Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Oh for a Noodle Bar!

For a foodie, a noodle bar is kind of like nirvana in a bowl...or many bowls. Sadly, our little berg of Roanoke does not have one, so of course when I visited New York, it was one of my must destinations. Momofuku, a smallish family-style noodle bar offered up a life-changing noodle experience on a cold, blustery night while on vacation. The restaurant had come with high acclaim from a fellow noodle enthusiast and she was dead-on!

There was a wait when we arrived and it was a Monday so plan accordingly if you are visiting. The vibe is lively and hip. The tables are a rustic pine and run along the restaurant to allot for family-style dining. This appeals to me; I love turning to the stranger next to you and finding out they just flew in from London or just finished a tour in Afghanistan or were in town for a particular show. New York is filled with stories and places like Momofuku bring them to the surface for everybody to share. Service came quickly and we ordered up a ginger beer for my daughter, a Brooklyn brew for my husband and some saki for me, as well as the tempting rice cakes appetizer on special and the grilled octopus from the menu. Cara Cara orange coulis, how could I resist?

The server returned with our drinks and we placed our dinner order: momofuku ramen and chicken ramen. They had buns on the menu too that looked delicious, but we were all in for noodles. As our server was leaving the table, the appetizers arrived. The rice cakes were piled high with braised brisket and the grilled octopus had a beautiful char to accompany its vibrant orange coulis. I have to say, these were some of the best appetizers I have ever put in my mouth. The octopus was tender and succulent, not tough in any places. It was complemented with a scallion kimchi that woke up the taste buds. The rice cakes were crispy against the tender brisket. I was excited for what dinner held in store for us.

The chicken ramen and momofuku ramen arrived in no time. The steam was rolling out of the bowls and the aroma was intoxicating. I started with the chicken- spooning a generous portion into my bowl, making sure to get some of the swiss chard and soy egg. The chicken was smoky and juicy; it melted in my mouth. The noodles were perfect and dressed with a smokey broth that mirrored the flavor of the chicken. I went in for some momofuku and it was equally delicious. Hunks of pork shoulder delicately fell apart at the touch of the fork, pork belly was silken in the broth and the cilantro added a nice freshness to the broth.

Even though we had sampled hedonistically of the menu, we decided dessert was a must since the reputation of Momofuku's Milk Bar preceded it. We ordered the chocolate cake and the beet/lime swirled ice cream. I know, I know, beet ice cream, but I was feeling adventurous. The chocolate cake was not what I expected. It was like we had left the comfort of noodle bowls and entered a laboratory. The cake was prepared with molecular gastronomy and everything on the plate from hazelnuts to blood orange was like little pieces of powder, dust and frozen balls. Not what I was looking for. The ice cream was interesting with the lime and beet flavors, but probably not something I would repeat. It felt like the dessert was not a part of the same meal we had experienced throughout the night.

All told, the noodles were ridiculously good and made up for the dessert and let's face it, I could have skipped dessert. My lingering memory of the succulent octopus and smokey chicken erase any dessert disappointment. This place makes me fervently wish for a noodle bar to set up shop in Roanoke. Until then, I will dream of Momofuku's homey noodles floating in those delectable broths and the conversations forged across family-style tables.

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 16, 2012

Dessert for Breakfast???

Before heading out to the Big Apple, I did a little research to make sure I hit some of the haunts I have seen showcased on Food Network. I am fan of the show "Best Thing I Ever Ate," and had seen Alex G. relishing some decadent french toast at famed Norma's at Le Parker Meridien. The dish was Chocolate Decadence French Toast, and it was calling my daughter's name for breakfast.

Norma's was a short walk from our hotel and amazingly, there was no wait when we arrived. The dining room was posh, old New York glamour and the plates filling the tables looked scrumptious and bountiful. Our waiter came over with three shot glasses filled with the smoothie of the day: mango- pineapple- banana. I could have just drank smoothies all day; they were that good! Our waiter also had a carafe of fresh squeezed orange juice which he generously plied us with. We knew what we wanted so there was no messing around with the menu. Unfortunately, they were out of the duck hash and eggs my husband and I had been salivating over. We decided on the Huevos Rancheros instead, as well as the Artychoked Benedict and the Chocolate Decadence French Toast.

While we enjoyed our french-pressed coffee, I took a look around at the fare the other diners were enjoying. The omelets were fluffy and generous, the lox plate looked fresh and piled high- New York style. Fresh smoothies littered the tables and I was getting hungry. Fortunately, our food arrived quickly.

The smell of truffle oil rolled off the benedict and filled my nose and the french toast was monstrous. The huevos were my least favorite on the table. They were good, but not great. They needed some spice and less quesadilla garnish. The benedict was my fave! The artie was briny and a nice foil for the rich truffle porcini sauce. The french toast was a hot with my daughter, but I felt it was more of a dessert than breakfast. It was thick slices of what seemed to be chocolate poundcake, battered and grilled and then layered with strawberries, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. It was delicious, but maybe too much for breakfast. The pistachio garnish did lend a nice texture balance and a little salty to go with the sweet.

