Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fun Playing With Virginia Food 2014

This was our second New Year's at Virginia Beach. We headed out the day after Christmas, planning to breakfast at The Blue Door in Cuyahoga Falls. But Blue Door, as it turned out, was closed that Friday, until dinner. So, relying on the recommendations of friend and food photographer Tom Noe, we headed for the nearby Flury's Cafe. They were slammed, and rightfully so for a charming, small, make-it-mostly-from scratch kind of place. It took a while, but we enjoyed a lovely breakfast.

Pecan Pancakes

Scrambled Eggs, Bacon
Yes, that is a blob of ketchup on the plate. Added by me. I was hungry.

Chorizo Western Scramble, w/ peppers, onions & cheese, homefries & tortilla

Our first stop would be overnight in Richmond, VA. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to sample any of the local restaurants; our meatball sandwiches at the restaurant in the Omni Hotel were pretty poor. But we awoke downtown on Saturday morning to sunshine and short sleeve temperatures. My friend Amy had recommended The Black Sheep for brunch, and was it a goodie!

French Toast
The savories on the menu hit so many spots in Bob's wheelhouse that I was surprised when he ordered this. But this was no ordinary French Toast - sliced challah bread was battered with a Rice Krispie crunch, griddled, then topped with warm coconut syrup, caramelized bananas, spiced peacans and shaved chocolate. My bite melted in the mouth and felt like a tiny sliver of gooey heaven.

Pork Grillades and Grits
The flaw of slightly tough pork (or perhaps the lack of a sharp knife to cut it with) was more than made up for by it's crispy good taste, and the exquisitely fresh, toothy grits and delicious gravy. Plate licking good!

Homemade Apricot Applesauce
Intrigued by the description, I ordered this side, and found that it paired extremely well with the pork.

After spending the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon at the American Civil War Center At Historic Tredegar and the affiliated museum, I craved one more Richmond meal. But we chose poorly, selecting the Chowhound-recommended Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, which claimed to source fish and seafood from the docks around it. It became quickly apparent that this was a "destination" restaurant charging $25-35 a plate even at lunch for mediocre food, with service to match. We didn't even get a table with a nice view.

The bread service was actually very good, and primed us for what was represented as "local" and "fresh" Rockfish. But our server was already ignoring us (no alcohol and we were splitting the pricey entree, though we also ordered a side and soft drinks). This was, after all, lunch!

Chesapeake Rockfish over white beans, kale, Surry brand sausage, peanut romesco
This sad, smelly specimen was overcooked (note the way the filet is split) and the whole plate was dried out and tired. My taste of the Surry sausage was inspired; it was a shame the rest of the ingredients around it were not at the same level.

Cheddar Byrd Mill Grits
The grits actually tasted very good, but were served, on the cold side, in an unappealing (and potentially hazardous) cracked dish (look at 10 o'clock and 6 o'clock for the most obvious). Most frustrating, our server never returned to check on or acknowledge us. After 15-20 minutes of being ignored after the plates dropped and we each took one bite and stopped, with no service in person in sight to talk to, we got up and started to walk out. Finally encountering a staff member as we neared the exit, we asked for the manager. She comped our soft drinks, which we offered to pay for, and apologized for the poor food and service and said of course, there would be no check for the uneaten items. Oh well, back to the road!

The Beach!

Several house-mates were late this year, due to health and logistical issues. So, six of us sat down to dinner Saturday night at the house.

Bob's Brown & Serve Rolls
Served up hot, with Minerva Farms roll butter, whole wheat and white.

Donna's Corn Chowder
The photo doesn't show the bacon bits that wound up on top, because we almost forgot them ("cranberry sauce!").

Baked Mixed Rice For Breakfast!
Chef Tom got us hooked on baked rice for breakfast last year (partly in deference to Bruce, who is on a low Fodmaps diet and therefore gluten free). Megan and Bruce dished it up in Tom's absence this year, using Lunderberg's Wild and Brown mix, which was especially tasty.

Baked Rice with Dubliner Cheddar Cheese and Bacon Bits

Nancy H's Un-traditional Lion's Head Meatballs
A Chinese-inspired dish was requested for dinner, so I did a variation on Lion's Head Meatballs, using Red and Green Chard in place of Cabbage, and Bruce-approved rice noodles in place of the usual bean thread noodles. It was delicious!

Our next breakfast was sponsored by Nancy B, but accompanied by some lovely bacon from Cleveland's own Pork Chop Shop at the West Side Market, cooked in the oven.

