Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mokka - Strike Three, Yer Out

500 Monmouth St.
Newport, KY

On a breakfast visit the restaurant was touting their new Jean-Francois Belgian Waffles on a sign at the front door. Intrigued, I decided to order them. When they arrived I saw that they were bog-standard, ordinary waffles drowning in Cool-Whip. When I mentioned this to our server, she said, "Oh you have to ask for the Jean-Francois waffles specifically. The one's listed on our menu are regular waffles." Thanks for letting me know that in advance. Strike One.

Went back a few weeks later for lunch with a co-worker. We were seated quickly, food arrived in a timely fashion, and it was good. Although the restaurant wasn't very busy, it took us 20 minutes to get the attention of our server so that we could get our bill, and then it took another 10 minutes for her to collect. When you have only an hour for lunch, slow service is a deal-breaker. Strike Two.

My husband and I decided to give them another chance for breakfast, bringing with us an out-of-town guest. Upon entering the restaurant we noticed a large sign saying "Please seat yourself at a table that has been set." We looked around. There were plenty of open tables in the back, several empty booths, and a number of spaces available at the bar, but none of them could be considered "set" because they were piled high with dirty dishes or waiting to be wiped down and set with cutlery and coffee mugs. We stood there for ten minutes trying to find someone who could tell us if it was ok to go ahead and sit at one of the tables that still needed bussing. Finally someone approached us and asked if we had been helped. We said no and she turned to another girl and told her to help us. We asked if it was ok for us to go ahead and sit at one of the tables that still needed cleaning, and she said she'd be right back with someone to clear and clean the tables. After waiting another ten minutes - no one ever returned to bus and clean the tables - we walked out and went elsewhere. Strike Three.

Even though Mokka is within easy walking distance of our house, and even though I'd rather give my custom to an independently-owned restaurant, we won't be back. They just don't seem to know what they are doing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shanghai Mama's

Shanghai Mama's
216 East 6th St.

"Shut up and eat your noodles!"

This motto is the first inkling that Shanghai Mama's is not your typical Chinese restaurant. Instead of ho-hum black laquered chairs and kitchy prints, Shanghai Mama's offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of a sassy 1920's noodle shop. Heavy wooden tables and ornately carved chairs are packed in tightly and authentic kimonos, paintings and posters decorate the space. You don't need to ask for chopsticks here; look in the bamboo container next to the soy sauce on your table.

The restaurant bar is festooned with lights and lanterns

There are an impressive number of vegetarian dishes on the dinner menu. Go ahead and have a look. They make their noodles, tofu and soymilk from scratch, and are one of the few places around town with a good selection of seitan dishes. Surprisingly for the quality of the food, this place is very affordable, with all vegetarian entrées clocking in under a tenner.

Shanghai Mama's has a quick-serve lunch menu until 3 p.m. which is popular with downtown office workers, and the place is usually packed between noon and 2 p.m. Don't be offended when an older gentleman at the door shoves a menu in your hands and asks how many are in your party as soon as you step inside. While you're checking out the menu he's busy making room for you. There's no use requesting anyplace in particular - he's got a system and by the time you reach the counter he's across the room with a chair pulled out, gesturing for you to sit.

There are two hot vegetarian options on the lunch menu: Roasted Eggplant & Green Beans, and Happy Buddha Rice Bowl, which comes with seitan, crispy tofu, seasoned vegetables and ginger over steamed rice. There are also a couple of cold noodle dishes and side salads that are safe for vegetarians.

A piping hot bowl of Happy Buddha

Mama's Side Spring Salad includes pickled ginger and crispy noodles

Night owls know that Shanghai Mama's is open 'til 3 a.m. on the weekends, when the joint is jumping with service industry staff, club kids and the late night theatre crowd. Now shut up and eat your noodles!

Shanghai Mama's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Recipe: Spicy Vegetarian Black Bean Soup

On cold winter's days like today, a steamy bowl of spicy black bean soup is a guaranteed winner. I made a batch this week and thought I'd share the recipe. I've been making this soup for years and have tweaked it to my own specifications.

