Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: The Yarde House

The Yarde House, or what was formerly known to South Hadley residents as "Woodbridges" is one of the best new places to eat in town. Located at 3 Hadley St., South Hadley Mass., The Yarde House offers highly improved and revamped menus, atmosphere and decor. With offerings from all different types of cuisines, the Yarde House is a great place to eat at any time of the year. The warm, dim-lit interior is nice for a cool fall or winter day and during those warm summer nights you can enjoy your meal and a glass of wine at one of their outdoor tables on the patio which has a border of lamps around its fence, creating a great ambiance.

For a starter, try the crispy calamari ($8.99). It's served up in a creative way, the classic marinara nowhere to be seen (although I'm sure they'd bring you some if you asked for it). Tossed with olive oil, garlic, cherry peppers, capers, scallions, and shaved Parmesan cheese, it has a slightly spicy, slightly sweet flavor, and the breading is just right...not too thick and not too greasy. For a twist on an old classic, try the southwest chicken spring rolls ($8.99). They're wonton wrappers filled with spiced chicken, black beans, cheddar cheese, spinach and red pepper and they're lightly fried and served with a creamy avocado dipping sauce. The spring rolls do have a kick, but the avocado sauce smooths everything out and together, they're a great pair.

For sandwiches, my favorite is a toss-up between the chicken panini and the roasted portabella sandwich ($8.99 each). The panini comes on a nice, soft ciabatta, like any good panini should. They spread it with a sundried tomato pesto and fill it with a roasted chicken breast topped with basil, fresh mozzarella and roasted tomato. It's a vamped-up version of an Italian classic and the flavors go really well together. The portabella is great because it eats like a burger but without all the fat and, oh yeah, the meat. They take a huge portabello mushroom, marinate it in balsamic, top it with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and mesclun mix, and put it on a crunchy (but not too crunchy) rustic roll (because we all know there's nothing worse than biting into a sandwich and cutting up the entire roof of your mouth). The mushroom is tender and juicy and the flavors of the toppings really go well with it. Your choice of Saloon Slaw or french fries (or sweet potato fries for 99 cents extra) completes both sandwiches for a pretty fair price.

If you're interested in something a little bit more dinner entree and less lunch, you have to try their mac-n-cheese ($13.99). It's farfalle pasta tossed in a chipotle and cheddar B├ęchamel sauce with chopped bacon and diced tomato. The chipotle and the bacon give the dish a slightly smoky flavor and the tomatoes add a nice touch of sweetness that really enhances the savory quality of the dish. Don't bother with the vegetable pasta though ($11.99). The veggies are bland and the "light" tomato sauce is basically just diced tomatoes and very little seasoning.

The Yarde House is a great place to go if you're looking for great variety at reasonable prices. Since the restaurant makeover, it has become one of my favorite spots in South Hadley, and I know many locals who agree.

*All of The Yarde House's menus are available at the link above.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Bobby's Burger Palace

Bobby Flay has opened up his first of two restaurants inside the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT, Bobby’s Burger Palace, and although the setup is a bit unconventional, the food is well worth a visit. In July, I had tickets to see comedian Lewis Black at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Being the foodie that I am, I decided that it wouldn’t be a complete trip without a visit to one of the casino’s many restaurants. So, I did my research. I knew that Flay was scheduled to open two restaurants sometime this year, but I wasn’t sure when. To my surprise, he had just opened Bobby’s Burger Palace about two weeks before that, so I was very excited to try it out. I read some not-so-good reviews online, which explained a “cafeteria-style” ordering and dining experience and also made me a bit skeptical, but I was willing to give Bobby the benefit of the doubt on this one. I mean come on, it is Bobby Flay after all, an award-winning Food Network star and Iron Chef. I checked out the menu online and was very excited to see that nothing on it was over $9. The Napa Valley Burger caught my eye immediately; two words: goat cheese. It was at that moment that I realized I’d have to give it a try.

We got to the casino early enough to eat and waited in a line that looked long, but moved quickly. After about five minutes in line, we ordered. You have two options for any burger on the menu. Option one (the option that Bobby recommends to every customer and the option that my boyfriend was very excited for) is to “crunchify” your burger. Code for topping your burger with potato chips before the bun top goes on. Option two and the option that I opted for was to have your burger topless. Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, I did not take off my shirt in front of hundreds of people just so I could enjoy this burger! When you order a burger topless, they kick the bun and serve it atop a bed of fresh, crisp mesclun greens. No wilted lettuce here. You can also get any burger made with ground beef, ground turkey, or a whole chicken breast. So I got the Napa Valley, in turkey and topless, and my boyfriend got the monthly special, in beef and crunchified. We paid for our order, were seated in a few minutes at the end of a long table that was lined with people, and our food was out in about 15 minutes.

