Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jax Grill

Jax Grill at GameWorks
One Levee Way
Newport on the Levee

Located inside GameWorks on the Riverwalk level of Newport on the Levee, Jax Grill offers standard pub grub and an up close view of the gaming masses. As one would expect from a restaurant attached to gigantic arcade with over 200 games and attractions, the place is noisy. It’s a bit quieter in the "patio" area, which is a cordoned-off area of the Levee walkway. The patio is a great place for people watching, as there is an almost constant parade strolling between GameWorks and the AMC Movie ticket booths on the weekends.

In all honesty, this really isn’t my kind of place. I’m not much of a gamer – my husband and I prefer downloading the cheat codes for Guitar Hero/Rock Band and just messing around with it on the "easy" setting, for instance – and although we love playing pinball I think $2 for five balls is highway robbery. Add to that our childless status, and we are obviously not the target demographic for GameWorks. We probably would have never even gone there, but decided to give them a try before heading on up the stairs to a show at FunnyBone Comedy Club. We’ve never had good luck with the food at FunnyBone and didn’t want to risk it again.

The restaurant has a couple of vegetarian entrées on the menu: there’s spinach and ricotta ravioli in a creamy alfredo, pasta with pomodoro sauce, and a couple of pizza options. Let me just say that I’m totally spoiled on Pompilio’s Italian dishes so I wasn’t about to go there with GameWorks, and I wasn’t really in a pizza mood. Instead I opted for a side salad and the Xtreme Nachos appetizer, which was decent. They make theirs with shredded cheese and the usual diced tomato, shredded lettuce, black olives, black beans, enchilada sauce and jalapenos. It comes with healthy dollops of sour cream and guacamole too. As I expected, the guacamole was some sort of prepackaged stuff that tasted ok but was not a patch on homemade. Nachos as a meal are fairly ho-hum, but they remain an old stand-by for me because very rarely does a restaurant get nachos wrong (Cock & Bull, I’m looking at you).

Other vegetarian appetizers on the menu are fairly bland quesadillas, deep fried mozzarella cheese sticks, and a cheesy spinach-artichoke dip accompanied by yet more nachos. Exciting, I know, but this place isn’t exactly fine dining. To be fair, the Xtreme Nacho plate is pretty darned big and I couldn’t finish it, but I had a hard time figuring out how something that cheap and basic could cost nearly $10. I guess the restaurant is banking on the "captive audience" notion that gamers would rather eat there than leave the facility in search of food elsewhere. The food is so-so, but honestly we weren’t expecting it to be anything great and our server was competent, friendly and attentive without hovering, which somewhat raised the marks of the restaurant.

One thing we were not expecting though was seeing a group of young men treated rather rudely by Levee security. Just after we were seated they were shown to table nearby, and as far as my husband and I could tell, had done nothing wrong. They weren’t being loud and obnoxious, weren’t taking up space needlessly - they were all enjoying burgers, fries and sodas – and they weren’t acting up or causing trouble. I’m not saying that perhaps they hadn’t done something to raise the ire of security earlier, but they certainly hadn’t done anything in the restaurant, yet the restaurant staff and manager stood by and watched security hassle them. My husband and I both felt the guys were being unfairly profiled, but who can say. It was, however, the abiding memory of our visit to Jax Grill.
Jax Grill at Gameworks on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 23, 2008

Our Tomatoes

Last August I was visiting relatives in East Tennessee and my great-aunt Ada Ruth gave me some fresh tomatoes that she’d grown. Coming from a long line of farmers, Ada Ruth learned at an early age to save seed from one year to the next, and she’s been doing it for nearly all of her 89 years. The tomatoes she gave me were absolutely delicious – deep red, bulbous, and bursting with juicy goodness. These were the tomatoes I grew up with – the one’s I picked from the vine as a kid and ate right there and then in the middle of the garden, the warm juice running down my arm and dripping from my elbow; the one’s Dad and I would slice up into thick wedges and eat as a snack; the one’s we made juice from to enjoy in the middle of winter. You could slice them and the flesh was so thick and juicy that you could hold them vertically without them falling apart. These were the same tomatoes my family has been growing in the mountains of East Tennessee for 200 years. We always referred to them as “Our Tomatoes.”

I never forgot how good those family heirloom tomatoes tasted, but I hadn’t had one since Dad died. You see, the cancer made an encore visit to him just as the tomatoes were coming in. We managed to get some canned and made plenty of juice, but our hearts and minds were elsewhere that harvest and we forgot to save the seed.

