Archive for the BYOB Restaurant Reviews Category

HOSTARIA DA ELIO – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Hostaria Da Elio, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on December 14, 2010 by ballymote

 Hostaria Da Elio, just off of bustling South Street in the 600 block of S. 3rd Street is a Philly BYOB that does not get nearly the mention that it deserves. My wife, Kathy, and I, along with our good friends, Gerry and Joann B. have been there on several occasions but this was our first visit since I have had this blog. We were coming from a show at Society Hill Playhouse and knew this was the perfect opportunity for a return visit to this excellent Italian bistro.

Our server, Bonnie, reeled off so many “specials” in each category of the menu, and each one sounded better than the previous, that we knew it was time to put the menu aside and choose from her list. With all four of taking this culinary route it makes it difficult to remember what each of us had since I can’t go to the website to re-check the menu. Bonnie was nice enough to write down everyone’s selection. That’s the sort of “personal touch” that makes this place such a pleasant place to dine. And hey, great food doesn’t hurt, either!

As usual, we had some excellent wines to match the food. Gerry had brought the 2004 Tenute Silvia Nardo, Brunello di Montelcino, this one was very closed upon opening and opened up considerably as dinner progressed. Smooth flavors of cherries and blackberries with a hint of tobacco. This was a solid 90 pointer once it came alive. Gerry stayed in Italy with his second wine, the 2006 Tenuta di Nozzole, La Forra, Chianti Classico Riserva. This wine was a favorite right from the start with a deep red color, deep flavors of currents and raspberries and a smooth lingering finish. Another 90+ wine. My contribution was a 2004 Chateau Vieux des Rochers, Montagne St. Emilion. Not much of that barnyard funk that my wife feels is a characteristic of French wines, just some nice forest floor, black currants and spices, well-balanced with great structure. This one went well with many of our dishes.

 We each began our feast with an appetizer. Kathy and Joann split the Eggplant Melazana, eggplant layered with marscapone and mozzarella and baked in a fresh tomato marinara sauce. Joann declared it the “best eggplant I ever had”. They even tempted me to try it and I never try the eggplant. I had to agree that this was delicious.

Gerry had the mussels in White Sauce a mixture of white wine and garlic. He told me I had to mention that the mussels were outstanding. mussels are another food item I have failed to gain an attraction for despite their obvious popularity. I hope I don’t find out after I die that mussells and eggplant and mushrooms are all fantastic!

 I went with the Mozzarella and Peppers, fresh mozzarella with roasted peppers, tomatoes, fresh basil served with extra virgin olive oil. Each bite of this was a taste treat. Just a very well done dish that sounds simple enough yet, so few do it right..

We each had the Arugula Salad and this one was a really nice presentation as the crisp greens were topped with parma prosciutto and shaved parmesan romano cheese. The first two courses were so good we couldn’t wait to see what they did with our entrees.

We didn’t have long to wait as our four entrees arrived hot and succulent. Kathy had the home-made Lasagna, beef-bolognese, mushrooms topped with bechamel served with a marinara sauce. On a previous occasion one of our party declared that this was the “lightest and most flavorful lasagna he had ever tasted.” Kathy really enjoyed this classic Italian dish.

Joann had a lovely dish of home-made fettucini with shrimp in a fresh pesto sauce. This one had great flavor and was  perfect with her Chianti Classico.

 Bonnie, our server, had mentioned that the combination of carmelized onions and goat cheese that topped my chicken breast was an excellent blending of unique flavors. She hit it right on the head. Each bite was delicious and the rice and snow peas were the perfect accompaniment to this flavorful dish.

As much as I totally enjoyed my chicken dish I must confess that I believe Gerry made the best selection of all with his choice of cannelloni filled with a veal and cheese mixture served in a blush sauce. I got to sample this one and it was really fantastic. The sauce was perfect and the filling was out of this world. I have no regrets about mine, but, next time, I’m going for the cannelloni.

We were pleased that Elio came out and spent some time with us. He had some interesting stories to tell about his sixteen years here in America since arriving from his native Rome. He is very proud of Hostaria da Elio and very much appreciates our patronage. In fact, we left with cards entitling us to 15% off our next visit.

We ended our meal with each of us enjoying a different dessert. I had the yummy Chocolate Ganasch with walnuts on a bed of raspberry sauce. Joann had the Tartufo, chocolate ice cream with a vanilla center served with cocoa and hazelnuts.

 Kathy topped her meal off with a Chocolate Chip Cannoli which she declared to be one of the best cannolis she has ever had. Meanwhile, Gerry was quite content with his Hazelnut Mousse Cake which was light and airy but full of flavor.

There is nothing more enjoyable than knowing the restaurant you are headed for has proven itself to be not just very good but consistently very good. That is one of the great things about Hosteria Da Elio. You can be assured of good food and great service on each and every visit.

THAT’S AMORE – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, That's Amore, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on December 13, 2010 by ballymote

 

 One of the newer dining spots on the Collingswood BYOB scene is That’s Amore. It occupies the spot at the corner of Haddon Ave. and Collings Ave. that previously housed the American Bistro and a host of other unsuccessful businesses. Interestingly, when looking for their website prior to our visit, I came across a “thread” on a dining board that had several posters engaged in a conversation in which they were claiming that That’s Amore personnel were using multiple screen names to post glowing reviews about their establishment. I am certainly not able to confirm or deny this but just seeing it talked about made me curious as to what type of experience awaited us on this Friday night in early December.