Despite the initial awkwardness of sharing a table with others, the layout wasn’t that bad. The tables are set up so you’re looking in towards the line in the kitchen, where people are bustling and working hard to get your food out. Customers are only seated on one side of the tables, so even though you might be sitting next to someone you’ve never met before, it’s not like they’ve got you sitting across the table from complete strangers like it’s a Thanksgiving family reunion. Each table has a basket with plastic squeeze bottles that hold four of Bobby’s famous sauces and one with just plain old ketchup. There’s a chipotle ketchup, which is sweet with a lingering smoky heat that you feel on the back of your palate. There’s a burger sauce that tastes like a combination of steak sauce with a hint of sweetness, probably from honey which is one of Bobby’s favorite ingredients. There’s also a jalapeno hot sauce which is a bit too spicy for me and a barbeque sauce which is sweet and smoky with just the right amount of heat. Although I did sample all of the sauces, I didn’t do anything else with them. I really wanted to taste my burger the way that Bobby intended it to be.

The Napa Valley, shown above, is a juicy and very flavorful turkey burger topped with a generous amount of creamy goat cheese, spicy watercress, and a Meyer lemon honey mustard. The goat cheese was melted just enough to bring out its silkiness, but not too much to make it grainy or burnt and the tanginess from the Meyer lemon along with the sweetness from the honey and the spice from the watercress all paired perfectly. Instead of the bun shown in the picture above, the "topless" greens it was served on were fresh and the balsamic vinaigrette that came on the side was the perfect finish. It was a great way to go healthy at a place that’s known for its burgers…not always the most figure-friendly food.

The burger that my boyfriend got was made of ground beef and topped with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and a basil pesto spread. He crunchified it, which was a little disappointing, because they were Lays chips, not the super crunchy, homemade kettle-cooked chips that I’d expected, but other than that, the burger was juicy and boasted the flavors of Italy with every bite. The bun was soft, and the perfect size to go with the stacked burger. Overall, we were extremely pleased with our burgers. So pleased in fact, that we did something later that night that we’d rather not mention…but for the sake of this review, I will.

Normally, our visit to any restaurant would end here. Maybe we’d order a desert, but after that it’d be check please and out the door. So, we got the check, paid, and went to see the show. But after the long comedy performance and a lot of laughing (and calorie burning) on our part, we decided that there was only one option. We went back to the palace. This time, we decided to mix things up a bit. We had already tried the famous burgers, but we opted out of the sides during the first round. So, we got a Griddled Cheese Deluxe with brie, bacon, and tomato, as well as an order of fries and onion rings. To wash it all down we got a dark chocolate milkshake with whipped cream. This round was much less healthy than what we’d ordered before, but it was still very good.

The sandwich was a nice twist on an old classic, but they forgot to put the tomato on which would have added a necessary sweetness to balance out the saltiness of the bacon, the brie and the Texas toast-like bread it came on. It was still good, but it definitely could have used all of the ingredients that it claimed to have. The fries and onion rings were good, but there wasn’t anything that made them really stand out. The fries also came with fry sauce which was creamy and a little bit smoky like chipotle or paprika and paired well with the onion rings too. The milkshake was the best thing that we got the second time around. It was thick, and very chocolaty. We definitely needed the spoon it came with to eat it and the fresh whipped cream it was topped with was the perfect finish.

The fact that we went to Bobby’s Burger Palace not only once but twice speaks for itself. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who stops by the Mohegan Sun Casino. There are also two other locations in New Jersey and one in New York. So if you’re ever in the same neighborhood as one of Bobby’s Burger Palaces, and looking for a great burger, don’t think twice about stopping by. Who knows, you may just go back for seconds too…

*All of Bobby's Burger Palace's menus are available at the link above.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: Crispi's Italian Cuisine

Crispi's Italian Cuisine of 136 Broad St. (Route 18) in Bridgewater, Mass is a nice place to go for a night out with your significant other. But notice, I didn't say a quiet night out, because once you step inside the restaurant, it's anything but. It's a classic representation of a loud, Italian family style dinner, and because it was packed the night we went, I felt like I was enjoying just that. So if you're looking for a quiet place, don't go to Crispi's. If you don't mind the boisterous noise that comes along with any Mediterranean, family-style restaurant, then definitely make an appoint to go, because it's well worth it. We went on a Thursday night and, purely by chance, we got lucky. Thursdays are half price wine night, where every wine on the list is half off. Thanks to this special, which we didn't know about, we were able to enjoy two $10+ glasses of wine, for about $10 total.

Now, on to the food. They started off the meal, like any good Italian restaurant does, with warm bread and oil to dip it in. The oil was so-so, but it had nothing on the garlic rosemary oil that they give you at Bertucci's. Still, it was a nice way to start out the meal. We decided to share an appetizer and a salad, so we got the seafood stuffed mushrooms ($7) and the fresh mozzarella and plum tomato salad ($9). The mushrooms were nicely seasoned and very tender and the seafood stuffing was light and very flavorful. The salad was almost a classic caprese, but they were skimpy on the fresh basil and there was no balsamic or any other dressing on the salad itself. Just a side of balsamic vinaigrette which tasted like it was from a bottle. It was still good, with very fresh tomatoes, but it just wasn't executed as well as it could have been for a $9 price tag.

For dinner we decided to split an entree also. We decided on the Chicken Crispino ($15), described as "a boneless breast of chicken with our homemade stuffing, prosciutto and mozzarella, topped with bacon and rosemary in a mushroom and Marsala wine sauce". All of the entrees come with pasta, and we had been looking forward to the homemade gnocchi the entire time, only to find out that they unfortunately didn't have any more left, so we decided on the homemade cheese ravioli instead.

