Eating is a sensory experience. You should taste, smell, touch, see and (in some cases) hear your food. This is why I hate the word “foodie.” It’s an easy title to slap on someone that writes a food blog. As I’ve said before, I’m an eater. Eating is sensory. Eating is community. Foodies post pictures of their meal to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in a “look at me” attention grab. An eater doesn’t just show you what they ate. They tell you about the smell of the smoke from the wood grill and how it permeated the tuna filet. Eaters tell you about the snap of the crab leg, the texture and taste of the slimy, briny oyster. They tell you that the head-on shrimp were some of the most beautiful pieces of seafood they ever encountered.
If Cochon is Donald Link‘s most important contribution to American cuisine, Peche Restaurant is a statement about the purity of seafood. Consider that the Gulf of Mexico has been tainted by the Deepwater Horizon oil well accident, and that it was supposed to be the death of Gulf seafood. Then, consider that the six Hopedale, La. oysters I dressed with lemon, mignonette and hot sauce, in their raw glory, were among the best I’ve ever had. As good as Hog Island. As good as Chesapeake Bay. And good enough to impress the discerning palates at Serious Easts, which just named Peche one of the “five great oyster joints in New Orleans.”
Cochon is the French word for pig, an important fact when you tell your friend that you made reservations for eight, and she says that one of our dining companions is a vegetarian.
This being my first visit to New Orleans, I wanted to try what was considered to be an important restaurant, not necessarily the best or the most popular. Food magazine Bon Appetit called Cochon Restaurant one of the 20 most important restaurants in America, crediting it with “raising the bar on rich culinary traditions of the Louisiana bayou and gave the NOLA dining scene what it was missing — a passionate pork-filled point of view.”
You picture French-inspired architecture and wide open balconies when you think of restaurants and other eateries in New Orleans. Cochon is in the middle of the Warehouse district, an area with more of an industrial feel. More Henry Ford than Louis Armstrong. But, you aren’t at Cochon for the scenery. You’re there for the pig. The glorious pig. Continue reading Cochon Restaurant, New Orleans, La.→
Admittedly, I had been hesitant to try Laci’s Tapas Bar though I don’t know why. Small plates restaurants are either very good or very bad, with no middle ground. On one side there’s the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, Tex., which was listed on Eater.com‘s lists of best and hottest restaurants in the metroplex when I visited last winter. On the other is a recently opened restaurant in Syracuse’s Armory Square that has received the same anecdotal review from everyone I have talked to: the food is ordinary and the service is terrible and borderline rude.
Laci’s opened in its current location on Hawley Avenue in 2010, after its owners moved their operation from Eastwood’s Palace Theatre. The historic house it sits in is the former Pascale’s Bake House near Catherine Street. I’m glad I did make reservations for 6 p.m. on the evening of our visit, as the restaurant would be packed with a line by the time we walked out a couple of hours later.
On my right wrist is a blue band. Ever the gadget guy, I took a dive on a Fitbit Force this week from Best Buy (Side note: I ordered it online and it arrived within 48 hours, which is pretty nice.).
Fitbit makes a couple of these wearable fitness trackers. I chose the Force because it has a silent alarm built in, a visible screen, and allegedly measures floors climbed. I say “allegedly” because it measures your floors climbed much in the same way sports watches track altitude. It’s all based on atmospheric pressure changes, of which there does not seem to be in my house (I can’t wait to see what happens when I get on a plane in a couple of weeks.). Personally, I like this for two reasons: it measures the steps I take and my sleep, which I’ve suspected has been poor recently. Based on movement, it gives me a reading on how restless I am at night and how long I was awake.
It’s all part of my technology-based plan to start living healthier. Actually, to call it a “plan” would be a overstatement. That would imply that I have a, you know, plan. I think I’m going to start by making a more concerted effort to live healthier before committing to a plan. We’ll see how that goes.
On Friday night, The Wife and I had one of our best restaurant experiences. It marked our first visit to Laci’s Tapas Bar in Syracuse’s Hawley-Green neighborhood. The menu was very reminiscent of the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas — gastropub small plates — but that was not why. At every turn, someone was talking to us, asking us how we were, if we had ever been there before, what kind of food we like so that they could suggest something. Based on the roster of staff listed on the website, we talked to both owners, two hostesses and two servers. Now, some would find this annoying or overbearing. I see this as taking pride in the business, not unlike the experience we had in Rochester this past May. It’s not often in Syracuse that a restaurant owner walks through the dining room to check on the customers. It’s also not often that you see them bussing tables either, but they were knee deep in the operation.
