The New York Adventure Part 6: Katz’s Delicatessen

I promise my wife and I didn’t schlep all the way to New York to just eat Jewish deli food for our tenth anniversary trip, although that remains a huge part of The City’s culture and history, as well as its appeal for both of us.  I might be a secular, non-practicing Jew, but that food fills me with nostalgia for my childhood, as well as for early-to-mid 20th Century Jewish big city experiences I feel and relate to strongly, despite not being born yet.  Does that make sense?

I’ve written before about how food embodies our shared human experiences: our history, our politics, our economics, art, science, even religion.  And while I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, I feel a sense of belonging to something larger and greater than myself when I nosh on a knish, a bagel with pickled fish, or a pastrami sandwich.  My wife indulges me, and she appreciates the food as well.  It might not feel like as big a deal if we could get all the same food at the same quality level at home, but we can’t, so going to the iconic originals, the legendary landmarks, the places that have survived a century because they’re that damn good, is a big damn deal.

My family was not what you might call “of the travelers.”  My parents, both teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, were (and still are, in retirement) hard-working, patient, generous, and awesome, but we never took many trips when I was younger.  That’s why when we went to New York in the summer of 1991, it was the most profound and transformative experience of my life thus far.  My dad is from Brooklyn — specifically the East New York neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified and hipsterized like so many other parts of the borough — so I feel like New York is in my blood, despite never having lived there.

That was a whirlwind trip, indulgent for all of us.  My brother and I had never even flown before.  We stayed near Central Park (and even took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Park, which I do not recommend), visited family in Brooklyn, took in museums, made a pilgrimage to the legendary comic book store Forbidden Planet (much larger back then than it is now, enough to blow my middle school mind with its two floors).  On top of that, we ate at great Jewish delis of decades past that have long since closed their doors: the Stage Deli, the Carnegie Deli, and Lindy’s in Manhattan, and Grabstein’s in Brooklyn.  Despite everything in the City feeling more decrepit and dangerous back then, it was an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip that made a huge impact on my life.  I had always romanticized New York from my dad’s stories about growing up, my lifelong obsession with DC and Marvel Comics, and my teenage love affairs with jazz and punk music.  But after seeing, feeling, and tasting it for myself that summer, New York changed me forever.  I desperately wanted to go to NYU for film school, but obviously that never happened.  I spent the next 15+ years fantasizing about a return trip and everything I would do, see, and eat there.

Even though my parents would never consider themselves “foodies” (and often wonder how the hell I ended up like I did), I think our original New York trip sowed the seeds of my own desire for culinary capers and appetizing adventures.  I finally made it back to New York with my wife while we were just dating, and the post-9/11 City felt much cleaner and safer than it did in 1991.  That time we took in my first real Broadway shows and visited maybe the most iconic New York delicatessen of all, Katz’s Delicatessen (https://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  And we returned again, to the City and to Katz’s, for our honeymoon a few years later, in 2009.  Finally, a decade later, we were back once more.

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Katz’s feels chaotic when you’re a laid-back Floridian.  When you go in, you get a ticket, and then you can either get in line with one of the meat cutters behind the counter, or wait for a table with a waiter, who is usually cartoonishly brusque and rude (and yet, strangely charming).  I told my wife to grab an open table outside of the waiters’ section, and I lined up.  As you can see, it’s kind of a free-for-all.  They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years, but could there possibly be a better way to get everyone in and out?DSC02186When you finally get to the front of the line, if you order pastrami, the cutter will cut you a small slice on a plate, for you to sample.  Make sure you have a buck on hand for the customary tip.  Keep in mind, because they hand-slice the meat at Katz’s, it comes out much thicker and juicier than most sandwich shops with thin, machine-sliced pastrami.  Normally I prefer my deli meats sliced thin, but there’s nothing like this.