The dinner was good, but wasn't exactly what we were expecting. The chicken was tender and flavorful, but the stuffing was more mushy than anything. It didn't really have any texture and you definitely couldn't distinctly taste the prosciutto or the mozzarella. The sauce did make up for the lack of flavor in the stuffing, however. It had a very rich red wine flavor, and the mushrooms were cooked nicely. Some of the bacon was a little bit fatty, not cooked completely crisp, which in combination with the wet sauce did not have the most pleasing mouth texture. But the fresh rosemary, which was used a bit too sparingly in my opinion, along with all of the other flavors, really tied the entire dish together. I only had one bite with a fresh rosemary leaf, but let me tell you that one bite was delicious because the rosemary complemented everything and it also consisted of a nicely cooked bite of bacon to go along with the stuffed chicken. Although the sauce was good overall, it could have been plated with a slightly lighter hand, because the chicken was basically swimming in it. Overall though, the Crispini was a pretty good, very rich and filling dish.

I had thought that the ravioli were going to be served on the plate with the chicken, in that sauce, as spaghetti would be with a parmigiana. Instead, there were four ravioli total, and they were served in a tiny bowl with a scoop of watery, over seasoned marinara. The ravioli that came with the dish was at best average. The pasta was fine, but it was a bit overcooked and the filling lacked flavor. The dried oregano in the sauce was used in excess, and combined with the watery tomato texture, the flavor was way too strong. Definitely not worth the $3 up charge that we paid for the homemade pasta.

Overall, the food at Crispi's was pretty good. I would definitely go back again to sample some of their other menu items and I would definitely recommend going on a Thursday night, because you can't beat the half price option for their entire wine list which is very extensive.

*All of Crispi's menus are available at their website listed above.

Review: Tailgate Picnic

Tailgate Picnic of 7 College St., South Hadley, Mass is one of those places that you don't really appreciate until you're a little bit more grown up. As a kid, I grew up in South Hadley, but never really felt for Tailgate the way I do now. You could call it a love affair...and that would be putting it lightly. Tailgate is a part of the Village Commons which is basically the center of town and it's right across the street from Mt. Holyoke College. Most people that go there do so regularly, and the staff comes to know these "regulars" orders like the back of their hands.

Tailgate offers a variety of different breakfast and lunch sandwiches, as well as salads, soups and other specials. They also specialize in gourmet gift baskets, which can be ordered from their website and delivered. They have a wide selection of beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, as well as all of the accompaniments that you might need to go along with your meal.
As a kid, I was a little bit picky about what I ate. So, every time I would go, which wasn't very often, I would get a salad with a scoop of tuna on it. It's your average, lighter-fare meal, with a garden salad of a few veggies and some romaine, topped with a scoop of tuna. Perfect if you're looking for a healthy meal, not so perfect if you don't want to be bored.

Thankfully, I smartened up in my old age. I sort of forgot about Tailgate for a while, and then as soon as I got my license, Tailgate became the place to go. That was when my love affair started. The Smoked Turkey sandwich is great. It's full of smoked turkey, Swiss cheese, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, and a garlic aioli. And, for the kids, I don't think I know a kid in South Hadley who hasn't gotten the Chicken Tenders Club at least one time in their life. It's warm breaded chicken tenders, bacon, American cheese, mayo, lettuce, and tomato all on a baguette and they just go crazy for it. My 17-year-old sister still orders this, nothing else. The grown up version of this sandwich is the Banker. It's the same chicken but this time with melted cheddar, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and guacamole all in a wrap. They warm it up and it's a nice Mexican twist on a classic. I always used to get the Harvest. It's turkey, whole grain honey mustard, sharp yellow cheddar, and granny smith apples with romaine on any type of bread. It's healthy, with really sharp flavors, and it tastes great. But, I got kind of sick of it, so I decided to try something different.

The Sundried Tomatoes is fresh mozzarella, homemade pesto, and sundried tomatoes on a baguette, and it is, to this day, my go-to sandwich. Still, I change it up a bit. The sundried tomatoes they use are more like shoe leather than anything, so I omit them and ask for fresh tomatoes instead. I get it all on a rustic roll (code for a fresh ciabatta roll) and at $6.50 you can not go wrong. Their pesto is to die for...(try the pesto tortellini from the deli window as well). They lightly press the sandwich just enough to warm the bread through but not to melt the cheese. If they have caramelized onions that day, I always have them throw a few on for the perfect touch of sweetness. It's delicious, tastes like summer, and really fills you up.

They also offer different quiches, lasagnas, soups, chillis and even macaroni and cheese. The artichoke salad with chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, and fresh mozzarella is a great summertime salad that is light and full of great fresh flavor. And they just opened up their pastry window, which has a variety of great options from carrot cake, to a round chocolate torte with ganache and mousse and anything else chocolate you can imagine. It basically looks like a chocolate ball, and then the inside is full of different chocolate layers.

They have seating available inside as well as outside for the warmer months, and no matter what the occasion, you can always be sure that the food will be great, the atmosphere will be friendly, and the prices will be low. But be ready, because Tailgate may just become your new love affair as well.

