Review: John J Jeffries

21 March 2016

After last night’s horrible dinner in Harrisburg, I ended up taking stuff out of my hotel bar — which included roasted organic carrots of all things. But I didn’t catch up on as much sleep as I wanted due to a little bit of intemperate drinking after that dinner fiasco…

But a long day, and I was up way early. Long day today, many destinations. Eventually the day was to end in the historic town of Lancaster, and I checked into the very cool historic building that turned into the boutique Cork Factory Hotel. Really an interesting hotel.

I has skipped lunch again so was hungry, so went to dinner early. This time I chose a place that looked really fantastic online, the restaurant in another of Lancaster’s boutique hotels, the Lancaster Arts Hotel. This place is called John J Jeffries.

A nice dining room, I took my seat in the corner and relaxed. I ordered a cocktail and the menu looked fabulous. I then placed my order and chilled out. This is a proper restaurant, not like last night’s disaster. Service already gave me more confidence on the evening.

I was enjoying my cocktail but was hungry, and right on time the first dish appeared, and hearty it was.

1-liver

This was the grass-fed beef liver with onions. A larger portion than I thought, but it was terrific. Full of flavour, they don’t shy away from the natural goodness here. An excellent start, my confidence in tonight’s dinner shot straight up now. And soon after I finished this, the next item arrived, the meatballs.

2-meatballs

This was a mixture of duck, pork and venison, so it has an interesting flavour. Very tasty, with just a touch of cheese in the mildly spicy tomato sauce. An excellent product overall, some of the better meatballs I’ve had in ages. I am really enjoying this dinner!

The service has also been very good, and I can see why this place is so busy at this early hour! Then my main course arrived, and I smiled even more…

3-lamb steak

This was a very nice lamb leg steak, tasting of lamb — true, honest to goodness lamb from a nearby farm. Full of flavour, strong but not overpowering. A perfect combination for most people (I can handle my strong lamb), and this was cooked very nicely. I must also mention the sides (hidden by the meat) comprising of a nice selection of vegetables, from beets to sweet potatoes. They were lovely, a perfect addition to the main item.

I enjoyed this evening’s dining so much I actually ordered dessert — but first up was a local rye…which turned out to be more of a moonshine

4-ice cream

But I went with a nice ice cream selection for dessert (since I was too full to have anything more), some excellent flavours ranging from a deep chocolate to a smooth espresso. That, with a French press of good coffee, closed this wonderful dinner.

Wow, after last night’s total disaster I didn’t give this place that much hope before walking in, but they have totally sold themselves here. Solid service, excellent cooking, fabulous ingredients, what’s not to love about this place? And it’s a cool dining room in a cool boutique hotel in a pretty cool town.

Lancaster is highly recommended as a stop for anyone (don’t bother with Harrisburg!), but if you have just 1 meal here, give this place a go — you won’t regret it!

John J Jeffries
Lancaster Arts Hotel
300 Harrisburg Avenue
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Review: Stock’s on Second

20 March 2016

After a very long night having dinner with old friends, I didn’t manage to get to sleep until past 3am — knowing I had to hit the road in just a few hours. On very little rest, I drove north into Pennsylvania, making a short stop in York before getting to the capital of the state, Harrisburg.

A long afternoon and no food, and running on very little rest, I was losing steam quickly late afternoon. So I decided to head to dinner early. I had found a place called Stock’s on Second by accident online, and the menu looked interesting so I had booked it in advance.

I got there and the booking was probably not necessary. It was empty. So I got the window booth and ordered a sazerac to start the evening. I looked over the menu and just as a snack with the food I placed a quick order.

So over a so-so cocktail my opener came, and it was pretty good…

1b-pork rinds

Nice set of spiced pork rinds, though a little underspiced. Was still popping when it arrived, so nice and fresh. I stopped for a second to order a few more items as I worked on this snack. Just as I finished the next items arrived, and it puzzled me…

Both items were in skillets, hinting they were hot, yet the server just left it on the corner of the large 4-top booth’s table…erm, oops? I moved them myself and turned out not to be hot at all. Just a service fail…and a kitchen fail? First for me to look at was the pork belly.

