Square Peg

The first thing we noticed when we walked into Square Peg was the young woman standing awkwardly close to the door.

“Welcome,” she greeted us. As I prepared to tell her our name, she directed us to a counter over her left shoulder.

“You can check in with the hostess over there.” A little baffled as to what exactly her job was (greeter?) we made our way to the hostess counter to let them know that we had arrived a bit early for our 7pm reservation. We were prepared to grab a drink at the bar but there were plenty of tables and they walked us over to a small 2-top by the kitchen. Prime spot for watching all the food pass by!

Our waitress delivered our menus, took our water order (seems a bit ritzy for a place like this, no?) and returned a few minutes later with our ice water and an adorable glass bottle of water for the table. I love when restaurants do this. I’m a thirsty gal and hate to have an empty water glass, almost more than I hate to have an empty wine glass. As I admired the bottle, we perused the drink menu. Square Peg has adopted the “drink local” agenda with an impressive list of local to the U.S. spirits. Combined with an exciting cocktail menu–Frisky Whiskey!!–we had more than enough options. I was in a whiskey kind of mood and went with the Whiskey Cocktail (Jim Beam Rye, maraschino, combier liquer and an orange twist) while my husband opted for an Old Fashioned (Wild Turkey bourbon, agave nectar syrup, bitters, muddled cherries and orange.) We told our accommodating waitress that we wanted to enjoy our cocktails prior to ordering, as if we were grabbing a drink at the bar before dinner. She happily agreed and checked in on us occasionally but not too annoyingly.

The drinks were tangy and well-mixed.
I did notice that there was a slightly older crowd when we came in, and I assume it was the theater crowd. As the night progressed, however, the crowd grew noticeably younger. It will be interesting to see how this food-forward place caters to the sometimes tame pre-theater crowd while maintaining its integrity and mission.

As we enjoyed our drinks, we spent some time perusing the menu. Who am I kidding. I already knew what looked good to me thanks to the good old internet, but I still hadn’t made any final decisions. Although 2012 has marked the beginning of a quite successful healthy lifestyle kick, the weekends are our cheat times and we certainly made it count at Square Peg!

We ended up choosing the mac and cheese “grilled cheese” with drunken tomato soup and the tacos in a bag to start. My fabulous husband knows how difficult it is for me to leave a restaurant without ordering their version of mac and cheese and Square Peg’s certainly didn’t disappoint.

The buttery bread perfectly contained the cheesy mac such that it didn’t fall apart when you dipped it into the tangy tomato soup. Cheese, butter, carb, tomato–there’s pretty much no better combination.

The tacos in the bag were interesting. It came to the table and we looked at the dish.

We rotated it and looked again.

“What are we supposed to do?” we whispered to one another. I tugged gently at the top, wondering if they had made a slit that would allow us to open it. No dice. What the hell, I thought. And dumped it out.
I must note that Square Peg had the most perfectly shredded lettuce which is one of my most favorite fixins’ in the whole wide world. Shout out to the lowest man on the totem pole who probably shreds many, many heads of lettuce each night. The meat was tender and flavorful, each bite containing a little meat, a Frito and, of course, some shredded lettuce, provided the perfect mouthful. This is a big app, though, and maybe slightly heavy on the Fritos (not that anyone’s complaining.)

OK, by that time I was full. Too bad the entrees were on their way and I was EVEN MORE EXCITED for them. Ever since the moment I laid eyes on the menu, my eyes gravitated to one thing and one thing only: cheesesteak pot pie. For someone who didn’t eat meat for as long as I did, mention the word cheesesteak and I just swoon. Cheesesteak spring rolls? Yes, please. Cheesesteak pizza? Check. Cheesesteak pierogies? Well, you get the idea. Had ’em all, love ’em all. Not to mention, friends had been there a few days earlier and the pot pie came highly recommended.

How cute is that little spicy ketchup bottle alongside the dish? I also ordered a side of collards which were my best attempt at getting something healthy. The pot pie, as expected, was phenomenal. While I enjoyed the flaky topping, the real winner was under the crust. The meaty, rich, creamy, cheesy pot pie filling was just plain delightful. In fact, I couldn’t finish it and had the second half for lunch the next day. Score!

My husband got the other highly recommended dish on the menu, the BBQ brisket with brown butter gnocchi. When he ordered, the waitress told him that it was being served with pappardelle that night, which was fine with him. However, our friends said theirs was served with pappardelle as well. Is this a menu change that hasn’t been updated on the printed menu? A friend who went to the friends and family opening had that dish and thought it to be quite heavy. I wonder if they recognized that and subbed the gnocchi out.

