Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Yat Ka Mein Noodle House

Yat Ka Mein Noodle House
Hyde Park Station
3546 Edwards Road
Hyde Park
M-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

I stopped by Yat Ka Mein on a whim one day after receiving a pedicure at a nearby spa. “Noodles For Your Noodle” proclaimed the signage. I’d never been there before and knew nothing about the restaurant, but a quick look at the menu posted in the window lured me in with the promise of Japanese udon.

I’m a real sucker for udon – well, I suppose one HAS to be, because this is the type of noodle that is meant to be slurped, noisily, one long strand at a time. Yes it is messy, and yes it sounds uncouth to the Western ear, but attempting to eat it quietly is next to impossible. In Japan it is considered an insult if the cook cannot hear how well you are enjoying your noodles, so don’t be afraid to slurp away to your heart’s content on this thick, wheat-based noodle soup.

The broth in its most basic form consists of dashi (a kelp-based cooking stock), shoyu (soy sauce) and mirin (a sweet, rice-based cooking wine), laced with thinly chopped scallions. It is prepared two ways, depending on which area of the country you are in; the eastern region of Japan prepares udon with a dark brown soy sauce, while the western half uses light brown. At Yat Ka Mein you must specify that you want the vegetarian broth; otherwise it comes with a chicken base.

Theirs is prepared in the western Japanese style and comes with tempura vegetables. Tempura is a type of lumpy, ice-cold batter in which the vegetables are dredged and fried quickly in hot oil, resulting in crisp veggies with a delicate, crunchy coating. It’s the type of dish that is friendly to the American palate, and was a big favorite of mine when I was an exchange student at Okayama University. My host mother could whip up a mean batch in no time flat. Ahhh.

The udon At Yat Ka Mein was perfect, but the tempura vegetables were too salty – something I was not expecting. I imagine the heavy-handedness with the salt was to appease western taste buds, but it was the woefully heavy batter that really turned me off. Instead of the light, golden crunch I was expecting, the vegetables were limp, greasy and tasted like the kind of deep-fried nonsense so prevalent in local sports bars. My husband found them agreeable, but then he comes from the land of fish & chips, so salty fried things make him a happy boy. I guess I ought to know by now that Chinese restaurants don’t do Japanese cuisine very well. Oh well, lesson learned.

Service is fast and friendly at Yat Ka Mein, and if you are not in a noodle mood there are ample traditional Chinese favorites on hand, and plenty of other vegetarian options (besides the disastrous tempura) to choose from.
Yat Ka Mein Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 28, 2008

Heirloom Beans

Last year I saved the seed from some heirloom tomatoes and goose beans given to me by my great-aunt Ada Ruth. In April I started the seeds indoors and in May moved them to an outdoor cold frame. Toward the end of May they were transplanted into the ground.

Two months later I am reaping the harvest of some of the best tasting beans you are ever likely to eat. These goose beans are really pretty and taste even better than they look. These went into a simple and delicious bean salad.

Three Bean Salad

1 (15 oz) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 handful goose beans, strung, snapped and steamed (or 1 15 oz can green beans, drained and rinsed)

1 rib celery, diced

1/2 small red onion, diced (or 4 green onions)


1/2 C cider vinegar

1/4 C olive oil

1 Tbs honey

1/2 tsp dry mustard

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/4 ground white pepper

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

In a bowl, mix together beans, celery and onion. In another bowl whisk together dressing ingredients. Pour over bean salad and toss to coat. Refrigerate. I use a Tupperware bowl and shake it a few times before serving. Drain off excess dressing so that the beans do not disintegrate.

Serves 8

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brio Tuscan Grille

Brio Tuscan Grille
1 Levee Way
Newport, KY

Since moving to Newport my husband and I had never bothered visiting Brio Tuscan Grille because we like to give locally owned and operated restaurants our business instead. Thrift is a strong motivator however, especially in these uncertain economic times, and when we got a book of coupons filled with buy-one-get-one offers for area restaurants and attractions and Brio was among them, we quickly decided that it would be a shame to let the coupon go to waste.

I admit that I was surprised to see discount coupons for Brio since the chain bills itself as a plush, upmarket eatery and you usually don’t see BOGO offers for such restaurants, but who am I to judge? I am my mother’s daughter – I love a good bargain.

All I really knew about Brio before our visit was that they are a spinoff of Columbus-based Bravo! Development Inc. and my dental hygienist told me it is her parents’ favorite restaurant. Apparently they trek from south Dayton to Newport once a month for their fix. I wasn’t sure what to make of this information – especially since there is a Bravo! Cucina Italiana on their doorstep - but based on that recommendation and the possession of a BOGO golden ticket, off we went to the Levee to give it a try.

