Tag Archives: review

Tall Cedars Restaurant-Donegal PA

Tall Cedars Restaurant in Donegal is one of those old-time bar bars which I’ve drunk in many times but never ate in save for a few late night refueling stops.Tall Cedars dining room In fact, I had never set foot in the dining section of the restaurant until last week. I arrived about 8:30 AM on a Saturday morning to find myself the only patron seated. Usually this is not a good sign. The building is of log construction and the dining room is paneled in wood with a large, genuine stone fireplace dominating one wall. Heavy wooden Captain’s chairs and tables completed the décor which could have been very homey and welcoming if maintained with a bit more care. Perhaps my biggest complaint regarding the atmosphere was the pervasive odor that appeared to emanate from the heating system. Instead of the aroma of food cooking, I was assaulted by the fumes of a poorly vented oil furnace. The menu was presented and it listed only standard breakfast fare with no items of a local nature included. I ordered eggs (over easy), sausage, home fries and toast at $5.95. The food took a bit longer to arrive than I would have expected given I was the restaurant’s only patron, but I’d still call the wait acceptable. Tall Cedars breakfastThe sausage was two large patties about the size of a McDonald’s burger, probably close to 2 ounces each. Although clearly a pressed product, it was well browned and remained very juicy. The home fries were made from fresh potatoes with the skin left on and were well cooked if a bit under seasoned. The eggs were the only real problem in that they were cooked medium, well on their way to hard, instead of the over easy as requested. Not a bad breakfast, but it’s hard to recommend a place that can’t cook an egg properly. Later in the day I was still in the area so I dropped by for lunch, this time stopping in the bar. If you’re the type of person who is intimidated by a local crowd who can be a bit rough, I would suggest eating in the dining room. This is the type of bar where they have a stainless steel mirror in the restroom to replace the glass ones that kept getting punched out. The beer selection is mediocre, offering only national domestic brands with a sprinkling of imports. No premium or craft brews are stocked and the draft system has been out of commission on my last few visits. The lunch menu is more extensive than the breakfast menu with a heavy emphasis on Pizzas, Stromboli and Cal zones. Taking this as an indication of what I should order, I settled on a small cheese pizza ($5). It didn’t take long for the four slice pizza to appear and my initial impression was that there would be issues with the crust. It looked dry, under cooked and somewhat pasty looking. My first bite confirmed my initial impression. The crust was bland and somewhat “biscuity” in texture. The dough exhibited some kind of an issue with the yeast that I couldn’t quite pin down. It appeared either the yeast was old and inactive, or the dough had been stored too long after it was made. In addition, I found the sauce overly sweet for my taste, although I recognize many people prefer it prepared in that fashion. The cheese was of an acceptable quality, but was over browned. Simply a substandard pizza in my view. Sometimes I’m frustrated by Urbanspoon’s insistence on giving a restaurant a ”like” or “don’t like”, but at other times being forced to choose neatly sums up the writer’s true opinion. In the case of Tall Cedars, although I have been a patron of theirs for many years, based on my two most recent visits, I’ll have to choose “don’t like”.

