Thursday, September 30, 2010

Olympia Restaurant, Vineland

Did I forget how much I like Greek food, or did I never know? I bet the last time I went to a Greek restaurant in America was in Greektown in Chicago, circa 1999. I do know that there was one time in college where I was back in Pitman and drove down to the Olympia for dinner with Julie Heffron (it's taken me some time to piece this together due to the name change and relocation to Virginia plus the fact that I had almost completely forgotten), but I'm unsure what that was about. The Olympia is an institution - people write about how their parents took them there 30+ years ago. My lifelong friend Carson is on a lifestyle remodeling plan (read: weight loss) and has been eating a lot of Greek food since it's relatively healthy by comparison to some other things. The Olympia is near where he works, and has become one of his favorites. Why do all these people love it? It it the real, authentic Greek food. Is it authentic? Is it South Jersey Greek food, the way South Jersey has its own species of Italian food since the immigrants were mostly Southern and anyway their food changed when they got here? I digress. The exterior is certainly not something anyone loves very much, although I've read that they remodeled recently, inside and out, with plenty of light-blue paint to make you think you're near the Aegean instead of Delsea Drive in Vineland (one more digression - Vineland does indeed get its name from the fact that lots of grapes used to be grown in the area. Now, not so much. But Welch's grape juice was invented here in 1869. Tell your kids.).

We were eating for four (me and him, plus Sherrilynn, who is eating for two), so we got a big assortment. This one container has a solid selection of all the dips you might want to try. For me, the standouts were the taramosolata (I think I liked this even before I lived in Japan and started thinking eating spicy fish eggs was a great thing) and melitzanosalata, which you might know better as baba ganoush. There was also tzatsiki, skordalia, hummus (whatever that's called in Greek) and a few others, plus feta and olives. Damn. It's funny how we kept eating on this thing, for lunch AND dinner, and it didn't go away. Dinner was just as good, actually, because all of the items may have needed a few more hours to mellow depending on when they were made.

Being on le regime, we got some salads as well. Growing up, we all used to get gyros at Jim and Mike's in Pitman, and while those may well have been pressed meat byproduct instead of laboriously- and authentically-assembled stacks of lamb and beef, they still tasted pretty damn good. It's been so long since I've had a gyro or kebab (though I did hold one for a minute several years ago in Maebashi when the thoroughly wasted insurance salesman I had been drinking with bought one for me. I really couldn't face it, and gave it back to him to eat. I was a little worried that he was going to unleash his college wrestling training on me, but he just started eating.) that I don't know what good is any more, but I liked these.

Chicken souvlaki salad was nondescript by comparison. The salad is the same, only the meat has changed.

The moussaka was not nondescript at all. I could have eaten the whole damn thing, such was the intriguing piquancy of the spices they put into the meat and eggplant, and the luscious creaminess of the baked sauce on top. I hyperbolize, but you know where I'm coming from.

This was outstanding. I wish I could eat it, and in fact at the Olympia, all the time. As it is, there's not a lot of Greek in Tokyo. I have a feeling I'm going to be trying Spyro's in Roppongi soon, if I don't get all the way out to Shibuya for The Aegean (which looks a little better, if you needed to know).

It seems opinions vary on this one if you check this ratings site, but I know what mine is.

(856) 691-6095

Back at home there was plenty of fun with Yuri the Wonder Dog. He reacts to howling noises. I wouldn't say he's sensitive or annoyed by them, but if you sort of howl at him, he'll join in for a while. He's not upset or anything, just sorta being friendly. In fact, he's so friendly about it that if you play him a recording of himself howling, it will set him off every time. Ahhhh, the fun we have in Pitman, even when we're not eating out.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Winnie's Le Bus, Manayunk

Been to Manayunk? It's still a nice area - I love all the old houses and older buildings, squeezed together in a setting that almost feels turn-of-the-century. If I could point to a downside, I think it's not a very robust neighborhood. Based on the concentration of restaurants vs. all other types of business, it's more a nightlife destination than a real residential area where you buy groceries and get your cleaning done. Still, that makes it quite lovable for those of us that just want to go there for dinner.

This guy loves it too, even though he doesn't show it all the time.

Le Bus is a local institution. Mom has been going there off and on for about as long as I can remember, and you see other restaurants around town advertising the fact that they used bread from Le Bus's bakery (not on site, I think, but hey). Judging by the web site, Winnie really did start it in a bus, and judging by the exterior I'd guess she moved into permanent premises some time in the 80's. It's not that everything looks terribly out of date, but there's something about it that makes me think 80's. The inside perpetuates it too. Is it bare walls and neon? Makes me think of a comedy club, somehow.

