Monday, July 24, 2006 

Fine dining tradition continues at Two Rivers Lodge

Guilt can be a wonderful thing. For instance, if your boyfriend is about to embark on a cross-country bicycle trip, leaving you alone for several months, he may just feel guilty enough to offer to take you out for a really nice meal. And when you drape yourself across his lap and purr "Let's go to Two Rivers Lodge," well, how can he say no?

Two Rivers has always stood out in my mind as that place I let visiting relatives take me. It's not convenient to my Goldhill location, nor is it exactly in my budget, but my mouth waters every time I pass it on my way to the hot springs. Owner Tony Marisco sold the restaurant to Daniel Raimon in early 2006, and I wondered if the restaurant had changed under its new stewardship.

We were seated in the atrium, which gave us the advantage of an outside feeling but provided protection against the bugs. As we perused the menu, we sipped our glasses of water, something I don't think I did on previous visits. I'm certain I would have recalled the yellowish tinge and metallic taste to the water. After a few sips, I decided to wait for a glass of wine to quench my thirst, but Tom kept drinking. "I'm too cheap to pay for San Pellegrino," he explained. The waitress informed us that the kitchen was out of the Raclette Jura ($9), a tempting cheese fondue, so we agreed on calamari belle meuniere ($12) for an appetizer.

Being a typical American, I was expecting rings and tiny squid, but instead was delighted by a hefty calamari steak. The sauteed meat was slightly crisp on the outside, and I found it firm and barely rubbery. The meat was nearly flavorless, providing a blank canvas for the lemon, butter and capers to paint a tangy picture. Our waitress also delivered a small loaf of fresh, warm bread to the table along with oil and spices. It was a pleasant change from the typical dinner rolls and butter, but we could have used more oil.

I opted for a house salad with Dijon vinaigrette and informed Tom that he would get the cream of vegetable soup. Compared to some recent dinner salads, this one was a standout: The fresh greens were barely dressed, which let their natural flavors shin through, and the red peppers were a nice touch. Tom, however, was not as pleased with his soup. "It needs something in it," he said. "Cream soups are just no fun." On the surface it was a lovely soup, with a striking creamy gold color, but it lacked substance and flavor. I prescribed heavy does of salt and pepper, which improved the soup but still left something to be desired.

The entrees at Two Rivers Lodge run the gamut, from chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and goat cheese served on a bed of polenta ($29) to filet mignon Marchand de Vin ($35). Careful consultation with our waitress helped us narrow the selection down to New York steak gorgonzola ($31) and ahi tuna Two Rivers ($26), served with wasabi creme fraiche and romesco sauce. I anticipated a creamy gorgonzola sauce poured over the top of my steak, and was instead surprised with a wedge of salty, smoky cheese resting on the steak. I soon saw the wisdom of being able to cut small slabs of cheese to accompany each bite. The steak itself was big and juicy, cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Even better for me was the large mound of tangy garlic potatoes on the plate. A confirmed potatoholic, I savored every bite of the roughly mashed spuds. Chunks of tender potato floated serenely amid the mashed tubers, all flavored with garlic and butter.

Never one to resist the lure of sinus-searing horseradish, Tom quickly dug into his tuna. The fish was wonderfully firm with a pleasant, fresh flavor, but the sauce was the best part. Slightly grainy, it felt silky in the mouth, then hit the nostrils with a gentle punch. Wasabi-phobes would do well to try this dish, as the kick is not extreme. Both entrees were served with a side of vegetables. Rather than typical steamed veggies, the chef had sent out mounds of a vegetable ragout. I thought this a savory though odd choice, but Tom was pleased. "Clearly a side dish can stand on its own," he noted.

Since I was still working off Tom's residual guilt, I demanded a dessert of my very own and was justly rewarded with a piece of strawberry tart. The thickly sliced berries were coated in a sweet, thick syrup and nestled in a sweet crust. For all my love of pizza crust, I usually don’t like pie crusts. To my surprise, the tart crust had a sweet, milky flavor and a nice crunch. My only qualm was the crust's density. A fork alone had difficulty penetrating it, and I had to resort to a knife to cut up the rest of the crust. Tom went the traditional route and ordered tiramisu, but Two Rivers Lodge gave the Italian treat a new twist with a hint of maple flavor. "It's like some kind of Vermont confection," Tom said as he devoured his dessert. I could taste the maple, but found the coffee flavor too strong for my palate.

While I noted some changes to the atmosphere and menu at Two Rivers Lodge, the restaurant still remains one of the finest in the area. Although entrees are pricey, each one offers an unconventional twist on a traditional dish and is carefully prepared. Past visits did not leave me disappointed, and I was happy to leave sated once again. I hope Tom takes another big trip soon, because I'm itching to try that stuffed chicken breast.

