The first Panini Sunday of Autumn 2014 was actually last week. I made a sopressata, genoa salami and fresh mozzarella panini that turned into a greasy, sloppy mess. Worse, there were spots in the meat that got hotter than others, so in those spaces where the sandwich did hold up, you could incinerate your tongue.
Before we get going here, I think it’s necessary to say a couple of words about bacon. I think we can all come together on the fact that bacon is both extremely tasty and not good for you at the same time. I think most of us will agree that the best bacon is made by your butcher in the backroom of his or her shop. If you’ve never had fresh bacon, get to Bostrom Farms, Side Hill Farmers, The Piggery, or a meat store near you.
I think we can also agree that turkey or tofu bacon is actually a by-product of the Cold War, manufactured by the Soviets to break us apart as a nation.
The only thing that lingers around The Wife’s family more than my family is Catholic Guilt. It strikes The Wife during the midway point of Lent, after multiple Friday dinners of burgers and another year without attending Ash Wednesday mass. To calm this, she will bring tuna salad for lunch on Fridays. She takes a can of tuna, mixes it with just enough mayonnaise to dirty a spoon, and eats it with crackers.
That’s a rather pedestrian blend for me. My go-to tuna salad mixes chopped black olives, chopped dill pickle, a little minced garlic, dill, salt, pepper, celery, red onion and enough mayo to bind everything. Slap that on a heel of Italian bread, crush some potato chips on it and we’re talking mana right there.
I was going to make that for dinner tonight, but decided to try something different. A few weeks ago, I run across a Sicilian tuna salad recipe in one of Tom Colicchio’s Wichcraft cookbooks. I decided that I wanted to use his recipe as the base of a sandwich but without the lemon confit, lemon mayo and, well, lemon. This was because, well, I forgot to buy lemons and lemon juice today. I’m terrible.
WHAT WORKED: Tuna in water. One might think that since we’re mixing tuna with oil that we should use tuna packed in oil. One would be wrong. You want to control the quality and quantity of oil that you are using here, so go with the stuff packed in water, drain it well, and go to town. I used an artisan hojiblanca olive oil from The Filling Station in NYC, which has a very herbal, grassy flavor that complements the rest of this sandwich. My point is that you should control the flavor here, not the tuna company.
WHAT DIDN’T: Lemons would have been nice, but I made up for the acid with red and white wine vinegar.
WHAT DID THE WIFE SAY: “I like this more than I thought I would.”
WILL IT MAKE ANOTHER APPEARANCE: I think we have a new tuna variation to work into the rotation.
Pick the fronds off the fennel bulb and reserve. Slice the stem off the bottom and, with a sharp knife or mandoline, thinly slice the bulb. Combine the fennel slices, fronds and red onion in a medium bowl and mix together with your hands. Drizzle 2 tbsp. of olive oil and white wine vinegar over the top, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Set aside for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
Drain the packing water from your tuna and add to a mixing bowl with the olives. Add the remaining olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper to the bowl and toss thoroughly. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes.
Slice your loaf of bread lengthwise and tear out some of the bread from each side. Add the tuna to the bottom of the loaf, followed by the marinated fennel. Place the top of the bread on the loaf and cut into the desired portions.
NOTE: Al Dente Express is my answer for what to do when I want to talk about a place or places I visited, but it doesn’t warrant a full-on, exhaustive review. Here is a wrap of two remarkable sandwiches from New Orleans.
By definition, a muffaletta is a type of seeded Sicilian bread that resembles a foccacia. In 1906, it took on a new meaning when Central Grocery in New Orleans stuffed the bread with ham, salami, mortadella, provolone cheese, and olives steeped in oil. When you walk into the grocery on Decatur Street, you are immediately corralled into a line. Locals shopping for imported Italian products utilize the same line for checkout. You step to the counter, order your sandwich (or bowl of olive salad or stuffed artichoke), pay and move on. A small room with stools and countertops offer space to eat on site.
What separates the muffaletta from the sandwich that my grandmother or father might make is the prep time. Yes, slapping some meat and olives on a loaf of bread does not take up a lot of time. Letting it stand while tightly wrapped in wax paper and plastic wrap, so that the olives and oil permeate the crusty bread makes the sandwich special. My muffaletta half constituted one of the largest sandwiches I’ve ever consumed. And it was glorious.
