Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is a vegetarian?

I'm not going to embarrass the person/agency who sent this email to me, but I think that it signifies just how little vegetarianism is understood. Well, either that or the sender didn't bother to read the "About Me" section of my blog.
Hello There,
My name is [deleted] and I work for [popular marketing agency] in Cincinnati, Ohio.
From your blog, I know that healthy eating is important to you.

One of our clients, [deleted], has taken an important step in offering low-fat, non-fried seafood choices with their new menu. This menu features Grilled Salmon, Grilled Tilapia and Shrimp Scampi.

I know personally since having a child and one on the way I have become a more health conscious person looking for healthier foods.

Since fish is a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which benefits the heart this menu has really intrigued me along with health benefits for the heart, eyes, brain, immune system.

So I was wondering if you would be interested in trying it out for yourself. I will send you a couple of gift checks so you can do so for free.

I sent a polite reply letting her know that vegetarians do not eat seafood.

I realize that this is a slippery slope - I do know of some people who claim vegetarianism but DO eat seafood, but according to The Vegetarian Society (the oldest vegetarian organization in the world) vegetarianism can be defined thusly:

A vegetarian is someone living on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with or without the use of dairy products and eggs.

A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or slaughter by-products.

Vegetarianism can further be broken down into those who eat both eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarians) and those who will not eat eggs but do eat dairy products (lacto-vegetarians). Those who take vegetarian a step further and eat no eggs, dairy products or other animal by-products like honey are considered vegan.

Someone who eats seafood but doesn't eat red or white meat is a pesceterian, NOT a vegetarian.

I am vegetarian: I do not eat mammals, fish or fowl, and I limit the amount of eggs and dairy in my diet. I buy only free-range eggs from a local farmer and do my best to avoid cheese with rennet - which is derived from the stomachs of calves and goats and is used as a coagulator for various cheeses. Admittedly it can be difficult to do when dining out.

For an at-your-fingertips guide of non-rennet cheeses, printing a copy of The Cheese List to have on hand is a good idea.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Kona Bistro in Oakley closing

From today's Cincinnati Enquirer:

Kona Bistro in Oakley announced today that its last day of operation will be next Wednesday. The restaurant opened at its 3012 Madison Road location in 2003.

An e-mail message to people on the restaurant’s mailing list said, “From all of the staff, management, servers, cooks, bartenders,and hosts, we want to thank you for five great years in the Oakley community.”

The message said the restaurant decided not to renew the lease on the Oakley location.

“With the serious downturn in the economy and the slow future forecasts for independent restaurants, it is much too risky to sign another five-year lease at this time. We are choosing to focus on our Oxford location (High Street) for the time being.”

“We have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of Oakley’s revitalization and we hope that you will still choose to support this wonderful community that we have grown to enjoy.”

The restaurant also announced that it is selling dining room chairs, wine racks and kitchen equipment from its Oakley location in an online auction that closes Jan. 4. Information on the auction is at www.worleyauctioneers.com.

The restaurant’s final hours of operation: today, 11a.m.-3 p.m.; Friday (closed); Saturday-next Wednesday, 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.

Kona Bistro on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 22, 2008

Claddagh Irish Pub

Claddagh Irish Pub
Newport on the Levee
One Levee Way
Newport, KY

Steve and I met up with a group of ex-pat Brits at Claddagh Irish Pub over the weekend and unbeknownst to me when we booked the reservation, the restaurant has retooled the menu in a way that completely disregards the vegetarian diner. They have absolutely NO vegetarian entrées on their menu now, and only two vegetarian appetizers – fried sweet potatoes and parsnips, and spinach-artichoke dip. Whoop-dee-do.

We hadn’t been to Claddagh in awhile, but in the past there have been at least one or two vegetarian-friendly items available – usually either a pasta or a veggie burger – but this time they pulled out all the stops to make their restaurant as unfriendly to vegetarians as possible. Way to go Claddagh.

I think the thing that restaurants like Claddagh forget is that vegetarians have non-veggie family, friends and co-workers, and when the vegetarian can’t get anything to eat the likelihood of a return visit drops to zero. We brought in a group of 15 to a restaurant that was not nearly as busy as it should have been on the weekend prior to Christmas, and who undoubtedly needed the business, but because of the blatant disregard for the vegetarian in the party, we will definitely not be recommending this restaurant nor suggesting it for future get-togethers again.

