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Archive for the ‘culinary misadventure’ Category

Awadh: An Addendum to Indian Buffet Battle & An Education in Pani Puri

Posted by cmh gourmand on November 14, 2018

What first brought me to Awadh was a pressing need to find an easy access public bathroom at Carriage Place Shopping Center because at I really had to pee. It being a Monday, Awadh was not open (that is changing soon) but the $8.99 Lunch Buffet sign put the restaurant high on my radar for a later, less pressing trip after I finished one of the lower level needs on Maslow’s pyramid. In the past, I spent a lot of time at the movie theater and restaurants of Carriage Place located near the Northeast corner of Bethel Road and Sawmill. Today, I mainly go to the area to donate blood, but, I had a new opportunity to drive the length of the Carriage Place Shopping Center (with a lot of focus) and see everything that has changed over the years – many of the restaurants have moved on and some new but familiar faces like Fitzy’s Diner have become part of the landscape.

I dropped into to Awadh the next day with pretty low expectations. The name of the space is a bit confusing. While the main signage says Awadh, there are numerous posters on the windows suggesting it may be called TGIXpress as well. One migh think it is a bar due to one large poster that is selling beer specials. The spot is small, seating 40 to 50 with some creativity and does feel “new” which is appropriate, it has only been open five months. I was greeted warmly by a very friendly hostess and I was followed in by two regular customers who were known by name and beverage preference upon arrival. I excused myself to the bathroom when I entered (this time in a less pressing manner than the day before) and by the time I returned, there was a plate with warm, fresh samosa waiting for me. The hostess mentioned this comes with the buffet and the the kitchen wants to make sure these are always as fresh and warm as possible for customers upon arrival.

Settling in, I spied ten entrée dishes available to sample as well as naan and Bhature (a puffier, slighty sweet bread), a bit of salad, chutneys, and two desserts offered at the buffet. The offerings during my visit were: Asian Style Noodles with cabbage and vegetables, Chili Potatoes, Cauliflower Potato Curry, Saag Paneer, Chicken Pea Curry (noted as Chole), Basmati Rice, Chicken Tika Masala, Chicken Biryani, Goat Curry and Tandoori Chicken.

Each dish was well labeled, looking appetizing and fresh. Entree were set up in smaller batches in the holding table so they could be rotated quickly. I found each of the dishes to be good. My favorite was the Chicken Biryani which featured whole chicken wings.

My memorable experience of this trip occurred when I made my last run to the buffet. The hostess had checked on me many times and seemed to enjoy my many questions about the business and food. She may have admired my dedication to research as I thoroughly tested out each dish. I had fallen off her radar for just a few moments which allowed the next faux pas to happen since I was unsupervised. The photo below shows how to not put together a Pani Puri. In my defense, oddly, this is not a dish I have had before, which is saying a lot since I am a long time fan of Indian cuisine.

The hostess noted my erroneous attempt and kindly walked over to me before I returned to my table. She quietly and discreetly asked me if I had Pani Puri before. I said no and looking at what I had in my dish and her look at it, I realized I had missed the mark by a mile. She then politely showed me how to construct it properly – breaking the delicate little ball of hollow, fried puri and filling it and then surrounding it with everything I had not topped it with. I was a good learning moment for me and a good opportunity for me to help her with finding the right English words to use as she struggled to walk me through some of the steps of purveying puri to my plate. I like an opportunity to learn during my meal and I was very impressed with how the hostess graciously guided me down the right path.

Jumping back to the buffet battle series from 2016, the Indian Edition, following the buffet battle format here are my initial ratings of Awadh as I make an addendum.

Value 5
Quality 4
Quantity 4.25
Highlight: friendly and attentive service and a clear desire to continue to improve the business and grow new customers
Kid Friendly Quotient 4 (some booths are kid friendly and CMH Griffin and I can pop in easily since his school is just around the corner).

Other bits of knowledge you may find helpful. Awadh is a region in Northern / North Central India. Pani puri is a common street snack in several regions on Nepal and India. It is presented as a round, hollow puri, fried crisp and filled with a mixture of flavored water, tamarind chutney, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion or chickpeas. My bill came to $9.66 with tax (my beverage was water). It was a good value for both the experience and the quality of food offered.


TGIXpress Bistro & Bar – Awadh India Restaurant
awadhindiarestaurant.com

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Posted in Buffet Battle, culinary misadventure, restaurants | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The White Castle Impossible Burger: A CMH Gourmand / 614ortyNiner Joint

Posted by cmh gourmand on September 30, 2018

I received a text from a colleague suggesting I try the Impossible Burger at White Castle. Based on the location of this venture, I decided it was a great opportunity for another joint evaluation with the esteemed 614ortyNiner.

I actually thought the location of this Impossible Burger to be a bit….improbable. A White Castle at SR 161 (Dublin-Granville Road) and Karl Road? This is an area that has not been known for food innovation since the early 1990s. However, I did confirm the venue via an Impossible Burger locator and found that the Impossible was not only probable, but true, it was indeed at this White Castle as one of the first sites in the city.

What makes a burger impossible? It is a vegetarian burger which has been challenging all types of food businesses to create a tasty sandwich using their creation as a base. Their philosophy, if you want to make a good burger without meat, it is possible to get people to eat more of them and this consume less cows and such.

The mere mention of an Impossible Burger and White Castle in the same sentence is likely to make a large percentage of the population snicker to the point of derision. However the two Venn diagrams of non believers are unlikely to have much overlap. On one side we have the Foodies and the general White Castle haters who see no value in fast food in general and “sliders” in particular. To that Venn diagram I say, dig a little deeper and you might find something that is not worthy of ridicule. I have editorialized in the past about my respect for White Castle as an innovator in food technology, work force development and etc. While I do not go to White Castle often, I have been a sucker for their breakfast sandwich for many years and typically I am drawn to any new menu item the company offers like a sailor to shipwreck by sirens.

