Sunday, December 21, 2008

Mmm, Fetus Latte.

I was whipping up lattes at home and on the one with a cinnamon/cocoa mix on top, the design that appeared looked disturbingly like a sonogram of a human baby at some early stage of development.

Tasted good, though.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mmm, carbon.

I've been noticing recently, I do not go to Starbucks as frequently as I once did. No, it doesn't have anything to do with my financial situation. I sell myself on the street, and being the rippling specimen that I am, business is very good.

No, I've just found that my taste for Starbucks coffee is waning. The introduction of the noxiously bad Piadini -which replaced two totally acceptable breakfast sandwiches- didn't help. Starbucks uses a very dark roast. Perhaps this is an attempt to cover up low quality beans, but that's a dangerous game. A very dark roast tastes like charcoal, so it takes a well-calibrated machine, a good analysis of the pull, and very fresh beans to make it taste good. Yes, it can cover up bad beans, but the margin for error during preparation is minuscule.

Generally, the prep is good and the espresso is fine, but man, it just gets dull. There is no complexity to their espresso whatsoever. No richness, or acidic bite. Nothing. I just find myself saying more often than I used to, "if I'm going to drink the calories, I'd rather have something that's really good." And if I'm nowhere near a place to make it, I just wait till I get home. Starbucks' move towards making better coffee with the Clover is a good first step. Still, I think they should move towards providing multiple beans for espresso, as well. This would make them more competitive with smaller cafes that provide superior beans and drinks.

And it just has to be an untenable situation when the only thing bringing me in is the selection of pre-made foods, especially the fruit platter. But those Piadini are amazingly bad. They taste like soap. The worst thing I've ever eaten at a Starbucks. And for a mobile warrior such as myself, the convoluted WiFi arrangement is a nightmare. So, actually, I'd say the thing bringing me in is only the fruit platter.

Now there's a dynamite business model.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Caffe Dolce Vita- ++ / $$

I was on the hunt for some take-out and came across Caffe Dolce Vita while perusing a virtual Providence in Google Earth. They had a pretty web-site and a simple, yet tasty-sounding menu. Also, I was hungry and my long-term mate, the ever-flexible person that she is, wanted tortellini... and only tortellini. Federal Hill seemed like a good place to go for pasta. I had heard that a few Italians live there. Who knew?

In my short sojourn at the restaurant, the interior struck me as nice and well-lit. Not exactly oozing character, but even if it was austere, it was nice. A little romance injected compliments of some red lighting, a nicely presented bar, and large mirrors made the room seem larger and a bit more dynamic than it really is. One thing about which I was really disappointed was the total lack of a fountain. Even a small, ornamental one they bought at Sam's Club. The fountain scene is the single most famous scene in the movie that is their namesake. What were they thinking? I want a half-naked woman in a fountain, damnit!

The menu is simple, with lots of sandwiches, pastas, and some standard, but still attractive, desserts. For an appetizer, the crab cakes were inhaled. I liked the them a lot. They were pretty light on the crab, and the deep frying they went through was a bit dense, but they made up for it by being wedged full of more ingredients than is commonly seen. Corn, chopped peppers, and herbs saved them from being heavy and uninspired. They included lots of tartar sauce, and $8.95 for two of them is a fair price.

For entrees, we ordered the Eggplant Parmigiana, Tortellini Al Alfredo, and Fusilli Alla Vodka. All three were very good. The tortellini was firm with an excellent filling, not surprising since it was most likely Venda Ravioli. The alfredo sauce was cheesy and flavorful, if not a bit on the watery side. The eggplant parmigiana was exactly that. The fusilli was good and thoroughly covered in a well-made vodka sauce. It was light on the pancetta, which is something I really wasn't expecting with a $14 price. The desserts were what I expected, good. The peanut butter pie was disturbingly rich, and the cannelloni was good, but short on the chocolate chips.

In fact, everything was good. The interior, the menu, the quality, it was all good. Everything was as I would expect from a place that seems to aiming towards being a good, everyday Italian restaurant. Everything except the price. For example, the fusilli. It was good pasta, but just that, pasta. It was a pile of fusilli, covered in a pile of sauce, for $14.

That's my only complaint. The price seemed disconnected from the experience. If this was a family restaurant, operating in some hole in the wall, where all the locals go, the prices would be downright absurd. In that same Italian hole in the wall, the plate of pasta I got would cost me less than $10. The (small) slice of peanut butter pie was $8.95. Round that puppy up to a full $9 and you can buy two whole desserts and a coffee at many other places. Combined with dynamite neighbors, such as Pastiche, Scialo Bros. Bakery, and Pane e Vino, Dolce Vita simply can't compete.

Otherwise, like I said, everything was good, which is pretty good. And if I have the hankering for pasta at 12:30am, there aren't many places that I know for a fact are open. All things considered then, there's a decent chance that I may, again, find myself living the sweet life... I'll just have to pay for it.

Caffe Dolce Vita: ++
Appetizers: $3.50-$12.95
Entrees: $7.95-$19.95
All the prices are for their dinner menu. A lunch menu is available at reduced prices.

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59 De Pasquale Ave
Providence, RI 02903

Sunday through Thursday 8:00am to 1:00am
Friday & Saturday 8:00am to 2:00am

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Now That's Some Armor I Would Buy

Now, I know what they're supposed to be, but c'mon. Get that mind in the gutter. We found this on the wall of Carrabba's in Warwick. We called it the breastplate. Hi-oh! Buddum-bum-CHING.