Know what I had to eat? Fries, coleslaw and a side salad. Guess what it ran? More than any entrée in our group. Insanely poor value for money!

Vegetarians beware. Claddagh Irish Pub doesn’t give a flying flip about us.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Churchill's Tea Room

Churchill’s Tea Room
28 W. 4th St.

UPDATE 2009: This restaurant has closed.

There are days in the office when the vent above my head expels frigid air from around 10 a.m. onwards, and the spare sweater I keep for such occasions just isn't enough. Such days call for a nice cup of hot tea, which is why my girlfriend Laura and I decided to meet up at Churchill's Tea Room in the Tower Place Mall for lunch and a pot of their white chocolate mousse tea.

Churchill's is just inside the Fourth Street entrance to Tower Place

When our pot of tea arrived I immediately thought of the song "T USA" by Ginger Baker's short-lived stint in the band Masters of Reality, which questions the ability of Americans to make a good cup of tea.

"Now this is serious! If there’s one thing in this country that really bothers me
Is the inability of Yanks to make a good cup of tea
Instructions are printed on the teabag
But either they can't read
Or they think it's a gag

Pour boiling water over the tea
How simple and clear can the instructions be?

They bring you a cup with a lemon slice
And an unopened tea bag beside it (how nice)
And a pot of water and it may be hot
But boiling it isn't so tea you have not

Why can't we
Get our tea
We need tea
To set us free

It's boiling water that brings out tea's flavor
With a dash of milk you've a real brew to savor..."

Churchill's Tea Room should know how to make a proper cuppa - the proprietor is British - yet on the day we visited our pot of tea was definitely not hot enough for boiling water to have been poured over it. I have brewed enough pots over the years to know how hot a cup of black tea should be after steeping for five minutes, and this wasn’t it. On the upside, the lukewarm temperature of the tea made a splash of cream unnecessary, which is just as well, since we were never given a cream option. Patrons at surrounding tables had both cream and sugar for their tea, but we only had sugar. Maybe we had to specifically request the cream, but that seems a rather silly thing to have to do in a tea room.

Although I stop in every so often to peruse their selection of British goods, which are for sale in the front section of the cheery tea room, it had been well over a year since I had last eaten lunch there. I readily admit that it wasn't just the lure of a good pot of tea that drew me in - one day as I passed by I noticed that they listed a Ploughman's sandwich on their menu, and I couldn't get the idea out of my head.

The tearoom and shop

So I knew what I wanted before we were seated – but unfortunately I couldn’t have it, because they were out of some of the ingredients used to make the sandwich. I opted instead for the other vegetarian sandwich on the menu, The Veggie, which consisted of herbed cream cheese, feta, lettuce, tomato and cucumber. It sounded like a winner to me, but the bread really let the sandwich down. Although I’m pretty sure the menu stated that it was made with whole wheat bread, my sandwich came with standard white supermarket bread, and it tasted more than a bit stale.

The Veggie Sandwich with broccoli salad and tea biscuit costs $7.95

Laura ordered the chicken salad sandwich, only to be told that it too was out of stock. Her backup was the ham & cheese.

Most sandwiches run just under $8 and come with a side of their signature broccoli salad or fruit cup and a tea biscuit (cookie). The broccoli salad tasted home made and was very nice – bright bursts of orange complimented the onion and broccoli. It was delightfully creamy with hints of sweetness; not what we were expecting. The tea biscuit on the other hand was a pretty average boxed variety.

On the topic of sweets, Churchill's has a nice selection of cakes and scones. Because I was still peckish at the end of our meal, I decided to try their Strawberry Buttercream cake and am glad I did. It was deliciously moist and well worth the $3.95 price. Laura ordered the Chocolate Guinness cake but they had already sold out of the popular item, so she opted for a chocolate cookie instead.