Tall Cedars sign

Tall Cedars on Urbanspoon

Green Gables Restaurant, Jennerstown PA

Just north of the hamlet of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania lies Green Gables Restaurant and the Mountain Playhouse. The restaurant has been on the site since 1927 and was started as a sandwich shop Green Gables, Jennerstown PAby a local farmer, James Black Stoughton, who decided he had enough of milking cows. The restaurant grew section by section over the years in a rustic, eccentric style that is a testament to Mr. Stoughton’s vision. The year 1939 saw the opening of the Mountain Playhouse, a summer stock theater, which is housed in a reconstructed log grist mill moved to the site from Roxbury, PA. Most of my previous experiences with the restaurant have been of the banquet variety, the quality of which had never impressed me enough to prompt a return trip for an á la carte meal. Regular readers will recall my attachment to the classic brunch, and hearing that Green Gables offered the same, I decided on a recent Sunday to give them another go. My son Miles and I arrived about 11:30 AM and found ourselves the first arrivals of the morning. We were seated at a nice window table appointed with fresh flowers and were presented the brunch menu along with a separate drink menu featuring “summer cocktails”. No wine list was offered which surprised me, as the restaurant is listed as a Wine Spectator award winner. I inquired whether a Mimosa was available, as I did not see it on the drink menu. The server replied in the affirmative and informed me that I had been given the wrong drink menu. The drink soon arrived, and even at the rather steep price of $12, it proved to be the high point of the meal. The juice was clearly fresh squeezed and exhibited a slightly reddish tint making me think perhaps a few blood oranges had been used in the juice. If not blood oranges, I detected no other flavors that would account for the color, but possibly it was nothing more than a splash of Grenadine. Opening the menu, I found to my disappointment, that the restaurant’s idea of “brunch” was to simply add two egg dishes to a sandwich menu, one of which was really just breakfast. Green Gables, Jennerstown PAThe sole brunch choice offered was a Greek Omelet ($10) which I ordered, having no other options. In addition, in spite of the chilly morning, I ordered a cold Port Pear Soup($4). I’m not really sure why a cold soup was offered on a cold morning, but there were no other starters offered other than a few salads which appeared to be a bit more substantial than I was up for. As spinach in an omelet did not appeal to Miles, he settled for a sandwich, ordering what was billed as a Lamb Gyro ($9). The soup soon arrived and I was a bit surprised to see no garnish of any kind. Frankly, the color of the soup wasn’t striking enough to stand on its own. I could live with the lack of presentation if the soup had exhibited a solid flavor, but sadly that was not the case. I found the soup oddly flat, a fact that had me puzzled until I found a piece of incompletely puréed pear in the bottom of the cup. The fact that this piece was crunchy made clear the flatness of the soup was due to under ripe fruit. The rest of the meal took a bit longer to arrive than I would have expected given that we were the first order of the day. When finally presented, I was shocked by the appearance of both the omelet and the gyro. Green Gables, Jennerstown PAI’m not even sure how to describe the incongruity of sitting at a table with a white tablecloth, drinking a $12 Mimosa and seeing a sandwich being served wrapped in a piece of aluminum foil as if it had been purchased from a low-class food truck. The omelet served was so brown, I immediately knew I was not going to be enjoying this meal. I probably should have just refused both dishes on sight and just walked away, but that would make for a pretty short review. With trepidation, I took my first bite, and I can say without equivocation that this was the sorriest excuse for an omelet I have ever eaten in my life. I’ve had better omelets prepared on an open flattop in greasy spoon diners than what was served here. An enormous amount of liquid (milk?) had been added to the eggs, and the mixture had been cooked without any movement of the pan leading to a product more like custard than an omelet. The overcooking of the exterior left a dry skin which could be peeled from the omelet in sheets. The spinach was watery and even the sharpness of the feta could not mask the lack of seasoning in the filling. The skillet potatoes exhibited a pervasive scorched flavor which made them inedible and the toast was served dry with no butter being presented or offered. The food truck pedigree of the sandwich was confirmed when the so called “lamb” turned out to be nothing more than commercial gyro meat, a “mystery meat” product which generally is prepared with about 15% actual lamb. However, the restaurant’s heating of this “lamb” was so inept that even the food truck vendor would be embarrassed to serve it. I honestly was puzzled over how the kitchen could have some pieces of this “meat” completely fried to a crisp (as if it was bacon) and other pieces barely warm but with crisp edges. I can only surmise that they took a block of this pre-sliced product from the freezer and threw it in a deep fryer, hence the two outside pieces being totally overcooked and the inside pieces having only crisp edges. Regardless, it was awful. In addition, the yogurt-mint sauce was grainy and lacking in flavor. I will say the lettuce, cucumbers and onions in the sandwich were fresh, but that single positive note could not redeem the disaster that was the rest of the sandwich.Interior of Green Gables Restaurant Miles ordered herbal tea with his meal, and like the toast situation, not sweeteners of any kind were served with the tea nor were they offered. Neither of us bothered to finish our meals, and not one employee bothered to inquire if we had enjoyed it. I’m almost glad there was no inquiry as I was upset enough that I probably would have made a scene that I would have later regretted. The total tab for this fiasco was $51, not a paltry sum for two people. Excepting the Mimosa’s, I would not be willing to pay $5.10 for this garbage in the future.
Green Gables on Urbanspoon

Otto’s Pub-State College PA

On the way into town on my recent trip to State College, I passed the new location of Otto’s Pub and Brewery on Atherton Street. Since I’m a sucker for brew pubs, I vowed to make it my lunch stop on the way back out-of-town. On my return, the first thing I noticed was a red vintage stake bed truck parked outside. Definitely an eye catcher. Upon entry into the building you find yourself in a gift shop. I have nothing against a little marketing, but I found it odd that a nondescript retail space would be the first impression the owners would want to make on a patron. This is especially puzzling given the rest of the building is so richly appointed with wood, brass and vintage Pennsylvania brewery signs and photographs. Two gorgeous and personable young ladies were at the hostess station and after a brief conversation, I proceeded to the bar.