QUICKVIEW: Siena- +++ / $$$

Well it took me forever and a day, but I finally got a chance to try Siena. One of the higher-rated restaurants on, my interest has been piqued for over a year, and with the new location in East Greenwich, I couldn't make excuses any longer. By new location, I mean the building that used to proudly house India's third, and apparently least-popular, location. I was terribly crushed when India went under about two years ago. The Indian Club down the street also said namastay not too long after, only to be replaced by a very un-ethnic steakhouse.

Siena isn't the disappointment I felt with the Indian Club's loss. I liked it. Not as much as I liked India, but I liked it. The interior is very nice. A bit slapdash in its design direction, but interesting, dynamic, and warm with many of the same fundamental aspects of the old Indian interior. I was a big fan of the lighting for the first five minutes of our meal, until they turned them down to "romantic" levels. And as with so many restaurants, romantic means I had a hard time seeing things. Luckily for us, we were situated by this giant, illuminated thingie in the wall. It, thankfully, made seeing and taking photographs a more-than-fruitless endeavor.

The bread was a good selection. All three types were dense and chewy and bursting with flavor. And unlike every other Italian restaurant on the seven seas, they gave us real, honest-to-God, butter. No fancy oils, or rubs, or spices. Just butter. The gods be praised. For an appetizer, we ordered up a margherita pizza. I was whelmed with the pizza. The dough was very good. Crispy, chewy, and very satisfying. It was thicker and held up to the toppings better than Al Forno's grilled pizza. The sauce was good. I like my margherita pizzas with a light, sweet sauce and this was right in line. The rest of the pizza was bland, though. No real variety to the cheese, with no herbs or spices on top. Just cheese, sauce, with a smattering of what appeared to be basil. Simple, austere? Maybe. I want more complexity to even my simple pizzas. I prefer Al Forno or Feast or Famine.

Entrees out, first taste from the Gnocchi di Patate. The handmade gnocchi were excellent. Huge(!), soft, and well cooked. The sauce was rather bland. Considering it was a pesto base, I expected more punch to it. Instead all I got was a good dish. All of the cheeses come together well, and give the dish a heavy, creamy body. The yellow tomatoes add some much-needed flavor. Still, it was a dish that was the exact sum of its parts. No standout flavors to drive the dish, and the ingredients used do not add up to a standout flavor. Overall, good but not great.

Our second entree was the Garganelli con Tartufo. This was very good. It was, as with the gnocchi, creamy and cheesy. Mascarpone cheese and cream sauce has a subtle sweetness to it and the pasta was cooked perfectly. The healthy helping of prosciutto di parma chunks really makes the dish and gives a savory, salty flavor and dense texture to counter the soft creaminess of the pasta and cheese. Topped with parmigiano, this was very good pasta. Nothing amazing, but very good pasta, with good ingredients, prepared well. I'd say it was a solid deal for $17 and would likely get it again. For a side, we ordered the Risotto Bianco. It was risotto, so there's not much to say. Rich, creamy, and well-prepared with the slightest bit of firmness to the rice.

Desserts were, as I'm finding so frequently these days, disappointing. We ordered the Scripelle con Gelato. It was like fair food. Two small doughboys with a scoop of overly-icy vanilla gelato on top and a small cup of Nutella. While it's more inventive than many restaurants, what about fruit gelato, or sherbet to add a snappy tartness to the chocolate and cinnamon sugar? Maybe apples? Well, aside from subjective critques of their choice of ingredients, the gelato wasn't very good. The vanilla flavor was too subdued for my tastes and it was icy. A pint of Roba!Dolce vanilla from the supermarket freezer is vastly superior to the gelato I got.

In the end, I think Siena is quite good. I liked the menu (except for the heavy emphasis on veal), the wine list was decent, the atmosphere is very good, and the food is all well-prepared. I have some reservations about the things I got, but aside from the gelato, nothing got anywhere near being bad. I will undoubtedly be going back.

Siena: +++
Appetizers: $4-$13
Entrees: $12-$29

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5600 Post Road
East Greenwich, RI 02818

Tuesday through Thursday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Friday 5:00pm to 11:00pm
Saturday 4:30pm to 11:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm to 9:00pm

Poll Closed

The numbers, scant numbers, for my informal survey of Rhode Island diners is over. After gathering an immense nine votes, it seems that people, at least those predisposed to reading a blog about food, are still going out about once a week.

Only one vote came in for not eating out, two for once or twice per month, and the majority of six for once or twice per week. Very scientific.

So onto a new poll!

Rhode Island is loaded with Italian restaurants. So many it's kind of weird. When it comes to other kinds of food, we come up a bit short. So in celebration of the opening of El Tapatio's second restaurant, of what other kinds of ethnic foods would you like to see more?

Taco Taco, Burrito Burrito

Today is a sad day. It is the day that I discovered that my beloved Fresh City in Warwick has closed. I'm not entirely surprised. I had some inside info about two years indicating that their sales were spotty. If sales were bad during the good times, now that we're standing on the blood-soaked precipice of total oblivion, we're bound to see some of the weaker players shut down.

Still, this poses a serious problem for me. Fresh City was the ONLY place I was easily able to get good smoothies. There are no other places, that I know of, where smoothies are made with real, whole fruit, yogurt, juice, and whatever vitamin-protein-oil mix you want. Yeah, I can make my own, but if I'm on the road in between home and Providence, I'm hosed. I'm going to have to install a blender and freezer in my car.