Decadent and delicious Strawberry Buttercream cake

I haven't attended any of Churchill's popular weekend high teas, so I do not know if they are a better value than their weekday lunch menu, but I felt our sandwiches were poor value for money and rather disappointing, with the one bright spot being the fabulous broccoli salad. I can understand a vendor issue preventing stock from arriving safely and on time, but for a restaurant to serve sandwiches on bread that was clearly past its sell-by date is unacceptable. I’ll give Churchill’s a chance to redeem their tea-making, but in the future I think I will skip lunch and go right for dessert, because that is where the tea room really shines.
Churchill's Tea Room on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kar-Ma Asian Bistro

Kar-Ma Asian Bistro
7418 Beechmont Ave.
Anderson Township

We met up with friends on Friday evening to check out the newly opened Kar-Ma Asian Bistro, situated next door to Carrabbas at Anderson Towne Centre. The restaurant is quite small and might be considered cozy if it was not so chilly - most likely due to the fact that one whole wall is a bank of windows, making it a difficult space to heat. On a night where the temperature dipped into the teens, sitting next to a large window with little insulation isn't ideal. Luckily it is currently fashionable to wear winter scarves indoors.

The restaurant is tastefully decorated with teak wall hangings and soothing paintings, and little red votive candles glow brightly on each table.

Since the restaurant does not currently have a liquor license, we ordered a round of hot tea to warm ourselves up. Our waiter told us that if we wanted, he would hold our table while we nipped over to Kroger to grab a bottle of wine, but we declined and said we'd remember to bring our own next time. Rather than a pot of tea, we were given bags of organic green tea to steep in our cups, which would have been fine had the water been hot enough, but by the time our bags had steeped the tea was tepid at best. We were given a glass caraf - similar to a Bodum coffee press - of hot water to top up our tea as needed, but the caraf either wasn't designed to keep the water hot, or the water wasn't hot enough to begin with. Proper tea pots or insulated carafs would be a better option.

Wanting something to warm me up, I thought I might order some hot soup, but the waiter informed me that none were vegetarian. Too bad, but at least he was well informed and knew the menu, which was a plus. Instead, I decided upon a fried tofu appetizer, while Steve opted for fishcakes and Mike and Jennifer split a spring roll and an order of pot stickers.

Fried tofu with peanut sauce

Spring roll (top) and pot stickers(bottom)

The kitchen seemed to have trouble pacing the dishes and courses - none of our appetizers arrived at the same time, and by the time all four were on the table, mine, which had been the first to arrive, was no longer hot. Despite this, I thought the tofu was very good; firm wedges lightly browned in peanut oil and served on a bed of shredded carrot with a side of peanut sauce for dipping. Before we could eat, however, we needed napkins and cutlery, which were not on the table when we were seated. Our waiter apologized profusely and rectified the mistake quickly, bringing out chopsticks as well.

Steve found his fishcakes to be rubbery and unappealing, but Mike and Jen had better luck with their pot stickers and spring rolls, which they ate with great gusto.

Fish cakes

I quizzed our waiter on which entrees were and were not vegetarian since the menu didn't specify, and was told that the restaurant does not use fish sauce or shrimp paste in their curries - a big plus for vegetarians and vegans. Since I had already had a green curry earlier in the week at Bangkok Bistro, I asked if any of their specialties were vegetarian and was told that the Pra-Ram was a completely vegan option. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try.

Pra-ram is a Thai peanut curry consisting of vegetables and lightly browned tofu stir-fried in peanut sauce and put atop a bed of baby spinach leaves. When the first two dishes arrived (as with the starters, the kitchen hadn't coordinated the timing of all four dishes correctly) the server who brought out the food incorrectly identified Jen's chicken-ginger stif-fry as my Pra-ram. As we sat waiting for the other two meals to arrive we pondered over whether or not the dish sitting in front of me was indeed praram, since there wasn't a hint of spinach to be found, and the "tofu" looked suspiciously like chicken. Steve tried a small bite and announced that it was definitely chicken, which was when the other two dishes arrived at the table and the heaping dish of tofu and veggies over baby spinach was placed in front of Jennifer. We swapped plates and tucked in.

Ginger chicken stir fry - incorrectly identified by the server as pra-ram

Steve and Mike tried the Paad Thai, which got mixed reviews

Kar-Ma's heat scale for their dishes ranges from 1-3 and, feeling adventurous (plus I was still attempting to get warm), I went for broke and ordered mine as a 3. Three might be the hottest on their scale, but I found it to be rather mild - more like a three on a scale of 1-10. Steve and Mike both found their paad thai entrees to have no heat whatsoever. Even without the heat, I found the pra-ram full of peanut-y goodness and would certainly recommend it, as there was a nice juxtaposition of warm, crunchy veggies, chewy tofu and fresh baby spinach. Personally I thought there was a little too much peanut sauce in this dish, but not enough to detract from the overall taste.