Review published in The Ester Republic.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 

Eating out: Wolf Run Restaurant

Some restaurants have reputations that are hard to shake. McDonald's, for instance, will have a hard time changing its fattening image no matter how many salads it offers. And in Fairbanks, many people still view Wolf Run Restaurant as a coffee and dessert place. With its unfortunate location, hidden in plain sight next to the Johansen Expressway, Wolf Run has had to fight to gain recognition as a full-service restaurant that offers lunch and dinner seven days a week.

The original Wolf Run owners converted a house into the restaurant, and the result is an odd layout with a fireplace and a few tables downstairs and most of the tables on the upper level. The downside to this cozy arrangement becomes evident when the restaurant is crowded: Laughter from a nearby table drowned out our own banter on a recent visit. "The acoustics are definitely not conducive to quiet conversation," Tom noted.

The menu is small but diverse, ranging from a crab mushroom cheesecake appetizer to a Cornish game hen entree. I opted for the surf and turf with a cup of potato dill soup ($22), while Tom selected ravioli Florentine with the Wolf Run salad ($16). Wolf Run also has a beverage menu that would rival many coffee shops', with an assortment of drinks and a full range of teas.

The soup arrived quickly, and I eagerly slurped up a spoonful of the creamy base that was visually awash with dill. Dill was an interesting choice: The flavor is distinct, yet even in large quantities it doesn't overpower the dish. When I bit into the large chunks of potato, I found myself missing the dill flavor. The garlic bread that accompanied the soup, however, was not as exciting. The slices of French bread with a hint of garlic and melted cheese were largely flavorless and made a poor foil to the soup. Tom's salad was a small serving of a house specialty: fresh greens, mandarin oranges, caramelized almonds and a tarragon-vinaigrette. The mandarins added a vibrant splash of color, but the sweet, crunchy almonds and the tarragon dressing dominated the overall flavor.

My surf and turf came with a flat iron grill and shrimp sauteed in citrus butter. A chef with a deft touch can sprinkle a cut of meat with salt and pepper and still make each bite savory, and that was the case here. The cut was flavorful and tender, but I found that the "medium rare" was a touch too rare for my tastes in the middle of the cut. The shrimp’s citrus butter flavor was barely perceptible, noticeable mainly when the sauce was sopped up with bread. The plate was decorated with a smattering of steamed fresh vegetables — four snap peas and five carrots — good for presentation, but not much in the way of a side dish.

Tom's pasta was served in a large bowl, where the cheese and spinach ravioli floated serenely in a pool of pesto-cream sauce. The sauce was thin, with the cream barely diluting the punch of the fresh pesto. The taste was so vibrantly green that it seemed the perfect dish to herald the arrival of spring on a sunny evening.

To round out the evening, we painstakingly narrowed down the impressive dessert selection, until finally arriving at the Kentucky derby pie ($5.50), a concoction of pecans, chocolate, walnuts and bourbon sauce. Wolf Run used to serve mainly desserts, and it seems to be their specialty still. Our large slice of pie arrived at the table with its center artfully collapsed. The chewy top layer yielded to a densely sweet layer of chocolate and nuts. The pie was delicious until we got to the crust; flaky but flavorless, it detracted from the filling. Unlike a pizza crust, a pie crust does nothing for the dish.

Later in the week, I returned to Wolf Run for lunch to try their assortment of sandwiches. I sampled the soup and sandwich combo ($8), choosing the veggie sandwich along with Greek lemon chicken soup. Based on the description, I was hoping for something similar to an avgolemono, with a creamy lemon tang, but was disappointed to receive a cup that was closer to a generic chicken and rice soup. The veggie sandwich soothed me with its thick slabs of homemade bread slathered with both an avocado spread and a cream cheese lightly spiced with dill and black pepper. Generous helpings of tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts and greens rounded out the satisfying sandwich.

Wolf Run serves a selection of quiches each day, and I was tempted by the snow crab and blue cheese quiche with a side of German potato salad ($8.50). I was pleasantly surprised when the potato salad arrived: Warm, thick cuts of potato soaked with onions and chopped bacon rested in a slightly sweet vinegar glaze. As I ate, I reflected that onion, bacon and vinegar would make a wonderful potato chip flavor. The quiche sounded promising on paper, and it's hard to fault the technique: The eggs were light and fluffy, encased in a flaky, crisp brown phyllo crust. However, a strong blast of oregano overpowered the other flavors, leading me to suspect I'd received the wrong dish by accident. Unfortunately, I had not; the oregano was deliberate and disastrous. Oregano should be saved for a Mediterranean quiche, as it overpowered even the pungent blue cheese, leaving the snow crab lost in the mix.

In the end, Wolf Run had a few misses, but also scored many hits. The entrees were reasonably priced, our server was attentive and the desserts remain some of the best in Fairbanks. "It's more satisfying than our recent pricey meals," Tom said as we finished. Tucked down a confusing cul-de-sac, Wolf Run is a lot harder to find than it is to see, but it's definitely worth the effort.

Review published in the Anchorage Press.