As for the other Venn diagram in this online soliloquy, those that snicker at attempts to offer vegetarian alternatives to our military/industrial/oil/meat-focused complex economy I say, look to the future. The things that give use cheap meat are getting more expensive: gas, water, land, cheap feed, agribusiness, etc. Add to that, there is a lot to question about what is going into the meat we eat. It has been a decade and about seventy pounds since I was a six day a week vegetarian but I respect a good vegetable based burger and will support any effort to make such palatable to the masses. We need it. Me more than most.

Fast food is the perfect environment to try out a good vegetable based burger and of course Columbus with our long-standing reputation as the premiere food test market is the place to do so. This is not the first time White Castle has come on board with a meatless burger (some way they have been doing so since 1921). They debuted their veggie burger years ago and I was there to try it. White Castle still serves a veggie burger and it is still 99 cents – that it has persisted is a win.

In the case of the Impossible Burger, the approach appears to be more high-end than the typical slider. Both 614ortyNiner and I approached this taste test with great seriousness. Also, without planning to do so, we both used the same approach in our ordering. We each got a “standard” slider, a veggie burger, an Impossible Burger/Slider plain and an Impossible Burger with cheese (the default cheese for these is a smoked cheddar). We both wanted to start with a baseline and work our way up so as to fairly compare the Impossible Burger to what else is in the White Castle Universe. The FortyNiner shared he had limited experience with White Castle since he grew up and lived a large part of his life on the Bay Area. So on this trip not only did he try an Impossible Burger he also tried a regular, nothing added, run of the mill, plan White Castle Slider (I had mine with jalapeno cheese). We progressed in our burger consumption and made similar observations. The prep time for the Impossible Burger is about two times longer than the other items. The burger patty is about 2.5 times thicker than a standard slider. While we know it is a vegetable based burger, it does not really look like one (unlike the White Castle Veggie Burger which has visible vegetable parts in the patty). We do not know what vegetables are in this burger but we both thought it has a slight aroma of mushrooms as well as a slight hint of mushroom in the flavor profile. The patty was textured somewhat like a hamburger but was light and fluffy. It was edible, neither horrible or delicious. The Impossible Burger with cheese was significantly better than the plain Impossible burger. We both thought this burger would benefit from more add on’s, such as pickles. It was at the moment we both agreed to this pickle upgrade that we noticed the marketing poster shows pickles with this burger….so we say, make sure you get yours. We also noticed that the onions served with the Impossible Burger were very different that the typical finally diced and fried slider onions. These were bigger, wider and looked and tasted like they came out of a microwave. To make the product cycle lifespan of the Impossible Burger – Slider edition longer, this product would benefit by having the addition of the standard White Castle heap of onions.

Does this Impossible Burger actually accomplish the impossible of being a great burger? No! However, it is a passable product if you add on the right add on’s. In particular, I have always felt that any White Castle slider was a case of the whole being much greater that the sum of the parts so adding more parts to your Impossible Burger is the right call. I do, think this burger is destined to fail. The origins of fast food as well as the reality of fast food today is based on two elements – food served quickly at a low price. I’d also suggest dumping the smoked cheddar cheese, you can’t taste the difference and a standard slice of American or Jalapeno cheese will help them cut down the price. For the Impossible Burger to succeed it will need to reduce the price and the cook time by one half so it can be assimilated by the masses. Thanks for the assist 614ortyNiner.

Posted in culinary misadventure, Food For Thought, Vegetarian Friendly | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

From the Archives for Fathers Day: Apple Cake Podcast

Posted by cmh gourmand on June 17, 2018

At Copan Mayan Ruins in Honduras 2009

Today marks my second year that I am the Father on Father’s Day. I never figured that is was going to be an easy assignment but I must say the last five months in the role have been a marathon. It is soul wrenching when your child has a challenge that you might not be able to help him with or know if what you are doing is helping or not.

However, I’m so happy for all of the time I get to spend with CMH Griffin. Spending time with him it makes Fathers Day a little easier to bear since my dad died on Father’s Day.

I have shared some of my dynamic with my father before: Apple Cake Eulogy and Senor Ellison esta aqui.

Recently, I found this audio episode from my short lived podcast, (the original) Columbus Foodcast. The sound quality is very good (although I must admit I started crying when I was testing out the audio file to make sure it was good quality). The amusing part for me and for anyone listening that may have known my Dad aka “Crash”, is how hard he is trying to be “good”. Throughout this recording I can hear him trying to restrain his language and more typical demeanor. You also get some sense of his “special” relationship with Tommy, from Tommy’s Diner in Fton.

This very special, “lost” episode of Columbus Foodcast lasts about 17 minutes.

Listen -> Here

Posted in culinary misadventure | Leave a Comment »

Brewed on the Bikeway ABC’s: Athens, Beer, Cider & More

Posted by cmh gourmand on November 12, 2017

When I heard about Brewed on the Bikeway, I saw this as a way to combine two things I needed more of: riding a bike more often (as in cycling more than the 5 minutes I have biked each spring for the last three years when I fill my bike tires with air and test them out) and I needed to drink more beer. Well, not just beer, craft beer specifically crafted in Athens. So when I was offered a “partial scholarship” of sorts to explore Brewed on the Bikeway I was excited for an opportunity to blend beer and bikes.

Breaking down what Brewed on the Bikeway is, the name speaks for itself. A while back, a few sharp-eyed and forward thinking individuals noticed how close the many Athens area craft beverage makers are to the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway. The bikeway follows the former pathway of the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad and the former Hocking Canal, often parallel to the Hocking River. The trail offers almost 21 miles of scenery connecting Nelsonville with Athens. Another amenity the trail offers is quick access to: Multiple Brewing (Nelsonville), Devil’s Kettle Brewing, Little Fish Brewing, Jackie O’s Taproom & Production Brewery as well the Eclipse Company Store. The trail is just a short hop from the original Jackie O’s Public House (which started the brewery explosion over a decade ago) and West End Cider House. Any one of these destinations is worth the trip – all of these combined makes for a great day. I was excited to explore how this all comes together.

But then, I felt trepidation. I am in horrible physical condition. Instead of Brewed on the Bikeway, I started the to fear the title of this post might be Fat Dude Sprawled out on the Bikeway. However, I was determined to stay the course. I quickly discovered the Bikeway is all about ease and convenience.

Having explored Nelsonville in-depth and with a short time frame to complete my “mission”, I skipped the northern 11 mile leg of the trail connecting Nelsonville to the nano community centered around The Eclipse Company Town in the Plains. The Eclipse Company Store Beer Hall was the perfect place to prepare for my Brewed on the Bikeway ride by enjoying a few local beers, a great lunch with a base of operations to spread out my maps and materials to plot out my adventure.

Walking through the door, I was immediately smitten with the place. I chatted with owner Sean Kiser about the wonderland he has created in what used to be a small company town general store. At the Eclipse Company Store Beer Hall, a well curated collection of 40+ mostly local (Ohio) beers are paired with an impressive menu of pub grub incorporating many local ingredients. This is a relaxed, comfortable and sprawling space that is as conducive to chatting to people biking the trail or listening to live music inside or out. The menus offers many sandwiches, salads and entrees with a focus on smoked meats (Kiser also operates Kiser’s BBQ in Athens).

The Beer Hall is adjacent to the Bikeway. After my meal which paired with samples of hard to find and newer breweries such as Sixth Sense Brewing in Jackson, I decided on a quick elliptical stroll around Eclipse before starting my ride. I popped into the Shop Athens Ohio store across the street to peruse the local products offered in a former row house. I found many interesting items, including pint glasses of closed Athens area watering holes to help former Ohio University Bobcats relieve their glory days.

My next destination, just a few feet away was Black Diamond Bicycles. The shop sells and services new and used bikes and conveniently offers reasonably priced bike rentals. After a quick check to make sure my bike was a good fit for me, I headed off on the bikeway.

As I approached the trail, several observations calmed my fears of a posting about the “fat dude subdued by the Bikeway”. The trail is in incredibly good condition and well maintained. Following a former railroad bed, it is largely on flat, level terrain. There are maps at many of the trail heads as well as mini bike service stations where you can check your tires and perform minor maintenance on your bike.

In a very short time, I found myself at my first brewery destination, Devil’s Kettle Brewing. Located on Columbus Road, the brewery is not adjacent to the bike trail but if you know the lay of the land, you can figure out how to get to it with minimal disorientation. I had a directional advantage because I have conducted many “research” visits to Devil’s Kettle in the past. To help out for your Brewed on the Bikeway adventure, if you see the bridge below, you are getting close (this is also the only significant elevational challenge I had on my ride and I easily bested it).

At Devil’s Kettle I was impressed by all of the changes the owners have made to their space in the short time since opening a few years ago. The brewery has progressed from a very raw, industrial space to being almost fancy. The one bit of infrastructure I was most excited to see was the solar panel array the brewery installed to supply much of the energy needed to run the operation.

I have always enjoyed the assortment of beers served at the taproom here, but as a PSA, I would be remiss in not mentioning that Devil’s Kettle usually offers one or two sodas they craft as well, including a really exceptional Ginger Ale. If you are visiting all of the breweries on the Bikeway and looking to pace yourself, an occasional craft soda, and a lot of water, is aways a good idea.

I then continued along the trail on my way to what I cautiously share is my favorite brewery in Ohio, Little Fish Brewing. Having been a frequent visitor to this brewery as well, I spied a short cut that shaved 10-15 minutes off of my ride. I am not ready to give that short cut away, or to lure you off what is a really good section of the trail, but if you are pressed for time and every minute counts, an astute eye and good off road tires can be helpful. Again, (taking either path, and I did both) I was mildly shocked at how close Devil’s Kettle and Little Fish are by bike. I did not even break as sweat.

A craft beer fan would be hard pressed not to enjoy every beer on the Little Fish menu. In addition to a cozy indoor and outdoor space, Little Fish, has a little farm, where they grow some of their ingredients, a dedicated space for the many food trucks that serve at the brewery and because this is Athens and it is a brewery, solar panels. Among many notable notes regarding Little Fish, it was one of the first breweries to serve a beer with all Ohio ingredients (malt and hops).

Pedaling on, my next destination took me off the trail with a short ride to West End Cider House and a meeting with my pal cider maker, distiller and brewer extraordinaire Kelly Sauber. Kelly was a long time brewer at Marietta Brewing Company. Several years ago he created Dancing Tree Distillery, which later became Fifth Element Spirits. In spite of the demands of operating a distillery, Kelly siphoned off some time to get West End Cider House going as well. (Read my post on the Cider House ->HERE). Kelly is one of my favorite people in the industry so having some time to sample some of his ciders while he brought me up to speed on some exciting changes to the operation coming in 2018 was time well spent. If you are new or old to craft ciders, this is a true destination to expand your appreciation of this cider and spirits. West End Cider House also offers cocktails and area craft beers in a relaxing environment with a choice of locally focused snacks.

I stayed/strayed off the trail, navigating the streets near Uptown, but was clearly on track for my next depot on the Bikeway, Jackie O’s Public House and Brewpub, the spot that started the craft beer explosion in Athens in 2005. What started as a small brewpub has grown into a local icon and Ohio Craft Beer Institution. (To fully appreciate the story of Jackie O’s read this great overview article from Good Beer Hunting). While I had great food options at the Public House, including pizzas made with spent grains from brewing and other dishes showcasing ingredients grown on the Jackie O’s Farm, I did make a small detour off the Bikeway to meal up at two of my favorite Athens eateries.

O’Betty’s Red Hot serves what I consider to be the best hot dogs and fries in the state of Ohio. This tiny space seats about 20 in a cozy setting that also features a hot dog museum of sorts. Any trip to Athens requires me to consume two Mata Hari’s (hot dogs are named after famous Burlesque performers) with an order of fries.

Just across State Street, Casa Nueva is another of my mandatory Athens area pit stops. Founded as a worker owned cooperative restaurant in 1985, “Casa” helped pioneer the local foods focus of the community. While I might not always have room for a third or fourth meal while exploring Athens by bike, foot or car, my minimum “drive-by” order is a House Margarita with a side of locally produced chips and house made salsas.

Having fueled myself with encased meats and more, it was time to continue back in the Bikeway for the last stop, Jackie O’s Taproom and Production Brewery on Campbell Street. This space started in 2013 and now produces the majority of Jackie O’s beer. The attached taproom is a good place to wrap up the drinking portion of my Brewed on the Bikeway experience. And of course because it is Athens, and because the space is a brewery, the spot is largely solar powered.

The return to Eclipse Company Store was uneventful. If I had more time and if it had been a day of the week when Multiple Brewing was open, I believe I had ample liquid courage to pedal the 11 miles to Nelsonville to finish the Bikeway in style with a turn victory lap.

In summary, I survived Brewed on the Bikeway without any bruises to my body or self worth. The trail was easy for an old out of shape guy to navigate. The pacing of the stops helped maintain my courage to carry on. The ease of bike rental helped me avoid the hassle of loading and unloading my bike for the drive down. All in all, it was a great way to balance biking with exercising my 21st Amendment right to enjoy a few adult beverages.

Here are a few tips for your own Brewed on the Bikeway adventure:

  • The Bikeway can be pretty busy on the weekends, so check ahead if you are renting a bike and allow a little extra time to navigate crowded taprooms.
  • If you are doing the whole route, know that Multiple Brewing has limited hours, mainly some weekend and evening hours, so call ahead. There is plenty to do in Nelsonville.
  • Some sections of the trail can be prone to occasional flooding, if that is an issue, the Brewed on the Bikeway social media team do a good job of getting the word out. Plan ahead.
  • The bikeway does not have any directional markers for the “brewed” destinations. Finding your way to the stops in often not intuitive, so you will want to take a look at a mapping site to orient yourself on how to get to some destinations that are a bit off the trail. Many are not within line of sight of the bikeway. For the organizers, I’d suggest some signage that on the Bikeway that could serve as prompts for some destinations. Something like “Columbus Road Spur” could help those not familiar with the area know that trail segment is the turn off to get to Devil’s Kettle without advertising the business or causing any legal awkwardness related to promoting an alcohol business on a public byway. Some embedded mini maps with suggested paths to the destinations not near the trail like West End Cider House and Jackie O’s Public House would be a good public service.
  • Whatever the amount of time you have budgeted for Brewed on the Bikeway, add another hour, or day, to your plan. You will still find there is much more you want to do and see in the area.

  • For more information on the area, visit AthensOhio.

    And to connect with what is going on while you are in the area, look for these hashtags during your adventure.

    #AthensOhio
    #BrewedOnTheBikeway
    #OhioUniversity
    #VisitAthens
    #Athens30MM (connecting you with locally focused eateries and events in the area)

    Brewed on the Bikeway is just one path of many that will allow you to enjoy all that Athens County has to offer. The area is a hiking and outdoor enthusiasts paradise. There are several wineries that are well worth the short drive and countless other ways to unwind and enjoy what Southeast Ohio has to offer.

    Posted in Athens, beer, culinary misadventure, restaurants | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

    Back to Lisska for Breakfast with Nick & Ginger & the Gang!

    Posted by cmh gourmand on September 7, 2017

    Just over two years ago I made my first trip to -> Lisska Bar & Grill on the east side. I recently received this comment on my blog from Ginger:

    Our family comes every Thursday morning for breakfast and enjoys the BEST BREAKFAST IN TOWN! Our late parents enjoyed Lisska’s when they were “courting” in the 30s! It is an AWESOME “gathering place” – join us any Thursday morning for a great time about 9:30 a.m.

    So how could I refuse an offer like that? As long time readers know, breakfast is not my bag as it is my fourth favorite meal, so I decided to have a consultant join me -> Breakfast with Nick. We checked our schedules for a Thursday that could work and then I contacted Ginger to let her know when we would be joining her.

    This “breakfast club” of sorts started almost five years ago when one of Ginger’s brothers passed away. At that time, the three surviving siblings decided they need to ensure they spent regular time together so it was decided every Thursday they would have breakfast somewhere in the city. Lisska was there second Thursday stop and they have not found reason to change-up the venue since they rediscovered the place.

    There are ten consistent regulars in this group with an ever-changing and eternally growing cast of special guests joining together at Lisska. On my visit, there were at least twenty affiliated members observing the passing of another in their cohort over the summer. Over time, certain traditions have developed in this cadre. They always say a prayer together before they start a meal. They rarely miss a Thursday unless an out of town visit family or a holiday gets in the way of one or more of the group, although Thanksgiving is no barrier to breakfast for this collective of breakfasters. Special bonus sessions recognize important life events such as birthdays and St. Patrick’s Day. Over time, Ginger’s go to breakfast was named in her honor. I’d call it a “Jack Benny Special” but at Lisska, it is known as The Ginger: half orders of Polish Sausage, toast (no butter), hash browns and one egg over easy (see below – as you can see, my camera has not had it’s coffee yet).

    As I was introduced to countless breakfast guests I was quickly indoctrinated into this tribe. I learned what HEC, BEC and SEC stood for on the menu: Ham, Egg & Cheese, Bacon, Egg & Cheese and Sausage Egg & Cheese. When I learned that the Polish sausage came from Kowalski’s in Detroit, my order was simple, one SEC on wheat.

    While I waited for my order, munching on a sample of homemade coffee cake (exceptionally good), I learned the stories of most of the members of this group while Ginger and I connected on her many stories of growing up in Clintonville in the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as her careers in the insurance industry, law offices, an employee benefit company and countless community causes over the years. She connected the dots on how these people intertwined with each other and how many of them are connected to others I have come to know over time. Listening to the background chatter amongst this group I do not think one Columbus area Catholic school or church missed at least one mention as updates were made on the multitude of charities and community organizations this group invests their time and hearts into.

    As I indicated before, breakfast is not my thing. I would be hard pressed not to find a dessert I would not love, a price that did not seem like a steal or a story that ran on too long sitting on a stool here. My meal was fabulous but that was a side-line/dish to the company I was keeping. Sometimes a eatery creates a community among regulars or on occasion a community decides to make a place their own. Either of these phenomenons are rare occurences in this era. You can’t create the “glue” that creates a community like this on social media, in a corporate establishment or a new restaurant, even if independent, that has a business plan, extensive branding and lacks a less than a decade of grease on the grill. It takes a long time for a place to create a character for itself or to find a soul in its bricks and mortar and even then, you need to right mix of people on both sides of the counter to make the whole greater than the sum parts on the menu. This is an old school breakfast club that we could stand to have much more of today, even if other meals are involved.

    I started writing about food because I was interested in the history and stories of the people behind the counter and because by talking about food and not myself, it was easier for me to connect with people. So this was a great opportunity to reconnect with writing with connecting with a new community. And I got to hang out with Nick for a while, something I have not done in almost a year. Thanks for the opportunity Ginger and thanks for creating a community space (by fate not intention) Lisska.

    Posted in breakfast, culinary misadventure | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

    Judging (Cookies & Pastries) at the Ohio State Fair

    Posted by cmh gourmand on July 31, 2017

    I’ve written about food judging more than a few times. Reviewing my archives, I think this ->right here is my best post on the subject. It covers a lot of my philosophy on the matter, but as both an art and a science there is plenty of room to grow and expand my knowledge base as well as question my own standards on how to evaluate a food item.

    This year at the Ohio State Fair, I judged a new category (for me) Cookies and Pastries (that would be 3104 for those on the circuit this year). This was a doozy! There were 135 entries in 14 subsections. Each subsection had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winner and of all of the categories, one had to be selected for Best of Show. My understanding is this food competition gets the most entries of any contest every year and because of that, not many judges do a repeat visit to these tables the following year due to PTSD – Post Traumatic Sugar Decompensation. The sheer volume of sugar based treats to eat was initially exciting but a few sugary bites in, I found the concept of finishing overwhelming. I was fortunate this year, apparently bad weather the weekend before the contest discouraged a large number of entries from actually delivering their cookies to the show. In some categories, I would see the entries listed as 22 total but ONLY 15 presented for judging. Had every cookie made it for the competition I do not think I would be a live to write about this. But still 135 is a daunting, if less than a typical number. To make this viable for all of us, we agreed to break into two teams of two with each team evaluating one half of the cookies / categories and then sampling all of the 1st place finishers and a few honorable mentions in every category before picking the best of show. So in the end, I sampled about 80 cookies. A typical judging gig lasts about 1 hour. A professional BBQ competition with prizes of $10,000 or more typically lasts 3 to 4 hours with breaks in between samples. For this contest, it took over 4 1/2 hours to sample and evaluate my assigned cookies.

    We had some pluses going into the session that I was happy with. Each team was assigned a scribe whose job it was to write down on positive feedback for each cookie as well as our suggestions for improvement. This, I am sure, is a giant staffing and otherwise, pain in the ass for the fair but I salute the organizers for doing so. For many of the people who enter the culinary arts competitions at the Ohio State Fair, this is a big deal. It is a matter of pride and accomplishment. Sometimes it is rewarded with a ribbon and many times it is not. Often there is no opportunity to figure out what you might have done better so you can win the next year. I know in one contest I judged years ago, a woman in the crowd watch my every chew and at the end, when she did not win, she grilled me like a perp in a Law & Order episode. I was happy to provide feedback but not ready for the intensity of competition for what is in many cases a ribbon not a life changing cash award. By entering the competition, I feel strongly that entrants deserve the opportunity for feedback considering the hours a contestant spends learning their craft, considering a recipe and delivering it for evaluation to the fair.

    I was very fortunate to be teamed up with Joe. Joe has judged at the fair many times but more importantly, he has competed in national baking competitions, so I found him a great resource as I sometimes struggled with diagnosing off flavors in some baked goods. The three criteria we had to evaluate for each cookie were: Appearance, Texture and Flavor. The basics of each of those three criteria were explained on our sheet but not elaborated on. We then decided to give each a point value. We both agreed that flavor was the most important aspect of any cookie so we would give that a 50 point range and the other two categories a 25 point range each. To help calibrate each other, we sampled the first three cookies, then reviewed our point scores to get a sense of our judging styles as well as talk through how we determined appearance, texture and flavor for each. This was a good learning experience for both of us and helped us avoid having too many cookies in the center of our respective score bell curves. We found we were generally within 5 points of each other on Flavor scores and 3 for Appearance and Texture. That made it easy for us to talk through later categories when we had a clean winner but a not always a clear second or third place finisher. And so it began.

    At the end, I was not sure I could take another bite (and we were not taking giant pieces of each to sample). One would not think judging cookies could be so exhausting but it was on this day. Physically, it was a lot of sugar and carbs. Mentally, I was really trying to give helpful feedback to the contestants. You can seen not our best of show winner as well as our 1st Place Ribbon entry in the bar cookie category. Oddly, this was the third cookie I tried out of all of them and it was a slam dunk beginning and at the end when I tried it again. Our other team agreed, having tried the same amount of cookies we did. The Dulce de Leche Bar really stood out from a very competitive group of winners and earned the win. I could have brought one of these home with me and plate or two of anything I wanted from table after table of cookies (and candies across the aisle) but I wanted to have nothing to do with sugar at that point. I just wanted to drink a swimming pool full of water and maybe rock back and forth in a corner for a few hours while the withdraw tremors burned the sugar out of my veins.

    Here are some general tips I have for you, if / when you enter the cookies category at the Ohio State Fair.

    1) Read all of the instructions and follow them (we found several that did not or were clearly in the wrong category of cookie type).

    2) Make eating your cookie easy for the judges. Secures your recipe and entry sheet to the outside or your ziplock bag or make it so it is easy to do so without digging in to your cookies inside.

    3) Taste your cookies before you plate them. I had at least four entries that were horrible. In three cases it was pretty clear they either did not mix their ingredients completely or used the wrong/poor ingredient (baking soda when they wanted powder, stale nuts, old chocolate chips, etc).

    4) Consider what your cookies will look and taste like after experiencing the heat of a hot summer day at the Ohio State Fair.

    5) Don’t enter a chocolate chip cookie in the drop cookie category.

    6) Simple is better. I tried a death by chocolate cookie, that literally tasted like death. The baker modified the recipe so much by adding extra “fancy” ingredients to make the recipe sound much better than the end product tasted. There were so many types of very different chocolates competing against each other in the batter that no chocolate flavor remained after the battle to the death in the oven.

    7) If you want a good chance of winning, enter in a category that is not as popular. This year, there were not many Molasses cookies or Short Bread cookies in their respective subsets and a well executed version in either would have 3rd place at the least with no extra effort needed.

    8) Before you enter, have people you don’t like try your cookies so you get honest feedback if they are good or need more work. There was one cookie that was so bad, it was clear that no human tasted it before it went into a ziplock bag for the ride to the fair. If someone did taste it, it must have been like the scene in the Andy Griffith Show when Aunt Bea made horrible pickles and Barney and Andy were afraid to tell her, so she made more. Friends, and enemies of your enemies do not let someone make a bad cookie, whenever something like that happens an angel LOSES their wings. Cookies by their nature should be at least good, that is a given.

    9) In some categories, especially chocolate chip, think of what a quintessential version of that cookie should taste and look like. For instance, a chocolate chip cookie should be fairly uniform in size from one to another. It should not be small or extremely lumpy. Ideally, you should be able to see there are chips in it or on it or are part of the cookie in some way. Walnuts or other nuts are a risk, you might like them but nuts often add a wild card to flavor and may not be a favorite of judges. Intuitively, you want to stand out in the crowd, and in some categories that is good but not the All-American Chocolate Chip – conformity is good in an iconic category, just focus on it tasting good.

    I hope you enter the Fair in some contest sometime. It is a great experience. Or if you judge, take your job seriously. I have sometimes worked with judges that do not. Judges also need to remember that in the world of food, one person can not judge, they can only render a subjective opinion. It is only by defending or explaining that opinion to others that have done the same, can you truly judge and evaluate what you ate. The debate makes tasting as close to objective as possible.

    Posted in culinary knowledge, culinary misadventure, Food For Thought | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

    Burger King’s 5 for $4 vs. Wendy’s 4 for $4

    Posted by cmh gourmand on April 4, 2016

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    Two back to back fast food posts? Speculation may arise that I have bottomed out. I hope not, both are in the spirit of investigative food journalism. I’ve noticed Wendy’s and Burger King plugging $4 meals for months and both are near my headquarters so I decided to pick up both within minutes of each other to do some side by side analysis. Thanks to those hard fact driven folks at Fox News, I seem to have stumbled onto a -> fast food war with a little smack talk on the side. The King decreed “5 for $4, because 5 is better than 4”. But is that really the case? I decided to challenge the two head on using qualitative and quantitative research. This post was spur of the moment but perhaps fated since it was conducted on April (Four), 4th.

    Let us open the sacks and see what we find.

    The Burger King deal includes: a bacon cheeseburger, crispy chicken nuggets (4), small fries, small drink and a chocolate chip cookie

    The Wendy’s deal includes: the choice of Junior Bacon Cheeseburger or Crispy Chicken Sandwich, a small beverage, value natural cut fries and 4 piece chicken nuggets.

    First let’s look at the actual retail price. At Burger King, the price is $4.06 whereas at Wendy’s the total comes to $4.08. Score one for the King. (The differences seems to be how each empire calculates Ohio sales tax for the beverage that comes with the deal. What an odd anomaly).