While the menu said nothing about the roasted broccoli and marcona almonds, they were both pleasant additions to the dish. I’m a pasta girl and I thought this was buttery and salty without being overly done. My husband thought it was a touch heavy, although I didn’t get that–granted you’re talking to someone who just ate a cheesesteak pot pie so maybe my sense of “heaviness” is a bit skewed.

While we were finishing up our entrees, the General Manager, Michael Spector, came over to chat with us. What a nice guy. Michael owned the recently-closed Delicatessen on 7th and Chestnut and stepped in to manage Square Peg during its opening. Throughout our meal, I noticed Michael wandering the dining room, greeting people, asking about their meals and checking on every detail, down to the light dimmer. After the theater crowed (read: old) people left, the room got noticeably darker. His attention to detail and his concern for the restaurant’s patrons was evident in not just him but all the staff from the aforementioned greeter to all of the servers. It made us want to be there.

So we stayed.

It’s times like these in my relationship that remind me just why I married my husband. We were getting ready to leave when he asked if I wanted to split one of the “adult milkshakes.” I love this guy. We ended up with the “Root Beer Float” with White Tail Caramel Whiskey, Root liquer, vanilla vodka and chocolate.
I can’t remember the last time I had a milkshake but this certainly made up for it. It tasted exactly like a root beer float in milkshake form! All we needed was two straws.
I’m probably going to get in trouble for posting that.

We were a fan of Chef Matt Levin’s at Adsum and were excited for the opportunity to try his cooking again. While Levin absolutely proved his culinary skill during his time at Lacroix (hello, four bells!) Adsum and now Square Peg seem to be a divergence from that. He is cooking food that he wants to make and having fun with it. While it could be defined as stoner food, could be written off as kitsch, I challenge anyone who criticizes the concept to come on in and taste the food. While I wouldn’t mind a few lighter options, I think Square Peg has inched its way into the world of fun, creative and–most of all–damn tasty food. Although there wasn’t much of a bar scene while we were there, I think the great drinks list and unique menu offerings could make this a great Center City location for a beer (or a whiskey) and a bite.

Stateside

Green Eggs Cafe and I had a love/hate relationship from the start. I’ve discussed it elsewhere so I’ll leave it to that but let’s just say I was tentative upon hearing of the owner’s new venture, Stateside, just a few blocks from our house. All I knew was that Stateside’s aim was to focus on local ingredients in their small whiskey and small-plates bar overlooking the Passyunk Avenue fountain. I was interested in checking it out but only cautiously optimistic about this new addition to the “Avenue.”

A few weeks after they opened, I had heard some positive buzz about their food on Twitter and decided to finally check it out. It was a chilly Saturday night and I had just put duck legs in the oven. We planned on grabbing a martini and possibly a bite or two while the duck braised.

From the time we stepped through the door, we were treated to nothing but smiles and friendly staff members going above and beyond in order to please. As we settled into two recently vacated bar seats and ordered our martinis, our bartender informed us that all of their alcohol was local to the United States as well. What a novel concept. However, have no fear! The bartender, Jen, asked us what brand of booze we usually take in our martinis and patiently offered up other options. It was obvious then and at many repeat visits that she has a strong knowledge and command of her bar. Jen has also created their custom cocktail menu which contains unique (and seasonal) offering such as the recently added “hot buttered rye.”

Zach and I both opted for Death’s Door in our martinis–gin for him and vodka for me, of course. We perused the menu and chatted with Jen as she mixed our drinks. I, not unusually, wanted pretty much everything on their menu which is divided into meats, pickles, cheeses, small plates and large plates. We decided on a cheese and a small plate. We were immediately drawn to the Bayley Hazen Blue cheese with SMOKED BACON CARAMEL. I mean, I love blue cheese but add bacon AND caramel. I was sold. It was a little tougher to pick just one small plate but we ended up agreeing on the beer braised beef cheeks with cauliflower puree, radish and pickled mustard seeds.

Our cheese arrived first.

Look closely and you will see a little chunk of smoky bacon swimming in the caramel atop the cheese. Smoky, sweet, tangy, creamy…what a fantastic flavor collaboration. This is a great nibble for just $4 and bacon + caramel + blue cheese is really a winning combination. I may or may not have been tempted to lick my plate…

Next came the beef cheeks.