The counter is pure beer bar though - horseshoe-shaped and woody, with a healthy number of taps. I read in the City Paper that I picked up after dinner that 'beer is Philadelphia's drink', and to that, as well as warm and welcoming bars, I say "Yes!"

To $3 happy-hour beers, like this organic Napa Smith, I say also "Yes!" You know what this would cost in Tokyo? That's right, you couldn't buy it. But if you could, it would be $12-15. It was all I could do not to drink 4 of these out of joy.

Mom had some fish tacos, which I suspect were quite good. The fish looked like good quality and well-fried, and I know from tasting that the dips and sides were good. This shows a bit of the confusion on the menu though - tacos here, grilled fish there...

Daily special baked squash yonder. It's a cheerful mix though, with a pronounced healthy slant. The squash was a good size, and with the brown rice-vegetable-cheese stuffing and crispy basked top, it was pretty much a winner.

Having had only a virtuous squash stuffed with brown rice and vegetables, I had the bright idea to get dessert. Fortunately I was 'saved' from this idea, diet-wise, by my parents. They hatched the plan to get the sampler plate (3 half-portions), and then arranged for the other 4 people at the table to eat most it. OK, maybe not really, because I have firm opinions on each item. The key lime pie was really a standout - lighter, creamier and sharper than expected, all at once. The bread pudding was a little less good than advertised by our enthusiastic waitress, and the chocolate brownie was pretty much forgettable.

That's Le Bus, then. I would happily stop in here any day for those Happy Hour beers. Couldn't believe they were $3. And the food to go with it, if not distinguished in one particular vein, seems like it's always going to be solid and pleasant.

Hey, if you're not on Le Bus, you're off Le Bus.

Cheesesteak Factory, Glassboro

Surely you all know that cheesesteaks are one of the staple foods of South Jersey living? I am firmly of the camp that cheesesteaks are not available outside the Philadelphia area, and also that any place advertising their product as 'Philly Steaks' should be avoided like it's on fire (South Jersey is in the PhilaPA metro area. All the people making these steaks are descended from those who moved out of South Philadelphia and into South Jersey, and their families were probably all from Sicily anyway). What with my desire to lose weight and be healthy, it felt a little challenging to eat a cheesesteak, but a combination of Sherrilynn's provocation (she's eating for two and not shy about it) and a nice long run in the morning got the job done. We decided to try something different despite the fact that Ciconte's is pretty well acknowledged as the masters (and Jim & Mike's or Venice are none too shabby), and she suggested this place in Glassboro.

It's certainly grubby enough to be good, wouldn't you say? All we need is a drummer, for people who only need a beat, or something like that but involving grills and meat. I'm a little concerned by the trend toward standup dining - saw it here and then again in the airport in Chicago, where I guess it makes a bit more sense. If you're eating a big roll packed with fatty meat and processed cheese, do you really need to eat it as quickly as possible?

Here's the product. I've faffed around a bit, and have now gotten to the point where I have to tell you that this wasn't as good as some other steaks. The meat was dry (although hell, dryer - less fat, that's healthier!), and the meat-to-bread ratio was suboptimally low. Not sure I've ever had a cheesesteak with that problem before, but it's not pretty - exacerbates the dryness. Even my usual lashings of ketchup couldn't fix the problem.

Anyway, I ate a cheesesteak on this trip, and this was it, but I wouldn't get all excited telling you to go here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Neena's, Sewell

Yeah, when we were out at the CSA, this jackal that we met said that Neena's in Sewell was surprisingly good. Naturally that weighed on my mind, and when Dad and I found ourselves looking at each other like it was lunch time (me because I was hungry, him because it was after noon and he goes by his watch), I suggested we go out to try it. It's right near where Oral Ledden & Sons used to be, if that helps (Dad gave me several sets of directions during this trip that involved stores that had closed or burned, but he's lived around Pitman for a long time). I used to love walking around Ledden's, smelling the fertilizer and admiring the gardening goods. I digress.

Neena's is in a big building that looks like it could have been a garage (but I think was purpose-built for the restaurant). The decor is open and sort of airy, in a strange way, but they've tried to spruce it up with odd decor touches. There's a bar, quaint signs ("La Toilette"), and little painted details like faux cracks in the walls and faux brick. It's hard to imagine the place filling up

And then there's the food. It's not hard to imagine the food filling you up, and if you weren't paying attention, you might be happy with it. I ordered these ravioli, and was horrified to find that they tasted much like the frozen ones that Dad and I used to get out of the freezer and boil up for dinner when Mom was working (unless we were making fish sticks). The sauce as well seemd below the level of your average jarred sauce. My overwhelming thoughts were "You got this right off the Sysco truck," and also "But the sausage slices are still pretty good!" I'm just deprived of sausage, living in Tokyo.