    Second we compare beverages. Both are the same size so that is a draw.

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    For the third area of analysis, I opted to go head to head with the bacon cheese burgers. Wendy’s version offers a slice of tomato and a large piece of lettuce whereas Burger King piles on the pickles. Both add two strips of bacon and a slice of American cheese. The hamburger paddies are about the same size. The BK burger tasted better than it’s counterpart from Wendy’s and the bacon flavor was stronger. (Side note: while Wendy’s did not have a pickle on this burger, they typically do feature them on value items, Burger King uses better pickles and my BK test subject had 5 – that did not influence my choice but it is noteworthy). Two points for the King.

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    Moving along to the third shared menu item and our fourth comparison point: chicken nuggets which generally are among the most terrifying of fast food items in my opinion. Wendy’s chicken nuggets were vastly superior to their royal cousins. The Wendy’s offering were thicker, fluffier and had some taste of chicken to them. The Burger King Nuggets were….crunchy. Score one for the girl in pin stripes.

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    Our next head to head in the competition is fries. My serving from Burger King was almost twice as much as Wendy’s. Wendy’s fries had better potato flavor. Burger King’s fries had better texture and crispness. I’m giving a slight edge to the King for this one more so due to quantity than quality. The King: 3, The Kid: 1.

    Burger King offers a chocolate chip cookie as their fifth item, Wendy’s does not, so it is now 4 to 1 in favor of the King.

    Looking at some subjective items. At the Wendy’s I visited Coca-Cola Free style is offered so I had more beverage choices and I had the option of either a burger or chicken sandwich. Both companies offer a choice of dipping sauces with the nuggets and neither include ketchup unless you ask for it. Wendy’s slightly greater variety has merit but not enough to earn a point so the score remains unchanged.

    Let’s look, for the sake of value at some nutritional facts about the meals. The Burger King 5 for $4 has (not including the beverage and cookie): 820 calories, 26 grams of protein, 39 grams of fat. Wendy’s combo (just the burger, nuggets and fries): 790 calories, 32 grams of protein and 45 grams of fat. I’d like to see how the difference would be if the servings of fries were really the same but on paper a few more calories and a little less fat is probably marginally better for health and if you are living on the cheap – that’s more fuel to sustain a person. We will call nutrition a draw but objectively, both fail. Adding in a non diet beverage for both you go well over 1000 calories and toss in the cookie close to 1200. If you hit hard times and only have $4 to eat – the BK deal may be a sustainer.

    I thought this contest would have been a closer call. Since I go to Wendy’s more than Burger King (and I go to both very rarely) I thought Wendy’s was going to do a better job on the the three core items. The King is the King of value meals here. Note: I’ve had my share of fast food chicken nuggets for the rest of this decade (4.5 of the 8 were consumed by me to taste them with and without the dipping sauces).

    This study was supervised by CMH Griffin (who had yogurt). My research assistant CMH Tobias was quite happy to dispose of the leftovers.

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    If there is another head to head study I should have my research team investigate, let me know.

    Posted in culinary knowledge, culinary misadventure, Food For Thought, Gastronomic Stimulus | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

    Small Bite: Wendy’s Black Bean Burger; Big Picture Why Fast Food needs a Veggie Burger and why they aren’t working

    Posted by cmh gourmand on March 14, 2016

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    Ok, well one of many things you may not know about me, I have a strong internal calling to try out new veggie burgers at fast food places, especially when created by locally owned White Castle and Wendy’s. In my past, I had the fortune to do product sampling for both companies and tried a few veggie burgers at each over the years. (Please note previous White Castle Veggie Burger research -> HERE

    So let us now cut to the chase. The new Black Bean Burger at Wendy’s looks and tastes like a Morningstar Farm Black Bean Burger I have tried many times. It includes some bean chunks and a few pieces of corn mixed in for variety. The price was $4.49. It rests on a very nice looking bun and is complimented by some fancy pepper jack cheese with some fluffy and pseudo artisan greens that had the taste and consistency of paper. Visually everything looked good. The flavor profile would best be described as bland and mostly flavorless – a good source of fiber and that is the best positive I can comment on. As served it is 560 calories and 24 fat grams. A Wendy’s single with Cheese is 550 calories and costs less.

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    Now that the review is done, we can discuss the socioeconomic and philosophical points about fast food veggie burgers. I’ll add some additional background. I’m not here to attack veggies burgers. I lived off them multiple times per week throughout the first decade of this century. I used to drive to the Morningstar outlet store in Worthington to save a few dollars on patties and see what new products where out there. I had a great fast food veggie burger at an Australian Hungry Jacks (Burger King) in Melbourne in 1989. I have tried them throughout the USA and the world, mostly out of curiosity. I believe in the teachings of Michael Pollan and others (although I certainly do not practice those beliefs in this second decade of the century) that we are better off as individuals and as a society if we “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Our health and planet improves when we do so. I get it.

    The key to making a fast food veggie burger work is to do what White Castle did to make the first fast food burgers work in the 1920’s – make them cheap and sell them by the sack. An expensive, fancy veggie burger does not drive consumption the way a dollar menu burger would or should. Anyone that is not a veggie person is not going to pay that price point for something they do not want. Someone that does want a veggie burger is going to pay three times as much at Northstar but get a better product with better nutrition. Give it a fast food veggie burger a basic bun, a slice of cheese and a nice pickle, plop it on the value menu then give it a generation to sink it and it will work by altering the eating habits of consumers with the balance of price and convenience. Make it (and price it) for the masses so the masses will eat it – better for business and maybe better for body mass. While this may seem far-fetched, it is good business sense. In India – where few eat beef, Burger King has been progressive and aggressive in launching a vegetarian line of sandwiches that are doing well – I’d love to try any of them here. In that subcontinent – Wendy’s offers a potato patty which by description and with a bit of research sounds better than their black bean offering here.

