Category Archives: Reviews

Bombers Over Uniontown at B21 Coffee & Food Depot

For those of you who have followed my reviews, I believe you’ll detect a certain philosophy of food which my writing affirms. I stand for honesty, respect and a lack of artifice in cuisine. I hold the simple roadside diner in as high regard as the haughtiest of haute cuisine palaces when the ingredients are respected and prepared with care. Opulent surroundings and complex presentations are meaningless if the underlying food is conceived or prepared poorly. I’ve had more memorable meals standing on a street corner in Baja than in many of the high-priced restaurants I’ve eaten in.

One new establishment which adheres to this philosophy is B21 Lunch at B21 Coffe & Food DepotCoffee & Food Depot in Uniontown. Their address is 2 West Main Street, but unless you’re familiar with Uniontown the address can be a bit confusing. I, for one, was confused due to the fact that 2 West Main Street is on the opposite side of the street from 30 East Main Street. I don’t recall ever being in a city that doesn’t adhere to the convention of having odd numbers on one side of the street and even on the other. An additional issue is that the entrance for B21 is actually on Beeson Street, not Main. The confusion is explained by the fact that B21 is located in the basement (bunker) of the First Niagara Bank Building which does front Main Street.

B21 was opened several months ago by Roger Clatterbuck, an experienced and accomplished chef, to bring quality coffee, breakfast and lunch fare to the Uniontown business community. Being business oriented, they are open Monday through Friday from 7:30ish to 2:00 PM with take out orders and delivery a large part of the business. The hours allow Chef Clatterbuck to also run a catering operation known as War Eagle Rations. Chef Clatterbuck is backed up by two experienced chefs specializing in pastry and garde manger. Desserts at B21 Coffe & Food DepotEntering the military themed “bunker”, the patrons are immediately drawn to the wares of the pastry chef which are on prominent display. An array of brownies, cookies and coffee cakes are displayed under glass domes with samples being offered for tasting. The baked goods along with a cup of the excellent Caribou Coffee (which B21 serves) is a popular breakfast on the go for the office workers streaming in every morning. For a more substantial start to your day, breakfast sandwiches are available and are offered on a choice of excellent breads, bagels and naan.

Lunch is basically soup and sandwiches, but as served by B21, they reach a whole new level. Many larger and “classier” restaurants don’t bother to make their own soups anymore, but here the soups are house made and funky. The offering on my recent visit was “Mushroom Beef and Biscuit”, a rich cream of mushroom soup with chunks of beef and biscuits. Definitely a bit unusual. Sometimes you can’t tell what the soups are by their names and you’ll have to ask Chef for the composition. I couldn’t even guess what “1,2 3 OMG Soup” is. The soups are available by the cup, pint or quart and are packed in microwavable deli containers for convenient reheating at the office or home.

Seven sandwiches (“Bombers”) are offered on the menu, but daily specials and the “You design it” option gives the diner a multitude of choices. Continuing the military theme, the sandwiches are named after WWII war birds (though I’m not familiar with a B21). The sandwiches are offered on a choice of breads notably a Pugliese roll, a crusty Italian variety “bigger than a babies head”. I opted for naan, a middle eastern and Indian flat bread, which was stuffed with the daily special chicken salad, Havarti cheese, shredded leaf lettuce and ripe Roma tomatoes. The chicken salad was supremely fresh, with my only complaint being that the pieces of chicken were a bit large to be eaten in the naan. The naan itself, although not prepared on-site, was a lighter, fresher and more flavorful alternative to pita. I’ll forgive them for not making the Naan, as a 900 degree tandoor would turn the small space into a literal oven. Other creative touches include the “gravy-mayonnaise” and corn succotash served with the “XB35 Flying Wind” (turkey and cheddar) and the poblano preserves served with shaved pepper roasted beef sandwich (the “B32 Dominator”). And where else can you get the childhood favorite fried bologna sandwich, serve appropriately on white bread with American cheese and yellow mustard? All sandwiches are priced at $7.50 for a whole and $4.50 per half. Side dishes available include the usual cole slaw and macaroni salad, but being freshly prepared, they far surpass the versions served by many restaurants. Hummus served as a side is a nice touch and several salads are available in two sizes. Since B21 is geared primarily for take out service, the food is served in disposable containers and wrappings which actually adds to the spartan military atmosphere.