Ottos smoked chicken thighs
Smoked chicken thighs

Being noon on a Sunday, the restaurant was just beginning to attract a crowd, allowing me to converse with the bartender. He informed me they were currently offering 14 of their own brews on tap and recommend the Nittany Mountain American Pale Ale after I had described what style of beer I was looking for. An Indian Pale Ale would have fit my description a little better, but since they were out of their IPA the APA filled in nicely. The color was a bit darker than one would expect from an APA and the nose was a bit light, displaying just hints of spice and citrus. The finish was clean with a moderate, bitter after taste. Over all, well-balanced and a good choice to serve with food. In fact, it was clean and light enough to drink without accompanying food. While enjoying the first ale I checked out the menu and saw quite a few interesting items. The restaurant has made a commitment to local producers and feature numerous ingredients from the area, even listing their names on the menu. I settled on In House Smoked Chicken Thighs ($6) as a starter and a Smoked Brisket Cheesesteak ($11) sandwich. Several sides were offered with the sandwich and I settled on the fresh-cut fries, just to see if they knew how to make them properly. The chicken thighs arrived with the habañero-mango sauce as ordered, accompanied by celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. The thighs were awesome, having a deep smokey flavor yet remaining moist on the inside with crisp skin. However, the habañero-mango sauce was a bust. It exhibited none of the distinctive habañero taste and the color was red rather than the orange you would expect from an item made with mangoes. Unless the chef is familiar with xanthan gum, I feel fairly confident in stating this was a commercial bottled sauce and is simply not worthy of being served with the thighs. At least the celery was very fresh and had no dried or browned ends.

Ottos Smoked Brisket Cheesesteak
Smoked Brisket Cheesesteak

The “cheese steak” arrived shortly and I was surprised to see a total lack of presentation. When all you see is the brown from bread and fries and there are pieces of onion on top of the bun, it doesn’t exactly get the juices flowing. All they would have had to do is uncap the bun or throw a pickle on the plate to give it a little color. Fortunately the sandwich tasted better than it looked. The locally baked roll was fresh, warm and had a slight crust. The peppers and onions were fresh and nicely cooked if a bit haphazardly cut. The brisket was flavorful but slightly overcooked so that it came across as shredded beef rather than sliced. One of the joys of a properly cooked brisket is the slight chewiness it normally has but was lacking here. I could clearly taste the locally produced sharp white cheddar, but it would have made more sense to place in on top of the meat rather than below where it couldn’t be seen. I’d give the fries a 5 out of 10. The cooks clearly know how to blanch the potatoes unlike some restaurants I’ve been to lately. However, they were cut from very small potatoes, leading to very few fries over an inch or so in length. They also had sat too long after frying (likely under heat lamps) so they lacked the texture of a freshly fried potato. Unlike many frozen commercial fries, fresh-cut ones cannot sit very long after cooking. The conception of this restaurant and menu is great but the execution shows a lack of attention to detail, a fact which is surprising given quality of the beer. Any brew master knows that attention to detail is crucial to maintain quality and consistency. Someone needs to teach this concept to the kitchen staff.
Otto's Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