Review: Amanouz Cafe

Catering, in my opinion, is a tough business. And it's named correctly because you have to do just that. You have to cater to the specific desires of the customers, cater to the tastes of the guests, cater to the distance and travel time, and even cater to the weather. Often times in the world of catering, no matter how good the food started out, after all the heating, cooling, reheating, and transportation, the food just isn't the same. So, if you're looking for a dynamite catering service and restaurant, look no further than Amanouz Cafe of 44 Main St. Northampton, Mass.

As a summer job, I work on a 49 passenger river cruise boat in South Hadley called the Lady Bea ( The boat offers daily cruises as well as private charters. At the end of June, we had a private charter for a wedding reception on the boat and the food was catered by Amanouz. Once the two hour cruise was finished, the couple was generous enough to offer the leftovers to the crew, myself included. And let me tell was our lucky day, because even after a 30 minute drive from Northampton to South Hadley, a boat full of people, and a two hour cruise, the food was still impeccable...a tough thing to accomplish in my book.

Specializing in Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine, Amanouz offers a great selection of choices. Being half Greek, I already have a love for this type of food, so I was not shy and I dug right in. There was a salad that was light and healthy, full of different veggies and a lemony vinaigrette and topped with avocado slices that weren't even the slightest bit brown. The falafel were to die for; fried, but not greasy, drizzled with tahini, and perfectly green inside thanks to fresh herbs. I put them inside a fresh pita with some tomato, cucumber, and homemade babaghannoush, which was sweet and full of perfectly-seasoned eggplant, and made myself the perfect afternoon sandwich. The hummus was fresh, definitely homemade and boasted the flavors of Morocco with every bite. Also, there was a nice pita pizza, lightly topped with spinach and cheese, and a summery pasta dish with farfalle, fresh bocconcini, and grape tomatoes in olive oil.

The most impressive thing about all of the food that was brought in by Amanouz was the quality and freshness of the ingredients and the care and passion that was clearly put into all of the food that was offered. The fact that it was so fresh, flavorful, and beautiful, even after a long trip on the road and a cruise on the Connecticut River, shows just how good the chefs at Amanouz are at what they do.

I have never been to the actual restaurant before, but after sampling everything they have to offer in a catered setting, I can easily say that I'd stroll into their restaurant any day of the week, prepared to be even more impressed by the food, simply because of the fact that it was great even after the true test of catering.

*All of Amanouz Cafe's menus are available at their website listed above.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: The Copperline Eatery

The Copperline Eatery of 409 Broadway St., Chicopee, Mass is, in my opinion, the best diner in I've ever been to. Now, I have to admit, I do have a personal connection to the place...Owner Glenn Chamberland is my uncle, and I worked there bussing and serving for over six years...but still, I've been to a lot of other diners in the area, and the food at the Copperline is by far the best diner food, and the least expensive, that I've found in the area. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, the line to wait for a seat is usually out of both doors that lead into the restaurant. Most of those in line are regulars who get their "usual" every week, a sign that Copperline has two very important things in the restaurant business-quality and consistency.

The inside of the restaurant is small and cozy. There are nine four-person booths, six two-person booths, and one eight-person booth. The only other seating is at the counter, which, playing off the name, is made of real copper, and seats about 10 people on rotating bar stools. The restaurant has a friendly atmosphere, and all of the food is prepared right in the same room where the seating is. So, if you sit at the counter, you can watch as the chefs prepare your breakfast, lunch or dinner for you.

The Copperline is famous for two things. First, is their eggs Benedict, which consists of two poached eggs, served on English muffin halves, topped with Canadian bacon and homemade hollandaise sauce (you can substitute regular bacon or even ham for the Canadian bacon if you want). They finish it with a side of their signature home fries, which are hearty chunks of boiled and then grilled potatoes, seasoned with paprika and a few other secret ingredients. A sprinkling of parsley and the dish is complete, and although it's decadent, many customers come in more than one time a week just to have it, and they say that it's the best eggs Benedict in town.

The second item that they're known for is their homemade corned beef hash. It's a little bit spicy, with finely-shredded corned beef and pieces of potato, and it gets put on the grill and weighted so that the outside gets crispy and the inside stays soft. At $1.95 for a small and $3.25 for a large, it's full of bold flavor and if you're a fan of hash, you'll never go back to the canned stuff after you try this. Every time my family and friends go camping, we get a bucket of hash to take with us. The stuff lasts for days and there's never any leftovers-it's that good.

Another one of my favorite things about Copperline is the way in which the omelet selection is set up. All omelets come with a side of home fries and your choice of toast, and you can get whatever you want in your omelet for no extra charge. None of this "please choose one meat, one cheese and one vegetable" stuff. A two-egg omelet is $5.45 and a three-egg is $5.95 and it ends there. You can literally put every single item in your omelet for no extra charge-ask for an "everything". My recommendation, however, is a two-egg with egg whites, spinach, tomatoes, onions, and Swiss cheese. At $5.95, you can't go wrong. Add a side of rye toast or try their homemade whole wheat bread (for 50 cents extra) and you're good to go. It's light, yet filling, and pretty healthy too. They also have items like the Copperline special, which comes with three eggs, two pancakes or french toast, home fries, and toast all for just $5.50. The breakfast sandwiches are awesome. Try a bacon, egg, and American cheese on a water roll, which rings in at only $3.30.