It was so good that I bought a bottle of olive salad to bring home. It’s sold at the counter, wrapped and boxed for travel. I may share it with The Wife. I may grab a loaf of bread, hide in the basement and eat the jarful myself. It depends on how the day goes.
Digressing, every little sandwich shop on Decatur Street claims to have a muffaletta. That’s nice. But, when you go to New Orleans, you have the copycats and the originals. You go to Pat O’Brien’s for the hurricane, Cafe du Monde for beignets and Central Grocery for a muffaletta. Let the others do whatever it is that they do. You eat lunch the right way.
The text message from my friend Mike was simple: “If you make it to New Orleans, get to Mother’s for a roast beef poboy.” Mike doesn’t often implore me to do things, but I tend to listen when he does. As a former resident of The Big Easy, he carries some credibility here.
I was dismayed to find out that Mother’s Restaurant was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Guy Fieri sets back food much in the same way as The Olive Garden and Hamburger Helper. He’s a terrible television host, terrible restauranteur, and terrible person. But, (I was mistaken. Guy Fieri never visited Mother’s on his TV show. He’s still horrible though.)
Mike never steers me wrong. Mother’s Restaurant would be the last New Orleans food we consumed before getting out of town.
The line out front of Mother’s on Poydras Avenue was about 25 minutes long. We were punching a clock, having to meet an airport shuttle in 90 minutes, but decided to give it a go. Mother’s serves breakfast all day and brags that it roasts more than 175,000 lbs. of roast beef and ham each year. Judging by what the waitstaff delivers to the table, waffles, red beans and rice, and turtle soup are also popular choices. But, I was there with orders.
Po’ boys come dressed — shredded cabbage, pickles, mayo, and yellow and creole mustards — and in the whole or 2/3 varieties. Meat versions include the original Famous Ferdi with ham, roast beef, debris and gravy (debris is the pieces of beef that fall off the roast while cooking; gravy is an au jus), turkey, ham, roast beef, various combinations and a straight debris po’ boy. Seafood choices, which are dressed with mayo, cabbage and pickles, include shrimp, oyster, catfish and soft shell crab. While I’m partial to the soft shell, I and one of my dining companions had the roast beef, while The Boss ordered the Famous Ferdi.
My whole version had close to a half-pound meat — more thin-sliced roast beef than debris — and was served on a slightly-soggy french bread roll. The wetness is fine, because you want that gravy. There’s something about the flavors of gravy, mayo and mustard all mixed together. The two-thirds proved to be too much from my roast beef friend, and I ended up eating half of her’s. Was it a work of art? Not by any means, but this isn’t art gallery food. It’s a sandwich that is so good that you don’t want to wash your hands afterwards, just so you can keep the smell of gravy on your fingers for the rest of the day.
You want in American umami? It comes from both of these places:
Central Grocery is located at 923 Decatur St., in the French Market District in New Orleans, La. They are open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mother’s Restaurant is located at 401 Poydras St. at Tchoupitoulas in New Orleans’ Central Business District. They are open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I’m not entirely sure what the point of panini recipes are. Most of these are sandwiches you would eat cold and, sure, who would have thought to combine chicken, figs and arugula? That said, it seems like a simple enough task, right? Right? Yet, there are people who write panini cookbooks and make quite a bit of money for their work.
Take this week’s installment in Panini Sunday. It wasn’t brain surgery and calling it chicken cordon bleu is stretching it. When I was in high school, I worked at a bagel shop/deli where the chicken cordon bleu sub included deep-fried chicken tenders, sliced ham, swiss cheese and Russian dressing (the owner was such a cheap bastard that we made our own Russian: mayo, ketchup and pickle juice). For some reason, the combination of chicken, ham and cheese gets the incorrect title of cordon bleu (which is French for blue cordon).
Last year, I rolled with the turkey empanadas to make use of our leftovers. Those were awesome, but I was sitting on a lot of food and was unsure of the best way to plow through it.
Sure, The Sister took some back to Strong Island and we all have been grabbing pinches of turkey meat and tucking it into our lip like it was Red Man. But, how many times can you eat the same reheated turkey buffet before it gets boring?
In an effort to test The Wife’s limits of carbohydrate digestion, I thought about a panini. Why couldn’t the stuffing, potatoes and turkey work between two slices of bread?
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.