Don’t you just love their menu font, by the way? These beef cheeks are perhaps the favorite thing I’ve eaten at Stateside thus far. While the meat was good (and it was damn good and buttery soft,) it was the accompaniments that shone. The cauliflower puree was rich and creamy and I could only imagine what it was doing to my arteries while the pickled mustard seeds popped at just the right moments. The best bite was a piece of meat and a dollop of puree swirled in the braising liquid. This was a memorable dish.

Unfortunately, our braise beckoned and we begrudgingly walked home, happy to have found our perfect neighborhood gem for that night when we just want a well-mixed drink and tasty bite at the bar.

We went back the next weekend, of course. When we stepped through the door, the general manager, Anthony, greeted us with “good to see you again.” This was the neighbor-friendly service that was always lacking for me at Green Eggs. That visit and future ones gave us gems like the crunchy house made goat cheese.

We have also enjoyed charred broccolini (great sleeper dish) and duck sausage with sweet potato, sour cherry mustard and frisee.

Our friend, who wasn’t sure about the duck sausage, was an immediate convert. This dish even turned my husband into a sweet potato aficionado (for the moment, at least.)

More recently, we finally got a chance to try the crispy maple glazed pork belly over fried nora nora grits, gala apples and spiced cider jus.

Everything about this dish was phenomenal. Duh. I don’t have to tell you that though–just look at it. The pork belly followed the beef cheeks in highlighting and focusing on not just the main protein but every component of the dish.

As a special treat, Anthony brought out the rabbitt rillettes with pear preserves. This is something I never would have ordered but that’s what made it especially neat to taste.
This dish was subtle, yet robust. While the flavor was not overwhelming, it had an easy “eatability” to it. Another perfect bar snack to share with some of your favorite people. Besides, the jar they serve it in is just so darn cute.

Executive Chef, George Sabatino, is obviously having a blast pushing out fun and unique dishes comprised of all local ingredients. If you’re on twitter, check him out. He tweets out specials and other fun kitchen pics. Most recently, the bartender told us about their new seafood purveyor who offers only line caught fish. In fact, customers will soon be able to receive a code that will allow them to track the fisherman and boat that caught the dish they’re eating in this food-forward little restaurant in South Philadelphia. Talk about Stateside…

I cannot say enough good things about this place. From the front of the house to the back of the house, this restaurant aims to please and achieves on so, so many levels. I just hope, for our sake, that it doesn’t get too popular and will be able remain our neighborhood gem where we can always snag two seats at the bar. I won’t hold my breath though. If you haven’t eaten at Stateside, get there now. Seriously.

Philly Food & Drink Writer Meet-Up

One of the most special aspects of food and eating is that it brings people together. Family meals, dinner or drinks with friends–sharing food with others is an intimate way to connect and create memories that can last for years. Oftentimes, people ask me why I started this blog. My answer is simply that I like food and found that I was always taking pictures of what I ate. Once I started blogging, I slowly began meeting people in the food community who were just like me. It was liberating to discover that I wasn’t the only weirdo who had to take photos of any and everything food-related before it went into my mouth. I began to gather a consortium of friends who had one prominent, similar interest: food.

One of those friends is Wendy of the fabulous La Phemme Phoodie. A lawyer by day, Wendy has taken to organizing area food bloggers meet-ups. The first was at Supper earlier this year, another was a food photography class and the most recent was a joint effort between Wendy, R2L Restaurant, VisitPhilly.Com and local photographer Eric Mencher.

As we stepped off the elevator at the 37th floor and into R2L for the first time, we were greeted with glasses of bubbly. We sipped and mingled, meeting and greeting friends old and new. As we chatted, we were treated to a variety of passed h’ors d’oeuvres such as steak tartare on a potato chip with beef butter (my first time eating tartare,) skewered tuna au poivre, truffled flatbread, crisp risotto balls with truffle soy (the server told me not to be shy with sopping up the truffle soy. I wasn’t,) and smoked salmon with mustard cream cheese on a pretzel crisp. An unmentioned surprise was this take on the chicken cheesesteak.

The hungry bloggers pounced on these delicious offerings.

Just as we started to get sated, out came the drinks. The R2L-Evation with gin, parfait amour, luxardo, fresh lemon, cherry

and the Sidecar with hennessy vs, pallini limoncello, cointreau, fresh lemon.

I didn’t try the R2L-Evation because my body has had a no gin mandate since high school, but those Sidecars certainly were tasty–and potentially dangerous–cocktails.

After some intial mingling, we made our way to the photography workshop conducted by Eric Mencher, a former Inquirer photographer who spent many years eating with Inky food critic, Craig LaBan. Before the workshop began, Chef Daniel Stern spoke to the crowd of excited bloggers and food enthusiasts, thanking us for “keeping the food conversation going.”