2-pork belly

Oh yeah this was a fail. The belly were cold, burnt to a crisp, and the meat side was basically when a brick meets sawdust. What the hell was the kitchen doing? Was this from yesterday? This could have doubled for drywall… I abandoned this dish and looked at the other, the oxtail with chillies.

3-oxtail

Huh? What chillies, was it thrown in at the last minute? There was absolutely NO taste in this dish. Plus it was cold-ish, and what little meat left was basically melted. Again, this looks like something from yesterday that bears no resemblance to anything on the menu.

I essentially abandoned both dishes and asked for the bill. The manager came by and told me he took the belly off, but this was such a stupid evening of dining. Easily the worst meal I’ve had this year, possibly the last few years. Now I know why it’s empty, not just because it was a Sunday. The front-of-house seems untrained, the kitchen has some of the most incompetent execution I’ve ever seen in my life.

AWFUL. AVOID.

Stock’s on Second
211 North 2nd Street
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Review: The Refectory

15 March 2016

I made my way to Ohio for a few days running around several parts of the state. I won’t quite mention a dining event in Cincinnati that didn’t quite work (good cooking but terrible service — and horribly short wine pours), nor supposedly the “best” BBQ in Cincinnati (that was burnt to a crips), nor the nice ribeye in an old-school place in Toledo that turned into a bit of a shitshow when it got busy…but will mention my final meal there while in the capital of Columbus.

It was election night, and it was the topic of the day — but I wanted to not think about it for a few hours, at least until the returns came in. In fact, I came into dinner early because of that — and plus I’ve not eaten all day. I notice while I travel I often skip lunch, mostly due to how busy my days are… Not healthy, but… In any case, the place I found for dinner was called The Refectory, and it has a stellar reputation in the region.

I got there and it was classy and you can tell it’s the place people go for special occasions. Sometimes those places have less-than-interesting food, but that notion can be dispelled by a single glance at the menu. This menu looks like something you’d see in NYC or London, not Columbus…

I smiled and enjoyed a nice cocktail and placed my order. It was hard to make up my mind, so went with 2 starters and a main. I chilled in the meantime enjoying the ambience before the first dish arrived, and I smiled even more.

1-escargot terrine

Chef Richard Blondin, a native of Nice who had worked under Paul Bocuse in the past, obviously has a love of terrines, offering several exotic versions on the menu. I opted for the escargot, and it was fabulous. The sauce rich but not overwhelming the terrine, which had a very generous amount of snails enclosed. Excellent dish, very nice presentation.

I was pretty happy at this point, and service has been very attentive…then somehow it fell off the cliff. No attention, I waited, waited, and waited… Took 10 minutes to get anyone’s attention to bring me wine, and took another 15 minutes before my second starter arrived, the crayfish and rabbit sausage.

2-crayfish & rabbit sausage

Well, this was certainly not worth the nearly half hour in wait for… It was lukewarm, obviously someone forgot to bring this out. The sauce was already coagulating. The crayfish were so overdone it’s got that beyond wrinkly-dried feel to it that just makes you cringe. The flavourless rabbit sausage obviously was cooked separately. I have a feeling there was some massive misconnect in the kitchen and this dish was just a disaster. Wow…talking about a 180-degree turn.

I was not happy and abandoned most of this dish. I’m sorry, the crayfish was not really edible. They noticed and I mentioned it to them. I said no thanks to a replacement dish, as I just want to move onto my main.

I don’t like getting replacement dishes or comped stuff, I just want what I order to come out as described on the menu!

Ugh…and of course, they brought me out a comped replacement, a bowl of their bisque…not bad, but at this point I was souring very quickly about this evening…

After a bit more wine then the main course came out, and that frown went 180-degree again and became a smile…

4-duck

This roasted duck dish is quite interesting, with all the extra touches. Interesting plating of course, but first of all the duck breast was excellent. I asked for medium-rare but it came medium, but that probably made it better. Excellent texture and flavour in the meat. The duck bacon was a little soggy as the “floor” for the wild mushroom crepes — which were out of this world fabulous. I could eat those things all day!