Although having limited hours and seating, B21 Coffee & Food Depot offers simple food well prepared with enough creativity to keep it interesting. Uniontown native George C. Marshall would certainly be proud of these “Bombers” and I would have to agree.
B21 Coffee & Food Depot on Urbanspoon

A Lack of Sense and Sensibility at Sisters Cafe

Sisters Cafe-Confluence PAConfluence is one of the hidden gems of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands region. Although a bit isolated today, in earlier times it was an important travel hub due to its location on the Turkeyfoot road and the Youghiogheny River. The Yough meets with the Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek here, hence the name Confluence. The configuration of this confluence led to the name Turkeyfoot, which is how George Washington referred to the area as early as 1754 on one of his many trips through the area. Today Confluence is known primarily as a tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s location on the Great Allegheny Passage brings many cyclists through the town and the Yough is famous for water sports. The damming of the river created the Youghiogheny River Lake, a popular boating destination and the sections above and below the lake offer whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. The area is also known for its hunting and fishing. With all of the travelers to the area, I thought it might be time to check out some of the culinary options in town.

Sisters Cafe-Confluence PAFirst on my list was Sisters Cafe on Hugart Street in the middle of town. They bill themselves as “Specializing in home style-cooking” and that they serve breakfast all day. The cafe is located in a ’30’s era building with the original stamped tin ceilings, a fact which they note on their website. It’s too bad they installed banks of industrial fluorescent light fixtures on those vintage panels which completely negates the charm the ceiling may have added to the décor. In addition, nearly every surface of the interior is beige which further adds to the feeling of sitting in an office rather than a restaurant. Even the vintage cast ice cream stools at the counter were beige.

After seating myself, a friendly server arrived with the menu in a timely manner. The only item of a regional nature were the buckwheat cakes which were available seasonally. In addition, real maple syrup was available for an additional 75 cents. I also noticed a sign on the wall indicating they would not make pancakes during “peak times”. Really? You offer something on the menu but if you get too busy you won’t make it? I would suggest that if you can’t produce an item all of the time it shouldn’t be on the menu. I didn’t know whether it was “peak time” or not, so I just ordered the “#1 Hearty Breakfast” for $5.50 which included two eggs, home fries, sausage (links or patties) and toast. Although not excessively so, the wait for my meal was longer than I would have expected, indicating that perhaps they do have production issues in the kitchen. I could have excused the wait if the food was good, but I was sorely disappointed. I ordered the eggs over easy but they were almost hard with only the slightest amount of liquid yolk. In addition, they were crisp on the edges and had bits of carbonized food on them from a dirty grill. The sausage was three small links of a nondescript commercial brand that also had crunchy bits of grill scraps on them. The home fries were under seasoned but passable and the toast was your typical bland commercial variety.

There are several ways that restaurants can screw up food. Simple mistakes can happen, such as overcooking a steak or in this case eggs. Those kind of mistakes can be forgiven and won’t necessarily keep me from returning to a restaurant. However, when I’m served food with bits of burnt food on it, that I cannot forgive. Those mistakes are pure carelessness and demonstrate a lack of caring on the part of the restaurant. And if the restaurant doesn’t care, why should I?