 Collingswood itself was decked out in full Christmas display which made the mood even more festive than usual. We tend to forget sometimes how fortunate we are to have an area with so many good BYOBs available all in one charming town.

Right off the bat I can state that That’s Amore is colorful and eclectic. From the creative board outside featuring the evening “specials” to the decorative greens, and reds, peaches and gold wall colorings it gives a first impression of being a fun place to dine. But, what about the food? We will get to that. First, I need to tell you that it was just four of here on this night, Carol and Joe B., my wife Kathy, and myself. Here are the two wines we had with us.

 I brought a Super Tuscan, 2004 Castello Banfi, “Summus” a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It took some time in the glass to open up but once it did there was plenty of tasty red and black fruits creating an elegant balance and making for a very food-friendly wine. Joe B. had a 2008 Feudo Marino, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a fruity bright wine that pairs well with meats and red sauce.

Our server for the evening, Aaron, was personable and knowledgable about everything on the menu. He opened our wines and made some recommendations while reminding us of the “specials” we had seen posted outside. He, and a capable staff of busboys made periodic visits to make sure our water glasses remained full and that everything was satisfactory. His standard reply to our questions as to how good each item was always “excellent, of course.”

Joe and I had the soup du jour, the Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque, it arrived nice and hot and full of the unique combination of flavors. Both of us thoroughly enjoyed this soup.

Kathy and Carol split the Eggplant Rollatini which looked scrumptious even to an anti-eggplant person, like myself. This one was thinly sliced and stuffed with fresh ricotta and mozzarella. It disappeared quickly between them; always a good sign.

 I couldn’t resist ordering the Arancini di Riso, three perfectly shaped rice balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, lightly fried and served with a red dipping sauce. It’s the kinda dish your Mom would have said “would spoil your dinner”. It did not. It was very tasty but could have been filling. Now for the main course, our entrees.

Carol had the Shrimp Scampi over house made linguine and Kathy went with the Chicken “Bella Gente” (named after a restaurant on Bleeker Street in The Village in New York). This one was tender chunks of chicken breast tossed with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, sauteed garlic cloves and pepperoncini peppers in a white wine reduction. This was almost my choice and Kathy really liked it.

Joe ordered the Chicken and Capers which came with a cup of spinach flavored potatoes as did Kathy’s entree, also. They both liked this unusual way to serve spuds. I wanted something to match the flavors of my wine and consequently chose the Fettuccine alla Bolognese, the pasta was perfect, the sauce was wonderful and I could not have been happier with my meal.

Just as we were finishing up our meal, the door opened and in strolled three female Carolers. They broke into a cute Caribbean Christmas song and followed that up with a more traditional, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Great voices and a great interlude helping to make a great meal even more memorable.

We topped off our meal with a couple of excellent desserts. Quite honestly, I don’t even know what they were but they looked good and tasted even better. Now that we have experienced That’s Amore I can contribute to the “are they writing their own reviews”? conversation. My guess is that the reviews are for real because the food and ambiance are deserving of lots of review “stars so, who cares, if they are, they are not lying. That’s Amore is a fine addition to the Collingswood BYOB team and, hopefully, we will be back there soon to enjoy this fun restaurant.

TRATTORIA GIUSEPPE – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Trattoria Giuseppe, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2010 by ballymote

 The sign looks big but it wasn’t easy finding Trattoria Giuseppe which sits back behind a shopping center off of West Chester Pike (Rt. 3) in Edgemont, PA. Judging by the crowd on this chilly Tuesday evening, I may have been one of the few who was challenged by the task of locating this very popular Delaware County eatery. I was having dinner with some childhood friends (Frank, Steve & Tom) and they are familiar with the area and had told me how popular this Italian Restaurant was and that we were lucky, even on a Tuesday, to not have to wait for a table despite having reservations. All of this made me curious as to why the place was such a local favorite.

 I had brought with me an unfinished bottle of the 2005 Cameron Hughes, Lot 125, Pinot Noir, Napa/Carneros. This is a really great Pinot for the money with a great nose and lots of strawberry and raspberry flavors and just delivers terrific value for the money. My other bottle was something I picked up at the PA State Store some time back. The 2007 Borra Vineyards, Field Blend, Lodi, California is a very different wine, made from a blend of grapes you seldom see. 48% Barbera, 23% Carignane, 16% Alicante Bouschet, 13% Petite Sirah. It’s a dark ruby red in the glass with a full mouthfeel. This is one you are going to either love or hate. I take that back because, come to think of it, I can’t quite decide.

Our server, Jeremiah, was poised and polished and also impressed that Frank was able to name Three Dog Night as the group that made the 60’s song featuring his name. He opened our wine, outlined the specials and brought us some complimentary bruschetta.

 Nice fresh tomatoes atop a crisp piece of Italian bread made this a great way to start off our evening. We spent some time conversing and reviewing the massive menu before the four of us had zeroed in on our selections. For appetizers, Frank and Steve split some more bruchetta; an order  which was large enough to end famine in a third world country. I would have a picture of it but I couldn’t get the entire plate in the frame of the lens.

 I ordered the Mozzarella Caprese, fresh mozzarella, sliced red tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and basil. This was another huge offering of which I ate about 40% and took the rest home. I was beginning to see why families were filling the tables here as dinners appeared to be such that each meal was enough to serve the family for the rest of the week.

 Entrees were more of the same as Tommy’s dish of Tagliatelle Giuseppe was chock full of seafood, featuring mussels, shrimp, scallops some chopped tomatoes and broccoli rabe.