Low Tide at Highwaters Grill

Highwaters Grill, located on Mill Run Road (RT 381) between Mill Run and Ohiopyle would appear to be a winning concept. Casual barbecue located a few miles from one of the highest volume rafting rivers in the country seems like it should be a sure bet, but the only winners here are the owners at the expense of the customers. My first stop at this restaurant was for some quick take out on my way home one evening from Falls City Pub. The menu was a rather confusing chalkboard located to the side of the ordering window. I ordered a half rack of ribs ($12.50) and was informed that a choice of two sides were included. When I inquired what sides were available, I was told rather rudely to “look at the menu”. Now, if there were a dozen sides offered or if there were other people in line waiting to place orders, I could understand a bit of impatience on the part of the employee. However, only five sides were listed and there was no one else waiting. Menu at Highwaters Grill, Mill Run PAWould it really be too much to expect the girl to simply say “corn, slaw, fries, onion rings, or beans”? Anyway, the order arrived in a flash and I was off to home with the ribs, corn on the cob and cole slaw. The ribs were slathered with a nondescript commercial sauce, the brand of which I couldn’t identify. The ribs appeared to cooked okay, but were oddly lacking in taste. I thought at the time perhaps they were simply overpowered by the sauce. The corn was fresh and sweet, but I found the slaw to be as tasteless as the ribs. I was willing to cut some slack on the slaw as it had sat in a box with the ribs and had warmed up. I wasn’t happy with the meal, but it wasn’t so bad that I wasn’t willing to give them another shot. About a week later I made another trip down the mountain, arriving shortly after 6:00 PM. There was a server there, but she was busy talking to a table of friends. When she finally acknowledged me, I was informed that since “no one was in town”, no food was available, only ice cream. Needless to say, I wasn’t overly thrilled with this turn of events. I made one last attempt several weeks later, this time ordering the Combo which is a ½ rack of ribs with ½ a chicken at $22.50. For those of you a bit slow with math, that means they’re charging $10 to add ½ a chicken to the rib dinner! And this from a “restaurant” that is basically self-service. I ordered the meal sans sauce, so that I could taste the meat and took a seat on the deck where I noticed they were giving away draft beer, hence the “free Solo cup” on the sign out front. BBQ sauce at Highwaters GrillI also spotted the 5 gallon buckets of BBQ sauce, so the brand they used was no longer a mystery. My meal soon arrived, and naturally it was covered in the Ken’s Sauce, so I had to send it back. The corrected order arrived promptly and before even tasting it I could tell there were problems. It was clear from just looking that both the ribs and chicken had been cooked hours earlier and had been held in an overly moist environment. The ribs had been grilled off first, but the holding had completely robbed them of any residual crispness the charring had provided. Upon tasting them, it seemed as if they had been held in water as they were soggy and tasteless. If they had been rubbed or marinated, it was no longer apparent as all the flavor had leached out. In addition, the membrane had not been removed from the ribs. This is a mistake I can often live with, but in this case since the ribs had been charred, the membrane split and left unappetizing blackened shreds on the underside of the meat. The chicken was as tasteless as the ribs and also was totally lacking in crispness, which was a shame as I could tell that at one point it had been properly cooked. Both the ribs and chicken were barely warm, leading me to question how they were held prior to service. The slaw was as bland as the first time I tasted it and the beans appeared to be straight from a can. After taking only one bite of each item, I simply got up and left. I honestly cannot think of a single positive thing to say about this meal, and at $22.50 it is clear the customer is being taken. The best BBQ joint I know, Big Mike’s in Smithfield, charges $15.99 for the same meal, and at Mike’s it’s REAL BBQ. I really cannot even imagine a sorrier excuse for BBQ than what is served at Highwaters Grill.
Highwaters Grill on Urbanspoon

The Venerable Berkey Creamery

Penn State University has certainly had more than their share of scandal lately. However, it is important to remember that for every Michael Mann or Jerry Sandusky there are hundreds of dedicated alumni who fill the world with good deeds. Two of these are the late Jeanne and Earl Berkey, formerly of Somerset, PA. In addition to their local works such as Laurel Arts, the Berkeys are perhaps best known for their $3M gift to PSU to aid in construction of the Penn State Food Sciences building which houses the famous Berkey Creamery. Previously known as the State College Creamery, it is the largest university creamery in the nation. The Creamery’s Ice Cream Short Course, first offered in 1892, has instructed generations of ice cream makers, including both Earl and Jeanne Berkey and a couple of obscure guys from Vermont known as Ben and Jerry. 4.5 million pounds of milk pass through the stainless steel tanks at the creamery and are turned into processed milk, cheeses and of course ice cream. The ice creamed produced here is of premium quality, with a butterfat content of 14.1%. All ice cream must have at least 10% butterfat and super premiums like Ben and Jerry’s can reach 16%. Berkey CreameryThe butterfat is what gives the ice cream it’s richness and mouth feel. On my recent visit, I naturally had the Paterno Peach, named of course after Jo Pa. The ice cream had the richness and mouth feel one would expect from a premium product. The chunks of peaches had enough acidity to keep the ice cream from being cloying. I was tempted to order a second cone, but my waist line forbid me from doing so. Keep in mind, it’s tradition that you cannot order two different flavors on one cone, a rule that has been broken only once, and that by a President of the United States, Bill Clinton. The ice cream can also be purchased in half gallons, packaged appropriately in plain blue and white containers reminiscent of the spartan uniforms worn by the football tem. The store can assist in packaging the ice cream for take home, even supplying dry ice to keep it frozen. I opted instead for several packages of cheese curd for the trip home, thinking it a better match for my Labatt. For the uninitiated, cheese curds are the solid part of curdled milk which is the first step in the cheese making process. They are milder and softer than the cheese which it would become if pressed and aged. The store also sells a limited selection of sandwiches and snacks if you’re not in an ice cream mood. If you visit State College the Berkey Creamery is a must stop, but if you go on game days be prepared for a long wait as they sell several thousand cones on these days.
Berkey Creamery on Urbanspoon