Our table was surprised with two complimentary desserts, possibly to make up for the uneven service we had received, and those two plates more than made up for the chilly surroundings and poor timing.

Mango sticky rice with coconut reduction - YUM!

Banana-butterscotch rolls drizzled with chocolate and peanuts

The restaurant, owned by the same family that runs MeKong Thai in Sycamore Township, is still trying to find its footing, and I hope that they do.
Kar-Ma on Urbanspoon

Kaldi's is closing at the end of 2008

Kaldi’s Coffeehouse & Bookstore, “the living room of Over-the-Rhine,” has announced that it will permanently close the doors at its current location at the end of December 2008. Although owner Jeremy Thompson has been searching for a new location for some time, it has not yet been decided where the concept might reopen.

Building renovations have led to a discontinuation of the bar/restaurant’s lease. Earlier this year, those same changes claimed Kaldi’s kitchen and half of its available seating.

Kaldi’s catering services will continue to be offered, and its operations at the Art Academy of Cincinnati will not cease. Although much of Kaldi’s appeal was its atmosphere, setting and physical space, Thompson still hopes to set up shop elsewhere.

For the time being, Kaldi’s is generally open at noon daily. It closes at midnight on weeknights, and 2 a.m. on weekends.
Kaldi's Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bangkok Bistro

Bangkok Bistro
3506 Erie Ave.
Hyde Park

Friends know I love a good, spicy curry, and they also recognize my love for vegetarian sushi, so for my birthday this year they surprised me with a visit to Bangkok Bistro, located in the little square that also houses Cumin and Haps Irish Pub. I’ve been to this block of restaurants and shops dozens of times, yet for some reason I’d never really even given Bangkok Bistro a thought.

The restaurant is bigger than it appears from the shop front, comprising a bar area and two dining rooms, yet still has a cozy, intimate vibe. There are some nice touches; the menus are wrapped in rich golden organza, an antique hutch is filled with intricately detailed china, and dragon sculptures textured with glass seed and bugle beads decorate the space.

Perusing the menu, I noticed that they didn’t have a separate vegetarian area, nor were any of the dishes marked as specifically vegetarian. So I asked. On the appetizer menu, the spring rolls, vegetable tempura and edamame are vegetarian. One of my friends had never tried edamame, so we ordered it to share.

The edamame was delicious - but it's difficult to mess up steamed soy beans, isn't it?

Sadly the restaurant’s spicy hot & sour soup has a fish base, as does the miso and egg drop soup, so those are best avoided. I opted against getting a soup on this visit, but I’ve filed away the vegetable coconut soup to try another day. It and the regular vegetable soup are safe for vegetarians.

The restaurant has an impressive sushi list, including six vegetarian rolls: cucumber, avocado, seaweed & cucumber, tamago (egg), asparagus, and vegetable. Each order comes with six rolls, so for $4.25-4.95 that’s a pretty good deal. We chose the vegetable and cucumber rolls as our sushi course. With sushi, presentation is key. I found the Bistro’s to be a little messy, and the rolls didn’t hold together as well as they should have. On top of that, I thought they skimped a little on the pickled ginger, but perhaps that is because I really love the stuff and could eat my weight in it. Still, the rolls were tasty, and that is ultimately what matters.

Vegetable rolls and cucumber rolls

Bangkok Bistro offers a variety of noodle, rice and curry dishes, most of which feature seafood or duck, although a few list tofu as an option. I wanted to get my heat on, so I ordered the Thai Green Curry, which ranges in heat from 1-10. To be “safe,” I ordered a 7, since I’d never eaten there and wasn’t sure what to expect. It was pleasantly hot without searing my tongue to a crisp, but I am pretty sure they use shrimp paste in the base, even though I was told it was vegetarian. It certainly smelled “fishy” the next day when I reheated the leftovers. Luckily it didn’t make me ill, but next time I will question the staff more thoroughly than I did on this occasion.

Thai Green Curry w/ tofu: not as vegetarian as it sounds!