Steve’s order of Ravioli Quattro Formaggio, fresh made ravioli filled with blue cheese, goat cheese, mozzarella and parmesan in a rich cream sauce looked like an artery clogging delight. I knew he would have a tough time finishing this one and although he totally enjoyed it there was quite a bit to bring back home.

 Frank’s Tilapia topped with shrimp and artichokes was, I believe, one of the “specials” and was the only dish that appeared to offer a chance of being totally consumed in one sitting. The fish was nicely baked and had a an appealing white wine sauce.

As for myself, I figured if I was in a true, Italian restaurant why not give the spaghetti and meatballs a try. When I order this dish I am always keeping my fingers crossed that I will have at least two nice sized meatballs to compliment the pasta. The bowl that arrived at my table, steaming hot, contained FOUR mammoth meatballs. I gave it a worthy attempt but still was unable to make much of a dent in the meal before I gave up and had it boxed. It provided not only another great dinner but TWO more dinners, which, to be honest, tasted better on each subsequent day.

We passed on dessert as we were all stuffed and settled for more wine and laughs. It’s always great to get together with these guys and tonight was no exception.

 Trattoria Giuseppe does not need me to give it a “thumbs up”. It’s apparent that enough people have done that. Weekends are virtually impossible to avoid waiting lines. It’s very good food, tremendous portions, we found Jeremiah to be a first class server and just an overall nice spot for a meal that will not break your budget.

SOLA – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Sola, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2010 by ballymote

 It had been way too long since my wine loving buddies, Gerry B. and John G., and myself got together for one of our wine dinners. Last night we met up for a six P.M. reservation at Sola on Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr, PA.  The parking was a little tricky but once we found some spots we were at a table in the fashionable, upscale dining spot. Some nice piano music, just a decibel or two louder than it should have been, provided a nice backdrop for our meal.

Our server, Marina, was both personable and efficient. She opened our wines. There were no specials to recite so she told us a few of her favorites. Sola offers a tempting Prix Fixe Dinner at $40.00 which features a salad,  appetizer, entree and dessert. The regular menu has more than a few items that caught our interest and it was apparent from the start that choosing just one was not going to be an easy task.

 As usual, we had a wonderful array of good wines with us. Sola charges a minimal $2.00 corkage charge, which, I believe, is donated to a charity. In return they offer excellent stemware and we had separate glasses for each of our four wines. It was hard to pick a wine of the night from this group which included, a 2005 EMH/Black Cat Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the sole survivor of several Black Cat cabs we purchased while visiting Merrill Lindquist during our October Napa trip. This one was dark ruby in the glass and drinking only slightly less well than the fabulous 2007. We also had another souvenir from our trip, a 2008 Bella Vineyards, Lily Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel, chock full of pepper and spice and plenty of dark cherries and plums. Gerry B. had also bought his last 1999 Chappallet Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, which we had all raved about on a prior wine dinner. It was still great but not performing quite as well as we had remembered. Our final wine was one that none of us was familiar with but one which certainly held its own even in this group. It was a 2008 Mad Hatter, Napa Valley Red Wine. It’s tough to find much info on this wine although it appears to be made by the folks at Dancing Hares wines (where Andy Erikson, winemaker for Screaming Eagle, presides and may be responsible for the Mad Hatter) and sells for about $55.00 which is well above its current $29.99 price at PA State Stores. The wines were great and I am happy to report, so was the food served at Sola.

Gerry and John each had the Pan Seared Fois Gras, house cured duck prosciutto, poached Seckel Pear, toasted pistachio and port reduction. Gerry thought it tasted great while not quite being as stellar as Gilmores.

I wanted to try the Lobster and Pumpkin Bisque but made a last-minute switch to the Carmelized Onion and Gruyere Tart, baby frissee, pancetta lardons, aged Jerz-hazelnut vinnegrette. This was an unusual item that had a unique flavor. I had sworn off all food items containing the word “frissee” but I totally enjoyed the taste of this appetizer. Ya just never know.

For his entree, John G. selected the Herb Marinated Veal Tenderloin, kabocha squash tart (does one EVER tire of kabocha squash tarts?), crispy sweetbreads, truffle oil, red wine braised purple cabbage and sherry jus. The veal was done to medium perfection and John thought the dish was excellent.

Gerry ordered the Australian Lamb Two Ways, braised shoulder, hand-made gnocchi with English peas, ricotta grilled loin, ratatouille and mango chutney. Gerry loved this dish and insisted I try the stew like portion and although I am not a big lamb fan, this really was outstanding.

 I certainly had no complaints about my entree. I chose the Seared Diver Sea Scallops, carmelized salsify golden raisins, Meyer lemon and Israeli cous cous, with a smoked tomato butter, pine nuts and shaved botarga. The presentation was picture perfect and the scallops with the sauce created a mouth-watering taste sensation. The entree was light and full of flavor. If I had any regret at all it was that I did not have a Pinot Noir to drink with the scallops.

The three of us were enjoying great conversation and sampling the quartet of excellent wines so it only made sense to extend the meal by ordering from the dessert menu.

The trio of goodies above are from left to right, my Espresso-Brown Sugar Gelato. Like Gerry mentioned, “what’s not to like about Espresso and brown sugar”. This was light and yummy. John was no less pleased with his Roasted Banana Creme Brulee with orange-ginger biscotti. Gerry may have made the best choice as he went with the dessert offered on the Prix Fixe menu and the one that Marina declared her “absolute favorite”, the White Chocolate, Golden Raisin & Coconut Bread Pudding with caramel sauce and macerated strawberries. This one was just a plate-full of gooey goodness.