"Regular" Bacon from the Pork Chop Shop

Great Lakes Christmas Ale Bacon from the Pork Chop Shop

Nancy B's Panettone French Toast

Nancy B's Made-From-Scratch Clementine Drizzle

Nancy B's Leftover Egg Wash Scramble

For dinner, I scored some chicken livers at Nancy B's request for a dish she wanted to make with the bacon fat we'd saved from the above breakfast; she served it as an appetizer.

Chicken Livers and Onions Fried in Bacon Fat


Nancy H's Tater Tot Casserole
I had just made this dish for the Cincinnati RG, and it was on my mind for simplicity, yum factor, and compatibility with most of the culinary preferences in the house. And the mild smokies we brought from  J & J Czuchraj Meats at the West Side Market were so much tastier than the ham the original recipe suggested!

Donna's Butternut Squash Bake
Mostly topped with nuts, butter, brown sugar and flour, Donna kept some of the baked squash segregated for those who wanted it plain.

Vince supplied our next breakfast, on New Year's Eve.

Vince's Frittata
The frittata had cheeses, bacon bits, onions, and whatever else Vince decided to throw in. He made two of these to feed us all! We served it with breakfast sausage on the side.

Breakfast Sausage from the Pork Chop Shop
Also cooked to perfection in the oven.

And so, it was New Year's Eve. We started dinner with an appetizer that Nancy B prepared:

Nancy B's Spanikopita
Seeing as clams and Rockfish (and maybe flounder) were the only truly fresh/local seafood choices at this time of year, I really wanted to try Michael Symon's recipe for a "Cleveland Clambake" - especially since we'd brought a couple of pounds of kielbasa from  J & J Czuchraj Meats at the West Side Market.

Nancy H's attempt at Michael Symon's Cleveland Clam Bake

I had to leave out the cumin because of a food allergy, and decided to sub sweet and white potatoes for the out-of-season corn in the recipe, then went off to the races without tasting the sausage. Though we'd watched the counter man take it off the "mild" pile, and he wrote "mild" on the wrapper - it turned out to be spicy - impossibly spicy (and Bob and I like spice). Fortunately, the clams only picked up a little of the spice, and so none went to waste. The sausage came home to Cleveland for use in soups or stews, where the heat could spread out!

Steamed Clams with Yams and Potatoes
Even more fortunately, I'd had a request to make half the clams "plain" - good thing I did! The clams came from Welton's Seafood, the last independent seafood shop open in winter in Virginia Beach. These Little Necks were just a couple of days out of the water, and incredibly tender and delicious. And Nancy B sold me - sorry Michael, but I think next time, plain steamed clams will be the ticket!

Baked Rockfish
The rockfish we got at Whole Foods last year was pristine. This year, not so much. Oh well. I also roasted a chicken for the folks who wanted "plain" but didn't get a photo of it; I was preoccupied with clams.

We sipped some bubbly with our meal, and again at midnight while watching the festivities in New York. A delightful way to ring in the New Year with good friends.

Vince's wife Donna took over breakfast duties on New Year's Day.

Donna's Breakfast Strata with Sausage, Cheese and Apples

Her strata was fabulous.

By now, some of us were ready for dinner out. So, five of us headed to a Virginia Beach restaurant praised by no less than the New York Times - Peter Chang's. It was a little strange in some ways - for a place that swears by authenticity and caters to the Asian community (there were a number of Asian diners that evening), and features real Sichuan ma la - they served only Lipton tea. Then, there was the below communal container of white and "fried" rice (which tasted more like soy sauce rice, but in any event isn't something normally served with Asian food as anything but its own entree) that was set on the table as our first dishes were ready to come out of the kitchen. Happily, the genuine and tasty triumphed over the weird.

White and Fried Rices

Hot & Numbing Shredded Tofu Skin
Nancy B, a newly minted vegetarian with the New Year, ordered this cold appetizer. Intensely garlicky and loaded with ma la (or "numbing heat") from Sichuan peppercorns, this was a lovely dish.

Peter Chang's Seafood in Stone Pot: Jumbo Shrimp, Scallop, Sliced Fish, Squid, Mushrooms
Rick ordered this bubbling stone pot dish, which had a hint of curry and ma la. I didn't taste the seafood, but the chunk of fish I tasted was lovely.