Dad had this bread cake. Oh, did I say bread? That's because this crab cake was so loaded with bread crumbs. The mark of a good crab cake, and looking back I see that I've failed to write up the crab cakes I had at Big Daddy's, is that it practically falls apart because it's so much lump crab meat and so little filler. You can take that to the bank. The fries were lightly battered and not bad, but I think Sysco also does a good line in them.

Adding volume to injury, these cheesy bread sticks came even after I turned down the offer of bread with the ravioli. They're just strips of pizza crust with cheese baked on, and in fact they were decent. Makes me wonder if the advertized pizza might be the way to go, if indeed for some reason you go to Neena's after reading this. Considering all the family-oriented, customer-first stuff on their web site, I don't feel good about saying all this, but that's the way it looked today.

You know, though, nothing can be too bad when you get to go home, sit on the porch reading for a while, and then stand out in the middle of the street as the sun goes down and no cars come.

I like Pitman. Sewell, I dunno.

Monday, September 27, 2010

CSA, Sicklerville

This is really just me being excited about being back in the Garden State, where fresh fruit and vegetables really ARE highly abundant all summer long. Lots of people seem to be doing the CSA thing this year (Community Supported Agriculture; this puts me in mind of Japan, where every bit of agriculture is heavily supported by the 'community', also known as your taxes and mine, to enable it to compete with imports. And if the farming isn't supported, the rural construction projects that keep country people solvent certainly are.). This is the one that Mom and Dad joined - you get a basket at the beginning of the year and can then drive out there to load it up with vegetables once a week for about 20 weeks. That seems a bit different from some other models, and more fun, since you can choose what you want.

Fun is when you can get these monster bunches of basil. You know how much this stuff costs in Tokyo? We got some of the heirloom tomatoes, stopped at the store for cheese, and went right home to make a caprese.

Fun is also lots of pretty eggplant. Not sure why I wasn't excited about these at the time, but thinking back I should have been slicing and frying some of them.

Fun is most definitely huge bunches of fennel. Sure do wish you could get this stuff here...I got it one time, at Nisshin in Juban, but you know I'm not trucking over there just for some leaves, not matter how much they taste like anise.

Never saw squash like this before - the pattypans were enormous, but more interesting were the round 'eight ball' squash with the green circles. I always thought eight balls were black and white, so maybe I should desaturate this photo.

They had two sizes of bok choy, and this was the 'baby' size. It must have been twice the size of the ones we get in Tokyo, and I'm not saying that's a good thing. The full-size ones were even bigger. Sheesh. Can that really be as good? I'd think they get tougher as they get older, or at least there's more stalky part. I find bok choy hard to deal with, because I want to cook the crisp parts enough and the leaves much less; separate cooking doesn't always get it done.

This is 'the scene', as they say. People shuffling around looking at the bins, strategizing about how best to stuff their bushels. You can't turn around without running into someone you know, and in this case we met someone whose daughter I used to go to school with, many moons ago. Unfortunately she recommended a restaurant that turned out to be pretty terrible, but more on that above.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Riverwinds, Deptford

This trip was funny because I saw a number of people that I haven't seen for years. And I mean 11, 12 and 19 years, at least for the three I'm thinking of. There were others that I'm not sure about, timing-wise. The most recent of those was Swayhoover, whose (maiden) name is quite entertaining enough without coming up with a nickname, thank you. With her staying close to the airport, I picked a place right between, and that was the Riverwinds Golf Course in Deptford. I had, ahem, a few minutes to wait for her arrival due to a scheduling mixup, and spent some of it walking by the river. It's not a particularly lovely river, and all you can see on the other side is industrial Philadelphia stuff - some bridges, factories, the airport, and maybe the refineries and Navy Yard if you squint.

Riverwinds is not particularly lovely either, but it's an OK example of what happens these days in America when you have a big piece of land and plenty of will to turn it into a money-maker. Isn't it sort of big and bland? Like they built a barn, painted it white, and slapped some boats on it for color? But hey, the web site says it's Fine Dining, and who am I to agree?

This is almost too dark to bother showing you, but I liked the way I could frame the flag in the window. The dining room is set back and off the big central lobby with, it hardly needs saying, a large bar, a fieldstone water-wall, and several bored hostesses in, I swear, prom-dress rejects. I got a booth and a bloody mary to finish out the waiting period contemplating the menu and view. If you went, you might well be interested in the large selection of wines - a whole page, with lots of glass selections.