With our tummies full and the wines nearly gone it was time to end this wonderful dinner. Sola is a bit on the pricey side but it certainly delivers value for the money. As I headed home and Gerry and John finished their post-dinner cigar it was evident that a return to Sola would definitely be in our future plans.

WEST SIDE GRAVY – (BYOB)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, West Side Gravy, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by ballymote

 We finally made it. After reading F Scott and Zelda’s reviews and spending countless hours drooling about the menu, our group of eight hungry diners converged on the Collingswood eatery, the second “label” for renown Chef Alex Capasso of Blackbird fame.

It may be difficult to secure reservations at Blackbird on a Friday or Saturday evening. It will not be difficult to get a table at West Side Gravy on those same nights. In a way, that’s a shame. Let’s begin by explaining what West Side Gravy is NOT. It is not a full service, fine dining restaurant. That’s what Blackbird, Nunzio’s, Il Fiore, Casona and a host of other Collingswood restaurants are. West Side Gravy is a fun place for some interesting and well-prepared comfort food, served by some very nice people at reasonable prices.

 Our server, Allie, was one of those very nice people and she made us feel comfortable from the very beginning. She was attentive and charming and after opening our wines and puzzling over why we open four bottles and none of us share with each other (a story for another day), she recited the evening “specials” from every category on the menu. We pointed out to Allie, that first time diners at West Side Gravy should not be entitled to evening “specials” as there is plenty to choose from on the regular menu.

 My wine for the evening was something that was recommended by Charlie Beatty at Canals BottleStop in Marlton. The 2007 Fidelity, Alexander Valley, Crazy Creek Estate, Red Wine was a nice blend of 81% Merlot and 19% Cab Franc. Both my wife, Kathy, and I thought it was excellent with the cab franc giving a little bite to the softer merlot. It’s not a fruit bomb it’s just filled with nice cherry and chocolate flavors and at about $15.00 this one drinks like a wine at 3 times it’s cost. Tom and Barbara T. had just returned from a vacation in WIlliamsburg, VA and they had with them a wine they wanted me to try. I agreed and was prepared to try and find nice words to express my dislike for virtually any U. S. wines from outside of  California, Oregon or Washington State. However, this one, 2008 Williamsburg Winery Susan Constant Red Wine wasn’t bad. It wasn’t very complex but the taste was pretty good with some nice fruit flavors and a soft mouthfeel. Unlike other local wineries who charge big bucks for their wines, this one is under $10.00.

We all had a hard time making our selections but the guys decided to split a couple of appetizers.

We split the West Side Fries with Pinot Noir gravy and the Cheesesteak Eggrolls. The fries were nicely done with a portion size that would be fine for two people. The gravy was great but I should have poured it on my fries instead of dipping each one. The cheesesteak eggrolls were really good. There were four nice sized pieces so we each had one for ourselves. Four of them would almost make a meal and they came with a tasty horseradish sauce for dipping..

A couple of folks ordered the Sweet Potato Soup which they voted OK…but nothing special. The Fried Green Tomatoes were also seen as having too much breading.

 Gerry B. and my wife both went for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, potato salad with smoked bacon dressing and house-made cole slaw. Kathy asked them if she could have all white meat and they complied with her request. Both thought the chicken was tasty and the potato salad and cole slaw were good.

Joe and Carol both had one of the “specials”, the braised short ribs with mashed potatoes and baby spinach. The dish was topped with crispy onion rings and a nice gravy and both enjoyed it.

 I always have a hard time staying away from any meatloaf dish I see on a menu and this time was no exception. This one came served over creamy mashed potatoes and I had them replace the peas with the baby spinach. Three generous slices of excellent house recipe meat loaf was topped with the delicious West Side Gravy. I was happy with my choice.

Barbara had the West Side Club, house-roasted turkey breast, smoked bacon, lettuce, marinated tomato, herb mayo on cranberry-pecan bread and served with house-made waffle chips. Barb liked her sandwich but she loved her waffle chips, We all sampled them and agreed they were very good.

 Sue C. had the Mushroom Sandwich, grilled portabello with baby arugula, grilled onions, marinated tomato served on a multi-grain bun with a side of macaroni salad

We had pretty much eaten as much as we could when Allie began to tempt us with offerings from the dessert menu. We gave in and decided we would split two items between the eight of us when all of a sudden, a bevy of desserts appears, many compliments of Alex and Siobhan, the two talented chefs who both stopped by to say “hi”. This was a very nice gesture and we all got to try several of their creations.

I don’t have a copy of the dessert menu so I can only accurately describe the one I spent the most time getting totally familiar with and that would be the “Snickers” dish above which was sinfully delicious. Allie’s favorite, the butterscotch pudding with caramelized bananas also drew a lot of compliments from our group.

In writing this review, and even prior to our first visit, I had read a lot about West Side Gravy. Almost every article and blog post I have seen mentions the same bewildering fact. There is a distinct lack of patronage on most nights. I am at a total loss as to why that is. A few theories I might offer would be, having dined at Blackfish patrons are expecting a similar meal. It’s not that kind of place. It could be that the place is a little too big for what they are doing. Most of the restaurants in Collingswood are fairly small and tables are crammed together. West Side Gravy is in the old Woolworths 5 & 10 Building and it is cavernous. If  they were just opening I could understand the sparse crowds but it’s been a few months now and the reviews are good and they certainly deserve a better fate. Personally, I think this type of dining has a place in a town with so many eating choices. At the very least, you should give it a try. The food is good and the prices are even better.