Overall, it was a decadent New York breakfast in a stylish dining venue. It is pricey so beware, but worth the trip at least once while in New York. I can't say I agree with Alex G.'s assessment of the french toast, but Norma's is a must while in NYC- especially if you are fueling up for a full day of walking.

Norma's at Le Parker Meridien on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 15, 2012

New York Pizza on my mind...

Spring Break: sugar sand beaches, marine blue water, mojitos muddled with fresh mint...All vibrant memories of Spring Breaks past. This year: bright lights, polar bears in Central Park, Matisse up-close, corned beef piled high on rye and Elphaba working her magic on the stage. The first night in NYC demanded true New York style pizza at a local fave: Lombardi's. Touted as one of the best coal-fired pizza spots in NYC, we had to try it! We were not disappointed and may never eat pizza in Virginia again.

Lombardi's, located a short subway ride from our Theatre District hotel, lived up to it's rep. There was a short wait when we arrived so, we bellied up to the bar and had a couple of Brooklyn brewed beers. The barkeep was phenomenal! No tickets, no POS (point of sale, not the other p.o.s.) system, genuine New York humor, knowledgeable- awesome. A customer ordered a "blue motorcycle" and the barkeep dryly stated it was a family place and blue motorcycles were out front. Entertainment and good brews, how could we go wrong? He did not miss a beat from server needs to a full bar of customers. A short wait later, our table was called and we preceded to an unforgettable experience with dough, sauce and cheese.

My husband and I ordered a small pizza with roasted red peppers, Italian sausage and wild mushrooms. Our daughter ordered a calzone filled with ground beef and fresh ricotta. The service was good, but not overly obtrusive. All of the pies coming out of the kitchen made my mouth water. Crispy crust, fresh ingredients- but not fussy. When our order arrived, I was ready to dig in! The crust was just as I thought: perfectly crispy to the bite, but soft enough in the center to be pliable. The cheese was obviously fresh mozzarella. The slices were melted but still visible on top of the pie. The toppings were robustly spread across the surface and the sauce, a San Marzano tomato variety, sweetly burst in my mouth. The combination was rustic and delectable. The calzone did not disappoint either if my daughter's shoveling was any indication. I had a taste of her filling and it was as delicious as the pizza.

I know there is a rivalry for whoever may be crowned best pizzeria in NYC, but my vote goes to Lombardi's. Their commitment to fresh ingredients, local beers on tap, and authentic cooking methods created a winning combination for my family's first night in New York. Expect a wait if you go :)!

Lombardi's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Most Important Meal of the Day....

So, we are all told how important breakfast is. It fuels your day, gets your metabolism going etc., etc. I am firm believer in having a great breakfast and have lamented the almost lack of original choices in Roanoke since moving here. I enjoy Star City, but you can only go there so many times. This past Sunday I found a new love, Wildflour in Towers Shopping Center.

I have been to Wildflour a couple of times for lunch and it was fabulous, but never for brunch. For whatever reason Sunday is always a busy day and I never seem to set aside time to go and enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Luckily, my routine changed up Sunday, and I ventured out in search of good brunch. Wildflour filled the bill in spades.

It was not packed when I arrived so I easily scored a good table. The interior is hip and eclectic. A recent renovation expanded the seating and allowed for more wall space for local art. My husband and I started perusing the menu. My mouth was watering as I read through each description. Crab and asparagus omelet, shrimp and avocado quesadilla, low country shrimp and grits...Yum, Yum! I ordered the sweet potato blueberry pancakes while my husband ordered the traditional eggs benedict- they have a vegetarian version of this that looked tempting, but we decided to give the original variety a whirl first. I will say the service was slightly haphazard; we had 3 different servers for various aspects of our meal which made for a somewhat disjointed service experience.

Food was coming out of the kitchen pretty steadily, and it looked delicious. The real stuff was no disappointment when it arrived. The pancakes were ridiculously good. They were fluffy and bursting with plump blueberries. The syrup was warm and obviously the real stuff! The eggs benedict were equally pleasing. I loved the hunk of sourdough they were served on rather than the traditional english muffin. The sourdough was from local bakery, On the Rise, and was a star of the plate. The hollandaise was definitely made from scratch. It had a nice lemony flavor. The portion was a little light considering the size of the sourdough, but when we asked for some more, it was immediately brought out at no charge. The eggs were perfectly poached and the canadian bacon was crispy around the edges- just like I like it!

