Bien Trucha / Geneva, IL

Photo courtesy of Geneva Daily Photo

Photo courtesy of Geneva Daily Photo

If you are ever in downtown Geneva around eating time, you might be perplexed to see a line out the door of a tiny white building.  You’ll probably be driving too fast to even notice the small sign that is affixed on the window that says “Bien Trucha“.  Either way, you  will, like me, spend the next ten years wondering what the heck that place must serve in an otherwise chain restaurant town.  I’ll spare you the time, they sell the best.

It doesn’t even matter that I didn’t finish that sentence.  The best what?  It’s just the best.  I really should just leave it at that, because you just need to go for yourself, but since that’s not common restaurant review practice, I’ll continue.

On a weekday afternoon, Michael and I strolled into the busy joint without a wait.  White walls, minimal Mexican inspired art, and quaint pillows to cushion the wooden benches gave the place a trendy, yet somewhat homey vibe.  All the waiters smiled and made sure we were taken care of by bringing us a heaping bowl of homemade chips and the most amazing pureed bean dip I had ever tasted.  Warm and bursting with flavor, it gave me the same feeling a warm soup might give at a chilly tailgate.

Our waiter quickly persuaded us to order the guacamole with the fruit of the day (plum) and two cups of crema de chile poblano soup.  The guacamole had minimal salt and played delicately on the palette, making you feel like you were running through an avocado farm.  The soup, made Michael and I stop in our tracks.  A natural bright green, the pureed poblano mingled effortlessly with potato cubes and queso fresco.  It was the kind of soup that would make you give up all other food for the rest of your life.  Rich, creamy, and able to taste every flavor, it was the perfect meal, snack, dessert, and breakfast.

The cheese for my cazeulitas was served in a small rectangular dish, accompanied by fresh, warm tortillas wrapped in a beautiful towel, all served on a wooden platter.  The de Champiiones featured wild mushrooms, chile de arbol, garlic, onion, crema fresca, and chihuahua cheese, all melding together in my warm corn tortilla to create a delicious lunch.  Michael’s Bien Trucha tacos came with three homemade beauties stuffed with grilled skirt steak, home-made chorizo, chihuahua, and roasted tomatillo-serrano salsa.  He stayed silent for the whole meal, eyes closed.  That’s a sure sign of enjoyment. Our sides of esquites and arroz poblano were equally as thought out, homestyle delicious.

My only complaint is that I wish I had dined at Bien Trucha earlier.  The entire staff was friendly, ready to explain each menu item and what makes it delicious.  I was so delighted at the showcase of fresh ingredients and their true-to-their roots in each item on their menu.  A must eat.

 

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Forest Grill / Birmingham, MI

Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press

After becoming enrapt in Bryan Polcyn’s book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, Michael was eager to try the author’s restaurant, located only a half hour from our home.  After being disappointed in previous dining experiences in the area, we weren’t sure what to expect from the restaurant, but we were ready to try Forest Grill.

Nestled close to downtown, we arrived for an early dinner on a Saturday, where we were seated immediately.  A friendly hostess handed us our menu and we were quickly engulfed in the descriptions of the seasonal menu.  Our waiter, a tall man with kind eyes, promptly brought us bread and water, and briefly filled us in on the menu.  Knowledgeable and proud of the offerings, he was incredibly helpful throughout the entire night, providing excellent recommendations.

To begin, I ordered a glass of Cave de Vendome Cocagne Rosé Pineau D’Aunis, Loire 2011, a delightfully sweet Rose reminiscent of a balmy summer day.  The large selection of wines could possibly overwhelming, but with a well read sommelier, and a much smaller selection of wines by the glass, it was easy to choose what might pair best with your night.  In addition to the wine we ordered a half plate of the charcuterie board and cheese plate.  According to Michael, the charcuterie board was out of this world, possibly one of the best he had ever had.  With Proscuitto, duck pate, and Pancetta, he was more than pleased.  The cheese plate was less impressive, but the pickled additions were perfectly preserved.

At the recommendation of our waiter, we ordered the farm egg, which was a beautifully wrapped 5 minute egg surrounded by Nameko mushrooms and Madeira Sabayon.  It was something I would be happy to indulge in every morning.

When Michael’s veal loin and my strawberry gazpacho arrived, we were a little floored.  For Michael, his loin was twirled alongside asparagus and chanterelles.  It was obvious that the chef had given some serious thought to what should accompany the veal, instead of just slapping a potato and vegetable next to his meat.  He claimed that the veal was cooked tenderly and the sides were impressive.  My gazpacho faired similarly, as the fresh strawberries were muddled together with an artful dash of sauce and the faintest hint of ramps and basil.  It seemed to be the perfect meal to kiss summer goodbye softly.