Thursday, May 18, 2006 

Smooth flying at Aviator Steakhouse

I'm not sure if it has something to do with living with a couple of vegans for the past 10 months, but lately I find myself craving meat. Big, juicy, bloody steaks sound like just the thing for dinner, and I figured a trip to a steakhouse was in order. Aviator Steakhouse opened more than a year ago on the corner of Barnette and Second, and I figure it was high time I paid a visit.

Aviator Steakhouse is located in one of those low-ceilinged buildings typical of older houses in downtown Fairbanks. A long bar runs along one edge of the dining room, though only nonalcoholic drinks are available. The dining room is nicely designed, with one glaring exception: a large screen television dominates one corner. Even worse, movies played at high volume throughout our meal. We made up for it by doodling perverted things on our butcher block tablecloth as King Kong howled in the background.

Since we had chosen a steak house, we were not surprised that the menu was mostly meat, although we noted the presence of mini burgers ($0.90) in the salad section. The waitress compared them to White Castle sliders, much to our delight. We ordered four of them, along with baked brie and garlic crostini ($10.75). The brie arrived quickly, encased in brown phyllo dough. The sweet cheese oozed out from the center of the dish after we attacked it with a knife. The many crispy layers of phyllo dough were a nice foil to the smooth melted cheese.

Entrees come with a choice of salad or soup, and Tom selected the soup while Heather and I opted for salad. "You should have had the soup," Tom said as I hogged his bowl. A thick layer of cheese covered the top of the French onion soup, and the smoky, tangy broth was infused with a strong flavor of onion and thyme. In contrast, the salads were sad little bowls of slightly brown lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes. "It's sad when the best part of the salad is the croutons," Heather said.

Despite the comparison to White Castle, we found the mini burgers were quite tasty. The meat tasted properly charbroiled, unlike the fried burgers I usually find in town. At less than a dollar each, they were also a much better bargain than our entrees. I chose the daily special, a chipotle chile steak ($25.75) with au gratin potatoes. The giant cube of potatoes dominated the plate and was noticeably heavy on the cheese. I am an avowed potato lover, and I wish the chef had let the potatoes shine in this dish. The shape of the serving also drew our attention. "It's the Borg cheese," Tom cried. "Like the cheese cube that ate Ohio," Heather mused.

My steak arrived at the table steaming hot and slathered liberally with spicy chipotle sauce. While the smoky heat of the sauce was wonderful, I found that it camouflaged those fatty bits that I dislike in meat. I prefer to trim my steak, and found it hard to do while so disguised. In the future, I would request the sauce on the side rather than served over the meat.

Heather selected a 14 oz New York steak ($24.50) and was pleased that the chef understood what she meant by 'rare.' "Oh, it's bloody," she said after her first bite. "I love it." The steak was perfectly pink, and she explained the difficulty of getting a steak properly cooked rare.

While she waxed rhapsodic about her steak, Tom tried to not suffer steak envy as he worked on his 12 oz prime rib. Sometimes simplicity is the best policy, and his entree was seasoned with just salt and pepper. The plain flavor of the meat made my mouth water, and I silently thought nasty things about my vegan friends.

While the entrees were overpriced, the mini hamburgers were an unexpected bargain, and might draw us back for a quick snack while we're downtown. Tom, however, said he felt that Aviator Steakhouse should get a liquor license or get rid of their nonalcoholic wine, beer and mixed drinks. "If I walk into a place with the television on and blaring, I want the alcoholic beverages to have alcohol in them," he grumbled as we made our way outside.

Review published in The Ester Republic.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 

Big Al's beats No. 1 pizza

Sometimes I doubt the intelligence of the average person. I’m trying not to be snobby here, but when a newspaper readers’ poll ranks Pizza Hut the No. 1 pizza place in town, I begin to wonder. Pizza Hut? Since I loathe chain restaurants, I decided to visit the No. 3 pizza place instead.

Big Al’s Pizza is romantically located in a former gas station, and ambiance is not part of its appeal. Though recent renovations have created a seating area, the flimsy tables and chairs, plus the constant stream of customers, are not conducive to a leisurely meal. Make no mistake: Big Al’s is primarily a take-out joint.

Since pizza and a salad seemed the best compromise between healthy and delicious, we ordered an antipasto salad ($9.99) and a large half Mediterranean, half chicken combo pizza ($17.99). Big Al’s Pizza also serves pasta dinners and subs, including the only gyro you’ll find in town until Bobby’s or Zorba’s reopens. They even have a gyro pizza, which bears further investigation. There was little to do as we waited for our food, so I watched PBS on the television while Tom pondered the reasons for having pizza boxes stacked on the foosball table.