I finished the dish happy, pleasantly surprised by the complete turnaround. That middle dish must have been an anomaly or some massive kitchen cock-up, and inexplicably accompanied by the same crash with service — excellent at start and finish, but during time of the 2nd dish it was a mess. Perhaps something happened?

In any case, it ended well enough I ordered a dessert of the pear tarte.

5-pear tarte

Excellent, went down well with a nice scotch. Beautiful presentation. I can see they take a lot of pain with their craft, which is why that second dish puzzled me so much. Oh well, I didn’t want to keep pondering the fail, I rather remember the nice bits.

I headed out generally happy but still wee confused. I can see why people like this place, and if I am back in the area I would certainly return. Solid stuff…except for…

The Refectory
1092 Bethel Road
Columbus, Ohio

Review #2: Lincoln

28 February 2016

After 2 nights of Japanese dining I was hungry for something different on my final night in town. Today was a wash thanks to sleeping in a bit… So on a rather warm day, I didn’t do much all afternoon, just hanging out in my hood. Then dinner I headed to a place I’ve really come to like over the years, a giant, busy place that nevertheless come up with consistent cooking — Lincoln.

A big restaurant at a busy place like Lincoln Center needs a hell lot of discipline to run at a high level, and Jonathan Benno — the former true guru of Per Se — has created a wonderful place here. The menu changes seasonally, and Benno comes up with some marvels each time. And more importantly, he gets his large team working in some amazing synch and skill that I have never had a poorly-executed dish in history — even when everyone is in a rush to get to a performance. This is a well-oiled team, and tonight is no different.

Benno loves to play with regional cuisines of Italy, so when I was living in NYC I loved to time my visits to menu changes. I got there and went with a martini and played around with the menu. Then I ordered and relaxed. The place was not very busy as I timed it to the slower periods as people all rush out to performances. After an amuse, my first dish arrived, gamberi alla griglia

1-gamberi

Simple grilled white shrimp, not bad. Nothing special, but a good opening number to fuller items down the road. Then next up is the risotto…

2-risotto

This was brilliant, a rich, ox-y rendition, full of flavour with some excellent rice. Again, shows some discipline of the kitchen when a huge restaurant does the risotto rice perfectly. Loving this meal so far. And did I mention the wine pairings have been spot-on?

I relaxed a little after the risotto and the place was not as busy as usual. Maybe it’s Sunday? Or is it the loud party in the private dining area? In any case, the main soon arrived, brodetto

3-brodetto

Mmm, a great selection of seafoods, from branzino to shrimp, from mussels to octopus — with of course some nice couscous. A simple dish but hard to do right without overcooking things. Very nice. An excellent meal tonight. For a closer I asked for the pairing to end and to bring me a grappa instead, which would go well with the closing macedonia.

4-macedonia

Now this was a wonderful, tropical fruit selection. I love more odd fruits as they really have more interesting flavours to offer without the over-juicy, over-sweet stuff from the over-developed “normal” fruits we get these days.

A good meal, perhaps not one of the top ones I’ve had here. One of my best ones was a few years ago, but this dinner showed the kitchen is still one of the best in the game — not just for its dishes, but also execution precision in this very challenging atmosphere. Jonathan Benno deserves a lot of credit for keeping this Michelin-starred restaurant working so well without dropping the quality or diversity of dishes.

My NYC trip ends on a good note. Highly recommended.

Lincoln
Lincoln Center
142 West 65th Street
New York, New York

Review: 15 East

27 February 2016

I had a very long afternoon that was a personal challenge. I won’t go into it much, but it was both rewarding and difficult, and it needed to happen. Was so overdue… In any case, I’m glad I had that great meal last night at Hakubai. Tonight I decided for some reason to go Japanese again, this time at one of my favourite fusion-y places called 15 East.