The ingredients

Spicy Black Bean Soup
Serves 8
2 cups dry black beans, cleaned, rinsed and soaked
6 cups cold water
2 cups vegetable broth
2 medium onions, diced
1/4 cup butter
2 whole bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp dried parsley
2/3 cup dry sherry

1. Place cleaned, rinsed beans in a large pot and follow soaking directions. I usually add six cups of water for two cups of beans and boil for ten minutes, then simmer for one hour.*

2. Drain off water and refill with six cups of water and two cups of vegetable broth. Cook over low heat until beans are soft, about an hour.

3. While beans are simmering, melt butter in a large frying pan.

4. Saute onions over low heat until soft and translucent.

5. Add parsley and continue sauteing.

6. Add bay leaves to the pot of beans and cover.

7. Crush garlic and add to the pan.

8. Add spices and saute for about two minutes.

9. Add onion mixture to the pot of beans and cover.

10. Simmer until thickened, about three hours. Remove bay leaves and add sherry. I usually hit the beans briefly with an immersion blender after removing bay leaves to speed the thickening process along. Continue simmering for about 15 minutes.


Garnish with raw onion, shredded cheese, diced tomato or a dollop of sour cream - whatever takes your fancy. I usually serve mine with a few tortilla chips on the side.

If I'm out of vegetable broth, I substitute McKay's chicken-style instant broth & seasoning mix. I always have some of it on hand because I think it's more flavorful than vegetarian bouillon cubes.

*When soaking/boiling/simmering beans during the first hour, DO NOT add anything to the beans. Definitely DO NOT add salt as it will prohibit the beans from softening!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Terry's Turf Club

Terry’s Turf Club
4618 Eastern Ave.
Columbia Tusculum

One of the guilty pleasures in our household is the Travel Channel program “Man vs. Food” with Adam Richman. For those who aren’t familiar with the program, Richman travels around the United States tackling the biggest food challenges in the country. He attempts to eat a 72 oz. steak in Amarillo, takes a hot wing challenge in Pittsburgh and scarfs down a 2½ lb. deli sandwich in Columbus, to name a few.

It was the Sasquatch Hamburger Challenge in Memphis, however, that really got my husband fired up. He wanted to know why Cincinnati didn’t have a great homemade burger like they showed on TV. He wasn't looking for a mammoth-sized burger like the Sasquatch, just a really great homemade burger - the kind that America is supposed to be famous for.

“Oh,” I said, “but I believe we do. I keep hearing good things about the burgers at Terry’s Turf Club. Word is they put all others to shame." He was suitably intrigued.

I wasn’t sure whether or not Terry’s would have anything vegetarian, but I figured if nothing else I’d be able to eat a salad or some fries. Even if there was nothing for me, it’d be worth the visit if Steve found a burger that met his high expectations.

The restaurant sits in a rather industrial-looking area opposite an abandoned warehouse, but don’t let that put you off. Open the door and take a step back in time – the inside houses a scintillating array of neon signs, vintage posters and antique bric-a-brac from Cincinnati’s brewing heyday. Schoenling, Wiedemann, Burger, and Hudepohl are all well-represented here in spirit (but not in stock). Authentic 1950’s Bevador coolers still keep the beer frosty cold too – and what a fine selection of beer it is. Microbrews are well represented here alongside imports and American staples. Not in a beer mood? Terry’s also offers wine and spirits, colas, fresh-squeezed juices and non-alcoholic “homemade elixirs.”

One of the very groovy Bevador coolers, shaped like the "Champagne of Beers"

The staff is friendly and accommodating, and even first timers like us were treated like old friends. We snacked on complimentary baseball park peanuts whilst perusing the menu, which vegetarians will be happy to know has TWO vegetarian burger options: a portobello burger and a shitake burger. Vegetarians should note that both meat and non-meat items are grilled on the same surface, and although the cooks try to grill the meats in one area and the veggie in another, there can be co-mingling.

All burgers are made to order and come with a choice of standard toppings one would expect of a burger: lettuce, tomato, onion (sautéed or raw), pickles, banana peppers, mayo and American or Swiss cheese. For a small upcharge, however, the real fun begins. Terry’s offers an appealing variety of toppings and specialty sauces. Try the amazing Burgundy wine with wild mushrooms and truffle, or roasted red pepper & goat cheese. There’s also mango curry, peanut sauce w/ roasted garlic, and even a ginger blackberry sauce. The one that most piqued my interest was the Mango Tequila Jalapeno sauce, which sounds gorgeous.

There is plenty to look at while waiting

I ordered the shitake burger, thinking it would be easier to handle than the portobello, but it didn’t matter - these are big messy burgers that require two hands and a tower of napkins. Maybe it’s an English thing, but Steve abhors eating without cutlery, so he had a hard time of it until a staff member took pity and brought out a giant knife to chop the sandwich down to manageable bites, and a set of plastic cutlery to maintain order. After that, he loved it.

I had no such qualms about diving in mouth-first, and came up for air swimming in a sea of slippery mushroom caps, mayonnaise and sloppy tomato juices. Good thing the Shadeau Bakery buns are up to the rigorous task of holding the whole thing together. Potato chips are the standard side, but do yourself a favor and go for the fresh-cut fries, which are amazing. The restaurant also offers gelato (three scoops for $3.50 or one scoop for $1.50) but sadly we hadn't any room left for dessert on this visit.

The Shitake Mushroom Burger with a side of fresh-cut fries. YUM

Terry’s Turf Club is open for dinner seven days, and at noon on Saturday and Sunday. The place is hopping nearly all the time and live music on the weekends makes it even moreso. Arrive early or be prepared to wait.
Terry's Turf Club on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Molly Malone's Irish Ale House

Molly Malone's Irish Ale House
112 E. 4th St.
Covington, KY

It isn’t often that we get to watch our favorite English football team play on television – precious airtime is usually reserved for big guns like Man U., Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – so whenever our team is televised it is cause for celebration…usually followed by abject misery at watching them blow another game to sink further down the relegation table.

The best place in town to watch English football is Molly Malone’s in Covington. They’ve got over half a dozen big screens airing everything that Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta have to offer, and they proudly open their doors early on Saturdays to coincide with live kick-offs that are five time zones away. A 3 p.m. kick-off in England means we need to be at the pub by 10 a.m., although we prefer to be there a little early to catch the pre-game banter while our pint is being poured.

Yes, beer at 10 a.m. is perfectly acceptable if there is a footie match on the telly, and to help stave off the munchies the pub offers a small but adequate brunch menu until 2 p.m. on the weekends. Most of the options are geared toward the carnivore but there are a couple of vegetarian-friendly selections available, if one isn’t too picky about beer pairings. There’s Oatmeal Brule (Irish oats topped with carmelized sugar and granola), Stuffed French Toast (challah bread stuffed with fruit and topped with powdered sugar and vanilla cream), pancakes, and fruit & granola. They also have a few vegetarian side dishes, including very tasty O’Bryan Potatoes (a take on Potatoes O’Brien), which are pan fried with onions, bell peppers and herbs.

Even though the thought of a pint of Carlsberg with French Toast sounds a bit stomach-churning, I wanted to make sure that whatever I ate would cushion the blow of a beer so early in the day, so French Toast it was, with an extra portion of potatoes thrown in for good measure.

The "Stuffed" French Toast with a side of O'Bryan Potatoes

The French Toast was ok – the “stuffed with fruit” description on the menu was a somewhat misleading: it was basically a few slices of fried cinnamon apple between two slices of French Toast, sandwich style. It was a very dry affair. The small dollop of cream added dimension, but what the dish really needed was a generous drizzle of maple syrup.

For those not interested in brunch, after 2 p.m. the regular menu is in situ, and there are several good vegetarian options on hand. There’s a veggie burger, a roasted vegetable club on a hoagie roll, a couple of salads, and their home-made Leek & Potato Soup. The latter is a specialty and is quite hearty with huge chunks of potato, but vegetarians will need to request it sans bacon bits.

