Saturday, December 14, 2013

Waffallonia: Not Your Average Waffles

I was never a fan of waffles as a kid. Perhaps that’s because I grew up eating frozen waffle discs compliments of the toaster.  It wasn’t until I went to college that waffles became a staple food item.  Choosing to skip on the daily blasé offerings of cafeteria items only a freshman could love, I spent a quality three minutes at the “Create Your Own Waffle” station more often than not.  On adventurous nights, I’d throw a few scoops of ice cream on top and consider myself a culinary genius.  So when Waffallonia opened up in Squirrel Hill a couple years back, I threw on my freshman 15 jeans and headed on over.  I’ve been indulging on these sinfully authentic Belgian waffles ever since.

If you’re a fan of the Americanized, made-from-batter "Belgian" waffles, then your waffle lovin’ mind will be blown when you sink your teeth into a Liège waffle.  These waffles get their namesake from the Belgian province in which they were created.  Liège waffles are unique in that they are made from yeast dough (an adapted form of brioche dough to be precise).  This is the smell that consumes you when opening the door.  Another difference in comparing Liège waffles with our made in America waffles is that they are sweetened with pearl sugar.  This sugar caramelizes the outside of the waffle, leaving a delicious, crunchy exterior while maintaining a soft, chewy texture on the inside.  Some of the pearl sugar remains intact within the waffle too, providing unexpected little bursts of sweetness as you eat.  In other words, once you taste a Liège waffle you will literally find all other waffles subpar. 

Now, if you were in Wallonia, you’d most likely eat a Liège waffle plain or with a little cinnamon, but thankfully here in Pittsburgh I can still get my fill of waffles a la mode.  There are normally six Dave and Andy’s ice cream flavors to choose from ranging from Vanilla Bean to Speculoos (a European spiced shortbread cookie).  I actually prefer the, dare I say, “boring” Vanilla Bean because it’s yummy and it doesn’t overpower the flavor the of the waffle.  If you’re not in the mood for the cold stuff, you can get a spread of Nutella or maybe some fresh fruit and whipped cream instead…heck, maybe all of the above. 

Liège Waffle with Speculoos Ice Cream

Liège Waffle with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Liège Waffle with Chocolate Ice Cream
The only dilemma one might have when visiting Waffallonia is where to eat your delightful creation.  In the summer, it’s perfect because you can take it to go and eat it outside, maybe sitting on the steps of a neighboring business.  Winter months can be a tad more challenging if you go when it’s busy as the seating is quite limited inside (think 6-8 bar stools in the back).  For me, I could care less if it’s a little crowed.  I will gladly stand elbow to elbow to get my waffle on…or you can always dine in your car. 

Waffallonia is making the best waffles in Pittsburgh.  Treat yourself to an amazing dessert or, if you're like me, a nostalgic college dinner.  Just remember, you’ll never be able to look at other waffles the same way again. 

I give Waffallonia: 4.5/5 forks
1707 Murray Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

Neighborhood: Squirrel Hill

*This review is of the Squirrel Hill location, but there is also a Waffallonia kiosk located in Schenley Plaza (Oakland).

Waffallonia on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 23, 2013

Café Raymond: Overlooked by Those Seeking the Overrated

I always shake my head as I pass the line of tourists who are waiting for their turns to scrounge on greasy plates from a certain local breakfast spot in the strip… no doubt taking their recommendations from a re-run of Man vs. Food.   Apparently many out-of-towners are fans of the overrated.  In fact, they are so blinded by plates covered with entire cans of Reddi Whip, that they are missing out on one of the true “best breakfasts” in town just a few blocks up the strip.  If you prefer quality over excessive quantity, it’s time to skip the line and give Café Raymond the attention it deserves. 

Café Raymond is fittingly named after Raymond Mikesell.  He’s a yinzer from the Northside with some serious food credits.  He’s baked for famous peeps like Cal Ripken Jr. and has lived in romantic places like France…he also lived amongst the dirty birdy fans of Baltimore for a decade, but let’s move on.  He could have opened his café anywhere, but we’re lucky enough to have Chef Raymond back in the ‘Burgh. 