I’ve always loved 15 East, it was often a great place for lunch. But tonight was Saturday night and I was alone, and unexpectedly (or expectedly?) they put me at the busy sushi bar. That kinda threw my plans out the window, as I really, really hate to sit at the sushi bar doing kitchen stuff. So I decided on the sushi omakase — something I’ve never done here. In fact, most of the time I’ve been to 15 East has been for more fusion-y dishes, so this is new.

I was a bit concerned despite having several sushi chefs help sushi master Taka, they are also busy making dishes for the dining room. I didn’t want a situation similar to Kiriko in LA earlier this year. But things went more smoothly as others did omakase sushi at the bar (albeit at different points). Chef worked well in this situation.

With some sake and hand-towel ready — and a plate of freshly-grated, almost liquidy wasabi by request for my snacking — the omakase commenced with a hell of a bang — nodoguro.

01-nodoguro

As you know, this is my FAVOURITE fish, and it’s first? Goodness me… What an awesome start, rich. Then next up after I recovered, shima-aji.

02-shimaaji

The striped jack isn’t one of my favourites but this was nice. Next up, kinmedai.

03-kinmedai

Snappers again aren’t usually my faves, but this golden eye snapper worked well. Then we move to buri.

04-buri

The yellowtail was very nice, one of my favourites. Next up, smoked katsuo

05-katsuo

A very nice smoked bonito, not as amazing as at Harutaka in Tokyo, but nevertheless awesome. I asked chef what he uses and he said cherrywood. Mmm… Next up, aji.

06-aji

The horse mackerel was not bad at all. So far the fish have been excellent. The sake is flowiing well too. I’m enjoying this evening! Next up, iwashi.

07-iwashi

Sardines don’t show up too often as sushi but I love them. Then the obligatory kohada

08-kohada

I still think the gizzard shad is put in every omakase for appearance reasons, but this was not bad. Next up, more smoked stuff.

09-sake

This salmon was smoked with cherrywood also, and it was nice. I’m not a salmon fan for sushi but this worked well. Next up, sillago.

10-sillago

Beautiful presentation for the Japanese whiting, a tasty little treat. One of the highlights of this evening, beautiful presentation too! Then another beauty comes, baby squid.

11-baby squid

Mmm, these were just fabulous! One of my favourite snacks, done very well! This is actually blowing Kiriko away on the selection (the service/pace already did that ages ago). Excellent, I have a new favourite East Coast sushi place — and it’s been a restaurant I’ve frequented for nearly a decade!!!

Back on the sake and sushi and we come up to a series of shellfish much to my enjoyment. First up was torigai.

12-torigai

I love these surf clams when they are fresh, and it’s excellent. Next up, tairagai.

13-tairagai

These big pen-shell clams are awesome, and this is fabulous. Loving this. Next, ika.

14-ika

Now this didn’t work for me, as the squid was tenderised far, far too much. I rather like the texture, but I guess different strokes for different folks… Then we move to the tuna series…

15-akami

First up typical akame, which was deep and nice, setting up the next piece, chu-toro

16-chutoro

Wow, this was a marvel. This was rich and just excellent! Then finally, the o-toro

17-otoro

Fabulous, but I actually these days enjoy the chu-toro more for some reason. But this was a fabulous series from the special box!

I actually decided to order another carafe of sake despite knowing the omakase (20 pieces) was near the end as I was having a great time chatting with folks around as well as chef. Then next up some uni from Santa Barbara…

18-uni

Nice, creamy, then we get some Japanese uni next…

19-uni

Not many places in North America do the uni tasting, and this was excellent. What a wonderful duo. Then the next one surprised me a little…

20-mantis prawn

A small mantis prawn! Love these things! So rare to have this as sushi! It brought back memories of that amazing mantis shrimp I had in Tokyo on that wonderful kaiseki night at Ichi

He pushed the number to 21 with anago

21-anago

Eel is always a sign the meal is near the end, but I asked if he had some stuff that’s not come yet, so he brought a few more items to this sushi feast.