La Phemme Phoodie introduces Chef Dan

We were then greeted by Caroline and Alethia of VisitPhilly.com and Philly Homegrown, co-sponsors of the event, who spoke about local food and gastronomy.

Once Eric began, he regaled us with stories and jokes. Rather than discussing detailed camera function, he spoke more to the art of taking a photo and the eye with which we view our subjects. After his brief, yet informative talk, we were set free to take photos of all the beautifully plated dishes that Chef Dan created for the event. Between my husband and I, we have over one hundred photos which you can view on our Flickr page here and here. We were lucky enough to have two cameras thanks to my co-worker and extremely talented photographer, Doug Herman.

Here’s a snapshot (no pun intended) of our lovely Saturday afternoon.

Sushi sampler

Variations of Chocolate

Variations of Chocolate

Row Home Eats in action

Our stunning view

Blueberry lemon tarts with lavender marshmallows

Donut ice cream sandwich

Steak tartare

Lobster macaroni and cheese

Smoked salmon brunch pizza

Roasted Rabbit, fresh + pickled squash, eggplant, yellow steuben gravy + basil

Everyone wants to get a great shot

Mr. Row Home Eats is pretty handy with the camera too

Blogger buddies (L-R In Search of Beer; Apples and Cheese, Please; Row Home Eats; Bridges, Burgers & Beer)

HUGE thanks go to host R2L and Chef Daniel Stern for hosting the event and providing us with phenomenal food for tasting and shooting (can’t beat the view either,) Caroline and Alethia from Visit Philly and Philly Homegrown for helping promote local food initiatives and for the neat swag bag–including a beer koozie and “Who’s Your Farmer?” apron and Eric Mencher for his sharing his expansive knowledge with a group of crazy food lovers like us. Last, but certainly not least, MAJOR love to La Phemme Phoodie for, as Chef Dan put it, helping us to “keep the food conversation going.”

If you’d like to check out what some of the other attendees had to say, check out La Phemme Phoodie’s blog roll. So far, the list includes:

The Palate Princess

A Culinary Journey with Chef Dennis

Zen and Potatoes

My Life On A Plate

Bridges, Burgers & Beer

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Asian In America

I Can Cook That

From Graduate to Gourmet

Pass the Sushi

Feed Me Lee

South Jersey Locavore

Eric spoke about things we can do to make food look more appealing in photographs. One tip he mentioned was the use of a fork or spoon so that the eye follows its curves. After the restaurant let us loose on the gorgeous dessert cart, all that was left was this.

The End

Rotisseur

Finally! After one failed attempt and a summer away from Center City lunches, I finally made it to Rotisseur, the new(ish) rotisserie chicken joint in Rittenhouse. It was actually kind of destiny. My husband happened to call me, just as my meeting ended, to see if I wanted to meet for lunch. YES, YES, YES! Let’s meet at Rotisseur in ten. 

We wandered in and scoped the chalkboard menu.

The inside is very simple, with clean lines and a focus on the food. I admired the sides but drooled over the rotisserie.

Zach and I ended up splitting the 1/2 chicken meal with two sides and added a third side, just for fun. We knew we wanted mac and cheese (if you’ve spent enough time reading this blog, you know I’ll always order mac and cheese when it’s offered) and the watermelon orzo salad but had trouble deciding on a third. The sides rotate seasonally and we opted for the hyper-seasonal succotash to round out our lunch.

We ordered at the counter but the counter-woman delivered our food and real silverware to our table (my dad would love this place!) This was a little awkward as I didn’t know what to do about tipping when we left.

The chicken was super moist and packed with lots of flavor. However, I’m more of a side gal and I quickly attacked all three of them with equal gusto. The succotash was definitely the sleeper–the fresh corn highlighted the otherwise simple dish and made me keep coming back for more. The mac and cheese was delish, as always, but the watermelon orzo salad was another winner. Let’s get a closer look at that.

Yum!

Rotisseur is quick, tasty and affordable lunch option in Center City. I can’t wait to get back to try their pesto chicken salad sandwich and chicken banh mi. At $6, these sandwiches are a steal.

Hot Diggity

I love a good hot dog. I mean, who doesn’t? I was ecstatic a few years back when Moe’s Hot Dogs opened up on Gray’s Ferry Avenue, conveniently located between my then apartment and my parents’ house. Then there’s Top Dog in Rockport, MA, one of our go-to vacation spots, that has an extensive variety of  dogs all named after, you guessed it, dogs! The only local place I have yet to try is THE authentic Philly hot dog place, Texas Wieners, on Snyder Ave. which is, ironically, just a few blocks from my house.