Although I knew we were in a take-out restaurant, I was still surprised when the salad arrived at our table in a Styrofoam container. Of course, the only other option, paper plates, would not have begun to hold our salad: The massive portion completely filled the container. This was not a traditional antipasto, but a dinner salad with lots of extras like olives, salami, pepperoni and hot peppers. The only logical dressing seemed to be Italian, but an oil and vinegar would have paid homage to the salad’s roots. “It’s OK,” Tom said, “but it ranges too far into garden salad as opposed to antipasto.”

As I prepared to tuck into the pizza, I reminded myself that this was not the pizza that the masses chose. Then I reminded myself what the masses did in 2000 and 2004. Oops, I just got political. I was sure the third-choice pizza would be just fine.

The chicken combo came loaded with toppings: grilled chicken, garlic, onions, mushrooms and green peppers, all in a tangy butter sauce. The crust faced some serious structural issues as it tried to support the weight of the toppings, and I had to eat the first few bites with a knife and fork. Further in, though, the crust held its own. The onions were colorful, but not noticeable in flavor. Instead, the garlic shone through the other flavors: strong, yet mellow.

As I approached the edge of the pizza, the anticipation built: Would the crust meet my exacting standards? Structurally, the crust was fine. It resisted the urge to collapse, even as I attacked it from the side. The dough had large air bubbles and a chewy texture. On paper, it seemed to be perfect, but you can’t put flavor on paper. Although the crust had a warm, yeasty flavor, it lacked the necessary level of salt needed to elevate it to curst perfection. Blood pressure be damned, I like a crust that is just a touchy greasy and nice and salty. Big Al’s Pizza offers a crust that is like the healthy version of my dream crust: The structure may be the same, but the flavor is not.

The Mediterranean side of the pizza was swimming with green onions, and their presence did not go unnoticed. Nestled under the mozzarella I found a layer of feta cheese which had melted into the ricotta, creating a bouncy, sharp layer of cheese. “It’s kind of different from other Mediterraneans I’ve had in town,” Tom said. Instead of the stereotypical sun dried tomatoes and olives, our pizza was topped simply with the onions and cheeses, proving that sometimes simple is better.

In truth, I will never review Pizza Hut. It may be the best in town, but I have a hard time supporting chains when Fairbanks has a variety of local restaurants to meet my needs. And while the crust didn’t meet my exacting standards, Big Al’s Pizza still managed to serve one of the best basic pizzas I’ve found in Fairbanks. It’s a sure bet that I’ll be back, but next time I’ll just get it to go.

Review published in The Ester Republic


Eating out: Hot Tamale

Somewhere in the middle of China, there must be a factory that churns out tchotchkes for Mexican restaurants: lookalike sombreros, maracas and serape blankets seem to be practically an obligation in these places. But Hot Tamale in downtown Fairbanks is refreshingly lacking in the same old knickknacks. Instead, old cacti and hand-painted tiles adorn its many nooks and alcoves, and the sound system offers Spanish rhythms instead of Top 40. And, much like the authentic décor, the food at Hot Tamale seems to come from old family recipes rather than a corporate cookbook.

We popped into Hot Tamale for dinner recently and found the place full of mushers and spectators from the GCI Open North American dog sled races, taking place just across the Chena River. Settling into an alcove, I noticed a drink special for 50-cent margaritas. Even the waiter grimaced as he said they were made with strawberry wine, so we ordered our usual cheap drinks: 50-cent Tecate Cervezas. My boyfriend Tom attacked the dinner buffet ($10.95), while I opted to order up a variety of tacos, including potato ($2), fish ($3.50) and carne asada ($2.50).

In his first run on the buffet, Tom came back with a mixed plate. The enchiladas looked tasty but had a corn flavor that overwhelmed the filling. “It's got that 'sitting under a heat lamp' issue,” Tom also noted. Sitting under those lamps may have been what intensified the corn flavor. The burrito, wrapped in an achingly tender flour tortilla, was a hit. The chicken was lightly seasoned, and the onions were cooked until they were just soft but still had bite.

Even though I had ordered my tacos individually off the “side dishes” section of the menu, they arrived artfully displayed on a large platter with chili peppers and a twist of lemon. More impressive to me, though, was the cilantro. I am not a cilantro fan, and I cringe when restaurants toss handfuls of the stuff over perfectly good dishes; fortunately, at Hot Tamale the tacos only had a delicate sprinkle of the fresh herb. It is also worth noting that while the potato taco came with just one tortilla, the carne asada and fish each had two, and there were ample fillings to top them off: five tacos for the price of three!

The lettuce and cheese were still cool and crisp, contrasting with the warm potatoes. Unfortunately, while I had hoped that the potatoes would be like good home fries - cubed, spicy and crispy - I found them mushy and bland. I moved on to the carne asada, and wasn't disappointed by the spicy grilled steak. The seasoned meat would have been a pleasure to eat on its own, but still stood out while wrapped up in a tortilla and toppings. We occasionally eat fried halibut tacos at home, but I dislike the effort required to fry the fish. Hot Tamale served up halibut with a discernible batter flavor that did not overpower the mild fish taste. Although I found myself missing the array of toppings we usually add, the fish taco was still flavorful, and the second tortilla soon succumbed to the pressure of the fillings.