But they don't just stop at breakfast. The Copperline also serves lunch Monday through Saturday, and dinner Monday through Thursday. They open at 6:00 am Monday through Saturday and at 7:00 am on Sundays. I've never been for dinner, and even though they have great lunch food too (I love the potato and cheese pierogi) I always find myself ordering breakfast whenever I can.

If you're looking for a great place to eat breakfast, it'd be in your best interest to go with what the locals say on this one, because there's a reason that so many people come back to the Copperline week after week for the same thing. The Copperline Eatery is a small, friendly, and very inexpensive place to get a flavorful and filling meal any day of the week.

*All of The Copperline Eatery's menus are available at their website listed above.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: Pasta E Basta

Whenever I'm in the mood for a fresh, hearty pasta meal I head over to Pasta E Basta of 26 Main St. in Amherst, Mass. The quality and authentic flavors of the food created at Pasta E Basta are not something that has come from a jar. Everything on the menu is fresh and fairly priced, and the portions will keep you full for days. (I've actually gotten three days worth of lunches from just one meal.) The interior is very cute and cozy, and on weekends it can get pretty packed. Walking in, you immediately smell the aroma of fresh garlic sauteing in olive oil and you feel like you're in heaven. When I went, we were lucky enough to be sat in the upper level of the restaurant, which was less crowded and had windows which overlooked the entire center of Amherst and the lovely green common. Although the service was a little bit slow, it never affected the quality of our food...everything we were served was piping hot and well worth the wait.

Every meal at Pasta E Basta starts out with the complimentary bread basket. The bread is homemade and it is by far one of my favorite breads that I've had accompanying an Italian meal. They serve it warm with a garlic olive oil for dipping which has a little bit of heat behind it. The oil pairs wonderfully with the doughy, lightly salted bread. If you're not careful you can fill yourself up on the bread and oil's that good.

In my opinion, you can't go to an Italian restaurant and not order something "a la caprese". I happen to love fresh tomato, basil, and mozzarella and they have an appetizer that's just that, drizzled with olive oil and served in layers on a plate. The best part about it is that everything is fresh and it's only $3.95 for a good-sized plate. This goes perfectly with the bread they give you, and, for me, it's the perfect way to start off the meal in a light way so that you can really indulge in your meal.

The best meal I've had at Pasta E Basta (and I've had a few) was the gnocchi with pesto cream sauce ($9.75). The sauce has a perfect balance between the cream base and the fresh and herbal pesto that it's mixed with. The starch from the potato gnocchi helps the sauce to really stick to the pasta and with a small garnish of a few sun dried tomato slices, it makes the perfect meal. If you'd like, try adding lightly caramelized onions to your plate to add another layer of flavor and a little bit of sweetness. The menu is set up so that all you have to do is pick your pasta and then pick your sauce and whatever other items you might want to add. The standard pastas like spaghetti, penne and fettuccini don't cost any extra, but for just $1.00 (and I highly recommend spending the extra dollar) you can choose from gnocchi, cheese tortellini, or cheese, salmon, pesto, shrimp, red pepper, vegetable, artichoke, porcini mushroom, or spinach and ricotta ravioli. My guest ordered the porcini mushroom ravioli with the blue cheese shitake sauce ($9.75). I have to say, although I am not a huge fan of blue cheese or mushrooms in large quantities, I actually didn't mind the dish. It was very pungent smelling, but it tasted earthy from the mushrooms, with a little bit of tangy kick from the blue cheese and was very creamy. The mushroom taste came more from the sauce than the ravioli themselves. You can expect to pay anywhere from $6.75 to $12.00 on a pasta meal, which will fill you up then, as well as many days later. Whenever I eat here, I usually can only eat about a third of the portion they bring me. The rest goes home in a doggy bag for lunch, dinner, or both over the next few days. They also offer hot and cold paninis, pizzas, and grill items such as fresh tuna, rosemary chicken, and salmon skewers.

If you're looking for a tasty Italian meal on a budget, look no further than Pasta E Basta. You'll be able to get several delicious meals out of one night out (the pasta always tastes even better the next day) and you won't have to break doing it.

*Pasta E Basta's menu is available on the Delivery Express website listed above. If you'd like, you can order their food to go as's just as good and they'll deliver right to your door for a small fee.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: The Sierra Grille

The Sierra Grille of 41 Strong Ave, Northampton, Mass, is by far one of the best restaurants in the city. It has a great atmopshere, with dark wood furniture, a great ambiance, with small votives on every table, and even better food. There truly is something for everyone on the menu. When I ate here, I was with a group of my friends celebrating another friend's birthday. It is one of her favorite spots as well, so it was an obvious choice. Now I should mention that all of these friends are also members of the professional modern dance company, Eclipse, which I am also a part of. Why should I mention this, you might wonder? Well, let's just say that the dinner we enjoyed was after a four hour dance rehearsal on a Saturday night, so we were a little bit hungry...enough said.

