Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet

Hey, folks.  Sorry about the delay.  I’m working on the most important writing assignment of my life, which unfortunately has nothing to do with restaurant reviews or food in general.  I have a few recent reviews I need to share when I take breaks, so don’t give up on me — I’d never give up on you!

I should start out by saying that I like sushi a lot.  I don’t eat it or write about it as much as I do sandwiches, burgers, or pasta, because I rarely partake.  I consider sushi a rare treat and almost a “luxury meal” for a few reasons:

  • It is so beautifully, artfully prepared,
  • It is difficult to make well at home (as opposed to sandwiches or pasta) so I leave it to the professionals, and
  • It ain’t cheap!

The expense is usually what keeps me from gorging on gorgeous fresh nigiri or being ridiculously ravenous for radiant rolls.  The fact that it takes so much sushi to fill me up can become a dangerous proposition, especially at an upscale establishment.  And these ultra-elite sushi restaurants that promise you the best omakase dining experience ever — I’m sure they’re wonderful, but too rich for my blood.

I almost didn’t take note when some of the good folks on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook recommended Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair in Altamonte Springs.  (http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/)  My wife has never been a fan of buffet dining, so we almost never go to them.  I grew up eating at Chinese buffets throughout Miami with my dad, and I regularly visited Gainesville’s all-you-can-eat Chinese and pizza buffets during my college years, when I was all about quantity over quality.  They helped keep me alive through a few degrees!

These days, I can’t eat like I used to, and I at least attempt to be a little healthier through portion control and exercise, so all-you-can-eat is less of a draw for me.  Plus, I can’t help but be a little more skeptical about all-you-can-eat sushi, after reading Kitchen Confidential and getting older and coming more to terms with my own mortality.

But Mikado’s sushi is extremely fresh and extremely high quality, they assured me.  And there’s a huge variety to choose from — always music to my ears.  If you go for dinner, they even have sashimi (fresh slices of fish on their own, without rice to fill you up), and everything is included for only $25 per person!  WHAAAAT?  How can this be?  The Foodie Forum rarely steers me wrong, so I realized I hadn’t had sushi in forever, and this Mikado had to be worth a try.  My longtime readers know I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.  I had an afternoon off, so I told my wife we’d arrive at 5:00 when Mikado opened for dinner, to be there first when everything was freshly-made.

And I’m so glad we gave it a try, because it was AWESOME.  The sumptuous variety and quality of the sushi seriously exceeded my expectations.  Even my wife was extremely impressed (and relieved).  Sushi chefs were hard at work behind the buffet, replenishing everything.  The preparations were artful, and everything was well-labeled so you knew what each piece was.  (Of course, it was difficult to keep it all straight once things made it to our plates.)

This was my first trip to the buffet:

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I count 22 pieces on this plate, each one better than the last.  I love rolls, and they offered some really creative and intricate ones — no boring California rolls for me (although if you like those, they had them too)!  I know purists may scoff at rolls, but I love the blend of flavors, textures, and colors and the beautiful presentation.  They may not be traditional like nigiri, but I couldn’t get enough of them.

And this was my second trip, when I discovered the sashimi, as well as marinated tuna and salmon crudo, ceviche, and different chilled seafood salads.  As far as the sashimi, the mackerel (saba) is always my favorite because it reminds me of pickled herring, one of the foods of my people, but they were all top-notch.

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Are there 18 pieces on this plate?  Sharp-eyed readers may come up with a more accurate count.

Here is the buffet menu, to further tantalize and tempt:
http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/dinner-menu.php

I love raw oysters, and they have them too.  Yes, I’ve heard about the “months-with-an-R” warning, but the only reason I didn’t try an oyster was because I came for the sushi.  They had plenty of delicious-looking hot foods too, but I was a man on a mission, and that mission was to eat all the sushi I could.