But today is also a joyous day! Caloo calay! My home town, North Kingstown, saw one of its newer restaurants, Bay Leaves, say bye-bye about a year ago. Now, from what has taken its place, I could NOT be happier! It's EL TAPATIO! What is El Tapatio you ask? Oh, not much. Only the best fucking Tex-Mex in Rhode Island! YES YES YES! Oh happy day, HAPPY DAY, oh happy day, HAPPY DAY. No other Tex-Mex even comes close. Tito's Cantina? Bland! Jose Tequila's? You're kidding, right?

I am going to be very fat, very quickly. I have yet to enter the new North Kingstown building, but I'm hoping it maintains the incredibly colorful decor of the Cranston flagship.

UPDATE: Umm, like three hours later
I have entered, ordered, and eaten at the new El Tapatio. They've changed very little of the interior from what it looked like as Bay Leaves. This helps to explain how they bought the location, got the licenses, and opened in only slightly over a month. No colorful chairs as of yet, but I hope that's rectified in short order. The food is just as good as it always is. None of those first-week jitters.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

QUICKVIEW: Trio- +++ / $$$

The Newport Restaurant Group continues their growth, onward to an eventual goal of an invasion of France, or something. I give them credit, for what it's worth, that they have managed to inject unique flavor and ambiance into each of their seven restaurants. This is in contrast to the Pinelli-Marra group, where all their restaurants have a sometimes vaguely, sometimes blatantly, similar taste and feel.

Trio's been open for a number of months and has garnered a pretty dedicated following. The summer crowds apparently turn the place into a zoo, and with a bar area that's attractive and well-appointed, it's no surprise that baby-boomers in search of a haunt fill the stools. And from what I've heard, it's almost nothing but baby-boomers and older. I guess all the young folk are too busy getting blasted at louder, darker locales up in Providence.

I really liked the interior; very modern, clean, and well-lit. While on the subject, I really appreciated how well-lit the dining area was. SO many restaurants, especially those that sport a lounge-like area, aim for that "romantic lighting" look, and by romantic they mean pitch-fucking-black. Since Trio purportedly caters heavily to an older crowd -the aforementioned baby-boomers- I guess this is good business sense, since their clientele can barely see.

This isn't to say that the dining area was just bright as the sun, far from it. It was inventively lit. Lots of small, warm light sources, directionals, and a soft glow of dining area-wide lighting gives the interior a very comfortable, dynamic feel. It combines well with the wood tones and the picture of the jester eating a giant fork of spaghetti that is in every Italian restaurant EVER. Something noteworthy, apparently aping cafes, the restaurant has free wi-fi. I guess for all those stock brokers and their smartphones.

The bread was wonderful. They brought out a small, fresh-baked loaf that was crispy on the outside, hot and chewy on the inside. Fresh-baked bread at the table is a treat I wish more restaurants would start offering. The dip for the bread was a smattering of Italian herbs in balsamic vinegar, with chili pepper oil mixed at the table. Carrabbas, sacrilege though it is since they're a chain, still has the only acceptable substitute for butter. The oil was overpowered by the balsamic vinegar and the herbs were completely lost. Dinner was very good. For an appetizer, my companion and I ordered the Trio panzarotti. It wasn't so much panzarotti as two, humongous ravioli that were breaded and deep fried. The hazelnut pasta wasn't what I was expecting. Instead of hazelnut flavored, it was ordinary pasta with breading and hazelnut bits. It was good, crispy, and well-cooked, but the hazelnut flavor was overwhelmed by the frying. The filling was delicious, sweet, and pumpkin-y, with surprisingly large chunks of lobster inside. The real kicker for this was the price. At only $12 for two, count 'em two, large panzarotti, it's a great deal.

For entrees, out came the Pappardelle Spezzatto and the Tortelloni + Lobster. The Pappardelle was good but simple. It tasted like pot-roast and noodles that mom would make. The mushroom and tomato sauce was pretty short on the tomato, had a strong, beefy flavor, and was overly salty. The noodles were cooked close to al dente, but for my larger pastas I prefer to have them cooked past al dente to a softer consistency. Can't really fault them for doing what they're supposed to do, I guess.

The Tortelloni + Lobster was excellent. The pasta was well-cooked, and the duxelle filling was rich, creamy, and oh-so-flavorful. The limoncello cream sauce was the real star of the dish. It was subtly sweet, tart, and creamy all at once. I'd be tempted to put this sauce on almost anything, including breakfast cereal. You get a decent serving of lobster meat piled onto the plate, which, as I suspect anything would, tastes excellent when covered in the cream sauce. The lobster was the slightest bit over-cooked, but that's a small complaint about an otherwise good entree. The dish is expensive at $28, but if you're looking for a treat, look no farther.

The wine list was surprising. It had a very good selection of affordable wines with a good two dozen at $30 or lower. Almost the entire list is below $60 and only five break the $100 barrier. And not a single bottle of Opus One in sight! How refreshing. The dessert menu was pretty boring. Chocolate cake, crème brûlée, and other default nice desserts are present, but nothing to really draw my attention. I didn't bother. We finished with a cappuccino and tea. The tea was "New England Blend" from New England Coffee Company. It was... adequate, at least in the sense that it did not kill us. Is it really so hard to have a good selection of tea? The cappuccino was a better story. Decent roast, and well-prepared, it was a suitable ending, if not memorable.