For dessert, we feasted on the sweetest Mille Feuille, a French delicate puff pastry with a lemon mousse, which was accompanied by fresh berries.   We also indulged in a marscapone mousse, complete with candied rhubarb and mint.  Both were delightful, melt in your mouth sweet pieces of heaven.

I am happy to say that Forest Grill gave us exactly what we wanted-a delicious, well thought out meal that didn’t leave us feeling stuffed.  The atmosphere was quite and clean, leaving only room for great conversation from the company you bring.  Certainly a great place to take a loved one.

Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese / Review

If there is one thing that is constant about me in this world, it is that I love cheese.  Ask my parents and they will gladly tell you the mass amounts of Kraft cheddar I used to consume.  As I grew, so did my palate and now I can say that my happiness lies in artisan wheels.  One of the most frustrating things about good cheese, though, is that purchasing it can be scary.  There are so many kinds, all with vastly different flavors, and you can’t remember any of their names.  You step up to the counter, looking wary, and quickly mumble your favorite cow’s milk variety.  Moments ago, you were confident, ready to break out of your realm of familiarity, but here you are, doing nothing of the sort.

Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings, written by Tenaya Darlington, effortlessly breaks down those barriers, categorizing each type of cheese as you would a potential suitor.  The chapter of “baby faces” showcases young cheeses like ricotta and burrata, while “Mountain Men” features bold hunks you might like to take on a day outdoors or snack along with a cold brew.  And if Darlington knows anything about cheese (she does, by the way.  Check out her stellar blog), you’ll easily be able to find your way to cheese heaven through her easy guides.

The Italian Di Bruno Bros own the namesake cheese shop in Philly, and have since 1939.  The collaboration is seamless, as there are many tidbits of advice from cheesemongers from the shop sprinkled next to descriptions.

With each description of the taste (which will leave your mouth watering, guarnteed), she also describes their personality.  Leonora, a Spanish goat’s milk cheese, for example, is described as “a head-turning blonde on a lemon cake bender.”  Finally, she lists food that might pair well with the cheese in question, in addition to any wine or beer.

With an indulgent cuisine that can leave many feeling overwhelmed and confused, Darlington mixes guides for buying, pairing, and cooking all into one place.  If you’re too embarrassed to bring in your highlighted, dog-eared copy into your own cheese shop, I suggest making a small list of all that appeals to you.  I know I did!

Cypress / Charleston, South Carolina

Michael and I

Michael and I

There is a lot to be said about Charleston’s history, food culture, and the lovely people who inhabit the peninsula.  What most sticks out in my mind about that town, however, is the rain.  In the Midwest, we get a significant amount of rain, enough to make you want to stay home and read a book or something moody like that.  We don’t though, because we have lives and rain boots.  The rain in Charleston is nothing like this, though.  Because the town was built on a marsh, when it rains, there is no stopping it-and nowhere to put it.  Below is what we drove through.

Flood

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After this, the town essentially shut down.  Shops closed, people went home, and that was that.  Had we not had dinner reservations at Cypress, we might have joined them.  I am glad we didn’t.

We entered the massive dining room, immediately feeling underdressed in our raincoats and soaked hair.  Our gracious hostess immediately calmed our worries, and led us across the empty dimly lit purple dining room.  Seated next to the open kitchen on tall white clothed seats, our waitress chatted us up about the weather of Charleston and filled us in on the chef’s impressive credentials.  A James Beard award winner for his charcuterie program and a tantalizing menu that highlighted local food, I looked over as Michael’s eyes began to twinkle.

Cypress's Open Kitchen

Cypress’s Open Kitchen

Promptly ordering two charcuterie boards and oysters, we tucked into our house made bread.  Soon, our appetizers arrived and we discovered why the chef was so celebrated for his meats.  The salami board featured fennel salami, picante, saucisson sec, and Tuscan beef, all plainly displayed on a white platter.  Flavorful, succulent, and expertly crafted, there was no oversalting or overpowering flavor.  The second board featured summer sausage, pork pate, braunschweiger, and bologna with a few pickled vegetables and flaky buttermilk biscuits.  It was difficult to sneak in words to describe our satisfaction between bites.