We did indulge in dessert, simply because it was there, and it looked so pretty.  My wife had their creme brulee that was more like flan, and I had tiny tastes of tiramisu, banana pudding, and mango mousse cake.  But that was it for me.  I don’t remember the last time I was so full, but it was totally worth it.

I should note that Mikado charges you a fee for wasting food, especially if you load up on nigiri pieces, eat the fish, and leave the rice over. I have no problem with this, as I hate to see food wasted under any circumstances. Pace yourself, scope out your options before loading up your plate, try small tastes of everything in case you don’t like something, and don’t be a jerk who snatches up half the buffet and leaves so much of it behind.

We ate like kings for 25 bucks each, and Mikado’s quality definitely matched the quantity — rare for an all-you-can-eat buffet setting, even rarer for good sushi.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Even if you’re a regular at your favorite hip, trendy, upscale sushi restaurant, give Mikado a chance, and I promise you will be pleasantly surprised and very possibly blown away.  You can’t beat it.  I’ve been wanting to go back ever since, which is the best possible recommendation I can give any restaurant.

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Ring the Alarm! Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!

Teak Neighborhood Grill

Teak Neighborhood Grill (http://teakorlando.com/) is an underrated gem of a restaurant that opened near us in 2017. Teak already had a location across town in the MetroWest area, but the second location in Maitland is much more convenient for us.

We especially like going for an early lunch on weekends, right when they open at 11 AM.  That’s when they have their brunch menu as an alternative to the regular menu, and my wife loves their chicken and waffles.  The waffles are thick, Belgian-style, with the slightest bit of caramelization around the edges, making them a perfect consistency of crispy outsides and soft, chewy insides.  The chicken breasts are buttermilk-dipped and hand-breaded, always moist, never dry or greasy.  They also include bacon and some very nice, crispy breakfast potatoes.

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I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Teak and not ordered a burger, though.  They have 18 different burgers listed on their website menu (plus the $45 “Teak Challenge” burger, which is the last thing I need), but if you go, ask for their “secret burger menu,” and you’ll get a long, laminated list of about 20 more varieties.  Their burgers are among the best in town, and I usually try to pick a different one every time, to keep things from getting stale.  I always ask for them medium-rare, and they always cook them to perfection.

This time, I ordered the caprese burger off the secret menu, which comes with melty provolone cheese, fried mozzarella, pesto sauce, balsamic glaze, spring mix, and tomato on a ciabatta roll.  The only thing that gave me pause was the ciabatta, since I sometimes find those rolls a little too crusty and hard, and I’d much rather have a burger on a potato bun, brioche, or pretzel roll.  But I’m glad I put my faith in Teak’s system, as it was  a very good roll that held everything together.  It looks hard to eat, but I was able to squish it down pretty flat, and all the flavors worked very well together.  I really love balsamic glaze, and I’m a sucker for fried mozzarella — when my students ask me if I can recommend any apps, I will go into dad mode and blurt out “Mozzarella sticks!”  Every.  Time.

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You get a choice of sides, including good fries and decent onion rings, but since I discovered Teak has excellent chili, I always get a cup of chili as my side.  Hey, it cuts the carbs a little, plus I love chili, and everyone always has a completely unique version that is worth trying.  (See also: meatloaf, pimiento cheese, and of course onion rings.)  Theirs is a thick, beanless, red chili that has a lot of flavor, but not much in the way of heat.  I actually brought it home and ate it the next day mixed with a little bit of leftover pasta shells.  Yes, my family ate chili over pasta long before we learned it was a whole thing in Cincinnati.  We called it “Cowboy Spaghetti,” and I’ll defend it to the death.  But I digress.

That caprese burger again:

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Looking through the starters (appetizers), we have tried Teak’s OMG Chips before (housemade potato chips topped with blue cheese crumbles and maple bacon drizzled with balsamic reduction), as well as their soft pretzel rolls, and both are great.  But this time, we inquired about ordering a mysterious-sounding side item called Sidewinders as an app, and our server assured us we would love them.  Hey, we’re fun, daring people who live on the edge!  Why not?  I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.