New Year's Special: Fried Whole Snapper in Sweet-Sour Sauce with Bell Pepper and Onion
Bob and I over-ordered and got three dishes between us; thank goodness our tablemates were game to share everything and help us make a dent! This one hit the table first - a "New Year's Special" featuring lovely snapper. The sauce was a little too sweet (I didn't realize until later that there was an option to have the fish smoked and spicy rather than sweet, but truthfully, the more Americanized sweeter sauce played well against the spicy fish/tofu ball dish Bob and I ordered, below). Also, kudos to Peter Chang for serving this plate with ice cube tongs - the perfect implement to extract the delicious flesh and skin with minimal bones.

Stir-Fried Jumbo Shrimp with Asparagus and Snow Pea
This was Kay's selection; we all marveled at how the asparagus pieces melted in the mouth.

New Year's Special: Pork Belly Over Mustard Green with Mini Bok Choy
Bob and Nancy dish #2: this faithful rendition of a mild Sichuan classic did not disappoint - rich, flavorful and succulent.

New Year's Special: Stir Fried Tofu and Flounder Meatball
This innocuous looking dish packed a serious ma la wallop courtesy of a generous but skillful application of Sichuan Peppercorn. It made me happy for the sweet sauce on the Snapper!

Dessert - Banana, Ice Cream Pastry, Chocolate
I enjoyed a bite of Nancy B and Kay's dessert.

The next day, Vince frittata-d again for breakfast, and we grazed on leftovers into lunch time. Another group went out with us for dinner, taking a chance on a local place with a long history, which changed hands in April 2014. Online reviews indicated a few bumps in the transition, but we saw enough positive comments that we were willing to risk it.

Seacrest Restaurant has been in Pungo for a long time; it is a simple, unpretentious place with a modest menu and gentle prices (though this was the first time I ever needed glasses to read a menu; getting old is no fun). Our server was very attentive and especially responsive to Bruce's dietary needs, and we settled in for a nice round of comfort food.

Complimentary Hush Puppies
I liked these much better than the puppies offered at the similarly themed and nearby located Margie & Ray's last year - for one thing, though not fried to order, these were definitely fried in house from batter. For another, they were served with real butter and not spread. Unfortunately, I detected a slight taste of old oil, perhaps that is why we didn't empty the basket.

She Crab Soup
The lunch menu says that this soup is "homemade" and topped with sherry. The dinner menu doesn't make those claims, and for good reason; it is almost certainly not house-made and there was no sherry on top. I give Seacrest points for choosing a very good food service product (at least at this time of year, perhaps they do make it themselves in season). Home made or not - it was delicious and the crab tasty with no odors or off flavors. I would order this soup again.

Fried Flounder, Sweet Potato Mash, Broccoli
I asked if, given the time of year, any of the fish or seafood was fresh/local. The server said the flounder was. I don't think it was fresh, but if it was frozen (and the water content suggested it was), it was breaded in house and fried to order; I can't say that about the flounder I had at Margie & Ray's last year. And I enjoyed eating it. So, at $18 for the above plate, with real (not food service triple washed) broccoli and a tasty yam mash, I left happy. The desserts we were too full to try looked beautiful served to the next table, and the service was truly superb. They offer breakfast on the weekends, also.

This year, our farewell breakfast returned to Margie & Ray's, based on the convenient location. And, as per last year, the service was beyond terrific. And the food was ok, except . . .

Country Ham, 2 poached eggs, grits, rye toast
I cannot fathom how anyone can make such tasteless grits; even after putting salt and my eggs on top of them and drenching them in yolk, they were bland and mushy. Still, the eggs were real (unlike last year's scrambled which were food service egg product) and toast is toast (though not served with real butter). I had looked forward to the country ham since tasting Bruce's last year, but this was not the same product (though it wasn't bad, it wasn't primo). I noticed on the way out no bags of the country ham hanging for retail sale; perhaps they sold it all out over Christmas and hadn't been re-supplied yet. As we say in Cleveland, oh well. This was a perfectly serviceable breakfast served with warmth.

We left the restaurant and headed back to Cleveland the way we'd come, much to the consternation of Google Maps, which wanted us to take I-95 and I-79. But we determined to drive an extra 75 miles or so to avoid all the traffic and treachery and headed west on I-64 to I-77. And it almost worked - we had one bad encounter with fog in the mountains, but other than that - long, but smooth sailing all the way home. We stopped for dinner in Medina Ohio (that will be another blog post) and got home after twelve and a half hours on the road. Bless Sirius/XM for playing the NYE Elton John concert!

We had great fun playing with food and friends in Richmond and Virginia Beach, and wish all who read this a Happy and Healthy New Year!

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