The boys daringly tried their oysters adorned with tuna.  Marveling at the briney, but less than fishy taste, they finished the slippery, fresh buggers in minutes.  Our main courses arrived promptly, and my mom and I dove into our toasted ricotta gnocchi with corn relish.  A mere side dish on the menu, this selection deserved its own category.  Each little pillow was cooked just enough to make the outside crunchy, but leave the ricotta smooth and creamy on the inside.  Our side of charred okra and eggplant was a little too rich for our taste, but the char really brought out the divine flavors of fresh okra.

The boys meals faired equally.  Between Michael’s scallops and pork belly with succotash, and my dad and Austin’s pork and egg, they were all in carnivore heaven.  The heirloom tomato and dill sauce salad was an effortless homage to the beauties of a Southern summer.  The sauce was a tangy contrast to the vibrant burst of the tomatoes.  The croquettes were the only low point to the boys’ meals, as instead of the traditional mashed potato mixed with cheese, these were simply breaded and cooked whole baby reds.

Finally, our bellies were sufficiently stuffed, but we couldn’t leave without dessert.  The chocolate hazelnut torte created small bubbles of sugar on our tongues, simultaneously cleansing our palette and satisfying our sweet tooth.  Our creme brulee was nothing short of the expected crusty custard.  The chocolate sauce on top was decidely decorative, but detracted from the overall flavor.  Finally, our cheese board, filled with Fiscalini, Green Hill, Point Reyes, and (my absolute favorite cheese) Humbolt Fog, topped off the meal nicely.

Walking out of the restaurant into the sprinkling shower summer night, we all agreed that driving rain or not, we were sure glad we stayed.

Husk / Charleston, SC

My Mom and brother on the front porch of Husk

My Mom and brother on the front porch of Husk

Husk was a restaurant I had been salivating over for quite some time.  After a coworker showed me an article written up about the chef in a favorite magazine, I was dazzled with the idea of a restaurant that served nothing native to North of the Mason Dixon.  I thought that maybe this place would have to reside in my dreams for a while, but on a family trip to Hilton Head, I finally got my chance.

Austin, Michael, and I a few blocks from Husk

Austin, Michael, and I a few blocks from Husk

It would be unfair to say that Husk is the most beautiful building in Charleston, because, well, every building is beautiful.  Set in the scenic downtown where historic antebellum homes sit atop cobblestone walkways, Husk’s gleaming white exterior beckons you to sit atop its porch and relax.  I felt as if I was walking up to a long lost grandmother’s home, not a restaurant.  Inside was a similar vibe.  I was surprised with how contemporary the place seemed, grey walls, tall ceilings, and detailed features steered very clear of the kitschy kitchen I had in mind.  The waiters all wore plaid and many had impressive mustaches, so the pretenses were kept low.  We were seated exactly at our reservation time (reservations are very difficult to get-plan ahead!) and greeted by a cheerful waiter.  Then our fun began.

We started off with the compressed watermelon, which our waiter was happy to explain to us.  Put in a bag and sucked of all air, the watermelon is left looking a little pinker than usual.  Sprinkled with a smattering of salt and served on a beautiful tray, we gobbled it up.  It was great watermelon, but perhaps I missed out on something, for it tasted just like other watermelon.  The bread, however, was divine.  With a choice of duck fat butter and regular, we smeared our little buns with plenty to keep us licking our lips for more.

When the food arrived, we were most impressed by the presentation.  My mom and I’s salads came in large wooden bowls that looked as if they had been carved out of a tree that day.  Diving into the bibb lettuce, beets, and most delectable bleu cheese, we were hooked.  The buttermilk dressing that tied it all together made the whole thing as flavorfully indulging as the most decadent hamburger.  Each fresh ingredient was able to shine and we were happy.

Michael had no words for his wood fired quail, farro, peaches, and arugula, only smiles.  Finally stating that it was, “cooked perfectly and delicious,” we concluded that those would be his last words of the dining experience.  My dad was equally as pleased with Carolina catfish with fried cabbage and sweet peas.  My brother, whom we had suspected to be the most unadventurous, was pleasantly surprised to learn that his hamburger of choice had actually been rated as one of the top ten in America.  “It was really good,” he said, shaking his head and looking down at the burger.  Our waiter even informed us with a chuckle that some people come from all over to try the famous slab of meat, only to ask for it plain.  Our sides, bacon cornbread and cheesy mushroom grits left us feeling satisfied and a little overstuffed.  Rubbing my stomach, I wondered what would happen to myself if I ate those grits every day of my life.