Sisters Cafe on Urbanspoon

Scrapple Screw Up at Zambos

My search for properly cooked scrapple recently found me in the hamlet of New Centerville at Zambo’s Country Cottage, a well maintained restaurant on New Centerville Road (RT 281) just north of town. With the exception of a pizza shop/bakery, Zambo’s is the only game in town and usually has a respectable crowd, but on this day the restaurant was empty. Zambos Country CottageThe menu confirmed that Zambo’s did indeed serve scrapple and they also offered mush, which is even rarer on menus these days. For those unfamiliar with mush, think fried polenta. Although some attempt to make a distinction, there is absolutely no practical difference between polenta and cornmeal mush. I was tempted to order both the scrapple and mush, but not being very hungry I stuck with the scrapple, two eggs (over easy), home fries and sausage. One very nice touch was the option of getting onions in the home fries, which I took. Since I was the only patron in the restaurant, the food arrived quickly. As illustrated by the photo, the scrapple was a mess. Although it was crisp (unlike The Summit Diner and Mostoller’s), the scrapple was nothing but crumbles on top of the eggs. It looked as if it had stuck to the griddle and had to be scraped off. I also wasn’t thrilled with the sausage. Two paper-thin patties were served that were clearly not hand formed. The seasoning was a bit unusual for a commercial product leading me to wonder if the restaurant had used a press to make their own patties or if perhaps they had been produced in a small, local shop. Either way, the restaurant gets a failing grade for serving a product that if not commercially produced certainly appeared to be so. And although I’m used to it, I’m always disappointed with the toast served. It would be nice once in a while to be served a freshly baked, in-house product or at least a premium commercial brand. The rest of my breakfast was acceptable with the eggs being properly cooked and the home fries nicely crisped and flavorful with the addition of the onion. The transferware plate on which the food was served lended a nice country touch to the meal, but overall it was a disappointing breakfast. I really can’t figure out why I can’t get a good order of scrapple as it is really not difficult to cook. If you’re looking for scrapple, I wouldn’t recommend Zambo’s and the rest of the breakfast I grade as simply OK. In other words, if you’re in New Centerville I wouldn’t drive 12 miles to avoid Zambo’s, but neither would I drive 12 miles to get there.
Zambo's Country Cottage on Urbanspoon

Real Rural Fare at Mostoller’s Country Corral

After my post on the Summit Diner and the scrapple they served, I was informed that another local restaurant offers country food in general and scrapple in particular. Mostoller’s Country Corral and Restaurant is located just north of Somerset on Route 281 in the village of Geiger. For you non locals, Geiger is an unincorporated bump in the road which according to the USPS is actually Friedens, although Friedens as indicated on a map is several miles north of Mostoller’s.

Mostollers Country CorralThe interior of the restaurant looks very much like a diner with the addition of numerous wagon wheels and old cooking and farming implements. In fact, the interior is reminiscent of the Summit Diner before being renovated where the original Swingle Diner western theme was replaced. I took a seat in a booth and began to read the menu which was already on the table, although I already knew what I was going to order. The waitress arrived in a timely manner and I ordered the breakfast special ($4.50) which included two eggs, sausage, home fries and toast. I also ordered a side of scrapple and tomato juice. The meal arrived in a flash and, like in many diners, the check arrived with the meal. The scrapple was served on the plate with the eggs and potatoes instead of on a separate plate, which is annoying if you like syrup on your scrapple but not on your eggs. Also, there was no sausage served. Just as I was looking at the menu and the check to determine if perhaps the scrapple was substituted for the sausage, the waitress arrived with the sausage along with an apology for forgetting it. The eggs were as I ordered them (over easy) but as at the Summit, the scrapple was cut too thin and not properly browned. The potatoes were fresh, but were overcooked and cut so thin that they fell apart into mostly small pieces. The sausage was clearly made fresh and it had a good flavor, but there was only one pattie (as opposed to 2 at the Summit) and it had been left on the griddle too long creating a hard crust on one side.

On my table was a placard advertising a buckwheat cake and puddin’ special for the coming Saturday, so two days later I found myself back at Mostoller’s. The puddin’ (or liver pudding) served at Mostoller’s is the “loose” version intended to be poured over the cakes. It is basically scrapple before the cornmeal and flour are added. The buckwheat cakes were large and nicely cooked but lacked the yeasty flavor of the traditional recipes. I couldn’t tell if they were from a mix or if they were simply a non yeast recipe. The sausage was not the hand formed pattie of my previous breakfast at Mostoller’s but rather a link of a type which I had never eaten before. This was clearly not a commercial product. The texture was quite fine and there was a note of offal in the taste. I thought it was quite good and I’ll have to do more research into just exactly how it was made.

For those of you looking for a “real” breakfast, albeit with a few flaws, Mostoller’s Country Corral and Restaurant is worth the trip. It offers authentic food at a good price, qualities which are getting harder and harder to find in this world of cookie cutter fast food restaurants. Just remember to bring cash, because no plastic is accepted.