Bedford Diner, Bedford PA

My recent PSU road trip brought me through Bedford, PA and to the Bedford Diner for breakfast. They are located on Route 222 just off of the Bedford exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and are easy to spot due to the huge sign out front and equally huge letters on the building itself. Bedford Diner, Bedford PAAlthough the building is not of typical diner construction, the interior layout is, having counter seats, booths and lots of stainless steel. White boards above the back counter advertise the daily specials, most of which are “all you can eat” and feature local favorites like ham pot pie. The breakfast menu is a bit larger than most as evidenced by the four varieties of pancakes served. I spotted country ham on the menu and had hope that since the menu also offered a ham steak I might have actually found a restaurant with the real thing. I ordered it along with eggs over easy, home fries, and toast ($6.95) accompanied by a side of scrapple ($1.60). Alas, the restaurant was out of country ham, so I must continue my search for the real deal. I settled for sausage, lowering the price of the meal to $4.95. While waiting for the breakfast, I scoped out the array baked goods, all of which appeared to be house baked as advertised. The pie safe didn’t contain those impossibly high meringue pies traditional in diners, but there were numerous other pies along with some huge cakes garnished with fresh fruit. My meal soon arrived and I was immediately struck by the scrapple which was a massive, thick slab that had been deep-fried. I’d heard of deep-fried scrapple before but this my first experience of eating it. I found it surprisingly good. The outside was very crisp and it was cut thick enough that the inside remained moist and creamy. The rest of the breakfast was not quite as successful. The sausage had a good flavor, but it had been cooked ahead and it had dried out from the holding. I had ordered the eggs over easy, but they arrived medium and were on their way to hard. The potatoes, although fresh, were cut so thin they fell apart into tiny pieces. Overall this was not a bad breakfast, but they clearly need more attention to detail. Cooking an egg properly is a basic skill that no diner can neglect.
Bedford Diner on Urbanspoon

Revival of Brunch at the Kitchen on Main

There was a time when the term brunch had a completely different meaning than it does today. If you go to a restaurant advertising brunch now, what you expect is a pig-out buffet which just happens to have a few pedestrian breakfast items offered in addition to the standard offerings. Previously brunch consisted of an á la carte selection of elegant egg dishes typified by the classic Eggs Benedict, and accompanied by libations such as Bloody Marys and Mimosas. This traditional version of brunch is getting harder to find, but a new restaurant in Ligonier has stepped up to fill the void. Kitchen on Main is savvy enough to use the term breakfast as opposed to brunch, eliminating the endless questions from confused patrons such as;”Where’s the buffet?” In addition to breakfast, Kitchen on Main also serves lunch, but it’s the egg dishes that makes the trip to Ligonier worthwhile. The restaurant has an open kitchen design, so I selected a seat at the counter where I could check out the action. Like their sister restaurant Out of the Fire Cafe, Kitchen on Main is a BYOB establishment.Bloody Marys at Kitchen on Main BYOB at Kitchen on Main means Build Your Own Bloody ($4), as they offer tomato juice and the ingredients to make your own Bloody Mary, or in my case a Ruddy Mary (made with Boodles Gin). The menu and Bloody Mary “fixin’s” were swiftly delivered by a friendly server and I immediately decided on the traditional Eggs Benedict ($10) from the four Benedicts offered. In addition, the menu lists several omelets, egg tacos ($11) and a smoked salmon hash ($11), which is made from the salmon smoked at Out of the Fire Cafe. The diner can also order standard breakfast items such as eggs, waffles and pancakes along with a few items for kids age 10 and under. My Eggs Benedict arrived in a flash due to the old restaurant trick of pre-poaching the eggs and then re-heating them to order. This process may sound strange to the home cook, but it is really the best method for volume cooking poached eggs. The supremely fresh eggs were perfectly poached and sat atop what was billed as country ham, but sadly was not. This is the second restaurant I’ve eaten in this month that appears to be unaware that country ham refers to a specific type of ham which is cured and has a distinctive taste. I was a bit disappointed, but the ham served was quite good and in no way detracted from the dish. The English muffin, which the eggs and ham were perched on, was clearly fresh-baked and instead of the usual toasting, it was browned on a griddle, giving a nice buttery crust. The Hollandaise sauce was nearly perfect, needing only a bit more lemon juice to make it so. The consistency of the sauce was perfect and it exhibited no signs of breaking. The Benedict was accompanied by “homefries”, a moniker which seems inadequate to describe what was served. These “homefries” were perfect, tiny rounds of fingerling potatoes fried with fresh sweet red peppers and onions, and were easily the best potatoes I’ve eaten for breakfast in this area. I think a different name should appear on the menu so the diner doesn’t assume they are getting what other restaurants call “homefries”. I finished my meal and was sorely tempted by the freshly baked Pecan Sticky Buns ($4 for 6) which had been staring at me all morning, but I didn’t think they would go well with the horseradish laden Ruddy Mary I was still working on. A few reviewers have suggested Kitchen on Main is over priced, but to make that statement a diner would have to be totally unaware of what they were eating. This was easily the best breakfast (or brunch) I’ve eaten in years and the 20 mile drive to Ligonier will pose no barrier to many return trips.
Kitchen On Main on Urbanspoon

