Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Spring House

I was eager to dine at Spring House in Winston-Salem after seeing Chef Tim Grandinetti on Food Network’s "Challenge" and "Chopped," and sampling his Ostrich concoctions at Fire in the Triad. The restaurant is in a 93-year-old white house, which is grandiose, complete with an inviting patio and outdoor water fountain. Atmosphere aside, I have to admit that while I loved a few of the dishes I sampled, I was definitely underwhelmed with others.

We were seated upstairs in a room with 3 other tables, which made for a noisy evening. Not knowing the restaurant layout, I would have much preferred to sit downstairs where the doors and windows were open, letting in some of this refreshing cool air we've been having lately. Instead, we were confined to the little room, and had frequent and appreciated service check backs, though it took an uncomfortable amount of time to receive our food.

I devoured General Tso’s Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with Ham Jam, and once again told my mom to Google it AFTER our dinner. The Ham Jam was more like a garnish than a jam - salty and crispy bites sprinkled around the dish. The Sweetbreads were served on French bread rounds, with Hot Mustard Sauce drizzled around the plate. The sauce lacked heat, but gave a nice, creamy element to the appetizer. Seeing other tables with bread, and not anticipating as long of a wait for food as we ended up having, we asked our server for a basket. I was a bit confused when I was told they serve bread as a course, and that it would be $5. It wasn't listed on the menu as an appetizer or shared course, but we said we’d take some. My fingers were starting to look tasty at that point. Unfortunately, the bread never came, and we had to ask for it to be removed from the bill.

The Bahnson Burger (named for the prior tenant) was the most outstanding entrée of the evening. Topped with Country Ham, Pimento Cheese, Crispy Onions and a slightly sweet Tomato and Saffron spread, this is one of the most flavorful burgers I've tasted in quite some time. Served with Yukon Gold Potato Chips, sprinkled with Seasoning Salt, this is one dish that you shouldn't look over.

There are certain words I consider food magnets. Truffle, White Chocolate, Scallops, Red Velvet – chances are, if the dish contains one of these words, I’m going to have to try it. Kobe Beef, being one, I couldn’t resist the Slow Cooked Kobe Beef Cheeks. The consistency is like that of a ridiculously tender Pot Roast – I almost couldn’t pick up a bite with my fork. While the meat was awesome, I was pretty disappointed in the accompaniments. Asparagus Tips (cut so small it was difficult to pick one up), Mushrooms (all 2 of them) and Cherry Tomatoes decorated Pappardelle Pasta. It needed a good dose of salt. In fact, I had to salt it twice before finding it pleasurable to eat.

Chef Grandinetti’s Shrimp, Tasso Gravy and Grits is different than what you’d expect, but in a good way. The Tasso Gravy seemed Tomato-based, bringing an unexpected sweetness to the dish. It’s a huge pet peeve when shrimp dishes arrive with the tail intact – dipping your fingers in a large bowl of Gravy Grits to tear off a shrimp tail isn’t what I’m looking to do.

Being that it was my birthday dinner, I was pleased when a free dessert was offered. Again, pet peeve, I would have appreciated the option of selecting my own, but instead was presented with the Babysitter Cake, which is more like a Chocolate Mousse with a fondant center, accented with a fresh Hibiscus Cherry Infused Cream. It was actually pretty sublime, though very rich.

I would return to Spring House, with the opportunity to sit downstairs or outside. There are many other dishes on the menu that intrigue me, but will be very disappointed if my expectations are once again not met.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

10 Days of Italian Paradise

My mom (aka Pammers, aka BFF) and I had the pleasure of spending 10 days eating, touring and frolicking throughout Italy. And for 10 days, I ate more bread, pasta and cheese than I ever had in my entire life. It was so worth it. The quality of fresh ingredients is outstanding, and it’s obvious how much we “Americanize” traditional Italian dishes here. After walking all over Rome, Florence and Sorrento in 97+ degree heat, I didn’t feel one bit guilty about indulging. And I didn’t have a bad meal.

Like the Germans, Italians begin their day with extremely strong coffee – cappuccino in my case – and a variety of cold cuts and sweets. I chuckled whenever I saw a sign offering a “big American breakfast” – including, eggs, bacon and sausage. I enjoyed my European yogurt and thinly shaved Pecorino each morning, and couldn’t get enough of the juicy, perfectly ripened Nectarines!

There is one truth that unites all of Italy: wine is plentiful and delicious, and house wine is cheaper than water. I’m struggling to decide which of the cities was my favorite, but when it comes to food, there is no contest: Rome has the best. My first meal really stuck with me – Rigatoni all’Amatriciana, sprinkled with salty Parmesan - OH the PARMESAN! There are recipes all over the internet for this tomato-based sauce, with red pepper flakes and pancetta. This was my favorite meal of the trip. I was also eager to try Cacio e Pepe after hearing Tony Bourdain rave about it on his episode of No Reservations: Rome. Unfortunately, it was a rare find on menus, and our encounters with it weren’t that mind-blowing. But who doesn’t love buttery, cheesy noodles? I was just looking for something unique. Enter Tripe. I was very pleased with my first experience with it. If you aren’t sure what Tripe is, Google it. The red sauce masked any unfriendly flavors, but it was indeed chewy. Probably best described using the words of my mother: “I’m not really sure what I’m eating.”