I was very happy with Trio and will, without doubt, go back soon and go back often. It's a little bit pricey, but fits in well with Basil's across the street and the Coast Guard House down by the sea wall. Along with the good selection of very affordable entrees, Trio is a keeper.

Trio: +++
Price range for two: $50-$90

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15 Kingstown Rd
Narragansett, RI 02882

Sunday through Thursday 5:00pm to 9:00pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Saturday & Sunday 12:00pm to 3:00pm

Friday, November 7, 2008

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Drink the Ways.

Every time I go to Coffee Exchange, I'm reminded why they are my favorite cafe. I get good espresso at Blue State, or Seven Stars, and even Three Sisters (Especially if my favorite barista is working), but none of them have every, single employee trained to such a degree as CofEx. They've got the milk right, they've got the skill, if only they'd top off their espresso creations with the latte art that signifies a truly great barista.

Just look at the two CofEx lattes. Compare them to the lattes I got at Brewed Awakenings, or Roba!Dolce, or, shudder, the one from Felicia's Coffee. Look at the smooth texture of the milk; the dark, reddish-brown of the espresso as it mixes with the milk foam; the swirls of white signifying a skillful free-pour. These are well made drinks. And most importantly, the two drinks are from two completely different baristi... as opposed to two only slightly different baristi? I guess they could be identical twins. Wait, what was I saying?

The flavor is just right. The fact that all the beans are pretty much straight out of the roaster shines through loud and clear. The espresso is rich and sweet, with complex flavors that wake up the tongue. The milk is velvety and well-textured. For comparison, I've put up some pictures of lattes at various other locations. I haven't reviewed a few of them, and considering they're up here as fodder, that may be a good thing. The abject disaster from Roba!Dolce was a huge let down after the good latte I received on my first trip. I don't even have to describe the flavor, you can tell it wasn't good just by looking at it.

Likewise from Java Madness, down in South County. The espresso was watery and bitter, the milk felt like it was frothed with an immersion blender, and no amount of sugar could make it palatable.

And all of this is juxtaposed to the masterpiece that was Mainstreet Coffee. Only one guy, the owner I assume, does this, and the other employees make decent drinks, but the mere chance of receiving a drink like this makes CofEx a must-stop for any and all who love espresso. It may seem weird to segue from loving CofEx to praising MainCof, but MainCof's owner shows us how it's done, and CofEx pretty much does that, and they do it more consistently than others. That's their secret, consistency. And for that, I love them.

Gayot Top 40 Hits the Interpipes.

The 2008 Gayot Top 40 list has been released!

As I said in a post from last year, the heavy emphasis on French food goes a long way towards negating the importance of the list, but it's a jolly good conversation piece.

Some pretty big movements for this year, namely a second restaurant has joined L'Espalier in Boston, O Ya.

Sona was replaced by Urawsawa in Los Angeles, and New York continues to reign supreme even after losing Bouley from its list.

In general, I liked this list more than last year. A bit more variety and more locations -twenty cities compared to 2007's seventeen- makes it much more digestible than last year's assertion that nearly 25% of all great restaurants in the ENTIRE COUNTRY are in New York.

The Gayot Top 40 Restaurants in the United States

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poll Closed

And the final numbers are in for Rhode Island's favorite restaurants!

Two of my absolute favorites, CAV and Al Forno, bring home the gold with a tie for first place. They both nabbed 25% of total votes. It looked like 10 Prime Steak & Sushi was going to win for the longest time, but lost out in the end, with just 20%.

Surprisingly, the White Horse Tavern nabbed third, with 15%, pulling in the necessary votes right at the end. Cafe Nuovo, Castle Hill Inn, and Pot au Feu all garnered 5%.

The Modern Diner, which is Rhode Island's true contribution to global cuisine, was left with no love, but it has esteemed company. L'Epicureo got zero votes, well deserved, I feel. But so did the Spiced Pear, which I assume is because no one can afford it.

And speaking of affordability, onto the next poll! The economic down-turn is affecting us all, and I'm wondering, how much have you had to cut back your dining out, if at all? Thinking back three months, and thinking forward equally, how often do you go out to eat?

Coffee and Clover, Over and Over.

The Starbucks in Wayland Square is one of the first *$s in the country to get the coffee machine mentioned in hushed reverence among the coffee elite, the Clover. It is one of 80 that are supposed to be rolled out by the end of 2008 and premiered a short time ago on September 9th. I figured Rhode Island wouldn't get any, so was shocked when I saw a sign at another Schtarbucken announcing the arrival. I hot-footed it over to Wayland Square to commune with Jesus. (Sorry for the abysmal picture quality. Starbucks wouldn't allow me to take photos, so I had to surreptitiously take photos with a cell phone.)

Starbucks is pushing the Clover hard. They have dedicated a large amount of counter space to the machine, grinder, and signage announcing the various beans available for brew. They've also implemented a fair degree of theater. Instead of the hiding the machine behind counter and glass, or placing it on the back counter, far from eyes of the customers, the machine is front and center.

My service was impeccable. The barista was friendly, talked my ear off about the coffee and the machine, and brewed multiple cups just to let me try. It was amazing how difficult it was to get other people to just try the new coffee. It's free coffee, people! I was also fortunate to arrive just as a pot of Starbucks Anniversary Roast was finishing brewing, so I was able to make a direct comparison between the Clover and fresh, standard brew.