Mostoller's Country Corral on Urbanspoon

 

Summit Diner-Somerset PA

Summit Diner sign-Somerset PAHaving traveled all over the country, I can tell you from experience that the best place to find examples of true regional cuisine is in local diners. My first taste of Linguiça, country ham and grits all occurred in diners. Haute cuisine palaces give lip service to regional specialties, but usually they are introduced only as one ingredient in a chef’s “creation” or to provide “inspiration” for some fancy dish. True regional cuisine is found in the humble homes and diners of middle America and not in cities and fine dining restaurants.

One such regional specialty in Pennsylvania is scrapple. Born of the frugality of the Pennsylvania Dutch, scrapple is made by cooking down all of the “scraps” of pork after butchering and adding cornmeal (and often other starches) along with seasonings. The thickened mixture is poured into loaf pans, chilled ,and then sliced and fried. It is generally served with maple syrup or as a side dish for eggs, to be mixed with the yolks.

The Summit Diner, located in Somerset, is one of the few restaurants still serving scrapple. This classic stainless steel diner has been a fixture in Somerset for over 50 years and is still THE place for breakfast and, of course, scrapple. A recent renovation has transformed the diner’s original western décor with a harder edged black and stainless steel theme. Murals add the the ’50’s flavor of the diner and the servers even sport duds which echo the ’50’s theme. In the summer months the diner even hosts a monthly car cruise.

On my most recent visit I ordered the $4.99 breakfast special which included two eggs (over easy), home fries, sausage, and toast. I also ordered a side of scrapple and a tomato juice. The juice arrived almost immediately and was served in a Coca-Cola float glass that must have held nearly 12 ounces, and cost only $1.99. I could barely finish it. The rest of the meal came out soon after and I was not disappointed. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the home fries were made from fresh potatoes with the skin on. The potatoes were nicely crisped but could have been better seasoned. The sausage was especially good. The menu stated the sausage was freshly ground every morning and I have no reason to doubt them. The hand formed pattys were nicely browned and were a far cry from the frozen machine formed patties you find in most other restaurants. I was a bit disappointed in the scrapple but not overly so. The three slices were very thin and were just heated through with no crispness. The cook apparently doesn’t know to flour the slices before frying to achieve a nice crust on them. They should also cut the scrapple thicker. I would rather have two thicker slices as opposed to three thinner ones. Although the scrapple could have been better, for $2.69 I was happy with it. Whether you’re a fan of scrapple or not, the Summit Diner is a great place for breakfast.

Summit Diner on Urbanspoon

Out of the Fire and Into the…?

Having long heard of Out of the Fire Cafe in Donegal, I decided an extensive review was in order. Their proximity to Seven Springs Resort seemed to position them as an off resort dining alternative, and I had planned to make several visits to thoroughly check them out. My thought now is that one visit will be quite enough.

The restaurant is housed in a large lodge like building which sits a bit off Route 31 in Donegal and can be a little hard to find if you’re not sharp-eyed. The renovation resulted in a dining room that is sophisticated and a bit rustic. I arrived at 5:00 (opening time) on a Sunday and the restaurant was already filling up. A seat at the counter of the semi open kitchen afforded me a view of the back scenes action. The restaurant is BYOB, and not having planned ahead by purchasing a bottle of wine, I settled for a Labatt Blue which I just happened to have in my car. The menu is not huge and seafood is well represented, as you would expect from a restaurant that bills itself as Fresh Fish Fine Dining. Since this was planned as a multi visit review, I decided to graze on several appetizers for my meal, figuring this would give a nice overview of several dishes.

First up was the Hummus Tasting ($10), three different hummus recipes served with warm Herb & Manchego Flat-bread and a Greek cucumber salad. The standout of the trio was the Roasted Garlic, Basil & Artichoke Hummus. The roasted garlic gave the hummus a richer, deeper flavor than the usual raw garlic version. The flat-bread was served properly warm and the herb oil it was brushed with had a nice nose of basil. However, the manchengo seemed missing in action and the salad was totally flat unless a good chunk of feta or one of the Kalamata olives was in the bite.