In his second raid on the buffet, Tom came back with a beef and bean chimichanga. The silky filling was mostly shredded beef with a bean puree, and the chimichanga was crisp. Also on his plate was a mixture of halibut, shrimp and spinach in a creamy cheese sauce. I'm not sure if it was meant as a taco filling, but it was heavenly just to dip bits of tortilla in the concoction. “It's almost too rich for a meal,” Tom noted.

Rather than order desserts, Tom decided to make one last attack on the buffet, coming back with a plate full of sweets. The chocolate cake was run-of-the-mill, but the brownie was dense, fudgy and slightly bittersweet. The fried tortillas with blueberry topping looked fantastic, but there was something about the dish I couldn't quite put my finger on. The tortilla was light and crispy with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar, but the topping was a little off - the slight lemon flavor made me suspect it came from a can.

I returned to Hot Tamale the following week for lunch with my friend, James. Our eyes proved bigger than our stomachs as we ordered: pozole soup ($6.95), halibut quesadillas ($7.95) and the daily special ($8.95), a large platter with a beef taco, chicken enchilada, tamale, rice and beans. Every meal at Hot Tamale begins with warm tortilla chips and salsa, which helped to fill us up before our food arrived.

My pozole soup came to the table in a massive bowl. The oily broth had a smoky, tomato flavor, and was mildly spicy. Bits of chewy hominy filled the bowl, surrounding the tender pork chunks. The soup would have been a meal on its own.

The quesadillas were simple: tortilla, cheese and halibut. That combination may have worked well with a different meat, but the halibut was too mild, and the quesadillas tasted bland as a result. Topping them with guacamole, salsa or chilis helped ratchet up the flavor.

James hunkered down over his plate and barely let me get a fork in. I did steal a bite of his enchilada, and found it much better than what Tom found at the dinner buffet. The strong corn flavor was still present, but the beef was savory and the enchilada tasted fresh. “For north of the 45th parallel, this isn't bad,” James said as he devoured his food.

In a town with many Mexican options, Hot Tamale offers good food with some unusual twists. The use of halibut, for example, tips its hat to the Alaska setting, though it falls short at times. But for basic Mexican fare at reasonable prices in a great location (plus really cheap beer), it's hard to beat Hot Tamale.

Review published in the Anchorage Press


Noodles abound on South Cushman

Noodles, it would seem, are the spice of life. They feature prominently in the cuisine of many countries, taking on different flavors and textures depending on their preparation. In Vietnam, noodles are called pho, so it’s fitting that the newest Vietnamese restaurant in Fairbanks chose the name Pho Fairbanks.

A friend had raved about Pho in the fall, but when I tried to visit I found the restaurant had closed. It seems they were merely renovating, as Pho has opened its doors once again. Tom and I ventured onto South Cushman recently, interested to see what Pho had to offer.

Early on a Saturday night, the restaurant was empty. Not just quiet, but empty: Tom and I were the only people there. When we entered, the staff hopped to attention, switching the television over to a sitcom rerun, presumably for our pleasure. Still, the menu offered a variety of dishes as well as some funny spelling errors. I’m not sure what fried wanton is, but I’ve recommended it to my single friends.

We started our meal with a shared plate of fried corn fritters ($6.95). I could have easily eaten the plate by myself and been satisfied. I noticed a sheen on the patties as I grabbed the first fritter, and I worried that they might be overly greasy, but the thin discs held up well. “I’m not getting a lot of corn, but it’s tasty,” Tom said. We had ordered the dish with a presumption that we’d be getting typical American-style fair food: fried balls of corn mush with honey butter. Instead, we found savory fritters made of ground pork and shrimp, dotted with a few whole kernels of corn. The fritters came with a viscous, lightly spicy sauce. The sweet tang was reminiscent of honey and vinegar, with a kick of chili oil. A small dish of cucumbers and carrots in a vinegar sauce accompanied the fritters.

Our meals arrived at the table, and I was once again surprised by the size of the bowls. When the main course is basically a soup, you should expect large portions, and these were no exception. My bowl of suki yaki ($9.50) was filled with clear noodles, chunks of chicken and greens, topped with fried garlic. I was disappointed that the chicken lacked flavor, but the rest of the dish was savory. The spinach was a surprise: perfectly tender despite being immersed in hot broth. The waiter had also given us a plate of icy cold bean sprouts and a bowl of hot sauce, and I sued these to experiment with the dish. The sprouts added a crunch to the dish that the cooked celery could not, and a liberal amount of hot sauce changed the flavor of the bowl from savory to spicy.