I think it's unlikely that you would be too interested in the menu though. It was more or less an amalgamation of standard ideas from different things that are common to America. Have you noticed this? It can't just be onion soup, it has to be blackened cajun popcorn onion soup with an Asian twist. I'm exaggerating in this case, but a bowl of soup did seem like a good idea in the rain and damp. This onion soup was artificial and cheesy. Look, I just wanted a place with decent atmosphere, OK? I didn't think Swayhoover would be quite so excited about driving to New Jersey for slices of re-heated pizza.

Resoundingly reminding me that I was back in America, the Cobb salad was neither prepared in the classical tradition (I like to see rows of ingredients on top before mixing, don't you? Although I'd bet that the Brown Derby version didn't look like that), nor of a size suitable for eating by one person. I took half of it home for an afternoon snack. It wasn't much good either, which reminds me of an old Borscht Belt joke that won't make sense to most of you and won't be funny in any case.

Ah well. You could maybe go here for a drink after playing golf, but I think you should be more picky about where you eat.

Ah well.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sweet Lula's, Pitman

Well, here we are back in Pitman. As some of you know, the central purpose of this trip was a CD release party wherein we played most of the CD that we had been recording for the last year or so (me via files sent from Tokyo). I mean, I'd love to see my family and friends any time, but the reason this trip was at this time was for that party. You'll see some pictures when we get to a brief review of the Swede's Inn.

In the meantime, I had about 10 days to hang around Pitman, getting ready for the show and doing other fun stuff. Shortly after I got there, the historic Hotel Pitman was demolished. This is not a sad thing. If it had a glory period, it was long ago - Dad has lived in Pitman for what, 65 years? He doesn't remember it being nice either. All my life it's been sorta creepy-looking, and while we didn't see residents too often they too had a reputation for creepiness. One anecdote I heard this week was that Pitman had one of the state's highest concentrations of registered sex offenders - because the Hotel Pitman was where they all settled in to live. Mmm hmm.

On cheerier notes, Pitman's 'dining scene' welcomed the reopening of Sweet Lula's a while back. You may remember the saga wherein Anthony had to close the restaurant in its old location (which he shared with another restaurant) and wasn't sure what would happen, but he got this nearby space and has gone full-bore into decorating it. Mom and Dad have been a couple of times, and I was actually pretty keen to see what it was like.

The interior includes an open kitchen, old movies projected on the back wall, lots of big, bold photos, and the genial presence of the chef with his red toque working the tables. Growing up in Pitman during the long dry period when eating out meant formica-counter Italian, it's still nearly inconceivable to me that a place as nice as this exists here. Cloth table coverings?! Flowers?! Wine?! This was supposed to be the concept at Barcelona too, but with another year of experience behind us after I went there, I think it's safe to say it hasn't worked out that well.

The web site describes the food as 'avant garde', and certainly when we saw a peach quesadilla, we were pleasantly confused. It came with a honey dip, which furthers the dessert-y aspect, but the salad puts it back in lunch-land. This was pretty cool, actually, what with the salty and the sweet and all that. Like a flat peach pie. With cheese. The only issue, and this was common to both lunches that Dad and I ordered, was that we could have eaten two of them. I was OK with it since I'm eating less these days, but honestly I was hungry 2 hours later. Remember I'm coming from Japan too, so if you're used to the Cheesecake Factory or something, you'd be horrified by the dainty servings here.

The other thing we got was this quiche. I'm pretty sure it was sausage, because you can't get good sausage readily in Japan so I always want to eat it in America, but they had three choices - one with bacon, and I think one veg. A good quiche, to be sure, and a little more substantial than the quesadilla. If you wanted to be sure of getting enough food, you'd have to delve into the side dishes available on the menu - a salad or two, asparagus with shaved parmesan, that sort of thing. Even then, you might struggle to fill up, and that would push the price of lunch to levels that are normal for Tokyo but dangerous for Pitman. Not that we should be comparing.

Let's see that again. This may be the only time that I eat a peach quesadilla, and I'd like to remember it. The other complaint I've heard here is that the menu doesn't change much over time; my friends actually went a lot in the past but have stopped since it was always the same food.

I guess that's only food for thought if you're a local.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bernachon, Monzennakacho

I know what you're thinking, or at least I know what I'd be thinking if I was in your shoes. Your empty, empty shoes, gradually coming to the crushing realization that this picture is two bars of Bernachon chocolate and a bag of Jacques Genin caramels, and they're sitting on my dining table, not yours. Needless to say this picture is a bit out of date, and the items do not, shall we say, persist in the material world. I still have no reason to believe that there is better chocolate in this material world than that made by Bernachon, and now that I've tried these famous caramels (available, I believe, only at the factory store in Paris?), I have to say that even those of LeRoux are a bit...pale.