I’m sure some would refer to the décor as tasteful, but I found it beige and bland, more like someone’s idea of what Tuscany restaurants might look like than what they actually do. All plaster and alabaster, it felt like a staged show-home in a shiny new housing developing sitting on what just last year was farmland. Luckily the food was better than the room it was served in.

The house-made flatbread is a real winner. Prepared in an authentic Italian wood-burning oven and topped with rosemary, sesame seeds and top quality parmesan, this crispy freebie was a delicious and savory introduction to the restaurant.

Because we visited during the lunch/dinner changeover, our waiter was kind enough to bring out both menus and let us order from whichever one we wished. They are similar, with lunch portions smaller and priced accordingly. There are three vegetarian entrées available across both menus. If you are a vegetarian who doesn’t like mushrooms, you’ll be grazing from the salad and appetizer selections because they figure heavily into all three entrées. There’s Penne Mediterranean (mushrooms, spinach, caramelized onion, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and pine nuts), Mushroom Ravioli in brown butter sauce, and Mushroom Ravioli Al Forno (mushroom ravioli in alfredo sauce).

I chose Mushroom Ravioli in brown butter sauce from the lunch menu ($10.95). This selection is available only as an appetizer on the dinner menu. The ingredients complimented each other well; the mushrooms, squash and truffle oil lending a nice earthy flavor while the sage-infused brown butter sauce was sinful and delicious. I can hardly wait to try my hand at recreating this recipe when the squash is ready in the garden.

Let’s discuss value a little deeper here. Without the enticement of the BOGO we would have never given Brio a chance, and to be honest we’d still rather frequent a locally owned independent instead. HowEVER, and this is a major point so listen up: Brio has an unadvertised happy hour bar menu which we would never have known about had we not wandered through the bar area on our way out the door. When we learned about the 3-6 p.m. happy hour prices, we made a mental note to stop back and check it out.

This “Tuscan Tasters” menu has us singing like birds because it is cheap-cheap-cheap. There are nine items on it, two of which are vegetarian, and they all run a mere $2.95 each. BARGAIN. These selections are considered small bites, but they are satisfying and similar in size to their appetizer cousins.

The roasted red-pepper & mozzarella bruschetta (on the “regular” menu this is $9.95)

The Margherita flatbread runs $10.95 on the “regular” appetizer menu.

My husband’s Bistecca Burger was a full-sized burger, quartered and topped with house-made chips. In the restaurant this lunch option is $10.95. In the bar during happy hour, it is $2.95.

Brio is our new cheap-eats place to hit before Reds games, although we have noticed that some of the bar staff tend to ignore those of us wearing “fan attire” in favor of those wearing suit and tie. We’ve had attentive and friendly service, and we’ve had indifferent/rude service. We have learned which bartenders are worth tipping well, and we return despite the indifference we occasionally encounter because the food is healthier, tastier and cheaper than that of the ballpark.

Be sure to nurse your glass of Prosecco though, because happy hour at Brio does not equate discounted drinks specials. But from 3-6 p.m. and again from 9 p.m.-close, go ahead and bow down to the chow down on the cheap. It’s worth it.

Brio Tuscan Grille on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Green Derby

The Green Derby
846 York St.
Newport, KY

The Green Derby opened its doors as a bar in 1947 and over time expanded to include dining rooms and a kitchen, serving up home-style cooking for the past fifty years at the corner of 8th and York.

I usually shy away from places like this because “home-style cooking” is usually analogous with “meat-based,” but we were lured in because my husband was intrigued by the banner out front touting their award-winning fish sandwich. He does love his fish & chips.

Prices are astonishingly low at The Green Derby – I wouldn’t go as far as to say they are 1950’s low, but I’d hazard a guess that the menu hasn’t been updated since sometime in the 1980’s. Neither has the décor, judging by the faded, hand-painted ocean and seafaring scenes on the walls, but I suppose that is part of the restaurant’s quirky charm. Service is friendly and genuine, and the restaurant was bustling with happy families on the evening we visited.

As I suspected, there wasn’t a single vegetarian entrée on the menu but luckily there was a grilled cheese sandwich listed on the kid’s menu, so I opted for that with a side of fries and a salad, while my husband had the fish with the Derby’s signature salad. He was taken aback that the signature salad is served warm – it’s made the old-fashioned way with bacon drippings – and he didn’t really care much for it. This is the way my Appalachian grandma made salads so it was no surprise to me, but I guess if it isn’t something you grew up with it might be a turnoff. Since bacon in general is a turnoff for me I stuck with a simple house salad.