Anyway, here it is, the finest pastrami sandwich known to man, hand-sliced right in front of me.  I asked for a little fattier, juicier pastrami — none of that lean stuff for us.  A little helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner: When you’re at Katz’s, pay the $1 upcharge and get your sandwich on a CLUB ROLL, dig me?  The rye bread they use is essentially an edible napkin, because it barely holds up under the weight and greasy juices of the copious amounts of cured and smoked meats.  The club roll is delicious, and it supports the meat and condiments better.  Rye is for suckas.  DSC02183

This was a $23 sandwich, but two healthy, hungry people can easily split it and be satisfied.  I added some of their mustard to my half and even dabbed a bit in a small plastic cup of Russian dressing, meant for their Reubens, but my wife would do no such thing.  DSC02184

Pickles are included.  Just as I did on my previous visit, ten years ago on our honeymoon, I tried both kinds, but just couldn’t get into them.  I am truly trying to develop a taste for pickles, but kosher dills and half-sours just don’t tickle my pickle.  DSC02185

Anyway, leaving is a whole big production, because you have to present your ticket when you leave, then weave through the hangry crowd to get to the front.  But here’s another helpful hint: If you’re paying with a credit card, pay in the back.  We went to the front and waited to check out, only to find out they only accept cash up there.  Rather than force my wife to hustle back through the hungry, hangry hordes, I was lucky I had some sock money on hand (or in sock, to be accurate), so we settled up and escaped.

Katz’s can be an exhausting experience — I definitely wouldn’t go there for a chill, relaxing meal — but there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had in New York, which means there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had anywhere else.

The New York Adventure Part 4: Xi’an Famous Foods

One of the restaurants I researched for our New York trip, after reading raves for years, was Xi’an Famous Foods (https://www.xianfoods.com/), a family-owned Chinese restaurant specializing in spicy noodle dishes, with eleven Manhattan locations, three in Queens, and one in Brooklyn.  From its humble beginning in a tiny mall basement food stall in Flushing, Queens, in 2005, Xi’an has grown into a familiar New York City institution.

According to the website, the city of Xi’an in northwestern China created a unique cuisine incorporating Middle Eastern influences and lots of spices, including mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns.  I have reviewed some of Orlando’s own Szechuan-influenced restaurants, Taste of Chengdu and Chuan Lu Garden, and I’m always a noodle fan, so I had to try Xi’an Famous Foods while I could.  Luckily, while we were touring our favorite museum, the always illuminating Museum of Modern Art, I looked out a second-floor window and saw a Xi’an location directly across the street!  It was meant to be.

Unfortunately, this location wasn’t the most accessible for my walker-wielding wife, who courageously climbed down a few steps to enter.  We took note of all of our “adventures in accessibility” in New York and realized how lucky we are that most buildings and businesses in Orlando are accessible for people with disabilities, compared to larger, older cities.  New York is still rad, but that was an ongoing issue throughout our trips, past and present.  But I digress.

Anyway, Xi’an Famous Foods posted its full menu on the wall inside, with photos — something we really appreciated, that I wish more restaurants would do.  DSC02149

My wife was a little intimidated by the promised spiciness, and the place was hopping with the lunch rush, so we compromised with me ordering my meal to go, to enjoy back in our room.  Chili oil leaked in the bag on the way back to our hotel and made a huge mess, which made photography difficult, but I did my best.

This was the dish I fantasized about in advance: hand-ripped wide biangbiang noodles with stewed oxtails.  Everyone warned me to order the noodles with the cumin lamb, and I do love cumin lamb, but oxtails win out.  DSC02152
That’s a dish I crave almost constantly, especially from Jamaican restaurants, despite indulging only once or twice a year.  I’ve made slow-braised oxtails at home too, but since she doesn’t care for them, it almost seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  Needless to say, these oxtails were much spicier than the Jamaican recipes I am used to, and I even ordered it mild (better safe than sorry, I figured).  They were tender and unctious, though, just as they should be from the slow stewing or braising process.  The noodles were delicious, with a great chewiness.

But since I’m also a cumin lamb fanboy, I had to try it too.  Luckily, Xi’an offers a spicy cumin lamb burger, a sandwich on a crispy flatbread bun that was like a cross between a pita and an English muffin, in terms of texture.  The bun didn’t do much for me, but the lamb was tender, flavorful, and very, very spicy.  I wimped out with the noodles, but felt I owed it to myself and to the cook to try something at maximum strength.DSC02156

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaaal!DSC02154Final thought on the famous cumin lamb: NOT BAAAAAAAD.

I wish I had more to say, but I just wish I could have tried more things.  I don’t think you can go wrong with anything atop these biangbiang noodles: not just oxtails or cumin lamb, but also spicy ground pork (like the dan dan noodles I love so much), stewed pork, spicy and sour pork belly, bone-in dark meat chicken, vegetables, and even plain noodles tossed in chili oil.  You can get most of the noodle dishes in soup as well, plus dumplings stuffed with spicy and sour lamb or spinach and vermicelli noodles, with or without soup.  Everything was very affordable, and as we could tell from the midday crowd, Xi’an Famous Foods must be a hot lunch spot for New Yorkers around the city (no pun intended).  I’m glad I finally got to feel the heat for myself.

Hinckley’s Fancy Meats

I’ve been hearing about Chef Matt Hinckley and his cured culinary creations for carnivores for a while now.  After focusing on mail-order charcuterie sales, he recently opened Hinckley’s Fancy Meats (https://www.hinckleymeats.com/), a storefront inside Orlando’s East End Market, a small but great foodie destination in the hip-but-family-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood.  You can buy his meat masterpieces by the pound there — think bacon, sausages, pastrami, mojo-marinated pork, tasso ham, porchetta (slow-cooked, boneless pork roast), and rustic pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, all on display in a nice glass deli case.  But now, you can also order sandwiches featuring that marvelous multiude of meats.  If that’s not fancy, I don’t know what is!
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(By the way, if you aren’t sure of the differences between pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, as I originally wasn’t, or if you’ve never even tried them, Food Republic has a very helpful guide.)

Last month, I met a group from the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook for lunch at the East End Market, and many of us visited Hinckley’s for the first time.  I studied the menu in advance, as I always do, but still couldn’t decide, so I ordered two sandwiches.  Because I meant to share and let my new foodie friends sample the goods — yeah, that’s the ticket!  (Don’t worry, Constant Readers — I got two meals out of them.)

I ordered the porchetta sandwich, which is hard to find anywhere in Florida, as well as Chef Hinckley’s take on the banh mi, those French-inspired Vietnamese sandwiches I love so much.  DSC01988

The porchetta sandwich ($14) includes salsa piccante, broccoli rabe (one of my favorite vegetables, especially cooked with sausage or other rich, salty meats), and roasted peppers on a crusty ciabatta roll.  I would have preferred a softer roll, but it was still very tasty, with a lot going on in the sandwich.  DSC01984

The porchetta wasn’t quite as juicy as I was expecting, but it was still very flavorful and tender.  All the ingredients worked very well together.DSC01986

But even though the porchetta sandwich was good, the banh mi (also $14) was GREAT.  Banh mi sandwiches are usually served on a French baguette and may be spread with some combination of butter, mayo, or pate, with a variety of pork-based cold cuts, grilled beef or chicken, or other kinds of meat, topped with pickled vegetables (usually cucumber, carrot, and daikon radish), fresh cilantro, and fresh jalapeños or other hot peppers.  Hinckley’s Fancy version of the banh mi normally features country pâté and duck liver pâté with pickled carrot, daikon radish, and hot peppers and cilantro on the toasty grilled baguette.

But on the day I went, Hinckley’s offered a special kind of thick-sliced, coarse Cajun terrine of pork, confit duck gizzard and hearts, tasso ham, and smoked turkey sausage as an alternative to put in the banh mi.  (I sent them a Facebook message to verify all of this deliciousness, to make sure I got it right.)  Here’s a better photo from Hinckley’s Instagram account.  How could I refuse, with all the recognizable chunks of different meats to sample?  It was AWESOME.DSC01985

A new friend was magnanimous enough to order this charcuterie board ($22) for the group to share.  It came with sliced porchetta di testa (boneless pig head), thick and rich chicken liver pâté (the jar on the right), and chilled spuma di lardo (the jar on top), which is creamy whipped pork fat, sea salt, and honey.  It also included toasted baguette rounds to spread the spreads on, and a Dijon-style mustard.  So fancy for lunch on a workday!  I’d love to see Lunchables (which are essentially charcuterie boards for children) create a culinary masterpiece like this.  DSC01987

We are lucky to have some incredible sandwich shops in Orlando, most of which only opened within the last two years.  I’ve already reviewed several of my favorites —  LaSpada’s, Stasio’s, Manzano’s — and that’s on top of all the places that serve banh mi sandwiches.  A review of another big sandwich joint, maybe the biggest and best of them all is coming, I promise.  But Hinckley’s Fancy Meats is doing things nobody else is, curing its own meats and reinventing the classics with creative new twists.  It’s a great addition to our local sandwich scene, and all carnivores should check it out.

The Polite Pig

Well-traveled Orlando foodies are probably familiar with The Ravenous Pig, one of our finest local restaurants.  Situated in Winter Park, James and Julie Petrakis’ venerable institution was founded in 2007 and quickly established itself as one of the shining stars of Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  I still consider it a “special occasion” sort of restaurant and don’t go as often as I would like, but it never disappoints.  I’ll have to get back there one of these days to write a proper review, as it’s the sort of place that all locals and tourists alike ought to make a pilgrimage to.

In the meantime, the Petrakises have expanded their empire with a few other local restaurants, including The Polite Pig (https://politepig.com/), a fast-casual barbecue joint, which opened in 2017 in Disney Springs.  For the uninitiated, this is an area outside of the actual Disney theme parks (so you don’t have to pay for admission or even parking to visit it), specializing in shopping and dining.  It has grown immensely over the last few years and added a lot of high-profile restaurants, including some helmed by celebrity chefs.  It is cool to see our local legends establishing a foothold in there too, and The Polite Pig provides the Petrakises a greater chance to feed and impress guests from around the world.  It’s a relative bargain for Disney Springs, where many of the restaurants are more upscale, with prices to match.  Because it’s casual, fast, reasonably-priced, and the food is hearty, familiar, and GOOD, it is a great option for families with kids and any other visitors who want to avoid white tablecloth joints and entrees priced over $20.

My BFF (best food friend) and I went there in May of 2017, just a few days after it opened, and we both agreed it was fine.  Not bad at all, but he lives in Miami and I live almost an hour away from that side of Orlando, so neither of us were going to rush back.  But he visited Disney recently with his mom (my first-grade teacher), so we agreed it would be a swell place to meet for lunch to catch up.  And I’m so glad we chose it, because we both liked it so much more this time, almost two years later.  I would unequivocally recommend it to anyone visiting Disney Springs, especially if you like meat and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg.

We ordered our food and paid at the counter, and it seemed like it was delivered to us in a matter of minutes, but we were also smart and got there right when it opened at 11 AM.  By the time we left, it was mobbed, and the rest of Disney Springs was mobbed too.  All the barbecue sandwiches come with a choice of a side order, and the entrees come with a small jalapeno cornbread muffin, “signature Polite slaw,” and a choice of a side.  My friend and his mom (who is no longer my first-grade teacher, so I am proud to also call her my friend) both ordered baby back ribs, which come covered with a dry rub and sweet, sticky barbecue sauce glaze.  I got to try a rib, and it was very tender.  Like any good smoked ribs, the meat doesn’t exactly “fall off” the bone, but they were extremely tender, not dry or stringy or tough at all.

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He chose baked beans as his side, and she went with crispy waffle fries, dusted with barbecue seasoning.

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I decided to go with the barbecue cheddar sausage, which the menu said was covered with a bourbon glaze.  The outside had a subtle sweetness, and the natural casing had a very good snap when I bit into it, something I always appreciate in sausages and hot dogs.  That’s what I call the pursuit of snappiness! 

I got four decent-sized cuts and immediately gave one to my buddy.  I was impressed that the cheese was gooey and melty in each bite I took.  True to form, I chose macaroni and cheese as my side, which was also nice and melty with white cheese and al dente mini-shell pasta.  I’ve gone twice now and always turned away from the tomato watermelon salad with feta, basil, and pickled onions at the final moment, but maybe next time I’ll try that.  It sounds delightfully refreshing.

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My magnanimous friend also ordered us the slider trio to share: three mini-sandwiches on tiny, soft brioche rolls.  The fried chicken sandwich came topped with sweet & smoky barbecue sauce, Duke’s mayo, pickles, and cole slaw.  The Southern Pig included pulled pork, fennel-apple slaw, tangy mustard barbecue sauce, and Duke’s mayo, the only kind of mayo I ever buy for my house.  I think our table’s favorite was the Low & Slow Brisket, with Prime brisket, pimento cheese, porter barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and onion straws.  I was reminded that on our earlier visit almost two years ago, we ordered the Southern Pig and Low & Slow Brisket sandwiches and split them both.  Even these mini-slider versions were better than what we remembered from back then, which only speaks well of The Polite Pig and how much it has improved.

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Speaking of barbecue sauces, they have four house-made sauces “on tap,” and you can fill little paper cups to dip to your heart’s content: Lil John’s Signature Porter sauce (made with a reduction of Working Man porter beer, brewed at another Petrakis restaurant, the Cask & Larder), Layla’s sweet sauce, Thomas’s Southern Gold sauce (a mustard-vinegar hybrid), and an Alabama-style white barbecue sauce that pairs excellently with chicken… and surprisingly everything else.  I’m not the kind of person who pours ranch dressing all over my food, but this white sauce is different.  If you’re skeptical, try a tiny taste in one of the paper cups.  It’s free, so you have nothing to lose!

The Polite Pig offers fountain sodas — mostly Coke products, but also excellent root beer and lemonade from the Blue Sky brand, made with cane sugar.  I try to be so good about not drinking sodas, but I really like root beer and lemonade, so I couldn’t resist.  Of course they were cold and refreshing.  When we were there two years ago, I remember being half-dead, exhausted and sun-baked after spending half the day waiting in lines and schlepping around the Orlando MegaCon (sprawling pop culture convention for nerds and geeks alike), and I slaked my thirst with Blue Sky orange-mango soda, but they didn’t have that one anymore.  The root beer had a vanilla creamy taste, which I always appreciate compared to the more herbal, “biting” root beers, so that was a good choice.

And finally, they were offering chocolate chip cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse, located in Orlando’s very East End Market, which I will argue is the best chocolate chip cookie anywhere, and certainly anywhere in our city beautiful.  My buddy loves chocolate chip cookies and supposedly makes some pretty great ones himself, but I got one for him and his mom to split, after hyping it up for the last year.  They might have been stuffed from an excellent lunch, but they made room for that cookie, which lives up to all the hype.  Sorry I didn’t get a photo of it, but check out the website above.

So that’s it!  If you’re on Disney property, they’ve got ya.  You’re going to pay, so it’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay, and what you get for your money.  The Polite Pig is a fantastic option if you’re relaxing at Disney Springs and don’t want to go to a more upscale and expensive restaurant.  Vegetarians will have to stick to side orders or salads (hold the bacon!), so they would be better served almost anywhere else, but most meat-eaters will be perfectly pleased by the Polite Pig.  And here’s a helpful hint: it’s right outside of the Lime Garage at Disney Springs, so if you’re just going to eat there and don’t want to linger, that’s the place you want to park.

 

 

Sette (pre-opening media event)

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Well, folks, your friend and humble narrator The Saboscrivner has finally done it! Tonight I attended my first-ever media event to review a new restaurant: Sette (https://www.setteitalian.com/), the Italian restaurant owned and operated by Orlando’s beloved Chef Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites and her wife Va Propst.  Located at 1407 N Orange Ave, Orlando, Florida 32804, Sette is across the street from scenic Lake Ivanhoe, in a spot where several restaurants have come and gone.  This one is going to be different because of the people behind it, their vision, their hospitality, and their sheer culinary talent.

Chef Trina flexing her mussels in her spacious open kitchen:DSC01912

This was an auspicious beginning for what I suspect will become one of Orlando’s hottest restaurants.  Sette opens this Friday, March 22nd, and I suggest you get in as soon as you can.  It will be open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:00 PM, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:00 PM, and Sundays 1:00 to 8:00 PM.  You can call 407.704.7771 for information and reservations in the meantime.

The restaurant seats 150, and they have regular tables as well as high-tops, both inside and outside, and seating at the inside bar as well.  I am pleased to report they have a parking lot (a rarity along that stretch of Orange Avenue near downtown Orlando), but I suspect it will fill up quickly.

Dig the homey, retro decor that screams “Italian restaurant!” without going into cliche territory.  You won’t find any red and white checkered tablecloths, candles melted into Chianti bottles, or artwork of stereotypical Italian chefs with Super Mario mustaches.
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The spacious and inviting outdoor patio:DSC01886

Even the musical selections fit the vibe perfectly: mid-century standards by the Italian-American triumvirate of Frank, Tony, and Dean, two of the three major Louies (Armstrong and Prima, but no Jordan), some jazz, nothing grating or out of place.

A welcoming bar well-stocked with wine, staffed by friendly bartenders serving up incredibly creative cocktails:DSC01887

Plenty of reds and whites I didn’t drink, but I was assured they have a great selection:DSC01889DSC01890

Most of the evening I nursed this blood orange Italian soda, which was crisp and clean and refreshing, and not cloyingly sweet like most store-bought sodas.  The bartender made this using one of several Italian syrups.  It looked like lavender, rose, and pistachio were among the other options, and I know they employ these in making cocktails as well. dsc01930.jpg

I don’t always get excited about salads, but this Caesar salad, with garlicky dressing and garlic parmesan croutons, and shaved parmesan cheese over romaine, was one of the best Caesar salads I’ve ever had, and well worth getting pumped over.DSC01893

I didn’t get to actually sample this beautiful Cucina salad, with romaine, cucumber, tomatoes, goat cheese, pine nuts, champagne dijon vinaigrette, and more of the garlic parmesan croutons, and I regret that.DSC01897

Trina and Va make their pastas from scratch.  I learned that all their extruded (shaped) pastas are vegan (think spaghetti, linguini, bucatini, etc.), but the flat pasta sheets, like their lasagna noodles, are not vegan due to containing eggs.  I can say that the pasta dishes I sampled tonight are easily some of the finest pastas I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying, and I LOVE pasta, and I’ve been to Babbo in New York (long before we knew what Mario Batali was really like).

Their lasagna was one of my favorite dishes, made with one long pasta sheet, painstakingly folded and assembled with layers of beef bolognese sauce, ricotta cheese, and pecorino romano, on a bed of creamy bechamel sauce.  Look at it!  Bellissima!DSC01923

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This was my favorite of all the pasta dishes, though.  These were so perfect, so chewy and thick.  I loved every bite, every morsel.  The sauce was so fresh and tangy.  It was an unfamiliar noodle to me called paccheri (kind of like a thicker rigatoni), in my favorite Italian sauce of all: amatriciana, the slightest bit spicy and a little bit salty from cured meats like guanciale, or in this case, pancetta.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.DSC01894DSC01900

I love thick, chewy, fresh pasta, and this bucatini carbonara was so good.  Tossed in eggs with crispy pancetta (bacon’s superior cousin), grated pecorino romano cheese, and peas, it was heavy and rich and oh so satisfying.  I never understand why carbonara isn’t more popular across the U.S. as a breakfast dish, considering it’s pasta served with eggs, bacon (although pancetta is always betta’), and cheese.DSC01924

More pasta: wonderful pesto linguini next to a stack of crispy fried eggplant, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese, shaved pecorino romano, and fresh basil.  I’m usually not the biggest fan of eggplant, but this was one of two eggplant dishes tonight that totally won me over and made me a fan.  DSC01914

I absolutely loved the clam linguini, served with small neck clams, crispy pancetta, fennel, and a thick, rich lemon white wine sauce.DSC01920

Continuing with delicious bivalves, the Prince Edward Island mussels were on point, served in a lemon white wine sauce with fresh basil and grilled crusty bread.  Hard to eat neatly while standing up, but totally worth it.  DSC01891

This antipasta dish was maybe the greatest surprise of the night: Italian sausage served with fennel and… it ain’t new potatoes, it ain’t olives, and it ain’t what I was expecting, always-disappointing grape tomatoes, ready to explode and burn the hell out of my mouth.  DSC01922Nope, this sausage and fennel is served with blistered GRAPES, and they work so well together, the savory saltiness and the sweetness and tartness of the grapes.  I never would have thought of it, but that’s why Trina and Va are the visionary restauranteurs and I’m a librarian who writes about food as a hobby.

Despite all appearances, these are crispy eggplant “meat” balls, completely vegetarian, topped with sauce, dollops of ricotta cheese, and fresh basil, and served over polenta.  This was the other eggplant dish I loved:DSC01916

They served a similar preparation of actual beef meatballs too.  I tried and enjoyed a few of them, in fact, but didn’t get a good photo.  Trust me, if you like meatballs, you’ll love Sette’s meatballs.

This is another vegetarian dish, sort of a ratatouille, with tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini served over rich risotto.DSC01896

And these were arancini, crispy fried balls stuffed with risotto, tangy gorgonzola cheese, and figs, served over a pesto cream sauce, and topped with crispy pancetta (which can easily be left off to accommodate vegetarians) and a balsamic glaze drizzle.DSC01902

Sette’s desserts were out of this world, as you would expect for the culinary wunderkind behind Se7en Bites.  My favorite was their unique take on the classic Italian tiramisu, a semifreddo (semi-frozen), cool, creamy concoction with a thin layer of ladyfingers that reminded me more of the graham cracker crust in a good pie, texture-wise, with espresso and dark chocolate ganache along the bottom.DSC01936DSC01937

They also served us amoretti cookies, very soft and chewy almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar and served with the most delicious and delightful little glasses of milk.  I thought there was something in the milk to make it sweeter, and it turned out it was “spiked” with white chocolate liqueur!  I don’t drink, but once I found out, it was so tasty I at least had to finish my little cup.  My wife will LOVE these cookies, since she loves anything almond-flavored.DSC01906DSC01933Almond lovers, they also serve a cocktail called “That’s Amore-etti,” with Real McCoy rum, almond syrup, DiSaronno amaretto, and almond milk.  I can imagine these cookies pairing very well with it.

Tonight they also served an olive oil cake with rosemary-accented lemon curd and lemon mascarpone buttercream icing, moist and tangy and fresh-tasting.  Loved it!DSC01911DSC01903

And while I’m not the biggest chocolate guy, this dense, brownie-like chocolate cake was garnished with fresh orange marmalade, candied oranges, and fresh chantilly cream.  The chantilly cream was my favorite part, and I would happily eat an entire bowl of that as a dessert!DSC01910DSC01909

This was a particularly special night for me because it was the first media event I’ve ever attended at a restaurant.  I’ve been reviewing and recommending restaurants and writing about food online for many years, on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook and on the old Chowhound.com website before that.  Despite all that, it took me forever to gain the self-confidence to match my passion for food writing — I didn’t start The Saboscrivner until last June, 2018, so as usual, I’m a late bloomer.

While I’ve met several Foodie Forum members at various lunches over the last several months, tonight was the first time I met many of our serious and devoted Orlando food and lifestyle bloggers.  Of course everyone seemed to know and be friends with each other already, but I always feel like the odd man out, even when I attend professional conferences with my own colleagues in my field.  Just about everyone I met tonight was warm and friendly, though.  We were all caught up in sampling these delicious dishes at Sette, and I like to think I bonded with some people and didn’t embarrass myself or cramp anybody’s style.

I’ve been a fan of Chef Trina ever since she made her signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pies for sale at Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, years before Se7en Bites even existed, long before Guy Fieri helped make her nationally renowned by featuring her on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Guy’s Grocery Games.  I couldn’t be happier for her or prouder of her, and I was honored to be one of the local luminaries invited to chronicle Sette’s pre-opening event.  Every dish I tried was better than the last, I found myself saying more than once tonight.  Even though I was thrilled to be one of the lucky people to get this early look and taste, I would be raving about Sette no matter what.  In fact, as I write this at 12:30 AM, knowing I have to be awake in three hours to catch a flight to one of those aforementioned professional conferences, I’m already planning to take my wife to Sette as soon as possible upon my return, to enjoy it as any guest surely will.

Trust me — Sette is going to be Orlando’s next big thing.  Brava, Trina and Va!  Brava.

Ring the Alarm! Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

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As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes)! and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
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My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
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Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
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And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.

Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe

For Orlando residents in the know, even though we have hot and hip foodie neighborhoods like Mills 50, the Milk District, and Winter Park, one of our most up-and-coming areas is Sanford, about half an hour north of downtown Orlando, in Seminole County.  Sanford boasts a quaint, picturesque, historic downtown area of its own, with plenty of exciting restaurants, bars, and breweries along its cobblestone streets to tempt and tantalize anyone who appreciates good meals and tasty beverages.

Maybe downtown Sanford’s most beloved culinary destination is the German restaurant Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe (https://www.hollerbachs.com/).  Theo Hollerbach has expanded his empire into a very good German market and deli (Magnolia Square Market), and even a clothing store for all your lederhosen and dirndl needs.  But the restaurant is the main draw, a place to drink giant beers (if that’s your thing) and eat heaping plates of hearty, delicious food in a fun, festive, casual atmosphere.

Ze Germans have so many polysyllabic words that fit very specific situations and feelings, and the one they all take to heart at Hollerbach’s is gemütlichkeit, “a sense of well being one feels when enjoying the company of friends and family while savoring good food and drink.”  You might not be able to pronounce it, especially after one of those aforementioned giant beers, but you will definitely feel it.

It doesn’t get much more fun or festive than this huge, soft, fresh Bavarian pretzel, which is served with with delicious sweet mustard (remember, the Saboscrivner is a mustard aficionado!) and savory, spicy beer-cheese spread called obadza.  The two of us didn’t finish the whole thing, although we easily could have.  Luckily, my wife isn’t into condiments, dips, sauces, or spreads, so more mustard and obadza for me!dsc01773

At Hollerbach’s, I will usually order some combination of wurst (sausages), which are often just a mustard delivery system for me.  But for our most recent lunch, I tried something new, and I’m so glad I did.  This is eisbein, a skinless, bone-in pork shank, roasted to rich, tender perfection.  The bone slid right out with no meat attached to it, and I could practically cut it with my fork!  It made me so happy.dsc01775

All the sides at Hollerbach’s are terrific, but I got mine with excellent sauerkraut (served warm with bacon, onions, and apples, and sweeter than what you’re used to on hot dogs) and potato salad (also served warm, with applewood smoked bacon, onions, pickles and vinegar, and sweeter and tangier than most potato salad you’ve had before).  Obviously the sides were very complementary, and both worked well with the rich pork.  This German mustard was quite spicy and helped open up my sinuses!

My wife always orders her favorite dish at Hollerbach’s: pork schnitzel, pounded flat and tender, coated in a cracker crumb breading, and pan-fried.  She loves it with spätzle, which are buttery, cheesy, chewy homemade dumplings.  For the uninitiated, they are kind of like tiny, uneven-textured, golden, buttery, pan-fried gnocchi.  dsc01774

They have a huge covered patio, and on cool, sunny days, we love to sit outside to eat, people-watch, and especially dog-watch.  They almost always feature live music — usually a singing guitarist on the patio when we go for lunch on weekends, and a traditional German musical duo, Jimmy and Eckhard, that performs in the evenings, when people hoist their enormous beer steins and the place becomes a lot more raucous.

Hollerbach’s has beautiful cakes and other desserts that always tempt us, but this time, we walked directly across the street for my favorite ice cream in the Orlando area at Wondermade.  I will have to review them some other time, but trust me — they have damn fine ice cream.  But I really need to make it back, because my wife was too full and tired to head back around the corner to Hollerbach’s Magnolia Square Market, one of the best places around to buy sausages, salami, and other cured meats, as well as baked goods and other German groceries.  An ethnic market with cured meats?  That’s Saboscrivner heaven, friends.