My first cup was the El Salvador Pacamara. It was a very bright coffee, especially considering its Latin American root. I wasn't terribly impressed, frankly. It had citrusy notes to it, but I tasted almost no chocolate. As many coffee fanatics have pointed out, this could be because of the beans. Starbucks is a massive corporation that just can't move single-origin beans around its massive supply chain quickly. With that in mind, I'll hold off judgment on the machine for this one.

Since the Anniversary Roast had just been brewed, I was able to compare the ordinary brew to the Clover. Most of Starbucks' blends aren't the best. They're blended, packed, stored, and kept for weeks. Many, if not most, of the terroir of the beans that the Clover is supposedly an A-student at bringing out are lost. Still, I'm comparing like to like, so I think this is still a valid test.

The verdict? The Clover was better. Still, certain things must be taken into account. Starbucks coffee has been the butt of jokes for a very long time. This to the point of losing to McDonalds in a taste test. So Starbucks drip isn't the best comparo.

Also, it wasn't that much better. The notes of the coffee weren't brought out because of finer definition or clarity of flavor, but instead because the brightness was toned down. It was a mellower coffee. This allowed the flavors to come out much more clearly.

My third cup was the one I purchased. the Costa Rica Agrivid. This one seemed to respond to the steeping process of the Clover better than the previous two beans. The Clover flier lists cocoa and lemon as the primary notes and, lo, they were right. Citrus and a very strong and rich cocoa flavor were right on target.

So, in the end, I came away whelmed. Starbucks is charging about double for the Clover coffee, which still isn't terribly expensive, and it's certainly worth it to pay extra for a single-cup brewing method. From a commercial standpoint, it does have value. It's fast. It's clean. It's theatrical. If Starbucks can make a case for it, it could be the ticket to them again being seen as high-quality. Unfortunately, it may require a far greater degree of training and quality control than Starbucks is prepared to achieve. For example, the barista broke the stream of water as it poured into the chamber. A BIG no-no, according to the creator of the Clover. This can drop the temperature of the water a couple of degrees and have a "massive effect on the extraction of chemicals that affect flavor." (Wired Magazine)

If this was a consumer-level product, I would declare it a total rip-off. Remember, this puppy cost $11,000 before Starbucks bought up the company. And what it does could be replicated at home with a little ingenuity and $20 worth of kitchen stuff from Bed Bath & Beyond. Or just a French press. The best cup of coffee I've ever had was brewed by an old, Portuguese woman, and the mighty clover falls to that as well. In the Wired Magazine article about the Clover, the general idea of the clover is explained; if you want to buy coffee beans, be it Blue Mountain, or Kopi Luwak, that cost a fucking fortune, you want a machine that won't mess them up. Great logic. But that caters to a minuscule part of the population. I adore coffee, and even I don't care.

And the machine doesn't even come close to making a case for itself. They say that what you're really paying for is the ability to design custom brew cycles for whatever kind of bean you're using. Specific temperature, time, and bang. But my already stupid-expensive Jura Capresso Z5 is one-forth the cost and DOES MORE. And being able to choose a temperature? Try an electric kettle with a built in thermistor and gauge. I will admit that for a cafe, the sheer speed with which it prepares a cup is to die for. French press requires steeping the coffee for a few minutes. And the theater is quite cool, as the barista delicately stirs the coffee.

But as far as theater goes, a cafe can do better. Try a siphon bar. I've seen one in action at some cafe in Connecticut. You may have seen one, it looks like a distilling setup for making small amounts of moonshine. Or some magic potion. When it comes to theater, there is nothing that even comes close to this jawdroppingly wacky contraption. And if you think eleven grand is bad, try twenty. That's how much a Japanese model of these runs ya'. The machine mentioned in the New York Times article is only from one company, and you can get them from others, but they're still absurdly expensive. Furthermore, I have yet to see a machine that makes anything appreciably better than some good french press.

I'm a gourmet, certainly, but I'm not a ridiculous gourmet. I don't think $1,000 wine is worth it. Wagyu beef tastes inferior to a good prime steak. And chocolate is chocolate, as long as it's good. You pay extra for espresso because it's impossible to make good espresso without an expensive machine. Coffee is another story. If you want good coffee, you can brew it at home, and for all of Clover's ingenuity and convenience, it never gets past that.

The Coffee Fix: Can the $11,000 Clover Machine Save Starbucks?

At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee (May require registration. If so, just go to and get some sign-in info.)



I used to eat a lot of cookies. I used to weigh a lot more. Perhaps there's a connection. Regardless, I don't eat a lot of cookies anymore because it's nigh-on impossible to find cookies made with butter. They're ALL made with shortening of some sort. Or I should say, partially hydrogenated oils. And, as we all know, those are very bad. Or more exactly, the trans fat is bad.

And woe be the one who wanders the cookie aisle with trans fats on the mind. It is an unwelcoming place. Everything looks so good, and yet it's all so bad. I mean, no, cookies aren't good. If you eat too many you'll end up dead in a piano box, but butter is better than shortening.

