Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tony D-elightfuls's

(Sorry about the lame stock photography in this post - I thought my coworkers might think it was weird if I pulled out a camera and started photographing everyone's dinner - although I now that I have several meals with them I am thinking they may have been pretty cool about it.)

I had been to Tony D's exactly one time since living in New London. It was for my former employer's company Christmas party. We shuffled in off the street to a very basic nondescript banquet room with nondescript folding tables and chairs cushioned in a nondescript color. We severed ourselves from a buffet that had grown room-temperature as opposed to hot by the time Noe and I made our way up. We thought the calamari was pretty excellent, but everything else was run-of-the-mill, slightly bland buffet food.

I know better than to judge a restaurant by a banquet experience (quality ALWAYS gets sacrificed - at least a little - for quantity) but still, Tony D's didn't exactly jump to the top of the list when trying to come up with places to go for dinner, even though people around town kept telling me it was a dependably good meal.

We popped in toward the end of Food Stroll, hoping to get a taste of that fabulous calamari (they were out). We went into the restaurant itself for the sample, rather than the bland and boring street front banquet room. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant itself had a ton of personality - dark wood contrasted with white napkins, low lighting, waiters dressed in black (I really hate white shirts on waiters, FYI - probably because I wore won for so long and because it is DUMB - waiters spill things!) The lounge was dominated by a large bar with an elevated seating area for more private conversation. The dining room walls were lined with intimate booths and the tables were spaced far enough apart that you wouldn't be on top of the party next to you.

We ate our bite of tortellini in the lounge and moved on. But I found myself back at Tony D's not a week later for another company dinner (we ate out a lot last week - out-of-towners in for meetings).

We were seated at a long table in the dining room. Water was immediately poured (a step that gets neglected in a surprising number of restaurants around here) and we perused the wine list (limited, but not terrible - I am forever spoiled by the Earle when it comes to wine lists). Tony D's was out of the first Chianti we selected, but our waiter was quick to suggest a substitute and the whole table was pleased with the result.

Our waiter was good, by the way - great timing, didn't forget anything, refilled wine/water glasses on every trip to the table, and recited the specials from memory. Compared to some "nicer" restaurants I've eaten at in Southeastern CT, this is above and beyond the norm.

For my entree, I was about to select tortellini with grilled chicken and pesto (mmm, pesto!) but got sidetracked by one of the specials - a fresh-of-the-docks piece of halibut served with a little bit of mushroom cream sauce alongside a mound of whipped cauliflower. There were several components that appealed to me - the fresh, local fish; cauliflower rather than potato for a side; the words "cream sauce" - so I made a last-minute entree switch. Actually, I think four or five out of eight of us made that switch.

When the fish arrived, I was immediately pleased just with the presentation. It was beautifully plated, a nice size without being gigantic, and had a squiggly drizzle of thick cream sauce with large mushroom pieces visible (as opposed to drowning in a pool of runny, mushroom-less sauce).

I cut into the halibut with my fork - no knife necessary - and the crispy brown crust opened to reveal hot and flaky white fish - fully cooked but not dried out. The subtly rich flavor of the cream sauce enhanced the mild fish rather than overpowering it. This was a dish of mild flavors, not strong, but just because you don't have a powerful flavor doesn't mean that everything in the dish doesn't compliment each other harmoniously.

The whipped cauliflower was more or less like an airier version of mashed potatoes, with a slightly grainier (not overly grainy, just a little more so that mashed potatoes) texture. Sort of nondescript, but still a nice break from potatoes.

We decided to be decadent and order some desserts for the table. I unfairly judge every "Italian" restaurant by the quality of their tiramisu, and Tony D's is the closest I've found in CT to the style of my friend Richard's (former pastry chef at the Earle) - lady fingers lightly soaked in a mixture of espresso and cognac, enough to soak up both flavors but firm enough to hold their shape - mascarpone, egg yolks, and sugar whipped and folded into an airy confection, and lightly dusted with cocoa powder. Richard, yours is still the best - but this one is pretty good.

The show-stopper of Tony D's dessert menu is not the tiramisu, however - it's that other Italian confection, the cannoli. The shell was crispy, indicating that it may have actually been fried on the premises (maybe - I can't confirm this, but the shell was crispy, fresh and delicious) and the ricotta mixture inside was definitely lightly enhanced with something - maybe lemon zest, perhaps a touch of amaretto? Whatever it was, it was subtle and wonderful. The whole thing was dusted with powdered sugar. Some people shy away from desserts without a chocolate component, but please, if you find yourself eating dessert at Tony D's, order the cannoli. I promise you will not be disappointed (unless you like sickly sweet cream filling and slightly stale shells - in that case you'll be devastated).