The great thing about the menu options at Sierra Grille is the fact that you are paying very (and I mean very) low prices for an incredibly high-quality product. One of the best ways to go is to start off with a sampling of any or all of their "Small Bites". Each of these are $2.00 to $3.00, which means that you can sample five different items for just $10, the same price that it'd cost you to get one appetizer at other restaurants. We started with the sourdough loaf, which is baked especailly for the Sierra Grille by The Old School Bakery in Northampton. The tangy and tender dough of the bread paired really well with another item from the "Small Bites" section, the whole roasted garlic cloves in olive oil, which were sweet and melted in your mouth. Other items on this list include sweet and salty vegetable crisps, which are flash fried, paper thin slices of beets, sweet potatoes and Yukon Golds as well as the olive and garlic tapenade and the spicy hummus. All of these are great ways to start off your meal, because they are little bites of food that pack a big flavor punch and are great for sharing.

Although you could easily make an appetizer out of one or many of the items listed above, the Sierra Grille also has an appetizer section on the menu. But unlike most restaurants that serve food of this quality, they start at a very low price of $4.00 and end at a still very low price of $6.00. These choices range from blegian fries and smoked chicken wings, to an assorted cheese plate with fresh fruit and crackers and even prawns with chocolate sauce, reminiscent of a classic mole. The girls and I tried to opt out of the appetizer, but the men at the table just had to get the fries. They are classic, twice-fried, and come with homemade catsup, aioli and, for a dollar extra, the Sierra Grille's infamous homemade duck gravy...The boys spent the extra dollar, the girls had to try "just one" and it was well worth it...we'll leave it at that.

They also offer four types of paninis, ranging from $6.00 to $8.00 which include a duck confit panini with goat cheese, arugula, spinach, carmelized onions, and a balsamic reduction for $8.00 which is to die for. The duck is succulet and rich and it pairs wonderfully with the creamy goat cheese, the peppery bite from the arugula and the sweetness from the onions. They also have a chicken breast panini with gruyere cheese and whole grain mustard. And the paninis are so cheap that you can even order one of their two salads to round out the meal. The garden salad rings in at only $5.00, while the spinach salad costs $7.00 and you can choose from either the balsamic vinaigrette, the lobster avocado vinaigrette, tahini ginger, or smoked cheddar ranch.

One of the best things that the Sierra Grille has to offer is the way in which they have their entree menu set up. We all know what it's like to go to a snooty restaurant and want to order something on the menu, but are turned away from said item because it comes with a sauce that you don't think you'll be crazy about and they just won't put the sauce on the side. Here, you will never have this problem. All entrees, which range from $10.00 to $18.00 come with your choice of grilled protein, served with your choice of sauce, and two sides. So, if you're a vegetarian, you can get the marinated grilled tempeh with grilled vegetable kabobs, royal basmati rice, and a thai hot basil coconut sauce all for $10.00. By the way-all of their vegetarian items are cooked on a separate grill. But, if you're looking for a meal with some meat, fish or seafood, try one of these two: the tuna with grilled asparagus, roasted potatoes, and the citrus salsa for $18.00, or the hanger steak with the patatoes au gratin and the ale, carmelized onion and mushroom sauce for $14.00. I tried the tuna, which was cooked to perfection, seared perfectly on the outside and rare on the inside, with the sweet and citrusy salsa that made for the perfect counterpart. In a nutshell, you can choose from one of nine proteins, two of nine sides, and one of eight sauces. This provides for a variety of options and allows you to really customize your meal so that it suits your dining personality to perfection.

The Sierra Grille is by undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in all of Northampton. The fact that they offer a variety of choices (from upscale bar food to the truly decadent and gourmet) at incredible prices in a quiet atmosphere is something that is hard to find.

*All of The Sierra Grille's menus are available at their website listed above.

School's Out for Summer

I know many of you might be thinking that I have been slacking in the new reviews department lately, and I know I have...I'm right there with ya! But, with it being the end of the semester, that means finals time, and for a journalism major...lots and lots of articles and writing. So, I'll admit. I have ben putting Take a Bite on the back burner, but have no fear! I had my last final today, and it is officially summer!!! Which means lots of time to blog and eat fresh fruit and veggies and do all of the things I love.

Yesterday, in the midst of my frantic studying, I decided to take a break. I have been wanting to plant an herb garden for quite some time now, and over the weekend I picked up all of the necessary items to finally follow through with it. I don't have much room in my backyard for an actual garden, so I decided that two very attractive coco-fiber planters in pretty decorative wrought iron baskets would be a good choice. I filled them up with organic soil and started planting. I went a little crazy in the basil department...I got seeds for your basic, everyday basil, for lemon basil, and an heirloom packet which included seeds for seven diferent types of the stuff! Needless to say I was very excited. So...the basil went in one pot, and the rosemary, chives, and cilantro in another. I watered them and hung them up and now, we'll see how it goes. I figure if all else fails, at least I'll have some darn good herbs to freshen up my summer creations.

And I have to admit...this morning, even though I knew that there wouldn't be even the slightest hint of a sprout, I went to check anyway. Ok, I said it...Now you know my little secret.