And ohhhhhhhh is it hard to look at Pepperidge Farm cookies. Every single one uses shortening. They sit on the shelf. TEMPTING ME! "Come on. Eat us. Eaaaaaut us. We won't hurt you. We promise. Those doctors are all wrong. We're GOOOOOOD for you!" Oh and don't think for a second that the 0g of trans fat means diddly. If the product has shortening, it has trans fats. It's a guarantee. The reason they can say 0g is because the shortening must simply have less than 1g per tablespoon, and the final product must have .5g or less per serving.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I suspect that after that regulation came into effect, we had quite a few products suddenly list a smaller serving on the box. Conspiracy theory, much? Damn right. Those pinko cookie commies are out to get us. And companies were so desperate to avoid listing any trans fat on their product, the ones that actually list trans fats per serving must have BUCKETS of the crud in their product.

I'm thinking about Keebler cookies. They actually list trans fats. That means you might as well eat poison as eat their cookies.

I have found solace in cookies from Europe. Dave's Market has constantly changing selection, and they usually have products from a company called Bahlsen. Their Butter Leaves and Choco Leibniz have NO SHORTENING. Nothing but butter. Beautiful, American, freedom-loving butter. Sadly, many of their cookies do have shortening, so always check the ingredients.

And while we're on the subject, take heart, you old fashioned-types. Oreo's, America's favorite cookie, are shortening-free. Well, the peanut butter Oreo's have some, but what weirdo would ever want anything but the confection perfection of a good, old Oreo?

RECOMMENDATION: Kinder Happy Hippo

I was recently introduced to a new cookie. Well, not really recently. It was, like, two years ago. Still! Only recently did I decide to write about it.

It's called the Kinder Happy Hippo. It's made by Ferrero, the same company that makes Ferrero Roche. They're the candy with those hilariously pretentious advertisements that act like only rich people eat them and yet are sold primarily at Wal*Mart. They also make Nutella, if you like a spread that completely eliminates any healthful attributes to a sandwich.

It has a wafer body, which is painted up to look somewhat like a hippo. I think it looks like a butt with two bullet holes in the cheeks and a set of eyeballs on the back. Still, I appreciate their effort. It's made from remarkably good ingredients. Very few unpronounceable chemicals. The chocolate creme inside is smooth and very flavorful. As far as cookies/candy go, these are quite good. Be careful giving them to kids. Kids will want multiple cookies, but they're 116 calories each. And if it's just you, these are a great way to break a diet for a few minutes. You can buy them where I did, on Amazon.

These get my pre-packaged junk food thumbs-up.


Life and All It Brings.

I've been rather short on postings, lately. Sorry about that.

Finishing up a double-major and work have a way of invading your non-paying ventures.

Keep reading, y'all... or is it all y'all, I've got posts coming.

Thanks for your readership. It's thanks you kind people that I'm allowed to feel self important.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

REVIEW: Mainstreet Coffee- ***1/2 / $

Not too long ago, East Greenwich's main drag was littered with empty store fronts, a few bars, and that was about it. Now it's littered with over-priced shops, cafes, restaurants, and thirty-something yuppies out to get laid as they cruise the street in their financed BMW's, Aston Martins, and Bentleys.

Depending on your perspective, that could be a downgrade. Regardless, route 1 through EG is now one of the nicer walks to be had in Rhode Island. Not as cramped and busy as Warren, not as subtly disgusting as Westerly, and not as smelly and pretentious as Thayer Street.

But what is one to do if one doesn't want to get busy drinking at 2:30 in the afternoon, while being hit on by old, weird men who never seem to leave? Thankfully, for you, there are a few cafes. For those who prefer a finely tuned mini-bohemia, Starbucks is available, which is acceptable as always, but why would you go and do something weird like that when one of RI's best cafes is right down the street in the form of Main Street Coffee.

On your way in, MainCoff is eminently welcoming. With a string of attractive tables, sidewalk art, and comfortable chairs all before you ever get in the door, you can tell this place was founded, and is run, with a degree of passion. The inside is 100% cafe. Wood, floral art, and lots of browns, reds, and blacks do not break any ground in the cafe aesthetic. This isn't a criticism, but more an observation because the interior is very nice. It's a bit cramped, but they make good use of what they have. The large windows running along the front of the building allow copious amounts of sunlight to wash over the room, and when opened during the summer it opens up the entire cafe. It all conspires to create an atmosphere that feels wide open even while being rather small.

An array of tables and chairs are wedged into the street-view area, near the door. The sitting area in the back, with some cushy couches, chairs, and (non-cushy)skylights, that provide the comfiest seats in the house. Still, especially during mid-summer, it's the street chairs I prefer. If you go through the small arches, you'll pass through to the second part of the cafe, which is a bar called the Toscana Lounge, replete with those aforementioned weird, old men. This area also sports lots of dark tones and projects a similarly upscale tone as the cafe area. Don't bother talking to the bartender. She's too busy deflecting come-ons from the weird, old men.

Their food selection is very good. I like their cakes, cookies, pastries, and muffins. Their selection of cakes borders on suicidal. I found too many of their varieties overly sweet. Good, old, chocolate cake is still good. I liked their muffins, very flavorful, moist, and crumbly. Some of their creamy desserts, like mousse, underwhelmed. They had that spongy texture and firmness that comes from pre-packaged mousses. A lemon pastry also tasted like a cleaning agent. These complaints aren't deal-breaking in the grand scheme of their menu, which is solid and supports their drinks well.