The Sidewinders were twisty potato slices, fried until they had crispy outsides and soft insides, like really great steak fries, but almost as thin as kettle chips.  They were tossed in a “garlic bistro” seasoning with lots of herbs, and the seasoning really made them.  I’m a big weirdo who can take or leave a lot of fries, but these were delicious, and I’m glad we gave them a chance.

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As you can see, they came with a sauce that, to quote Homer Simpson, “It looks like ketchup, it tastes like ketchup, but brother, it ain’t ketchup!”  I thought it was some kind of fancy barbecue sauce, so when I asked, our server told us it was…

Wait for it…

Their housemade ketchup.

Normally it’s Heinz or the highway for me, as I’ve sampled some weird ketchups that taste too much like Christmas, but this was really good.  Make sure you order something you can dip in ketchup when you go to Teak!

The restaurant is a huge dining room with ample seating on the outside patio, with a welcoming, casual vibe.  For weekend brunches, they put out a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, which I suspect is a huge selling point for most people.  You can add all kinds of marinated and pickled vegetables (pickles, banana pepper rings, cocktail onions), cheese cubes, over a dozen different hot sauces, and more to your Bloody Mary, but some of us don’t need any help with getting acid reflux.

I suspect not enough people are aware of Teak, but it’s a fantastic option if you’re in Maitland, Winter Park, Casselberry, or anywhere near the MetroWest location, which is nowhere near us.  Especially if you like a tasty burger, I’d say they serve some of the better burgers in Orlando.  Service is always great, prices are reasonable, and the menu has something for everyone.  I asked them once if they served their burgers as veggie burgers, and they confirmed that they can make anything as a black bean burger, so that may also help some of you come to a decision.

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location with much more parking on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  And in 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his, though.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or meatloaf sandwiches with a mashed potato schmear, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone, as I did last Friday.

I was just planning to bring a crack pie home to her, that rich, custardy concoction popularized by another delightful designer of delectable desserts, Chef Christina Tosi of New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar.  It’s a small, individual-sized pie that we ended up splitting into quarters, with a buttery crust and a creamy, sticky center, dusted with powdered sugar.  Like most of Se7en Bites’ pies, it is small — just a 5″ diameter, but rich and thick enough for two people to easily share and be satisfied.

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Chef Trina, knowing our mutual love for croissants, strongly recommended I bring home her new lavender honey butter croissants, and how could I refuse that?  They weren’t enormous, so I got one for each of us.  And when we enjoyed them the following morning for breakfast (since we tried to not make this CarbChella Fest ’18), they were definitely fine croissants, hon hon hon!  I wonder how it would be if it was just honey butter, without the lavender.  Still pretty amazing, I have no doubt.

20180720_190410_resized(Pardon the end I ripped off — it was hard to resist the buttery aroma and perfect pastry texture before remembering I need to be documenting this!)

That day, they also had “Beach Bum cheesecake” listed on a chalkboard of daily specials, so I had to ask what that was.  It was a mini-cheesecake with mango, coconut, and something else I’m blanking on at the moment, which instantly became something I couldn’t live without.  I love cheesecake and tropical fruit, so I had to have it!  When I brought it home, my wife was a little skeptical, but she ended up loving it too, and concluded that it was far better cheesecake than the Cheesecake Factory (which I wholeheartedly agree with, because Cheesecake Factory cheesecake is totally overrated).  That one didn’t last long enough for me to take a photo, but it has a nice, moist graham cracker bottom crust, and the whole thing was just about 5″ diameter, like most of Chef Trina’s pies.

As usual, I should have taken more pictures, but this really was just a quick pop-in for one dessert item that ended up becoming four.  We’ll be back to Se7en Bbites without fail, and I’ll report more on it then.  But for now, I’m so glad it exists here in Orlando.  It’s a real treasure, and so are Chef Trina and her lovely staff.

Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market: Opening Day review!