But then came Hot Diggity. After hearing glowing reviews from folks such as this guy, who’s just a tad obsessed, we put it on our long list of places we wanted to visit. But 6th and South is kind of random. When are we ever in that neck of the woods???

That question was answered one Sunday after a late morning visit to Headhouse Farmers Market. We were both famished, having skipped breakfast for the market and were just not in the mood for any of the offerings there. A-ha, this was the perfect time for Hot Diggity. I pulled up the menu on my iPhone and started excitedly reading it aloud to my husband. I know I’ve got a keeper because not once did he interrupt me or tell me to be quiet. In fact, he was just as excited as I was for exciting offerings such as Cincinnati Skyline with chili, nacho cheese and other fun stuff.

Luckily, after rolling down South Street, we found a spot right out front. He waited in the car with the dog while I hopped in line and checked out our options.

We had decided to split three dogs and he let me pick, woo hoo, knowing that the Cincy Skyline would definitely be one of the choices. The line was short but the wait just to order was a little longer than expected. Meanwhile, I scoped the awesome illustrated menu by local artist and food lover, Hawk Krall.

I was pretty set on our hot dogs, but I also decided to get fries and had to pick from the looong list of dipping sauces. Fun! I love me a good dipping sauce!

Decisions, decisions!!! Eek, I just didn’t know what to do. I ended up going with the bacon aioli, chipotle malt vinegar and roasted garlic rosemary.

Luckily, despite the wait to order, my food came up very quickly, even though I had to bag the last of it myself because things seemed a little hectic. We could barely wait to get home and demolish our dogs.

Cincinnati Skyline with chili, white onion, scallions and nacho cheese.

Look how long the dog is! This one was the hands down favorite. There was a nice smothering of chili made in-house and the nacho cheese, well, I have a serious affinity for that stuff and a conviction that processed cheese makes almost anything taste better.

The Bronx Bomber with sauerkraut, spicy brown mustard and New York style red onion sauce (whatever that means.)

This dog had a serious tang that hit your taste buds in the back and brought water to your mouth. What a mouthful of flavor. Then again, sauerkraut is up there with processed cheese, although I’m a little more picky about its use.

The Southern Comfort with creamy coleslaw and creole mustard.

This was the only one that left me slightly disappointed. While it was still one of the better hot dogs I’ve had, I was hoping for a creamier coleslaw. But have no fear, Hot Diggity has absolutely mastered the topping: hot dog: roll ratio. I still enjoyed a little bit of everything in each and every bite and my very lucky dog (real dog, that is) got a taste of the end. She was a happy pup.

Oh, the fries. I just love that they’re served in paper cones and when you have you order “for here,” they have cute little holes in the table for propping up your fries.

These salty, hand cut fries were the best fries I’ve had in a long time. I loved the option of different dipping sauces but have to say that the bacon one was straight up disgusting. My husband thought that roasted rosemary garlic had too strong of a rosemary flavor but I loved the creaminess and the chipotle malt vinegar lacked spice but all I really cared about was the vinegar which is just SO darn good with fries. We should eat like the British more often.

Bottom line. Eat at Hot Diggity. Like, now-ish. Besides, I heard they’re starting a delivery service. As my friend, Mellody Brewing,said, this could be very good for me. And very bad for me.

A Full Plate

It’s so hard to find outdoor seating around here. Are you kidding me? You say. Nope. It’s hard to find outdoor seating at a place where there’s not an interminable wait. Oh, and if you have your very cute and adorable dog with you, you don’t even have the option to take an inside table. Every weekend, my husband and I struggle with this as we ponder our brunch options. We often end up munching on something at Headhouse Farmers Market but other days we’re in the mood for more of a sit down thang. One recent weekend, we decided to head up to A Full Plate Cafe in Northern Liberties after learning that yes, they did have outdoor seating. However, once we got dressed and ready to go, the sky looked ominous and we kept the pooch home.

A Full Plate is a cute little place with a simple outside that doesn’t match its bright, colorful decor on the inside.

I was a little freaked out that the place was completely empty at prime brunch hour. Was that a sign of what was to come? I decided not to let it bother me and checked out the specials instead.

As we were deciding what to eat, our waiter brought over our drinks. In Mason jars. In large Mason jars. I can’t stand when places have little water glasses, especially for brunch. Don’t they know that everyone was out drinking the night before? This place is just so darn cute!