Appetizers (including soup and salad dishes) range from $4-$9 and entrées run $11-$17. Bangkok Bistro also has a good selection of saké and wine, and a better than average list of beer, including Asian classics Kirin, Sapporo, Tsingtao and Asahi. My non-veg husband fell head over heels for their crispy paad-thai, which comes with shrimp and chicken and isn't available as a vegetarian option.
Bangkok Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Recipe: Vegan Curry Burgers

Yesterday I had a lot of mushrooms that needed to be used up and I wanted to try something different with them, so for inspiration I visited The Veggie Table, which is a very handy vegetarian resource web site filled with helpful hints, recipes and forums.

Usually when I have a lot of white button mushrooms I either do a stroganoff-type noodle bake, a risotto, pasta of some description or a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, but when I saw the recipe for curry burgers I knew I had to give it a try.

The burgers were easy to make and the combination of spices really complimented the mushrooms and made the house smell heavenly. I didn’t have any fennel seed on hand so I substituted garam masala powder, which includes ground fennel in the mix. Here is the recipe:

2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 med onion, chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp fennel seeds (I was out of both fennel and anise seed so I substituted 1 tsp garam masala instead)
1 ½ Cup white button mushrooms, chopped
1 ½ Cup cooked and drained chickpeas
4 med carrots, grated
¼ Cup walnuts, chopped
3 Tbs cilantro, chopped (I didn’t have fresh cilantro at hand, so used 1 tsp dried)
½ tsp salt
Black pepper to taste
Flour (for dusting your hands while forming patties)

1. Heat 1 Tbs oil and sauté onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about two minutes. Add coriander, curry and fennel (or garam masala) and cook for three minutes, then add mushrooms. Continue cooking and stirring for five more minutes.
2. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and add chickpeas. Process in brief spurts until well chopped, but do not purée.
3. Pour into a large bowl and add carrots, walnuts, cilantro, salt and pepper. Mix well.
4. Flour your hands and shape the mixture into five patties. I put mine on waxed paper.
5. Fry in 1 Tbs oil over medium heat for four minutes each side, until golden brown.

Yield: 5 patties

I prepared two of them and froze the other three patties for later use. I was impressed with their flavor and they held together better than I thought they would given their crumbly appearance. I think the next time I make them I will add chili powder in place of black pepper, just to give them an added kick.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Paula's Café

Paula’s Café
41 East 4th St
Downtown Cincinnati

First things first: it took me ages to try the Garden Burger at Paula’s Cafe because every time I tried to get in I couldn’t get a table and didn’t have time to wait for one to open. Plenty of people will wait, however.

My friend Jennifer and I made plans to meet up for lunch recently and, knowing we’d never get into Paula’s during the noontime rush, decided to meet up at 11:30 a.m. and hope for the best. We were lucky – we grabbed the last table available, and within minutes the few remaining stools at the counter were also gone. After that it was standing room only, with a couple dozen people waiting around for tables and/or carryout. There is no distinction between those ordering takeaway and those waiting for tables, which can lead to confusion, and if you have the misfortune to sit at a table near the front of the restaurant – as we did – the crowd of onlookers waiting for your table give off a distinctly vulture vibe. Craziness for sure, but luckily the food is worth the hassle.

Another busy lunchtime at Paula's

The restaurant makes everything from scratch daily, and the quality is evident with each bite. Their Garden Burger was certainly was juicy and flavorful, although as a vegetarian offering it is fairly pedestrian. More sassy and interesting is their quiche – which tends to fly out the door at an alarming rate – so be sure to either phone ahead for carryout or get there early.

Paula's side salads come with home made dressings!

The Garden Burger with a side of chips

As well as the Garden Burger and the quiche & salad special, Paula’s also offers a cheese sandwich - Amish Swiss or American served hot or cold with a variety of fixin’s – and on Thursdays and Fridays their soup of the day is vegetarian. Thursday’s special is hearty vegetable and Friday’s is tomato bisque, with a cup running $2.95 and a bowl $5.25.
Paula's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Andy's Mediterranean Grille

This just arrived in my email in-box from Andy's:

Their M-Sat 3-course Lunch Special has plenty of vegetarian offerings:
Choose one from each list:
Course 1
House Salad
Course 2
Lentil Soup
Course 3
Falafel Wrap
Hummus & Falafel Wrap

Happy Hour runs from 4-7 p.m. Monday - Saturday with half off all appetizers and half price on all alcoholic beverages.