As with any Oswalt family meal, nothing ends until the sugar arrives.  Our waiter realized at this point that we were all ears when it came to the process of making the foods, and quickly filled us in on the desserts.  After much hesitation (how can you say no to so many booze infused goodies?) we decided on the Blueberry Boy Bait, a 1950s recipe that included lime ice cream and smoked pecan crumble.  The flavors, mixed together, were the best way to beat the Carolina heat any day.

The meal was lovely, the service was great, and the atmosphere was cozy, so what am I complaining about?  My only qualm with Husk was the lack of vegetarian food.  Don’t get me wrong, my salad was spectacular, and the grits were amazing, but I would have loved to see something that allowed their farm fresh produce to shine, not take a supporting role to meat.

Satisfied and happy, we left with the assurance that we had not only filled our bellies to the brim, but ate at a true gem.

The streets of Charleston

The streets of Charleston

Grange Kitchen & Bar / Ann Arbor, MI

Michael and I in Ann Arbor

Michael and I in Ann Arbor

When deciding on a day trip to Ann Arbor, I believe the respectable thing to do is to eat at Zingerman’s Deli.  I mean, why not?  It’s delicious, has a store chock full of goodies, and is the place to go in Southeast Michigan.  However, this post is not about Zingerman’s.  It is about what happens when you venture out of your pastrami and pickle comfort zone and into the streets of Ann Arbor.

We discovered Grange Kitchen & Bar as we walked down a side street, off of the main drag.  Our stomachs quickly deciding for us that any food is better than no food, we opened the door that led us down an long, narrow hallway.  We were quickly seated at a booth by our friendly host and began to take a look around.  The decor was unassuming, just a few large prints of vegetables on cream colored walls.  The only other decoration was a wall-sized chalkboard that listed out the days specials, as well as where the vegetables had come from.  Because it was brunch, their special for the day was a chocolate chip fritter, for a mere $2.

The menu included some of the usual offerings, but the pairings were less than normal.  The fried egg sandwich came with chile mayo, the seasonal vegetable hash with wax beans, and the buttermilk pancakes were lemon.  Each thing sounded a little better than the next.  Starting with coffee and the charcuterie board, we settled in for some lavish tastings.

Our appetizer arrived quickly, and plated beautifully on a white plate with small glass jars holding duck pate and pickled vegetables.  Beets, carrots, and green beans mingled together in their vinegar soft shells and tasted of a bountiful harvest.  Michael commented that the pickled pig’s heart was delightful, a word not many would use to describe such an organ.  Satisfied with our first tastes, and our velvety coffee, we awaited our entrees.

My mozzarella, basil, and red pepper omelette came out a bright yellow, a sure sign that the eggs came from well kept chickens.  Biting into the brunch, it was almost like it was screaming, “SUMMER! This is what summer tastes like!”, because, really, it did.  The peppers and basil were fresh, and the mozzarella blended perfectly, not runny at all.  The potatoes were also another strong point.  Not cooked too much, and with a strong flavor, they complimented my fresh omelette nicely.

Michael was in heaven with his order of the duck confit poutine over two fried eggs.  The French fries, crispy, danced with the duck confit, not giving the breakfast too much of a duck flavor.  “That was just about the best poutine I have eaten,” were some of the only words I could get out of him in between bites.

Ready for more, we noticed ice cream was on the blackboard.  Flavors like popcorn, mint, and lemon balm enticed us to try a few flavors, which all arrived in small glass jars.  Each one a creamy blend of the ice cream and its mix in, we were floored.  The chocolate Dragon’s Milk, made with the New Holland brew by the same name.  Not overpoweringly alcoholic (or chocolate for that matter) I could see it pairing well with a hot summer day.  The sage, the more savory of all flavors, left us dreaming of what we could do with all the sage on our front porch.  Fresh and distinct, it was a wonderful way to use extra harvest.  But finally, the lavender and lemon one was to die for.  I could have easily bought an entire gallon of it and chowed down on my journey home.  So light and fresh, but never overly sweet, it was like the flavors were meant to be together.  After talking to our lovely waiter, he informed us that the ice cream was made in house by their pastry chef-and that she sells pints at Ann Arbor’s Farmers Market every Wednesday.  If you want to check her out, which I suggest you do, click here for her Facebook link.

I have to say, I couldn’t be happier with our decision to venture from the norm.  An excellent meal, friendly service, and a dessert that will keep us coming back more than we should, sure made our day.  To top it all off, we were able to support Michigan farmers while filling our bellies!