22-kampachi

First up some kampachi, then we head back to clams a bit…

23-mirugai

First up mirugai, then next up aoyagi

24-aoyagi

I love these things, wonderful! Then we were basically at a close, sadly. I had more sake, so I asked to close with 2 last items…

25-ikura

First was ikura. Simple, and not the saltballs that you usually get. Nice stuff. Then finally, I had to do it again…

26-nodoguro

Yep, nodoguro, just like the amazing opening item… Wow…

This was a fabulous sushi night. I hung out to finish my drinks and then have some rare Japanese whisky, but chose to vacate my spot to let some hungry diners in on this Saturday night — to everyone’s appreciation. I sat at the waiting area finishing the drinks chatting with folks as I finished the drink. I thanked Chef Taka and the staff and headed out.

Today has been a very unique day in my life, and I am glad it closed in such a way. What a wonderful sushi dinner. Costly, but most of that was drink-related, so… My new East Coast favourite sushi…

15 East
15 East 15th Street
New York, New York

Review: Hakubai

26 February 2016

After a few days of eating fails in Philadelphia I headed to New Jersey, and had a busy 36 hours before I crossed the Hudson and got “home” to New York City.

BACK IN NYC…

I even checked into a hotel 3 blocks from my old apartment, so it felt like home. It’s my old hood, after all. But that also brought home a lot of memories, and this weekend was about memories and ghosts that needed to be dealt with, so…

I know my Saturday was going to be ultra stressful with something very personal, so this Friday night I needed to relax, and in a way I won’t get totally bombed. So the best idea was to do sake, because I know it’s one of the few drinks I won’t overdo just because my head warns me in advance. So looking at Japanese options, I was wondering sushi, yakiniku, or what. At the end I chose the most multifaceted approach, and that would be Hakubai.

Hakubai is the Japanese gourmet restaurant inside the Japanese Kitano Hotel here in Murray Hill. They are known for doing some excellent kaiseki dinners, but those need to be pre-ordered. I love how diverse their menu is, and the genuine dishes they offer that other “trendy” places don’t. So I decided on it, and decided on a big a la carte night.

Got there and was seated and smiled over the menu. I placed a set of orders and then the sake arrived. I enjoyed a bit of it to relax before the first dish arrived.

01-goma tofu

The feasting began with goma tofu, or tofu made from sesame. It has a deeper flavour than soy, and it’s been awhile since I’ve had these. Not bad, though for some an acquired taste. Simple start, then next up — one of the day’s specials, grilled squid.

02-grilled squid

Mmm, this was done very well. It felt like some of the good ones I’ve had in Japan at various izakayas, very fresh and tasty. Excellent. I’m glad I came here tonight. Then next up, the chawanmushi.

03-chawanmushi

This version of the traditional steamed egg custard was a bit more fancy, with little bits of chicken and crab and vegetables, including my favourite gingko nut. Pretty good, the umami (you know I hate to use that word) is everpresent. The feasting continues (as does the flow of sake) and next up, one of my favourites — salmon belly.

04-salmon belly

Mmmm! These are so bloody good! Rich and full of flavour, the seasoning perfect. These are things I could eat all day and all night! Lovely, lovely stuff! I am happy at this point with this meal! That was the last item of the first round, and I took a look at the menu and decided on a bit more — to the delight of the excellent waitress — and decided to take a chance on something…

I relaxed after ordering and enjoyed more sake. In fact, a second bottle is coming. We start with one of the special sushi items, saba.

05-saba

Interesting how they did the mackerel here. Strong flavours here, a nice way of doing it — though honestly the rice is a little overwhelming. Then after a little rest the important dish came out sizzling…

06-miyazaki

Yep, Miyazaki beef. Unfortunately it was already cooking on the stone when they brought it out, and I quickly removed them. They were extremely tasty and rich, as Miyazaki beef are always, but a tad overcooked thanks to how they brought it out. A shame. I told them later what they should do is bring out the hot stone and *then* put the slices onto it. They agreed. Good, but wasted opportunity…

After that I felt this place needed a redemption, so I ordered a last selection of items — and more sake. I was stressed over tomorrow, and this is a more responsible way of dealing with it than going full blitz on drink, so… Then after a bit the sashimi selection of the day came…

07a-sashimi

The toro was good, the scallop nice, and slices of fluke also. But what they called rockfish was mistranslated, and I asked them what it was in Japanese and I smiled…nodoguro… Oh my, my favourite fish… Lovely, rich… I asked them, since I had a bit more sake left, if it’s possible to have just a serving of nodoguro? The answer?