There is a fine line between micromanagement and being involved. It’s the idea that I would never ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t do. While there will be plenty more later on the food, I thought it was worth mentioning that the overall experience was among the best that Syracuse offers.
I really only do two of these sorts of year-end posts. This one is the most fun, because it’s a wrap-up of all the places we ate this year. Of the 17 restaurants that I reviewed this year, more than half were in the Greater Syracuse/Central New York area. The rest are in cities that I had the chance to visit either for work — Washington, D.C. and Dallas, Tex. — or during our annual summer trip to Rehoboth Beach, Del.
You can find these, and all of my restaurant visits, under the Dining Out heading.
We had childcare on Friday night, so The Wife was tasked with choosing a restaurant. A lousy week at work combined with the fear of selecting the wrong eatery (Side note: This has happened before. I give her the responsibility of picking a place and we end up at an overpriced establishment with below par food and watered-down drinks) left her rendered her decisionless and left me holding the clubs. And, since I was buying, I decided to go down the list of places I have wanted to go but, for whatever reason, have not tried.
I read about Zabroso some years back in the dining section of The Post-Standard. Chef-owner Ruben Lopez came to Upstate New York to open Rodizio — the now-shuttered Brazilian steakhouse at the Turning Stone Resort Casino — before hanging out his own shingle with Zabroso. Spanish by birth, raised in Puerto Rico and educated at the Culinary Institute of America, Lopez focuses mainly on traditional Spanish dishes, fusing Latin American touches throughout the menu.
Our 6 p.m. reservation was unnecessary as the crowd was fairly light on Friday evening. The host manning the door would end up being our server. He was nice enough, but had only a basic knowledge of the menu. He struggled to explain facets of our dishes and those at neighboring tables.
Parker’s was not the plan. It was, however, the solution.
The Wife, who also serves the CFO of our operations here at Al Dente HQ, said that dinner needed to be relatively inexpensive on Friday. I thought we would try The Bucket BBQ on the outskirts of Auburn. It had opened this year to some fanfare, and friend and fellow eater Margaret McCormick gave it thumbs up on her blog, Eat First. When we pulled into the parking lot around 6 p.m., we noticed something odd.
It didn’t look open. The sign on the door welcomed customers. There seemed to be lights on inside, but the parking lot was empty.
Friday night at 6 p.m. and no one is at your restaurant? Hmm.
This scared The Wife away and, to be honest, did not instill a lot of confidence in me either. Since I wasn’t particularly committed to The Bucket, we moved on. But to where? I know Auburn about as well as I know facets of The Wife’s family: I see them occasionally, but I couldn’t actually pair their names with their faces. Al Dente knows and trusts two restaurants in Auburn. The first, Moro’sTable, doesn’t really fit in the “relatively inexpensive” range (at least not when I eat there). The second place does.
Parker’s Grille is a family-owned chain of four restaurants in the Finger Lakes (in addition to Auburn, there are locations in Geneca, Newark and Seneca Falls). It’s a neighborhood bar and grill, in the way that Hullar’s, Riley’s, Jake Hafner’s and The Retreat do their jobs in the Syracuse area: burgers, steaks, fried stuff and a good beer selection. Yes, you can get all of that at Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday, but you know that at places like these your burger was packed by hand, the onions and tomatoes were sliced on site and the kitchen staff tries different things. You know that the wait staff believes in the menu because they make recommendations and steer you away from things without the fear of management. If I wanted a regular burger, or a burger with a bunch of stuff on it, that was formed at a processing plant, I could go to Red Robin. (I like Red Robin as far as chains go. It’s certainly better than Applebee’s.) But it’s the little things that count, and places like Parker’s do the little things.
I came to know of Parker’s through my co-worker Toni, who lived in, worked in and married a guy from Auburn. She had long raved about their honey mustard (Toni has simple needs in life. Honey mustard. Blue cheese. Rainbow cookies. Bud Light products flavored with lime.). The Wife and I first went there for dinner a few years ago while she was pregnant with The Kid. We made our return on Friday and were surprised that the wait was only 15 minutes.