Oh, the drinks, but before we get to the coffee, I'll discuss the smoothies. As with a number of places that shall remain nameless... oh hell, I'll name them, as with places like Coffee Exchange, the smoothies, here, are made with juice, syrups, and ice. They do a decent job blending the ice till it's smooth, but that's not really a smoothie. That's a slushie. A smoothie usually has no ice in it. Just look at the Wikipedia entry for smoothie, FRESH FRUIT. I won't knock off any points for this because so many other places are guilty, but if you fancy yourself a smoothie gourmet, take a trip up the road a bit into Warwick and get a real, good, healthy smoothie from Fresh City.

With only a small amount of support food, MainCof doesn't deviate from the cafe model as does places like Brewed Awakenings or Three Sisters. The purpose of your trip is a drink. This puts a lot of focus on the drink because, if it sucks, there is nothing drawing you back. So often am I let down by the quality of the coffee, but here, thankfully, I am not. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I received the best latte I've ever gotten outside of Providence's cafes, here. The espresso was well-pulled, the milk was perfectly texturized and free-poured like a real barista should.

Then, sometime after that, I received an even better latte. So good, in fact, that it's one of the best I've ever gotten. It was made by the owner and was a milky masterpiece. First off, it's not the best latte I've ever had. That honor still goes to CofEx. The espresso wasn't the best roast, in my opinion. I prefer darker, more powerful roasts because they stand out better in a milky drink like a latte. It was a bit astringent on the tongue and was short on body. Flavor was good, some subtle nutty notes, but was otherwise not well-suited to a latte. I wonder if it was an African blend. For lattes, good, ol' fashioned Colombian is my favorite.

Still, like dust and memories, these criticisms are washed away when the espresso is capped with that clarion badge of a master barista, latte art. Not only is this the only latte art I've ever received in Rhode Island, it's some of the most defined, attractive art I've ever received. It may seem like a weird obsession, as the pour has nothing to do with how the drink tastes, but for me the time and care taken to make latte art is what tells me that I'm dealing with a real master of their craft. It says, in no uncertain terms, that the barista gives a crap. Before this, I would have said that CofEx and Blue State Coffee were RI's best, but CofEx and Main Street Coffee are now in a league all their own.

So why not four stars? On a more general level, I always receive quality drinks. The very worst I have ever received is as good as any Starbucks. Cappuccinos are topped with dense, silky foam. And mochas sport attractive swirls of chocolate syrup on top. Unfortunately, CofEx has every one of their baristi perfectly trained, and MainCof doesn't. Being only as good as Starbucks doesn't compete with a place where the espresso is always better. Granted, this criticism also applies to Pastiche, Blue State, and Caffe Bon Ami, so Main Street Coffee is in some good company.

Sooooo, yes. Excellent atmosphere and decor, combined with a solid menu and very good coffee and espresso, allows Mainstreet Coffee to overcome its few mistakes. And while I was impressed with my earlier latte, the caffeinated masterpiece that followed really pushed them over the top. It's East Greenwich's best cafe, and one of the best cafes in the state. In this writer's humble opinion, if you are in the area and don't stop by for a drink, you're just plain dumb.

Mainstreet Coffee: ***1/2 (The web address is on their business cards, but the link is dead. I'm not sure what's going on, there.

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137 Main Street
East Greenwich, RI. 02818

Monday through Thursday 6:00am to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 6:00am to 12:00am
Sunday 7:30am to 10:00pm

Saturday, August 9, 2008

REVIEW: Trattoria Simpatico- *** / $$$

Oh little Jamestown. So small yet so packed with cool stuff. You'd be surprised with the density of gourmet offerings on Rhode Island's second biggest free-floating land mass. It has, now with Wickford Gourmet's closing, the only gourmet shop I know of for miles in Grapes & Gourmet, the delicious Tricia's Tropigrille, Chopmist Charlie's, and enough seafood to choke a horse. All this food and a killer view of the Newport bridge as you walk the pier make for a unique experience. But, while seafood bars and clam cakes are nice, what if you decide you want a fancier, dare I say it, nicer dining experience to compliment your summer evening in the Ferrari with Ms. Bambi?

And with that q-linary quandary, we come to Trattoria Simpatico. Around since the early 90's, TS has managed to build up a decent reputation among locals as the go-to spot for fine dining if one doesn't want to brave the no-locals-land of Newport. It's definitely the fanciest restaurant on Jamestown, and also the priciest. Is it worth it?

I lived on Jamestown for over a year and only managed to go just as I was leaving for new quarters, elsewhere. I had sort of built the place up in my mind, if for no other reason than the name sounds impressive. I came away rather disappointed. That was over two years ago and I figured to give the place a second shot.

Simpatico recently won a Rhode Island Monthly award for best al fresco dining, and boy howdy are they right. Last I ate, I ate inside, being winter. I can't remember when, specifically, but I kept leaving to check the Patriots' playoffs games in the bar. The outside area is wonderfully realized. Touches such as the water fountain come across as genuine and in their element as opposed to kitschy. The generous placing of flowers, plants, and well-trimmed foliage integrate very well with the structure and give the area an aged, European feel. And boy does TS know they've got the goods when it comes to dining area. The al fresco area not only makes up the bulk of their seating capacity, they even provide a jazzy-yet-boring band to do smarmy, elevator music versions of hit songs.