TRE FAMIGLIA – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Tre Famiglia (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2010 by ballymote

 A surprise call from our friend’s Gerry and JoAnn B. led to the four of us gathering last Saturday evening at Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield, NJ to celebrate my wife, Kathy’s birthday. We hadn’t seen them since our return from Napa as they were an integral part of our wine country sextet. We had some of the wines that Gerry had bought in Napa with us and I dug up something from my cellar.

Gerry had two bottles from Mayo Family. This was one of the places we visited during our week in Napa/Sonoma. The first bottle was the one that was awarded the “Best in Class” Award at this years Sonoma County Harvest Fair. We actually tasted this wine during a visit to that fair back on October 3rd. This was the 2007 Mayo Family, Sonoma Valley, Los Chamizal Vineyard, Meritage. This one is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc and is a very nice wine at its $30 price tag. It was not Gerry’s favorite, however, that award went to his other wine, the 2008 Mayo Family, Russian River Valley, Ricci Vineyard, Zinfandel. My wife, Kathy, now has company as prior to this, she was our only true, blue zinfandel lover. I have to admit, this one is very tasty and worth the $50.00 price tag. My contribution, which I thought finished third on this evening, although I think Gerry preferred it to the “Meritage”, was the 2000 Simi Reserve, Alexander Valley, Canernet Sauvignon. This 10 year old cab took some time to open up but when it did it had a nice array of black fruits with smooth tannins and some chocolate notes on the finish.

Kathy and I have been to Tre Famiglia a few times and I reviewed it very favorably on our last visit in May. At that time we had a nice round table in the side room. Gerry and Joann are from the western suburbs of Philly and this was their first visit to this classy Italian bistro (can a bistro be Italian?). Tonight we were seated in tight quarters. It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed.

 Our server, Joseph, recited a laundry list of specials that may have included more items than the actual menu. I have to confess that in the beginning I felt rushed. We had a lot to talk about. I had pictures to show them from the trip and it just seemed we were hurried to place our order. The feeling went away as the night progressed and it may have just been an unwarranted notion on my part.

With so many choices I chose the Mozzarella Fritti, Panko breaded wedge of mozzarella, pan seared on a bed of pomadoro sauce. One word….DELISH! Great texture and lots of flavor. This was not your usual fried mozzarella sticks.

Kathy had the Mussells Possilippo, steamed in a white garlic sauce. I don’t think Kathy has ever met a mussell she didn’t like and these were pretty good.

Gerry ordered something from the “special appetizer” list and it appeared to be a charcuterie type of dish with some tomatoes, olives, red peppers, mozzarella, and prosciutto on a bed of arugula. This looked like a nice presentation and a great way to start off his meal.

I believe Joann’s starter was also one of the “specials”. It appeared to be fresh greens with scallops and olives with a topping of shaved pecorino romano. We discussed our trip, sipped our wines and looked forward to our entrees which were soon to appear. Once again, I believe all four of us made our selection from the many evening “specials”

Gerry had the Shrimp and Pasta Fra Diavolo. This was a perfect match for his zinfandel with nice big pieces of shrimp in a tangy sauce.

Joann had the veal chop Porterhouse topped with shrimp and crabmeat and served over black truffled red bliss mashed potatoes and veggies.

Kathy also had a big veal chop. Hers was char-broiled and served over a bed of polenta with a side of broccoli rabe. She finished as much as she could and, lucky for me, there was enough left over that I was able to combine my leftovers with hers for another meal on Monday evening.

I had the Braised Short Ribs which was also served over polenta with a side of veggies. The meat was very tender. Perhaps, not quite as flavorful as I would have hoped, but still very good. The fact that we saved half our meal left us room for dessert.

 Kathy had the Apple Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream. Looked good. Tasted good.

    Gerry had the Chocolate Chip Cannoli and, unlike the last one we had, this one had plenty of chocolate chips.

 Joann had the Chocolate Tartufo, the familiar hard shell chocolate with vanilla/chocolate gelato and a cherry in the middle. It’s one of those desserts that is impossible to screw up because ALL the parts are great.

       I had a simple dish of banana gelato with crisp sugar cookies. It was good but it was too much banana. I should have ordered the Tartufo!

Overall, it was a nice dinner experience and Joseph was kind enough to write out the specials so that I wouldn’t draw a complete blank without menu support to help me when I wrote this review.

Tre Famiglia has a nice following and it’s one of those places where you can always count on a good meal.

   
 

AUGUST RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in August Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2010 by ballymote

The first good thing I can say about August is that for some reason, unbeknownst to me, you can always find a fairly convenient parking spot despite its location in the 1200 block of South 13th Street in the Bella Vista section of South Philadelphia. It also helps that the food is pretty damn good. This cash-only BYOB isn’t fancy but there is an atmosphere of congeniality and care that owners, MaryAnn Brancaccio and Maria Vanni have managed to create.

Our server, Adrienne, was both patient and attentive, especially in light of the fact that half of our party of 6 were nearly 30 minutes late in arriving. She opened our wines and when we were finally settled, recited the evening specials. I would describe the offerings at August as Italian with a twist. There are always a few items that seem to stray from the heart of Italian cooking yet they receive an infusion of the country just the same. We had a bevy of nice wines for the evening and much to discuss over our meal as we went over our itinerary for our San Francisco/Napa trip which is now less than seven days away. I brought with me a 2007 Ancient Peaks, Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, CA. I had read a lot about this wine mostly from e-mails sent from a west coast wine shop. I had been looking for it here on the East Coast for over a year and I stumbled across it at Wine Works in Marlton, NJ. It has all the full flavors of a fruit-filled cab without those big Napa Cab prices. Joe had stopped at Salina Liquors and picked up a 2006 Bodega Renacer Punta Final, Riserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina. This one offered great value with full Malbec flavors and a smooth finish. Gerry had two wines. His first was a 2006 Perrin et Fils, Vacqueyras Les Christins. I loved the sweet nose on this one with strawberries and roses coming through. On the palate there was plenty of red fruit in a silky smooth package. His other wine was another California Cab. This one was the 2007 Rush Vineyards, Napa Valley Cabernet. Once again, a nice dark cherry and chocolate nose and the taste pleasant enough but with all of the really good Napa Cabs that Gerry drinks this one falls a little short of the others.