Over the course of the trip, we sampled three variations of pizza. My favorite was in Florence, topped with Eggplant and Olives. The tomato sauce was pure and fresh, the cheese was high-quality and the crust burst with a flavor all of its own. I couldn’t get enough. I was expecting to get the best seafood at the Amalfi Coast in Sorrento, but alas, it was the worst food of the trip. Not that it was bad, but compared to Rome and Florence, it seemed the most touristy and Americanized, ie. ice cubes and lemon slices in the water, and salty peanuts and potato chips as freebies. I was shocked by the number of bones in the fish in Sorrento, and the lack of herbs in the Pesto Ravioli – it was more like green cream. Rome offered a wonderfully grilled Swordfish, topped with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. Add a squirt of lemon and call it perfection on a plate.

I had been dying for a thick wedge of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, and finally on the last night, my wish came true. The flavor is so wholesome – salty, crumbly, buttery – it will be impossible to go back to buying the pre-shredded variety in the refrigerated section of Harris Teeter. Other notable dishes include Panzanella (Italian bread soaked in tomato water and tossed with tomatoes, cucumber and onion – WOW), and a vinegary Chickpea salad with red pepper flakes and celery. I’ve never had a flavor bomb in my mouth quite like this. I cannot wait to try and recreate it. Even a common dish, Prosciutto and Melon, seemed decadent.

We sampled Gelato in each of the three cities, and Rome’s offering won. Flavors like Stracciatella, Coconut, Strawberry, White Chocolate, Pistachio and Mint are irresistible, and available on literally every single corner. We were looked at a bit funny when we asked restaurants about having dessert only. After checking with the manager to see if we could even get a table, we were pleased with our Tiramisu, much more so than what you’d find in the States. I wish we could have bar/restaurant-hopped a bit more, like one does here, but I understand that they don’t want to waste a table for just a 4 Euro purchase.

On the evenings we didn’t indulge in Gelato and Tiramisu, we sipped Limoncello, a lemon liqueur produced mainly in Southern Italy and Sorrento. How convenient! We were introduced to a yummy creamy version – it seemed like the love child of Vanilla Gelato and Limoncello, resulting in a cold, milkshake-like experience.

Italy is a foodie’s dream. You’ll never visit the Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill again. In fact, Italy is any vacation-lover’s dream. The art, history, culture and sights are astounding. The Vatican is indescribably grandiose, and the most spectacularly ornate thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Touring the Colosseum, throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain, seeing Michelangelo’s David, cruising the Island of Capri, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea – it will be hard to ever top this experience.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Best Quest - Cheesecake

Earlier this year, my beau and I decided to go on a “Trail of Cheesecakes,” in an attempt to find the best in Greensboro. I’ve also noticed a trend in my dining habits lately. I don’t want to taste something that’s “pretty good.” I want to taste the best. I like knowing what the restaurant’s specialty, go-to item is. What are they known for? What's the best thing they make? I want to be able to say with confidence that Restaurant X has the best baklava, burger, pizza, cheesecake, falafel, and so on. I’ve decided to start Amanda's “Best Quest,” surveying the Greensboro restaurants that claim to have “the best” of something - chains not permitted. After trying several "homemade" cheesecake places that have top-notch reputations, I can say with confidence, that we found the best in Greensboro.

First Place: Cheesecakes by Alex. Surprise, surprise. But we had to try several slices to be sure, right? This is absolutely the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. Flavors like Strawberries & Cream, Kahlua, Cookies & Cream, Espresso and even Regular NY Style don’t disappoint. The quality of ingredients is notable, and you can tell that they only use the best.

Honorable Mention: It’s actually really unfair to name the others in the same sentence as Alex’s. None of their cheesecakes quite hold a candle to it. (Don’t bother getting it at Maxie B’s, but their layer cakes are a totally different story, and I'm obsessed - check out my review here!) A Sweet Success! Bakery would probably be the runner-up, but I would have to try another variety besides Snickers to solidify the decision. The peanut flavor was a bit overpowering, but the cheesecake itself was kickass.

Up next is my Mediterranean Quest – Gyro, Baklava and Falafel. I already have a few suggestions from my friends and readers, so if you think you know where to get the BEST, leave a comment!

**For a bit though, I must say Arrivederci! I’m spending time in Rome, Florence and Sorrento and will fill you all in on my food adventures abroad, upon my return of course. Ciao!