As usual, Mr. Row Home Eats went healthy with the Darren Salad ($7.50) of grilled chicken, grilled asparagus, roasted red peppers, cucumbers and tomato.

I, on the other hand, totally pigged out with the Toads in a Hole ($10) of multigrain bread filled with scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, veggies and cheddar cheese.

Unfortunately, while I appreciated the concept of the dish, the overall implementation didn’t quite add up. It was too dry and the flavors were hidden by all the bread. The sweet potatoes homefries, on the other hand, were spot on. A perfect balance of crisp to chewy potato, I could have eaten these homefries all day long.

Oh, I forgot to mention what else I ordered.

I’ll admit it. I am a sneak. I often tell my husband what I’m planning on ordering and then add a last minute additional dish like macaroni and cheese. OK, it’s often macaroni and cheese, which is my favorite food and I have a LOT of trouble not ordering it. Besides, I convince him that we can split it. This mac and cheese was one of the better ones I’ve had recently. It maintained its ultra creaminess while packing a bit of a crunch on top and the cheesey flavor lingered in my mouth with each bite. This is certainly a dish to savor.

While A Full Plate didn’t knock it out of the park on every dish, I would return again and again for the mac and cheese. If they picked up a little speed in the kitchen (our food took a while to come out, despite being two of the only people in the place. I guess it was being made very fresh?) and tinkered with some dishes, this place has the potential to be top notch. Besides, how can you not love a place that hosts vegetarian friendly rib cook-offs?

Fuel on East Passyunk

It’s tough for a food blogger to eat healthy. We’re always checking out the hottest dishes at the latest restaurants and dining (and boozing) out with friends. We try to make up for our fat and carb laden weekend splurges by eating relatively healthily on weeknights. A general summer dinner consists of a grilled protein and two veggie sides.  On Friday nights, we usually order out and spend the evenings watching movies or playing with our new Apple TV.  Our go-to is Los Jalapenos, which stills delivers to us despite their move, but we also love Circles Thai, many of the local pizza/cheesesteak spots and New Noodle Heaven, the Chinese store on 12th and Snyder. Some nights, however, we get a little too comfortable with our routine and are itching for another cuisine. Recently, we didn’t quite know what we wanted, but we know it needed to be healthy. A former student of mine, who loves food just as much as I do, had raved about Fuel, the healthy dine-in/take-out spot who advertises all of their dishes under 500 calories.

Fuel has two locations–Center City and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. Their menu is a little odd as it has a salad section but you also have the option to order any of the sandwiches without bread, thus making them a salad. I decided to go with a traditional chicken caesar salad, while my husband ordered a grilled chicken sandwich (hold the bread, please) with artichoke, mixed greens, provolone, sun dried tomato and balsamic reduction. I was a little hungry so I added the sweet pea dip as an appetizer. Fuel has the nutritional information along with Weight Watchers points on their menus so you can have a clear snapshot of what you are eating.

Our food arrived promptly. The green pea dip was phenomenal. My parents used to make mashed peas for us when I was growing up and this sweet vegetable was certainly reminiscent of the past with nice, chewy bites of sun-dried tomatoes to add some texture.

I’ve ordered this salad again since this meal and still don’t quite understand why they don’t cut up their lettuce. The salad is simple, yet tasty but it can be difficult to eat.

Also, if you’re a “light on the dressing” kind of guy or gal, you might want to ask for it on the side. I thought it was just dandy.

My husband’s salad sure was pretty.

That’s all I know, though. Between the pea dip (I must have “forgotten” he didn’t like peas when I ordered it) and my whopping salad, I was too full to check it out. He gave it two thumbs up, though, so that’s good enough for me.

Fuel is a great option if you want to eat out (or in) without letting the calories pile up. They have a dessert and smoothie selection as well that I have yet to check it out. Let me know what you think.

Salem Beer Works

One rainy day in Massachusetts, we decided to take a trip to Salem to check out the history. My husband, who has known me for over eight years, learned of my fascination with witches and the Salem Witch Trials and agreed to take the 30-minute drive from Gloucester to explore the town. Once we mentioned that we were going to Salem, everyone said that we just HAD to go to Salem Beer Works and try their fried pickles. Fried pickles?! You had me at hello.

We made our way down 128 and settled in for a morning at the Peabody-Essex Museum, which had a fantastic exhibit on ManRay and Lee Miller (seriously, check it out if you’re in town) and a fun, interactive exhibit on water. After a little culture, we headed over to the big event: the Salem Witch Museum! I was so excited.

Following a lackluster, but slightly interesting tour of the museum, we headed to the Beer Works for a late lunch.