Well, after tracking its progress for what seems like a year, Orlando’s first Italian deli and market, Stasio’s, finally opened for business today, as a soft opening.  (https://www.facebook.com/Stasios-Italian-deli-194418224503776/)  I love Italian delis and markets — Mazzaro’s Market in St. Petersburg is one of my favorite destinations in all of Florida (and I don’t just mean restaurants), and DeLaurenti inside Pike Place Market in Seattle and Eataly in Chicago are two of the coolest places I’ve ever been.  Needless to say, I had to make a pilgrimage to Stasio’s on its opening day, and I’m so glad I did, because they are filling a void in Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  The family that owns Stasio’s also founded the venerable and much-missed Louie and Maria’s Italian restaurant, as well as the Pizzeria Valdiano location in Waterford Lakes, so they aren’t new to Orlando or to delicious Italian food.

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My co-worker and I arrived around 1 PM, and I was glad to see the place busy and bustling.  We immediately got in line to order sandwiches at the deli counter, where we were presented with a laminated menu.  For me, choosing the Stasio sandwich was an easy choice: prosciutto, hot capicola, mild soppressata, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, red onion, and white balsamic vinaigrette on a sub roll, for $11.  That’s my idea of a good time!  My vegetarian co-worker ordered the Melenzani sandwich, with eggplant, spinach, roasted red peppers, marinated tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and balsamic reduction, which only came as a panini, for $11.  (Editor’s note: she e-mailed and said it came on a sub roll after all, despite the menu saying it would be a panini.)

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They were slammed on their first day, so it gave us time to browse around.  At the deli, I ordered some sliced Italian beef brisket and porchetta, both made in-house, while my co-worker picked up some beautiful fresh sfogliatelle (flaky, shell-shaped pastries) from their bakery counter.  They had plenty of other meats and cheeses, huge square slices of pizza ($4.95 for a gigantic slice), deli salads and vegetables, including broccoli rabe, multicolored roasted peppers, stuffed cherry peppers, and sundried tomatoes glistening in oil, marinated imported anchovies that looked like actual silvery fish and not the salty brown fillets that everyone except me dreads on their pizza, and prepared Italian meatballs and sausage.  Shelf-stable groceries included all kinds of fancy pasta you will NOT find at Publix, and plenty of cans, jars, and bottles of delicious Italian delicacies.

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Stasio’s does not have tables, but the store is lined with a long counter for people to enjoy their food while sitting on stools.  We brought ours back to work, though.  They also have an espresso counter near the cash registers at the front, and it looks like you can also order wine by the glass there, but I could be wrong.  (Don’t drink, wasn’t paying that close attention.)

Upon returning to work, I couldn’t be more pleased to say how great the sub was.  The melange of meats worked together in perfect harmony with the fresh “mutsadell” (I promise I’ll never do that again), and roasted red peppers are a welcome addition to almost any sandwich.  I’m sure someone is wondering how the sub roll was, and I’m happy to report it was the perfect amount of chewy with an exterior that wasn’t too crusty — just how I like them.  The rolls were also baked in-house, of course.  I would have liked more toppings on the sub — lettuce, tomato, maybe some of the long hot peppers they advertised on other sandwiches — but ordering was a bit of sensory overload today, and I didn’t even ask.  Next time!

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I also impulse-bought a Manhattan Special espresso soda in a glass bottle, because even though I’m not much of a coffee drinker, I sure love trying new and interesting soda flavors.  It was good, although I think a cappuccino/latte version with some creaminess would have been much better.  All they had were regular and diet version of the espresso soda, though.

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Well, I am very happy Stasio’s is finally open, and so close to my work!  I’ll definitely add it to my regular restaurant rotation, and I suggest my dozens of loyal readers (bakers’ dozens?) give it a try at your earliest convenience.  I wish them the best and welcome them to the neighborhood!