The first thing that catches your attention about Parker’s is that everyone who works there is happy. From the hostess, who looked like she was going to greet us with hugs, to our waitress to the bartender…everyone was smiling. It was a little unnerving in that sense, but as The Wife pointed out, it’s possible that these people enjoy their jobs.
We spent our wait at the moderately-sized bar. It was full, but not packed and certainly not noisy. The restaurant and bar share one large space and there wasn’t a lot of spill over in between. Parker’s has an impressive draught beer selection, mixing in the big names along with choices from craft beer stalwarts like Dogfish Head, Great Lakes Brewing Company and Lagunitas.
The menu at Parker’s is exactly what one would expect. Soups, salads, and hot and cold sandwiches lead up to a choice of nine different half-pound burger varieties, including The Dewey. The house favorite is described as a beer-drinking burger and comes with bacon, grilled mushrooms, Swiss cheese and mayonnaise. Burgers and sandwiches are served with steak fries, with curly and sweet potato fries available. The menu rounds out with steaks, fried seafood and a handful of Mexican dishes.
The Wife and I started with pretzel sticks — a plate of four 8-inch soft pretzels that were oven fresh and hot. Served with foodservice nacho cheese and homemade honey mustard, they were a nice opener. The pretzels were baked to a deep brown, but not overly greasy or salty. Orange cheese from a #10 can is comforting, but disappointing from any restaurant that prides itself on homemade specialties. It’s disappointing at Boom Boom Mex Mex and was the only real disappointment at Parker’s.
I opted for one of the night’s specials, a pork burger made with meat from Bostrom Farms. Bostrom is a favorite at Al Dente and a regular at the Central New York Regional Market. The 8 oz. burger was cooked medium well, with defined grill marks on the exterior, and served with chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. The burger was very good and only a little bit of salt kept it from being excellent. I ate it with tomatoes only. The flavor reminded me how much I like Bostrom’s pork and how different factory-processed meats taste. It was juicy and tender for a medium-well burger.
The Wife was less thrilled with her choice of a beef on a weck, but she admitted that it was her fault. “It’s not the Beef n Barrel, but it will do.” (The Beef is an Olean, N.Y. restaurant that was fine dining for St. Bonaventure students. Their specialty was thin-sliced roast beef and the beef on a weck — a regional favorite — was nothing short of an art form there. You want to order two of these at dinner — one to eat and the other to take home for later.) By all accounts, the sandwich was perfectly fine. The kimmelweck roll had a nice collection of caraway seeds and salt on top. The beef was razor thin and the horseradish was lethal. Served au jus, it was fine. It just wasn’t The Beef. The Wife later admitted that she should have known better.
All the while, drink glasses never went dry, and everyone on staff smiled and was attentive to everything. From the hostess to the busser to the wait staff, things moved with precision to turn over covers and seat new customers. The bar never got loud or rowdy and the dining room was a steady mix of families and couples.
It seems odd to drive nearly an hour to eat a hamburger, but the burger is more than just food at Parker’s. From the moment you walk in the door, you get the impression that they are working on how to get you to come back. A restaurant where good food is exceeded by excellent service. Imagine that?
Parker’s Grille is located at 129 Genesee St. in Auburn. They also have locations in Geneva, Newark and Seneca Falls. Parking is on-street only. Reservations are not accepted. Dinner, with drinks and a generous (but deserved) tip, was $47.00.
NOTE: I am expecting people to read the following entry and tell me that I am wrong, uninformed, missing the point, and/or a terrible human being who should spend his time eating at Applebee’s. I have braced for impact.
I know nothing about how to run a restaurant. As someone who is particular about where he eats, though, there are certain things which separate good from the rest. The men from the boys. The lion from the rest of the jungle.
A restaurant should aim for a particular demographic. A great restaurant aims for their demographic, but welcomes everyone else without pretense.
A restaurant should have a basic theme or a hook that makes them unique. A great restaurant not only has a theme, but they also have personality and energy.
A restaurant should have a menu. A great restaurant offers you an experience.
So, what am I getting at? I went to LoFo. I ate at LoFo. Alas, I didn’t like LoFo.