As you approach the café, you’ll see some al fresco tables where patrons are often found freely advertising the fresh, local ingredients to be had.  Once inside, you can peruse the chalkboard menu of breakfast and lunch items.  On Saturdays and Sundays they offer up two breakfast specials, most often a specialty omelet and pancakes, in addition to the regular menu.  A few weeks ago I had the most amazing breakfast sandwich.  It was egg, applewood smoked bacon, mixed greens, tomato, and chipotle mayo on perfectly toasted slices of brioche.  I seriously could’ve eaten an entire loaf of that bread… causing all the gluten heads to cover their eyes and hide their children.  I also love their seasonal pancake specials…the Blueberry Ricotta are deceivingly light and fluffy considering they are made using buckwheat.  I’m looking forward to this fall when I can fulfill my pumpkin pancake cravings. 

Brioche Breakfast Sandwich...yes, I had already eaten half when I remembered to snap a pic.
Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes
The hubby is a fan of omelets and Café Raymond serves them up right…wildly fluffy and filled with savory treats like spinach, fresh mozzarella, and pesto or perhaps some smoked salmon and scallions.  And better yet, omelets are served with oven-roasted potatoes.  When he’s in the mood for a meatier brunch, he orders the Pastrami Sandwich.  While this is technically on the lunch menu, Café Raymond will add an egg to this already behemoth of a sammie if you say, “Please.”  You could easily split this bad boy with a friend.  (While I'm usually there to munch on breakfast goodies, I must note that all of the sandwiches I've tried have been yummy, fresh, and filling.  You can choose from a variety of salads or dine on a daily lunch special as well.)

Spinach Omelet and Oven Roasted Potatoes
Pastrami Sandwich with Egg
Once you’re stuffed and feeling like you need to loosen your belt, there’s only one thing left to do…get dessert of course!  As mentioned, Raymond is a first class baker and his pastries are more than delicious.  My old faithful is the Blueberry Custard Croissant.  The dough is flaky and crisp, making the perfect basket for the creamy custard and perfectly sweetened berries sitting inside.  I’d recommend getting there early because they usually sell out. 

Blueberry Custard Croissant
I am always a fan of eating local, but some local eateries are just better than others.  I can honestly say (without any hoopla) that Café Raymond is doing it right, and you’d be wrong to pass up this gem during your next visit to the Strip. 

I give Café Raymond: 5/5 forks
2103 Penn Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Weekday Lunch Specials

Neighborhood: Strip District

Cafe Raymond on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Blue Dust: A Family Affair

We all have that uncle in our family, you know, the one that headlines every epic family reunion.  Wouldn’t it be sweet if your favorite uncle opened a bar? Well look no further my foodie friends!  Uncle Jerry is serving up craft brews and mouth-watering dinner plates at Blue Dust.  Whether you’re a Homestead-lifer or a curious first-timer, you’ll feel like part of the family in no time. 

I’m not sure what I was expecting the first time I entered Blue Dust, a name that pays tribute to the steel industry, but I was pleased from the start.  It isn’t “cold” or industrial in style; rather, it’s homey and has a bit of a southwest feel.  If you prefer sitting tableside there are various spots to eat comfortably both inside and outside (weather permitting).  Honestly though, in a local spot such as this, you’re going to want to sit at the bar and participate.   Besides, the bar itself is quite lovely, Jerry Miller’s daughter, Sarah, created a work of art using mosaic glass.  If you look closely, you might see the sea monster at the end of the bar. 

Once seated at the bar, you can take a gander at the row of craft taps waiting for you to imbibe upon…26 to be exact.  Therefore, if your beer of choice is produced by those Clydesdale lovers (man, those commercials get me every time), you are better off elsewhere.  Blue Dust is for patrons who actually like to savor the flavors of brews like Eylsian Immortal IPA at 6.2% or Sierra Nevada’s Imperial Red at 8.1%.  If you don’t see a draft you love…um, I guess that’s possible…they have a wide range of bottles in the wall coolers too.  And if beer isn’t your thing, or you need something stiffer to ease the woes of a long workday, Frank (Jerry’s son-in-law), will make you a mean cocktail.  Frank may stir up something using their house-flavored vodka or may go out back to grab fresh mint from the garden to muddle into your mojito. 