For a full review of Andy's, click here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


127 Calhoun St
Clifton 45219

I met up with fellow food-bloggers Liz (Get in Mah Belly) and Heather (Food Hussy)at Floyd’s in Clifton for a fun evening of food and laughter, both of which we had in abundance. I hadn’t been to Floyd’s in donkey’s yonks, but the food is still as good as it was all those years ago, and the prices still seem locked somewhere in the mid-1990s, making it a very affordable place to try lots and lots of dishes, which we did.

The restaurant is unassuming from the street and is fairly basic inside, with formica tables and sparse décor. They do not serve alcohol but are quite happy to let you bring your own, which the table near us had done. Their hours are somewhat weird: open Tues-Fri from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. but closed between 2:30-5 p.m. each day, and Saturday from 5-9:30 p.m. They are closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Mediterranean fare is always very veggie-friendly, and Floyd’s takes good care of their vegetarian customers with a large number of non-meat dishes and sides. All ten of their side dishes are vegetarian, and they offer musakaa (baked eggplant with rice), spanaopita (spinach and feta pie), and stuffed green peppers as main entrées. You will also find vegetarian lentil soup and a falafel sandwich on the menu.

Red bell peppers stuffed with basmati rice and spices

Everything is made fresh daily and when they run out, that’s it for the day. I really wanted to try their falafel sandwich, but the popular dish had already sold out. Boo! Instead, I opted for the stuffed peppers and a variety of sides, which included a Greek salad, pickled vegetables and lima beans, which I had been told were something of a specialty. My mother would be very surprised to learn that I had not only ordered lima beans, but had eaten every bite and contemplated ordering another lot. Prepared with garlic, lemon, olive oil and parsley, they were deliciously comforting and a far cry from the southern-style “butter beans” my mom tried to force on me as a kid. Floyd’s has made me reconsider the lima bean in a completely new, yummy light.

Sides: Lima beans, tabouli, pickled veggies and hummus

By far my favorite side dish of the evening was the pickled veggies. It is a restaurant specialty and the beets, garlic, carrots and cauliflower were crunchy with a pleasantly puckering tang. I’d order it again in a heartbeat.

We all sampled each other’s dishes (except of course I didn’t try their much-raved about half chicken – which needs to be ordered several hours in advance) and I have to say that the tabouli Liz ordered was some of the best I think I’ve ever tried – heavy on the parsley and onion, with bright hints of lemon. The homemade hummus and freshly baked pita bread were good too – the hummus creamy and simple, with a puddle of olive oil in the middle, and the bread fluffy yet firm. YUM.

Of course we did dessert – Liz and I both ordered the pistachio baklava, while Heather got the Lebanese pancakes. We felt the baklava was a bit too dry, but oh those pancakes! Stuffed with crème fraiche and pistachios and swimming in simple syrup, they were just sweet enough without being sickly so.

pistachio baklava
Lebanese pancakes - so very, very good!

Floyd’s is obviously doing it right or they wouldn’t be such a Clifton mainstay, but I would like to offer them one little suggestion – offer a sampler platter! I calculated up what it would cost me to order each of their side dishes and that is the only thing that prevented me from splurging on one of everything. Seriously – I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to also try their baba ganouje, dolma vines and green beans, but I guess that’s what next times are for.
Floyd's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vacation! The Black Boy Pub

The Black Boy Pub
1 Wharf Hill
Winchester, Hampshire

Just off Chesil Street in the lovely historic city of Winchester there is a very unique, traditional free house called The Black Boy that, although a little out of the way from the pedestrian shopping district, is well worth a visit. Originally built in the early 1800’s, the pub has seen many additions over the years, giving it a higgledy-piggledy rabbit warren feel. Each room and corridor is on a slightly different level, so that one must take care when moving from one room to the next. Step up to go from the bar to the dining room on the left, then two steps down for the narrow corridor housing the loos. Some rooms are windowless and dimly lit - great for boozing - while others are bright and cheery with a bank of windows and walls of books. A warm fire beckons on chilly days and a table laden with newspapers keeps you up to date on current events.