Tom, meanwhile, was struggling with his bowl of Bar-B-Q pork noodle ($8.50). “Let the record show I’m resorting to a fork,” he muttered as he gave up on his spoon. His dish had traditional noodles and slices of pork, but lacked the vegetables of mine. I tried his dish, and was once again struck by the blandness of the meat. Initially I thought that it must be because the chicken was boiled in the dish, but after tasting Tom’s food, I decided that the soup just leaches the flavor out of the meat.

In the end, Pho was an average meal with above-average portions. While our soups were large, one of them was overly bland, and the other one was helped greatly by the addition of sprouts and hot sauce. Despite being the only customers in the restaurant, I had to go to the counter to find our check. Our first dish turned out to be the best one, but what I remember most about the evening is searching for dessert in the Mighty Dollar store next door.

Review published in The Ester Republic


Pazzo G's doesn't hit the spot

When I was younger, whenever I brought home a report card, it always said the same thing: “Mary shows promise but fails to work up to her potential.” I’ve felt the same way about Gambardella’s Pasta Bella. Although I enjoyed my first meal in Fairbanks at the restaurant, the food never really stood out enough to make it into my restaurant rotations. It wasn’t bad, it might have been good, but I always remembered it as run of the mill.

When I heard that Gambardella’s was opening a new restaurant at the site of the old Athenian, I thought this could be their chance to win me back as a customer. So we bundled up and headed off to Pazzo G’s. As I stepped inside, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the restaurant had changed hands at all. The Greek columns and plates still adorned the walls, though they were joined by framed burlesque albums. “Oh, they just moved it over a country,” Tom said. And though our waitress was friendly, the service was still lacking, as one member of my party had to get his own silverware off another table.

We decided to challenge the kitchen staff with a vegan entrée, as well as a salad, lasagna and appetizer. The focaccia ($5.95) arrived at the table quickly, bringing with it the mouthwatering aroma of fresh rosemary. The bread itself was marvelously soft and floury, with a delicate touch of rosemary. It was lost, however, with the accompanying tomato sauce. Diced onion floating in the sauce seemed to hint at a homemade delicacy, but it tasted like it came straight out of an aluminum can.

I opted to eat light, and selected a pear salad ($10.95). The dish was not only tasty, but stunning as well. “That’s a beautiful salad,” Tom noted. “Very intricately arranged.” The bed of greens was topped with slices of grilled chicken, pears, slightly sweet walnuts and fresh croutons. The promised raspberry vinaigrette never appeared, but the substitute dressing was a creamy Italian with a peppery kick. The crunch of the sweet walnuts was a nice counterbalance to the softness of the pears, and the croutons put the dish into the pleasure zone. Clearly homemade, they were large, crunchy, buttery and salty. What more could a girl ask for?

Tom was finding out that a boy could ask for a whole lot more. His plate of lasagna ($10.95) was large, but bore that trademark Gambardella’s touch: blandness. I suppose the dish was perfectly average, but average never stands out in my mind. The sauce was savory, the portion was large, and that’s about all there is to say about the dish. It takes unusual ingredients, such as goat cheese or sautéed portabellas, for a lasagna to become spectacular in my book.

Jacob, our resident vegan, chose to order a firenze pizza ($10.95), but wanted it vegan. The waitress took the request without complaint, even when he started angling for more vegetables to make up for the cheese. Making vegan pizzas isn’t hard, but they do have a tendency to dry out without the insulating layer of cheese. It is worth noting that Pazzo G’s managed to keep the pizza moist. “I like the flavor,” Jacob said as he bit into a slice. “I would’ve liked more mushrooms, though. I was trying to hint at that.” I tried some of his pizza, and while I missed the cheese, it was perfectly acceptable without it. Layers of vegetables were interspersed with a tomato sauce.

None of the dishes were bad, but none were perfect. My salad came with a strange yellow blob on the plate that Tom guessed was butter. Jacob’s pizza was tasty, yet no better than a pizza from any other restaurant. And so Pazzo G’s falls victim to the Gambardella’s curse: OK food that doesn’t stand out in my mind. In this aspect, Pazzo G’s really misses the mark. In opening a new restaurant with a different name on the other side of town, the Gambardellas had the chance to go out on a limb. They could have tried new dishes, sought out new recipes, or just made crucial changes to their menu. Instead, they opted to serve a virtually identical menu.

In the end, I was not the only one unimpressed. “It’s an OK place to come if you drive two or three miles to get here,” Jacob said, “but not if you have to go any further.”

Review published in The Ester Republic

Monday, March 20, 2006 

The Vallatta

Sometimes the difference between a good restaurant and a great one isn't the food; it's the service. A steak is a steak, but it tastes better when served on a silver tray by a waiter in a tuxedo. With that in mind, I started to get worried after waiting 20 minutes for a table at The Vallata, an upscale Italian restaurant in Fairbanks. The Vallata has a reputation for fine dining in the Goldstream Valley, and we had a reservation, so why were we waiting? When my companion, Amanda, and I were seated, it became clear that the Saturday before Valentine's Day might not be the best time to nitpick about punctuality: Every other table was filled with dreamy-eyed couples.