Draft List
The Taps!
So you get the picture, Blue Dust is a must on the watering-hole list, but it’s also one of my favorite locales to get my grub on.  Everything you order is made in-house, from scratch, using local ingredients.  And the menu ranges to please all, vegan and meat-lover alike.  For starters, I usually get a cup of soup and a farm-fresh salad.  The last soup I tried was Curry Crab Bisque.  The balance of rich spices and sweet crab was pure bliss.  The house salad is a nutritious blend of mixed greens, red onion, slivers of almonds, dried cranberries, and house-made balsamic vinaigrette.  I order this side salad for a small upcharge in lieu of the chips and salsa that accompany the sammies and tacos.

Curry Crab Bisque
Side Salad
Speaking of which, I now have a serious craving for the house-smoked meats that fill those empty slices and shells.  The pulled pork is a homerun in both forms, completely tender and deliciously seasoned.  When it’s presented as a sandwich, it’s rightfully named Porkzilla and comes out on toasty bread with a blanket of gooey Muenster cheese.  As the Eric Pastor, two corn-shell tacos are loaded with that Mexican spiced pork and topped with fresh salsa and scallions.  You can also order the Fish Tacos.  The grilled tilapia is complimented with flavorful lime cilantro sauce and crunchy cabbage.  But I digress, back to the smoked meats.  The Hot Pastrami and the Smoked Brisket Sandwich will literally melt in your mouth.   Blue Dust even smokes their own turkey in order to create their version of a Rachel.  You can also order from the “Specials” menu that changes monthly.  This past month, you may have chosen the Balsamic Glazed Short Ribs or the Pork, Squash, and Mushroom Empanadas.

Eric Pastor Tacos (Pulled Pork)
Fish Tacos
After you stifle your hunger pains, you can stick around to take your turn at the dartboard.  The dartboard is real, meaning you’ll want to be somewhat sober if your dart skills are lacking (no one likes to get punctured by stray darts), and it’s free to play.  You can feed the TouchTunes machine and sing along to your favorite 80s band as well.

Blue Dust is an example of what a great bar should be…amazing drinks, delicious food, and a welcoming atmosphere.  Come on over and join the family!

I give Blue Dust: 5/5 forks
601 Amity Street
Homestead, PA 15120

Happy Hour: Thursday and Friday 5-7pm Half Off Apps & Taps

Neighborhood: Homestead

 Blue Dust on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Greendance The Winery at Sand Hill: An Open Air Dinner

Serendipity is defined as the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.  Call it what you like, but I was definitely in the right place at the right time last Thursday when I decided to spend time at the Market Square Farmer’s Market before the Pirate’s game.  If I hadn’t been strolling around with a serious sugar craving I might never have had the opportunity to eat at Greendance Winery’s first “Open Air Dinner"... one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve ever been lucky enough to attend. 

While there were several options for raising my glucose levels at the farmer’s market, I decided on eating a slice of Three Berry pie from Sand Hill Berries, a farm located in Mt. Pleasant.  My plan was to scarf down the slice with a cup o’ Joe and then make my way to a pregame lunch date (don’t judge me).  About half way through, I decided I had to go back and give these guys some face-to-face kudos.  This pie was loaded with plump blackberries, red raspberries, and blueberries and the crust was tasty but subtle enough to let the berries be the headliners.

Three Berry Pie
I was able to give my praises to Robbie Schilling.  It is he who encouraged me to go over to the Greendance Winery table and speak with his wife, Amy, to sign up for their first Open Air Dinner.  As it turns out, the Schillings are one part of the trio (along with the Vinoskis and Lynns) that brought the idea of having a winery on a berry farm to fruition.  It was actually Diane, their tasting room manager, who gave me the scoop: wine tasting and amuse bouche (that’s fancy speak for finger food) from 6-7pm at the Café and an outdoor family-style dinner from 7-10pm.  Her description was lovely and the menu sounded almost too good to be true.  For the reasonable price of $45 (tax/gratuity included), I was sold and super excited.  