The audible gasps among 21-35 year old women and men with beards is expected. That’s fine. Let me continue…
Its demographic seems pretty straightforward. LoFo aims right at the heart of the locavore movement. Heidelberg Baking Company and Harrison Bakery breads. Recess Coffee. Locally sourced foods prepared fresh. Very respectable. The menu shows a strong balance between vegan, vegetarian and carnivore. It also features a number of raw and gluten-free foods. Traffic in and out of the restaurant on Friday when I visited was decidedly female, between the ages of 25 and 40. There were some bearded and tattooed men that came in from the neighboring art spaces, but the professional women who work in Armory Square make this place tick. Again, this is all respectable and our market needs restaurants like these.
Ordering was done at the counter with a paper menu placed in front of me by a rather disengaged staff member. She was not much for conversation, giving off the vibe that she could not be bothered to respond to my questions as if I should already know the answers. With two people at tables already eating and only me in line, I thought her impatience at my reading of the menu was a little much.
The lunchtime menu is pretty basic: four sandwiches, two soups and a handful of salads, plus the daily specials. An extensive list of vegetable juices and almond milk smoothies highlight a drink menu that includes looseleaf teas and small batch sodas. A breakfast menu includes eggs, pancakes, and sides to satisfy carnivores and herbivores alike. After ordering, paying and being prompted to tip by the iPad screen used as a cash register, I grabbed a table and began scrolling through Twitter to pass the time. I popped my iPhone’s camera app open to take the above photo of the interior and got an “If you do that again, you will be asked to leave” look from the snarly counter staffer. Her icy glare continued until she was sure I was reading something on my iPhone and no longer using it to take a photo.
The chicken and brie sandwich was, on the outset, what I would consider to be a perfect lunch-sized sandwich. Not too small, but not too big. Shredded chicken, pear slices and a creamy brie were served between two thick slices of Heidelberg Baking Company cracked wheat bread and grilled. The sandwich had a good flavor, thanks to the pear, but was mostly bread. A side salad of mixed greens with a mystery dressing (I asked the snarly counter staffer who told me that she would find out and tell me. She didn’t. I’m guessing miso and ginger.) filled the plate, but didn’t make up for the rather paltry portion of chicken. It made me wonder what the $9.50 was paying for.
The chorus will say that I shouldn’t look at the price tag. They will say that I am supporting a local business that is supporting local businesses and, sometimes, that costs more. Trust me. I get it.
The Honey Bear smoothie proved to be the highlight of the meal. Served in a pint-sized beer glass, the smoothie was a balanced blend of peanut butter, almond milk, banana, honey and cinnamon. It had bite. It had sweetness. It was creamy. It was $6. It was the best thing placed in front of me.
A steady trickle of customers made their way into LoFo during the 30 or so minutes I was there. It was fun to watch the snarly counter staffer interact with the loyal regulars and treat the first-timers like, well, like she had treated me.
As far as concepts go, LoFo is good. It could probably be strong. It joins local mainstays like Alto Cinco, Empire Brewing Company, Dinosaur Barbque, and Riley’s (among others) in promoting the idea of eating where you live. It has a loyal base of supporters and good for them. But, to me, it seems like it’s trying too hard. It wants to be the cool, different kid in the Armory Square mix of bar-restaurants and fine dining, but it doesn’t know how. It wants to be Open Face or the Beer Belly Deli but it’s still developing its niche. It wants to be in Syracuse, but it needs Syracuse to think more like Ithaca. It wants to branch out and spread its message, but it treats new customers like locavore luddites that take up space better suited to its wheatgrass slurping twentysomethings.
“It is cool and different,” they’ll say. “You just don’t get it. It’s not for you.”
And that might be the problem.
Maybe LoFo isn’t for me and my ilk. Maybe it’s just for the people in their loyal fanbase who “get it.” And that might be why the crowd was cozy and small at LoFo, while the lines at other establishments in Armory Square were out their respective front doors.
Maybe I am too old for LoFo. Maybe I’m just a cranky, curmudgeonly jerk. Maybe this was a snapshot of an off day at LoFo.
Maybe I wanted a relaxed lunch and, instead, got a wheelbarrow of attitude.
Maybe I’ll learn from my mistakes and go to one of my regular haunts next time.
LoFo is located at 214 Walton St. in Syracuse’s Armory Square district near Onondaga Creek. It is open Monday through Saturday for breakfast and lunch. Lunch for one was $16.51.