House Smoked Salmon Platter ($13) was served next. The salmon was perfectly smoked but I was puzzled by the glaze. It appeared to be Balsamic but it was lacking in acid and aroma and instead just came across as a nondescript syrup. If indeed it was supposed to be a Balsamic reduction, perhaps it was due to using a commercial product that I spied in the kitchen as opposed to making it themselves from a high quality vinegar. The salmon was served with a crispy flat-bread, haphazardly cut chunks of pineapple, sliced strawberries, strips of sun-dried tomatoes, and a creamy dill sauce. I failed to see the logic of the sun-dried tomatoes and the fruit was pedestrian. The dill sauce was marginally successful in providing some needed acid for the salmon, but it lacked any herbal note, possibly due to using dried dill. If it had been prepared with fresh it probably sat too long as there was no brightness in the sauce at all.

The final appetizer was Seared Sea Scallops ($10) with Ginger Infused Bamboo Rice, Spicy Pickled Carrot Salad, Sweet Thai Chili & Mandarin Glaze. The sea scallops were perfectly seared and seasoned and were served on a lump of glutinous rice. I’ve never understood the fascination some chefs have with sticky rice. In my opinion, its major virtue is that it can be molded into shapes. It has none of the perfume of Basmati or Jasmine rice unless you add flavor to it, and in this case I failed to detect the “infusion” of ginger which would have accomplished that goal. The Spicy Pickled Carrot Salad was insipid and could not be called “spicy” in any sense of the word. The Thai Chili was a bottled preparation available off the shelf and the Mandarin Glaze appeared to be the same basil heavy herbed oil which brushed the flat-bread served with the hummus.

I was seated next to a nice older couple from Chicago and observed their meals also. The Seared Sea Scallops & Jumbo Lump Crab Angel Hair Pasta looked palatable but appeared pretty light on the promised yellow and green squashes, and the roasted tomatoes. The gentleman did seem to enjoy it though. The lady was served the Pan Roasted Jumbo Lump Crab Cake which appears on the appetizer menu. I swear, I have never seen a more monochromatic dish served in my entire life. Picture a brown, spherical crab cake served on a brown roasted corn puree surround by brown spherical sweet potato hush puppies. Simply unbelievable!

Additional observations left me even more disillusioned with this restaurant than the food I had already been served. For example, I noticed even though they have white tablecloths, they top them with paper! If a restaurant can’t afford to replace a tablecloth between turns they might as well dispense with them altogether. It reminds me of covering the “good” couch with plastic slip covers. It was also disturbing to see the grill cook using the same holding rack for seafood as he used for meat. Even forgetting the potential for cross contamination, there is no way the lamb rack won’t pick up a hint of fishy odor through the course of the evening when placed in the same spot as raw fish. Another health code violation is the handling of raw food with bare hands unless it will then be cooked. Personally I’ve never been a stickler for this rule, but it is pretty stupid to do it in an open kitchen in front of customers. One of the more popular dishes leaving the kitchen that evening was the Grilled Crab Stuffed Maine Lobster Tail. No amount of micro greens, chutneys or whatever could disguise the fact that this was simply a frozen rock lobster tail filled with crab cake mixture, a “dish” you can find in a mediocre seafood house in the country. I’d be embarrassed to put this on the menu of a restaurant that bills itself as Fresh Fish Fine Dining.

One further incident reinforced my decision never to return to this restaurant and it concerns the subject of corkage fees. Corkage fees were originally designed for customers who wished to bring a special bottle of their own wine into a restaurant which served wine. The restaurant would charge a fee partly to make up for the lost revenue and partly as a charge for the labor involved in serving the wine, providing glasses, etc. I was discussing this issue with the gentleman sitting next to me and I made the point that I thought it was “cheap” of Out of the Fire to charge me the $2 corkage fee for my beer when they had provided no glasses or ice in “service” for that fee. I was not complaining, simply observing that after spending $33 on food, the additional $2 for “allowing” me to drink my beer was a little “cheap” Unfortunately the saute cook had to mutter under his breath “Yeah, it’s cheap”. I don’t know if he was agreeing with me or if his meaning was that it’s only $2. To me, it doesn’t matter. If he was agreeing with me he should be reprimanded for bad mouthing his place of employment. If he disagreed he should have remained silent. Either way, it’s highly unprofessional for an employee to interject a comment into the conversation of the patrons. Overall, this is one more restaurant in a long list which aims too high and misses by a wide mark.

Out Of The Fire Cafe on Urbanspoon