The canopies provide protection from the elements and allow eating outside even in inclement weather. In fact, I can think of nothing more romantic than dining in a light rain storm and assume it would be quite the experience. The canopies themselves are very nice. Attractive wood frames around each corner give a sense of permanence to the otherwise temporary structures that make them feel as though they're part of the building as opposed to the tents they actually are. As the sun goes down, the white Christmas lights draped throughout the area get better, but they never seem fully integrated into the overall design. Still, they're pretty.

The tables are well-dressed and attractive, with bright white table clothes and attractive tableware. Fresh flowers add flare and color to each table. And while many of the tables have nice, wrought metal chairs, the tables under the outlying tents are made of a cheap, Wal-Mart grade plastic. It's not much of a complaint, but it distracts from the otherwise well-composed aesthetic. And if you want the absolute ultimate in intimate dining, there is an utterly adorable wrought iron gazebo just big enough to fit a small table and two chairs. It's completely covered in ivy and flowers and seems to have been ripped straight from a French movie about drinking wine and speaking breathlessly about nothing.

But the food! Right, the food. Well a meal can't be started without starters, and here TS impressed. The crab cakes were very good. Firm and flavorful with large, heaping chunks of crab meat wedged into them. The potato salad nestled between the pair of cakes went well with the seafood. The light, crisp vegetables added some good contrast in texture and the sauce was flavorful and present in copious amounts. All around, a very good pair of crab cakes and a good value at $14. The bruschetta wasn't amazing, but it did nothing wrong and makes my list of bruschettas worth getting. A nice combination of crisp, fresh veggies, sauce, and good bread made me a fan. The bread was presented in the nicest fashion I've ever encountered. Two entire loaves were brought out warm, enrobed in a white cloth in what looked like a small picnic basket with a large bottle of olive oil. Again, this trendy olive oil nonsense is beginning to drive me mad. Give me butter! Nice touch, though.

The entrees were hit and miss now as they were then. The orrichiette was very good. Cooked al dente to just the right amount of firmness, the sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, chicken, and spicy sausage combined into an excellent whole. A strong, smokey flavor filled my tongue with every bite. If you go, I highly recommend you get this dish. The tortelloni was also very good. The filling was cheesy with just the right amount of nuttiness, and was cooked to perfect al dente degree. The cheese and greens piled on top went very well, but it wasn't enough to draw my eye away from my companion's orrichiette.

The pork is a serious problem. The last time I went to Simpatico I got the grilled pork loin. It wasn't very good. I'm not one to complain so I went home assuming that the chef was tired, or high, or in the middle of a mild seizure. Nope, they just can't cook pork. Both times, it was dry and bland. Is it really so hard to brine the pork? The potato and onion roesti was tasty, but it was very loose and difficult to get both it and some pork on the fork. If you wanted onion and pork to combine on your palate, you needed some of both, and that was an exercise in multiple utensils. The spicy corn salad and mango coulis were both served cold, which created a jarring temperature contrast with the hot pork, which also resulted in the meat losing its temperature very quickly. The small amount of mango coulis was a disappointment, since it was the only aspect that added any fire to the dish. They should have heated it and dumped a generous pile right on top. Steer clear of their pork.

The tenderloin was guilty of a similar infraction. It was ordered medium rare and delivered medium. Now tenderloin isn't the most flavorful cut of meat to begin with, but this meat reached new heights of bland, I don't know how. It was tender enough, but dry. It was saved by an adequate Bearnaise sauce, more of which was needed, and some tasty mashed potatoes. Still, for $37 I expect something better than a tenderloin I could cook poorly at home for a third the price. I'm seeing a pattern, steer clear of the meats in general.

The desserts weren't as scattershot in quality as the entrees. The creme brulee had good texture with a wonderfully delicate lime flavor that went surprising well. The fruit tasted fresh enough, but the melted sugar on top was very thick. I actually enjoyed it, but a companion of mine disliked it enough to dig the creme out from under the brulee. It would come down to a matter of personal taste, because the dessert as a whole was well-made. The touch of lime is something I've not seen elsewhere, and as such I would return specifically for it. The same cannot be said for the Mocha Toffee Chocolate Crunch Bars.

They are well-intentioned, but it is just four bars of utterly overpowering chocolate and espresso flavor, sweetened to the point of being cloying. There was toffee used as a "crust," which added no contrast in texture or flavor. What it really needed was something crispy to better interact with the softness of the mousse, be it meringue, cookies, or crackers, and a buttload more of the raspberry coulis. The Neopolitan was a big hit with everyone. Simple, tasty, reaaally unhealthy. A dense, fudgey brownie, piled high with house-made whipped cream, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, bathed in creme anglaise and raspberry coulis. I've had better creme anglaise, Al Forno comes to mind, but it's basically a brownie sundae, so who cares? It was good.

So, in the end, I was certainly disappointed with Tratoria Simpatico. It was good, but it was expensive with preparations that didn't match the price. Since it's the atmosphere that you really want, they, thankfuly, have a more affordable and reasonable way to experience it. Along with the dinner menu is a well-balanced and generally affordable wine list, so just meeting for desserts and wine sounds like a wonderful option for a night out. They also have a large, impressive, and better-priced lunch menu. The smaller "cafe menu" has some of the lunch menu's offerings and is available all day. Combined with an equally large and impressive list of thirty specialty drinks and a raw bar, Simpatico offers many ways to experience their excellent al fresco dining without paying too much for some middling entrees.

Trattoria Simpatico: ***
Price range for two: $50-80

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14 Narragansett Ave
Jamestown, RI 02835