ADDENDUM: My co-worker gave me one of her shell-shaped sfogliatelle pastries, and it was delicious.  The crispy outer dough is very flaky and fragile, able to be peeled apart in thin, spiral-like layers.  The inside is kind of like a thick, lightly-sweetened cheese (not creamy or runny at all, more like the filling of a cheese danish but not nearly as sweet), speckled with tiny, chewy bits of candied lemon for a subtle fresh citrus taste and scent.

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Baltimore, Part 3: A Tale of Two Crabcakes (Phillips and Faidley’s)

Well, I’m already home from my trip to Baltimore, back at work, back in the real world.  It was a nice second visit to Charm City.  I learned a lot, saw some old friends, made some new ones, and had a few really terrific meals (plus some not so blog-worthy ones, including a trip to Subway).

Baltimore is really known for its famous crabs: blue crabs steamed in Old Bay seasoning and served in the shell, which you smash with mallets and pick apart, and the classier, less-messy alternative, crabcakes.  Crabcakes should be soft and fork-tender, with their outer surfaces only slightly crispy from being pan-seared or broiled.  They aren’t batter-dipped or deep-fried.  It’s a croquette of shredded crabmeat, probably some bread crumbs, possibly onions, peppers, garlic, celery, herbs and spices, and maybe an egg to bind it together.  Obviously the best crabcakes are heavy on the crab and light on the fillers.

Now, you’ve probably tried a crabcake at some point in your life, but the ones in Baltimore are unmatched.  I was lucky enough to try two of the city’s iconic crabcakes at two very different restaurants.  You could say I was on a seafood diet on this trip: when I would see food, I’d eat it, as long as it was seafood.

This past Friday evening (7.13.18), I walked to Phillips, a giant seafood restaurant in the touristy Inner Harbor area, to meet two friends for dinner.  (https://www.phillipsseafood.com/)  Phillips is a pretty nice place, and their crabcakes were no exception.

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These Hooper’s Island crabcakes came with roasted, seasoned potatoes and a nice blend of seasonal vegetables.  Those are two sides I would rarely choose myself, but I enjoyed both more than I expected to.  They also came with a tangy remoulade sauce, a great accompaniment for almost any seafood that is a good alternative to tartar sauce.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  They were delicious, and the company at dinner was unparalleled.  But I already knew there were better crabcakes to be found in Baltimore, from my previous visit back in 2011.  Would I make it back there in time?

Well, of course I did, hence the title of this post.  Baltimore’s hottest spot for crabcakes is Faidley Seafood, a legendary restaurant and seafood market inside the Lexington Market.  (http://www.faidleyscrabcakes.com/ and http://lexingtonmarket.com/)  I’m a huge fan of food markets, and they have been some of my favorite travel destinations in cities over the years: the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and the granddaddy of them all, the Lexington Market, founded in 1782.  There’s a lot of history at this place — you can feel it.  It’s nestled in the middle of a historic part of downtown Baltimore, walkable from the Inner Harbor, but not in a direction most tourists would automatically head in.  The indoor market shows its age, and it definitely isn’t fancy, but it’s totally worth visiting and checking out the 88 vendors — especially Faidley.

Founded in 1886 and a Lexington Market resident from the beginning, Faidley Seafood feels like a time capsule in the best way.  It’s a little intimidating at first, since there’s a lot going on at multiple counters throughout the restaurant: a fresh fish counter on your left when you walk in off Paca Street, an oyster bar right in the middle, and the counter where you order crabcakes and other food on the right.  They will prepare any fresh fish you choose, in addition to their regular menu items, which is pretty cool.

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They sell a few different crabcake varieties, as well as seafood platters, where you can try multiple things.  When I went yesterday (7.17.18), I opted for a seafood platter with a backfin crabcake, fried oysters, and fried clams, which also came with two sides.  I got macaroni salad and potato salad, since I like trying everyone’s different versions.  And they had onion rings, so this is also a stealth RING THE ALARM! feature!