It is indeed good to have marsupial friends, and this is what I got for giving everyone's favorite Koala some ideas on where to go in Paris and ses environs. Needless to say, the Gold Star was high on the list.

In other news, she's not the only one who travels, and as I type this I am pushing up against my morning deadline as usual. The only difference is that this morning my remaining 15 minutes of shower, dress and breakfast precedes travel to the airport for 2 weeks of rock and roll and junk food in beautiful and historic Pitman NJ.

If you don't believe I'm leavin', you can count the days I'm gone.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hayashiya, Asagaya (食愉旬感 HAYASHIYA)

Northside Asagaya is a hip, bohemian enclave of over 100 fun little bars and restaurants...that were all closed on the holiday. But no reason we couldn't walk around and see things, like this hip, bohemian house.

They left the window open. I think that makes it fair game, and even fairer with a flash. Don't you get the feeling that this was abandonded years ago and has been untouched since? Hard to believe since the window was open - I'd expect more damage - but it sure didn't look very used.

Plus we ran into our old friend Tom Corllins.

And then our new friend Hayashiya. I really resisted going to this place since the glossy menus and high-quality custom-printed noren really say 'chain' to me, but after eating there and researching it, I'm pretty sure it's not. There's something about japanese culture that works against the chain ethos anyway - take sake for example. It's way too hard to enforce the consistency across branches, so if you want to offer good sake, you're going to end up with an individual experience at each place. Anyhoo, their plan here seems to be to offer organic veg, a bit of meat, and lots of interesting drinks in the herbal vein, with a good sake selection thrown in too. Perhaps a little trendy since they had a menu page highlighting that same Dancyu article that featured Nabeshima, but boy is that stuff good.

The starter was seriously unique (except that Peacock and I each got one of them) - mushroom tofu. Very soothing, and better than you'd think.

There were a good 20 varieties of sake, including some daiginjo; I loved the purple-label Nabeshima jungin, and also a Murayu jungin - never had that before, but now that I know the label I realize they have it at my local store.

This is a bit concerningly chain-ish - frozen shrimp and avocado salad. Still, it tastes good with all that mayo. Organic mayo, I'm sure. Somehow I had a hard time navigating the menu...there may be better things on offer.

The fish, as befits early autumn, was awesome. Early buri, seasonal sanma, both very fatty and abundantly luscious. What did that mean?

I'm trying to follow the Japanese eating pattern while drinking these days, which is to say "Little to no food". Thus for our main course, we had an onion. OK, an onion and a half. Roasted in foil, with rosemary. This is something to do at home - it's delicious. I bet it's as easy as it looks too.

Y'know 'Cock, we never got that omelet we ordered. I wonder if we paid for that.

Kaburaya, Asagaya (かぶら屋)

Kaburaya is a medium-sized chain of cheerful and very, very cheap izakayas centered on Ikebukuro and south on the Shinjuku axis. They have a few farther-out branches like this one that Peacock and I stopped in to after being rejected by some other places. God blesses the meek and the early openers - these guys start letting the drunks in at 4, even on holidays like today when most of the interesting places in Asagaya are off doing what interests them rather then serving us. The guy in the window kept staring at us while we sat outside in the threatening weather; lotsa drops, but no real rain.

Know what they have here? They have beer. And fried food. And grilled food. And boiled food. And it's all cheap. I think when you take out the Y400 of tax that the government imposes on each mug of beer, these were free. You have to pay for the 'akakabu', slices of small turnip pickled in sweet pink vinegar, but I'd always pay for that. I love 'em.

This was just supposed to tide us over until other places opened, but we had to try a few things. I can't stomach the idea of oden (the 'boiled food' mentioned earlier) unless it's the dead of winter, but for some reason this stick deep-fried hanpen sounded OK. Hanpen, in case you're wondering, is like kamaboko, but...softer? Rougher? Kamaboko, in case you're wondering, is cheap white fish pulverized to mush and pressed into various shapes. The most common is the 'loaf' shape that you may remember getting in your soup some time, but it comes in stars and roses and even, mainly for the new year, in loaves with decorative designs right through them, so when you cut off slices every piece says '2010' on it. Kamaboko is famous in Odawara, which is yet another reason why Odawara is know colloquially as the 'Kingdom of Meh'.

Geez, that was intense. I can't think of anything exciting to say about these potato croquettes.