Free houses in England are becoming quite rare, as most pubs these days are tied to large breweries and even larger food, hotel and property chains. A free house is a pub that is free of the control of any one particular brewery, but a shingle hanging in front of the pub proclaiming “free house” does not necessarily mean that the pub is independent or a guarantee of quality. So to stumble upon a truly free house (independently owned and operated) is cause for great rejoicing. The Black Boy is a truly free house. Queue the Snoopy-happy dance.

Owned by a languid, mischievous chap named David, whose independent spirit and whimsical taste is evident wherever one looks, the pub is a wonderfully peculiar place to quaff a few pints on a drizzly autumn day. We were certainly not alone – the pub attracts a wide ranging clientele, from office workers, farmers, and students, to professional barflies and several of man’s best friends. I was excited to see the range of real ales on tap and made a mental note to thank our friends Pete and Caroline for recommending the pub to us. Thanks P&C!!

There is plenty to look at in the Black Boy. Taxidermy seems to be a specialty, with dogs, alligators, pheasants…even a little burro stands nearby, as if waiting for someone to put a pack on his back and lead him away. Steve thought there was a grey cat sleeping on one of the many leather sofas, only to go up to give it a stroke and discover that it was instead a stuffed stoat, curled up as if happily napping. It can be a little unsettling. Pete, who has spent many a night at the pub (it was his local as a university student), said that the critters are always being moved around by the staff, and after a few beers one’s perception of reality becomes quite bent.

Hee haw, hee haw!

Is it a kitty? No! It's a stuffed stoat!

Good luck locating the bathrooms. The doors masquerade as bookshelves, so first-timers may find themselves groping their way along the dark wall to find it. I felt like Nancy Drew searching for a secret passage. Once inside, ladies should avoid looking at the ceiling; dozens of gynecological implements hang from wires overhead. Best not to think too hard about it and get out quickly.

I told you not to look up!

Snip snip snip

Everywhere you look there is something new and different: Odd signs tout the benefits of teeth extraction or warn of dangerous bridges; creepy paintings and fake cuts of meat hang from the walls; children’s school chairs are twinned with regular-sized tables for an off-kilter dining experience; game boards have been turned into dining tables and there’s an old-school video game table with classics like Space Invaders. Look up – there’s a miniature German fighter plane from World War II, hundreds of old fashioned keys, and an impressive collection of gentlemen’s smoking pipes. One wall is lined with old fire buckets, while faucets and taps jut from window sills and various nooks and crannies. Hang on, is that a stuffed bear? Look at the tiny piano! Oh my gosh, I wonder if that Aga stove still works? Where do you suppose they got all those safes? Did I just see a baboon wearing a kilt?

Why yes, I do believe I did see a baboon wearing a kilt

There he is again, beneath a wall of fire buckets

Now the food at The Black Boy is traditional English fare like cod & chips and toad in the hole (sausages wrapped in bacon and baked in a soufflé), but they also offer a small selection of cold sandwiches and a few hot specials, which include several veggie options. I waffled between the penne pasta with mushroom sauce and the goat cheese tart, with the latter winning out. It was decent but not something I would order again – the tart reminded me of a slice of pizza topped with red bell pepper, mushroom, corgettes, onions and parsley with a thick helping of goat cheese plopped on top. The cheese really overpowered the rest of the ingredients and I ended up removing two-thirds of it. The tart came with a rather tired salad of romaine, cucumber and tomato. Steve thought the burger he ordered was tasty but a bit pricey at £8.50. I think the next time we visit (and there will definitely be a next time – Pete, the first round is on me) I’ll try one of their vegetarian cold sandwiches instead.

The Goat Cheese Tart

The beer on the other hand more than made up for the so-so food. I chose the Itchen Valley Pure Gold, an award-winning blonde ale with a sweet, malty flavor, brewed in the heart of Hampshire at New Alresford. With a bitter bite and a smooth, sweet finish, it was absolutely delicious. The pub serves only locally brewed ales, normally from the Ringwood Brewery, Triple FFF Brewery, The Hampshire Brewery and the previously mentioned Itchen Valley Brewery. It is no wonder that everyone seems to refer to The Black Boy as a “traditional backstreet boozer.” It is, and marvelously so.