Darlington Inn-Like the Loss of a Lover

When a restaurant experience goes bad a wide range of emotions can ensue. In my case it is generally anger or in some cases simply resignation. Rarely though have I felt the sense of sadness or loss as I did last night at the Darlington Inn in Ligonier. It was almost painful, akin to the loss of a lover. The Darlington Inn is one of those restaurants that has the reputation of being obscure and special. It is owned by a Hungarian expatriate who serves the food of her native Hungary and nearby Transylvania, cuisine rarely seen in a restaurant setting in this day and age. The restaurant is in a quirky, Italian villa like building on a quiet road behind Idlewild Park. It’s not easy to find, but at least the online map services were accurate in their directions. I entered the restaurant and took a seat at the bar between a large television playing “soft rock” and two rolls of toilet paper sitting on the bar. The toilet paper was bad enough, but George Michael and Wham! Is not my idea of “setting the mood” for a dining experience. It appeared there was no bartender on duty and the two servers (who were also manning the bar ) were running around in a frenzy, leading to a 15 minute wait before I was even recognized. When I say it “appeared” there was no bartender on duty I meant there was no one stationed there. There was one bozo in shorts and tee-shirt who several times went behind the bar and got drinks for himself or other patrons, but since he spent all of his time schmoozing I couldn’t tell if he was an employee or not. The Darlington serves a buffet on Saturday nights, so when I finally received service I went with that option in order to sample several of the dishes which also appeared on the regular menu. The chafing dishes at the buffet were nearly empty, but for the most part the food looked good and I managed to scrounge enough to fill a plate. When I say “for the most part”, there were a few exceptions. The salad was nothing but browned iceberg lettuce with one unlabeled squeeze bottle of what I assumed to be dressing beside it. In addition, the vegetables were clearly a frozen commercial “blend”, a shortcut that surprised me given the “home made” character of the rest of the meal. I returned to my seat to find the server had never brought me any silverware, so I waited another 5 minutes or so until I managed to flag her down to rectify that issue. As I had passed on the brown iceberg, I started my meal with a beet-sauerkraut salad. This version appeared to have been prepared with shredded beets, although I’m not sure as it was a bit dark in my corner of the bar. Regardless, it was quite good although it would have been more refreshing if served a bit colder. I next sampled a roast pork loin with sauerkraut. Personally, I wouldn’t have used a loin for this dish as it’s too lean, but the chef timed this roast perfectly which avoided the dryness a loin usually exhibits. Töltött Káposzta, or stuffed cabbage in sauerkraut, was next and it was also well prepared. My only complaint with the three dish I had tried so far was that I felt the kraut could have been a bit sharper, a result I suppose of not using a fresh product. The Hungarian Beef stew I sampled next had that great flavor of a good paprika, but like the pork, the cut of beef used was not the best choice. It was much too lean and as a result, the beef was dry. Csirke Paprikás, or Chicken Paprikas, was the only dish I was disappointed in. Although the sauce was flavorful, the chicken was improperly browned, leading to a flabby, undercooked skin. The side dishes for these entrees were mashed potatoes and spätzle, both of which were excellent. The potatoes were clearly made from scratch and were flavorful and of the proper consistency (i.e. Not over whipped). I’m not certain the Hungarians use the term spätzle as do the Swabians, but these little dumplings were prepared and cooked to perfection. This was an absolutely great meal, especially considering the price of $12.95, but it was completely ruined by the incompetence of the front of the house management. Darlington Inn, Ligonier PAThe sadness I referred to comes from this contradiction. To have the hard work of a talented chef go to waste is truly sad. It’s a lot like being in love with a woman you simply cannot get along with. At some point you simply have to walk away, which is exactly what I’ve done with this restaurant, leaving the two rolls of toilet paper still sitting on the bar.
Darlington Inn on Urbanspoon