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The fried oysters and clams were great.  Sometimes you can order those and taste nothing but breading and grease and wonder if there were any mollusks in there, but these were so fresh, and not at all greasy.  The potato salad and macaroni salad were thick (I hate it when the mayo is runny), creamy, cool, refreshing, and incredibly well-seasoned.  They gave me cocktail sauce and tartar sauce, which were nice for some dipping, but not necessary, given how flavorful everything was.

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The crabcake was the best I’ve ever had, and I felt that way after my earlier trip to Faidley Seafood back in 2011.  It was seasoned better than the one at Phillips, and I greatly preferred Faidley’s much more casual and historic atmosphere.  A classy sit-down restaurant versus a bustling, historic seafood market where you order at a counter and stand up to eat at long tables — you’d think the better one would be obvious, but I prefer casual and historic anyway, and Faidley’s crabcake was just superior.  (And I often eat over my kitchen counter at home, so I’m used to standing up while I eat!)  It was my favorite meal of the entire trip to Baltimore, and I’m so glad I fit it in before a long and frustrating afternoon at the airport.

Crabcake close-up:

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from the onion rings, since we have a local seafood restaurant that makes onion rings that I don’t care for at all, but these were terrific.  Some of the better ones I’ve had — the perfect thickness, the perfect batter, the perfect texture and taste.  They were perfect in every way, not that I should have been surprised.

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If you’ve ever watched The Wire (which I mentioned is my favorite show of all time), two different characters refer to Faidley’s in two different scenes: Omar mentions it to his partner, and McNulty brings a bag of crabcakes to two excited cops as a favor.  David Simon, the showrunner, was a long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun and more recently, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, so if you don’t believe me, believe him.  Not many people know their way around Baltimore better.  If you visit Baltimore and can only go one place for its legendary crabcakes, eschew the touristy Phillips and soak up the local culture at Faidley Seafood in the Lexington Market.  Just go for lunch, since they aren’t open for dinner!

Baltimore, Part 2: Dangerously Delicious Pies

When you’re a grown-ass person, you can choose to have dessert for dinner if you want to.  Normally that isn’t my ideal meal; I like some sweets, but I’m more likely to crave a good sandwich (almost everything is better in sandwich form), pasta, or salty, crunchy snacks.  But when it comes to desserts, my favorite might be PIE.  I’ll take pie over cake any day; I love pie, and I’m sad that for the most part, pie isn’t hip or cool or popular.  There was a time in the U.S. when pie wasn’t just for Thanksgiving — and true confession time, I think apple and pumpkin may be the most boring, pedestrian pies, and Thanksgiving dinner is boring and bland in general.  But that’s a hot take for another blog entry!

There were times past when you could take a date out for coffee and pie after a movie, or convince more people to attend a voluntary meeting if you promised punch and pie.  Those days are gone, and what desserts are en vogue now?  We’re left with trendy cupcakes, crumbly dry nibbles of cake buried under mounds of sickly-sweet, greasy frosting; macarons, tiny pastel burger-looking things that still look much prettier than they taste; and biscotti, a cruel joke against anyone who likes cookies.

But pie is comfort food, nostalgia, hope — all the good parts of America with none of the bad, the most pastoral of pastries, equally at home cooling on a farmhouse windowsill or resting under a glass dome in a lonely big-city diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.  I even fulfilled a lifelong dream I never even knew I had earlier this year, when I volunteered as a judge in the American Pie Championship, right here in Orlando.  That was an experience I’ll never forget or regret, even though I got stuck with the apple pie category and never need to have apple pie again.

So needless to say, I was thrilled when two Facebook friends alerted me to the presence of a pie restaurant right here in Baltimore, where I’m spending the next few days!  Dangerously Delicious Pies (https://www.dangerouspiesbalt.com/) was founded by Rodney Henry, frontman of Baltimore rock band The Glenmont Popes, and apparently quite a baker as well.  The restaurant has two locations in Baltimore, and they specialize in sweet AND savory pies!  The menu is huge, almost to the point of intimidating, but I figured I’d get a piece of savory pie so I could feel like a functional grown-ass person and have more than just dessert for dinner, but follow it with a sweet slice.