While we knew the fried pickles were a definite, we checked out the beer menu to select our beverages. We had heard chatter of a tasty watermelon beer but I was drawn towards a few different options and ended up with a pick-your-own flight while my husband opted for a 12oz pour of the Victory White. My flight ranged from Witch City Red and Watermelon Ale to a Bunker Hill Blueberry Ale (made and garnished with Maine blueberries) and a Cask IPA.

I’m no beer expert like this guy but I enjoyed each of them, especially the light and playful watermelon ale and the blueberry ale, which had some richer flavors. The cask IPA was mellow and more drinkable than I expected. Best of all, the 4 ounce pours were only $1.50 each so I got the whole flight for $6. What a deal!

We each ended up opting for two of their many burgers, after seeing the construction workers to the left of us devouring theirs with gusto. I went with the Charlestown Burger topped with bacon and cheddar and he went all out with the Fenway topped with chili, scallions and cheddar. The Beer Works has a ton of different french fry cuts and seasonings, any of which we could pick to accompany our burgers. I went with the potato sticks while he opted for the more traditional hand cut fries.

The pickles were actually whole spears battered and fried with a ranch dipping sauce. While I expected them to be sliced, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The creamy ranch, hot and crispy coating and warm, sour pickle all did a little dance in my mouth together. What great beer drinking food!

The burgers followed and were top notch. Mine was cooked to a perfect medium–something I’ve had trouble finding these days.

I didn’t care for the potato sticks, however. I was expecting matchstick fries and what came out were, quite literally, potato stix (remember them?)

My husband’s burger was messy but received two chili-smudged thumbs up from him. And I got over my fry disappointment by eating most of his.

Look at all that chili!!

After finishing lunch, we picked up to six-packs to go (for under $9 each!) They also offer growlers but we were walking around and they were a little less portable. We headed over to my tarot reading and I’ll find out in 4-7 months if any of the work, health, financial and travel predictions she made are true!

Beer Works has a number of locations around Massachusetts, including one across from Fenway Park. Stop in and check out the fried pickles if you’re ever in the neighborhood!

Cuba Libre: Brunch Without Borders

When I was invited to a bloggers’ lunch at to check out Cuba Libre’s new Brunch Without Borders menu, I jumped at the opportunity. I had never been to Cuba Libre and am not as familiar with Cuban food as I am with other cuisine. I dragged my very willing (all you can eat brunch!) husband along to check things out.

We walked in and the decor looked exactly like a Cuban garden cafe (or at least what I would imagine it to look like.) It was bright, lush and airy.

I skimmed the broad range of offerings and began to plot my meal. There were so many tasty looking offerings.

As we discussed our options, a bread basket was delivered to our table with a churro, muffin, banana bread and a guava cream cheese “hojaldre” pastry with mango butter and guava preserves. Oh my.

We decided to order a handful of items to start and we held onto the menu for later rounds of ordering.

First up was the cuban style shrimp cocktail. For someone who doesn’t normally love shrimp, this was one of my favorite dishes of the day. It was swimming in a tangy cocktail-style sauce slash  gazpacho that left me clamoring for more.

Continuing on our seafood tour, we had the truffle and citrus marinated grilled baby octopus over eggplant salad. This dish was surprisingly cold and refreshing but didn’t have quite enough of that charred flavor as I would have liked.

Next up was their version of Eggs Benedict. A crabmeat and potato cake topped with a poached egg, avocado and a tomato hollandaise. I love crab and I love eggs benedict, so this dish was a no-brainer to me. While it was good, the potato-crabcake had a little too much potato and not as much crab, which took away from the subtle sweet flavor I enjoy in crab.

We moved on to land with the beef, pork and pine nut meatballs. This was probably my least favorite dish of the day. Nothing quite wrong with it, the flavors just didn’t stand out like the other dishes did.

Now we’re getting to the good stuff! The meatballs came with what my husband described as the “ultimate stoner food.” Papas con chorizo are smashed potatoes with chorizo, sour cream and monterrey jack cheese. Mmmmm…extra points for an adorable serving vessel!

To accompany the stoner food, we had to try the beef, pork and chorizo burger slider. I let my husband eat most of the slider as I was completely enamored by the shoestring fries. I really dig an authentic (read: super thin) salty shoestring fry. And they put them ON the burger.

After a few heavier dishes, we lightened things up with the house-cured smoked duck with huitlacoche vinaigrette. I had to Google huitlacoche to make sure I spelled it right. I’m always a sucker for a smoky flavor and this meat did not disappoint. The vinaigrette added a nice tang to the rich smokiness of the meat.