Refills on beverages and getting the check was pretty slow so, expect to relax and have a leisurely morning, definitely not the place to go if you are on a schedule. As I said previously, I have been for lunch a couple of times and the food has been equally scrumptious. My husband and I can't stay away from the Hummus Platter. It has a generous portion of housemade hummus drizzled with olive oil and a plate full of delectable goodies to scoop and spread with. I also love the Cobb Salad. I know, I know, cobb salad, everybody has them, but this is different. First, it is enormous- definitely a share plate. Second, it has housemade guacamole on top which is worth the plate in and of itself. Chunky avocado, zesty lime, tangy red onion, chunks of tomato and visible cilantro. It is divine! The rest of the salad is no slack either. The chicken is fresh off the grill, blue cheese crumbles are abundant and the greens are not iceberg! One of the top salads in town, in my opinion. Breakfast and lunch, both huge hits in my book...I will be back!

Wildflour Cafe' & Catering on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 24, 2012

Not So Average Joe's...

I started hearing about Blue Collar Joe's a couple of years ago and though my interest was piqued, I had not had the occasion for a visit to this smorgasbord of gourmet doughnuts. That all changed with the new Uptown Joe's location in the Patrick Henry Hotel.

There is a very homey, community feel as you enter the establishment. There are comfy chairs with a little table between them, lots of nooks to slide into if you are there to work or just escape, and a lovely aroma of fresh brewed coffee wafting through the air. The staff is incredibly friendly and humble. They waited patiently as I took FOREVER to pick out my donuts. I have heard that the selection is not as good as the Daleville location, but it was far better than anything I've seen in the Roanoke area.

I ordered up a dozen including s'mores, butterfinger, pumpkin crunch and black forest, blueberry pancake breakfast and banana pudding. In addition to the fabulous doughnut extravaganza, I ordered a chai tea latte to see how their barista chops measured up. The chai was delicious- slightly spicy, piping hot, and just a glazing of frothed milk. I like when a chai has discernible ginger and cardamom and this one certainly did. The counter servers thanked me profusely for coming in and provided me with a take-out menu for any future needs. I can't say enough about what good service it was- friendly, gracious and quick.

I made my way home to let the fam try out the wares. They were a rousing success. My husband loves anything banana- pie, pudding, ice cream. Imagine his immense pleasure at finding a little pillow of heaven that was filled with all of his favorite flavors. He heartily endorses the banana pudding doughnut. Our children, chocolate freaks that they are, tore up the black forest and s'mores doughnuts. Both were also resounding successes. I savored the blueberry pancake breakfast. I love a bite that has the perfect balance of savory and sweet and this did. It was a dense blueberry cake doughnut glazed with a maple syrup anglaise and topped with crumbled bacon- not baco bits, but real bacon. It was divine. Not quite Carol Lee's in Blacksburg, but pretty awesome. We will be returning!

Uptown Joe's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hot Time in Roanoke

A new hot spot has opened in Roanoke, and I for one, am excited! Habana Cafe, located in the newly renovated City Market Building, offers a tasty selection of Cuban food and a family atmosphere that invites a fun evening to be had by all.

They have just recently extended their dinner hours to accommodate diners past 7 p.m. and they have added beer and wine to their offerings. We had tried to check this little gem out a couple of times before, but could never get there before closing, so we were happily surprised on a recent Friday night visit. It is definitely still in the beginning organization phase as evidenced by the haphazard seating and table-wait system. We entered the restaurant to a lively crowd that looked like they were waiting for a table. There was no host or wait list, but the owner came over and greeted us and acknowledged our need for a table. We tried to give our name and party number but that was ignored. We sat at the bar for a little while and finally flagged a server down to order a drink while we were waiting. She took our order but never returned. Eventually another server came up to us to take a drink order, but she misunderstood what we had ordered. The wait was rather long for a table since seating is sparse, but all patrons seemed happy and enjoying themselves. There were many large families with multiple generations in the dining room. Eventually we got a table and some menus. If you can get past this disorganization in the beginning, you are in for a treat.

The owner came over to our table and greeted us again and took a drink order. He was very conciliatory about our wait and extremely friendly. He also made the rounds to other tables- checking on customers, sparking conversations with groups and generally creating the community relations that a good owner should  be conscious of. The same server from the bar waited on us. She was very friendly, but maybe a little new to English. She did not seem to understand that we were ordering an appetizer and then our dinners. We ordered the shrimp ceviche to start and gave her our dinner order but asked them to come out separately. This did not end up being the case. We waited quite a while and then our entrees arrived. We told the server then that we would skip the ceviche because dinner was here. She was very apologetic and then ended up bringing it out anyway on the house. This was where the mistakes ended.