So that first bite of tomato brought back a lot of memories. Since Dad left us we’ve tried plenty of store-bought seed and seedlings, and we’ve tried other heirloom seed, but none were a patch on Our Tomatoes. I don’t know why I didn’t think to find out if any other family members still grew them, but I am so very thankful that Ada Ruth gave them to me. I painstakingly saved and dried the seed from those tomatoes - as well as some heirloom Goose Beans given me on the same visit - and over the winter ordered a starter kit from Gardener’s Supply, eagerly checking the Almanac for the best dates to begin.

The Gardner's Supply starter kit (above) comes with two self-watering APS-24 seed starters, two greenhouse covers, nine quarts of germinating mix, 24 wooden markers, two water-level indicators and a small canister of seedling fertilizer. I didn't bother using the wooden markers or the fertilizer.

This is a dried string of Goose Beans that I have just begun to shell. I took a photo of them since the tomato seeds are really too small to photograph - at least with my crappy camera.

The kit has a pegged "stand" that goes into the water reservoir and a capillary mat that fits over the top. The mat is just long enough to tuck one end underneath the pegboard. You can see the mat on top of the pegged stand in the photo above.

I filled the water reservoir to dampen the capillary mat. The planting tray sits on top of the mat and draws water up into the germinating mix, keeping the seeds moist. To be honest, when I first received the kit I was dubious about it, but it's actually very well designed and almost foolproof.

After moistening the germinating mix in a bucket, I began filling the trays with the mixture. You've got to tamp it down enough that the soil touches the capillary mat. After that it's a matter of poking the seeds into the soil, covering them, and lightly spraying water onto the entire container, taking care not to disturb the seeds just planted.

The trays of germinating tomatoes coming up. Yay!

These are the seedlings in the cold frame my husband built using part of an old window frame.

We transplanted the beans at the beginning of May. I'm not sure if this particular type of Goose Bean is a climber or a bush-type plant, so my father-in-law and I made climbing poles out of bamboo, just in case. I've already given my Mom a few dozen tomato plants. The rest (below) are being planted in our back yard this weekend.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Oriental Wok

Oriental Wok
317 Buttermilk Pike
Fort Mitchell, KY

I’ve really struggled with this review because I like this place a lot, and I like that the family-owned and operated restaurant has managed to stay on course for 25 years – even as the number of Chinese restaurants in the area multiplies each year - but the last few dining experiences at The Oriental Wok have been disappointing for me.

The restaurant is quite elegant with white linens, a piano bar, and deep red and gold tones accentuating the vast collection of Chinese artifacts that includes a real rickshaw. Designed with Feng Shui principles, the large dining room has a soothing calmness about it even when it is bustling with activity. Owners Mike and Helen Wong are hands-on; Helen greets customers upon arrival, and Mike stops by each table to chat with guests. It is this personable service and exquisite décor that elevates Oriental Wok above the myriad other Chinese restaurants in town, but it is the food that is sometimes lacking.

It’s not that the food is bad. Quite the contrary - it’s darned good…if it arrives at the table hot. See, the thing is, we have been to Oriental Wok at least a half dozen times in as many months, and every time bar one food has arrived at the table lukewarm instead of hot, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Does it sit around getting cold while the other dishes are being prepared? Are the servers slacking off or forgetting it is there? I just don’t know. What I do know is that eating tepid food is offputting, especially stir-fried food, which is supposed to be served piping hot.

Part of the problem might be that the restaurant is a victim of its success. They host a lot of events in the adjoining spacious banquet room which unfortunately means that sometimes diners in the regular dining area are neglected. There does seem to be a correlation between a banquet or reception being held and lukewarm food arriving at our table, and I’ve noticed that the wait staff is otherwise preoccupied, so essentials like refills or reorders of drinks are slow.

On a recent visit we stopped in for a late lunch and the waiter seemed to be rushing us through everything because the staff was preparing for a reception later in the evening. We felt as though we were a distraction to them. It happened to be my Mom’s first visit to the restaurant, and I was embarrassed that her experience was the opposite of what I had expected. It’s a shame too, because the food is usually excellent. I think their hot & sour soup is the best around. It’s jam-packed with delicately slivered bamboo, tofu and tree ear (wood ear) mushrooms, and the spicy base will light you up for sure. So, so good.