I've learned my lesson about ignoring restaurants based on one slightly weird banquet experience. I need to try out more of Tony D's menu before I rank it as a favorite, but the dishes I tried on Tuesday made a major case for going back.

New London still isn't close to Ann Arbor in terms of variety and general quality of dining options, but I'm discovering more, better restaurants every day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Steak-ing my claim

Once upon a time, there was a restaurant on Bank Street called Cafe 57. I went there with Noe, Jack, and Mike because someone told us that Cafe 57 had "really good burgers."

Well, perhaps they did have good burgers; however, we found out at dinner that night that they only served said burgers on the lunch menu (which was not specified on their website at the time).

I don't remember what we ended up eating. I guess it must have been OK, but I was in no big rush to get back to Cafe 57.

Fast-forward a year and a half or so. I have a new job (that even after two months I am still sort of in love with) and said new job involves going out for a business dinner with five coworkers on a Monday night.

The parameters: not too pricey (try to stay in the $20 an entree range) and stay in New London.

Right off the bat we had a huge problem. Southeastern CT restaurants don't like to be open on Monday, including pretty much anything I would have chosen. We were going to have to try something new and untested: Steak Out - formerly Cafe 57.

I don't really get the Steak Out/Cafe 57 switch. From what I understand, it's the same people who own the restaurant. They have no done any redecorating. Apparently they just wanted to do an entirely new menu, so they decided to confuse people by closing and re-opening as something entirely different.

Whatever. If the food was good, I was willing to forgive. and forget - and maybe pretend the (lack of) burger incident hadn't happened.

I got to the restaurant before my coworkers and ordered a glass of wine. I appreciate the atmosphere of Steak Out. Although the name implies cheesy western decor, the interior actually has a strange air of sophistication - dark wood and dim lighting, with maroon cushions and a wood and granite bar. It's not new, and it's not modern, but it's cool.

Needless to say, the menu is based primarily on beef. I appreciated the fact that most of the steaks were available in two sizes. I chose a 12-oz New York Strip, medium rare.

Steak Out scored a major point by actually delivering me a medium rare piece of meat. Not rare (although I would rather have someone err on the side of underdone with beef than over done) and not medium - it was the perfect shade of red in the center, pink around the edges, and nicely grilled on the outside (what is it about grill marks on a steak that look so appealing?) In addition, I could tell that this piece of meat did not sit in the window waiting to be brought out because the center was still warm. When I cut into it, warm meat juices rushed out to mingle with the mashed potatoes. Delicious.

Each steak comes with two sides. Despite the stupid name they are given on the menu - "Show Down Sides" - the sides at our table looked quite good. Some asparagus (kind of skinny, but still tasty) and some mashed potatoes rounded out my plate.

I had originally ordered a baked potato, but the kitchen was out, so I went with garlic mashers instead. Normally I leave a huge pile of potatoes sitting on my plate, but I made more headway with these than I normally do. They were delicious. Perfectly whipped with just enough lumps to have that "real" potato texture, they contained amazing but not overpowering garlic flavor.

Service was decent if not spectacular. The waitress was a little confused by one of our party's drink order (apparently Steak Out does not have a Rob Roy on draft - I guess we can forgive her for not knowing what it was; it is kind of an old-fashioned drink) but overall she was very pleasant and our food came out in an orderly fashion.

One note - the glass of Zinfandel I had with my meal tasted like nail polish. PLEASE Steak Out - invest in a vacuum pump to seal your wines that you are pouring by the glass, or taste them every night before you serve them. It was gross, not because the wine itself was disgusting, but it had obviously been open way too long.

Overall, I was very pleased with my meal. I would like to return to Steak Out and try the "fancier" food, but if you're looking for a good, basic cut of meat and some dependably delicious side dishes, Steak Out is a solid bet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Things that are awesome about coming home from New York

1. (clockwise from top left): Olive oil & sea salt crackers, black crackers, Marcona almonds, Jamon Serrano ham, aged Manchego, Italian soft cheese - all from Murray's;

2. Junior's Most Fabulous Cheesecake;

3. Sleepy kitty who you have missed all day while you were gone!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Spring Strollin'

Having now attended two of them, I can honestly say there is no better event in New London than the Food Stroll. Food Stroll happens twice a year - once in the fall and once in the spring - and each one seems to get better than the last.

I blogged about the Fall Food Stroll back in October. The Spring Stroll this evening saw many of the same vendors but with different offerings, as well as some very exciting new editions.