08-nodoguro

Oh my…these were so bloody lovely I can’t describe it. Far better than toro, far better than even the Miyazaki beef. Richness defined. Lovely stuff, lovely way to conclude this meal…

The service was excellent, attentive like in Japan. Most of the clientele were Japanese, so that says much about this place. I looked at my bill and was taken aback a bit with the number, but that’s mostly due to the Miyazaki beef (that didn’t quite work) and the many pricey sake bottles. It would have been far cheaper in Japan, which is another reminder why I don’t eat Japanese food outside of Japan…

This was much needed, as I was so stressed and needed a solid but fun meal. This did it. Hakubai is indeed pricey, but if you can’t get to Japan, this place can give you all your fixes in one night, from nodoguro to Miyazaki, from salmon belly to sesame tofu. It’s got it all! Highly recommended for those who truly love Japanese cuisine from all angles!

Hakubai
The Kitano Hotel
66 Park Avenue
New York, New York

Review: Kensington Quarters

24 February 2016

After that excellent big lunch at City Tavern, I ventured back into the rain and wind and had a thankfully less busy afternoon. I had planned for dinner at Kensinging Quarters — a restaurant with a butchery within — this evening. I decided to head there early as I hear the weather may really get nasty later, so I got there at about 6pm. I need a great last meal in Philly to close my stay here.

It’s nice to walk past some awesome looking cuts at the butchery display, and it was quite nice to have a hi-top next to the meat locker — so I got to see all the nice sides of beef. Yeah, and in Philly, I almost wanted to go in there and have a sparring session with it a la Rocky. But then I got the menu and…huh? Was there anything beef on it except for the burger?

How weird. Anyway, I placed my order and chilled with a cocktail. Soon the first item arrived, the shaved lamb leg.

1-shaved lamb

Not bad, a nice snack to start things. A few slices of the good stuff and then I decided to keep going with the cocktail. Then the starter arrived, and it looked good — the tempura-fried winter root fritters.

2-root fritters

Yikes. I bit into it and it was a ball of acid. I tried another one, and — same. Oh goodness, these are all pickled! NOW WHY WOULDN’T YOU WRITE THAT ON THE MENU? What’s the damn point of the menu if you don’t mention this VERY IMPORTANT difference? I was under the impression I would have some nice seasonal root veggies — not stuff that’s been utterly over-pickled like some misplaced hip trend that died 2 years ago?

I had to abandon this dish. Just awful. I would not have ordered it if I knew it was pickled. They ended up comping me another dish despite my protests — I don’t want comped dishes, I want what I order to come out as described! That side of beef next to me seems to be taunting me…

C-parsnip ravioli

The comped dish was parsnip ravioli. Well, at least I got some non-pickled root vegetable. Nothing to write home about, it was more of a stomach filler. I was really unhappy with this meal at this point, and that side of beef in the window is almost laughing at me now. This is what I am sitting next to, and there’s no beef on the menu…

window next to table

Yeah, right? Then the main arrived and I had lost my interest by now.

3-scallops

Yes, scallops. It’s not bad, but I feel the whole premise of tonight is mis-selling. The butchery in a place that does no beef. The seasonal vegetables that had to be pickled against common sense.

I left this dinner probably as unhappy as I’ve been this year for a meal. This is exactly why not every sous chef should open their own restaurant, and for this to be on any recommended of “heat” list is just ridiculous.

I am so glad this is my last meal in Philadelphia. The food part of the trip, aside from City Tavern, has been either lacking (Russet) or totally disastrous (tonight), or even rather disastrous (The Prime Rib). Based on this meal, I won’t be coming back to Philly anytime soon. Ugh…

Now I really wish I went in to box the side of beef. That would have been the highlight.

Kensington Quarters
1310 Frankford Avenue
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania