't put them too close together.

What are your chocolate chip cookie recipe variations? I am always on the look-out, especially to mangia more.
RER 4.11.12


FoodView: Give me the DEETS...

Apparently, this is not anything new, but upscale restaurants are keeping tabs on their patrons. At one time waiters and maitre-d’s took notes directly onto the reservation books or kept information on file in their memory, but now there is technology specifically designed and to aid this recording and tracking of customers. As usual, technology is making things bigger and better, but also maybe more complicated and intrusive.

Susanne Craig explores the methods of intelligence collecting, as well as its importance in her article in the Dining section of the New York Times early September. The article “What Restaurants Know (About You),” looks at how restaurants keep files on their customers. This creates “highly personalized hospitality.”[1] Restaurants are making it their business to get to know its clients, some times in the most intimate ways, in an effort to make the dining experience extra personalized and smooth. This includes individual tastes and preferences, spending habits, even tracking profession.

According to Ann Shepherd (vice president for marketing at OpenTable), as Craig points out, this is called the “Cheers’ effect.” You know, where everyone knows your name. Knowing these details about patrons and potential customers, creates an atmosphere of familiarity, even if it is the first time visiting. It produces a place where everyone is friendly and knows you, a place where you can be comfortable, and enjoy things how you like it, like your local corner spot.[2]

In the ever-growing industry, with restaurants appearing all over the place at a high rate, this kind of personalization of service and the dining experience, gives restaurateurs a competitive edge. According to Craig, restaurant managers and owners believe that this kind of gathering details and information about customers can make or break their business. This is even highlighted through a quote of Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant; “’The ability to know and read your customer is critical for staying on top, particularly in power restaurants.’”[3]

This also appears in most every area that relies on customer service. As in retail, from low to high end, building relationships, through trust and individualization, is key to maintaining business. It is these relationships, forged through honesty and getting to know the customer as a person, which make that customer return and continue to patronize the business.  Also, there are systems, whether it is the point of sale system or other methods that track purchases as well as personal information. In retail settings this can help with determining where to potentially open another store or even what products are the most popular. This links to keeping notes on customers in restaurants, as it is all to build stronger and reliable relationships. It appears to be a good business practice to uphold quality and standards, as well as creating an environment that invites people to return.

Technology is making it easier (or more difficult depending on who you ask) to note and maintain the details—from major, like names and allergies, to the minor like ice preferences. As well as things like anniversaries, birthdays, spouses. Websites that we use all the time to make reservations such as OpenTable, give restaurants insight into who will be dining with them. In order to use those sites, you must create a profile and that profile is automatically shared with the restaurants. Although this profile created with signing up with the site is the bare minimum—email address, and area—the user can also list likes, as well as make notes of favorite restaurants.

 A New York Post article, “Is Your Restaurant Spying on You?” from December of 2010, brings up how OpenTable allows restaurants to find out more information about their customers, even if they do not make reservations with the website. It becomes a searching tool, where managers can type in a name and search the client. Carla Spatos and Brian Niemietz reveal in their article, that managers and owners of restaurants are likely to Google patrons, to find out even more about them. They call this “online sleuthing.”[4] Owners go as far as following twitter accounts, searching through blogs and other profiles, all the get the inside scoop to better serve.

Some headwaiters and restaurant owners believe that there could be excessive notes, and that that can overwhelm and prove not to be useful at all. This has become especially true when there is so much access to identity now through the internet. When the copious notes become too copious, and too much information proves dangerous; “That woman is not his wife…” or “Didn’t the market do poorly today, why is she here…?” The talent not only becomes how to employ information, but also tip toe around it as well.

Customers get profiled. Restaurants are identifying and then recording your kind of status: newcomer, regular, if you are a friend of the owner, or even a person who lives in the area. Not only that, but some clients are given code names or just acronyms for the headwaiter or the wait staff to discern certain patrons. For example some of these acronyms are LOL (little old lady), HWC (handle with care), FOM (friend of manager), PX (person extraordinaire) and NR (never refuse), to name a few. [5] There are names for people who are poor tippers or people who are extremely needy and difficult. These little gems are the labels that are most times unknowingly attached to a customer, and must remain secret in effort to deter lawsuits.

Larger groups of restaurants or networks sometimes share the intelligence gathered, letting even more people into the tics and tocks of customers, which could create infamy or honor. Your reputation can precede you.

The question becomes is this beneficial for the diners? This could be both yes and no.

Yes, it may create a certain atmosphere, where you are comfortable and the servers and staff and owner are not really strangers, they are your friends who know what color napkin you prefer. And yes, it may be nice to walk into a place and not have to repeat over and over that you like crushed rather than cubed ice. And yes, this upscale restaurant can feel like home to you, intimate and loyal. The diner gets the customized service of the staff and the restaurant, elevating the dining experience from just food to a unique experience catered to the specific individual. Dining and eating in restaurants is not only about the food, it is the experience and service that tends to stick to the ribs. It is also this experience that brings them back.

 But on the other hand the investigations and note keeping can be too much. Is it too much an invasion into privacy and identity?  With just a name these days, histories and profiles can be searched and found, noted and kept. This is not just a risk that diners encounter, but it is a risk of this highly open and accessible world though the internet. But certain facts about the patron are known to restaurants through the various booking websites, even if she is a first time visitor. The restaurant has the heads up and advantage, even though these online booking sites often contain scarce information. Is there something so wrong as walking in a restaurant as an anonymous, a blank canvas that the staff could get to know? What if someone wants to remain anonymous, and maintain her own mystery and privacy, as well as some remnant of unpredictability? This is a notion that seems to be fading in the minds of the owners of these power restaurants, but protecting identity and spontaneity is present in diners.

The manipulation of getting to know the customer, as a current, past or potential, is all in the restaurateur’s effort to maintain a competitive edge and business in a cutthroat world. This kind of exploitation of the patron goes both ways, a potential benefit to both the owner and customer—to get the business ahead as well as to create an environment for the patron. Knowing the client, her needs, whims and tendencies, are all keys to a great service, but also stumbles on the line of intrusive.  A custom tailored dinner or dining experience can ruin surprise and take the adventure out of eating, which against the hopes of the restaurant owner, could result in no result, no return. Technology has only granted further access into personality and recording, which was once an art and mildly less invasive. This, though, is a trend that will not vanish, as it has already been going on in the restaurant business, and the times are allowing it to grow.

Check out my sources page for full links to the articles in the New York Times and New York Post.
RER 8.19.12

[1] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times
[2] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times
[3] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times
[4] Carla Spartos and Brian Niemietz , “Is Your Restaurant Spying on You”, New York Post
[5] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times