There are eight vegetarian entrées on the menu and all are well worth the money – if they arrive hot. On my most recent visit the Szechwan Green Beans let me down, not because they were tepid – they did arrive sizzling hot - but because although the menu noted the dish as "spicy" there was absolutely no heat to it whatsoever. I would have sent it back had our waiter been anywhere in the vicinity, but he disappeared for the duration of our meal. I ended up eating a very bland mix of green beans and mushrooms, and neither my father-in-law nor I got to order a second round of drinks with our meals. The waiter also referred to my father-in-law as "boss" every time he spoke to him, which was cute the first few times but got old quickly, and wasn’t really in keeping with the upscale nature of the restaurant.

When the waiter finally did make an appearance – around the time we finished eating - I informed him of my disappointment with the Szechwan Green Beans. He told me the reason it is prepared that way is because "it can always be made hotter, but not the reverse." He then presented me with a fiery pepper oil to add to the dish. All well and good, but why was the fiery oil not brought out with my meal so I could have used it?

My non-veggie husband, on the other hand, was very pleased with his selection of Moo Shu Pork, which was large enough to have fed a family of four. Not only was it very flavorful, there was enough left over for him and his father to nosh on the following day.

There are some nice touches: the drinks menu includes some fun "exotic" specialties served in groovy tiki-glasses. The Volcano Hawaii is large enough for four people and sports flaming lava rocks! How cool is that? Another nice perk is the complimentary chambord after-dinner drink, and if you are celebrating a special occasion at Oriental Wok, be sure to let them know – they’ll wheel out the big gong and clang to your health.

It's a nice restaurant run by a nice family and even when the food comes out tepid it's good...but when it comes out hot it is fantastic. Here's hoping yours is the latter.
Oriental Wok on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 5, 2008

Dee Felice Café

Dee Felice Café
Sixth & Main St.
Covington, KY

Located in Covington’s historic Main Strasse Village, Dee Felice Café is housed in an 18th century building that was a pharmacy at one time. The restaurant’s namesake, long time jazz musician Dee Felice, opened the restaurant in 1984 to combine “excellent Cajun style cooking and old-fashioned New Orleans décor with the best live jazz in Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati,” according to the web site.

The claret and pale gray color scheme may have been all the rage the year Felice opened his restaurant -in fact, those were the same colors of my ’84 high school prom - but the restaurant is in serious need of a face lift.
Cosmetic only – the gorgeously ornate tin ceiling (pictured at right) is breathtaking, but they could seriously lose the framed Harlequin posters and I doubt anyone would miss them. They may have been considered “old-fashioned New Orleans” in 1984, but these days they border on creepy. The restaurant has some nice touches though. The soft glow of flickering candles sets the mood, and it is one of the few places I know of that still sports starched napkins.

The first time I visited Dee Felice was with friends. We had already eaten at Otto’s up the street and were lured in by the fabulous swing jazz drifting out the front door. We squeezed ourselves in at the overcrowded bar and experienced one of the strongest Bloody Mary’s ever. Now, I’ve been known to make a pretty mean Bloody Mary myself, but holy crap it was a good thing we had a designated driver that night. I was pie-eyed after just one!

The tables are laid out in a dinner theatre style; most diners have a good view of the musicians playing on the long, narrow stage behind the bar. It’s impossible to tell where the stage begins and the bar ends – liquor bottles line the edge of the stage at the band’s feet. It may seem an odd set-up, but it works. Depending on which night you visit, you may encounter a jazz pianist, a really tight trio (piano, drums and stand up bass) or a cookin’ swing band with brass. One thing is certain – the entertainment is excellent.

Dee Felice lists a Portabello Étouffée on their menu, but doesn’t specify whether or not it is vegetarian. Étouffée is made with a blonde roux of butter and flour, cooked to a pale brown. The difference between it and a typical Creole or Cajun roux is that the latter is made with oil (or fat) & flour and turns dark brown. Both consist of onion, cayenne pepper, green pepper, celery, garlic and salt. Traditional étouffées usually have either crawfish or shellfish, so when our waiter informed me that the Portabello étouffée was indeed vegetarian, I knew I had to have it.
I felt the chef was a little heavy-handed with the salt, but it was still very tasty. The fiery sauce infiltrated the vegetables, rice and thick black strips of mushroom - spicy enough to slightly singe my lips and tongue. I like dishes that open my sinuses, and this one didn’t disappoint. My only disappointment was that I had ordered the half-sized portion instead of the full entree, and once I tucked into the dish I really wish I had ordered the larger size.