A few more photos to cap things off:

The AGA sits beneath colorful sewing bobbins

An inviting room - check out the row of faucets on the window sill

Hundreds of keys dangle from the rustic rafters

The Black Boy is, in my humble opinion, the best boozer in all of Hampshire. Go for the beer, stay for the fun!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Vacation! The King Rufus

King Rufus
135 Winchester Road
Chandler's Ford, Hampshire

Historically named after King William II (called Rufus due to his red complexion), whose body was brought through the lovely village of Chandler's Ford enroute from Southampton to Winchester after he was killed in a hunting accident in 1100 A.D., the King Rufus is an old world style pub with two wood-burning fireplaces and a homey atmosphere.

The inviting front door of the pub

The selection of draught beer and real ale at the Rufus is fairly basic - the pub is affiliated with Greene King IPA and also carries two other real ales: Old Speckled Hen and local-ish brewer Ringwood Best. Then it's your basic pub draughts like Stella, Carling, Guinness, Fosters, IPA Chilled and Strongbow Cider. I was surprised to see that they have also recently begun serving up Pivovary Staropramen on draught! It's a very smooth Czech pilsner that I fell head over heels for when we visited Prague last year, and which tastes much better on tap than from a bottle. The pub also serves a varied selection of liquor and wine, including the yummy Pimms #1 Cup.

Hey, look at the special! PIMMS!!

As I rarely turn down an opportunity to have a Ploughman's Lunch, when I saw it listed on the menu it was a no-brainer. Interestingly, when the meal turned up I noticed what looked like a piece of paper baked into the crust of the baguette. I made mention of it to the server, who informed me that the bakery they use is a certified organic baker and the "paper" I found on my bread was actually an edible sugar-stamp applied to the bread to indicate that it has been baked with the highest and strictest organic standard in the U.K. The local baker for the King Rufus's bread is Eleanor at the Deverill Trout Farm in Wiltshire.

Yummy Ploughman's Lunch

The Soil Association Organic Standard sugar-stamp, signifying that the bread is organic

The Ploughman's was perfect: thick wedges of locally sourced cheddar cheese, a simple salad mix, tangy apple chutney, tart pickled onions, a red ripe apple and warm, melt-in-your-mouth, freshly baked organic bread. YUM. It is much more filling than you would expect.

Even though my husband and I sold our nearby 1880's farm-worker's cottage a few years ago, we still consider the King Rufus to be our local pub whenever we return to England to visit friends and relatives. It's large but manages to retain a cozy feel with the help of two massive fireplaces and an assortment of rustic tables and plush leather sofas. It's a nice place to meet up with friends for a pint and a chinwag, which is what we ended up doing a few nights later.

Since we had already eaten a very substantial Sunday lunch prepared by my father-in-law, we weren't very hungry when we met up with the gang at the Rufus that evening, so we opted for a cheese board to nibble on while we were mingling.

Fresh Camembert, extra-mature Devon Cheddar, and Tuxford & Tebbutt Shropshire Blue with an assortment of biscuits and chutney.

The King Rufus has an interesting selection of veggie options to choose from - there's mushroom and goat cheese salad; wild mushroom lasagne; sweet potato, chick pea & spinach curry over basmati and wild rice; baked mushroom & creme fraiche tart with lamb's lettuce; several types of jacket potato, a mushroom-veggie wrap and the awesome Ploughman's.

It's a nice neighborhood pub made even better by the fine selection of vegetarian meals available. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vacation! Pizza Express

450 Strand

We were in London gearing up for a comedy show later that evening in Covent Garden and our friends suggested that we meet up at PizzaExpress, which is situated just across from Charing Cross tube station. With over 300 locations across the U.K., the chain is like a more smartly dressed Pizza Hut.

My girlfriend Dawn admitted that she has a goal of eating at each and every PizzaExpress restaurant in the country, but honestly I didn't find their pies to be that different from what we get at, say, Donatos, although the ambience was a few notches above your basic American pizza joint. And my gosh was it busy - but then I guess every single restaurant in London would be hopping at 6 p.m. on a Friday night.

After sampling my pizza - which was fine but nothing special - I didn't think I'd even bother to write up a review, but the photos turned out really well, so I decided to let them do the talking.

The Mixed Salad

Margherita Pizza, nice and simple

Banoffee Pie & vanilla bean ice cream - this photo is for my friend Jennifer, who couldn't get enough of it when she was in England last month

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