Left to right are Carol B.’s “August rolls”, two vegetarian spring rolls with a tangy dipping sauce, JoAnn B’s Spinach Salad and Gerry B.’s Shrimp sauteed with garlic and chili oil. All of the choices are just the right portion to serve as a nice prelude to the main course.

My wife, Kathy, ordered the raviolis with mushrooms and brown truffle butter sauce and I was happy with my choice of the angel hair pasta aioli with capers; made even better when Gerry poured his left over sauce on top of the remainder of my dish adding a potent garlic flavor to the pasta.

Adrienne was nice enough to write down the “specials” for me as one of the difficulties of writing a food blog is trying to remember what went into the specials. It’s easy enough to go to the restaurants web site for entrees from their regular memo but those specials always create a special problem. Hey, maybe that’s why they are called “specials”!!

Kathy and Carol both had the Pan Seared Pork Chop with maple mashed sweet potatoes and broccoli rabe. The chop looked to be cooked perfectly and seasoned well and I think both of them enjoyed their selection.

Gerry was thinking “Steak” all the way as there was a pepper-crusted filet as one of the “specials”. He changed his mind at the last-minute, most likely because it was a filet rather than a sirloin or T-bone, and went with my 2nd choice, and Joe B’s first choice, the Pan seared striped bass with a chipotle buerre blanc with shrimp and chorizo risotto. It sounded delicious and would have most certainly been on a plate in front of me had they not tempted me into selecting the Meatloaf  served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed zuccini. I’m a sucker for meatloaf on any menu. It’s just something about the good old American comfort food of meat and potatoes. I realize it’s not very adventurous but it’s something that when done well, makes for a great dinner. This one was done well and I was totally happy with my choice

JoAnn had the Penne pasta with jumbo shrimp sauteed with garlic, white beans and asparagus in extra virgin olive oil with a touch of tangy marinara sauce. Yikes, I take back what I said about this not being a true Italian cuisine. She thought the dish was full of flavor and well prepared.

We spent a lot of time discussing our trip and what we would be doing each day. We have some great winery visits and some spectacular dinners planned and I will be posting the final update here on my blog in the next day or two. Meanwhile, as we chatted, Maria Vanni was out front making sure everything was good with our meal. That’s the kind of personal touch that so many places forget and it’s one of the things that builds loyal and repeat customers.

We topped off our meal with most of our group sharing a couple of pieces of the house signature dessert, Aunt Leena’s Cheesecake, a very light cream cheese cake dusted with a cinnamon. I was the lone wolf who opted for the Affogato, vanilla ice cream served in a shot of espresso and topped with a sambuca whipped cream. I’m not sure if I ordered this because I thought it would taste good or I just liked saying “AFFFFogatttoooo”. Whatever the reason, I was pleased with my choice. It was delicious and unique; great flavors and the perfect ending to a good meal.

There are many choices for dining in South Philly. August can certainly be recommended as an excellent pick for fine food and service.

BECCA’S RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in Becca's Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on September 23, 2010 by ballymote

It was back to Phoenixville, PA last night for a spur of the moment dinner at one of the many fine BYOB’s that have sprung up throughout the gentrified town. Gerry B. and myself were disappointed that our friend, John G. would not be joining us but we were determined to make the best of it without him.

Becca’s occupies the site long-held by Twin Bays Restaurant, a local fixture for many years. Gerry, and his wife, JoAnn, have been here many times. He even claims to have his own “secret” parking spot in the lot outside and I must confess, he just may be onto something.

As usual, we had a couple of nice wines with us to compliment our meal. I brought the 2001 Coudoulet de Beaucastle, Cotes du Rhone. I had read a review on this wine from 2005 and it ended with the words, “good now, should be terrific in four or five years”. Well, that would be now and it was, terrific, I mean. It certainly needed some time in the glass as it appeared soft pink on the rim when first poured. Thirty minutes later a sweet nose of lilac and dirt intermingled with black cherry made each sniff a pleasure. This wine was creamy soft on the palate with nice fruit and tobacco and a super smooth lingering finish. Gerry’s contribution was equally appealing. He brought the 2008 Ty Caton, Caton Vineyard “Tytanium”, Sonoma Valley, Red Wine. This one had a lot going for it; a powerful nose of ripe fruit. Checking in with almost 15% alcohol it still manages to maintain an elegance with hints of dark chocolate and herbs. A nice blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah, Syrah and Malbec. It was a nice contrast to the French wine.

Our server, Ray, has been here quite some time as Gerry remembered him from the Twin Bay days. Ray was very professional and made sure we were taken care of all-night without being intrusive. He sold Gerry on one of the evening “specials” and we will talk about that in just a bit. We both found appetizers that we thought we would enjoy and I went with the Lobster Bisque.

light, creamy bisque of lobster with sourdough croutons. The tiny croutons were a nice, crunchy touch. The soup was tasty with nice pieces of lobster.  It was served at the proper temperature and provided a nice start to the meal especially with the warm raisin rolls dipped in olive oil.