    Posted in culinary knowledge, culinary misadventure, Food For Thought, Gastronomic Stimulus, Vegetarian Friendly | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

    Buffet Battle: The Series

    Posted by cmh gourmand on February 14, 2016

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    It is easy to malign and maybe have some true contempt for the concept of the buffet. The buffet is a symbol of American excess and gluttony. Often it is a guarantee for both poor quality food and ingredients. It is easy to see a buffet sign and keep on driving by.

    However for the right food with the right attitude a buffet can easily exceed expectations while offering good food and value. The best example of a great buffet (which is long gone) is the Lost Planet Pizza and Pasta lunch buffet (circa 2000), most weekdays one could walk in for all you could eat pastas and pizzas (at least three of each). The food was fresh and I was more than happy to flex my work schedule so I could enjoy it at least once a month. A place (still open) that really does a great job with the buffet concept is the Mon Ami Restaurant and Winery in Port Clinton Ohio. People are known to drive hours for the experience. I’ve tried it and thought is was a steal for the price – especially for fresh seafood and meat dishes. So we know it can be done well.

    The concept of a buffet is not that far removed from Chipotle, Piada, Fusian and etc., which are essentially assembling food to order. What many people don’t recognize is often the concept of buffet at many restaurants is only a matter of where you food is served – in front of you or in the same containers behind the doors of the kitchen. In the case of Ethic foods, a buffet can be a wonderful first contact with a new culture in a setting that allows a variety of foods to assist with the beginning of a culinary journey.

    An additional bonus that buffets offer, they can be child care friendly. Now with the addition of CMH Griffin to may days I am often looking for a place where I can take a car seat filled with an energetic baby boy and sit down for a decent lunch that is fast, filling and not expensive but also situated so I have a good spot for him and I can make a quick exit if he has a melt down.

    Hence the Buffet Battle Series. I have been scouting Columbus for six months trying to find places that might be series worthy and now that I have a critical mass of material, let the series begin!

    These are the criteria, ranked on a 5 point scale.

    Quantity
    Quality
    Value
    Ambiance / Amenities
    Kid Friendly Quotient

    Having surveyed the offerings of our fair city the first three battles will be: Pizza, Indian and Chinese food. The Pizza Buffet Battle post is coming soon. If you have contestants for Indian, Chinese or another buffet category, let me know.

    Posted in Buffet Battle, culinary misadventure | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

    El Ranchito and My Southside Adventure

    Posted by cmh gourmand on November 26, 2015

    A friend of mine started raving about a Mexican Restaurant over the past summer. Since the world of Taco Trucks and authentic Mexican cuisine are in my domain and because I sustained a 7 month internment in Grove City he assumed I was aware of all south side establishments of this ilk. The more he talked about it throughout the summer the more I became intrigued. The downside, this friend does not pay much attention to restaurant details (well let me be honest, most people do not to the level I do – because they are, well, normal) so he had no name and a vague sense of location. Fortunately, I have experience going off on adventures with little to no information and perhaps the possibility of danger such was the case for my south side adventure.

    If the south side was to have a mascot, it would the character Pig Pen from Peanuts. No matter where you go – there seems to be a little cloud of dust floating around nearby. The area is a little rough around the edges but in my eye that only adds character. However, neither aspect of the area helps when wandering around looking for a Mexican Restaurant. But my persistence paid off eventually and near the intersection of Brown Road and Hopkins Avenue I found El Ranchito.

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    The small lot was full and the place had rustic look that usually is a sign of potential good food but while swinging around the rear to look for a parking space I found a surefire sign that this place would be at least well above average……a little bit of culinary history.

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    It seems the original Taco Nazo food truck has been in storage here for over a year and the owners know Quicho, the owner very well. While they have no plans of running a food truck, they do offer a taco truck style menu and do quite well with it.

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    The kitchen is small, not much bigger than a food truck and the menu is the same size. This spot just does the basics but they do them well. If you are looking for a taco truck experience but you want to sit at a table to wait and dine this is the place you have been looking for.

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    So, that was not much of an adventure, just a lot of driving, however if you are going to head to the south side you might as well make a day of it, so I should note that just next door to El Ranchito is D & E Z O’s Pizza. This place gets high marks from many in the area and when I used to offer the Pizza Grand Prix we could always plan on someone making the trek to Old North Columbus to share D & E Z O’s with the masses. So I’s suggest ordering a pizza while you eat a taco then taking the pizza home for later.

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    But wait there is more. I drove by a sketchy bar call Bullshotz. I had a compulsion to check the place out. Good sense would have caused me to drive on but something in my DNA fueled by more than a few missions to locate my father in bars like this, drove me back to the parking lot to check this place out. Parking in the lot, I found a nice watch lying in the mud, which gave me an excuse to walk in….and have the ability to walk right out….so I proceeded in spite of a bit of fear. Please note, if you go to Bullshotz there is a one foot drop from the door to the floor. My guess is this is a cheap security system or litmus test however I have good balance and no one was looking as I nearlt toppled to the floor so I still had the chance to mix in the with crowd. It took about ten seconds to determine that I could never blend in at a spot like this. I did turn the watch into the bartender who looked like a fairly attractive professional ultimate fighter just starting retirement. I also discovered that the place features a regular lunch and dinner menu, that looked OK. Now you are prepared for your own South side adventure. Good luck!

    Posted in culinary misadventure, restaurants | Tagged: | 2 Comments »