Nguyen Seafood & Steakhouse-Uniontown PA

Or, How to Spot a Mediocre Sushi Restaurant

The recent heat wave has driven me to spend even more time in air-conditioned bars and restaurants (mostly bars) and to consume lighter and cooler food. This craving for “cool and fresh” brought to mind sushi and led me, on a sweltering afternoon, to Nguyen Seafood and Steakhouse in Uniontown. Nguyen (pronounced “win”) is located in a small, bland strip mall on Pittsburgh Street and is marked by a modest, unimposing sign. Nguyen Seafood & Steakhouse-Uniontown PAThe modest exterior should not be taken as a predictor of the interior, as inside you will find an immaculate and sophisticated décor. The name Nguyen is Vietnamese which should raise a red flag. Rule #1: Eat sushi in a Japanese restaurant, not some other nationality. The tiny (5 seat) sushi bar is located immediately inside the entrance of the restaurant, which raised another red flag. Rule #2: A sushi bar should have a serene, relaxing atmosphere. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, even the limited traffic in and out of the front door was distracting. I can only imagine how it would be on a busy night or perhaps a January evening when the wind is gusting. I took a seat at the bar and was informed the restaurant was BYOB, so I went back to the car where I just happened to have a six of Labatt Blue chilling on ice. I would have preferred a Sapporo, but any beer with a clean finish is my preferred choice to drink with sushi. A perusal of the sushi display case raised more red flags. Rule #3: Seafood displayed in the sushi cooler should be look appealing and fresh. In this case, some of the fish were lacking the gloss of super fresh fish and the asparagus spears were either badly cooked or had sat too long as they were not bright green and were wrinkled. In addition, although I’m resigned to the fact that most restaurants now use surimi (fake crab) for Kani (crab), why do they have to advertise the fact by displaying it? The disposable pens on the counter were another bad sign. Rule #4: Good sushi bars do NOT have you place your order on a slip of paper. A good sushi experience is about building a relationship with your Itamae (Chef), and together you manage the ebb and flow of the meal. By being forced to order the entire meal at once, and doing it through a waitress instead of the Itamae, completely removes a major element of the sushi meal. In addition, having all of the sushi on the plate at once means that by the time you get to the final pieces on your plate they will likely no longer be at the proper temperature. A scan of the order sheet raised even more red flags. Rule #5: A good sushi restaurant doesn’t offer more cooked items or non-traditional items (Volcano Rolls, California Rolls, etc.) than they do raw. This restaurant offered 11 raw items if you count the Ikura (salmon roe) and Masago (flying fish roe). Compare this to a whopping 32 non-traditional items and you’ll get a sense of the kind of customers this restaurant attracts. In spite of all the red flags, I checked the little boxes, sat back and waited for my meal. I started with a bit of goma wakame, or seaweed salad. These bright green threads of wakame seaweed are combined with chiles, sesame seeds, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Since this item can be bought commercially prepared, it is difficult to tell whether it was prepared in-house. This version tasted the same as most of the others I’ve eaten, but the portion size was about double. I’m not usually one to complain about larger portions, but in this case I would have been happy with a bit smaller portion, as sesame oil has a way of sticking with you. The back of the sushi counter was very high, making it impossible to watch the Itamae prepare the meal, which removed one of he pleasures of sitting at the bar. When the food arrived, I was surprised to see that I had inadvertently ordered sashimi instead of sushi (Damn those order sheets!), but the beautiful presentation gave me some hope I would have a successful meal. The three raw items I ordered were presented in cucumber cups and were folded to resemble petals of a flower. Julienne strips of cucumber and sprigs of celery tops were placed to resemble the flower’s stamens. At first glance the presentation was successful, but closer examination revealed some flaws. The celery tops were not properly washed, leaving them marred by black specks. The wasabi was too dry, making it look like a ball of clay (complete with finger prints) and also difficult to disperse in the shoyu (soy sauce). Maguro (tuna) was the first sashimi I tried. It exhibited the clean taste you’re looking for with a clear even color. Sake (salmon) was next and although the taste was rich, I found the texture to be a bit flabby. I finished the raw fishes with the stronger tasting hamachi (yellowtail). It was a touch on the dry side, but the bold flavor you look for in hamachi was not marred by any fishiness. All three fishes were acceptable but all were served a touch too warm, a result of placing the order all at one time. I ended the meal with an order of unagi (eel) and here we had real problems. Unagi is grilled fresh water eel served with the skin on and is served hot. By the time I ate through the raw sushi the unagi was only luke warm. Even worse, the skin was no longer crisp as it should have been. I couldn’t really tell if the lack of crispness was due to improper cooking or if it simply lost it due to sitting skin side down on the plate while I ate the raw sashimi. Either way, it was a long way from proper. Overall, this was not bad sushi, but it was a bad experience. The ordering method completely ruined the ritual of eating sushi and removed the essence of the experience. In this case, the confusion of the ordering process kept me from tasting a wider range of items. If you’re looking for sushi as an appetizer before a meal, Nguyen is acceptable. However, if you want a real sushi experience look elsewhere.

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Lone Star Restaurant: Classic Diner Food

On several recent research trips to the National Road, I have found myself eating at the Lone Star Restaurant. Located in Markleysburg Pennsylvania, this Lone Star was founded 65 years before the better known chain which bears the same moniker, and is more in the mold of a diner than a steakhouse. I first stopped in for breakfast in the middle of the week and was a bit concerned that there were only two other patrons seated. I prayed the lack of business wasn’t a reflection on the quality of food or service. A menu was presented and I immediately noticed country ham was listed, which is a bit unusual to see this far north. Not having enjoyed that southern specialty recently, I ordered it along with eggs (over easy) and home fries. The only regional specialty I noticed on the breakfast menu was buckwheat cakes which were available seasonally. While waiting for the meal, I took in the interior of the restaurant which had vintage stainless pedestal stools at the counter in alternating black and red tops. The floor tiles were a matching black and red and the red laminate counter showed evidence of the presence of many elbows over the years. The pie safe displayed a tempting array of house baked pies, but it was a bit early in the day for me to get into dessert. The food arrived in a flash, as you would expect with only two other patrons in the restaurant, and I noticed immediately that what they billed as country ham was in fact a thick ham steak. I was a bit disappointed that I was not going to get my country ham fix, but that feeling soon vanished as I dug into the meal. The ham was a REAL steak, nearly ½ inch thick with a nice marrow bone in the center, as opposed to the over process molded products many restaurants use. The eggs were perfectly cooked and exhibited no off-taste from “butter flavored” oil, nor were they marred by extraneous bits of carbonized food from an improperly cleaned grill. The massive mound of home fries filled the rest of the plate, and they were prepared with freshly cooked potatoes. My only complaint was the potatoes were not seasoned. Yes, I can add salt and pepper, but the judicious addition of seasoning in the kitchen is a much better option. As I paid my check, I noticed the restaurant offered fresh-baked sweet rolls for take out sales, but those would have to wait until I drop a few pounds. Overall, a very good breakfast, but I vowed to return to see if the Lone Star could repeat the performance when the restaurant was busier.

Lone Star Restaurant interior
Vintage counter stools at the Lone Star Restaurant

I next arrived at noon on a Saturday, and the Lone Star was much busier as I had expected. Every table in the restaurant was taken, but there were still seats at the counter. My goal this time was to determine whether the food was as “home style” as advertised and whether they could crank it out when busy. The second question was answered in the affirmative when my food arrived just as fast as it had on my first visit, even though the restaurant wasnearly full. I started with a cup of chicken noodle soup ($2.45) which was advertised as being made in-house, and it was. Although it was a basic preparation, the broth was well made and seasoned properly. All of the ingredients were well cooked, with my only complaint being that the soup could have been a bit hotter. I also ordered an egg salad sandwich ($2.95) with a side of pickled egg ($.60). I know, a side of egg with an egg sandwich? Well, I didn’t order them because they were complimentary, I ordered then as indicators of how the kitchen works. I confirmed the pickled egg was Amish style, being prepared with beets, and that the kitchen knows how to properly hard boil an egg (not as cut and dried as you think).

The egg salad sandwich was ordered as a test of freshness and service speed. Egg salad easily spoils and also has the property of picking up off odors from a refrigerator when it sits too long. I could tell by looking the salad was fresh, as the kitchen had used red onion in its preparation and there was no evidence of bleeding. This was confirmed by tasting, and I was pleased to notice the toast was warm indicating that the sandwich was served immediately after it was made. It doesn’t take long for cold egg salad to cool down warm toast. Cream Pie at the Lone Star RestaurantI topped the meal with a slice of Coconut Cream Pie ($2.75), long a staple of the diner trade. This version was as good as I’ve eaten, with the impossibly high meringue showing no signs of weeping and the clearly handmade crust exhibiting no sign of sogginess. Although there was nothing terribly interesting on the menu, The Lone Star Restaurant offers up solid comfort food at a fair price. To me it’s no surprise they have been in business for 90 years, and I have no doubt they’ll be there for many more if they just keep doing what they are doing.
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