The hostess suggested we wait at the bar, where the bartender promptly got us a bottle of wine. After we were seated and ordered our entrees, our waitress brought our soup, salad and bread. We dove into the breadbasket and were pleased with thick slices warm enough to melt the butter. "It's these little touches that make up for the plastic tablecloths," Amanda said.

My salad was a fairly run-of-the-mill assemblage of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, onions and croutons, but Amanda raved about the honey mustard dressing. A passing waiter checked with the kitchen and told us it was the only dressing at The Vallata that wasn't house made, but the chef refused to reveal the brand. Amanda chose the minestrone soup, which had a thick flavor with a medley of spices and large chunks of vegetables that floated in the bowl. The soup was a winner.

For a main course, I ordered Veal Saltimbocca alla Romana ($26.95). Our waitress tried to gently steer me toward the pasta as a side dish, and I wish I had listened instead of opting for the potato croquette. I couldn't resist her description of a mashed potato ball deep-fried and served with cheese sauce. Being a potato purist, I sneer at any potato that is whipped instead of mashed, and this was one whipped potato. The cheese sauce poured over the top of the croquette was a little bland despite the sprinkle of herbs over the top.

On top of a bed of pasta, the veal would have been a full meal with leftovers. Alone on the plate, there was just enough food for me. The meat was thinly cut and supple in my mouth. While the sauce had a lot of butter, it stayed clear of being greasy and instead had the delightful tang of Marsala with a hint of sage. The veal was served on a bed of tender sauteed spinach with several slices of prosciutto, which added a smoky flavor.

Amanda decreed that she must order pasta in an Italian restaurant, so we put the baked lasagna ($17.95) to the test. Her portion was large enough to provide us with leftovers after we both ate our fill. What initially looked like a bowl of sauce was actually a bowl of lasagna lightly covered. The chef used a liberal amount of ricotta cheese, giving the dish a pleasant sponginess, and the tomato sauce did not overwhelm the pasta.

The day after Valentine's Day, my boyfriend Tom and I ventured back to The Vallata, hoping for a quieter atmosphere. We opted to split an appetizer and a pizza. While The Vallata touts their pizza in their advertising, it doesn't actually appear on the menu. We had to ask our waitress for the list.

Once again, we got fresh, warm bread along with our antipasto platter ($16.95). I had never eaten antipasto before, and it was mostly a treat. This was my first encounter with an anchovy, and the salty flavor and mushiness left a bad taste in my mouth. I also found the Parmesan cheese slice a little odd. I'm used to seeing parmesan grated over a dish, not served in chunks. The plate also included salami and prosciutto, but overall it had a strong slant toward vegetables.

I decided on a 16-inch pizza with fresh tomatoes and jalapenos ($17.95). The pie was covered liberally with large slices of fresh tomato and dotted with jalapenos. At first bite, I found the pizza very spicy. Closer inspection revealed that the heat came from the jalapenos; the tomato sauce was savory but didn't pack a punch like the peppers did. I am as particular about my pizza crust as I am about my potatoes so I approached the edge of the pizza cautiously. Fortunately, this crust bridged the gap between thin-crunchy and thick-doughy. It was thin but not rigid, although this meant it flopped in the middle under the weight of the tomatoes. The end of the crust was light and bubbly, if a bit bland. Perhaps salt on the edges would have made the crust even more delicious.

Since we'd shared the two dishes, Tom and I felt perfectly justified in ordering dessert as well. I engaged in my usual tactic of letting him narrow down the offerings, then making the final decision myself. In this case, I selected the tiramisu cheesecake ($6.25). The piece that arrived at our table was, frankly, kind of small for the price. It's good for the chef that the decadent chocolate crust and delicate mascarpone and amaretto flavor made up for it. The bottom layer was plain cheesecake, and the top layer was a fluffy tiramisu cream.

Despite my initial fears on my first visit, the service at The Vallata ultimately proved excellent. Throughout both meals, our waitress checked on us frequently and a busser made sure that empty dishes were whisked away. Our water glasses remained full. When we asked, the waitresses were willing to offer advice and help us select dishes. In the end, both the service and food were good enough to ensure that we would make a return visit.

Review published in the Anchorage Press.


A new style for Deft Palate

When I began the Deft Palate blog, I was looking for a way to publish my restaurant reviews on the Internet. However, like so many food lovers, I found other things began creeping onto the site. I pondered desserts for Thanksgiving. I posted recipes for some outrageous grilled cheese sandwiches. And while my focus remained on food, my reviews became sporadic.