Noe and I were actually very involved in the logistics of Food Stroll this time around - I was on the committee (though I was too busy to contribute as much as I did to Reel Love), Noe volunteered for some various manual labor, and we both sold tickets and helped with the set-up and tear-down. Having worked on the inside, I can truly say that a LOT of hard work goes into this event and Tracy down at Main Street deserves a huge shout-out.

We hooked up with my good friends Dena and Jeanette and headed out. We started at the far end of Bank Street and hit Stroll staples Jasmine Thai (pad Thai and sushi rolls), Hot Rod's (serving my two favorite varieties of wings - garlic pepper dry rub and Thai chili) and Dev's (goat cheese!) as well as Steak Out (formerly Cafe 57), which was serving some marinated steak. (I'll actually be eating dinner at Steak Out for a company dinner on Monday, so a review will be forthcoming.)

We continued down Bank to Lucca (crostini with tapenade - only OK) and the sweet-tooth triple-threat of Daniel's Dairy, Muddy Waters, and Passion Coffee House. Then we doubled back a little ways to mosey down Golden Street to the recently opened Red Lion Steak House. Red Lion served us a decent mini crab cake, but gave us an excellent-looking taking out menu featuring some mouth-watering sounding steaks, as well as chicken and seafood options. That menu, combined with the fact that the place looks amazing (long wood bar, sophisticated color scheme) ensures that we will be back sooner rather than later.

We made our way to the far end of State Street, trying out chili con carne and guacamole at Zavala (I still have mixed feelings about Zavala - I love the look and the location, but the food is extremely inconsistent and the service is terrible).

Jeanette, me, and Dena outside Zavala

We continued up the street, trying out a spicy carrot spread and vanilla bean cake at organic haven Mangetout (the cake was fantastic and the spread was really interesting) and some run-of-the-mill chicken tender offerings from Wings & Pies. Then we came to the Crocker House, the be-all-end-all of food strolling.

Gourmet Galley Catering always sets up shop at Crocker House, a great event space in the heart of downtown. At both strolls I have attended, we've been greeted at the door with booze. In the fall it was rum-spiked cider; in the spring, champagne - Crocker and Gourmet Galley wanted to showcase their wedding potential, so they staged a mock reception.

Champagne in the Crocker House lobby

We took our champagne and headed through the rainbow-colored lobby to the courtyard, where we found ourselves face-to-face with a cheese table containing various varieties of bleu, goat, and soft cheeses such as brie along with crackers and various accompaniments such as olives, nuts, and fruit.

Cheese station

After Dena and I reigned ourselves in from the cheese table, we headed into the ballroom where mini salmon and filet mignon (as well as cake - I just couldn't handle more sweets) were being served. For being mini-portions, everything was beautifully displayed (where did those tiny forks come from?) and miraculously, nothing was overcooked. I'd hire Gourmet Galley to cater my wedding based on this sample alone.

Palm-sized salmon entree

We decided to go ahead and get our drinks at Crocker as well, because they had a full bar and actually pour regular-sized drinks. Even though it was getting a bit chilly, we enjoyed them in the courtyard before reluctantly leaving.

Noe, Jeanette, and Dena in the courtyard

After Crocker, we thought it might be anti-climactic, but then we got to 2 Wives, a new brick oven pizzeria opening officially tomorrow. We tried their four-cheese pizza with pink vodka sauce, and if this sample is any indication, 2 Wives is going to give Apizzo in Pawcatuck a run for their money. Noe and I - and probably the girls and I - will be back soon for sure to try out some more offerings.

We finished the night at Tony D's - unfortunately, they ran out of their famous calamari before we got there. We still accepted our cheese tortellini gratefully, however, and sat down in the lounge to rehash all the food we had just tasted.

Food Stroll continues to get better and better. The restaurants really seemed to step it up this time as well, with new and more complex offerings. I'm sorry I couldn't mention everyone in this post - I inevitably left out a few - but I hope they all keep participating. And I can't wait to try Red Lion, Steak Out, Passion Coffee House, 2 Wives, and - opening in June - the State Street Grill (cool building and - wait for it - gourmet burgers). It's exciting to see New London get so many new and promising, it will keep me busy with my amateur food critiquing!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mini Madness

Here are some pictures from my half-marathon this weekend in Indianapolis, IN - I finally broke the 2.5 hour mark! I know it's slow, but it's good for me.

Me and Thomas modeling my shirt and hat at the Expo

Waiting in line with 35,000 other people

The big finish! Under 2.5 hours this year!