My dinner was nothing special – just your basic American processed cheese grilled between two slices of buttered white bread and served with thick fries that probably came from GFS or Sysco – but I wasn’t expecting much, and since the meal was so cheap I didn’t feel ripped off or anything. My husband, who at the last minute decided against the sandwich and went with the baked fish special, was skeptical when it arrived because he wasn’t expecting the butter-crumb coating, but was won over with his first bite. We agreed that this place would probably prove a winner with my relatives, should they ever come to visit, because it is a more genuine representation of home-style cooking than places like Cracker Barrel.

I like that the Green Derby prints the cost of their mixed drinks on the menu. I’ve noticed that many of the places we dine do not print their mixed drink prices, and I figure if they can’t be bothered to tell me without my asking then I can’t be bothered to order one. At the Derby, the drinks are priced to sell and poured with a liberal hand. Oh yes.

Even though the restaurant isn’t vegetarian-friendly, I was still willing to give it decent marks for the friendly staff, cheap prices and generous drinks until we saw one of the staff lugging bags of dripping garbage through the dining room and out the front door, which is grossly unhygienic to say the least. The garbage juice was pooling all over the worn, green dining room carpet and trailing out the door onto the front walk, and since we saw it happen more than once while we were sitting there I have to assume that this is their standard procedure. That is totally unacceptable.

It would benefit me to remember to check out health inspection scores before we go out to eat someplace new, because when I checked The Green Derby’s score on the NKY Health Department’s site afterward it was a paltry 74. The inspection was from March and I’m surprised there hasn’t been a follow-up visit by now, but it doesn’t really matter because I’ll not be revisiting. Farewell, cheap and powerful Bloody Marys, farewell.
Green Derby on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Habañero Latin American Fare at the Levee

Habañero Latin American Fare at the Levee
One Levee Way
Newport, KY

Habañero’s, a Clifton mainstay for nearly ten years, opened a second location a few months ago at Newport on the Levee and I finally got around to visiting recently. Located on the Riverwalk Level in the former Moe’s Southwestern Grill space, Habañero’s picks up where Moe’s left off, serving gigantic burritos and savory Latin American fare at prices that won’t break the bank.

Customers queue up just inside the doors to scan through the chalkboard menu then place orders with one of the sandwich makers behind the counter. Selections are prepared while you watch. I knew from past experience that the burritos are substantial, and as I was only feeling peckish I opted for a kid’s mini veggie burrito, which came with a side of chips & salsa and a small drink.

The word “veggie” in this case refers to the burrito being vegetarian - since there were no vegetables inside, only beans and cheese - but it was quite tasty and filling. You can choose between black beans or pinto. The thick, buttery chips are house-made and hold up well without breaking when dipped into the delicious smoky tomato-chipotle salsa, of which there wasn’t enough, but that might have been due to the fact that I got a child’s portion instead of an adult’s. The little condiment cup of salsa that came with my meal only held about two ounces, so I was out of salsa long before I was out of chips. It’s easily rectifiable though – just ask for a refill.

Habañero’s caters well to the vegetarian with lots of choice all across the menu. There are mixed veggie chimichangas, veggie quesadillas, create-your-own burritos and tacos, and three signature vegetarian dishes, which can be made as burritos or open face. The Chuba Cabre is probably the most interesting of the three, consisting of cinnamon-roasted squash, pinto beans, rice and apple-green chile salsa, but it doesn’t provide a variety of textures for your tongue. I have yet to try the other two dedicated veggie signatures but that’s what revisits are for. For the record however, the Tofu Tango consists of roasted eggplant, tofu, pinto beans, rice and fire-roasted corn salsa, while the Venus de Veggie is chock full of mixed grilled veggies, black beans, fresh green pepper, rice and corn salsa.

The restaurant has a limited but good selection of draught microbrews and imported bottled beer, but sadly doesn’t carry my local favorite, Christian Moerlein. Happy hour runs daily from 4-7 p.m. I know the Clifton location also serves up pitchers of sangria, margaritas, mojitos, and glasses of wine, but I forgot to note if it was the same at the Newport location, and calls to the restaurant went unanswered.

The only thing I didn’t care for about Habañero’s is that the food comes in plastic baskets instead of on plates. I know that’s a pretty minor issue, and I realize that it’s probably a cost saving measure to help keep prices low, but it’s a bit of a turn-off - especially when the burritos are so large that they overhang the basket and spill onto the table.

Habañero Latin American Fare at the Levee on Urbanspoon