Leek & Potato Soup

Side Salad

The big draw at the pub is their excellent selection of beer and cider, which includes Stella, Guinness, Harp, Boddingtons, Murphy’s, Pilsner Urquell, Newcastle Brown, BBC Nut Brown and BBC Bourbon Barrel Stout and Hard Core Cider; and Irish whiskey, Scotch and Kentucky small batch bourbons.
Molly Malone's of Covington on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 2, 2009

European Cafe

European Café
9450 Montgomery Road
Montgomery, OH

We often pass through the pretty community of Montgomery on our way to and from Breadsmith's but until recently we hadn’t actually spent any time in the city’s downtown Heritage District. There are 32 buildings in this area that are considered Montgomery landmarks, eight of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. On a recent sunny Sunday we found ourselves in the area and decided to stop and have a leisurely wander.

I imagine that parking must be an issue in the city, because at nearly every turn there was signage warning that parking was for customers of certain stores and restaurants only. Although most places weren’t open on Sunday, we didn’t want to take a chance and park somewhere that we might get ticketed, so we drove around until we found a city parking lot next to the Fellowship Baptist Church (built in 1829) on Shelly Lane, one block west of Montgomery Road.

The sun was deceptive and pretty soon we were hankering for a place out of the wind where we could relax and warm up, so we decided to try our luck at the European Café.

The little restaurant was doing a brisk business and there were no empty tables left, so we opted to sit at the communal nook along the front windows so that we could watch the world go by as we ate. We weren’t sure what type of food they specialized in, but a glance at their menu indicated a Mediterranean flare, which meant plenty of vegetarian choice. Hooray! We sat down with mugs of hot chocolate and perused the menu.

A mug of hot chocolate is the perfect remedy for a chilly day

All but two of the restaurant’s appetizers are vegetarian: there are plenty of salads on the list, as well as pita & hummus, cheese fries and deep-fried green beans, which although not the healthiest of options, intrigued us enough to give them a shot. I had perhaps naively imagined that they would have a batter similar to tempura, but they were more akin to the deep-fried vegetables you normally find at sports bars. They weren’t bad, and the spicy ranch dipping sauce gave them a nice kick, but Steve and I both felt that they were overpriced at $4.95.

Deep-fried green beans and zesty ranch dipping sauce

The European Café offers breakfast all day on Sunday (they close at 2 p.m.) but since we’d already had a light breakfast early that morning we decided to forgo the many omelets, French toast, Belgian waffles, pancakes and egg sandwiches on offer, although I have to admit that the idea of a spinach and feta omelet was very tempting.

There are three vegetarian sandwiches listed on their lunch menu: a Greek Wrap (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, feta and Greek dressing) for $5.50, a falafel sandwich for $5.25 and a veggie pita for $4.95. They also offer a falafel platter for $5.75. Excited by the falafel listing, I requested the falafel sandwich, only to be told that they had run out of falafel. D’oh!

In the end I went with the veggie pita, which is a pita sandwich stuffed with lettuce, sautéed tomato, mushroom, green pepper, and onion with your choice of cheese. The sandwich comes with a rather limp pickle spear, a small container of kalamata olives and pepperoncinis, and a generous helping of potato chips. Steve got a gyro and a basket of fries.
The Veggie Pita

And a basket of fries

Although my sandwich looked really good, I kept encountering a burnt taste and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I removed the sandwich from the foil wrapper and inspected the sautéed vegetables, but they were cooked perfectly. Still, every other forkful had a funky, charred taste which was ruining the otherwise tasty sandwich. Finally I checked the underside of the pita and found that there were large bits of charred something or other stuck to the bread. I am guessing that the pita was warmed on the grill and bits of burnt food stuck to it. At first I tried removing the blackened flakes, but as they piled up on the edge of my plate I found that I no longer had much of an appetite, nor did I want to ponder too deeply what those flakes might have been.

That alone would probably make a return visit unlikely, but the restaurant further disappointed when we went up to the counter to pay. The young man running the cash register was busy eating a sandwich when we approached the till, and he never acknowledged our presence as he rang up the bill. He simply grabbed our ticket, totaled it on the register and stood there waiting for payment with a sullen look on his face. Maybe we are old-fashioned, but we both found this completely vocal-free transaction incredibly rude.
European Cafe on Urbanspoon