Gerry selected the Jumbo Lump Crabmeat “Martini”, tossed in a vodka infused green olive vinaigrette. This was another tasty starter that had nice pieces of crab meat in a tangy mix of greens. He gave me a taste of his and although it was good I was glad I chose the bisque.

When it came time to select our entrees it was a difficult choice. The menu at Becca’s has lots of tempting fish dishes and Gerry couldn’t resist the steak that was the “special for the evening .

His steak came with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and some nice baby carrots. It was smothered in mushrooms and onions and the sauce added to the flavor of this  Grade A steak flown in that day from Oregon, I believe. The full-bodied Ty Caton Tytanium was a perfect wine for the hearty red meat.

I was definitely in the mood for seafood and was torn between the Atlantic salmon, the Japanese sea bass, the diver scallops and the Halibut steak. I finally settled on the halibut, with a summer truffle risotto and a chive nage. The halibut steak had a beautiful char, was cooked perfectly and the flaky white fish was only enhanced by the creamy truffle risotto which was excellent. The subtle creamy feel of the Beaucastle wine topped off the dish and made the meal a total pleasure.

We took out time and discussed our upcoming trip to Napa and Sonoma which is now less than 10 days away. We skipped dessert and headed back to Gerry’s where John G. was waiting for us with some great cigars.

Becca’s was quite busy for a Wednesday evening and with such good food and fine service, it’s no wonder the place does well even on weeknights.

CASONA – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Casona (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2010 by ballymote

There is something about Casona that appeals to me. Certainly, part of it is the uniqueness of the spicy Cuban influenced menu. It’s also the enticing wrap-around porch that on a balmy, breezy summer evening can be the perfect setting for a meal. Another part of the draw is the building itself; an imposing Cape May style Victorian that stands alone and seems to serve as a guardian for the many other Collingswood eateries further along Haddon Ave. Some, or all of this, brought us to Casona on a gorgeous Saturday night of Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, scores of others had the same idea and we were unable to secure seating at an outside table. We did have the next best thing though, a nice table by the open doorway where the soft breezes were still evident.

Our server, Ivan, was both personable and enthusiastic. He chatted while opening our wines and told us of the lone special for the evening. The regular menu at Casona is chock full of interesting offerings and I don’t think they really need to have many “specials”. These were the wines that the six of us would share with our spicy food.

Joe B. had the 2007 Marchesi De Frescobaldi, Tenuta di Castiglioni, a Super Tuscan. We all liked this wine a lot. It was very food friendly with hints of blackberries and minerals and a velvety finish. It deserves the 93 point rating it received from Wine Spectator. I brought with me one of my wife, Kathy’s favorite wines. The 2007 Angel’s Landing, Stag’s Leap District,  Napa Cab. We had this a few months ago at Sonata in Northern Liberties and she had been wanting to try another bottle since then. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and the smooth taste of red and black berries and ripe cherries with a hint of licorice and chocolate make this a tremendous value at under $20.00. Jerry C. always has something a bit unusual and tonight was no different with a 2007 Chateau Morrisette, The Black Dog, Red Blend. If you guessed that Chateau Morrisette was in Bordeaux you’d be off a little as it is located in Floyd, Virginia. The Black Dog is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chambourcin and is light with smooth tannins. One of the problems with the fare served at Casona is that the spices tend to overpower the wines and if the food wasn’t so good that would be a very big problem.

Kathy and I each chose as our appetizer, the Cuban Pizza, – Chicken, Creole  tomato sauce, chorizo & cheese 6.95. Kathy thought it was very good, I felt that very good didn’t go far enough in defining just how REALLY good this was. I could have gone with a 2nd one as an entree. The flavors were awesome.

What Kathy thought was even better than her Cuban Pizza was Carol B.’s Empanadas de Carne, – Ground beef with
peppers  & onion  6.95
Carol wasn’t terribly phased that she had actually ordered Empanados De Pollo because the beef was tasting great. Her dish came with guacamole and sour cream for dipping.

Jerry and Joe were persuaded by Ivan to try the  Tomato Soup, served with toasted bread and parmesan cheese $6.50. They both thought it was good but I saw them eyeing our other appetizers and felt they might wait for Ivan outside and end his career as an Appetizer Suggester.

Sue C. went with the Pico di Gallo, Tomato, red onion, cilantro, roasted jalapeno, lime juice & olive oil served with corn tortillas or mariquita $5.95. I didn’t take a picture because it was only chips and salza but the salza was spicy hot and required keeping your water glass within reach. Speaking of which, not to nitpick but, with food as spicy as that served at Casona, it becomes very important that the servers and busboys keep an eye on water glasses. On this night, they were not attentive to this chore. On a previous visit we were told that there would be a $1.00 charge for additional chips. They have since, thankfully, done away with this infuriating charge.