I took a Lyft ride to the scenic Canton neighborhood location with an old friend and one of her work colleagues.  It was a cool, funky little restaurant, with walls painted red, some rock ‘n’ roll decor, and a glass case teeming with gorgeous, tempting pies.  All savory pies are $7.50 per slice, and quiches and sweet pies are $6.50 per slice.  Every pie is baked in a 10″ pie pan, and they are cut into six equal, generous slices.

My friend selected the Hot Rod Potato pie: kind of like potatoes au gratin with potatoes, roasted peppers, cream, cheeses, onions, and bacon.  20180714_192934_resized

Her colleague had just flown into Baltimore and was hungry enough to order two slices: the Cannonball (bratwurst, onions, and peppers roasted in Heavy Seas Loose Cannon beer) and the Polka pie (Kielbasa, sauerkraut, potatoes, and cheese).  They were kind enough to let me try theirs, and I did the same.

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I think I panicked from the seemingly-limitless options, because I chose the sausage, tomato, and fennel pie — good, but not as great as all of theirs.  I love tomato-based sauces on pasta, pizza, salsa, you name it, but this had chunks of stewed tomatoes that were a little too large for my liking.  I think it came down to a texture issue for me, as I’d rather have a smoother sauce without huge chunks when it comes to hot, cooked tomatoes.  But my pie included both sweet and hot sausages, and it still tasted really good.  It could have used some cheese, though — either melty mozzarella or provolone, or even a gooey white American or cream cheese to balance out the acidic, chunky tomatoes.

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All these pies had the same crust — fork-tender, flaky, buttery, a little salty, chewy yet also crispy, not really sweet.  It was a really solid pie crust that got thicker and a little dryer toward the back.  Like a lot of dry pizza crusts, I wasn’t too tempted to eat the outer crust pieces, but the tops and bottoms were terrific.

The pies all came with complimentary sides of either a vinegar-based cole slaw with poppy seeds, or a simple side salad.  I opted for the cole slaw, which was great, except for the poppy seeds that got lodged between some of my teeth all night.  I still contend they need to develop an app that warns you about visible food caught between your teeth.

For her sweet pie, my friend went with the house specialty, the Baltimore Bomb, a vanilla-custardy chess pie with Berger cookies, a local delicacy similar to New York’s familiar black and white cookies, melted and swirled into the custard filling.  Berger cookies are smaller than your average black and whites, but they’re comparable “cakey” cookies, covered with rich, thick chocolate icing.  It was in the same kind of flaky, buttery crust as the savory pies, but it was almost a sweetness overload.

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I had a much easier time choosing my sweet pie, especially after studying the menu in advance: the Pineapple Right Side Up pie, white chocolate maple chess pie topped with brown sugar and pineapple.  As I write more on this blog, you will learn that I love anything with pineapple and anything with maple, but it’s very rare for a dessert to include both flavors.  Needless to say, it was delicious, but also ridiculously sweet and rich.  I would have liked a little more of a pineapple upside down cake taste mixed throughout (that’s one cake that I’ll always love) and a little less of the rich custard, which was extremely “eggy”-tasting in both sweet pies.  And normally I love chess pie!

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Anyway, it was an awesome dinner, a unique restaurant, and a great value.  None of us had any regrets, even if I don’t feel like I chose the best savory pie option.  I’m so glad some of my hip friends hipped me to the existence of Dangerously Delicious Pies, because I came across as so cool recommending it to my other friend and her friend.  Now I can say that almost everything is better in sandwich form AND pie form.

This place opens at 10 AM during the week and 9 AM on weekends, and stays open until 10 PM most days, and midnight on Friday and Saturday.  You could literally have pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I strongly recommend you try that at least once.

To quote FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time from one of my favorite shows of all time, these were some damn fine pies.