The food was delicious. The long-awaited ceviche was fresh, tart and perfectly done. It wasn't overly citrusy, was obviously fresh and a great palate awakener. We had ordered a smattering of items from the menu to get a feel for the food. One of the entrees was a serving of roasted pork, black beans and rice, plantains and yucca. The yucca was the star! It had a sumptuous texture and a rich mojo marinade...really good! The black beans and rice were not the usual throwaway they can be. The beans had been simmered with hunks of pork and cumin. The plantains were huge! They had obviously been mashed and then formed into tasty cakes. The pork also had a zesty mojo flavor and succulent texture. That plate was a hit at our table. The next plate was a traditional sandwich Cubano. The bread was right. That may seem a strange statement, but so often Cuban sandwiches come on non-traditional bread that does not press properly and is too doughy. This bread was right. Inside was a layering of ham, roasted pork, spicy mustard, cheese and pickles. I will say that it  needed a little kick. I like my Cuban sandwiches to have that zest of mustard and sharpness of pickle to bring out the meat, but it seemed very tame in this instantiation. It was an easy remedy though with a hit of house hot sauce. The Ropa Vieja came in a similar set-up as the pork as we ordered the same side items. It was as good a version of Ropa Vieja as I have had since leaving Florida.

What happened next is what made this a "Hot Time in Roanoke." Two gentleman that had been eating at the bar with their families when we arrived set up in the corner with some bongos and microphones. They introduced themselves and gave a shout out to the owner for a Happy Birthday and the place erupted in applause. Then the magic began as they beat on the drums and began singing. The music was a mix of African Tribal beats and Salsa. People at the tables began swaying to the music and one of the servers set her tray down and began salsa dancing. It was such a fun and relaxed atmosphere that we forgot we were finished with our dinners and got caught up in the revelry. Surprisingly, it was not too loud for the small space and everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was the most entertaining Friday night in Downtown Roanoke in quite some time.

Habana Cafe is still finding its footing, but if it can make it past the growing pains, I think it will be a fabulous addition to the Downtown scene. My advice: be patient with them and you will be in for some delicious food and a rousing good time!

Habana Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Found: Fresh Beets!

So, in my last post I lamented the lack of fresh beets during a visit to Pomegranate, but I am happy to report I found them at Local Roots Cafe in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke. I have visited this establishment a few times but have been hesitant to write about it because it has never been spectacularly bad or good. I have since changed my mind. I now heartily suggest giving this chic eatery a try.

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my gift is always an evening of no cooking, among other goodies. Since it is my day to be queen, I also get to decide where we go on my non-cooking night. Not finding anything new or interesting to give a whirl in Roanoke, I decided we would give Local Roots another try. The last time we went, the food had been somewhat mediocre and the service was slow, but I am always up for giving places second chances when the sins are minor. So we journeyed down to Grandin for the evening. I made sure to ask for a "warm" table since their storefront is all window. We got a cozy booth across from the bar that had a nice vantage point to see the happenings in the kitchen and the goings-on in the dining room. The menu was MUCH better this time- more well-rounded with delectable sounding bites, a reasonable and eclectic wine list, just better!

We started with an order of mussels with pancetta, an arugula salad with goat cheese and beets, and a bottle of a Spanish Grenacha. We watched the food coming out of the kitchen as we waited and it made us hungry for our impending meal. The mussels arrived in a stout-sized bowl overflowing with yumminess. There was a selection of different homemade breads surrounding the bowl and oodles of fresh green-tipped mussels inside. The broth was heavenly. It was chocked full of pancetta, fresh tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and balanced seasoning. They were the best mussels I have partaken of in recent memory. Accompanying the mussels was the salad. The arugula was beautiful and peppery. It was lightly dressed with a raspberry smear on the side of the plate. The goat cheese was a little lacking. I felt like that was the one dark spot. A little more goat cheese would have given that perfect pungency to set off the rest of the salad. But I will tell you what was not lacking: BEETS. They were golden and garnet hunks of perfection. Tenderly toasted, juicy, and FRESH! The salad and mussels set high expectations for what was to come.

Our next course consisted of succulent duck served with sunchoke, couscous, asian pear and szechuan pepper jus and a pork porterhouse served with shitake mushrooms, green cabbage and wood-fired potatoes. Both plates were delicious, but the duck far exceeded the pork. Service was very timely and attentive. Everything was so good we decided to indulge in dessert and port.

The dessserts are not as homey as the rest of the meal. It seemed this was where the chef was trying to flex his gastromolecular muscles. We ordered a chocolate dish that was a freeze dried shell filled with peanut powder and a cream. We also ordered a pear dessert that was a riff on a cobbler. Neither was spectacular, but not terrible either. The Port on the other hand was magnificent. I just think you can't go wrong with a 20 year Tawny to finish off any meal.

Overall, the meal was wonderful and we actually went back the very next weekend for another round of mussels and beets as a pre-movie appetizer. It is nice to see an independent, locally-sourced restaurant doing things well. We will definitely go back!

Local Roots Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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