The adobo-rubbed charred tuna was up next. This dish seemed kind of random for a Cuban restaurant, but my mouth didn’t seem to mind. I wish there was just a touch more of the avocado salsa that topped the fish.

The next dish was a disappointment, not because it wasn’t tasty but because I had REALLY high hopes for it. I expected the spinach and manchego cheese puffs to be crispier and gooier. Instead, they were more on the doughy side of things. Again, this was a solid dish but just not what I expected.

It was around that time we thought we were done. I then, as I’ve been wont to do in the 8 years we’ve been together, surprised my husband by ordering two more dishes.

I had been eyeing up the sopa levanta muerto. This coconut-based broth was “swimming” with (ooh, that’s a bad pun) crabmeat, mussels, scallops and shrimp. My husband and I did what we do best–I happily slurped the rich and tasty broth while he chomped contentedly on the seafood.

And we couldn’t leave Cuba Libre without trying the Guacamole Cubano with PINEAPPLE (!) in it, served with wavy strips of fried plantains (interesting info about me. I hate bananas with a passion and even hate regular plantains. I love me some friend plantains, though. Always have.) This dish was a light and citrusy end to our meal.

The End.

Just kidding, just kidding. Executive Chef Jasper Alivia–a very nice guy–came by to chat with us and convinced us to try the ropa vieja hash. Our friends, Ryan and LeeAnne, were sitting at a nearby table and I think they sent him over to twist our arms. My husband tried to resist but Chef Jasper said it was his favorite too and besides, it was brisket. You can never pass up brisket!

So we ordered our last and really final dish of the day–beef brisket stewed with tomatoes atop a potato hash, topped off with a fried egg. OK fine, everyone. It was delicious. The tomato brought out the sweetness in the brisket and it was my kind of dish; the one where each bite gives you a little bit of everything. What a beautiful way to end our meal.

Overall, this meal was a smashing success. While there were no real lowlight, highlights were definitely the shrimp cocktail, potatoes and ropa vieja. For $25/person, this would be a great place to bring a group to celebrate a certain occasion. Check their website as our waitress told us that they sometimes have live music or DJs to accompany brunch. Chef Guillermo Pernot travelled to Cuba and spent a great deal of time researching and rewriting the menu and that energy was certainly evident in this meal. I look forward to going back (when I’m done this silly diet, that is.)

10 Arts Happy Hour

Last Friday, a couple of friends and I planned to meet for happy hour. In our flurry of email suggestions, I threw out a few options that had good deals AND good food/drink. As I puttered around my house and did chores (read: played on the internet,) I came across this blog post from my friend, Madame Fromage. I’d been wanting to visit 10 Arts and a $5 cheese plate and wine beckoned.  It was a rainy and dreary Friday evening but I still felt extra-fancy walking past the noble white columns and through the doormen-held-open doors. 10 Arts encompasses the entire lobby with a huge, round white cooler/cellar/storage thingy? as the centerpiece. The area is comfy and welcoming but we all agreed that the hot pink uplighting just didn’t fit a regal place like the Ritz Carlton.

As we waited for our third party, my friend, Emily, and I ordered a glass of wine. I asked our server what wine specials they had and she proceeded in reciting “Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc, etc.” She was a little taken aback when I asked who made that wine. I don’t think that’s such a strange question to be asking at an upscale place such as 10 Arts, regardless of the event or clientele. I ordered a Malbec and hoped for the best.

I was actually pleasantly surprised at my $5 gem that I enjoyed with our complimentary olives as we decided what snacks to order.

We started with the cheese plate, of course.

Unfortunately, I forgot what we were eating as soon as our server presented the plate. The one on the far left, however, was a fan favorite, with a wonderfully rich and buttery flavor. I especially enjoyed the candied walnuts (yum!) and little bit of honeycomb as our accompaniments.

The amazing thing about this happy hour is that ALL appetizers are $5, not just the cheese plate. In the spirit of checking it all out, we tried the pretzel bites and a spinach, spring onion dip. The pretzel bites were the perfect carby happy hour partner, with a trio of dipping sauces–cheddar, jalapeno jam and dijon mustard.

The spinach spring onion dip was more soup or fondue-like than I would have expected. It came with papadum crisps for dipping and the flavors couldn’t have been more fresh and seasonal. This dish tasted green.

This happy hour deal runs Monday-Friday from 5-7pm. If you want to check out 10 Arts without breaking the bank, this is absolutely the way to go. In fact, I’m heading back tonight. Maybe I’ll see you there!