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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.

 
Nguyen Seafood & Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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