On Saturday night, we hopped into the car with some of our favorite neighbors and took an easy drive out of the city into peaceful Mt. Pleasant.  After checking in, we made our way to the tasting room.  We tasted several wines (they have a full range, including fruit wines), and decided to go with their Pinot Gris for dinner.  I don’t even like Pinot usually, but Greendance does theirs right.  With bottle and glasses in hand, we made our way out to the Café area to nibble on a spread of fruits, cheeses, and dips…even some spicy stuffed banana peppers.

The Cafe 
At 7 o’clock, Amy came out to the Café and announced we would need to gather our bottles and follow her on the wagon trail by foot to our dinner table.  (Ladies, wear sensible shoes, please.  You’re on a farm!)  Maybe it was my first glass of wine, but I was downright giddy as we made way our way past the orchard to a small clearing around the bend.  As each person approached the table a look of astonishment spread across their face.  It was absolutely stunning. 

Our Open Air Dinner Table
Upon taking our seats, we were encouraged to introduce ourselves to those seated near us.  It was quite fun getting acquainted.  We had everyone from car salesmen (salesladies actually), to maritime lawyers, to teachers.  There were 48 of us all together.  Once situated, food began appearing at our table.

To start, we passed around large bowls filled to the brim with the biggest berries I’ve ever seen along with baskets of cheese bread.  Next, came plates of halved avocados filled with shrimp ceviche.  Oh my word, the avocados were perfectly ripe and provided a velvety foundation for those citrusy crustaceans.  Just as plates were beginning to empty, we filled them up again with Farm Blueberry Salad.  I agreed with others who claimed they could eat this salad all night.  Fresh greens were lightly dressed and tossed with huge blueberries, feta cheese, and candied nuts…simple and delicious. 

Avocado Halves with Shrimp Ceviche
Farm Blueberry Salad
I started to get nervous at this point. Everything thus far was literally perfect.  Could the entrées meet such high expectations?  As the salad plates were cleared, heavy bowls and bountiful platters of food started rolling out.  I no sooner passed one bowl and another appeared! This continued for a while until I realized I had no more room on my plate.  Here’s the rundown: Filet with Port Demi-Glace, Roasted Herbed Chicken, Grilled Vegetables, Garlic Buttered Red Potatoes, and Parsley Fingerling Potatoes.  The beef was succulent and cooked perfectly for most everyone…some pinker slices and some closer to well done.  The chicken was phenomenal as well.  It was moist and the herbs hidden under the crispy skin added intense flavors.  The sides were masterfully executed also.  The vegetables were charred a bit and had a great texture (not too mushy or crunchy) and the potatoes were rich and fork tender. 

Filet with Port Demi-Glace
Roasted Herbed Chicken
Grilled Veggies
Garlic Buttered Red Potatoes
Parsley Fingerling Potatoes
My plate!
By this point, the night sky was approaching, allowing the outdoor decorative lights and candles running down the length of our table to illuminate our conversations.  By the time dessert came, everyone was chatting as if we had all been long-time friends (bottles of wine and delectable food helped the cause).  Speaking of dessert, massive English Pudding Cakes were making their way to our table.  The cake was a single layer, but easily 6 inches high.  And I say cake loosely, because each slice was consumed with endless berries of all varieties.  You could even taste the sweet tartness of the currents that grow on Sand Hill Berries.  The few bites I tasted, complete with fresh whipped cream, had maxed me out.  I simply had no room left in my stomach.  I, along with several other diners, requested a “box” to go. 

English Pudding Cake with Sand Hill Berries
I was honestly sad to see this night come to a close.  Greendance Winery made me feel like an honored guest attending an elegant feast somewhere in the hills of Tuscany.  I’m not sure if it’s possible to put into words just how amazing this night was.  I suggest you bookmark Greendance Winery’s event calendar so you can experience this place yourself.  Not only is there another Open Air Dinner in September, but they also have live music on the weekends and hold various celebrations.  Their annual Wine Festival and Open House are coming up in October.  Don’t wait for a serendipitous event to come and enjoy all that Greendance The Winery at Sand Hill has to offer. 

I give Greendance The Winery at Sand Hill: 5/5 forks
306 Deer Field Road
Mt. Pleasant, PA 15666

Neighborhood: Not in the city limits.

Greendance Winery on Urbanspoon