I was recently hired to write restaurant reviews for the Anchorage Press as well as the Ester Republic, and it seems now is the time to shift this blog back to restaurant reviews. But since I still have a deft palate when it comes to my own cooking, I've started a recipe blog as well, Deft Palate Recipes. I've moved all recipe posts from this blog over there, and will begin posting on both sites more frequently.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006 

Sweet Basil: Thai this one out

I'm going to let you in on a well-kept secret: There's Thai food in Fairbanks. Lots of it. In fact, there are as many Thai restaurants as Mexican restaurants in Fairbanks, but that doesn't mean that all Thai food is good. One recent evening, I dragged three friends down South Cushman to visit Sweet Basil and see if it could win a place in our hearts. "Fairbanks has such a richness of Thai restaurants," Gretta commented as we arrived. Having tried most of them, we looked forward to the meal.

Sweet Basil is located in a strip mall with a tattoo parlor, head shop and a $1.39 store. Not exactly an auspicious start, but I've had some fine meals in worse places. We started our meal by sharing an order of fried tofu ($6.95) and yum nuer ($9.95). The tofu was crisp and served with two sauces. The chef had mastered the art of cooking tofu, getting the outside almost crunchy while the inside remained soft. Anyone who eats tofu knows it's rather flavorless, and the sauces helped make the dish palatable. An orange sauce was reminiscent of Chinese duck sauce, while the peanut sauce was a hit – smooth and oily, with a kick of chili for some heat. The large portions were generous for an appetizer.

When I ordered the yum nuer, a sliced beef salad, the waitress asked me if I'd like it spicy. Though I should know better, I piped up, "God, yes!" Here's a hint: Don't order spicy unless you mean it. After a few bites, I made a strangled noise and grabbed for my Thai iced tea ($2), while Gretta inquired, "Mary, are you feeling all right?" Despite the searing pain in my mouth, I couldn't stop eating the dish. The meat was a little tough, but was sliced thin and cooked in a rich, savory sauce, then over a bed of shredded lettuce with an onion-lime dressing. Even though it hurt, Tom and I finished the plate.

Gretta selected tofu mak keur ($9.95) for her entree, and tucked into her dish of eggplant, onions, basil and tofu in a plum sauce. Although the fried tofu appetizer had been crisp, the tofu in this dish had turned soggy, mimicking the soggy eggplant. "It's the nature of eggplant," Jacob said after sampling the dish. "It absorbs." The other vegetables were crisp, but couldn't make up for the soggy eggplant and tofu, putting this dish near the bottom of our list.

Jacob chose pra ram j ($9.95), another fried tofu dish with peanut sauce, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and cabbage. After sampling both dishes, he declared, "I like mine better than yours." In truth, Jacob's entree was similar to the fried tofu appetizer which we all enjoyed. The crunchy tofu and crisp vegetables made a wonderful foil to the silky peanut sauce. After her disappointing choice, Gretta sampled this dish and sighed with contentment.

Sticking to a time-honored tradition, I opted for a Thai curry. In this case, I selected gaeng ped ($9.95), a red curry with bamboo shoots, peppers, basil and beef. It's hard to go wrong with a curry, and Sweet Basil serves up an excellent one. The coconut milk was slightly sweet, a sign the chef had used a good palm sugar, and the bamboo shoots and peppers were crunchy. I set aside half of the dish to take home, and was happy when the waitress asked if I wanted extra rice for takeout as well.

Tom took advantage of the extra rice to add some to his plate of drunken noodles ($8.95), then defended his right to add rice to noodles. The steaming plate certainly seemed to hold enough food, but he's a big man. Though he had ordered the noodles medium, they seemed spicy and a little strong on the fish sauce.

At the end of the meal, we were sated, and my mouth still burned with the memory of the yum nuer. "This is my favorite Thai restaurant," Tom declared. "It's unfortunate it's so far away." Despite the distance, we agreed to return to Sweet Basil soon. In a city with many Thai restaurants, it's good to find one with great service and terrific food, even if it is on South Cushman.

Thursday, December 08, 2005 

New bagel shop in Fairbanks

On Tuesday, LuLu's Bagels opened its doors in the Chena Pump Plaza. Up until now, Fairbanks hasn't had a real bagel shop, so I've been making do with bagels from the coffee huts. However, there's a certain appeal to getting out of the car and going inside for your food, and LuLu's might just win me over.

For a start, they make all their bagels fresh. They offer standards such a onion, sesame and everything, slightly more exotic fare such as asiago cheese and specials. The day I stopped by the special bagel was cinnamon-sugar. Where they might fall short is their toppings. Right now, they only have a few, and they are mostly run-of-the-mill. I sampled the chive and herb cream cheese, which was quite tasty. I was also tempted by the goat cheese. The other options are quite standard. They should consider a few more flavored cream cheeses, such as olive or salsa. Hummus would also be a nice option.

LuLu's also offers a wide selection of coffee drinks. Since I don't drink coffee, I'll leave it to someone else to comment on those.

Overall, I think LuLu's is a welcome addition to my breakfast options. The restaurant is warm and inviting, and the smell of freshly baked bread is enough to drive a hungry patron crazy. I can easily see myself stopping by in the afternoon and relaxing with a newspaper or magazine as I enjoy a light snack.