Roast / Detroit

Salt.  I can comment mostly on the excessive amount of the simple seasoning that was poured over every one of my dishes, and less on the actual taste, for it was clouded by the salt.  After hearing multiple accounts that Michael Symon’s Roast was one of the best in the area, Michael and I hopped in our car and sped off to Detroit, not entirely aware of what we were getting ourselves into.

The restaurant, located in the heart of downtown and connected to a Westin hotel, we were greeted by two hostesses in a dimly lit foyer, who led us to an even more dimly lit dining room.  The tables were large booths raised off the ground and carpeted with cushion-y vinyl.  Although it was mildly comfortable, someone must have forgotten that booths are made for eating, as the table seats tilted one back so far that they were no longer in line with the table.

Our waitress greeted us promptly, and quickly handed me the drink menu, all on an iPad.  The list was extensive, and came from an equally impressive bar, finished in dark wood and made to look almost black.  After quickly perusing the beer menu, I settled on Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, and let me say, it was delicious.  A bourbon complimented the beer perfectly, and left me with a thick, almost chocolately drink with a high alcohol content.  Perfect for sipping.

However, we didn’t come for the drinks, so we started in on the menu.  Michael ordered the charcuterie board and the bone marrow for himself, and was excited to try something new.  The provisions board arrived, with a variety of different meats to try, along with pickled onions and honey mustard sauce.  He commented that the board’s offerings were good, but nothing special and eagerly awaited the marrow.  When it arrived, two bones sliced open with the marrow seasoned in the middle, he sopped up the insides with bread, happy to have tried something different.  He was mildly upset, however, that everything he had ordered thus far didn’t have any particular flair to it.

As a vegetarian, I often go into new restaurants understanding that my meal might be significantly different than my dining partners. I have been to many places with great vegetarian offerings, but some seem to fall short and only offer salads and sides.  I am by no means the kind of person that would want a chef to cater to me, as I have chosen to restrict my diet, but sometimes I become bored of the tiresome options that are presented to me.  Roast was no exception, with nary a entree or appetizer for me to chomp on.  I decided on one of two options for my main, a goat cheese salad, and had mixed feelings about it.  I was really pleased to see that the goat cheese was actual chevre, and not just the kind that comes in a tube and often sprinkled over a salad to add trendiness.  The chunks were poured over arugula and mixed in with strawberries and pecans, which were all high quality and bursting with flavor.  My disdain was towards the over dressing, that left my mouth unhappily vinegar-ed and unreasonably salty.  Michael had ordered their soup, which was a white bean, chicken, and ham combination that left him puckering his lips and chugging his water.

Finally, our mains arrived.  My soft polenta side began as a sweet mix of corn bits and cream, but rapidly ended as I realized the only seasoning in the dish was salt.  Salt, salt, and more salt, was suddenly all I could taste.  Michael, who ordered the “beast of the day”, was presented with shredded lamb bits topped with salsa verde and garnished with tortilla chips.  “This tastes really Greek,” he mentioned, pulling out a piece of parsley from his dish.  His dish too was, surprise, way too salty. We also couldn’t figure out why each beast of the day came prepared the same way, as the menu suggested.

Finally, wanting to give the place one last hope, we ordered two desserts.  The beer and pretzels, which came served in a pint glass made me almost forget about the meal I had just had.  Beer ice cream, topped with a caramel foam and mixed in with chocolate covered pretzels, was the perfect grown up answer to a milk shake.  The ice cream was a foamy mix of cold beer and cream, which made me want to take a pint home for myself.  The peaches and blackberries with sweet corn ice cream was another story, though.  I imagine it was supposed to look something like a pie, as it was topped with an incredibly soupy crumble.  When we dug in, it was more soup, and we quickly realized that there were no blackberries, only blueberries.  The sweet corn ice cream tasted more like flavorless ice cream, and the peaches were freezer burned.

We walked out of Roast feeling incredibly disappointed.  The best meals we had had recently came from renowned places, ones that didn’t have fancy chef names or big advertisements.  They were just places where people wanted to make really good food, and wanted you to enjoy it too.  I hate to believe that Roast is this disappointing, given the great reviews I have heard in the past, but feel like we ordered enough from the menu to get a good feel for what they had.  If you really want to give it a shot, I suggest going to the bar and ordering drinks and dessert.  But, if you would rather just drive around and find a place that might tickle your fancy, I advise you strongly to do so.