For their entrees, both Kathy and Carol selected the Lechon Asado Citrus-marinated pork, slow
roasted Cuban-style with white rice
& maduros 20.95
I think I had ordered this on our last visit. I didn’t hear any complaints on this choice but, by the same token, I did not hear either of them gushing ecstatic over their choice.
Sue stayed in the pork family and ordered the Chuletoe de Cerdo Pork Chop with mashed sweet potato,
guava sauce & asparagus 21.50. Her chop was nicely done and she enjoyed her dish. It looked like a very nice presentation; colorful and appealing.
I stayed with chicken after enjoying the pizza and went with the Chicken Moluteno Grilled chicken breast marinated in
mole sauce with chilaquiles queso fresco topping with cilantro, cherry tomato
& red onion sauce 20.95
There was a nice blend of flavors in this semi-spicy dish and it didn’t disappoint. I wouldn’t rank it up there with the great chicken dishes of all time but it was fine.Jerry and Joe put their heads together and decided they were in the mood for a little bit of everything. The perfect choice for them was the Paella, Casona Signature Dish
Saffron rice, bay scallops, clams,
mussels, shrimp, chorizo &
 chicken breast, calamari,
green peas, lobster
for one   28.95
for two  52.95
They both worked diligently at the huge dish and did their best to finish as much as they could. They still had some to take home. Joe put a little on my bread dish and I think I shared their view that, although it was good, it could have been better with an addition of flavor. For as many things in the entree, it was lacking in bright flavors and slightly bland.

Overall, it was  a nice experience at Casona. A beautiful night, good wines, good food, good conversation in a nice setting. Nothing wrong with that.
 

CHRISTOPHER – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Christopher, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2010 by ballymote

Open only three weeks, Christopher, on Kresson Rd (just off Brace) in Cherry Hill, had already drawn some nice reviews. Our little group of six hungry diners were anxious to see for ourselves what it was all about and that is what brought us there last evening. Nicely designed on the inside, Christopher features an alcove in the center that is unique and provides a more roomy feel to the room. With Sinatra-type music playing softly in the background, our server, Michaelangelo, painted us a picture of the evening’s lone “special” (sorry, couldn’t resist). It was a stuffed flounder with a three cheese sauce. It sounded pretty good. As our wines were opened, Michaelangelo suggested some appetizers and you could tell he took pride in being a part of this new culinary adventure. In fact, the entire staff seemed to work as a team in re-filling water glasses, removing dishes, stopping by to see if everything was OK.

As usual we had a few bottles of wine to go with our food. I had the 2007 Cameron Hughes, Lot 125, Pinot Noir, Carneros. I found this at Monster Beverage in Glassboro a few months back and I was pleasantly surprise how well this showed for a $20.00 Pinot Noir. Excellent notes of cherry and strawberries with a soft, smoky nuance. Joe B. has a very interesting wine, the 2007 O. Fournier, Centauri, Maule Valley, Chile. I have to confess, I have never been a big fan of Chilean wines but this one could convert me. It had loads of red and black berries with hints of tobacco and chocolate. It was exceptionally smooth and had a nice lingering finish. Jerry and Sue B.’s daughter, Katie, had just returned from a summer holiday in Greece and they had a .375 bottle she had brought home with her. The only word I could read on the label was Kastelli. The rest of the words were all Greek to me (I know…I know…I’ll stop). Anyway, it was from Santorini, on the island of Crete and it was light and, as stated on the label, dry and red.

One of the signature dishes at Christopher is the appropriately named, Christopher’s Signature New England Clam Chowder (cup 4.95…bowl 5.95). Five of the six of us opted for this as our appetizer. I was glad to see Carol B. show some individuality and order what would have been my choice had I not felt like I had to choose the soup. Carol ordered the Pot Stickers. Wontons filled with pork, garlic and ginger, served with a honey-soy dipping sauce. She shared one with me and they were very tasty and a good value for $6.95. The soup was excellent. It was served at the perfect temperature and was chock full of nice pieces of clam, potato and veggies in a yummy broth with a couple of secret ingredients that Michaelangelo made me take a blood oath not to reveal, so I won’t. I have had some really good soups and chowders during the past year and although Christopher’s was not the absolute best it certainly does not have to make any apologies.

Joe B. and Jerry C. both ordered the Christopher Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Portabello, a portabello musroom, basted and grilled then topped with a jumbo lump crab cake (actually TWO), melted provolone and served over spring mix and drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. Carol had the Crab Cakes without the Portabello and it was like a Tale of Two Cities. Jerry and Joe enjoyed theirs very much. Carol found her crab cake to be mushy with a distinct absence of crab and a preponderance of filler. It could have been she just had a bad batch. I actually tasted both and the addition of the portabello definitely was an added plus for the dish (and this from an avowed mushroom hater). Bottom line recommendation, for three more bucks get the Portabello!

I was totally pleased with my choice, the Spicy Crab. Linguine with jumbo lump crab meat in a homemade spicy marinara sauce. The sauce was good and the amount of crab meat was generous. I was able to take half home for another meal and I am looking forward to it.

My wife, Kathy, chose the Scallops & Shrimp, served over a bed of linguine with mushrooms, scallions, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. She enjoyed the shrimp and scallops but felt the linguine was over-cooked. I might add that most entrees are served with either a baked potato or a serving of summer veggies. They had run out of baked potatoes and so we settled for the vegetables.

Sue C. can’t eat a lot of seafood so she searched the menu and found an 8 ounce Angus beef filet which is normally served with shrimp or crab meat (add $1.00). Sue passed on both of the seafood items and thought the steak was good.

Michaelangelo came by to tempt us with his dessert tray and although we tried to be strong we were simply unable to utter the words “No Thanks” and consequently sampled the Chocolate Cake (light and luscious) the Carrott Cake  (sweet and creamy goodness) and his personal favorite, the Key Lime Pie (excellent thanks to the addition of Meyer Lemon). We did pass on the Double Chocolate Strawberries so it’s not like we had NO willpower.

Overall, I’d have to say that Christopher is off to a good start and that it shows lots of potential. Certainly, it merits another visit in the future.

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