Because I was still hungry at the end of the meal I decided to eat one of the complimentary rosemary dinner rolls, which was a great choice. They were so good that once I’d had a bite I couldn’t stop. They reminded me of my Mom’s home-made biscuits, powdery on the outside, thick and fluffy inside. Yum. They didn’t even need butter. Our waiter said they were baked locally, but I couldn’t wheedle out of him what the name of the bakery was. Never mind, I’ll try to replicate them at home.

Speaking of the wait staff, Grant was fabulous; attentive without hovering, quick witted and friendly, he is obviously a seasoned veteran of the restaurant who knew the menu inside and out. His recommendations were excellent and he knew the tomato bisque soup du jour had chicken stock in it without having to go ask the kitchen – and this was before he knew I was vegetarian. That alone deserves a gold star. My husband and father-in-law both opted for the soup as their starter, and when they ordered Grant made a joke about the “correct” pronunciation of the word “tomato.” The Brits begged to disagree, stating that it was not “tuh-may-toe” but “tuh-mah-toe.” Grant then quipped, “Well let’s call the whole thing off,” which made us all roar with laughter. If you go, ask to be seated in his area. He’s a real gem.

While there aren’t any vegetarian entrées listed on Dee Felice’s menu, (the portabello étouffée isn’t listed as such although it is vegetarian) they do note that some of the meat and seafood pasta dishes can be made vegetarian.
They also have a few salad entrees that can be made meatless. If you have a salad, by the way, be aware that their house dressing (a spicy Dijon) is incredibly thick, with a consistency similar to mayonnaise or possibly even creamy peanut butter. While flavorful, I am simply not a fan of heavy, gloppy dressings so I probably wouldn't opt for it again. All in all, there really isn’t a great deal of choice for vegetarians, but as long as they keep the étouffée on the menu I’ll keep coming back, creepy clown posters or not.
Dee Felice Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Cazadores Mexican Restaurant

1350 E. Second St.
Franklin, Ohio

I don’t get to visit Mexican restaurants as much as I would like because my husband isn’t a big fan, so whenever I drive up north to visit family I usually stop at Cazadores Mexican Restaurant, just off the Franklin-Springboro exit ramp on State Route 73.

Situated in a former Country Kitchen (remember them?), the restaurant has retained much of that Southern "down-home" feel; the difference of course being that Cazadores' fare is from a land further south. Heavy, dark wood tables and chairs are scattered across a muted tile floor, while booths wrap around the periphery. It’s been a long time since Country Kitchen was there, but I would almost swear it’s the same tables and chairs. They aren’t the most comfortable, but they certainly are sturdy.

I am by no means an expert on Mexican fare, but I think Cazadores is better than average, with good sized portions and a very tasty cinnamon-infused red sauce that is a far cry from the stuff you get at other local places that tastes as though it came straight from a can or jar. Another flavorful difference is their rice, which has notes of lime and cilantro in each yummy bite.

Cazadores has an impressive vegetarian menu which not only includes the usual suspects (bean burritos, enchiladas, chalupas and quesadillas) but interesting dishes like vegetarian fajitas, arrozcon vegetables (grilled poblano peppers with zucchini, squash, mushroom, tomato and onion over Mexican rice and a side of salad in a tortilla shell) and spinach burritos. Vegetarian entrées range in price from $6.95-$9.50.

Vegetarian Enchilada Entrée

On my most recent visit I was accompanied by my Mom, who was never a fan of Mexican fare before Cazadores. I’d dragged her to other Mexican restaurants in the past, but after trying various dishes at different places, she informed me that "everything tastes the same, no matter where you go." Chalk one up for Cazadores – their unique mix of spices, fresh vegetables and flavorful rice won her over.

Mexican and Latino men are by nature quite respectful of their elders, and I think another reason my mom enjoys going to Cazadores (flavorful food and cheap pitchers of beer aside), is because the young men working there show deference to her. They also seem to like flirting gently with her - and at 75 years old, my white haired, bespectacled mother enjoys the attention and a good giggle.

Cazadores also has locations in Milford and Mason, and their web site offers printable half-price coupons for entrées and appetizers (probably yet another reason Mom likes them – she’s thrifty and loves coupons). It’s a nice place; the staff is friendly and the food tasty, plus you can catch up on Mexican soap operas while Tejano music plays softly in the background. The only thing missing is Mexican Coca-Cola.

Cazadores on Urbanspoon