With that said...I'll keep you posted on how the herb growing goes and let you know where to eat out in Western Mass during this wonderful season.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Review: Spoleto

If you're looking for a more upscale dining option, Spoleto in Northampton, Mass at 50 Main St. (also with a location in East Longmeadow, Mass) offers a rather impressive option (not valid on Holiday or graduation weekends) of three courses, which includes your choice of appetizer, entree and dessert for just $20. The inside of the restaurant is dimly-lit and undeniably romantic, so if you're looking for a great date location, this place is a must. There is a red glow that's flattering on anyone that will certainly set the mood.

But of course, the most important thing is the menu, which offers a variety of options. From the appetizer category, try the fried or grilled calamari, both of which are tender and cooked to perfection, the phyllo ravioli which are baked and stuffed with smoked chicken breast, spinach, red onion and goat cheese and finished with a sun-dried tomato cream sauce, or, for a $5 up-charge, the orange basil scallops which are pan seared with an apricot bell pepper confit, served atop an orange basil beurre blanc. All of these are a great way to start off your meal.

In terms of the entree category, there is a wide variety to choose from. From the classic ravioli ala vodka, to the pecan salmon encrusted in pecans and glazed with an apricot sauce, the menu offers something for everyone. For a $7 up-charge guests can enjoy other main dishes such as cioppino chock full of fresh seafood in a saffron broth, black peppercorn encrusted duck breast, and grilled filet mignon.

To some, the entree is not the main event's the course that comes after, and a Spoleto dessert will not disappoint. Whether you're in the mood for something light, like the mixed berry sorbet, or something decadent, like the tiramisu or the flourless chocolate espresso torte, any of the desserts are sure to finish off an already delicious meal with success.

Overall the food at Spoleto is inspired and executed with great technique, and right now three gourmet courses for $20 is pretty hard to beat.

*All of Spoleto's menus are available at their website listed above.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: SOUPerBOWL

The Souper Bowl of 96 North Pleasant St. Amherst, Mass is not one of the town's most sophisticated establishments. A clever concept and name, however, attracts both soup and sports fans alike. Inside there are a few tables, booths and some raised, bench-like seating that runs the length of the main wall with tall tables to match. Of course, several big-screen TVs are there to project any and all of the games that might be on during the hours of operation. They offer several board games to play after you've ordered your food at the walk-up counter located in the back (my guest tried to teach me the basics of chess while we waited for our food), but you can only hope that playing one of them will put you in a great mood, because the food certainly will not.

After a long day and very little food, we were pretty hungry. So, we both ordered a bread bowl of soup and a panini. The broccoli and cheddar soup was overly salted and had an almost burnt taste to it as though it had been sitting in a warmer for far too long. There were no big chunks of broccoli, which I had hoped for in order to give the soup some heartiness and texture, the "cheddar" aspect of the soup was barely detectable and the bread bowl was cold, like it had just come out of the refrigerator, and stale.

Then there was the panini issue. Now I understand that the place is heavily geared towards soup, but it's pretty hard to mess up a panini. The panini that I ordered was simple: tomato, basil and mozzarella. The main problem was the bread...burnt to a crisp. They had literally blackened one side of the bread, so, instead of simply making it over with two more pieces of bread, they decided to hide the problem by turning the bread upside down, covering the burnt parts with the tomatoes, basil and cheese and topping the sandwich with the other burnt piece of bread, which was also turned upside down. Because the bread was so burnt, it wouldn't absorb any of the juices from the tomatoes or the mozzarella, making the panini an utter mess to eat. There was liquid pouring out from every end and it was impossible to even bite into it because the bread was too thick and, as I mentioned before, burnt to a rock-hard texture. The meal, to say the least, was not enjoyable.

Overall, they offer average food that could be executed with much more care and sold at much lower prices. But don't let the name fool you, because if you're looking for a "touchdown" meal, Souper Bowl is not the place to go.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review: Northampton Brewery Bar and Grille

Right in the heart of downtown Northampton, Mass, the Northampton Brewery Bar and Grille at 11 Brewster Ct. is one of the best places to go when you're looking for classic American cuisine with a twist. It is the oldest brewpub in the northeast that's still in operation and it prides itself on serving up some of the most outstanding food to go along with one (or many!) of their home-brewed fine ales and lagers.

The setup of the restaurant includes an outdoor, rooftop beer garden as well as a sunroom. It's made up almost entirely of windows, and where there isn't glass, the walls are made of beautiful wooden plank framing. Although often times there is a wait to be seated, the customers are encouraged to walk right up to the bar and grab a drink while waiting for a table. Once you grab a seat, feel free to ask your server for a game (like dominoes, checkers, or cards just to name a few) to play while you wait. At night, the Brewery's dim-lit interior, coupled with the warm glow of the two giant fireplaces, is a great place to get cozy with a significant other at a small table for two. But don't worry, because once the food is served, the night will only get better.

The Brewery is known for having a wide selection of menu items, all at reasonable prices, which include things like freshly made soups, sandwiches and Black Angus burgers on locally-baked breads, and entrees that range from plates of slow-roasted pork prepared with their own beer, to a heaping bowl of chicken and tiger shrimp jambalaya complete with smoked andouille sausage, vegetables, and long-grain white rice.

They also have a chef's page, which changes seasonally and includes items like roasted vegetable quesadillas in the early fall and an akara and hummus wrap in the winter which includes Nigerian bean cakes in a spinach tortilla with roasted red pepper hummus, mesclun greens, carrots, tomatoes, and red onion. Still, among all of these delicious options, the Brewery is famous for one thing on its menu, other than the beer and that's the chili. Unlike the normal ground beef and bean chili that is often found at other restaurants, they slow-cook generous chunks of stew beef with a variety of spices, plump red beans, and their very own amber beer. Serve it up with some tri-colored tortilla chips and you could very well turn your starter into a meal.

As for dessert, you can choose from one of many classic items such as homemade apple pie, "baked with love just like your grandma used to make," seasonal cheesecakes, or their specialty, the Black Cat Chocolate Stout Cake, made with their very own Black Cat Stout. No matter what you order, the servers are friendly, always ready with drink refills on hand, and willing to answer any questions you might have. The Northampton Brewery is a great place to go if you want great food, great beer, and great food that's prepared using their great beer all together in an eclectic and warm environment.

*All of the Northampton Brewery's menus are available at their website listed above.

Review: Black Sheep Deli

As you first walk up to The Black Sheep Deli of 79 Main St. Amherst, Mass you feel invited by its little hole-in-the-wall nature and its charming atmosphere with the shelves of bakery items displayed neatly in the windows and the crowd of customers waiting to indulge in one, or a few, of the many delicious items on the menu.

They bake all their own breads and pastries, using all natural ingredients and real butter, they offer a variety of side dishes made fresh daily (the Caramelized Cauliflower with garlic, olive oil, and parmesan is a great and healthy alternative to some of the heavier, yet equally delicious sides like Potatoes Dauphinoise, a potato dish layered with garlic, nutmeg, asiago cheese, and cream), as well as entrees such as deep dish quiches and macaroni and cheese. From the specialty sandwiches (3.95/half, 7.95/full) to the incredible selection of bakery items, as well as many other things, there is guaranteed to be something on the menu for everyone. The establishment also offers catering services with a wide selection of choices fit to please every palate.

When you go, be sure to try the specialty sandwich, the ”European,” which is chock full of black forest ham, brie, tomatoes, lettuce, and red onions, all on pumpernickel bread. Or, for a vegetarian option, the “Great Garlic” is to die for. They take a french baguette, spread it with a layer of incredibly creamy local goat cheese, then spread on whole caramelized garlic cloves, grilled portobellos, roasted red peppers and lettuce. They also offer the option to design your own sandwich by choosing your ideal freshly-baked bread and fillings at half sandwich and whole sandwich prices. And don’t worry…if there’s an ingredient on a specialty sandwich that you don’t like, or if you want it all just on a different type of bread, they’d be happy and willing to make any and all alterations to make sure you enjoy every last bite.

If you’re in the mood for something a little dangerous, opt for the Bittersweet Chocolate Espresso Torte, a melt-in-your-mouth, flourless chocolate torte with a hint of espresso flavor, that is covered in seasonal fruit (raspberries are the best) and home-made whipped cream. The great part about the cakes and pastries is that they can be bought individually, by the slice, or in larger quantities or whole cakes for events like parties.

They also offer a variety of iced teas and natural juices and soft drinks to wash it all down and, if in the winter months you’re looking for something to warm you up, they also carry a wide selection of freshly roasted coffees, various teas, as well as Chai and Mulled cider. They get very busy around lunch time, being nestled right in the heart of downtown Amherst between two colleges, so plan ahead if you only have a certain amount of time for a lunch break. If this is the case, you can call in your order ahead of time, and they will make it for you and have it ready as soon as you set foot in the door.

If you’re looking for a great place to eat, with an eclectic environment and a sprawling menu filled with only the best in homemade and local ingredients, the Black Sheep Deli is a must.

*All of the Black Sheep’s menus are available on their website listed above.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Where we're going...

My mom always used to tell me that growing up, I was never a fan of shows like Sesame Street or Barney. All I wanted to watch was Food Network. It is because of this, I believe, that I have developed a love for all things culinary. I love to eat, try new things, experience new cultures, and experiment with recipes, tastes, and flavor profiles of my own. I come from a large family, half Greek (and food-loving) and half Irish, and I know that this is something that has shaped my passion for food and the various ways in which food can bring people together. As a journalism major at UMass Amherst, I am in a great, diverse area that has a number of really fantastic restaurants just around any corner. So…my plan for this blog as of yet is to be able to take viewers to various restaurants all around Western Massachusetts, specifically in the Amherst and Northampton areas without them actually having to go! This way, all they’ll have to do is read a review, and allow it to help them make or break their decision to try out an eatery. As for myself, I hope that this blog will be an outlet for me to publish my work in an environment where everyone can see that one day, when I'm applying for a job at Gourmet or Bon Appetit, I will be able to say, "Well hello Mr. or Ms. 'Super Important Editor-In-Chief' of my favorite magazine ever, I invite you to take a look at my blog, where you can get a feel for not only my writing style, but also for my personality and my passion for food." We’ll see how it works…it’s an experiment in the making, but I hope that it will prove to be a way to open many doors to many great opportunities.